Thursday Jul 27

AwadRuth Ruth Awad is the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award and her forthcoming debut poetry collection Set to Music a Wildfire won the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize from Southern Indiana Review Press. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Missouri Review, CALYX, Diode, Rattle, Sixth Finch, The Adroit Journal, Drunken Boat, and in the anthologies The Hundred Years' War: Modern War Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2014), New Poetry from the Midwest 2014 (New American Press, 2015), and Poets on Growth (Math Paper Press, 2015). She won the 2012 and 2013 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and the 2011 Copper Nickel Poetry Contest, and she was a finalist for the 2013 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. Learn more about her work at ruthawadpoetry.com.

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Ruth Awad Interview with John Hoppenthaler


First, congratulations, Ruth! Your first book, Set to Music a Wildfire, recently won the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize from Southern Indiana Review Press and will be published in 2017. As luck would have it, Waters is a long-time friend and mentor of mine and, at this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference in Los Angeles, I had a wonderful dinner with Michael, his wife, and Ron Mitchell, your new editor. Small world. You’re not in academia, so matters of tenure and publish or perish are not issues; instead, you work full time as a content strategist and freelance as copywriter and editor. In what ways do you think this book will change your life? Do you see yourself maybe thinking about a job in academia? You do have an MFA in poetry from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, so with a book . . .

Thanks, John! Very small world. I look forward to meeting Michael Waters and Ron Mitchell in person one day, too.

To answer your question about how this book will change my life—it's hard to say. I think I'm still adjusting to the idea of having a book. I've been working on and revising the collection in earnest for the past five years, so at this stage, I'm mostly resisting the muscle memory that keeps telling me to work on the collection, send it out, rinse, repeat.

Maybe the biggest change is this: I can fully set my sights on my next collection.

As for academia, I do daydream about teaching poetry—I got to teach a few undergrad creative writing workshops during my time at SIUC—but I really like the work that I do right now. I'm a content strategist and editor for an online insurance agency, which means I know more about insurance than a woman with an MFA in poetry ever should, but it's challenging and interesting (I swear). It's even helped me think about my work in a different way—I'm very aware of what I want the reader to take away from my poems.


So, before we get to the poems, I’d like to ask you about a couple of things that set you apart a bit. First, tattoos. Not that tattoos are so rare in the poetry world; they aren’t. But not only is your body adorned with many striking and colorful tattoos, your mother, who is a tattoo artist, trained you, and you practice—on a limited basis—tattoo art yourself. Many poets practice a second art, but few are tattoo artists! Is there some correlation you can make between the creating of tattoos and the creating of poems? Also, did your mom do any of the tattoos you bear?

I think the most obvious connection is the care I have to take with both tattooing and writing. With tattoos, every motion I make with the needle matters, and different skin types and placements require different approaches. For example, say I'm tattooing a piece on the stomach or ribs. These are tricky areas to ink because the skin tends to be stretchy, and if I don't pull the skin taut enough, the needle will bounce and not enter the dermis. (And the ink has to enter the dermis if the tattoo is going to be permanent.)

It's not so different from poetry where every word will determine whether the finished poem resonates with people, sticks with them. If I haven't fully engaged with the subject matter or an idea, it shows. That needle's going to bounce.

My mother did most of my tattoos, save for my left sleeve. When you're a heavily tattooed person, you inevitably get questions about regret. While maybe I wouldn't have chosen a couple of the pieces today that I chose when I was 18, I still find value in each of my tattoos—they symbolize this exchange of craft between me and my mother. And I'm grateful for that.


Second, you have just undertaken a new project that lives at the intersection of poetry and animals, Pet Poetics. Please enlighten us about the project and your goals in founding it.

I was genuinely curious if other poets see a connection between their animals and their art—I know I have with my two dogs. (In my head, I refer to this phenomenon as Dog Magic.) In the practical sense, the dogs force me to stay on a very rigid schedule—we get up, eat, take breaks, and sleep at the same time every day. That structure is so conducive to writing! That's true for my job, where I plan, edit, and write insurance content all day, and for my poetry.

Then there are the less apparent ways the dogs affect my art. Caring for them has sharpened my empathy, and to me, that's the whole point of creating art—to make empathy possible.

So that was the spark. I wanted to see how other artists relate to the animals they keep and how it bleeds into their work, both in practice and theory. I've been really surprised by the response the project has had so far—it seems there is a real desire to participate in a space that honors these relationships.


You’ve been fortunate to have been able to work with a number of wonderful poets, such as Judy Jordan, Allison Joseph, Jon Tribble, and Rodney Jones. In an interview with Geosi Gyasi, you say that Jones offered you a bit of advice “that continues to inform my writing: ‘Loosen up, girl.’” Can you be more specific? In what way(s) were you too tight? Is there anything in the poems represented here that might demonstrate the loosening up?

Rodney Jones has a gift for truth telling, and that off-the-cuff advice was what a deeply insecure second-year MFA candidate needed to hear. I think he was delicately pointing out that my writing was rigid, and I blame that on my former obsession with leading the reader by the nose. I was afraid of being misunderstood, and it was keeping me from taking risks and imaginative leaps.

His advice dovetailed with something Judy Jordan said to me around the same time: write what scares you. So I ran with it.

I do think the poems are evidence of Rodney and Judy's advice. For example, "Inventory of Things Left Behind" was first drafted in a workshop I had with Rodney, and I'd revised it on and off over the years. At first, it was a narrative-driven poem about a mother deciding to give custody of her three daughters to her ex-husband. While the poem's impetus is still there, I realized that I had to trust my readers to pick up on the emotional truth of the situation and let the mother's psychology, not backstory, lead the way.


Two of the poems included here are what I guess we might call confessional monologues. I’m thinking of “I’d Always Told You Your Father Was the Most Beautiful Man in the World” and “Inventory of Things Left Behind.” I’m not asking you to disclose whether or not these accounts are factual, but I wonder if you can say how this mode of poetry might work in a landscape some see as post-confessional? I’m thinking that post-modernity has provided us a different way of engaging with “confessional” poems that’s different than ways one might have engaged with them in Lowell’s day. I think, also, about an idea of Michel Foucault’s, that society has become obsessed with “the infinite task of extracting from the depths of oneself, in between the words, a truth which the very form of the confession holds out like a shimmering mirage.”

I'm not sure if these poems qualify as confessional monologues in the strictest sense—to me, these are persona poems shot through with a confessional impulse. Both are written from my mother's point of view.

In that regard, I think these poems are at home in a post-confessional landscape: they use the lyric "I" to help the reader identify with the poem and use a seed of personal experience as an entry point into the subject, but both are more concerned with exploring universal themes, such as the expectation that women perform in certain ways and the price they pay for failing to meet those expectations.

It's tempting to read contemporary poems of the self as nonfiction—it's satisfying to know when art comes from a lived experience. I know I'm guilty of reading authors into their work because their vulnerability feels so true. I want it to be real just like I'd want a beloved character in a movie or book to be real.


“The Hypothetical Return” is a poem destined to haunt any of your readers who, like me, has taken on the challenge of being a stepparent. I often see gestures, facial expressions and other markers that remind me of my stepson’s father, and these often trouble me though, rationally, there’s no reason they should. I have had that feeling, too, that cruelly suggests to me that the parenting I do is somehow in vain or, in the end, will not let me keep him as my son. As you write, “Already I'm counting the feathers, / the air around me like flight.” There’s nothing on your web site to suggest that you’re a stepmother. Where does this poem come from? That is, where did you find the emotional tenor to get this so right?

My parents had a tumultuous marriage and an even worse divorce, so I've spent a good deal of my childhood studying their interactions when they were together and dissecting their behaviors when they were apart. When we were kids, it didn't take long for me or my sisters to realize our parents were kinder to us the less we reminded them of each other. At one point, my father even forbade us from wearing ankle bracelets because my mother wore them.

So the poem is born from the small ways a lost love will live on and haunt a parent through their children.


What question, if any, about your poetry has no one ever asked you that you’d like to ask yourself now?

Will you use a narrative arc to organize your next poetry collection? Answer: I'd like to step away from that in my next collection and see what happens. The narrative arc in Set to Music a Wildfire, which starts with some my father's experiences in Lebanon during the civil war and follows his emigration to the States, took some of the guesswork out of arranging the collection. I kind of want my next collection to be just a little wild, a little unhinged.

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I’d Always Told You Your Father Was the Most Beautiful Man in the World


But I was already engaged to Tom Rockwood—
your name was almost Rockwood—and I was nineteen.
The ring wasn’t much, just enough to get me moved out
from Mom’s place. You know how that house is –
piled up with kids all the time, Jesus figurines.
Felt like the whole house was made of breath.

Tom was out somewhere and I needed to borrow the phone
(we didn’t have one yet) so I knocked on the neighbor’s door
and you wouldn’t believe it unless you saw him then,
but I’m telling you, it was like my eyes adjusting to light –
that door yawning open, your father leaning on the frame,
a gap between his front teeth when he smiled at me.
That thick hair. Olive skin. Even the vaccine scar on his arm,
round, pin-tucked, looked like a new penny.        

I know it’s not the most attractive portrait of your mother:
sitting in some man’s home, watching the patient way he lifted      
saucers from the cabinet and boiled water for tea while                   
another man’s ring burned its small fire on my finger.
I married your father at the courthouse six weeks later.
We came home one night to my dresser in the driveway,
an ax sunk in a scrap of drawer, the rest of it hacked to bits.



Flotsam


I dreamed you. I wanted you,
little beak, little furl.
I’d warm my hands on my belly—
hot breath, saltwater.

The blood down my legs
in the supermarket aisle
said you were dead.
I held that big bowl
of you, held you
and wanted more than
I could bear to want.

When you were born,
your father cried—
another girl—and left.
A girl but an ocean,
I called. Little reef.
Little raft. I counted
your fingers and toes
like days at sea.



Inventory of Things Left Behind


I am live wire tuned for signs of anger.
After eleven years with you

I am dusklight
and you can't hold me.

Of course my grief is an ocean.
So if I must dredge the ink and drag the salt,

one day my girls will understand
how they came to live with you.



On the Night You Ask for a Divorce


Sleepless beside me, you turn
all night like a wave against

a shore of teeth, the pull
and thrash of dreams

sank into the bed we shared
for eleven years.

The moon arrows its light
like a naked bulb at our bodies,

their infinite capacity for ruin.
I inventory what the night does not erase:

your coldness,
            that amphibious raft, I envy with my heart.



Phillumeny after the Separation


On the hair-narrow bridge
            he leans over the rail, sees
the river's gone mossy.

He takes the hotel matchbook from his pocket
            and strikes. The graze and fizz of ignition: a rind splayed,
the shadows in his palms peeled away.

So he sets each one to spark, a blazing seed
            for each regret, but there's no one here to forgive him.
Just the wind as it shoulders down the flames.

When dark blots the sky, his hands are empty.
            The skin smooth where fire blurred.
His hands still warm with it.



The Hypothetical Return


Say she did come back.
Their mother, a chain of sparrows
in the doorway, she is all black lace and wings—

I'm not enough to keep her there.

So I turn her away, back into
the unwelcoming night,
and she will fly from me again

and haunt me every morning
when my daughters cross their legs like her,
foot latched under ankle.

When their faces resettle from laughter
and the corners of their lips
slide back to serifs.

They are drifting from me.
Already I'm counting the feathers,
the air around me like flight.