It’s Exactly like Having to Pee, but It’s in Your Head: A Conversation with Mary Ruefle

Following is an interview conducted by Lauren Mallet for Sycamore Review in October 2015.

Mary Ruefle is the author of eleven books of poetry, two books of erasures, a book of collected lectures, a book of prose, and a comic book. Madness, Rack & Honey, her book of lectures, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award, and her Selected Poems won the 2011 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her erasure books have been exhibited in museums and galleries, and include the publication of A Little White Shadow, and, just this year, An Incarnation of the Now (See Double Press, 2015). Ruefle is the recipient of numerous honors, among them the Robert Creeley Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a Whiting Award.

Lauren Mallett‘s poetry appears in Tupelo Quarterly, Smartish Pace, RHINO Poetry, Barrow Street, Sou’wester, Spoon River Poetry Review, and other journals. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Indiana University Writers’ Conference and the Indiana Writers’ Consortium.

Lauren Mallett: Do you believe in ritual as part of a writing practice? When and where do you write?

Mary Ruefle: Lauren sent me these questions in the mail and I said to myself, “Mary, if you’re such a walking advertisement for spontaneity, you shouldn’t open them.” But I’m also a walking advertisement for hypocrisy, so I opened them and answered them all very briefly. And then I never looked at them again. So these are kind of notes.

I, myself, have no writing rituals whatsoever. Every writer has to decide for herself what her ritual is. I have many friends who write at the same time every day or the same time every week—who have rituals. I, myself, do not. You have to let your own ritual evolve. That said, I will add two things. I treat nineteenth century books; they’re called erasures. It’s half writing, half artwork. I’ve been doing these since 1998. I’ve made 92 of them, and I religiously—ritualistically—work on my erasures every single morning that I’m home. I’m bereft without them. I was working on one while waiting for the airport transportation to take me on my journey to Purdue. I was two pages from the end and I was like “Oh! If only I could stay and finish. I’m so close to the end.” So I do have a daily ritual, that is my life as an artist, and it’s making these erasures. I don’t for writing prose or poetry. I never have and I never will.

I write when a poem asserts pressure on the inside of my skull. A loop of language starts. And it—isn’t there a term for it…brain worm?—gets in there and won’t go away. So my poems arise naturally and spontaneously in my brain. They dictate to me that a poem is coming. I’m fond of explaining it like this: it’s exactly like having to pee, but it’s in your head. You cannot ignore the calls of nature. That said, I want to stress to you how important ritual is in human life. There is no culture, no human life, without ritual. First of all, we have the rituals of whatever weather pattern we happen to live in. In a temperate climate, with four distinct seasons, it’s obviously extremely pronounced. But people who live in the desert know that the desert has its own rhythms. Or the Arctic.

Ritual is repetition, and repetition always results in rhythm. So it has everything in the world to do with poetry. In your own life, you have rituals now. And they will change. Your rituals will change—drastically—when you go from living alone to living with another human being. They will change drastically if you have children. They will change drastically if you have no job and you get a job. My life is full of ritual. It just doesn’t happen to be writing ritual. In your own life, do you brush your teeth or make your coffee first? We create ritual even when it’s unnecessary. So I’m a great believer in ritual. I would fall apart without it.

Mallett: I’d like to ask about your ritual of erasure. I’m struck by the texture of that disappearance in “A Little White Shadow”—some pages feature confident, horizontal strokes of Wite-Out, while other pages appear more cumulonimbus: patchy, ragged, and allowing the disappeared text to, in fact, peek through. How do you account for these variations?

Ruefle:  You’re skipping ahead!

Mallett: I am!

Ruefle: All the differentiations in texture and visibility that you’re talking about, I have nothing to do with. It all has to do with Wite-Out. There are different brands of Wite-Out. Different brands of Wite-Out have different qualities. It’s Liquid Paper versus Bic. There are different kinds of Wite-Out within a brand. For instance, there’s Quick Dry, there’s Extra Coverage, and my favorite they no longer make. It was called Extra Smooth. Also, as you use a bottle of Wite-Out, because they’re made to dry very, very quickly, and you keep bringing the little brush out of the bottle, what’s inside gets dryer and dryer. I go through approximately two bottles a week, maybe more. Towards the end of the bottle it gets very thick and coagulated, and when you put it on a piece of paper it looks like impasto. So that’s out of my control. But I’m aware of it. Sometimes I want the smoothness, sometimes I kind of like the thickness. It leaves little gritty balls on the page. It’s out of my control. That part is not on purpose.

Mallett: You currently live in New York, and you consider Vermont home. What is your connection to place, and how does the landscape of Vermont influence your poetry?

Ruefle: I think it influences it enormously. Anyone who is familiar with my work …I don’t think you would call me an urban poet. My poems aren’t set in cities. My earlier work is absolutely, definitely set in rural New England. I once met a woman who was the head of a large arts organization. She was hosting a number of writers and she sort of glanced at a book by each so that when she met them she could make a comment. And before she met me she looked at some early books and she said, “Ah, Mary Ruefle. The nature poet.” Anyone who really knows my work would laugh at that remark! But I got it. She flipped through the poems and saw that there were lots of ducks and barns and apple trees.

When I was young, I lived on 500 acres of wilderness. That was my environment. About fifteen years ago, I moved to the center of a small, depressed mill town: lots of poverty, lots of drugs, lots of domestic violence. I live in what some might call a bad neighborhood. I’m very fond of it. In Trances of the Blast, I can point to poems that are set in this kind of small town, gritty environment. So now there’s more of that in the poems. That’s been a change. Your environment is going to influence your work.

Mallett: “Balance—or conscious imbalance” is something that surfaces in your lectures and interviews. On what axes do you conceive of balance: concrete and abstract? Earnest and ironic? Sound and silence?

Ruefle: I don’t think it’s a question of balance. It’s often a question of tension between these two poles. And the tension that plays out between them…think of the image of a seesaw. If a work of art was just two people of the same weight on both sides, nothing would ever happen. But if you get the seesaw going… you’ve got the poles, but balance isn’t exactly what you’re going for.

I have days when my life feels perfectly balanced. And I have days when my life feels completely out-of-balance. And I’m sure you do, too. Some poems have more of a balanced feel than others. But when you’re writing, it’s important to let as much of the world into your work as possible. You won’t be one-sided, because the world’s not.

I don’t know why this popped into my mind…Simone Weil says something like, “When you are depressed, you can’t say the landscape is ugly, too.” The real questions—the real tensions—arise when you think, “Well, I’m not feeling so well today, but boy that apricot tree is beautiful and in full bloom.” When you start to contextualize and juxtapose the outer and inner worlds, your work can become a little less one-sided.

Balance is a tricky word. We mean so many different things by it, and it’s a key word in our culture. You’re supposed to have a balanced diet, and to balance sleep and exercise and work and play. What’s wrong with playing all day one day? Or all week? And then working the next week? But, no, we have to do a little bit every day and that makes our life balanced? Or we have to write every day? What if we write from January to May? I’m wary of balance, but the tensions interest me.

Mallett: Tension contributes to movement in your poems. They move quicklyit seems to me by association and intuition. You often write in what Marianne Boruch calls the “whoosh:” a one-stanza-long poem. How did you come to trust the whoosh and this intuitive movement?

Ruefle: First of all, I absolutely love Marianne’s term “whoosh” and I’m never going to forget it. You hear it and you instantly know what she’s talking about. I have written, in my life, many whoosh poems. Because they came to me in a whoosh. I actually don’t write them anymore. There are whoosh times in our lives, and when we’re young we have lots of whoosh moments. I’m very aware that young readers like my whoosh poems. They like the whoosh poems better than the other poems. They don’t pay any attention to the other poems. And it makes perfect sense to me, because they’re in a whoosh part of their lives. And I’m not in a whoosh part of my life anymore. I can’t think of any whoosh poems in my new manuscript.

And so, a whoosh poem gets written in a whoosh. It’s that pee pressure in your brain. It’s drastic and intense. The whoosh poems are born of an intensity. They’re like a strong wind. It takes everything in its path. So they’re very consuming. And they move very rapidly. I mean, there’s no way you could put it in stanzas.

And also, some of the whoosh poems are gifts. Poems are gifts that we’re given. I’m just a vessel. I’m a medium. I’m the mother that births them. Where they came from is a mystery to me. Where poems come from is one of the deepest mysteries of my life. Not just the whoosh poems, but all poems.

Mallett: You mentioned a new manuscript… I’ve noticed that Wave Books has published books of yours for almost a decade. I’m curious about what it’s like to develop such a relationship with a publisher and how the grainy, off-white-with-black-type cover motif of your more recent books came to be?

Ruefle: For the first two or three years, the books didn’t look alike. Not just my books, but all Wave Books. Then the press made the decision to have a very distinctive look, so that when you saw that look you would recognize it as a Wave book. It was a Wave decision. But within this black-and-white look, no two books look alike. The font changes, and if you saw twenty Wave Books you would see how much can be done just with font.

Having Wave Books as my publisher absolutely changed my life. It’s a small press. They certainly treat you like family. I never thought in my life that I would be treated so well and with such respect. I had no experience of it. I never had an editor who actually edited books, and I do now. That’s been wonderful. So all I can say is I’m deeply, deeply thankful to Wave Books. It’s selfish… now I really worry about earthquakes in Seattle!

Mallett: How did you meet your editor?

Ruefle: I was giving a reading at The New School in New York and a young man named Joshua Beckman was there. I decided to come out of the closet as an erasure artist and I read, for the first time in public, an erasure book. He asked afterwards if he could look at the erasure book. I gave it to him and he sat and looked at it. It was a very, very special moment for me; I saw that he got it, whatever one means by that. I had shown them to people who didn’t get it. Of which there are many, and which I totally understand. As it happens, six months later he was hired as the first Wave editor, he called me on the phone and said, “I want to publish an erasure.” It just happened. He happened to be there at the reading. I happened to read from this book. He happened to get the job. All those things coincided, and again the great mysteries of life rear their heads….

Mallett: In Madness, Rack, and Honey you share that in your writing, “gender becomes genre.” How do gender, race, sexuality, and other identity markers make genres for our writing?

Ruefle: Again, that’s up to every author. Obviously, when you read a poem there’s a kind of default mode. It’s easy for a heterosexual white male writer to not think of these things. He’s the default mode. If you’re a person of color and you’re writing, you’re really in a hard place, because if you don’t make race absolutely viable in your work, people are going to set the default button. The same is true of women. What do you do? You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It puts people in a hard place. In my own case, there’s not a trace of too many identity markers that I can see, except I am, obviously, aging. Age can also be an identity marker. In that essay I meant my gender is artist. I see my gender not as male or female, but as artist. As if it were a gender in itself. I’m very masculine and very feminine. My issue is how an artist sees the world. It’s just as exclusive in its own little way, I suppose. In that essay, I state, “Gender has made an enormous difference in my life, but not in my work.”

It’s okay. There’s room for everything and everyone. It’s a very big world out there. There’s room for anything you want to write about. But it doesn’t mean everyone has to have the same concerns you do. It’s a big world. That’s a fact to be celebrated, not argued over.

Mallett: When you spoke about receiving poems as gifts, you used the language of giving birth.

Ruefle: Oh, I used that metaphor? Birthing? Pregnant with a book. Or a poem. But I’ve never been pregnant! Still, it’s a period of gestation, and I think we all experience that. But as a woman, I never had the slightest desire to have a child. And there was a time when I was kind of ashamed about that because all my friends have children. I have friends who are writers, and the idea of motherhood is there in their work and their whole worldview. But we don’t all have to have babies! There are too many babies in the world, and there are too many books, so what’s the difference? Maybe an empty, uninformed life is my ideal.

Mallett: You write about hearing and listening to a voice as part of your process. I wonder, is this voice like Lorca’s duende or Berryman’s Henry? How do you think about that voice?

Ruefle: Well, I can’t speak for Lorca or Berryman and I don’t know how they heard that voice. I simply know they heard it. It is a voice with a capital-V, which is much larger and different—and sometimes much smaller—than your own voice. This voice, you must listen for it and to it. You have to pay attention. Create whatever space you need for yourself: maybe you need to be in a noisy café, maybe you need total quietude. But you’re listening for something. Too many young writers are burning to say how they feel, or what’s going on, or what their opinion is. That’s going to get in the way of hearing this Voice. Oh, take my advice and go throw it away! Your generation has to create its own paradigms, and I can’t go there with you. I don’t know how everlasting what I’m talking about is. I know it existed for millennia before I came along. But things are changing rapidly, and I can’t address the future. I won’t be there. Only you can. I know that a shift in medium changes everything—computers and personal technologies changed writing, are changing writing, and will continue to change writing.

I’m presently working with twelve undergraduates and I gave them this assignment: on a certain Saturday they had to unplug. No laptops, no iPhones, nothing. Twenty-four hours, and it was a class assignment. They were so excited about it because they had never done it. They came back the next week and not a single one was able to do it. Not even the three best students in the class. The longest someone lasted was four p.m. At least they were honest; I appreciated that. That spoke volumes to me, because six years ago when I gave that assignment, everyone could do it. No matter what they thought about it, they could do it. Now they can’t even do it. The reasons they couldn’t do it were insane: “I had to do this and the only way was…” and then I would point out a way to do it without using the computer and they were like, “Oh, that never occurred to me.” I don’t know if that Voice comes through that machine. I don’t know, tell me I’m wrong. Maybe it does. But I can’t go there for it…so I’m just speaking for myself, I guess.

Mallett: You write about “the lifelong sentence”—that from our first to last breath, all the words, pauses, and silences in between form “one long poem.” Embedded in this seems to me to be a dance between patience and urgency, speaking and listening…how do you move between these contrary urges?

Ruefle: That sentence is going to get made whether you think about it or not. The first words are the first words you speak and the last are your last words before you die. You can’t walk around thinking about that…that would be insane. It’s just going to happen.

Still, it’s important to slow down and pay attention. It’s important to observe. It’s important to take your earphones off sometimes.

It’s a long journey; be patient. It takes years and years and years to slowly open yourself wider and wider and wider. Be constantly aware of what vies for your attention. You have to decide what you’re going to pay attention to, instead of letting our culture decide for you. Our culture is very good at telling us what to pay attention to. Sometimes, you have to close yourself off so that you can continue to grow… I know, it’s a paradox, another mystery of mysteries. What else is there?