On Grief and Gratitude: A Conversation with Mary Ruefle

Poet and essayist Mary Ruefle has written numerous books of poetry and prose, including My Private Property (2016), Trances of the Blast (2013), Indeed I Was Pleased with the World (2007), and The Adamant (1989), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize. Ruefle has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, the Robert Creeley Award, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She graduated from Bennington College in 1974 with a degree in Literature and currently lives in Bennington, Vermont.


Ruefle’s projects span many genres and forms, including non-fiction, erasure, prose poetry, lineated poetry, and comics. In Dunce, published by Wave Books in September 2019, Ruefle returns to her poetic roots: each poem radiates with the intensity of her attention and reveals the mysteriousness deep within daily life.

Lisa Grgas: Thank you so much for allowing me to pen-pal with you for a bit this summer. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of your latest poetry collection, Dunce, I’d like to hear your thoughts on poetry as an art form. Many readers stay away from poetry because they find it too difficult to access. It’s true, I think, that a lot of poetry requires a fair amount of effort on the part of the reader and often that effort is perceived as fruitless if the reader doesn’t come away with an intellectual understanding of the poem. What are your thoughts on the (so-called) “purpose” of poetry?

Mary Ruefle: I have my thoughts, but someone else has theirs; I asked my dog the same question and he didn’t know; I’d like to say he wagged his tail but in truth he barked. I think asking what the purpose of poetry is is like asking what the purpose of a life is; many responses but no known truth. Each must decide for herself. I will say that poetry is clearly a form of literature, and that our species has been engaged in it for a very long time. In oral cultures it began as, or takes the form of now, storytelling and song. Written literature comes from this. Song, which I am equating with poetry, creates a feeling in the hearer; if the feeling gives pleasure, you have understood the song. The feeling may be sad or happy—that makes no difference—but the response is genuine. I am not sure that “understanding,” in the traditional sense, has anything to do with it. Our bodies bypass all that. Have you ever read with your body?

LG: Yes, I think I know exactly what you’re describing. Certain poems cause a sensation in my upper abdomen. It feels heavy and a little fluttery and, even if the poem is not sad, I feel a sort of “exhilarated sadness.” I have to lurk around in the sensation before I move on with my day. Mary Jo Bang’s poem “Night After Night” does that to me. “A pane of green glass watches / While a white sheet turns red. / The heart empties itself. It used to be // An engine. Now, it’s a twice.” I don’t “understand” the poem, yet I do. Do you experience something similar?

MR: Yes, all of the time!

LG: There has been a trend in recent years toward poetry that serves a social or political agenda or points to larger social issues. The political poem is it (for the time being at least). Your poems, in contrast, are much more interior. Can you speak to the idea of poetry as an instrument of social change? What, if anything, do you seek to achieve with your poetry?

MR: Of course political poetry is “it” in today’s climate—look at what a tremendous political mess the world is in! It makes perfect sense to me, and I laud the many fine poems that come out of the mess. At the same time I am not sure political poems can actually change the situation, though they can point to it and bear witness to it and in this way are very important—they are like a show of solidarity. But if poetry could actually change anything, the world would have changed a long, long time ago. Man’s inhumanity to man is a constant. It is loathsome, but there you have it. My own poems are not overtly political (you are right) but the world is a very big place (have you noticed?) and there is room for all kinds of creation. At the same time, my poems hopefully constitute an act of attention, and an act of attention—look around you!—is in its own way a political act, in fact political poems do the same thing, they say “look around you.” When we look we are in grief, and also in gratitude for the beauty of the world. Grief and gratitude, what other responses can we possibly have to life?

LG: I was first introduced to your work years ago at Tin House’s summer workshop. I attended your lecture, On Imagination, which was published as a chapbook by Sarabande Books in 2017. Towards the end of your presentation, you said that your interest in the future has waned as you’ve grown older. You went on: “[…] I am much more interested in the present moment, and I don’t mean the general state of affairs this month, I mean the bug walking across my lettuce leaf.” Does this still hold true for you?

MR: More than ever! A keen sense of limited time sets in at some age, and if I were you I would not worry about it while you are young, for your purpose is to live with passion and a sense of responsibility, which is exactly as it should be—me, I’m retired from that form of vigor; life is growth and change, and I’m in the period of repose.

LG: Do you mean that, in the period of repose, you no longer live with passion or a sense of responsibility? I find that hard to believe!

MR: So do I!

LG: I’ve been thinking a lot about time and the bug walking across your lettuce leaf since I read Dunce. Many of these new poems point to the past as an informer of the future or even confuse time all together. I’m thinking in particular of “Maria and the Halls of Perish” and “Crackerbell” (a personal favorite). Can you tell me a little bit about these poems and how time functions in each? (Does time function in either!?)

MR: I can’t really tell you how time functions in these two poems you cite, because to do that I would have to carefully read them, and I am not willing to! When Grandma Moses was asked to attend a grand opening of her work at a fancy gallery in New York, she declined, saying, “I’ve already seen the paintings.” That’s my motto, and Grandma Moses is my model!

LG: I understand that. Sometimes I feel like a faux-poet because I don’t think about that sort of stuff when I read or write. But time and a sense of your “period of repose” does stand out in Dunce and perhaps even more so in My Private Property. How does your interest in the present moment affect your writing process?

MR: It IS my writing process. Whenever I write I feel I am in the present moment, which is why I like it so much.

LG: Your poems feel timeless but I wonder if you ever find a poem you’ve written no longer speaks to you when you return to it after some time has passed. Does that affect your revision process? What is it like revisiting past work 40+ years into your writing career?

MR: Lots of poems I’ve written no longer speak to me when I return to them, because I feel in them the preoccupations of youth which I no longer feel. But that’s okay, because a young person can read them and feel them, or at least respond to them. And much of what I am writing now may not appeal to the very young, nor should it. Aging and death take over. And yet. And yet. There are poems I have written in the past that I still like, and there are poems I did not like at the time they were written that I now see some merit in. It’s hard to talk about, I suppose it’s personal, even though I no longer care much for the personal! The other day someone asked me a question about erasure, and without thinking I said, “I’m not really all that interested in erasure, despite the fact it is my passion.” And you know, that’s true, and I wish I could explain it but I can’t…

LG: Are you still working on erasures? It’s easy to forget that the order in which books are published does not necessarily reflect the writer’s current interests or approach…

MR: I work on them every day, it’s the only practice I engage in daily, I’m working now on my 105th book. I certainly don’t write poems every day…

LG: I noticed that the image of pins shows up several times in Dunce. A few examples: In “Dark Corner” you find a straight pin along with some other minor clutter as you clean out an empty drawer; in “Sent to the Monk,” an ivory hairpin “floats away / like a loose tooth going back in time.” “Bath Time” refers to the pins carried in the speakers’ mothers’ mouth. Can you share a bit about this object / image? What draws you to this memory?

MR: I noticed that too, and I can’t explain it. I do like small objects, like pins and paper clips and little bits of dust. And my mother really did hold pins in her mouth, and she really did unknot chains with them, and now I do it myself. Very fine chains are a nightmare! Pins come to the rescue no less than a firefighter.

LG: A few years ago, in an interview for Washington Square Review, you described poetry as “strange utterances capable of causing spooky behavior at a distance.” You were considering how bizarre it is that poetry can have an effect on a reader thousands of years after the poem was originally written. Do you ever think about what a reader may discover in your work in the far-away future?

MR: I stand by that comment, but I never think about my work in terms of the far-away future; no one knows the far away future and it is a waste of time to speculate. In the present, I am reading Hölderin, and he is causing spooky behavior in me at a distance!

LG: I can imagine “Argot” (from Trances from the Blast) spooking the heck out of some reader in the distant future—that gives me a lot of pleasure. I’m also drawn to the idea of “Interlude for Solitary Flute” (from Dunce) which ends with the “high, solitary, / silver note” of a person weeping serving as a record of a specific grief in a specific moment in time. Are there any poems—your own or someone else’s—that you hope will last that temporal distance?

MR: It doesn’t make any difference—for in the future there will be wonderful young poets (unborn as of yet) who will be writing poems that affect the strangers who read them. That is what counts. That is what matters, that poetry has a long life of its own, not dependent on poems “lasting.” It is poetry itself that lasts.

LG: What are you reading now? What have you encountered in poetry recently that you’re excited about?

MR: Well, as I have just divulged, I’m reading Holderin. And the Irish poet Paul Durcan. They are worlds apart and both terrific. Next week I’ll be on to somebody else…

LG: I’d like to leave readers with a good sense of Dunce—it’s themes, tones, and new subjects. The collection ends with “The Leaves” which, like many of your poems, reminds me of Zen Buddhist koans. It’s paradoxical, a little ambiguous. I try to follow Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice—“use the raft to cross to the other shore but don’t hang onto it as your property”—so I hesitate to ask: Can you tell me more about “The Leaves” and why you chose it as the closing for your book?

MR: I am not sure I can tell you any more about “The Leaves” than the poem itself does—there’s a wedding and someone has stayed home to rake the leaves and the leaves don’t seem particularly interested in him the way he is not really interested in the wedding. It’s the last poem because it followed nicely after the previous poem, and because we are “leaving” the book,” and there’s been a lot of stupid un-speech in the book—like the leaves, who really cares about poetry?

LG: When we met at Tin House years ago, we talked briefly of our love of the Adam McKay film Step Brothers. I followed through on your recommendation and finally watched Talladega Nights all the way through… I don’t get it! You’ve got a great, dark melancholic sense of humor in your poetry so, I’m curious: What makes a dumb comedy into a great comedy? Have you seen McKay’s HBO series Succession yet?

MR: I don’t have TV so I haven’t seen the show you mention, but I do love the two films you mention, dumb as they are. For a very long time I didn’t “get” Will Ferrell, and then one day he came crashing in on me, I opened myself up or something, and now I “get” him and I like him. This happens all the time in poetry; you don’t like a particular poet and then one day he or she comes crashing in on you and you get it and love it. Hasn’t that ever happened to you?

LG: Absolutely. Anne Carson’s work was too far over my head for a long time. Nox crashed in on me—possibly because I was studying for my MFA at the time and was in the right brain-space to face a challenge—and now I can’t get enough of her.

MR: Well, comparing Anne Carson to Will Ferrell seems like a good place to end! But truly, patience is required in poetry, as in all things.



Lisa Grgas

Lisa Grgas is the supervising editor and associate poetry editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Atticus Review, Common Ground, Black Telephone, Ki'n, Luna Luna, and elsewhere. She lives in Hoboken, NJ.

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