Rich Ives Interview, with Nicelle Davis
Your poetry really challenges conventional notions of a poem––what response would you give to the person who says that your poems aren’t really poems? What are the benefits in writing hybrid poetry?
Poetry is a name we give to a thing after it has been created. If we think we know what it is before, or worse, while, we are creating it, we are limiting what it is and what it can do. I don’t believe it should be the creator’s concern what his creation will be called. I encourage a variety of terms to be used in describing my work; poem, prose poem, flash fiction, hybrid, or my personal favorite, “mole,” which seems to have come from the German poet Günter Eich. My rather large collection of these, organized as a “book of days,” with one for each day of the year, is called Tunneling to the Moon. It contains hybrids of many forms, poetic elements, narrative and rhetorical structures and language styles. I react to what I read in phrases and occasional sentences, rarely anything very long, and collect these personalized embodiments of my responses, removing them from the context of their creation so as to see their possibilities and not get trapped in their original intentions, until the relationships between some of them, often gathered from very different kinds of reading (contemporary poets, works in translation, a 1940s elementary school Social Science textbook, pulp fiction, a history of carnival side shows, folktales, legends, etc.) begin to generate a new context, which I encourage by juxtaposing them in surprising, contrasting, and suggestive ways. I try to create implications and structure the work around developing the implications. A literal meaning may also remain, but I try to stay focused on the suggestive range of possibility. I also collect transition phrases and elements from many sources and use them to create a structure of logic that may be contradicted at times, but allows the work to move forward as not really illogical, but merely differently logical.
Your writing is full of firecrackers; the words explode with surprising music and visuals. I love it. For example, in “The Woods Are Lovely,” you write about a cheese map. As a poet, where can I find my own poetry cheese map? Or, how did you find that perfect blend between surrealism and realism?
I frequently write something somewhat simply, even flatly, focusing on the voice and rhythm of the words to get a compelling flow of language and character implication, and then experiment with replacing words in it to expand the suggestive qualities of what otherwise would have sounded fairly logical into an imaginative realm. The title of that piece, for example, refers to Robert Frost, who never followed any cheese map, but understood the compelling beauty of dark travel very well, and the language begins simple and straightforward, but juxtaposes statements that could be seen as a bit contentious with each other. Later there are statements that contain the 1940s elementary school Social Studies textbook style of talking down to the reader as if he were a child who might be a little slow, which is then complicated by changing the subject this language is applied to. The language remains mostly simple, but the implications continue to grow. The conclusion contains a series of even simpler language styles with a surprise, possibly even a further contradiction, in the last one. The style, then, is where much of the realism is, and the subject applications create the surrealism. Cheese maps can be found in this manner using oiled sunflower seeds to detect their plaid suspension goiters wherever fine stationary devices are sold. I’m sorry, but they don’t seem to know how to locate themselves in questions lacking unnecessarily avuncular inflammations, and I wouldn’t want to have to navigate among them without a crisp sourdough stick or perhaps a nautical variation on the porcupine thumbscrew.
Who is your favorite poet? Where did you meet their poems and how did the connection occur?
I’ve been frequently drawn to foreign poets and the American poets heavily influenced by them. I worked as a librarian for about ten years at the University of Montana and often spent my breaks in the stacks searching out lesser known poets, translating some from the German, such as Johannes Bobrowski (Yesterday I Was Leaving, Owl Creek Press) and Peter Huchel (included in Evidence of Fire, Owl Creek Press, and The Oxford Book of East German Poetry). The connection to older forms of storytelling and language use in elemental environments has always appealed to me, especially in folktales and legends, which have a deeper cultural root and influence in many foreign writers. Vasko Popa, Cesaré Pavese, Yvan Goll, Tomas Tranströmer, and Yannis Ritsos would be examples of this.
Your poems could be read as contemporary fairy tales. Why do you think fables, myths, legends, and fairy tales never fail to delight readers? What do you think makes the appeal of magic ageless and timeless?
I think it’s the appeal of the imagination in unimaginative times, which seem to recur frequently, particularly during economic extremes. As a teacher, I see the creeping influence of business and factual approaches to the sciences and technology continuing to exert greater control and efface creativity and individuality in the culture by turning education into job training. Learning to be good at something should mean you are capable of questioning it in all its dimensions, not merely of plugging in its numerical and factual conclusions. Mathematics is a system of logic with astonishing applications we are only beginning to discover, but it doesn’t know how to question itself. It’s this turning around and looking at what you are doing that delights and surprises us in “magical” stories that are often lessons in self-awareness. Facts and systems are not self-aware. We need to be reminded of this. Our increasingly unexercised capacities for deep attention and concentration are being swallowed in distractions. The “play energy” that once required us to invent our own games and explore the natural world around and inside us now goes into entertainments manufactured for us. How common is it to come upon anyone just paying close attention to what’s right in front of him without reaching for a cell phone or rushing off to an appointment? We are in a time and place where self-awareness and the imagination that feeds it are treated as commodities when they are even recognized. This battle between the individual mind and the perception of collective need has been going on for a long time, and advances in civilization that have not been advances in the individual have proven themselves destructive, often in delayed and indirect ways. Tale telling and the fresh use of a language increasingly burdened with implied cultural demands and clichéd perceptions bring us back to our individuality and shock us with the realization of how much we have given away to false progress.
What creative projects are you currently working on?
My new project with hybrid forms is tentatively titled The Portable Museum of Improbable Occurrences. The museum appears and disappears in a variety of locations and contains written “engagements” representing reactions and involvements with imaginary art works by both real and imaginary painters, sculptors, installation artists, animators, etc. I’ve just finished a lyric novel called Room for a Falling Sky and the first draft of a lyric memoir called Nursery Crimes, as well as a new collection of stories and a new collection of poems. It’s a time of bringing together and structuring the work of many years, making room for new efforts. I find it necessary to feed my imagination, to keep it exploring new areas of interest beyond the words, so these written projects are currently being fed and encouraged by art projects in papermaking, encaustic painting, assemblage and collage as well as by my involvement with a variety of musical forms and instruments including fiddle, dobro, tenor banjo, octave mandolin, guitar and keyboards. I seem to have grown gradually more comfortable with working in multiple directions at one time. I’m learning how to let them nurture each other instead of fight over my time.
If you were a poetry doctor and diagnosed a poem with chronic cliché syndrome, how would you cure it? Is there a prescription you recommend to make language feel new and fresh again?
The first influence I can remember that turned me to collecting fragments in a notebook was David Wagoner’s completions of works in progress and notebook entries left by Theodore Roethke that were published as Straw for the Fire. Many of my works tend to form in stages, sometimes with long gestation periods between forward developments. At first it felt disorganized, and I feared I would never complete things, but I soon found the whole process getting a bit faster, with less waiting time between stages, as I did it with more works, often quite a few at a time, and a wider variety of influences. I spent a great deal of time studying and developing transition methods and structures that allowed me to move more easily between disparate elements. I found clichés useful for this, particularly when a single one is isolated from any others. Clichés are deadly when the writer doesn’t recognize them as clichés, but they can become useful when deliberately milked for their familiarity. Try altering the context in which a cliché or boring phrase is used or removing a word and replacing it with something unexpected, particularly something specific, concrete or contradictory, and suddenly its meaning becomes fresh again while still retaining an altered dimension of its former life. Another approach that has worked for me is to locate a weakness or an error and exploit it. Instead of correcting or removing it, I repeat it later, and then again, until it functions differently as a deliberate move than it did as a mistake. Comedians have learned how important exaggeration is for surprising with language, and I steal from their methods. I keep looking for things to say that I didn’t know I was going to say. I try to surprise myself with something I wouldn’t ordinarily say, or become some part of me I haven’t explored by immersing myself in the rhythms and voice of a language style I haven’t yet claimed for my own, perhaps some odd thing I heard someone say (and saved in my notebook, which has now evolved into my laptop), or their unusual way of phrasing it. I encourage myself to forget it’s me doing it. I try to bring something to the work that wouldn’t seem to belong there and push on it until it does.
A Conspicuous Absence of Fathers
Polly Panda was no ordinary young girl. She was fat and she was nice. She was happy and she was fun and she was always making the boys happy.
An iguana named Jug Jug lived with Polly. Jug Jug spent all his time on a tree branch Polly put in her bathroom. He was not nearly as happy as Polly. In fact, he was just plain miserable and as a result, he would bite at Polly when she came to feed him. His bites were harmless, but it didn't help Polly stay happy to have her beloved pet biting at her.
What Polly didn't know was that Jug Jug had taken to staying awake all night long and gazing out the bathroom window, hoping the moon would talk to him.
When the boys came over, Polly would take them to see Jug Jug, but he was always asleep during the daytime and Polly was worried about him. She could see that he had been eating, but not very much, and if she woke him up for his dinner, he would bite at her and go back to sleep. Polly didn't understand about the moon because she was always sleeping when the moon was out and she wasn't lonely like Jug Jug.
Then Polly's twin sisters, Yes and No, came to visit and at least one of them was always awake, and it seemed like they used the bathroom nearly all the time. Polly loved her sisters very much, but this visit was growing, growing entirely too long. It was difficult to make boys happy with sisters who could never agree on anything living in your house. And poor Jug Jug couldn't get any sleep at all.
One day Polly realized that the boys weren’t really boys at all but young men, and she became very confused. So she decided to talk to her sisters about her confusion.
Polly's sister Yes said, "I envy you. You have so many men who want to be with you and you don't have to marry just one. I've been married several times now and it never works out, even though I give them everything they want. I wish it could be like the old days when they wanted to be with me and not get married. My life was very exciting then."
And Polly's sister No said, "Men only want one thing and they never really care about pleasing me. Oh it's very nice to be wanted, but you have to keep everything in perspective and not give in to their baser instincts. Women have to be the ones to control things or everything just falls apart."
Then Polly's mother called with exciting news. They all had another sister. The sister was still very tiny, but Polly's mother said she didn't look a bit like Polly's other sisters and maybe she was going to be more like Polly.
Polly's two older sisters went to see the new sister so they could argue about who she looked like, but Polly just went to the pet store instead and brought home a friend for Jug Jug and invited the boys over for a big party. Because Polly had known for a long time that there was going to be another sister. She was just confused about what it would mean to her life if her new sister turned out to be too much like Yes or No.
And Jug Jug, well, Jug Jug wasn't a boy after all and her new friend was and pretty soon Jug Jug had a confused little version of herself to listen to her relentless criticism of daylight and its insidious erosion of higher values when the child’s father wouldn’t do it and the two of them stayed awake together late at night, waiting for the moon to address them in a language they could understand, without the child’s father awake to muddle up their newly transcendent affirmation and enlightenment.
It’s a beautiful sight, this waiting, thought Polly, inserted her nocturnal diaphragm, gently closed the bathroom door so as not to interrupt Jug Jug and child in their bonding, and frolicked with wild abandon and no concern at all for the plights of Yes, No or even her oddly still nameless youngest sister, who was already getting used to living in a gray area.
In time, of course, the moon did speak. But who could have understood anyone that old and full of contradictions?
The Woods Are Lovely
Yes, some people think that the forest is too dark. Perhaps they could live in it until they brighten up.
We may need a cheese map to find our way. They can be read in the dark and used to broadcast intentions. You must not think that all maps are found in caves. Even if the man who dressed the map is dead. He is not at the end of the road.
The map shows that there is a village in the ocean. These people did not live in disbelief. This map also shows the mouth of a hunter. This is because there are many kinds of oceans. We might then say the rainfall is heavy and wish to go hunting. This is only an idea. It might have a hole for a handle. But with the map we can see that all this water has a great deal to do with where we are going.
Another reason that maps are useful is that each one is different. Would you expect to find the same kind of weather in each of these fallen bodies? Have you already understood that a map is only another way of showing that a sharp stone may welcome the end of a stick?
The man who made the map was probably a practical man. If he wanted an axe, he made an axe. If he wanted a stone, he picked up a stone. If he wanted a weapon, he used the bones found in the neighborhood. But if he wanted to travel, he needed to imagine his feet doing some things they had not yet done.
Farther along, the traveler found the villagers in rocky beds. The first thing you might notice would be the bruises on their bodies. These are the bruises you can see. This might help you welcome them to the next world.
Not so very many years ago, this might have made you a religious leader, but now you are just a man.
Among these villagers, a father might say, "The hungry man hunted for food until he found it." Or a mother might say, "The ocean is never really very far away." But today we understand that a potato, for example, is not really just a slow animal. And if we want natives to eat, we can get them at the marketplace. These people of long ago knew that many things are not as they appear and the next world is always waiting.
Not one of these people was imitating another when he built his home of mud from the river. Some things you know without interference. The next world is not a streambed or a clever pendulous nest in the willows, but a house a man can live in must hold something more than a man.
If you have played this game or one like it, you know that it is not a disguise hidden in a smelly map. This is the whole body and this is how we use it.
You can go outside.
You can play in it.
You can sleep and then you can arrive.
You can provide a way for others to suffer as happily as you have.
A fever, misunderstood. The waitress won't stop rubbing her hands. Because I am frequently someone else, I say, "There’s a problem in logic inside and it only comes out when the speaker is preoccupied."
Accidents are proof of my existence, stains my philosophy. I tell the stories that have already been told. First you will fall asleep and then you will fall asleep inside.
In a quiet daze of darkness and oars, one soft slap, numb in the damp night. A finger pointing nowhere. "That is where you are going," whispers its wind before anyone knows.
Whatever it is, you step into it, surprised that it fits.
The fairytale has a long tongue, darting, grobbling up the silence, a forgotten story of insects and mistakes, a hunger of flies and survival. When you believe the stone inside is a real stone and the house inside is a real house, then you will be surrounded by your own existence. Day does not simply turn into night; it is penetrated by it.
An old woman in the tale lives in a cage lit with fish-oil lamps. She sleeps and your parts inhabit her dreams. It’s your winged heart in the shadows, gnawing on a mouse. You could chase yourself with your own furry arm. Your head would be outside itself if it could think of this.
Then the dying thump of some wart-animal held down by the frozen earth of an entirely different tale.
“Love,” the dog said, “love,” but it sounded like, “Feed me.”
I miss you. Give me back my oven.