Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Mary Ruefle: Recognising the Knock

World Wide Poetry Studio with Ryan Van Winkle
Picture of Mary Ruefle

Mary Ruefle – Recognising the Knock
Poetry in Conversation with Ryan Van Winkle

Mary Ruefle is the recipient of numerous honors for her poetry and prose, including an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Whiting Award and the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. She has published ten books of poetry, a book of prose, and a comic book. She is also an erasure artist, whose treatments of nineteenth century texts have been exhibited in museums and galleries, and published in A Little White Shadow (Wave Books, 2006). She lives in Bennington, Vermont, and teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College and is the author of the forthcoming book Trances of the Blast (Wave Books, 2013), Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (Wave Books, 2012).

I met Mary Ruefle in her home in Vermont. Over cigarettes and coffee and among a plethora of brilliant ephemera (a tiny deck of playing cards, vintage Christmas decorations) we had an amazing conversation about her life and her body of work as a poet and an artist. One thing which remained with me long after our interview, was Mary's dedication to play. In her own words:

MR: I love to play. I’m a child at heart. I don’t like doing things that aren’t fun. There are people who forget that writing is a joyful activity, and no one in their right mind would engage in it if it wasn’t joyful. And if something’s joyful, you’re going to use your imagination and you’re going to play. I’m quite sure that Shakespeare had a blast writing his plays. Why else would he have continued to do it if it did not give him pleasure?

RVW: So you’re not one of these poets who pulls out their hair and says, “I’m working on this new thing; I’ve got all these poems to write for this book.”

MR: Oh, I do that all the time! But then I say to myself isn’t this fun? I’m miserably depressed and pulling my hair out because I’m torn between purple rushes and purple thrushes and I can’t decide which to use. That is nuts! If you told somebody else that someone is inside pulling their hair out over such a decision they’d say ‘tell them to get a life. They’re fooling around.’ What’s fooling around? Playing. It’s agony, but it’s agony and play. There are two sides to it. If you go too far in one direction, pull back. Sometimes I go too far in the play direction and I say stop: the planet is dying, people are suffering.

RVW: When did you realise it was a joy to be writing?

MR: I’ve been writing since I was 7, I mean I’ve been writing poems since I was 7; poems I didn’t have to write for school. Some people only like to write poems if the teacher makes them write poems. Actually, only in middle age did I wake up to the fact that life is so short, I no longer care at all. First of all you reach an age where there are no authority figures in your life, and that changes everything – younger listeners you have something to look forward to, and older listeners, you know just what I mean. At some point I realised that my life was my work, that nothing else mattered, I didn’t want a partner, I didn’t want a job, I didn’t want a dog, I love all those things, but this is what I do, what I was put on earth to do. From time to time I have to leave the hovel and go earn a dollar.

RVW: Was there a moment when you accepted that this is the thing that is important to me? It must have been a very difficult transition.

MR: It was only in my mid-fifties, it was a long time coming, but I made a conscious decision, and it was the right thing to do.

RVW: Because you have to throw a lot away, to do that.

MR: Oh yeah. I very much believe in the muse, and I don’t write poems unless they’re knocking on the door. Erasures I do, I knock at their door. Poems knock at my door. And I write prose as well. Whatever’s knocking at the door, you know? I recognise the knock.

For the complete interview you can listen to the original podcast below: Scottish Poetry Library Podcast: Conversation with Mary Ruefle

Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, performer, and critic living in Edinburgh. His first collection, Tomorrow, We Will Live Here, was published by Salt in 2010 and his poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, AGNI, Poetry New Zealand and elsewhere. He was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship in 2012. These interviews are from his Scottish Poetry Library podcasts produced and edited by Colin Fraser. This team also produces the arts podcast The Multi-Coloured Culture Laser.