Ruth Danon (Word Has It) and Cassandra Cleghorn (Four Weathercocks) interviewed one another about their books, slow writing, visceral abstractions, outfoxing oneself, bird-ing and word-ing, and finding home in the “claw and scramble” of making a poem. In the process of conversation, they discovered they were mentoring one another.
RD: I’m so impressed by both the lexical range and syntactic complexity of your work. You studied Greek before your graduate work in American Studies. Do you think that these aspects of your poems are a kind of transposition of Greek into an American landscape?
CJC: Learning Greek remains one of my sweetest intellectual experiences. I went to UC Santa Cruz, where the Classics department is world class, but also freewheeling. Through Greek, I was immersed in the study of poetry. I got to study H.D. with Norman O. Brown, Sophocles with Page DuBois. The redwood forest was thick with feminist and psychoanalytic theory in the early ’80s, so I had this beautifully dense, critical lens through which to read the language and literature I was learning at its most basic unit — letter by letter, root by root, line by line, rule by rule. I do think the syntax of Greek rubbed off on me.
A few of my poems are explicitly about Greek myth — especially “It is Possible to Live Justly and Happily and Do Good Things for Men,” which is a sentence lifted from a quiz in my old textbook, Chase & Philips, A New Introduction to Greek. That poem is a good example of how a poem is both about — and not about — its ostensible subject. The poem riffs on a fact about the Greek language, which has a “middle voice” that governs verbs in which the subject both performs the action and receives that action. Think of the middle voice as a party where you are simultaneously host, guest, caterer, and dj. The linguistic nerd in me loves the idea that self-sufficiency can be expressed at the level of grammatical structure. This good fact dovetailed with my need to write a poem about a different kind of self-reliance. I was surrounded by the pressing needs of others — students, husband, four very young children — and craving solitude. Near the poem’s end, I borrowed a phrase from Emerson’s essay, “Circles.” He’s writing about our changeable natures: “I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.” I longed to claim the weed’s irrelevance for myself. So that’s an instance of how I worked through Greek to get to somewhere (almost) entirely different. I think that’s what we’re always doing as poets when we are mining our lives, our histories, our dreams, no?
CJC: Which makes me think about your work, and the remarkable way birds and birding thread through the poems, especially in the third section. Your use of the motif is so varied, so rich. Of course I’m drawn to the intimation of auguries and prophecy. But I’m even more taken by your insistence on not knowing how to read such signs even as you invoke them. In “Birding”: “I / believe in the power of birds, but I do not know, / not for a minute, how to describe their quivering / hearts or their flights or the mad plunge of / herons into salty water.” And again: “Always a bad reader / of fortunes I have little to offer / in the way of threat or consolation.” Can you tell me more about what birds mean to you, and how they go to the poetic project of unknowing. I wonder about bird-ing and word-ing in your poetics, and how your use of both, or either, grows out of your psychoanalytic training?
RD: Cassandra, thank you so much for asking about birds and words. I think that in some ways we do write one long poem throughout our lives. I started writing as a child and I’ve never stopped, though I’ve often faltered and been unsure and unknowing about my path. The very first poem I ever wrote went like this: “Birds and words are funny things / Birds and words mean many things.” It seems to me that everything that has propelled me forward is contained in those few words – birds as a concrete image yoked to the abstraction of “things,” and interest in language itself – “words.” And the “many things” that words might mean lead right to the heart of “not knowing” and the ambiguity implied by that. So those preoccupations have been with me for a long time. I think psychoanalysis and analytic training reinforce the belief in the value of not knowing.
I have been influenced mainly by Winnicott, and more lately Lacan. I think of Winnicott as the one who creates the playground. Lacan tells me that inside the playground we engage in a language game.
Certainly I trust what I don’t know more than I trust what I’ve already arrived at. And the only way I know to work is to plunge into what I don’t yet know. I think of writing as discovery or maybe re-discovery. I didn’t know I was going to attend to birds but when I found myself doing so and connected those later birds to the childhood birds I was kind of thrilled. What matters endures. What endures matters. I’m very curious about what will happen next since I have no idea right now.
RD: And I guess that leads me to my next question for you. Your poems are wonderfully urgent and mysterious and there is so much specificity in them, so much “knowing” of details and facts. In “Chiasmus” the response to the too muchness of “a stranger’s face” is to “open a book.” I’m wondering how much research goes into building the language of these poems. I ask this question because for me images are so hard-won and your poetry is so rich with what feels to the reader like completely internalized knowledge. Can you say something about that aspect of the poems and the method by which they come into being?
CJC: This is a question I’ve been semi-obsessed about. Where do poems come from? Why do they take the forms they take? We were just talking about how central unknowing is to the discovery of a poem. And yet, clearly, I love knowing, and the more detailed the knowledge, the better. I struggle with the mind/body split — such a cliche, but so true for me. I try to use the one to outfox the other. I think I instinctively cover my tracks in a poem — even when I’m trying to be super-explicit, making it hard for others to guess (and for me to remember) what I learned first-hand, and what I learned from others.
I’m always on the look-out for what a friend calls “the good fact.” Like the fact that monkeys were dispatched to pick oolong tea leaves from the plants that grew on the impossibly steep cliffs of Fujian Province in China. I learned this from a tea box. Then I went and read everything I could about the tradition, gathering language and imagery. I knew a poem was coming, but I didn’t know what kind of poem. I just kept reading, waiting, watching. Ann Lauterbach has an amazing poem at the end of Spell, in which she says that we place something we see and can’t quite name “into the empty basket marked the poem.” I love this stage of discovery.
At some point, I realized I wanted to be one of those monkeys, and that I wanted to imagine myself picking the most perfect leaves for my love. Then I put the book-learning out of my mind, and went into bodily sensations and imagining nonhuman being. (This description makes the process sound like a recipe, but of course all of these layers of making swap around in unconscious ways.) “Task Me, Trapeze Me,” was the result. That love poem probably steeped for a couple of years.
CJC: All this talk of details and specificity makes me want to ask you about abstraction. I admire your capacious titles (e.g. “Compulsion and Sorrow,” “Domestic,” “Habitation”), which set the stage for the delicate placement of objects, gestures, “glimpses, brief, fleeting and so cold.” Your series, “Habitation,” especially, suggests that we might think of abstractions themselves as rooms we move through, and which, in turn, “settle inside [us].” This is a terribly abstract question: but how do you think about and use abstraction in your poems?
RD: Cassandra, I just love this question because it does, I think, get to one of the peculiarities in my poems. People do, fairly often, comment on my use of abstractions. I think you certainly have gone to the heart of one aspect of my use of abstractions. I think often of the fact that the word “stanza” means “room” and I do think of poems as rooms or entrances that give a space for reader and writer to encounter one another and co-create an experience. I am more interested in creating an experience than delivering information or promulgating ideas.
I am well acquainted with our American transcendental tradition that locates meaning in the concrete and my hope is that I “earn” the abstractions by coming up with a concrete image or moment just at the point the reader might be asking for such a thing. I also hope that by attending to sound and rhythm and other technical tricks of language that I sometimes can make a reader experience the abstract as visceral in some way. That’s certainly the hope. Sometimes landing on an abstraction – say architecture – also leads me into a vocabulary that I can use within poems. I guess that’s a little like the “good fact” you draw attention to. The truth is that everything I write has to be, in some sense, dragged out of me, as my access to my unconscious is pretty highly defended. I claw and scramble and if I can find a vocabulary to lead me to an insight I am very happy.
And finally, as I write this, I begin to wonder if my upbringing in an essentially European family of scientists and thinkers encouraged me to think abstractly. Maybe my poems reflect a kind of union of the old world and the new. I just read an article about Wordsworth that discussed the ubiquity of his abstractions. That surprised me since I think of him as quite concrete. So maybe, in my own old world/new world mind they don’t feel that different.
RD: Now it’s my turn. I want to ask you about place. I take it that you have moved around a bit in your life. I’m curious how moving from place to place affects you. I ask this because I’ve left the city for a small town and I find the transition interesting if a bit unsettling and so I wonder if changes in geography change your thinking about your own poems.
And let me ask a second question. I’m curious as to how you see the relationship between yourself as an academic and yourself as a poet. . Four Weathercocks (and I love your evocation of Key West in that poem) is your first book of poems and you are poetry editor at Tupelo. You teach – and seem to love doing so – at Williams. I’m wondering if adding to your academic life puts you in a new geography so to speak.
CJC: Thank you for so thoughtfully reading my poems and my bio, Ruth. I’ve been so geographically centered in the Berkshires for years that I can forget the crazy quilt map of my early life. But of course one doesn’t really forget such craziness — it’s totally internalized, and expressed, in turn. In a sense, my poems are my GPS. My parents divorced when I was very young (the first of several divorces in my life), and my mom kangarooed me and my sibs across the U.S., this way and that — always well-intentioned, always seeking, and quickly finding, order, if only temporarily. I am very good at making a home on the fly. Sometimes I wonder if my willingness to experiment with poetic forms isn’t an analogue of this restlessness.
But to the question about geophysical place: I spent my formative years in Santa Barbara, California — the extremity of droughts, oil spills, and earthquakes, and the dust and salt and sage of the mediterranean chaparral, and I went to college on the “slow coast” of Santa Cruz. I came to poetry through West coast poets, especially Joanne Kyger and Gary Snyder, and the Black Sparrow Press writers. The quickest way to access my feelings about my home state is to read Eleni Sikelianos’s The California Poem (Coffee House Press, 2004). In her blurb, Fanny Howe (another Californian) calls the golden state “the grief-engorged plateau that lies between imagination and the already-known.” I assumed I’d live my whole life in that element.
But just as I finished my PhD, universities everywhere were downsizing. I was lucky to find the job at Williams, and I’ve been here ever since. I’m in an odd position. As a nontenured, regular faculty member, I have blessed security and the freedom to write what I want, but with almost no time to do so — one semester sabbatical every seven years. As teacher, mentor, editor and reviewer, I spend much of my daily life helping other people think and write and reach their ideal readers. The challenge for me is to suspend all of that so I can dip into my own writing, which I do just about every day. But I’m the Crock-Pot of poets. The sixteen years Bishop spent revising “The Moose” has always seemed totally normal to me. I’m not 100% in love with the publishing frenzy in poetry these days. As Ilya Kaminsky says in an interview with Rachel Zucker recently, (I’m paraphrasing from the podcast), “Why do we need to make a new book every year?”
This slowness is not conducive to responding to the world’s events, the wrenching extremity around us every day. I think about Muriel Ruykeyser’s poem, “Poem,” which Sean Singer just posted on Facebook. (Sean has been the ultimate curator of poems and quotes about writing lately — check it out.) Ruykeyser writes, “I lived in the first century of world wars. / Most mornings I would be more or less insane, / The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories / . . . / Slowly I would get pen and paper, / Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.” I love the Poets Reading the News project, edited by Elle Aviv Newton, and lovesexecutiveorder.com, edited by Matthew Lippman, but I tend to process the horrors from my newsfeed far too slowly for such responses. I think of Ilya’s extraordinary Deaf Republic, to my mind one of the most beautiful and devastatingly relevant books published this year. I hold to the fact that he spent over ten years writing and revising it.
CJC: Which makes me want to ask: Who have been your most important mentors or teachers, and what is your favorite piece of advice from them? How is their influence felt in what you are writing now?
RD: I am so amazed that we have so much in common. I was a non-tenured full time faculty member at NYU for many years and was busy in the ways you describe. I follow Sean Singer on Facebook and despite the fact that I published two books in close proximity there were many many years between the first book and the second. Questions about mentors are difficult for me to answer. I didn’t really have teachers or mentors. I didn’t get an MFA. I never really studied writing formally, though I did take workshops here and there and had encounters with poets and people who said things that mattered. So Kathleen Fraser made me believe I wasn’t wasting my time. Harry Matthews once, kindly, told me I was “the real thing.” I took two workshops when I first moved to New York City. I hoped I would find mentors but I didn’t. One person suggested that I might sleep with the right people and so become successful, or I could just keep writing and become successful. I chose the latter but I didn’t become “successful” if “successful” means well known. The other teacher told me that I should be teaching workshops, not taking them. I was frustrated. I was also a person who had the deeply misguided belief that I had to do everything on my own and since my efforts at finding mentors were complete failures, my misguided idea was reinforced.
Only much later, after a period of prolonged illness, did I find my way to understanding that I couldn’t do anything alone. I am in two writing groups and we’ve been meeting for a long time. I find the writers in these groups, each one quite different from one another and from me, to be wonderful and supportive readers of my work. I hired editors who helped me shape my books and taught me much about how to construct them. I’m eternally grateful to Martine Bellen and David Groff for their help and friendship.
Advice from others comes to mind now. When I was still in graduate school one of my teachers read my work. The professor, who had a reputation for being fierce, tore it apart. It was bad. He pointed out that the things I wrote made no sense, that my descriptions of the people in the poems and their perceptions were dumb, impossible, and pretentious because of where I had placed them and the claims I made on the basis of that placement. He made me understand that to work, a poem had to be accurate. That real toads in imaginary gardens business. He taught me the importance of making my toads real.
Two other pieces of advice came from Michael Harper. I was at Yaddo and I had just finished the draft of my first book. I trotted into dinner happy to make the announcement that I was done and ready, of course, “to revise.” Michael said, quietly, “ don’t ever destroy a poem for the sake of a line.” And then he told me a story. He said he knew someone who was having his book published. It was at the printers and it was taking a long long time. Frustrated the writer called up the printer and asked what was taking so long. The printer replied, “we ran out of capital letter I.” That was a warning that contained good advice.
RD: Well, that was a long answer to your question. You provoked thoughts I didn’t know I had, so perhaps you are mentoring me right now! Anyway, let me ask you a question. You write, you teach, you edit, you are inside the “business” at Tupelo. I loved your quoting Ilya Kaminsky about the pressure to “have a new book every year.” I wonder, from your vantage point, how you see “the condition of poetry” right now. I’m not so much thinking about the poetry “business.” A great deal is being said all the time, but not about poetry itself. Where is it now? Where is it going? We are certainly post- post- a great many things, but I’d love to know from you how you assess the landscape.
CJC: I love the idea that we are mentoring one another, which surely we are. I am learning so much from you about how to “claw and scramble” into the place a poem needs. This conversation is bringing home to me the fact that I very rarely let myself talk about my own work! I believe it’s true for both of us that Kristina Marie Darling, poet and mentor extraordinaire, deserves thanks for prompting us to meet and talk about our writing. I love trading letters about writing, the old-fashioned way, on my manual typewriter, slowing down the give and take.
I, too, have written on my own for the most part — no MFA, only the occasional workshop where I seized on every little bit of guidance I received. I have often felt out of the loop, and social media networking does not come naturally to me. I got great encouragement — which I suppose we now call “mentoring” — from Richard Howard, and from Creeley and Ashbery, but I’ve mostly kept those connections to myself, treasuring the private aspect of these literary exchanges. I feel like my insistence on self-reliance and excessive modesty is characterological, but also cultural — I was raised by a fiercely independent mother whose strength and creativity did not keep her from deferring to men for most of her life, and denying herself for the sake of others. She never went to college, which was for her, I think, a secret source of both shame and pride — the latter because she educated herself to an extraordinary degree. It has taken me a lifetime to wrap my mind around these contradictory pulls in myself, between the puritanical, misogynist belief that I should sit quietly in the corner, and the conviction that I am a full person, worthy of voice and attention. Dickinson’s “Ourself, behind ourself / Should startle most,” are among the most important lines in poetry to me.
This is surely a radiant, not to say volcanic moment in U.S. poetry. I am wowed by the work I read every day, published and unpublished, fierce, clear-eyed, impeccably crafted, fueled by rage and love and attention to what Ilya calls those moments that “convulse” — work that keeps us right up close to, but just short of, despair. The petty arguments in the “po biz” fall away when you keep your eyes and ears on the extraordinary poems of our climate-endangered climate. Wallace Stevens’s lines, published in 1942, seem like a true gloss on our own moment as well: “The imperfect is our paradise. / Note that, in this bitterness, delight, / Since the imperfect is so hot in us, / Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.”
CJC: One last question for you, Ruth. I’m writing toward my second book, working title “Crash Course.” What are your current projects?
RD: Before I answer that I want also to thank Kristina Marie Darling for putting us together. It’s quite interesting to read your account of your own path to finding your own voice. I, too, had a fiercely independent mother. And I think we share a somewhat conflicted drive towards hiding. I think of Winnicott’s assertion: “It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found.” I am grateful that Kristina has helped us find one another.
My current project is in line with hiding and finding. I hope to finish a memoir that I have been working on for a long time. I am devoting the month of August to that project, and want to have a full draft in the fall. Thank you for such an engaging conversation. How nice to share so much with you.
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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.) For 23 years she taught Creative and Expository Writing in the program she created for NYU’s School of Professional Studies. Ruth Danon teaches privately in New York City and Beacon, NY, and is a teaching member of New York Writers Workshop. She curates the Spring Street Reading Series for Atlas Studios in Newburgh, NY. Her poems and prose have been published in Rain Taxi, Tupelo Quarterly, The Paris Review, Barrow Street, Fence, 3rd Bed, Versal, and many other publications. . She is currently completing a memoir and writing new poems. Her work has been anthologized in BEST AMERICAN POETRY, RESIST MUCH, OBEY LITTLE, and NOON: An Anthology of the Short Poem and new work is forthcoming in an anthology to be produced by the upstate New York organization,, Calling All Poets.
Cassandra Cleghorn was born in upstate New York, raised in southern California, and studied Greek at the University of California – Santa Cruz and American Studies at Yale University. Her first book, Four Weathercocks, was published by Marick Press in 2016. Her poems have been published in many journals including Paris Review, New Orleans Review, Yale Review, Southwest Review, Narrative, The Common, and Poetry International. She lives in southern Vermont, teaches at Williams College and serves as Poetry Editor of Tupelo Press.