The following mini-interview, conducted by Poetry Editor Virginia McLure and Interviews Editor Jen Levitt, took place after the poet’s reading and discussion with Alice Quinn at the NYU Creative Writing Program’s Lillian Vernon House on September 6, 2012.
VA: During your reading, you defined prose for yourself as having “a right-flush margin”?
MR:Yes! Right-flush margin, no more chat about it!
JL:Do you have a similarly concise definition for what poetry is?
MR: Yes, it’s lineated. It’s just that. A three-hour class on what is a prose poem is? A waste of time. That doesn’t mean it can’t be prose, or that prose can’t be poetry—but for all practical, speaking purposes, it’s right-flush margin or it’s lineated. It’s so simple. What is all this postmodern complicated bullshit?
An inquisitive bystander interjects to ask about the meaning of a word in a Ruefle poem: Is it meringue or merengue?
MR: Merengue—the Spanish merengue—which means “whipped up,” which is also what meringue is, when you whip egg whites into a cream. And the dance as well, because it’s a very whippy movement. It’s all from the same root. Meringue comes from the French, and merengue from the Spanish, and so it’s all connected: When I read the poem, I say merengue because I mean it to be the dance. But it’s also meringue—it’s just whipped up stuff. It’s all connected—you whip up your feet, it’s just whipped up stuff.
Now, for egg whites, here’s a tip: If you’re beating them [into a meringue], the heavy cream should be cold and the egg whites should be room temperature. [Pause] Or maybe it should be the other way around—a few culinary tips from the poet! [all laugh]
JL: One last question. You mentioned that at the end of readings, you like to read work by others. What types of things do you read?
MR: I usually read poems by other people. I might read a poem by Keats or by Donne. But this year, I’m reading a letter my great-aunt wrote.
“I’m interested [lately] in scrawled notes, I’m interested in recipes, I’m interested in letters, the private kind, that had to be sealed in envelopes. I’m interested in anything that involves cursive handwriting. My great aunt was not a literary person at all but writing kept her alive.”
—This further rumination on handwriting excerpted from Ruefle’s reading. Listen to it in full here: http://cwp.as.nyu.edu/page/podcast.
Mary Ruefle is the author, most recently, of “Madness, Rack, and Honey” (Wave Books, 2012). She lives in Bennington, Vermont and teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College.