“There isn’t a revelation”: An Interview with Ryan Teitman

by Jacob Sunderlin, co-editor of poetry

Listen up:  Ryan Teitman is writing the kind of poems you sometimes hear about but rarely see, poems in which the usual becomes unusual.  He’s going places, and was kind enough to correspond with me via email about his exciting new poem “Viola, Bound” from the forthcoming issue of Sycamore Review.  And this ain’t his first rodeo.  Here, he schools us on Shakespeare, eroticism, and how to end a poem like a pro. 

Sycamore Review: “Viola, Bound” feels so received, but poems almost never are.  What can you tell us about the writing of this?

Ryan Teitman: I’m glad to hear it felt received, because this poem was anything but. Writing it felt like pulling a tooth. Like many other poems, this one began as a different, failed poem. I live in Berkeley, and one day as I was walking through town, I saw a young woman with tattoos of violin f-holes just below her shoulder blades. Her tattoos were a riff on the Man Ray photograph “Le Violon d’Ingres,” which was tucked away somewhere in my memory. I thought: “This would be a great subject for a poem!” That, of course, should have been a red flag. I brought a poem about the young woman and the Man Ray photograph to workshop, where it was pointed out to me–not unkindly–that all I had done was describe something I had seen and a piece of art I remembered. But there was a strange moment in the poem: a brief, out-of-nowhere reference to Viola from Twelfth Night wrapped in a sheet.  Everyone seemed interested in those lines, and I realized I was way more interested in that image than in the violin tattoos. I wanted to know where it came from. That’s how “Viola, Bound” began.

SR: It’s been a while since I’ve read Twelfth Night.  Dish on Viola?

RT: Twelfth Night is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays and I’ve seen more productions of it than I can remember. (Thanks to Google, I now know the version I saw on TV starring Helen Hunt and Paul Rudd–yes, you read that correctly–was from PBS’s Live from Lincoln Center.) Every time I see it, I’m struck by the fact that there’s a very lovely actress on stage who, to the audience, is not well disguised as a man. Yet she’s utterly convincing to the other characters in the play. Enough that people can fall in love with her. Of course, there is theater shorthand at work: tightly pulled back hair, garments to flatten her chest. But no one in the audience is ever confused by the Viola/Sebastian doubling. We have no trouble accepting the plausibility of the story; we can hold in our heads the idea that two actors, one male and one female, who usually look very little alike, can be mistaken for the same person. There’s something strange and compelling going on there.

SR: The poem reminds me of the erotic domesticity in writers are disparate as Gary Snyder and Ruth Stone.  Leonard Cohen, even.  Is this an erotic poem, do you think?  What makes an erotic poem?

RT: I do think it’s an erotic poem. Anytime you have light bondage going on, you’re pretty well into the territory of the erotic. For me erotic poems have a certain feel, a kind of charge that builds up in the poem. It can come from a specific dramatic situation, such as in Traci Brimhall’s fantastic poem “Aubade in Which the Bats Tried to Warn Me.” But it can come from language too. I’m thinking specifically of Olena Kalytiak Davis’s “In Defense of Marriage.” The relentless repetition of the word “marry” (It begins: “Marry the black horse struck / Dumb in her humble corral”) builds up such a charge that the poem, by the end, is just devastating.

SR: Sometimes, in workshop and elsewhere, we use the pejorative term “epiphany” or even “bourgeois epiphany” to describe a kind of revelatory poetic ending:  the “I-fed-the-deer-in-my-backyard-and-understood-suffering” kind of thing.  This ending follows a similar gesture, but flips it on its head.  The reader is denied that epiphany.  How do you see the ending operating in this poem?

RT: There isn’t a revelation in this poem; if anything, the ending presents more questions than answers. But when we talk about our desires, our understanding of them usually lags a few miles behind the desires themselves. This speaker knows what he wants, but he can’t (or isn’t ready) come to a rational understanding of it. And that’s okay; I’m interested in the same thing he is: the sensual moment of the finger slid between fabric and skin. That’s immediate, present, and tangible. I may not understand how he came to want this, but I can understand, on an level of image, why he wants it.

Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City, which was chosen by Jane Hirshfield for the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize and recently published by BOA Editions. He is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. His poems have appeared in Ninth Letter, Sycamore Review, The Southern Review, and other journals. Next year, he will be the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.