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Interview with Mary Ruefle

The first contact I had with Mary Ruefle was through her website. Against a black landing page, five headings in yellow serif font float, suspended in HTML darkness. Clicking on the ‘contact’ link redirected me to a cruel joke: ‘Surprise! I do not actually own a computer. The only way to contact me is by contacting my press, Wave Books, or by running into someone I know personally on the street.’ This message hovered next to an image of an empty stone font resembling a bird bath, over whose basin had been taped the words ‘The Unknown’. Since Ruefle lives in Bennington, Vermont, a chance encounter seemed unlikely. Instead, I got in touch with her ‘people’. Doing so marked the beginning of a generous correspondence unfolding over several months, all via ‘snail mail’. A reflection of her devotion to the materiality of writing, Ruefle writes almost exclusively by hand, a habit which does nothing to inhibit her productivity. She has published eleven books of poetry, two volumes of prose and one comic, alongside a collection of lectures. She has also made some ninety-nine erasure books, a ritual to which she dedicates herself daily. I was reminded of this each time she returned the transcript of our interview, cross-hatched with red ink, and little white shadows of Tippex.

 

‘Wite-Out’ forms a kind of scar, evidence of one formulation of thought deleted at another’s expense; it is also a gesture of illumination, of ‘burying and bringing to light’. Ruefle’s writing pinpoints little snags in the fabric of the ordinary – a woman suddenly too fearful of the light inside her refrigerator to access a pitcher of water, or that ‘feeling of frightening abundance’ that descends when you realise there is altogether ‘too much shampoo and too much toothpaste, too much pollution, dirt, rocks and grass’ in this world. Rote gestures, like sweeping crumbs from the kitchen counter, gain dimensions of tenderness wilfully repressed in everyday life. As Ruefle confesses: ‘I like to turn ordinary actions into an encounter’. A preoccupation with dust, dishcloths and petroleum jelly is a political preoccupation, with the fibres that constitute a life. Rather than offering a self-conscious lesson in the personal-as-political, Ruefle reconstitutes the banal as a site of mystery and intrigue. This childlike inquisitiveness trails her work, irrespective of scale; it sticks as readily to blockbuster questions (about sex, death, even poetry itself!) as to small-fry.

 

In one letter, Ruefle asked if I’d seen Lady Bird, praising it as a ‘fine film’. When Lady Bird expresses tearful, morning-after disappointment that her first sexual experience wasn’t all she’d imagined, her irritating boyfriend, Kyle, is disdainful. Her pain, he assures her, ranks low on a hierarchy of suffering compared with that, say, of Iraqi civilians murdered by the US military. Lady Bird retorts sharply: ‘Different things can be sad.’ The line’s comedy relies on an adolescent brand of narcissism that risks being totally charmless. But it endears Lady Bird to us precisely because it conceals the gnarly fact that suffering is nuanced, that it can’t always be scaled-up to have global significance. The sufferings of the world can feel gargantuan; still, that doesn’t lessen the sting of that ‘orange sadness’ of ‘things left overnight in the oven and forgotten’. During our correspondence, Ruefle exhorted me to ‘think about the lost moments in [my] own life’. I hope this interview prompts readers to do the same.

Q

The White Review

— When did you first begin writing poetry? Can you remember the first poem you wrote?

A

Mary Ruefle

— I think I was around eight, I don’t remember exactly, but by the age of ten I was reading and writing poetry not only in school on assignment but out of school, alone at home in my room. To me, the more interesting question is this: at what age does a child have their first experience of making a metaphor? Mine, as I have narrated elsewhere, happened at eight, when I looked at cracked bare earth and thought of it as a map – every chunk of dry dirt looked like a separate country being charted, and I was stunned by this fact, for I knew I was looking at dirt, but I was seeing a map.

 

Q

The White Review

— First poem and first metaphor – that’s two very formative experiences in one year. You’ve said elsewhere (in a 2014 interview with Brooklyn Rail) that you often describe yourself as being ‘eight years old at heart’. Do you still experience the same sense of wonder when making metaphors? Do they still creep up on you in the same way they did at that age? (One metaphor of yours I particularly love is in ‘Müller and Me’, where ‘the cemetery looks made of books and the library is a graveyard’).

A

Mary Ruefle

— No, making metaphors doesn’t create a sense of wonder, what creates a sense of wonder is the human brain, in which metaphors arise spontaneously and unexpectedly (as they don’t ‘exist’ in nature); for me, it’s the brain behind the act that now astonishes me, the mysteriousness of our brains, and, of course, life itself in all its forms, plant, mineral, and animal. But yes, metaphors still ‘creep up’, there’s no other way, they are sudden things. As for the metaphor you mention: well, a library is a graveyard – most of the authors are dead – and a graveyard is a library, each person buried there has a story.

 

Q

The White Review

— You’ve mentioned that you had a military childhood, during which I imagine you moved around a lot, attending schools in Europe as well as in America. Was writing a constant for you during this time? Did this experience of travelling around, or being uprooted, shape your early writing?

 

A

Mary Ruefle

— Writing has been a constant for as long as I can remember. The experience of moving around simply means I have no roots the way others might, I only saw my grandparents and cousins every three or four years, that kind of thing, and I don’t write many poems that are centred on the family; I have friends who have very large, close-knit families and it always amazes me, I can’t imagine what that would be like, despite the fact that I have a formidable imagination.

 

Q

The White Review

— Is place an important aspect of your writing? Where do you tend to write?

 

A

Mary Ruefle

— Place isn’t important, I tend to write in my head, which I can carry with me wherever I go.

 

Q

The White Review

— You’ve been publishing poems for over thirty years, but your first collection of prose (The Most of It) was only published in 2008. Was there a particular catalyst for this shift from one form to another? Or were you always writing prose during this time?

 

A

Mary Ruefle

— I was always writing prose; all my early books of poems have a prose piece in them, and then one day I had a very good editor who suggested a particular piece of prose be edited out of a book of poems on the grounds it was prose. From that moment on I kept my prose in a separate folder. The prose pieces in The Most of It span thirty years, because I’d been saving them; the ones in My Private Property were all written after The Most of It, and so span eight years. For a long time I wasn’t writing prose except in an extremely intermittent way, and now it is a constant. Which might explain those numbers.

 

Q

The White Review

— How does the experience, or process, of writing one, differ from the other?

 

A

Mary Ruefle

— I am asked this question many times; the process is different insofar as my poems begin in my head with a loop of language that is already lineated (or feels that way) and the prose begins with an experience or subject I want to write about. I may not know how I feel about this subject or how I want to write about the experience, but the prose is pre-grounded in ways my poems aren’t. So they begin differently, but the actual experience of writing – the exhilaration, the suspension of time – is identical in both cases.

 

Q

The White Review

— When you say a ‘loop of language’, I am reminded of an earworm. In the introduction to Madness, Rack, and Honey, you describe poetry as ‘a wandering little drift of unidentified sound’ – to pin it down is like ‘following the sound of a thrush into the woods’ (the same line also appears in ‘Greetings My Dear Ghost’). Almost like some- thing that is overheard, a kind of eavesdropping.

 

A

Mary Ruefle

— Yes, the poems are more elusive, they are like earworms, wandering, unidentified things I try to follow with my ear, while the prose is more like a brainworm, a squiggling thought I try to stretch out and examine.

 

Q

The White Review

— How do you go about building your essays – the lectures collected in Madness, Rack, and Honey? Formally speaking, they don’t always feel entirely distinct from your prose or your poetry.

A

Mary Ruefle

— I pick a subject and I say everything I can think of to say about it – everything that interests me, that is. I don’t like writing lectures, talks, that kind of thing, and yet that’s what people want, they would rather listen to a talk than hear a reader. Why is that? What makes me sad makes other people happy. Magazines will solicit work from me and when I send a poem they will say ‘Oh, we were hoping for a talk’. This summer I was in a book- store and the number of shelves devoted to writing about poetry was greater than the number of shelves devoted to poems themselves. I stood there staring at these shelves, it was proof of something, and it dismayed me.

 

Q

The White Review

— I wanted to ask you something about craft, or perhaps more specifically about the material act of writing, and its relationship to technology. You don’t have a computer (a seeming impossibility in the modern world!), and you’ve said elsewhere that you still write by hand, or a combination of hand- and typewriting. How does this affect the process of your writing? (I find that my thoughts often move too quickly on a computer, that I type before I have actually completed a thought. Writing by hand feels somehow more laboured, or considered to me.)

 

A

Mary Ruefle

— I write by hand because that is how I began, and I love it. Moving the wrist, the marks the pencil or pen leave on the paper – like the trail of a snail – well, it is like drawing, no, it is drawing, and I am so enamoured of this activity that sometimes I write continuously without actually forming real words, I call it ‘fake handwriting’, and it’s just as much fun as actually ‘writing’. By fun I mean it’s just as much a mystery. This whole wrist-moving action is why I write in the first place. I don’t like tennis, or knitting, I like writing with my hands.

 

Q

The White Review

— I’m reminded of the Surrealists and the practice of automatism in drawing and writing. Is any of this ‘fake handwriting’ ever usable, does it make it into your work? Or is it just a reflexive exercise or a form of procrastination? I’m reminded also of ‘If All The World Were Paper’, where the speaker claims that they are ‘only pretending to write’ in much the same way the reader is ‘only pretending to read’, since both are imaginative acts.

 

A

Mary Ruefle

— None of the fake handwriting ever makes it into a piece of writing, but some of it looks nice framed and hung on the wall. No, it’s not procrastination, nor is it an exercise, it’s an activity. I don’t do it very often. But there are writers, like Renee Gladman, who have become artists (visual artists) through thinking of writing as drawing.

 

Q

The White Review

— How does writing by hand affect your relationship to deletion, or correction? Thanks to technology most writers can easily redact their work – does the absence of a delete key impact your own editorial process?

A

Mary Ruefle

— I don’t understand why someone would think writing by hand would make correction difficult – you just cross things out! And remember, pencils come equipped with erasers on their ends. I wonder if it has ever occurred to your generation that Middlemarch was written entirely by hand!

Q

The White Review

— You have also published one book of ‘erasure poems’, A Little White Shadow (2006), made by ‘disappearing’ text from a nineteenth-century novella using white-out. You’ve made forty-five (perhaps more now!) one-off erasure books, some of which have been displayed in galleries, or published in journals. In your essay ‘On Erasure’, you describe the process as like ‘writing with your eyes instead of your hands’. Can you tell me more about that? What do you like so much about the erasure form?
A

Mary Ruefle

— I’ve made ninety-nine erasure books! Making them is a daily practice, I work on one first thing in the morning. It’s meditative – the whiting-out process can be like painting a wall – but finding the text within the text can be invigorating, or alternately frustrating when I can’t find anything to work with. When that happens I’ll skip that page and return to it another day and see possibilities I didn’t see before, which happens with poems too, and other forms of art-making; when you return to something you see it with another pair of eyes.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a PhD candidate working between the English department at Sheffield University, and the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Leeds. She is Online Editor at The White Review.


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