August 20, 2013KR BlogBlogChats

Virtues of Madness and Vices of Honey: An Interview with Mary Ruefle

[This interview was preceded by an introduction; you can read that here.]

Last year, Ruefle and I corresponded via mail; our correspondence is printed below. You can find out more about her on her Wave Books page, or at the Poetry Foundation, which also hosts excerpts from A Little White Shadow and the lecture-essay On Fear. Be sure, also, to take a look at her website, which features information on readings and several scanned erasures of books.

The Kenyon Review: Your essay, “On Erasure,” is headed with a quote by Fernando Pessoa: “Everything staged or expressed by man is a note in the margin of a completely erased text.” This quote fascinates me because it seems to be saying that there was, at one point, a complete text—as opposed to one just “completely erased.” Is erasure, for you, a way of moving toward completeness, or away from it? Are there reasons for—or virtues to—seeing erasure as a version of either motion?

Mary Ruefle: That would depend on how one conceives of completeness. Is it full or empty, is it complete presence or complete absence? For me, it’s both; all things come out of absence into presence and later return to absence; it is impossible for me to conceive of one without the other. I don’t do discrete, isolated erasures—I do whole books, little nineteenth-century books. An erasure book is complete, but its very presence is built out of the absence of text. In other words, an erasure has a presence—everything that is, is—but at the same time you can literally see the absence of the text on the page (it’s whited out). A presence born out of absence, and an absence made present. I think Pessoa was thinking of death—one’s life being (then) a completely erased text, and any writings left behind are but marginal notes. I tend to agree with him—we very often mistake an author’s work for their very life, but their life is really, truly, gone: vanished. I’ve often wondered how many, or which, authors would take their lives back again in exchange for obscurity. It’s hard to talk about these things…

KR: You write, in that essay, that when you finish an erasure you have written “a book of poetry without a single poem in it, and that appeals to me.” As someone who writes both in erasures as well as more conventional poetic and prose forms, are there special freedoms afforded by erasure? Are there any threats or pitfalls of this notion of the poem as a unit-like thing that takes place within the confines of a collection—or even within a vaguer notion of “poem-ness”?

MR: There is a very special freedom afforded to me by erasures—no one is going to see them! The second part of the question is much harder to answer; for there is the poem as a unit-like thing, and then there is the poem that pervades existence, which is much more like the wind, and that is the poem everyone senses from time to time, whether they can read or not, whether they “care” about the unit-like thing or not.

KR: I’m interested in the way you’ve described the process of coming into erasure as a “form” after a prolonged period of resisting formal poetry, and the thrill of this discovery—particularly the way you’ve phrased it: “like writing with my eyes instead of my hands.” In some of my other writings for this blog, I’ve considered how erasure can be a way that the experience of seeing a text—with one’s eyes leaping from prominent word to prominent word—becomes embedded in that text, wedded to it. Ronald Johnson spoke of his erasure of Milton, Radi Os, as a sort of anachronistic, quasi-mystical communion with Blake, “his eyes seeing through my hands.” Dan Beachy-Quick has written of this experience, too, with regard to Radi Os. How much is erasure a work of visual art versus a textual pursuit for you? I’ve found myself deliberating about what word to erase in my own projects based on a word’s location on the page—in terms of what visual aesthetic this or that choice would produce. Do you ever think along the same lines?

MR: Erasure is equally a visual and textual act for me. But on the pages where I do not affix an image or any color, it’s purely textual. No, I don’t think about a word’s placement on the page when I decide what text to erase, and in this sense I go about it differently than you, but I very much think about placement of image—will it be straight or slant, what size will it be, and how will it work with the facing page? Because I work exclusively in books, every page has a facing page. I strive for a balance—or conscious imbalance—between them.

KR: There are many bold claims in “On Erasure,” especially in its conclusion: that erasure can be seen as a model of not just the behavior of literature but of life and memory both. And that this decay is not just something to be tolerated and accepted but, in an important way, heralded. Even though time ensures that one’s life and works will eventually erode beyond recognition—and be appropriated by future persons along the way—and even though you and I will never have access to “the whole text[s], intact and in order,” that are our respective lives, this just is what it is to exist: and the alternative is wholesale nothingness. “A blank page.” This seems to be liberating for you, but was it always that way? It seems to me that for most people this notion of negation would have to be horrifying at first and then, perhaps later, profound.

MR: I don’t think I am making a bold claim when I say that erasure is a model of behavior for life and memory—I don’t know a single person who remembers every day of their lives, and the older a person grows, the less and less they remember. In fact, most books I read enter one ear and go out the other, and I am thinking of books that deeply engage me while I am reading them. Take biographies—while you are reading them, it is as if you are living that person’s life, but a month after, you can’t even remember when they were born, you only remember the darndest detail, like Wallace Stevens, I can’t tell you his wife’s name or anything like that, but he loved cinnamon buns and that is what I will always remember. As for the notion of negation being a horror or a comfort, I waft back and forth depending on mood—doesn’t everybody? But one thing is for sure: if you face death feeling that erasure/negation is a horror, you will be in a horrible position, whereas if you feel it as a liberation/comfort, you will be in a pretty good position, wouldn’t you say? My idea of a good death is that of Timothy Leary, the way he lay in a bed in a field and just welcomed it and told the whole world how he welcomed it. Of course very few people were listening, despite the fact that it was, I believe, televised. Of course I understand the problems with—the horror of—a televised death, but given who he was, a public figure, I thought it was grand. Our culture is very squeamish, that’s for sure. So am I!

Portrait of the poet Mary Ruefle, photographed by Matt Valentine
Mary Ruefle, courtesy Wave Books/Matt Valentine

KR: Is there any reason why you chose to leave the dedication page of A Little White Shadow un-erased? I thought that it might be because of something about the nature of the dedication—to one E. B. M., deceased on February 14th, “A.D. 1874”—and the grim beauty of a Valentine’s Day death that might be better left (for both moral and aesthetic reasons) as is. But I wasn’t sure, and wanted to ask—was this for one of those purposes, or an informational one, or something else? And why, out of all the 45 or so works of erasure that you’d made by the time you wrote “On Erasure,” did you choose A Little White Shadow for publication?

MR: I don’t remember why I left the dedication page unerased, but the book was a memorial text written for the deceased, which was a common practice among the upper class in those times—you had a little book printed in their memory, especially if they were pious, and died young. The reason A Little White Shadow was chosen for publication is because it was two-tone and could be more cheaply reproduced; that, and the fact it was one of the best books, text-wise, that I had done—probably because it was originally written in an exceptionally literate way, it was about a group of young people who spent a summer in Italy looking at art, and meeting this exceptional old woman who was wheel-chair bound but quite spiritually sound; most of the books I choose to erase are not so highbrow, I actually prefer little books for children and overbearing religious tracts, I actually prefer unremarkable books. There are many reasons for erasing remarkable books, but none of them suit my personal sensibilities.

KR: A good amount of your work seems preoccupied in the theological: “Heaven on Earth” begins with an epigraph from Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (“My heaven will be spent on earth up until the end of the world”), for instance, and continues on in canonical-looking stanzas in the voice of a nun. Likewise, “The Beginnings of Idleness in Assisi,” “Magnificat,” the mention of the Psalms in “Sweet Morning,” of Heaven in “My Timid Eternity,” the parable-esque tone of “From Memory”—all of these works name the theological in some way. Is this a purely aesthetic engagement for you? Or is poetry, maybe, a kind of spiritual practice—or can it be likened to one; is its affiliation with the ineffable coincidental, or can the two pursuits and practices be, at times, one and the same?

MR: My preoccupation with God—what you call the theological—is not aesthetic—that would be awful! Any art who encounters the spiritual in their work is driven to do so out of a genuine preoccupation with existence, with being. At least I hope so. I am not religious in the traditional sense of the word—I do not belong to a church, or practice any one of the numbers of ritualistic belief systems. But I am interested in them all, and I find in each something of essence. As for poetry, of course it is a spiritual practice, in so far as it celebrates or laments the human spirit, in so far as it is always deeply curious about something—it could be language, or the natural world, it could be the absurdities of culture, or human beings in general or in specific—how to live, what to do, these are the questions of poetry. Environmental concerns—they are ultimately spiritual ones; if you are interested in how persons will experience the world in the future, well, that’s something you can’t see. What is the point of recycling if you don’t have faith that it is the right thing to be doing? That it impacts something you can’t see and don’t understand.

KR: I wanted to ask you about several essays from Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, starting with “On Secrets,” in which you write that a poet “may know that the most eloquent word is a stone, but he must never say that or the silence would be broken, the silence he keeps by speaking—.” What exactly is this relationship between speech and silence in terms of poetry? And what is it about objects—simple objects, I suppose, like stones, that need nothing said about them and are therefore “complete” in some way—that makes them, as it were, model words, model poems? If we’re writing poems with a fallible medium (language), and knowingly stepping out of such completeness to do so, is there any possibility of getting back inside it?

MR: No, I don’t think there is any way that we humans, we persons, can speak for the completeness of stones by writing poetry about them, but the beauty of it is that that never stopped anyone from trying! We are an incorrigible species. We attempt the impossible. We aren’t stones or trees, but we like to pretend we are, I mean some of us do from time to time, and it is more than pretentious, it is the very fiber of our being—to be pretentious. It comes naturally to us, this extension of being. If you try and fight it, you will lose. Our minds are an extension of ourselves, we extend ourselves in ways that are not natural. The invention of the hula hoop—did we really need that?

KR: Many of your poems remind me of Dickinson—not so much formally, necessarily, but in their sensibilities: “A man has only one death: / it may be light as goose down / or heavy as a fatted hog,” from “Trust Me,” or “Winter passes, a powdery flounce. / The stars oscillate in their panic,” from “Chilly Autumn Evenings,” for instance, ad infinitum. In Madness, Rack, and Honey, too, you write about Dickinson, comparing her life and work with that Brontë sister of the same first name. And you write about encountering the Susan Howe essay with the same title as yours, “My Emily Dickinson,” which came before yours, and differentiating the two by placing an emphasis on my: “My Emily Dickinson is nobody’s business but my own,” you wrote, “I will not share her with anyone.” Do all authors command (or demand, or deserve) such an intimacy from you? And should we require it of them? What’s more, is the concept of a public literature, however you want to construe it (nationally, regionally, by genre or what-not) really more than a collective gathering of our individuated, private affairs with these authors?

MR: Yes, I believe that the concept of public literature is really just a gathering of individual private affairs. Take philosophy, or history, both very public spheres of literature—or take travel writing if you like. The best of these genres are generated by individual minds engaging with their subject in unique ways. Kierkegaard is not Sartre, though both address large issues that purport to be public and universal. Imagine a wonderful book about Lincoln by someone who adored him, and a wonderful book on him by someone who abhorred him—neither would be wholly Lincoln, both would be individual minds at work. Not all literary criticism is noteworthy; the best criticism approaches art because of the mind at work, like Hazlitt or Bloom or Todorov.

KR: You’ve written a book of prose—The Most of It—and I wanted to see if you found any substantial differences between the experiences of writing prose and poetry. It was also a bit intriguing that the back cover described it as “prose” and not as “prose poetry.” Is this a meaningful distinction for you? When does a work of art become a member of a given genre for you—whether prose, or poetry, or lyric essay, or essay with images (as in Madness, Rack, and Honey), or erasure?

MR: There is a meaningful distinction, for me, between prose and poetry. Poetry is lineated and prose has a right flush margin. I hear the difference, at the same time, in my ear, which dictates where the margin will be. That doesn’t mean that prose can’t be lyrical or poetry can’t be prosaic, it only means that there is a general rule of thumb and one is wise to pay attention to it. Because it makes life simpler, and easier to talk about. They are just categories. Postmodernism delights in breaking down categories—nothing wrong with that, but you still are expected to know what categories you are breaking down by recombining. Is the snowboard a skateboard or a ski? Why argue about it? It’s a snowboard, a snowboard is a combination of the other two. Do parents argue about whether their child is the mother or the father?

KR: In Madness, Rack, and Honey you talk about there being a point in your life where you had not read “a single book in three years”—regardless of how or why this came about, what did that experience afford for you? What did it alter? Discard?

MR: The experience of not being able to read didn’t afford me a damn thing, except the experience of living without reading, which millions if not billions of people have every day of their lives. It is not a dearth that suits me. I love reading, when I am unable to do it is a sign that something is terribly wrong.

KR: Returning to a discussion of erasure, do you find that your own methods for either selecting a book or moving through one change over time? Do these changes happen constantly, or consciously—if they do, in fact, happen? Is there a way, to misappropriate a maxim, to “make it new” while still sticking to that fundamental formula of removal?

MR: Over time there is definitely a sameness to it, but that’s true of poetry and all art-making, not to mention daily life. How can we make waking up new? I haven’t figured that one out. In the meantime, I love the old, I love the repetitious and the ritualistic. I rather like doing the same thing over and over again. If you can’t bring yourself to love that, you are in for a hard time, life-wise. Berryman was not making a joke when he said life was boring. And anyone who has ever been in a prison camp—and survived—will tell you that nothing is so precious as the ordinary, the boring, the quotidian.

KR: In “Poetry and the Moon,” you write that you are “convinced that the first lyric poem was written at night, and that the moon was witness to the event and that the event was witness to the poem.” Your Selected Poems, too, contains a piece titled “Full Moon,” in which a speaker ponders why certain objects, in this case celestial bodies, attract attention while, on the other hand, “you have to pretend / the stone at your feet / is not an object of observation, / when it is.” In what ways are poems acts of looking or seeing, and do traditional lyric tropes like the moon testify to that seeing or, in their being overused, obstruct it? Do you perceive any new lyric tropes emerging, ones that might usurp even the moon?

MR: All poetry is seeing, in so far as it is an encounter with something. All primary primers begin with some variation on “See me / I see you”. It is the basic life encounter. An overused, obstructed vision depends not on the object seen, but by the mind doing the seeing. I can go to the grocery store and write about it in a way that interests no one, or I can go and write about it in a way that makes it new—it depends on me, not the grocery store. Writers who seek wildly offbeat and new things to write about, who do so with a vengeance, as if their life depended on it, have missed the boat. Something that might usurp even the moon? That won’t happen so long as it is up there; in other words, the moon will be usurped—as it will be—when we have left this planet and inhabited another. But until then, no way. It’s there, how can anyone not be interested in what’s there?

KR: The first essay in Madness, Rack, and Honey is on beginnings—there is an equal number of beginnings and endings in life, you say, but not in poetry, where the number of beginnings greatly outweighs the number of endings. To pose a difficult and perhaps unproductive (though I hope interesting) question, is it more of a struggle to begin or end a poem? Beyond that, is one task more important in any sense?

MR: For me, it’s much more difficult to end a poem than begin one. Going back to your description of the poem as a unit, a unit can begin anywhere, but it has to end in unitville, in unitness. For me, that’s the harder part, by far. I can’t imagine anyone feeling differently, and I’d love to hear their take on it—it would be fascinating.

KR: Your lectures are some of the freshest writings on poetics from a contemporary poet that I’ve read in a while—pragmatic but not reductive, thoughtful but not aloof, non-academic but intelligent. And there are many passages in them that I find mirror any ideation of what it is the lyric, in its most well-intended and skillful manifestation, should aspire to. But I was shaken most by your introduction, in which you make clear your affinity to art over knowledge and propose an analogy for poetry via a thrust that recedes deeper into a forest with its song the longer one chases it. “Perhaps we can use our knowledge to preserve a bit of space where his lack of knowledge can survive,” you conclude, after bringing up poetry’s increasing dependence on the academy’s “corporate umbrella.” What kind of knowledge can art give us, if it can give us knowledge at all? And is there a way to talk about or study art that does not take it as instrumental toward something else—a use, a utilitarian value, an end? Would there be any reasons to want such a discourse? And what might one call the thrush’s “lack of knowledge” besides a negation of knowledge proper?

MR: Art gives us the knowledge that many have gone before, and had the same strange feelings and the same unanswerable questions, and that we are not alone in the art-endeavor, let alone life. It gives us the knowledge that people have always been stupid and violent and cruel, and compassionate and confused and curious and wondrous and astonished and tired. What it does not give us is answers. It gives us instead a picture. It does not ask that we analyze the picture, but that we stand before it and look, in the hope that looking might turn into gazing. For gazing will hold our attention for a very long time.