An Interview with Mary Ruefle
Francisco Márquez, Issue 37
Midway during the reading of her “Twenty-Two Short Lectures” at The Woodberry Poetry Salon at Harvard, Mary Ruefle stands in front of the podium and begins her “Short Lecture on the Nature of Things.” She pulls out a maroon paper vase with a purple flower tied to it—she stretches the vase with her hands, turns it over, and places it on her head like a hat. With dry humor she says: “You think the vase has become a hat, and it has not. My body has become an upside-down flower.” Poet and New York Times critic David Kirby calls Madness, Rack and Honey, the collection in which these lectures appear, “one of the wisest books I’ve read in years.”
Ruefle’s lectures consider the shapelessness of things all around us, or rather, the metamorphoses of ordinary things. Her essay “Poetry and the Moon,” for example, dances and juggles with the cultural ramifications of the moon—after reading, it becomes impossible to see the moon without recalling Ruefle’s experiences in China during lunar ceremonies, or the way she traces the space rock’s lineage back to Sappho. In reading these lectures, you are left feeling like Ruefle’s closest friend, having traveled to the distant reaches of her mind, unable to un-see the snapshots she’s laid out for you. The book stays with you, if not physically, at least emotionally: on a road trip across the country, a subway ride, a night at the home of someone you may or may not be falling in love with. Ruefle’s writing will dredge up your obsessions with the sacred little things in life: a torn ticket stub, the wrists of handsome men, abandoned swaths of fabric. The text addresses our way of thinking about the everyday, a reminder that we should all strive to see the world with wonder and revelation.
On her website, Ruefle has uploaded a number of elegant erasures—a glimpse into her upcoming book. Most are born out of nineteenth-century texts, painted over with white, often juxtaposed with cutout images and other details. Her lines glow like reappearing ghosts: “he had been exposed to / some inspiration, / and died”—but sometimes they are literally struck by brushes of red like a comet, or entire pages are covered by the black-and-white photograph of a star cluster. So much in her work points to avoiding the absolute, to resisting the pull of a center. We can evaluate the lasting power of an image based on how it surfaces years later on an otherwise ordinary day: a bright red cardinal—a sublime Rothko piece; spilling coffee down your wrists—Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do;” a Daffy Duck cartoon—Ashbery. And Mary Ruefle? Always—a vase of flowers, sweet honey, the glowing moon.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You mention in Madness, Rack, and Honey that the “you” haunts our verse; what do you feel are other crutches in contemporary poetry?
RUEFLE: The idea of a “you,” if not the word itself, certainly haunts our verse. It is the presence of absence; even in those poems where the word “you” is not used, perhaps even avoided on purpose, the idea of the absent is still there—for to whom are poems addressed, if not an absent presence, one whose shoes the reader often fills.
I don’t think this is a “crutch” as you suggest, and I certainly never suggested that myself, if by crutch you mean weakness. My memory can be awfully faulty, but I think you were referring to the part of an essay where I was in argument with someone who considered the use of the “vague you” to be an aberration and a disease. And I think we have worse things to worry about.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: On your website, you have some stunning erasures and collages (I’m a fan, in particular, of “Marie”). I feel your erasures open a window to your editing process—something about literally painting over words and seeing what’s left. What do you feel is the relationship between visual art, specifically collage, and poetry?
RUEFLE: I can’t possibly add to all that has already been written on the relationship between poetry and visual art. All I can do is remind you that a great many poems, not all but a great many, wonderfully evoke the physical world in ways akin to and equal to that old-fashioned art, painting. Suddenly I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “A Cold Spring”, and how when I first read it I absolutely felt I was in the presence of a cold New England spring, many of which I have experienced. She nailed it. When I respond to the poems of students, I am often responding to what I can see, and what they want me to see but I can’t see. As for collage, collage influenced and invaded poetry in the beginning of the last century and has ever since been with us. What is “The Wasteland” but a collage? A collage forms a poem in a mechanical way—by using parts to engine a whole that, hopefully, works. Other poems develop organically, from a single seed; all of the parts stem and flow from this seed. One is not better than the other, they are simply different, and different things should never be in disagreement with each other, they should co-exist.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Some of this work reminds me of John Ashbery’s collages, except his juxtapose humorous pop cultural imagery with the mythological. It seems like he uses collage to explore similar questions he’s asking in poetry. How do you approach your erasures? What is the process of selecting a text and its accompanying images?
RUEFLE: I approach my erasure books the same way I approach any creative process—I sit down and begin, without a plan. I’m making something, and when I am immersed in making something I seldom stop to consider exactly what it is I do. How to say it? My intuition is in overdrive. As for selecting the books that I end up erasing, it, too, is intuitive, but in general I like old, unknown, nineteenth-century morally instructive books for children. I also like biographies of artists, not the bulky kind you are thinking of, rather small, slim hundred-year-old books with reproductions accompanied by simple life stories and simple commentary on the artwork. And anything by Laura Richards. Anything!
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How important is uncertainty when writing a poem? In Madness, Rack, and Honey, you speak at length about Keats, and briefly of Stevens, in relation to this.
RUEFLE: Anyone who is certain about everything wouldn’t become an artist. Young artists are driven by questions, not answers. They are deeply curious, ultimately confused by all the possible answers to life’s deepest questions. The possibilities fuel them. They are the devouring sort, I guess. There are types who can do this by trying to experience everything and by traveling everywhere; then there are types who simply sit and have the desire to read everything. I think it eventually dies down, but when you are young and it is happening—the quest—it’s an exciting and energizing time. I’m not sure I answered your question!
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Is poetry ever safe—are we ever safe with or in it? I feel that poetry is one of the few things that has helped me keep my sanity, but often it does just the opposite.
RUEFLE: Now that is an interesting question. And as you say, there is no one answer, no certainty. When I was very young, poetry was a safe haven for me in an otherwise unruly and often hostile world (I’m thinking of junior high and high school). I’ve met many people who say that poetry literally saved their lives. And I believe it, if by changing a life one can save it, which is very often true. On the other hand, if poetry incites you in such a way that you do something stupid, like jump off a bridge when you are a teenager, or run away from home and join a cult... well, in those cases it may not be so safe. But for those of us who love it deeply, it can be like a mother’s arms. The fact is, reading poetry, like listening to music, can raise your heartbeat or it can lower it, and at different times in our life we need different rhythms to live by. And all the different rhythms—they are out there.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How do you feel poetry helps us as human beings? Can it?
RUEFLE: Poetry can help us as human beings by providing us with beauty, solace, wisdom, humor, delight, awareness, strangeness, reconciliation, or upheaval and shock—whatever we need at a given moment, it’s there. What a pity, though, that we have to be in the mood for it!
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you feel poets have a responsibility to use poetry for a larger, social purpose?
RUEFLE: Some poets feel they have a responsibility to use poetry for a larger, social purpose, and some poets do not. Each poet is on an individual journey, and no two are alike. But I think all of these things are interconnected; what if you are a troubled person and a simple poem about, say, a flower, helps you overcome your trouble, helps you to get a bit outside of yourself—isn’t that a larger, social purpose? Or making someone laugh? No one can say that serves no purpose. Dickinson’s poems are not likely to change the world, but they can change one life at a time. Poems that have a larger, social purpose—who should they be read to and by? A large body of persons? Why doesn’t each session of Congress begin with a poem? I can think of more than a dozen poems it would do them good to hear, but I think, given the average Congressperson’s agenda, it might be unfair to make them hear a single thing more . . .
Look, the world is poorly designed; haven’t you noticed that? And then another day, you see something so well-designed you are in awe. Chances are the first case has to do with humans, and the second case with the natural world, which we did not design but seem to be redesigning, with disastrous results.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Returning to Madness, Rack, and Honey, what do you feel it is about your essays and the voice in them that got through to so many readers? Personally, I loved and related to how you began an essay, “I don’t know where to begin because I have nothing to say . . .”
RUEFLE: I haven’t a clue! I was completely surprised by the response that book was given, so I can’t think of anything to say. But I am happy if some readers found there anything they were looking for in a book. At the same time I might as well admit I don’t myself remember the essays very well! Someone will quote me and I will think “I said that? I have no memory of saying that!” And another thing: I’ve been misquoted too, something I said completely twisted out of context. That’s to be expected, I guess.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: A writing professor and I would often talk about how writers are hoarders, obsessed with little material things—how, for example, I was obsessed with a little hay cross my mother kept in her drawer. Do you agree that that’s true for writers? Are there any material things you obsess over?
RUEFLE: I can see that little cross made of hay! Though it’s probably straw. Yes, writers are mysteriously attracted to objects that seem to speak to them, either these objects have entered one’s life by association with an event or a person, or they have entered by their own powers of persuasion, as when you find something lying on the street which you can never again part with—I have a terribly chewed-up pencil in my study that entered my life that way. And my entire home is full of such objects, altars full of them, arrangements of them everywhere, and by the time you are my age, things are out of control! I think this speaks to the power of the image, as well as the power of an object to contain a world, not to mention the power of an object to communicate. No two collections are alike, but I have never been to the home of a writer that is void of them. They are not unlike little poems in themselves. Joseph Cornell made a life of them, they were his medium as an artist, and every time I spend too much time in a junk shop, I think of him and feel a little less guilty for spending my days this way, even if my friends look askance at me. These things feed my soul, whether we are talking about a shell found on a beach, a tiny tin man with a watering can, or an ivory Torah reader with the name Rosa carved on it. They feed my imagination.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: This all reminds me of your essay, “My Emily Dickinson,” specifically the listing of objects at the end of each section. How did that form come to you?
RUEFLE: The objects listed at the end of every section of the Dickinson essay are actual objects I saw at her gravesite—many people visit her grave and leave her objects, and they are constantly changing because the man who keeps the cemetery neat and tidy is instructed to remove them every week, though many people who leave things find spots where the objects will be left in peace. I began to catalogue the objects when I was working on that essay, and then, being a writer, I made some up, but I didn’t make up anything that was unlike all the objects that were actually there. These objects on a grave, by the way, are called tributes.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I remember reading that you forget most of the books you read, except for the ones that really stuck with you for whatever significant reason. Can you name some of the ones that have stayed with you, and why?
RUEFLE: When you ask me to name five books, they will be novels, because I think of poems as individual things floating in space or something—when I think of poetry I think of poems, not books. And you have asked me to name books: at this moment, the following five titles come to mind: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Remembrance of Things Past, The Tale of Genji, The Rings of Saturn, and My Struggle. Why? Because they are all great books, books that are impossible to read without total immersion; I felt when I read them as if I had emigrated to another country, or lived in another time. What I have done is entered the mind of another, and found it fascinating, and wanted to stay there as long as I could. The list is long, but there’s not a poem on it. To get me to list poems, you would have to use a word other than “book.” Maybe that’s odd, but there it is.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The Poetry Foundation podcast, “Poetry Off the Shelf,” invites two poets to speak on something that’s been on their mind, something that interests them—so I will ask you that large, vague question myself: What has been on your mind lately?
RUEFLE: What has been on my mind lately? The language of dogs. I’ve been reading a book or two about how dogs communicate with both humans and other dogs, and so that’s been on my mind, and how wonderful it would be to be able to have a conversation with your dog, in English! For just an hour. Oh, I would love that, but notice I want the dog to speak my language, I don’t want to speak his! How dominating a thought is that?
Another thing that’s been on my mind is that, ultimately, the only thing I can really say about poetry is that it is a series of strange utterances, and that these strange utterances produce spooky behavior at a distance, meaning they mysteriously have an effect a thousand years later (in some cases) on a reader who was unborn when they were uttered, or at the very least they can be made and affect an unknown reader a thousand miles away. Strange utterances capable of causing spooky behavior at a distance. I take the phrase “spooky behavior at a distance” from physicists, who have shown that electrons can do just that—one electron can affect the behavior of another electron that is millions of miles away. Spooky, huh? It’s communication that’s spooky, it’s language of any kind. And suddenly I remember—Wallace Stevens once wrote a poem that is a conversation between stars! Spooky, huh?