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 of Solstice 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.
I’m interested in what it means to sit here with you right now, and look at the plant behind you, and look at your large window, and look at the sky and the brick building, and the light in here and so on. And what is this experience? And how can one convey it without describing it in minute detail? And what does it mean? Creeley was interested in the experience of the moment. That’s what led him to write. Not the past. What can we know in the moment? That’s why I’m interested in the Black Mountain Poets. The form of the poem is shaped by a particular moment and situation—and that I think is innovative and revolutionary. Here’s a great note at the end of Charles Altieri’s amazingly perceptive piece, ‘What Does Echoes Echo?’ in Form, Power, and Person in Robert Creeley’s Life and Work, edited by Stephen Fredman and Steve McCaffrey:
“‘Maurice Merleau-Ponty once argued that Cezanne differed from his fellow painters because rather than painting what the eye sees he wanted to capture the feelings associated with a sense of ‘the visibility of the visible.’ Think for example of his interest in framing the view of Mont Saint-Victoire between pine branches that seem strangely like eyes, and then his playing with the relation between seeing over distance and feeling the surface point of vision as the active source of all the visual relations. Analogously, one can speak of Creeley’s poetry as obsessed with ‘the desirability of the desirable.’ His poetry does not simply track subjective energies as they engage particular situations. Rather it tracks itself attending to those energies as they work ‘toward a perception that is [the] mind’s peace.’ See also: ‘Again and again I find myself saved, in words—helped, allowed, returned to possibility and hope. In the dilemma of some literal context a way is found in the words which may speak of it.’’
So it’s much more than perception, it’s perception of the perception, it’s the vitality behind the seeing, it’s the search for the words that convey the relation of inner to outer. It’s the existential questions temporarily answered in that place, at that time.
The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets come after that and call into question every aspect of language and thinking, and break down all kinds of hierarchies. They free me from the constraints of my own mind so that I can think differently. But I don’t write that way. And now we’re into post-post L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E –poetry, where you can go back to sonnets and villanelles and forms and puns and all kinds of things and incorporate them, but in a kind of post-postmodern way. That’s not really what I can do, I’m back with Creeley.
DLG: Yet you have a book entitled Morphology.
RL: That’s true. Morphology came out of synesthetic moments in dreams. All of those poems came from actual dreams. They are not descriptions of whole dreams, they’re little pieces of dreams in which something is morphing into something else. It could be something sensual turns into language, or something goes from one sense to another, so that I’m seeing something then suddenly I taste it, or I hear something, and suddenly I touch it. My mind seems to work that way especially in dreams. I think that everybody is synesthetic in dreams to some degree.
DLG: It seems you are trying to make your language match the logic of dreams.
RL: I’ve just been reading Bernadette Mayer, and she talks about that. She has a wonderful way of giving the immediacy of her own day-to-day life, as a mother, raising children, living in the country, and at the same time having her dreams enter in. They are just as real somehow. The dreams weave in and out of the day.
DLG: Do you think that within the larger American poetic tradition there is less a consideration of dreams as may exist in other cultures or traditions?
RL: It’s a very interesting question.
DLG: I think of certain African traditions, of Surrealism in Europe in the 1920s, of Magical and Marvelous Realisms in the Caribbean and Latin America and elsewhere as of the 1950s—though of course, some of these movements were movements of a certain time, yet . . .
RL: You could write a book on that, couldn’t you? Maybe you’ll write a book on that.
RL: . . . But you’re also addressing something that isn’t in this immediate material world that might go into dreams. We’ve gotten away from that. One thing I’m increasingly interested in is what we can write about that is larger than the self.
Charles Altieri writes on Creeley and on how at different stages of his life he comes to term with different semi-answers to some of the questions that he has. He has an infinite desire to communicate. And I do too . . . John Ashbery said in an interview in the New Yorker something like this, that his poetry was an example of a mind as it translated what it was experiencing into poetry. Creeley is more interested in the really stripped-down simple things that we have in common.
DLG: Creeley, and Ashbery, and you often begin with the sense of the autonomous “I.”
RL: In the beginning I was writing more for psychological reasons. That’s much more the “I.”
Creeley is often including us on the trip he’s taking.
DLG: You do that as well.
* * *
DLG: I’m really intrigued by the poems in Morphology, with the physical space between the words.
RL: For that you can thank Christina Strong, who is a wild poet in New York who actually did the layout of the book.
DLG: So they didn’t begin like this?
DLG: But you agreed to their altered appearance. Why?
RL: Because she has a good feel for the ways in which the page as a field can create a semblance and separations that make sense given the images and the sounds of the poems. I took about 80 photographs in the book. Rusty Crump, who is a photographer, wanted to collaborate and took some of the other photographs. We tried to put them on facing pages such that the poems and photographs had some relationship to each other. In the case of my own photographs, I wanted to show the relationship between the waking life and the dream life. You can’t take a picture of a dream, but you can take a picture when you’re awake, and you can put it together with some feeling state in a dream, and see what happens.
DLG: Yes. In some ways, Morphology is not disconnected from a much earlier text of yours, Dreaming in Color.
DLG: Your book I Went Looking for You pays a lot of attention to sound. Poetry itself becomes the thing against which to compare other things. There’s real awareness of. . .
RL: … the word as a thing, the vowels and consonants as things: things that sound, and things that you can look at on the page, things that move around. To me sound—by sound I mean form as well as the affect that various sounds in combination and various rhythms can convey—is the thing that is most essential in poetry. There are a lot of people who are not interested in such a thing any more. I started writing poetry when I was in high school and our teacher read Prufrock and Gerard Manley Hopkins and I said: “I didn’t know you could say things like that.”
DLG: I’m also a Manley Hopkins fan.
RL: And you know he had a big influence on Denise Levertov when she was developing her idea of organic verse because of his idea of sprung rhythm. She was a British poet who became a Black Mountain poet. She brought that lyricism with her and turned it into something American after knowing Williams. Adrienne Rich was very important to me in the 60’s when I was forming my sense of contemporary poetry. It was Adrienne and Denise Levertov and Creeley. Sometimes people miss Adrienne Rich’s extraordinary sense of sound. Her form is incredible. She’s as large-hearted and all-encompassing as Whitman, and maybe even more so because she understands things that he didn’t think about as much: feminist issues, issues of class and race, and perhaps disability, though Whitman did work in the hospitals.
DLG: You bring up Adrienne Rich’s feminism, and in the preface of Poetry from Sojourner, note that radical experiments with language are feminist by nature. Could you elaborate upon this?
RL: I think that if you are busy breaking down language, and liberating us from its constraints, that’s inherently feminist, because language is patriarchal. Some of the poets like Leslie Scalapino, Lyn Hejinian, Rosmarie Waldrop, who are L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets, they’re investigators. Gertrude Stein certainly too. In fact, she wrote a piece called “Patriarchal Poetry.” She was, in part, making fun of the way in which the language was constructed. They don’t take anything for granted: memory, the self, subjectivity, feeling states, language structures.
DLG: I also think of African-American and Black and post-colonial poets (some of whom are, of course, feminists) for whom radical experiments with language are important concerns. I Just ordered a copy Anthony Reed’s Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing, which was just published, and am reading Evie Shockley’s Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry, published in 2011.
RL: Yes, I think of the anthology Black Nature, and of Harryette Mullen, Evie, Claudia Rankine, C.S. Giscombe, and as I mentioned, Nathaniel Mackey—reading Splay Anthem this year has been enlightening—Ed Roberson, Fred Moten, and such foremothers and forefathers as Audre Lorde and Langston Hughes in their revolutionary and lyrical ways. Goodbye to inimitable Amiri Baraka, who died last year. By the way, Invisible Man is one of my favorite novels and is innovative in its own groundbreaking ways and unfortunately still feels contemporary.
I teach at the New England Conservatory, and this year I’ve had a chance to sit in on some graduate music courses. This fall on Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, and this spring a Coltrane class. Since my friend Claudia played Kulu Sé Mama for me in college I’ve loved Coltrane. I’m going to have Bach and Coltrane played at my funeral.
DLG: You know there’s an annual John Coltrane memorial concert held at Northeastern University each year.
RL: I haven’t been, but I’ve been surrounded by people who play Coltrane. I have increasingly great respect for jazz musicians, by the way. Studying chord changes for 7 years or whatever it takes before they can seriously improvise requires enormous discipline. I think they’re brilliant, and especially some of the ones from Coltrane on, really. Coltrane talks about how he’s writing, later in life, a music devoted to god. He investigated world music, and wanted to go around the world and play with the masters who were playing spiritual music . . . His late albums, A Love Supreme and Meditations and the wild one Om—the first syllable, he calls it—and others are a new kind of music. He wanted a music that would heal a sick friend, make a poor friend come into money! Yusef Lateef is quoted in Lewis Porter’s biography of Coltrane as saying Coltrane wanted to open up a club where kids could come and listen.
His last music, which to me is the most beautiful music imaginable, was criticized heavily because he gave up even the basic pulse and rhythm at the end and starting blowing over that. Some critics said it was just chaos and so on, but it isn’t. It’s really scientific and also spiritual. He was trying to play ‘beyond notes,’ in free rhythm, with changing key centers. He let the others in his band play in whatever keys they wanted.
DLG: This leads me to the questions of how poets and other artists push their forms to a place where their work can get to precipices—or can be perceived as falling into meaninglessness, into babble, into what is incomprehensible to most listeners or readers.
RL: You see that’s really interesting that you should say incomprehensible to most because recent jazz has been criticized for being too intellectual, too abstract, even too male, but to me it doesn’t feel that way. It feels so visceral and so transformational that I don’t understand why people wouldn’t take to it immediately.
DLG: That’s because you understand it.
RL: But I couldn’t until I took this class. Now I understand how Coltrane was taking some of what Schoenberg was doing, and blues and Indian music, and Bach, and toward the end, African music, and putting them together in new ways. Somebody who’s got a sense of sound can listen to a sound poet like Anne Tardos, and understand the connection between the sound and the feeling states she’s creating. It’s not just babble. But, also, the way people are taught poetry, often, is unfortunate. They are taught to analyze poetry. Gertrude Stein said that writing poetry, for her, was recreational entertainment. She said that if you enjoy the poem, you understand it. Of course, my students, they’re musicians, they get it right away. It’s an art form, not a puzzle to be solved, duh.
DLG: Grab onto it. I did with your poem “Box”—which I find delightful, with its initial burst of the word, followed by a rush and swoosh of music. I’m not accustomed to hearing poems like this. With “Driving,” you give us the feeling of motion through the city.
RL: I’m so glad you like it because that’s really what I’m trying to get at. As I’m getting older, I’m getting simpler. I can’t do as many things as I used to do simultaneously, and yet I am more capable of improvising because I’ve been writing for such a long time. I am not layering in a conscious way. I’m much more stripped down, and the organic form, the poetry of field seems to arise more naturally as a result. And what the musicians did in their setting is so exciting and accomplished.
DLG: What about play in your work? There’s a poem of yours entitled “Fish in E Flat.”
RL: That’s my synesthetic mind going, and I was going into a pet shop and looking at all these fishes. I was also looking to incorporate ideas about climate change and explore eco-poetry. I think about climate change and animal rights every day. Feminism is not unrelated to these concerns, how we are treating mother earth . . .
One thing I like about Ed Roberson’s poetry is that he does not personify nature so much as he makes human beings a part of nature so that there’s no differentiation. He’s lived in nature so much more than I have. He has a way to incorporate these things with authority, and I’m still trying to figure out how to incorporate my feelings about our torture of animals in factory farming and about climate change in my poetry without forcing them, without having ideas in advance of the writing. Maybe there’s no ‘figuring out.’ Just reading Brenda IIjima, Jonathan Skinner, other eco-poets.
DLG: The artist Ai Weiwei says that every aesthetic choice is a moral choice.
RL: I remember when I was younger arguing with my mother. She used to say all great art is fundamentally moral, and I’d say not so because I was rebellious. I’d say there’s Artaud, and Flaubert, there are all kinds of work that are not transcendent that are great writing also. Someone just told me that another writer said that all great writing creates a world view. Maybe that’s it.
DLG: But transcendent and moral are different things, no?
RL: That’s right. So Creeley in a certain way to me is fundamentally moral because he is continuing to investigate and he never comes to any conclusions really. He is not going to just agree to some sort of system to comfort himself. He is incapable of doing that. That I admire enormously.
The idea that one might write about something larger than oneself has been compelling to me in recent years. I don’t believe in a god, but I do have some sense of whatever physics is talking about, about energy fields and how we’re all made up of the same thing. What the implications of that are, I don’t know. I feel them differently from day to day, but they don’t answer questions of suffering in the world. In a sense every little thing about us is a question of morality, every choice is a moral choice . . . Word choice is moral choice.
I think poetry in this time is a way of getting under the radar of capitalism and that’s why it’s important. So people say I never read poetry and nobody is reading poetry except the poets, although more people are writing it than ever before. It’s so vital now, but when you point that out to them, that we might be caught in certain ways of being—and that poetry represents a chance to go below that, to have some peace, or some sparkles, or some redefinition, they begin to appreciate it more, don’t you think?
DLG: Yes, I agree.
RL: It’s worthless, it’s not a commodity.
Kenny Goldsmith wrote a book called Uncreative Writing, and he teaches that subject at the University of Pennsylvania, flunking students who write anything original. His idea being that there is already enough written and we’re flooded with information, and you should appropriate something and put it in a different context, and that allows people to see it differently.
DLG: What do you think about that? About conceptual poetry? About flarf?
RL: I’m of two minds. I went to a conference a number of years ago at Columbia, on what’s next in poetry. There were ecopoets, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and radical feminist poets, and transgender poets, and people doing all kinds of things that were connected to their own moral choices. And then there were the conceptual poets who were undermining all of that, and saying this is just pointless, and if you think you can write a lyric poem, you’re out of your mind; and if you think that you have a self that can convey anything . . . The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets already said that to some degree, but the conceptual poets took it much further, and some of the other poets in the room were infuriated, and still are, by the conceptual poets. I’m of two minds with this sort of thing. If the conceptual poets were in one corner, and the eco-poets in another, I’d stand with the eco-poets . . . because I do feel there is something undermining about conceptual poetry, and at the same time I feel that we have to take the theories seriously and think about it . . . Warhol, was he undermining capitalism or was he relishing it? I think he was relishing it, but in some ways he was such a genius he was revolutionary, conceiving of and noticing all of these ways of constructing and participating in them. There’s a chapter in his autobiography which is a transcription of a friend on the phone describing cleaning her house while she’s doing it, a memorable piece of writing. You realize you don’t know what the people in your life are doing and you want to call them to find out.
Recently Goldsmith got the autopsy report for Michael Brown [killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO, in August 2014]. There was a conference at Brown, and his presentation was to read the autopsy report. He changed it a little too, which seems to me contradictory, but never mind. People were upset. They wanted to know what he was doing with the report. He was defended his reading with the idea that he was appropriating the report, so others could see it. People got so angry that Goldsmith actually ended up backtracking and offering to give any money he made from doing that to the family Brown family. If someone is really angry and feels victimized by something, we should really listen, because we can’t know what that person’s experience is.
DLG: Yes. Brown’s personhood wasn’t protected by the state, and it seems that the reading of the autopsy report, while maybe intended to shed light on Brown’s death, was another form of lack of protection of his humanity.
* * *
DLG: Why is poetry a primary form of expression for you?
I was going to be musician, a composer, but the poetry took over. I had the psychological need to say certain things. I still have a need to communicate. I don’t have the need to say those psychological things anymore. But I just have a huge desire to connect and in ways that we don’t usually in the more superficial climate in which we find ourselves. Sound and visual image are important to me; I live by hearing and looking.
The way that Creeley uses simple words fascinates me. The way that he repeats those words and uses them with different rhythmic effect and different contexts. He talks about trees, skies, houses, things that we all see . . . It’s more about the words themselves that can stretch and shrink and make us feel . . .
DLG: There’s a great deal of nature referenced in your work.
RL: I’ve been really reactive to [the environment] since I can remember. I like simplicity, and though nature is anything but simple, its brings us back to bodily simplicity and simple connections in ways nothing else can, I suppose . . . I’m a city girl but I have written hundreds of poems about the way the lights change on the Charles River. Nature is what changes in our cities.
DLG: Where is new poetry going to come from?
RL: The idea of serial poetry continues. Pound was writing an epic, so was Williams. They were trying to bring back the energy of the Greek oral tradition into a poetry they thought had gotten kind of flaccid. Then Jack Spicer, who was here but mainly on the West Coast. He was writing a serial poem, not an epic, but one that reflects our modern sensibility. You write one section of a poem, then you write another section of a poem and you don’t go back and revise the first one, you just leave it, so that you’re breaking down traditional notions of time. He described it as turning time sideways so that there are these layers of time and they’re all sitting on top of each other, like a kind of archeology. It’s not really a narrative any longer. That’s really taken hold in a lot of contemporary poetry. Nathanial Mackey does that. It really interests me how he doesn’t reject the Western world, but he incorporates the Dogon of West Africa and other traditions and creates this sort of tribe that’s wandering. He and Ed Roberson have passages that have the same greatness of sound that Creeley has, I think. As Creeley said: ‘Form is never more than an extension of content and content is never more than an extension of sound.’
Where new poetry is going to come from? Who knows? I have an old friend who probably knows more about poetry than anybody I know, and he said some years ago that he thinks that poetry in the West is essentially finished. He said some years ago in an interview that he thinks the interesting new literature is going to come out of Asia and Africa and Latin America—and not anymore from Western culture, that our tradition has reached its limit. I don’t know if he’s right, but obviously people like Nathaniel Mackey are incorporating some of those traditions and maybe revitalizing things, and there are these movements of transgender poetry and poetry of disability. I know Trace Peterson, who just edited the first anthology of transgender poetry Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics and that is calling into question gender itself, which calls other kinds of things into question, including language. Jennifer Bartlett just edited an anthology of poetry of disability, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, redefining what it means to be disabled.
How transformational new media is going to be, is anyone’s guess. Is use of it just another technique? Is it going to change the nature of poetry? I don’t know. . . I’m still holding onto sound as the essential aspect of poetry. Yeats wrote by babbling nonsense syllables, then they turned into syllables of words, and his kids knew it was time to leave Daddy alone to write. Amazingly, he was tone deaf.
Well. . . deep thoughts, huh?
DLG: Yes. Very deep thoughts. Thank you so much Ruth.