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Ruth Danon

Ruth Danon is the author of WORD HAS IT (Nirala, 2018), LIMITLESS TINY BOAT (BlazeVOX, 2015), and much earlier TRIANGULATION FROM A KNOWN POINT (North Star Line, 1990.). Ruth Danon teaches privately in New York City and Beacon, NY, where she now lives. She curates the Spring Street Reading Series for Atlas Studios in Newburgh, NY. Her poems and prose have been published widely in the United States and abroad.

Blurbs

"Ruth Danon gives us one of her most darkly oracular works...The poems are acid, ingenious, and unsentimental."

– Andrew Levy

"Deep and skeptical, natural and magical, melancholic and beautiful, Danon's oracle makes a truly compelling statement--one to be heeded, one to be savored."

– Stephen Massimilla

"Ruth Danon's extraordinary poems take us directly into states of feeling and perception that are subtle and profound...These are necessary poems."

– Chase Twichell

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Word Has It

The Shock of the Election: Ruth Danon and Martin Ott in Conversation

10/22/19

Ruth Danon and Martin Ott engaged in a cross country conversation about their new books, which, quite coincidentally both took on the difficult period before during and after the 2016 election.

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Martin Ott: Ruth, I have now read Word Has It a couple of times and I marvel at the apparent simplicity of some of poems but the complexity of the layering in them and strands that weave throughout, along with the structure of the different sections of your book. Would you mind providing insights into your narrative strategy for Word Has It?

Ruth Danon: Thank you, Martin, for such a good question. I’m not sure that “strategy” is the word I would use. In my work almost everything is a discovery – that is to say I don’t plan in advance. Some of what happens is a consequence of the working method I’ve adopted in the last 5 years or so. I try to write a small piece every day. Sometimes I’ll write a whole series of little texts that connect. The “word” poems were like that. Sometimes a poem will lead me to something I want to pursue. That explains divination in the last section.

The narrative structure emerged after Yuyutsu Sharma, the Nepali poet, who scouts for Nirala, asked me for a book. I headed to my house in the country, with a pile of poems and no idea what to do with them. I sat on the enclosed porch with the printed-out poems, and tried to understand what I had. This was summer 2016 and we were in the anxious period before the election. Many poems had a kind of foreboding in them. Other poems had a focus on the domestic. Bird poems seemed connected to the foreboding poems. I began to feel that I had been tracking something, not fully aware of what I was doing. I made piles that suggested a narrative progression. Then came the shock of the election. I had been moving poems around and writing new ones, struggling with what they implied. I saw that I was tracking what it was like to live through events as they unfolded. The poems were pushing towards the violence that erupts in the two final pieces about the Pulse nightclub massacre.

RD: That leads me to my first question. In your book, Fake News Poems, you operate, it seems, from a similar need to bear witness to what has been happening during this terrible time in our history. I’m curious as to whether you determined your constraint ahead of time or whether you found yourself writing these poems based on headlines and then just kept at it. I’m also curious about your working method and the state of mind that governed the way you approached the problem of writing political poems without succumbing to polemic, one of the many aspects of this work that I admire.

MO: Fake News Poems was an idea I had in a time when I and many other writers were having difficulty finding their voices just before the inauguration of President Trump. The concept of 52 headlines, 52 weeks, 52 poems was something I had at the beginning but I was also hyper-aware that the book needed to cover a range of topics: social, cultural, scientific, and political in order to not be one note. I also integrated parts of my life and my own struggles even I tried to capture the temperature of our country. The book explores the subject of truth more broadly than Trump, and he pops in and out of poems like a mythical creature almost. The best political poetry is like the best poetry in that it explores topics and uncovers mysteries in the muck instead of trumpeting certainties. In these poems, I also learn a little bit about the world and myself.

MO: Both of us have been writing for a number of years with multiple books. What challenges do you face as a mid-career poet in a landscape that seems to reward and celebrate new poets and their work?

RD: I admire and envy the new voices coming along who garner so much attention. I also welcome the opportunity to reflect on my own long relationship to poetry. I cannot think of a time in my life when I did not write. But until recently it did not seem to me that it was a “career.” Writing was something I did. I couldn’t live happily without writing. But it wasn’t a “profession.” Teaching was my profession. I did it well and I loved the methods I created. Developing those method felt like creating a living poem.

In grad school a number of people had told me to take my writing “seriously.” That was hard for me. In so many ways I did everything wrong. My first book came out in 1990. Then no book for a long time. In 2000 I got very sick and when I emerged from 8 years of illness and complications I had a different attitude. I knew I had to take writing seriously. I finished what became Limitless Tiny Boat. Soon after I was asked by Nirala for a book. That’s how Word Has It came into being. So now what? The next book concerns me more than competition from the young. The writing is what’s important. The challenge is to figure out where to go next, how to write something that genuinely matters to me.

RD:I wanted to return to your previous answer and ask you what did you learn about yourself and the world by writing Fake News Poems?

MO: My previous three books of poetry were similarly constructed and I wanted to take a departure from the work I’d done before, to take a few risks and push myself outside of my comfort zone. After the 2016 election, I found it near-impossible to write poetry without the anger ebbing through my work and I decided to use Fake News Poems as a way to navigate through my emotions, to open myself to the possibilities of headlines, instead of seething for an entire year. My own personal life also came into focus as these dynamics leapt into these poems, almost unbidden.

Freed of my normal writing process, I also discovered that wordplay and humor that I readily deployed in my personal life was accessible in this book of poetry. One news headline, “It’s Time to Do Nothing About Guns” from The National Review, I decided to transform into a surreal homage to guns and gun culture, replacing our children with firearms. I also explored my love of reading and writing science fiction, imagining workers trapped in large vending machines of multinational corporations, the tragicomic impact of technology in our loves, and a robot president finding his place as an entertainer in a Disney theme park.

One thing I struggle with as a writer working outside of academia is community. I’ve tried hard to build long-distance relationships via social media and attending conferences such as AWP as a way to feel closer to writers I admire and their work.

MO: What has teaching done for you to connect you more closely with poetry?

RD: I’m taking the question in two ways. I think you’re asking how teaching and poetry intersect. You are also asking about the relationship between teaching and the world of poetry. In other words, has academia provided me with a writing community?

Teaching has taught me a lot about poetry. I first taught creative writing at a community college in Connecticut. My students were Vietnam Veterans and mothers on welfare. I gave them an assignment. They went home and did it and came back with the most awful cliché ridden productions. I was in despair. I was reading Kenneth Koch’s Wishes, Lies, and Dreams and I decided to have students write in class using the simple constraints Koch used with children. It worked! The students wrote wonderfully. I learned the usefulness of language and time as constraints. I’m now out of academia (a forced exit) and teaching completely on my own terms. I can focus on what interests me. Lately I’ve been thinking about lineation and its relationship to meaning. I recently re-discovered the brilliance of Robert Frost’s poetry. I hadn’t studied him since graduate school and never focused on the tricks he plays with line breaks and caesura. Teaching takes me outside of my usual paths of literary influence.

About community. Whatever community I have has come outside of academia, often through private teaching, informal writing groups, or social media. When my NYU job ended I had the good fortune of moving to Beacon, where community seems a bit easier to find. It’s easy to imagine that elsewhere writers are living rich lives involving endless gatherings of like-minded people drinking sherry at academic gatherings. Maybe there are happy writers living perfect lives. My academic life wasn’t like that. Life outside of academia is far richer than life inside.

A conversation like this makes me want to invite you to dinner right away. How about a little cross-country vacation?

Now, seriously, one last question.

RD: One aspect of your work that I admire (you allude to it in your last response) is how much of the world you bring you bring into your poems.. In your work you refer to your military experience. I wonder how the military prepared you (or not) for poetry. I expect you were quite young when you entered the military. Did you have ideas about writing or being a writer before then or was it something that came later?

MO: Thanks for allowing me to reminisce about my time in the Army. My experiences in the military were not common, I think. I was a linguist and interrogator. My friends in military intelligence discussed books and music, and one, Peter, provided me a reading list, like an instructor, when he saw the gaps in my education from growing up in a small town in Michigan. These books I devoured during these transformative years changed my life for the better, and opened up many doors and windows to a larger world.

When my active duty ended, I weighed several options in the intelligence community, and decided, ultimately, to attend the University of Michigan, where I got a BA in English and took my first creative writing classes. I’ve been blessed to make my living writing, as a copywriter and marketing communications professional, along with a colorful second career writing projects for film and TV, publishing novels and a short story collection, and always poetry, the medium I return to time and time again.

Ruth, I adore road trips and I may end up on your doorstep one night for dinner. Please look me up if you are ever in Los Angeles. It’s been a pleasure to get to know you and your writing better.

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