Ruth Lepson is poet-in-residence at the New England Conservatory of Music. She is the author of the poetry volumes I Went Looking for You (BlazeVOX, 2009), Morphology with photographer Rusty Crump (BlazeVOX, 2008), Dreaming in Color (Alice James Books, 1980), and editor of Poetry from Sojourner: A Feminist Anthology (University of Illinois Press, 2004). A forthcoming book, ask anyone (Pressed Wafer), will appear with musical settings.
Consulting Poetry Editor Danielle Georges interviewed Ruth Lepson for SolsticeLitMag in April 2015. Excerpts of this conversation appear below.
DLG: Ruth, your name came up several times when I began gathering work for this issue ofSolstice Magazine. Can you talk a bit about why you feel your work is seen as “experimental” by others?
RL: I would call it innovative as opposed to experimental because in a sense all poets are experimental. I’m interested in the poets who have been moving the language forward and thinking about language in our time. That means Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, especially Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, George Oppen and other Objectivist poets, and some of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. For me there is a strain of quintessentially American poetry other than Native American poetry that maybe starts with Whitman, and Dickinson, and then Stein, who was 100 years ahead of her time.
The first time I heard Robert Creeley read, that was it for me. He’s been the essential person to me. And you know that he’s influenced generations of innovative poets. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets say they couldn’t have existed without Creeley and especially his book Pieces. It still seems pretty revolutionary. I am always trying to approach that, and I hope I’ve done that more in my most recent book. I think of Creeley as being half way between lyrical and what you might call a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, and I think that’s where I am—trying to be honest through my own sensibility and still deal with the concerns that Creeley was dealing with because those are the ones that grab ahold of me in my life.
DLG: What are some of those concerns?
RL: What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be alive, knowing that we are going to die? What does it mean to live in the moment? What is communication? Creeley was obsessed with, and examining, the whole question of communication. What does it mean to try to convey something to somebody else? He was unsure whether you could teach anybody anything he or she didn’t already know. Well, how did that person come to know it? Through experience. There is another kind of knowing that comes from reflecting on that experience; and that’s part of what a poem is.
He gave his readers the great freedom to experience the poem the way they wanted to, and at the same time, there was a sense of commonality. He wanted to communicate what it is we all have in common. By gave I mean he wasn’t leading us, controlling us.
DLG: Ontology, philosophical inquiry, seems important to you, how we understand ourselves through language. Your work, instead of relying on common poetic device, such as metaphor for example, creates whole and strange new frames of reference.
RL: This is especially true in the earlier poems. I find it relatively easy to create figurative language, and yet that’s not what I’m drawn to, unless I’m reading someone like Baudelaire, who is really superb at it. Language is at one remove from what it’s embodying or enacting, and image is further removed, and metaphor is at one more remove from that. It seems to me that metaphor does not give a sense of immediacy unless it’s a superb metaphor in the way Emily Dickinson can come up with one, something that is more of a feeling state than it is metaphor somehow. Synecdoche and metonymy, if you’re going to use figurative language, are closer to the image itself.