Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #11

“One of the reasons I can with (fairly) clear conscience continue to write poems in a world which does not know it needs them…is because I do believe that a poem is capable of allowing us to know what the mind is, what the mind is like, and how it operates.” Bin Ramke

An Interview with Bin Ramke

(Bob King)

BK: In your new book, Theory of Mind: New and Selected Poems (2009), you have a generous amount of new poems reaching 65 pages. But you also have selected three to seven poems from each of your previous nine books. Was the selection process difficult? How did you decide on what to include? Any lessons in that process for you, or for others to understand?

BR: The selection process was difficult, and I can’t claim to have done it well. I write each new thing as a response or a correction to what came before—not directly, and usually not consciously, but when I look back I see the process that way. Which means it is nearly impossible for me to see individual poems having an autonomous life, or value. In a sense I understand every poem as a failure, and the next poem as an attempt to atone for that failure—thus any interest in those early poems would arise from an interest in the more recent attempts, and the shape of the trajectory from early to later works.

I suppose one lesson in all this for me is that no one else cares that much. That is to say, my own agonizing over this nebulous set of connections and reworkings is invisible to readers. 

BK: In a review, Publishers Weekly says you’ve journeyed “toward wholly original aesthetic ground.” That phrase could be seen as only a nice blurb but it’s not a claim one usually sees in reviews. What’s your take on the concept of “originality” in poetry and/or ii your own poetry? Was this something to strive for or did it just ‘happen’ because of your own aesthetic?

BR: Your question is interesting in several ways. There is an irony to the use of the word “original” in connection with my work of the past decade and more, in that I have tended to use vast amounts of quoted material in the poems. That is, I have been explicitly and spectacularly UNoriginal in crucial ways. And it also happens that such practices in various arts are commonplace—not only have rap musicians introduced the general public to such practices, but visual artists of the early twentieth century worked with similar materials and practices to produce collage. I arrived at my own practice through “original” paths, perhaps—I started doing this stuff because it occurred to me I was inspired by reading, and would often try to rework material I had read into my own writing—which was a kind of dishonesty. So I began to simply point to things which I admired or responded to directly, without comment.

But if there is an area of original aesthetic ground in my poems it has to do with a kind of thinking resulting from my respect for and grounding in the world of mathematics and even engineering. The models at the center of these poems are as likely to arise out of my memories of conversations with my father about the chemistry of water as from specific literary sources. I had intended to be a mathematician until a point in my undergraduate life when I realized I was not as good at it as I needed to be. But I continued to see the world as comprehensible in its patterning, and its equalities. That is to say, both poetry and mathematics operate by exploring what it might mean to say one thing is another thing, and then to ask what “thing” might mean—to confound assumptions about the abstract and the concrete. 

BK:  One noticeable aspect of several of your poems is the use of quotes and references. The opening poems range from the 16th century mathematician Tartaglia and the 12th century Indian mathematician/astronomer Bhaskara, to Christopher Smart and Wittgenstein. In “Was It Fallen It Was a Floating World” you find a place for Isaiah, a detailed contemporary astronomical discovery from the HATNet project with a quote of Robert Noeyes from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and a description of an emotional state from an internet help site. In your work I don’t get the feeling that you use them as in a collage, but rather divergent perspectives, including philosophy and science, on the same matter which you bring together in a whole poem. What’s your sense of your use of possibly disparate material? Or of the different voices you bring into the poem?

BR: For some reason these materials don’t seem to me to be all that disparate, and that very fact is in some sense what I am exploring (or exploiting). As I began trying to discuss above, I sometimes quote directly as a kind of homage to the source, at the same time hoping to engage in dialogue this way. The dialogue occurs (if it occurs) in an alternate sort of time sense. One of the things about literature that attracted me was its (if I have the terminology correct) ability to work diachronically rather than synchronically—to connect across vast periods of time, rather than to allow conversation only among those voices which happen to exist at the same time. So I try to engage with the voices of the long dead, and to some extent also with the not-yet-alive. This is probably in some way what all poets do, but not everyone is so pretentious as to say it directly.

BK: All poets are probably conscious of language but you find poetic strength in etymologies as well. A small example would be in the poem I just mentioned where you ask the reader, or yourself, to “consider…a lizard on a flat rock” and then add, “Consider, / from con plus sider, star like constellation, a kind / of world.” This is not just chance dictionary-work, right? You seem to draw wisdom out of etymology. What’s your sense of your use of this kind of knowledge?

BR: I love that you chose that particular example to bring up the issue of etymology in my writing. I read an essay by Howard Nemerov (not a poet I quote often, but it was a very interesting essay) on that very word (he noted that in some historical sense “consider” and “constellation” ought to mean the same thing, which brings me back to the mathematical-poetic consideration, how both disciplines question what it means to be the same) and that was probably the beginning of my obsession with words as events with histories. A word IS the history of its use, and if one continues to be aware of the various uses, even those that have fallen away with time, then just the pronouncing (or writing, especially with an awareness of changes in orthography) of the word is a poem.

As a practical matter I find that looking up the etymology of a word I happen to have just used is often a way for me to rejuvenate my connection to the poem I am writing. I may begin with an image, or by playing with the sounds of a phrase—or I might even begin writing a poem with some small narrative. But the poem will inevitably lose momentum and feel stale to me, at which point it is often the re-visioning of some word or two which enables me to keep it alive.

BK: You also find more room for science in your poems, both the concepts and the lingo, than many other writers do. Does science play a particular role in your poetic perception?

BR: Yes. I grew up among engineers and scientists of one sort or another, as well as farmers and school teachers and carpenters. My father was one of seven brothers and sisters and they were the first generation of that family to go to college (because of the efforts of Huey P. Long, an interesting phenomenon itself). One became an aeronautical engineer (I still remember his defining “ceramic” for me when I was puzzled to hear about ceramic tiles lining the space shuttle: “nonmetallic inorganic compounds.” I loved the rhythm of that phrase). Another got his degree in forestry, an aunt taught elementary school, my father was a chemist, my older brother was an electrical engineer with NASA, my younger brother tests software and was a technical writer. Which is all to say that I grew up in a milieu of these concepts and dictions being simply how it is, how people talk. These people generally gathered for weekend events at my grandfather’s farm, where among the places I explored was a chair in the living room next to a bookcase full of the Harvard Classics. There seemed no boundaries between all these various ways of knowing.

For that matter, I suddenly and clearly recall a fifth-grade teacher telling us the word “science” derived from the Latin scire, “to know”—which suggests that my engagement with etymology and my acceptance of literary and scientific ways of knowing might have had an even earlier origin than I was thinking.

BK:  In a note at the end of the volume—and, for that matter, in the very first epigraph—you quote the phrase theory of mind which refers to a kind of social cognition. Would you mind elaborating on that just a little? What’s the importance of that to you and your work?

BR: I am aware that the phrase is a bit obscure and therefore probably does not resonate usefully for most readers. But one of the reasons I can with (fairly) clear conscience continue to write poems in a world which does not know it needs them—the reason I continue to pursue what appears to be an indulgence—is because I do believe that a poem is capable of allowing us to know what the mind is, what the mind is like, and how it operates. This turns out to be a curious process, that of knowing the operations and mechanics of knowing—the self-consciousness of the mind itself. Anyway, “theory,” which etymologically derives from a word for seeing, for vision, is itself an engaging word for me, and “mind” is equally attractive, so that counts for something. But Theory of Mind specifically refers to something like the ability of a creature to project into another creature the same mental capacities the first creature has (whether other animals or only humans have Theory of Mind is part of the investigation). Which is what literature is about, too. We can only operate our of a kind of generosity and giftedness—we communicate, form communities, by giving credit to others for the same abilities and understandings we have. A poem is a small version of the mind, not just of the poet, but a projected version of the culture at large, the cumulative accomplishment of the species. This claim I just made is laughably large and pompous, but I somehow believe it, or believe it can be true.