July 8, 2019KR BlogChatsCurrent EventsEnthusiamsLiterature

“The improvisational quality of writing”: A Conversation with Ruth Danon

Ruth Danon is the author of WORD HAS IT (Nirala, 2018), LIMITLESS TINY BOAT (BlazeVOX, 2015), and much earlier TRIANGULATION FROM A KNOWN POINT (North Star Line, 1990.) For 23 years she directed Creative and Expository Writing for NYU’s School of Professional Studies, McGhee Division. Ruth Danon teaches privately in New York City and Beacon, NY, where she now lives. She curates the Spring Street Reading Series for Atlas Studios in Newburgh, NY. Her poems and prose have been published widely in the United States and abroad. She is currently completing a memoir and writing new poems. Her work has been anthologized in BEST AMERICAN POETRY, RESIST MUCH, OBEY LITTLE, and NOON: An Anthology of the Short Poem and is forthcoming in an anthology to be produced by the upstate New York organization, CAPS.

Kristina Marie Darling: Your latest book, WORD HAS IT, takes the political dimensions of language as one of its subjects.  Yet the work seems remarkably timeless, as relevant in the contemporary moment as it is mythic and archetypal.  What advice do you have for writers who may shy away from politically charged subject matter?  What are some strategies you’ve found effective for presenting timely material in a complex and nuanced way?

Ruth Danon:  Thank you for this question, Kristina. The truth is that I didn’t intend to write a political book. I didn’t know I was writing a book when I wrote the poems that became WORD HAS IT. I had taken on the task of writing a poem each day because I couldn’t figure out any other way to keep writing in view of the demands of a full time job. So each day I  wrote something, trying to capture something, often elusive, surprising, and mysterious.  Sometimes I would latch onto some kind of hinge – the “word” poems, for instance, came rapidly, one after another because I was so relieved to have a constraint to push  me along. Anyway, Nirala’s Yuyutsu Sharma asked me for a book. I had just published Limitless Tiny Boat and had no idea how I would write another book. I hid myself alone in the country for a month and started looking at my pages. It was the summer of 2016 and the election was an obsession with me and everyone I knew.I began to see that I had chronicled a kind of anxiety that I wasn’t fully aware of. By the end of that month I had a shape in mind and a project in hand. I knew the bird poems would be the third section and the anxiety poems the first. But I didn’t have enough and I had a bunch of   domestic poems that didn’t seem to fit. But then I began to think of the book as a  narrative and saw that the domestic could be a retreat/relief from the other material. That’s how the second part came into place. I have always relied on the improvisational quality of writing. I never know what I’m going to say before I say it and so I discover my  preoccupations by writing. Once I discover what I’ve been up to I can begin to think intentionally about the work. So my advice is to never write from a contrived     commitment to an idea. Poems are made from words not ideas – who am I  plagiarizing here? But I believe it. The “political” is really human and personal and if a writer is, in the deepest way, responding to the signs, attempting to, so to speak, read the signals that are sent to us all the time, the material will reflect what’s essential to that poet and the time and place in which the poet lives. I think it has a lot to do with how one defines one’s role as a poet. Richard Hugo once said “if you want to communicate, use the telephone.” I’m not communicating a message as much   as I’m trying to translate signals. Those signals are, I think, archetypal messages. When has there not been hate? Or danger? Or fear? Registering those impulses (and I can refer here to Adrienne Rich’s great poem “Planetarium”) and getting them into a form is the work of the poet.

KMD:  WORD HAS IT is formally various in a way that I find compelling.  As the book unfolds, lineated strophes appear alongside prose poems and exciting hybrids.  How do you balance formal variations, and moments of surprise and wonder, with unity in a manuscript?

RD:  WORD HAS IT is my third full-length book of poetry and I think that I learned a lot from putting together the first two books. The first book was simply a collection of poems.   One section was a kind of series and the rest were grouped poems. I think that’s is or at least was typical of first books. There was a long time between the first and second books. In part that was because I wasn’t sending things out. In part it was because when I did the books got rejected, although one was a finalist at Tupelo long before you were there. Frustrated, I found the amazing Martine Bellen to work with me as editor and she said that the problem with the failing books were that they were too much the same thing, that there wasn’t enough variety. She helped me figure out how to create a sense  of a narrative while keeping things formally inventive. At some point I took a weeklong workshop at Vermont College. I learned to think about structure in terms of a number of  possibilities – narrative, musical, thematic, and so forth. When I put together WORD HAS IT I kept all of that in mind. I found it delightful to see that some image from the first part of the book popped up in part 3 without any conscious intention to do so. I do believe in that “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” idea that both Robert Frost  and Flannery O’Connor articulate and so I am always looking for the places that surprise me. I wanted the book to be both narrative and musical. In the individual poems I had to persuade myself that the reciprocity between form and content was genuinely there. I hoped that the narrative structure and subtext would create overall unity while the musical recapitulation of images and the variety in forms would keep the reader in a   familiar world while at the same time wondering what would come next. I hope that answers your question.

KMD:  You have work recently included in NOON: An Anthology of the Short Poem, edited by Philip Rowland, which launched on June 2nd.  Can you speak to the unique artistry, and the variety inherent in the short poem?

RD:  The short poem has endless possibilities and a rich pedigree from many cultures. Consider, perhaps predictably, Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” the poems of Basho, the poems of Emily Dickinson, the beautiful translations of Sappho by Anne Carson. The  variety in the form comes from the uniqueness of each poet. Early on in my writing life I tended to write longer poems. My method of working then was to gather a lot of random material, some of it appropriated and then at a certain point I had the need to compose and I would aggregate gathered material into longer poems. That aggregation was possible because I had longer periods of time to write. Once I had a very demanding full-time job I needed to find another way of working. I started writing short poems each day. I love that the word “stanza” means room. So these little poems are rooms I open up and that I hope readers will find interesting to enter. Sometimes I can aggregate them into longer poems like “Habitation” and in the case of WORD HAS IT they led me to a book.

KMD:  In addition to your work as a poet, you’ve taught in a variety of settings, working with students of many different ages and backgrounds.  Will you share some of your greatest risks, and your greatest triumphs, as an educator?

RD:   It makes me very happy that you’ve asked this question because teaching has been so central to my life. I have taught every age from elementary school children to octogenarians in and out of academic settings. I think the biggest leap for me was to begin using constraints instead of prompts. In other words I started using linguistic and formal rules rather than subject matter as instigating tools for my students. We’d sit on the floor of my studio in Soho and experiment with formal rules paired with certain kinds of experiences. Early on in my career my then analyst gave me an article by the British psychonanalyst D.W. Winnicott and said to me “I think this is what you’re doing.” By that he meant that I was having the students write in the presence of a non-interfering other. I rejected the typical workshop model in favor of asking students to write during the class. I thought of writing as a studio art. The great triumph was that I was able, at NYU, to create a very successful writing program using these ideas. The program, that also included a very rich two week summer intensive, ran for 23 years. At the same time I continued teaching privately. It took some nerve to plop students onto the floor in an academic setting. At graduation one year, a student who has since gone on to become a significant poet, was giving the graduation speech.  She described my class, explaining that she had hated it ,had resented sitting on the floor, and then segued into the fact that as much as she hated doing the weird things I asked her to do, the class had changed her life. A colleague sitting next to me poked me in the ribs and asked in a whisper if I always put my students on the floor. “No, “ I said, “only when it makes sense to do so.” I think my way of teaching has worked so well because as radical as I can get I have always kept faithful to the Idea of only doing  things that actually work.

KMD:  What writing prompts do you find effective in the classroom, especially for students who are adverse to taking aesthetic risks?  How do you encourage your writing students to step out of their comfort zone?

Well, as I’ve said, I think in terms of constraints rather than prompts. My program at   NYU was in a program that served adult and/or non-traditional students, many of whom were terrified of writing or if not terrified certainly new to writing. Since I was in charge of both creative and expository writing I also worked with students who were not in creative writing but who had to write and were often scared to do so. Writing with linguistic constraints works so well. What I do is similar to what the Oulipo group made famous but differs in a few respects. First of all there is always some experiential work that precedes the constraint based activity. And second, once the rules are explained the final rule is that you can break the rule at any time. Oulipo is strict about never breaking the rules. Harry Matthews and I had a lively discussion about this matter. So the very first and often repeated exercise I give works in the following way. Since I want to make clear that poetry comes from words not ideas I ask students first to toss a ball  at one another saying first words, then phrases as they throw the ball around. It’s hard at first because the tendency is to make obvious associations, often simple binaries. But soon the students loosen up. Then I do what I call a word throw, in my work the equivalent of doing plies in ballet. Something to be done again and again. I take my own notebook and look for a pretty innocuous starting point. Could be something like “Last night.” Students start writing. Then I throw them another phrase or word. They have been asked to incorporate whatever I throw at them into whatever they are writing. This goes on for a while until I tell the students to stop. The results are remarkable. The exercise is a perfect diagnostic – tells me who is a narrative writer, who is not. Students  find themselves making a kind of deep sense they didn’t know they could make. They connect with subtext and with important material right away. And they retain complete control of their own subject matter. It’s kind of miraculous and it quickly frees students.  And it works with beginning students and advanced writers, in creative writing classes and more traditional expository writing classes. It opens up a lifetime practice.

RD:  What events, projects, and writing workshops do you have in the works?  What can readers look forward to?

KMD:  Two years ago, when my program at NYU, moved away from adult students as its     primary focus, I and a great number of my colleagues, were pushed out. I was devastated. I didn’t know how things would go. Quite to my amazement I have so many projects that I love. I continue to teach privately in New York and have a number of classes in Beacon, NY where I live. I will also be repeating a class for New York Writers Workshop. My students are extraordinary writers and lovely people. I’m privileged to  work with them. I’m also curating a reading series for the Atlas Studios in Newburgh, NY. I’ll be reading in that series at the end of September. I’m starting to program for 2020. In October I’ll be teaching a workshop at Atlas Studios as part of Newburgh’s first ever literary festival. I have an almost completed memoir to finish, finally. And I’m starting to write a new series of poems too new and raw to say much about. I’ve spent a lot of the last year promoting WORD HAS IT and so I’m looking forward to some quiet time for serious writing.

I so appreciate your questions, Kristina. It’s been great fun responding to them. Thank you.