The following conversation appears in Music & Literature No. 4, which devotes some 90 pages to coverage of Mary Ruefle's entire published catalog to date and includes portfolios of new poems and erasures. The banner image is excerpted from one of these erasures and appears courtesy of the artist.
I recall a conversation we had about Van Morrison, whom we both adore. A mutual friend of ours had seen him in concert and remarked to you that Van played the whole show with his back to the audience, and said something like, "Now that is an artist who doesn't give a fuck about his audience!" Do you give a fuck about your audience? I know that we both admire the way Van's performances seem to be primarily for himself; how does something like that translate to your poetry? How conscious of "the Reader" are you and to what extent do you feel the need to just turn your back at times?
For the record, I have never seen Van Morrison perform live, I haven't been to a concert in forty years, for the simple reason I don't like crowds; being in a room with more than eight people is not high on my wish list. But I have always loved his music, for the simple reason that he uses refrain—repetition of a single word or phrase—to induce incantation. He seems, at such moments, to go into some kind of trance, and I think this has everything to do with the origins of poetry and a lot to do with the fact that many poets of my generation—Van's generation—love him. And of course he is also always referring to poets and shouting out insane but inspiring things like "Poetic Champions Unite!" And now to answer your question, no, I don't think I am very conscious of the audience, The Reader, though I also think it is only natural that after time, after some time, and then some more time, the idea of audience will creep into one's mind. Some poems we write for a few simpatico minds, others for one particular person, some for ourselves, many to the dead writers who have sustained us—we write these in homage and gratitude—and some to the gods, some to the clouds of course, and why not one to a cow? My point is, I don't know whom I write for and therefore it must be someone, but, as I was saying before, it can never be more than eight people because I don't like crowds. There is also the idea of "turning one's back to the audience" as a necessary gesture that will enable them to see what you want them to see, which is not yourself but some other much larger thing, which certain members of the audience might mistake for you, were you facing them. Hey! I write about this in one of my lectures, when I am musing over a famous photograph of Beckett, Giacometti, and a young admirer standing together in a room. Now, thinking of my audience, I have to admit that I don't really know if the photograph is famous or not…
At any rate, the whole idea of an audience is a paradox; when one is in a trance, one is both disengaged with the outside world, and supra-engaged with it. And, no, I am not always in a trance when I write, but I wish that it were so.
You love the writings of Agnes Martin. What about her writings moves you so deeply?
I'll be honest, I respond to the writings of Agnes Martin more than the paintings; I like the paintings—a lot—but I love the writings. I'm a writer, not a painter, so it should come as no surprise; I’m better equipped to engage with the writings. The reason I like her so much is that she is so outrageously insistent on, well, "turning one's back to the world." The title of the documentary film about her is in fact "With My Back To The World." And she is always reminding artists that nothing else really matters but inspiration, being in an inspired relation to being, so that the activity of making art, the act itself, is more important than anything else, it's more important than the artifact it produces, the thing that everyone sees or hears or reads, the thing they buy or sell, accept or reject. She reminds me of what matters, of what I would rather be doing than anything else. The everyday world has the power to engulf and overcome us, most days we are at the mercy of that, but once in a while, if we are lucky, we can disengage and so be supraengaged. I don't imagine I will ever be in her position—my writings don't sell for millions of dollars and I can't buy a ranch out west and close the door—that is not my given fate—but from time to time I know what she means, I've experienced it myself. We all have. I don't teach workshops on a regular basis, but when I do, especially with older students, I like to read from her writings because so often the classroom is half-focused on audience, peers, careers; this has become increasingly true as the years pass and the world changes. With younger students, I simply urge them to unplug completely—no computer, no iPhone—at least one day a month, working up to ideally one day a week. You'd be surprised—shocked really—how many of them have never considered this an option, and how many of them wind up loving it. It has never occurred to them that they have the power of choice. Look, I'm not asking that anyone who doesn’t want to turn their back on the world do so, I’m only pointing out to those who subconsciously want to that it is possible, that as human beings we have the right to choose what we pay attention to. Let’s face it, the world is always trying to get our attention, the media more than anything else, electronic media included. Advertising is the soul of capitalism. I'm not immune to it—what is an interview but self-advertisement?—but what I choose to pay attention to is nobody's business but my own.
And Agnes Martin is all about attention. The very word is a can of worms, because it has in it both the sense of reverent concentration and focus, as well as the militaristic "Attention!" the idea of responding to someone else‘s orders. One of the joys of aging is that eventually there are no more authority figures! None. It's very freeing. And on a much larger scale, a historical scale, we see that the long struggle for freedom by many peoples has been the struggle to escape an arbitrary, unjust, and oppressive authority. Suddenly I see how related all these questions are; if Van Morrison wants to turn his back on the audience, he should have that right; and if the audience doesn't like it, they should have the right to leave, or not attend his concerts. Besides, I am sure Van Morrison doesn't always turn his back on his audience, because, like the rest of us, he is a creature of moods and days. Now I am rethinking the audience question and I see something I didn't see before, that life is an affair of relativity and calls for endless ﬂexibility. For instance, when I was younger and I gave a reading, I just read whatever I felt like reading, but at some point I felt that was selﬁsh, and that taking into consideration other people was more important—there's nothing more important than that, though we learn it by making sad, sad mistakes—and so now, in giving a reading, I consider my audience. I wouldn't give the same reading in a bar that I would at a university, and if I'm reading to high school students I wouldn't read, for the most part, the same poems that I would read for an audience whose median age was sixty. And then, being a creature of mood and days, there would be times I couldn't care less and would read what I felt like to any audience. Does that make sense? That I haven't any answers? Agnes Martin is all about letting go of judgment and fear. She is about the life-long movement all artists make, which begins with looking for and ends with looking.
All of us—unless we are thoroughly enlightened—have days when we are looking for approval; these are the messy, unhappy days; then we have days when we are just looking, purely and simply looking, and these are the days of freedom, inspiration, and joy. The audience mad at Van for turning his back—they are looking for something, aren't they? Good luck!
I know that you are inspired by the visual arts. I'm curious: which visual artist, past or present, would you say seems to be trying to convey something similar to what you aim to articulate in your poetry? That's probably an impossible question to answer. Is there a visual artist, or a piece of visual art, that you recognize as perhaps the visual accompaniment to your poems? Or your concerns, as an artist, at least?
This is an impossible question to answer, though an intriguing one. And part of the problem is that many of the artists who most inspire me least resemble me; I mean you would never ﬁnd a trace of them in my work, my style, whatever. I will stick to visual artists here, but everything I tell of them could be told of writers, too. All in all, what I love best is to secretly discover an artist on my own, not to be introduced to him, or led to her, by another. I love it when that happens. It leaves an indelible mark in one's memory that is different than any other mark. When I was in high school, I skipped school one day and wandered by chance into a gallery of Magritte paintings, and when I came back outside I felt my life had changed. Now Magritte is not one of my favorite painters, he is no one I would cite as being important or inﬂuential to me, but that moment, and others like it, are enormously important to me. And I can remember all these moments, I can remember standing in front of a painting by Chaim Soutine and becoming obsessed in an instant—it's a lot like falling in love—and I can remember opening a book on a coffee table and seeing Simone Martini's work—not even in the original—and just falling apart. I remember standing at someone’s kitchen sink and seeing a tiny thing Jen Bervin had made framed on the wall and swooning. And that is exactly how I discovered Agnes Martin: I was sitting in a room looking at an art book with work by a great many artists and here was this painting by her and beneath it a paragraph of hers and I read the paragraph and time stopped. I called my friend Ralph into the room and read it out loud to him and we both just sat there with our mouths open. These encounters are the map of a life. And today it doesn't even have to be an artist, in fact it rarely is, today it's just a faded old scrap of paper with blotches and stains on it that falls out of a book, or it's a thoroughly ruined ﬂattened pencil I ﬁnd lying on the street, or a piece of polyester stuffing that I ﬁnd lying in the grass like a miniature cloud that has fallen to the earth without evaporating. I recognize these, all of these, as visual accompaniments to my poems.
If I recall correctly, you mentioned that your essays, collected in Madness, Rack, and Honey, were originally written as lectures that you have delivered over the years. How is the process of crafting a lecture, or an essay, different from the process of crafting a poem? And here I am concerned with the relative differences between writing prose and poetry, but also the differences between what kinds of information each medium is capable of transmitting. What do you want a reader to take away from your poems? Is this different from what you want a reader to take away from your essays? Or a listener from your lectures?
There's a huge difference in writing a lecture and writing a poem. And it has to do with audience! When I write a poem, I am engaged in a highly personal creative activity with no other purpose other than itself. When I am writing a lecture, it has a very deﬁnite purpose, that of engaging an audience. Public discourse! Fear! Self-perception of idiocy! Grueling amounts of work for very little pay! For all these reasons, I am terriﬁed about this book being in the world, yet when I publish poems, it's take-it-or-leave-it, folks. I know I should feel the same way about both—Agnes Martin would—but I don't. And yet, when I read your sub-question, "What do you want a reader to take away from your poems? Is this different from what you want a reader to take away from your essays?" I have a revelation of sorts: I realize that my answer to both questions is the same; in both cases I want the reader to sense an encounter with the world. Therefore, you have this very instant robbed me of my fear! Yet notice I unconsciously chose the word "robbed"—I didn't choose ”unburdened”—and this must mean my fear was in some way important to me! But sometimes when we are robbed we later see we have been unburdened—I never needed all that jewelry anyway! I'm much better off without it.
On a different note, the book actually only has one essay in it; the rest of the pieces were written as lectures, which were a professional responsibility. In other words, the book would not exist if it were not for the fact I had to deliver lectures from time to time over the years, and I never wrote or delivered them with the faintest idea they would one day be published. At one point, a press was interested in publishing them, but let it be known I would have to essayize them—turn lectures into essays—and I knew I would never be willing to do that—too much work! Wave was wonderfully committed to keeping them in their original format, though of course we had to make a great many changes anyway, because I so often play music or show a singular enlarged image when I lecture, and none of that can be carried over to the page. In that sense, reading them as opposed to hearing them is a different experience, but it is my hope something of the original comes across. I suppose it is a bit like translation. I don't know, but at this moment I feel all my fear being handed back to me!
You have said before that within each poem lies another, smaller poem. What do you mean by that? And what is the relationship between the two poems?
Well, plenty of people would say that within each poem lies a larger, longer, more ambitious poem! But that's not the way I look at things. Years of making erasures has led me to another view. One thing erasure work has taught me is that no matter how much you hone something down, you can't lose the essence of what was there in the ﬁrst place. A metaphor I might use to talk about this is the metaphor of a day; within each day are hours, smaller units of time, and every day has some special hour that seems to be a distillation of the day. One hour which can be viewed as representative of the day. The relationship between these two is that of the part to the whole, and in all things we have no way of ever really knowing the Whole, but we can know a part of it, and that part has to suffice. I am deﬁnitely now talking about the universe and individual lives within it, and also of the sense that every poem is just a part of something, call it a life, the poem is just one little stone, no one can see the conﬁguration all the stones make together, but on any given day, one stone will have to suffice. For the Whole. Oh, I am talking about fractals! I promised myself I wouldn't do that! But when you think of it, in terms of fractals, those who think that within each poem lies a larger, longer, more ambitious poem, are right—the part and the Whole in the end are the same. But I am one who is inclined to chip away. You know what I love? I love haiku. It is impossible to ﬁnd within them another, smaller poem. But in every novel there is a short story, and in every story a poem, and in every poem a haiku. And in every haiku there is a moment that stands for all of time.
But to answer your question directly, in a workshop when I say there is in a poem another, smaller poem, I am simply ﬁnding a pleasant, encouraging way to ask you to please make some more cuts!
When I ﬁrst saw you give a reading, you read "that letter" from James Wright's Selected Letters. (I am referring to the letter written to Susan Gardner on December 23, 1964.) Every other time I have seen you read, you insist on reading something someone else wrote. Why do you do that?
I like to read the writings of other people for several reasons. One is because they are so much better than my own! Another is because we simply do not have enough poetry readings of the great poems written by the great masters of the past, those who have died. Because of this, I once decided to give a "lecture" which consisted of nothing but me reading the poems of the dead for three-quarters of an hour. I read everything from Keats to Berryman to Desnos to Issa to Mew and back again. And it was a complete failure. My trusted friends and colleagues all agreed, we talked about it later—it was a failure. And we wondered why. Everyone had a different theory. To this day I don't know why. Someone said it was because there was no "arc" but I've never been much invested in arcs. I don't think that's why. I think it's because when we attend something called a lecture, we are looking for something, and of course poetry is just plain looking. And all these great poets, the only ones who can really teach us anything, I don’t think at that moment the students felt they were learning anything, and though that was my whole point—looking, not looking for—that was the lesson, the whole thing imploded in some terrible sad way, which broke my heart. It's really hard to give a lesson about unlearning, because it's such a contradiction in terms. It may well be impossible. On a brighter note, once I delivered, word by word, John Cage's famous "Lecture on Nothing" and it was a great success. Cage was able to do it in his own way, using his own words, and that is really something. Anyway, when I read all those great poems from the past, I only read about a quarter of the ones I had chosen—there wasn't enough time for them all—and I hope one day to read the rest, to just stand up and try again. And fail again. And keep failing. And keep having my heart broken. And this has everything to do with audience—finding the audience who is receptive to poetry rather than endless commentary on it. And yet I feel tenderness towards young people who are searching, who are seeking, who are looking for rather than looking, because I once was young myself, and doing just that, and I see now it is the beginning of the path that leads to looking.
On another note, lately I have taken to reading at readings a letter written by my great aunt in 1978, when she was 92 and senile. She wasn't a literary person in the least, she was just an ordinary woman, yet remarkable in her day—she was born in the nineteenth century—insofar as she never married and held a job her whole life and thereby earned enough money to send two of her nephews (one of them my father) to college when they otherwise could not have afforded it. To contribute to the education of two children who are not your own—that strikes me as something.
It's a quotidian, rambling letter about the weather and loneliness and stuff like that, but in it she repeatedly mentions writing—by which she means letter-writing, the only form of writing that ever occurred to her—as something essential to her life. I read this letter because I never sufficiently appreciated her while she was alive—I was too young and preoccupied—and because she clearly "got" something essential about writing, writing in any form, and because letter-writing is actually secretly perhaps my favorite form of writing, and it is near extinction. And because I want to give her an audience. This is a quote from her letter, "Seems to me I did just write to you folks but I will mail this anyway. I get a thrill just sitting writing a letter, so will just keep it up." Which is exactly why, once having written a poem, we sit and write another. Which is why audience is of no import.
You are absolutely right about the paradox of "the trance." It seems to be an artist's truth that in order to truly engage what is real in the world, we have to turn our backs on the world in some fundamental sense, whether that means shutting off the TV, disabling the internet, living in the woods, or trying to forget our mothers. This is actually an ancient principle found in all of the major world religions. A monk, for example, in joining a monastery is turning her back on the world so as to engage the world more purely. All artists, in some sense, practice this monasticism, but its form varies greatly from artist to artist. I’m curious to know, ﬁrst of all, what your "monasticism" looks like? How do you turn your back on the world? Are there certain aspects of living in America today that seem entirely irreconcilable to you with the life you want to live as an artist? And, accordingly, how does this lifestyle allow you to, in turn, engage the world in a more meaningful sense?
I'm not sure describing my "monasticism" would interest or beneﬁt anyone, as no two people proceed, or even backtrack, in exactly the same ways. Yet I can't address the second part of your question—about our culture and its impediments—without addressing, even brieﬂy, the ﬁrst part. I can tell you that one day a week I don't open the door to my apartment—I mean to leave—for any reason whatsoever, and that day is my favorite day of the week, It invariably leads to some creative act, though it doesn't have to be writing, it could be making something, some little three-dimensional project. "Unplugging" is not exactly a concern, since I only spend ﬁfteen minutes a week on a computer anyway, and those ﬁfteen minutes I approach like a chore, like taking the garbage out. Computers are one of the aspects of American culture that seem entirely irreconcilable to the life I want to live as an artist. I'm talking about personal computers, not computers used in hospitals or in mathematics departments. For many artists, technology has proven an enormous boon, and become a medium in its own right, enabling them to do things they want to do and could not otherwise do. I acknowledge that, but I retain the right to ﬁnd computers boring. I don't really see any difference between computers and network television, which is to say I feel the same way after looking at both—a physical sensation of wretchedness, the sickening sense that the country I live in has gone mad.
Friends are always trying to get me to change my mind by directing me to this or that website, or telling me to watch something on YouTube. But, on the rare occasion—and they are rare—when I see something that exhilarates me, my exhilaration comes from the fact I wish to see the thing in non-virtual reality, a term you don’t hear much but which will become common parlance in the future, I'm sure. Look, there are some terriﬁc television series out there—I rent them on DVDs and watch them that way—and their pleasures have to do with the addiction of narrative, for narrative is a drug, I mean what is the difference between watching The Wire and reading Dickens? I can't believe I just said that! I was thinking of the addiction of narrative, but in another sense I see that they both deal with social problems and the impact of those problems on children, not to mention the absurdities of complex legal systems that are a country unto themselves. And so you can see I am very much caught up in aspects of my own culture, often to frivolous degrees. I love Ice Cream Trucks and I want them to survive—I stop whatever I am doing and sit back and listen to their jingles whenever they go through my neighborhood, yet I know they are preying on lower-income families who can't afford to buy an over-priced popsicle for their children, but do so anyway to make the children happy. In one fantasy, I buy an Ice Cream Truck and support myself that way. I am not immune to the charms of hawkers. But corporations are Gigantic Hawkers. Have you recently walked into a store called Best Buy? I walked into one by accident (I thought it was a store of cheap stuff] and discovered they were selling nothing but technology—computers and their endless accoutrements, the Ace of consumerism. Technology equals Globalization equals Empire, isn't that the way the equation goes? Everyone on the same page at the same time is the progressive dream of many, but it is not mine.
My point is this: every little thing you give up gives you more time to waste as an artist; everyone needs to waste time, it's essential to Being, but most people let our culture at large waste their time; as an artist I want to waste my time in my own way, in the kinds of ways that, for me, lead to making something. Everything in our culture is supposed to save time, to give us more time, but nothing does, everything only robs us of time. Oh, Mary Webb, where are your snowdrops now? The ﬂower fairies are not happy about any of this: they need the imagination to survive. Not that long ago, if you were at a dinner party and someone wondered out loud what was the fastest animal on earth, an hour's worth of lively conversation would ensue. Nowadays someone invariably grabs their phone and looks up the answer and ends the conversation. As if knowing were more interesting than wondering! I would rather wonder than know. By the way, it's a cockroach.
I want to take this idea of every artist's monasticism being unique just a step further. W.S. Merwin seems to be a great example of an almost literal monasticism: living in a rainforest geographically remote from the continental United States, devoting much of his time to working the land, finding spiritual sustenance in that remote setting, etc. At the other end of the spectrum, however, is Frank O'Hara, a poet who famously wrote, "I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life."
Even though the relative geographies of these great poets could not be more different, don't we ﬁnd some extraordinary resemblances between their work? Are they not both primarily concerned with ATTENTION? And as different as their geographies may be, aren't the particular characteristics of those geographies central to much of their work? Which reminds me of the devastatingly beautiful remark you made about learning to replace "looking for" with simply "looking." Was there a particular moment in your life when you came to this realization? That it's really all about "looking"? And what is the poet's role in this? Is it her task to simply point, or is she also charged with the burden of creating a world toward which our attention can be turned?
Oh yes, yes, you are absolutely right! Many artists would wither and fall off the stalk if they were taken out of the hub or the loop—it’s their manna. But they are still terribly attentive people who notice things the passerby doesn't. Going back further than O'Hara, think of Whitman! Without his New York, without his Nation, without his War—inconceivable! But, again, it makes me think of the paradox of art: to ever-increase the circle of brotherly love, but by doing so to create the circle of exclusivity that is art. The inclusivity and exclusivity of art, that is a problem, by which I mean a pain and a joy. As for "turning one's back to the world," I am reminded of something Wallace Stevens said: "I refuse to believe that living in a bamboo grove gives someone clout" (or something to that effect), and it is so true, yet time and again we turn to the bamboo grove for clout—the disengaged, the meditative masters. Even in classical Chinese poetry you find both the urban dweller, the great poet who lived in the capitol, was a member of court, and wrote of human interactions, and the exiled recluse, wandering in the mist of the mountains, writing of stone and egrets. Insofar as poetry mirrors the world, it mirrors a big place with room for all. There is something for every sensibility and every stage of life, and why they should have to pit themselves against each other is curious, and painful, to me.
Yet at all times it seems to me that an artist is at a distance from life, and I'd like to quote a rather lengthy passage from an essay (on Rilke, as it happens) by Tzvetan Todorov, who has thought about these things and reached an uneasy conclusion:
One cannot know life and live it at the same time, yet both are desirable, for the isolated individual as well as for the rest of humanity. The ﬁrst steps on destiny's path can be taken indecisively, but the time comes when one must choose between greatness and happiness, between service to humanity and the individuals one cares about. And whatever the choice—and in general it does not depend on the subject's will—there is the tragic abandoning of an ingredient essential to life. Humanity would be just as mutilated whether it lacked superior creations of the spirit, or individuals capable of loving and caring about others. Everyone, in his or her life, however modest its scale, must repeat this gesture of self-mutilation… The gods and men cannot be served at the same time; yet one cannot stop trying. The sense of having lost one‘s life is not more reassuring than the sense one has wasted it… In one and the other case, one will only have exposed…"the irreparable crack."
I love the excerpt you shared from your great aunt’s letter. "I get a thrill sitting writing a letter, so will just keep it up." Of course, your great aunt was writing letters to people, and in that sense she was very much audience-aware. And yet, she seems to delight in a process that doesn't have much to do with the addressed party: she fell in love with writing, not merely writing to. Don't we ﬁnd in her letter the essential power of literature, fully and miraculously present in her quotidian remarks on the weather?
Yes—half a dozen times in her letter she makes mention of the joy of writing and that she'll "just keep it up"—as you say so well, she was invested in the writing more than the "writing to." Keep in mind she was 92, alone, lonely, and it was snowing. And never once in her letter does she ask about my parents [to whom she was writing) or how they were feeling… No, she was writing to the world "that never wrote to her."
When thinking of your great aunt, I can't help but think of Emily Dickinson. She, of course, drew the connection between her poems and "letters," and also wrote many actual [incredible] letters herself. This takes us back again to the question of audience: Dickinson, perhaps better than any other poet we have, embodies the whole notion of having one‘s back to the world so as to engage the world. And yet, when we read her poems, we can't help but feel, at times, that they were written to us. Formal considerations aside, what is the difference between a poem and a letter? Was Emily really writing to us, or do we only wish it so?
Well, when I first re-encountered the letter by my Aunt, I too thought of Emily Dickinson; the opening line of the letter is "I saw this pad on the table so decided to go visit you folks…" and that just leaves me speechless—it's not that she wanted to talk to my folks, but that she saw a blank page. I mean, they are one and the same thing!
A blank piece of paper as the desire for speech…
And yes, I do see in my Aunt's letter "the essential power of literature, fully and miraculously present" in her quotidian remarks on the weather. She doesn't write about the weather the way Dickens does in the opening of Bleak House, but the fact of weather is an ongoing simultaneous fact of existence, and so we recognize in her past weather report our own environment and life and our own feeling of being alive under the clouds. I have a box full of photographs I've taken of clouds! I am certain my Aunt would ﬁnd them weird and uninteresting, but I can’t help myself…whenever there's an interesting cloud formation, I run outside and shoot it. The clouds are written to us, as we are the only ones to receive them, we the living. And what are poems but weather reports? Is there a difference between a poem and a letter? A poem and a cloud? I used to think Yes, Yes, but now, as I age, I think that there is less and less of a difference (sorry)—it has to do with attention, I think, a little setting aside of time to pay attention to one particular thing, it could be a poem or a cloud or a letter, it could be a poem about a cloud written in the form of a letter.
As for whom Emily was writing to, I'd say she was NOT writing to us, and she WAS. She was not writing for posterity, to be read by particular individuals with an ATM number, but she was writing to All Cognizance, and to meet her in the Ether—that is the great thing, and I suppose here we have the difference between thinking about and thinking.
How is the distinction between "writing to" and "writing" similar to the distinction between "looking for" and "looking"?
The distinctions between "writing to" and "writing," between "looking for" and "looking," between "thinking about" and "thinking"—I would go so far as to say they are not only similar, they are the same.
Mary Ruefle was born in Pennsylvania in 1952. She is the author of fifteen books of poetry and prose, as well as seventy-two erasure books.
Bradley Harrison is a Michener fellow at University of Texas in Austin.