The Colorado Poet, #24,Fall 2013

Interview: Chris Ransick

Language for the Living and the Dead (Conundrum Press, 2013)

Bob King: Chris, I remember your 2010 book,  Asleep Beneath the Hill of Dreams. For you, what are some differences between that book and this year’s Language for the Living and the Dead?

Chris Ransick: The work on both these books overlapped. Asleep is a very different kind of book because it presents as individual poems but they were written like sections of one long poem and it still reads that way to me.

I’m an inveterate daydreamer, consciously loosing imagination the way one might release a captive bird to the wild to seek poems. One afternoon I found myself in the British Museum in London writing just such a poem—uniquely surreal and delivered in a very particular tone. When I finished it, I thought to myself, “What was that?” The single, measured stanza struck me as the perfect form to contain and balance the wildness, so I started intensively pursuing it. Eventually I recognized that it was very much influenced by what I’d learned from Stan Rice, my mentor in the early 80s at San Francisco State. His work is marvelous and strange, and what he taught me changed everything about my own ear and sensibility. He’d just died when all this came on, so maybe I was working in homage to Stan.

Those poems kept coming for a couple of years, but so did others distinct from that voice and form, slowly assembling into the manuscript that became Language for the Living and the Dead. They range widely in structure, tone, and subject, an alternative writing track that gave me a lot of freedom. Eventually, the manuscript took on a distinct shape that came into better focus once Asleep was finished and in print. I don’t know how it works for other poets but for me, that’s one of the best moments in the process—where you feel a manuscript cohere into a whole and become greater than the sum of its parts.  

BK: There’s a wide range of subject matter here, from events discovered through the news such as an archaeological find to visits to Paris and Ireland and Wales to crows in a Colorado meadow to a medical operation and a lot in between. How do you discover poems in such a variety of occasions? What goes on in your head at that moment? Or does the poem happen after that moment?

One of the greatest pleasures in life is paying attention. I practice this as much as I can.

CR: One of the greatest pleasures in life is paying attention. I practice this as much as I can—whenever I’m not daydreaming. It’s not Buddhist mindfulness, which I understand to cultivate peace and detachment in contemplation over the tension and singing of poetry, a more engaged and active response. Cultivate a state of attention and anything your senses perceive may show you its shadows and trigger a poem.

So if I’m walking across a field on my way to work and come upon my friends the crows, and they scold me as I approach and mumble behind my back once I’m past, I really notice that—by which I mean that I write it down. I use the same attention if I’m standing under Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre—which I am so lucky to have done. But in the end, isn’t any of us lucky just to notice when we meet the crows on a quotidian morning—can’t that be as rich a moment as any? It’s all about the music you make of it, anyway.

BK: Even though your subject matter ranges widely, there is, to me, a consistent tone, even though you also vary from free verse to some traditional forms (there’s an Italian sonnet and a rispetto, a rondeau, and a couple of villanelles, for example). You must have had a background in formal verse and how did that happen? But, more importantly, how do you discover, if I can use that word again, the form for a particular poem?

CR: I spent ten years earning degrees in the writing programs at SFSU, U. Montana in Missoula and U. California/Davis. I had some fine teachers along the way. Prosody was on the table throughout, as it should be for anyone serious about writing poetry. I’ve always written across a range of forms, and free verse is just another form, not an opposition to form. Right now I’m working on a Welsh toddaid—the kind of challenge I love, even as it blows up my head.

Verse forms pull the poem out of you, require that you employ…their shapes to make music.

Verse forms pull the poem out of you, require that you employ (or purposefully violate) their shapes to make music, and that priority—music first—is what Richard Hugo described so eloquently in Triggering Town. So I don’t seek the form for a poem. I proceed the other way round.

You mentioned tone, and that’s an interesting connection. I teach the poetry master class at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver and help the poets deep at work forging manuscripts into books. I learn a great deal from this every time I facilitate the class, particularly as we find and develop patterns in their collections. When you sequence a book of poems, you are in large part managing the speaker of the poems, the implied author who creates an overall tone, one poem at a time. I’m fascinated by how tone gets developed, punctuated, reinforced, and transformed over the course of a book. Certain books of poetry accomplish this with exceptional mastery and astute readers know it when they are inside one of those books. Most recently I experienced this reading Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven.

BK: Although I said it felt consistent to me, and I can’t explain what that tone is, you are also able to utilize different diction levels. I’m thinking of a Yeatsian diction in “Sick Wife” (“If when ancient / you find yourself, alone and ill, remember us / resilient and young, side by side until we fell.” And then the sound-clatter of buzzards who rise “prehistoric mad black, a flapping / racket ruining the creekgully quiet.” And then the rushing use of scientific terms in “Requiem for Dopamine”—“Dweller in dark synapses of / substantia nigra, liquid executive / hunkered in prefrontal cortex.” How aware are you of diction levels and rhythms as you write. Do the poems start with that exactitude or do you have to work on them for that particular vocabulary?

CR: I like a lot of poets more than I do Yeats, though I read and respect his work. Not too long ago I got to stand inside at the ground floor window of his renovated 15th  century Norman tower, Thoor Ballylee in County Galway, and look out at the view he used to see when writing. There were broadside poems everywhere on the walls of the place and I think I might have written “Sick Wife” shortly afterwards—so I could concede influence. 

I understand tone as an implied attitude toward the subject, and even toward the audience of the poem.

I understand tone as an implied attitude toward the subject, and even toward the audience of the poem. A good poem provides the careful reader a metacognitive prescription, revealing its attitude through both text and subtext. It may be reverent, amused, irate, mocking, compassionate, playful—anything along a spectrum of tone. And this must be fashioned only of word choice and order, line and stanza, an encasing form, and the imagery you pour into these. You have nothing else with which to work. Poets cannot, like an artist, paint Mona’s enigmatic smile. We have only the words and their arrangement to represent and evoke.

I’m always aware of words as music first, and from there I work intuitively to fit sound to the attitude of the speaker. Different forms and subjects draw out particular tones, not the other way round. It’s a moving target from poem to poem, but in the end, all the words are from my personal wordhoard, so maybe that’s where consistency fastens on.

BK: I’m also interested in what you think or feel about using stanzas. Many of the poems here are in uniform stanzas, 4- or 3- and 2-line ones. Does a poem start out in stanzas for you, or separate itself according to rhythms as you work or is there some other attraction?

CR: I almost always write first drafts in regular stanzas. The raggedness of random-length stanzas and lines often works against me, or at least it fails to support what I need to hear as I compose. The cadence of a tercets or couplets or quintets, even without more proscriptive verse form elements, gives me a shape to fill, helps me turn lines and play with enjambment. In revision, I may change the stanza pattern, right up to eliminating all stanza breaks if that will work better.

The dominant principle here remains the music.

The dominant principle here remains the music. I listen to a great deal of music, a wide variety, and I play different instruments. I’m mainly self taught and decidedly amateur, but it’s all relevant because it teaches and reinforces structure and improvisation. Music comprises the tension of pattern and variation; a jazz drummer establishes the beat and but can also invert, stretch, blitz, and refute it, and yet always returns to it as the base theme. Writing poems is a parallel practice, at least to my ear.

BK: A note about the “business,” as they say. Several of these poems have been published in journals. Do you regularly send poems out and do you have tips for those who are thinking about it? And, do you send to contests? What are your ideas on contests? How did you connect with Conundrum Press?

It’s come to feel like I’m visiting a time share in Purgatory

CR: I have at times been pretty active in submitting my work to journals but I do this only occasionally at present. I’ve got a poem coming out in an anthology, and a few pieces have lately found publication in response to requests from editors, but these are the only recent efforts I’ve made. It’s not my priority, though I suspect I may find time for it again. As for submitting to contests, it’s come to feel like I’m visiting a time share in Purgatory. I might be up for it all again at some point but right now I’m happy that new poems keep coming and I’m concentrating on developing manuscripts into books.  

The other thing is, I teach. A lot. I’ve carried  five or six college courses per semester for a quarter century. No kidding. As much as I love teaching—and I do—such a load can bleach a working writer into a ghost. I see it all the time, and it’s a bitter and sad thing. So I’ve refused to let that happen, and that’s been a mighty struggle. I protect my time and my creative mojo and I use it to write the books I want to publish.

Language for the Living and the Dead came out in June, and I’m already at work revising and developing a new collection—the working title is Mummer Prisoner Scavenger Thief. Conundrum Press is in the process of releasing new editions of all my books, so I’m also working to prepare those four editions. I’m busy, which I like as long as it’s productive effort. Whatever energy I have for writing—I don’t save it. I leave it all on the pages of my books. Once I dial down my teaching career, I’ll have the opportunity to use my time differently, and I look forward to using it well. I have more books I mean to write.