An interview with Ruth Danon

Interview by Leslie Friedman

Leslie Friedman: When did you know you were a poet?

Ruth Danon: I had a bit of a laugh when I read the question because I’m not sure I know that even now. At least that’s how I feel some of the time. I did start writing poems when I was very young, but I didn’t think of it as something I could “be.” That took a long time and a lot of people telling me to take it seriously.

LF: What did you read or hear that made you think “I want to write poetry?”

RD: I remember that my grandfather, a man I rarely saw because he lived in Brazil, read to me from Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats. I think I was charmed by my grandfather and by the poems. I had just started writing poems and he expressed approval and since I craved approval I wanted to write more poems.

LF: Did your family read poetry or other kinds of literature?

RD: I came from a family of scientists but they were all readers. My mother was a great reader of poetry. She was also adept at languages and so she memorized huge swaths of poetry in a number of languages. As a young women, she was close friends with the great Hungarian poet, Joszef Attila (I think she was in love with him, actually) and so poetry was around as part of the oxygen of my home.

LF: Did your family encourage you to write or specifically to write poetry?

RD: Not really. My mother wanted me to be a doctor. My father, who didn’t live with us, said to me, once I began studying literature and writing poetry, “everything you are doing with your life is pointless.” So no, not much familial encouragement. I got that from peers after I started college and then again in graduate school.

LF: Was there a teacher who encouraged you or a teacher who brought poetry to you or to your whole class whose presentation of poetry excited you?

RD: I don’t think so. In college I was more excited by classes I took in cosmology and music theory. My major was literature and languages and I focused on 19th century novels. I think I got excited about poetry in graduate school, but I’m not entirely sure how it came about. 

LF: Do you have a favorite poet from long ago or do you have one now? Was there any writer whom you admired a lot whose writing led you to write?

RD: The first poet I found myself drawn to was T.S. Eliot. When I was 16 my mother gave me, in the box of books she gave me every Christmas and birthday, the collected poems of Eliot. When I read The Waste Land I was blown away. I didn’t understand a word of it, but I felt it in my body. I loved that language could make me feel things I couldn’t articulate. I had a kind of total experience and that led me to love poetry. So, my love of Eliot has persisted. But different poets come into my life at different times and turn out to be the ones I need at that particular moment. So when I first read Michael Palmer or Ann Lauterbach I loved and needed what those poets and their poems gave me. Lately I’ve been interested, like so many, in Diane Seuss. And as much as anything I get interested in specific poems. Sean Singer, whose last book I loved, published in his Substack, an amazing poem by Lisel Mueller. I get haunted by poems. I love so many of them. Ask me tomorrow and I might have a different list.

LF: Your poems may be written the way that an educated person who reads but does not write poetry possibly thinks a poem should work. 

RD: When I write a poem I want there to be a relationship between the form and the content. A famous interchange between Robert Creeley and Charles Olson has one saying that “form is an extension of content” and the other saying “and vice versa.” Some material wants to be lineated, some wants to be prose. Some material wants long lines and some not. I try to let the language lead me to the form. In putting the Turn Up The Heat together I very much wanted the reader to be surprised when turning the page. It was important to me that the poems not all look alike or sound alike.

LF: It seems to me that you get right to it without fitting into a particular school or style. Or is it my problem because I am not in tune with some styles?

RD: Leslie, thank you for this question. I think you’ve made an astute observation. Yes, I do like to get right to it – I write in a plain style, but my hope is that in that plainness a complexity of perception is exposed. The matters the poems take up are serious and complex, but I want the poems to be accessible to the reader. I never got an MFA so my notions of poetry are very much outside of any school or movement. As I said in my previous response I care about the reciprocity between form and content. I don’t care about the conventions – I care about poems and about the readers who are reading them. I want the reader to be happy.

LF: Among other characteristics, I like the way one of your poems may start relating with a subject, like the Hungarian language in Domesticated, and then present a subject that is on something else, and then show how they are both connected to domestic realities. Do these surprises sort of pop into your head or hand as you write or did you have the multiple subjects and their relationships in your mind at the ready. They are just waiting for you to put it together. 

RD: I never know where a poem is going to go before a start. I want and need surprise. I can quote Frost – “no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader, no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I do rely on a constellation of concerns but I never know ahead of time how those concerns will manifest in the poem. The pleasure and the terror are in the not knowing,

LF: That happens in Dear Someone in both the very broad concept of Guns or Butter and the more narrow and immediate need for butter. You and your husband experience the importance of lack of butter. Real life is about butter, and yet one could get shot and die from guns. That’s a distant, abstract danger, but it’s still out there waiting for you, too. I am curious if you have your focus on a subject and the way it will sound before you write, or does some of this come only while you are writing?

RD: That poem came out of an exercise I gave to my students. I wanted them to write an epistolary poem and I decided to do that myself. In my family we often discussed the problem of guns and butter so that was already there in the matrix of my early life. Beyond that, I’m always interested in writing from the moment we are living in and so the issues of guns and violence and the turning away from what’s urgent seem important to me. The poem was a surprise as it is also a commentary on the disconnects that exist in an intimate relationship.

LF: Rhythm and musicality are poetic aspects I enjoy. I think sometimes writers look down on those qualities. This goes back to your comment that “different poets come in to my life at different times and turn out to be the ones I need at that particular moment.”
In 8th grade, I found Langston Hughes. Oh, I loved him for having those qualities supporting empathic humanity in his poetry. I had been turned off by the more “acceptable” kinds of new poetry, at least “new” when I was in 8th grade. 

Your poem The Ongoing has a rhythm that matches the deep feeling of unity and permanence of your marriage. It is a strong poem. You tip your hat to being “on our flat/earth.” Brava!

RD: Thank you. I am happy when a reader is happy.

LF: Do you remember a moment of a poetic awakening? 

RD: Hmm. Not sure. I think I liked words. The first poem I wrote as far as I can remember went like this:

Birds and words are funny things.

Birds and words mean many things.

I think I’ve been writing that poem my whole life. The connection between abstract and concrete, the attention to the multiplicity of language, the simple language – all that is still present in my work. I love monosyllables. This little poem uses them and there’s a two syllable word to break the monotony.

LF: Did you ever consider not following that path? For example, did you think being an English literature professor could be your life without writing poetry, your own poetry? Was there ever a second choice, a back up plan?

RD: Oh my, you do get me. I always had back up plans. I started out wanting to act. I was pretty good at it but then I got sick when I was 14 and after 3 ear surgeries and considerable unhappiness I decided I was too ugly for that. My grandmother thought I was a “born teacher” and when I was asked by one of my teachers at Bard to teach one of his classes I accepted and fell in love with teaching. So I went to graduate school for a Ph.D so I could teach. My graduate school professors recognized that I was not really an academic and urged my to take my writing seriously. I got a “good job” in the Midwest, teaching at a very fine liberal arts college but I realized quickly that it would not be good for my writing to stay there. I quit the “good job” and moved to NYC. I did a whole bunch of non-academic jobs, declared myself a writer and eventually worked my way back into academia. I had started teaching in my apartment, developing an idiosyncratic way of teaching that I then used to build a program at NYU when I was hired full time to direct writing in a program for adult undergraduates. But before I got that job, I was an adjunct at several universities, and I decided I needed something else that might support me. I entered a psychoanalytic training institute and became an analyst. I used that knowledge to build a private teaching practice. So I was always constructing ways of both making my writing possible and in some ways evading it. I want now to do less evading and more writing.

LF: There’s a lot of talk about “voice.” Did you start writing and realize “this is my voice”? Or did you grow into your voice as you wrote your books? Or, did an editor or reader tell you, “You have a distinct voice” because you do?

RD: Again, another astute question. As the writer Jill Ciment said when she visited my class at NYU – “I figured out I didn’t have to “find” my voice; I had to accept the voice I had.” My brilliant editor, David Groff, comments on my “quirky” voice. I was amazed to have it characterized and accepted and encouraged.

LF: Nirala Series:  Did you connect to this publisher by sending them a manuscript? Did they already have a feel for your work? I wonder if this relationship has to be conducted by phone or Zoom or if you have made the trip to India?

RD: This connection was a stroke of luck. While I was at NYU I was asked to take over something called the Global Poetry Series. Yuyutsu Sharma was the first poet I met and featured. He was introduced to me by the person who was handing the series over to me. Yuyu is a well known poet from Nepal, who scouts for Nirala. He read my book. Limitless Tiny Boat, and heard me read and became interested in my work. He asked for a book. I wrote WORD HAS IT and he published it. When I finished TURN UP THE HEAT, I sent it to him and a few other places. He accepted it right away. The other places I sent it either rejected it or didn’t have time to read it just then. I wanted to get the book out because I have other projects I want to work on. Yuyu created a beautiful book and I’m happy with how it all turned out.

LF: There can be a lot of emotion behind a poem that may not be stated. Do you feel your writing evolves out of memories or the connection of particular emotions with specific memories?

RD: My work evolves from language. I’m sure that memories factor into the poems but I’m really interested in creating an experience for the reader. I’m also really interested in ideas. I’m drawn to what I don’t know rather than to what I do know.

LF: Do you enjoy doing readings of your work? Do you think you can sense the audience’s response or do you try not to be reactive to what you think they are thinking?

RD: I really love doing readings. I rehearse carefully and I love the creation of the program.  I’m nervous ‘til I start to read and then I’m having a good time. I’m not always sure how audiences react or how to read the reaction. There is often a quietness in the audience, as if they are really listening. 

What’s hard for me is what happens after the reading. At that point, partly because I’m very shy, I’m scared to talk to anyone.

LF: Your home and home life are the setting or subject of some of your poetry. Did you make a decision to go into your domestic life or do these subjects float into your thoughts when you are writing. Do you find metaphors or connections to something outside of your poem when you have that domestic focus?

RD: I love the quotidian. I love ordinary life and I am thrilled when I can take what’s ordinary into unknown territory. In Turn Up the Heat, I was interested in the contrast between the domestic and, for lack of a better word, the exotic as epitomized in Sardinia. And I also love the way the domestic can become strange. When I moved into the loft I live in now I was enchanted by the ice machine. I’d never had a good refrigerator and now I had a creature that produced ice for me, without my having to do anything. What a wonder!