Language and Tenancy: A Conversation with Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl’s plays include In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, The Clean House, Passion Play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Melancholy Play, For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, The Oldest Boy, Stage Kiss, Dear Elizabeth, Eurydice, Orlando, Late: a cowboy song, and a translation of Three Sisters. She has been a two-time Pulitzer prize finalist and a Tony award nominee. Her plays have been produced on and off-Broadway, around the country, and internationally where they have been translated into over fifteen languages. Originally from Chicago, Ruhl received her M.F.A. from Brown University, where she studied with Paula Vogel. She has received the Steinberg award, the Sam French award, the Susan Smith Blackburn award, the Whiting award, the Lily Award, a PEN award for mid-career playwrights, and the MacArthur award. You can read more about her work on Her new book, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, was a Times notable book of the year, and she most recently published Letters from Max with Max Ritvo. She teaches at the Yale School of Drama, and she lives in Brooklyn with her family.


Written in seven sections, Sarah Ruhl’s 44 Poems for You is an expansive meditation on the ties that bind us—partners, children, friends, and family—into the stories that become our lives. Self-possessed, luminous with insight, and uncompromising, this is poetry at its finest: the kind that stays with you long after you think you’re done.

We spoke over the phone (“Hi, this is Sarah! Is this Sarah?”) about 44 Poems for You, why conference calls are terrible, and the importance of giving yourself a nod every now and then. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sarah Cooke: I want to start with the genesis of the book. In the afterword to 44 Poems for You, you wrote, “My secret poems written over the years represent a quiet and secret bond.” When you were writing these poems, did you intend to write them as a collection, or was that something you discovered in process?

Sarah Ruhl: I never intended them to be a collection—I truly wrote 95% of the poems for a poem or for an occasion. It wasn’t until two years ago, when I met with Michael Wiegers at Copper Canyon Press [ed. note: Wiegers is Copper Canyon’s Editor-in-Chief] and shared a couple individual poems with him, that they started to take shape as a collection. He asked to see the rest of what I had, and he thought there was a book there. Then I started to organize and structure it.

I mentioned in the afterword the people who helped me think about giving the poems to a wider audience. The first was my former student, Max Ritvo, a brilliant poet. He convinced me to share poems with them; then he convinced me to publish a poem with a friend, Elizabeth Metzger, at the Los Angeles Review of Books; and then Max convinced me to read a poem out loud. He was just always convincing me to do things. One of the most persuasive people.

And the other person is my husband, who has always felt like I was way too stingy with my poetry and should publish it more widely. I think probably a majority of the poems I wrote for him. 

SC: When you laid out these poems and started compiling them into a collection, was it surprising to see how many resonances were across them? 

SR: Yes and no. My children always make fun of me in terms of my playwriting, because when asked what the themes of my plays are, I usually say love and death. They say, “Time to pick a new theme.” But I do think those are the great two themes. And for better and worse, death is what makes love, in a way, so all important, and vice versa.

There’s definitely a meditation on death in one section of the book: Having lost my father to cancer at a young age, I wrote a lot of elegies for my father, and then many poems to Max [ed. note: Max Ritvo died of cancer in 2016. In 2018, Milkweed Editions published Letters from Max, a collaboration between Ruhl and Ritvo].

SC: This leads to my next question, which is about the seven different sections in 44 Poems for You and the way they explore those relationships. I felt that the section about your father was looking at the radiating impact of grief and how we all metabolize it differently—the registers it hits, the tones it hits.

I was thinking of those sections almost as a house, as if you were walking us through rooms, and each room had a different relationship or different experience in it. When you’re writing about relationships in poetry, does it feel structurally or stylistically different than when you’re writing relationships in a play?

SR: It feels totally different. And I think it does have to do with time and space. I think that in a play, you’re moving through one literal time with the audience, and I suppose there’s another kind of time that might be enacted at the same time, but the experience of reading a poem is so different, and the experience of writing a poem in time is so different. There’s a sense of completeness unto itself, in a very short flash, as you’re writing in short form.

I love that image of a house. It’s so beautiful. I also think of grief as a clown car: when you think there’s just one, and then these other old griefs coming pouring out. That the older you get in life, the more people you’ve lost. The more people are in that clown car.

SC: It makes me think of an ice cream truck, where it’s circling your neighborhood, and you hear its song. You think it’s going to go away, and then it comes back. I’ve always had such an incredibly strong hatred of ice cream truck sounds. Whenever I think of the times in my life where I’ve felt lowest, they always this experiential quality of that song. 

SR: It’s an awful song. Isn’t it in a horror movie, like a German Expressionist one?

SC: I can’t say I know the movie, but those words—horror, Expressionist, and ice cream truck song—feel to me like the perfect triumvirate of what they should be.

SR: I think it’s some early Werner Herzog.

SC: Before he went into the ice caves. Maybe that’s why he went into the ice caves: to get away from that song.

Back to the collection. While I was reading, I kept on going with the house metaphor, because I was just so interested in it. I was curious about if your brain holds different rooms for different genres of writing. Is there a Play space? Is there a separate Poetry den with a lot of windows? Or are they all one large, multipurpose room where genres are checked at the door? 

SR: There’s a game that I love to play with students: It’s a genre-defying game. Somebody shouts out a noun, and somebody else shouts out a genre—usually it’s poetry, dialogue, song, rant, short story, or an essay—and then you do flash writing, using the noun, in the genre. What I love about that game is you can write an academic essay about something that seems entirely unsuited for it, in terms the noun that’s been given.

It doesn’t feel that strange to me to move from one genre to the other. I actually started writing as a poet and started writing plays later. But there are certain themes that I would much more readily explore in a play, and I can’t really say why, except they seem to demand a live audience, or a certain kind of spectacle. Then there are other stories are much more private and intimate and feel like they should be between the covers of a book.

SC: For you, what are themes that feel like they require that liveness? 

SR: I have this play, The Clean House, which starts with a joke told in Portuguese to the audience, so there’s that dynamic of liveness that you’d want to feel the audience in real time experiencing. Whereas if I’m writing an essay about, say, lice and motherhood and going to the lice lady, that’s definitely a scene, but for whatever reason, it feels like a scene that I went to tell in prose, rather than dramatize. Maybe I don’t want to watch somebody picking through someone’s hair for lice. Or maybe I do. Maybe it’s time.

SC: I feel like there are YouTube channels dedicated to that. 

SR: There totally are. 

SC: They’re doing their own thing.

You mentioned that you started as a poet. How does it feel to return to poetry at this stage in your career?

SR: It feels like it has a real sweetness and tenderness for me, because it’s always what I hoped I would grow up and do. Whether playwriting was a detour, or whether it was always part of the same thing, or whether I was just incredibly private and fearful about sharing, or whether it took this long to convince someone to make a book out of them—all these delays are at play.

SC: You talked about wanting to keep these poems private. Beyond the encouragement of people in your life, was there anything else shifting in your relationships with sharing your poems or returning to poetry?

SR: Maybe there was a deep hunger for that kind of relationship with language after so many years writing plays, where you get to employ poetry but it’s in service of a story. You also have many, many collaborators, so you have many voices in your head. There was a hunger to return to that kind of solitude and control that’s involved in writing a poem. There’s a simplicity to it: You do it alone, you hear it alone, you finish it, and then you share it.

SC: I work at a theatre, and I see all the many post-mortems that happen after a show: Everybody’s in the room, everybody’s talking. Whereas with a poem, you can be on your couch, reading it. There’s a sort of singular relationship that can happen in a deeply compressed and intimate way. 

SR: Absolutely agreed. I think there’s also the coziness of the reading experience and of being with an author that way when I read poetry. There are so many factors that adjust what the experience of watching a play is: You have to leave your house to go to the theatre. There are other people there. All the crazy physical manifestations, from whether there’s a recession and people don’t want to buy tickets, or there are five people in the house, so it’s not funny. An understudy going on. A big puppet whacking the scenery. All these material things to adjust for that you don’t have to in a poem.

Cleanness is a good word: There’s a holy cleanness to only being in relationship with language. And I do think that after two decades of writing and putting on plays, there was a hunger to return to that.

SC: In the first section of the collection, I saw an emergence of a relationship between praise and prayer. I’m thinking in particular about the ending of the section, which to me read as both a praise song and a lullaby, a prayer for the future: “Words for clarity, words for light and heat, words for charity—words for sleep.” What role does the religious and/or spiritual have in your writing process? 

SR: Well, I was raised Catholic, so that sense of liturgy is always in my head. I started as a Catholic, then took refuge in Buddhism about four years ago, so I think the later poems in the collection—there’s one called Tertön—are more influenced by that kind of prayer. But I suppose I always felt religious about poetry: It’s always been a kind of secular prayer for me, ever since I was very little. I remember composing an elegy when my grandmother died when I was very young, and I remember my father giving me poetry to read that felt like a form of prayer.

You asked about the hunger to return to poetry, and I think I’m going to write an essay called “A Poem is the Opposite of a Conference Call,” because I find that so much of the work I do in theatre lately seems to boil down to making arrangements to have conference calls—although actually, theatre should be the opposite of conference calls, since it is about live people in a room. It just feels like my work life, lately, is one big conference call.

I think it was Virginia Woolf who called poetry “a voice answering a voice.” The quiet of that, the call of response of that, takes me back to prayer.

SC: Another thing that I was tracking while reading was the way the body evolved and became mechanized, then humanized again. In some poems, the body was full of physical objects or was an object, while in others the body was what we think of as such—it had organs, it had limbs.

I read in the New York Times that you’re working on a memoir about your experience with and recovery from Bell’s palsy. How did that experience influence your thinking about bodies more broadly, in addition to the relationship you have with your own?

SR: For sure it did. It’s interesting that I seem to be writing about that experience in prose and not poetry. Maybe chronic illness feels much more prosaic, because it is so long and mundane—or at least my experience with Bell’s palsy is, which has been about a ten-year situation. A poem feels more like a flash or a revelation, whereas chronic illness feels like, “And I woke up again. Still I could not smile.” Feels much more like material for prose.

SC: When you still couldn’t smile, when you couldn’t express part of your face in the way you wanted to, did writing take on or acquire any special sort of intensity for you? 

SR: Reflecting on the experience now, I feel like writing was a way of identifying with mind rather than my body. It was a way to not be embodied, at a time when being embodied was not a source of joy for me. Writing this memoir has forced me to consider that stance. I’m thinking in one chapter about the idea of taking up tenancy—it’s interesting to talk about houses—in your body again. Saying, “Whether I like it or not, I am a tenant, and I acknowledge that.”

SC: I wish we had better landlords or more accurate tenant’s rights bills. In my own experience—I have what I call chronic brain crap—it’s so odd how illness can you make yourself alien to yourself. And I think that the process of writing can be almost like you’re identifying a stranger across an airport, but that stranger is yourself. Suddenly, it’s this great moment of connection, but it also has this extra resonance: “This is how I need to meet this person.”

While I was reading, I noticed a tension between the specific You (the book is dedicated to your husband) and unknown, unseen Yous who are not made explicit. When did you to make those Yous explicit to the reader and when to keep them quiet, even when they are heavily implied throughout a poem?

SR: My sense is that when I wrote a particular poem, if it had a dedication, then I kept it, and if it didn’t, I didn’t imply one. But there were some poems that I didn’t choose to include in the collection because they didn’t have a very strong sense of address.

SC: There’s a long history of confessional poetry, women, and raw sexism beating underneath. (It’s not work, it’s a diary!) Would you call this collection confessional? And if not, why?

SR: I guess I wouldn’t, and the reason I wouldn’t is that there’s more emphasis on the You than the I. And maybe that’s self-destructive: Maybe whenever you are talking to a You, what the reader is overhearing is a bit of the I.

In a funny way, I partly made a big detour towards playwriting because the confessional mode felt like it had an end point to it. It couldn’t sustain itself, because once you were out of material to confess, you were a wrung-out towel. And I feel like thinking about modes of address or occasion or place outside the self was helpful to me, in terms of reconfiguring that. Of course we’re all confessing things all the time. But if there is an outward gaze, it helps temper that kind of dismemberment of the self.

I have passionate feelings about Robert Lowell and what happened to confessional poetry once he wrote the volume The Dolphin, where he published letters of his ex-wife. I’m fascinated by the fight he had with Elizabeth Bishop about that collection. She was saying, “Art isn’t worth that much, it’s infinite mischief to mix fact and fiction the way you did with your wife’s letters.” And I guess I would lean into more of Elizabeth Bishop’s wagging tail, where it’s like she allows these revelations of the self in between this tail wagging. You get these glimpses of her, but the totality of the poem is not to reveal the self.

SC: When you say the tail wagging, I think of somebody disappearing around the bend. Maybe when they’re walking, they step under a streetlamp, so you see what you think is totality—you want it to be totality—but it’s not. They’ve just walked under the streetlamp at that particular moment, and then they’re gone. 

SR: There she is.

SC: There she is. And there she isn’t.

The last question I have was about the opening poem and the way it summons all the elements that are to come. The speaker says, “I wanted music yes / but I also wanted the music / of everyday things.” Does writing allow you to access another kind of music in your life?

SR: I think it does. That kind of music or internal rhythm. I tend to always be interested in that moment where words, because of the order in which you arrange them, take some kind of flight and start moving on a little border towards music—that although they can never be true music, they can approach music. I find it infinitely interesting and restorative.

I always found it interesting that the Greeks had different meters that they thought were curative: “Oh, this meter’s good for this, this meter’s good for that.” Which gets back to the idea of prayer. And, I suppose, the idea of form as a tonic for the confessional.

What’s that sonnet about order and chaos, these fourteen lines? [ed. note: Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines.”] The idea that imposing some of that metrical, rhythmic sequencing on language gives you a container for some of the chaos of one’s emotional life.

SC: It’s that sestina format, isn’t it? I think of “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop: It could go anywhere, but because of the repletion, it can’t. When I read that poem, I always hear a dull clank against a tin can. That sense of going nowhere, but going everywhere.

SR: I love that poem so much.

SC:  It’s so beautiful.

Okay, actual last question. The book’s title is 44 Poems for You. After you finished this, what did you say to yourself? What was your direct address to yourself?

SR: I don’t know. Maybe it was a nice little nod of the head to myself—and the hope that I continue to slowly collect more poems.

SC: I love that. I hope we can all give little nods to ourselves.


Sarah Cooke

Sarah Cooke is a freelance writer whose work, including her weekly newsletter Deliciously Intense, Surprisingly Balanced, explores the intersections of food, culture, and power. Her reporting has appeared in DCist, Eater DC, and Washington City Paper, and she oversees features at Currant, an online food publication. Born and based in Washington, D.C., she has a B.A. in English, with honors in nonfiction writing, from Brown University.

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