Bin Ramke in Conversation with J’Lyn Chapman
Interview by J’Lyn Chapman
CHAPMAN: Are you enjoying the AWP? Do you like it?
RAMKE: Yes. Although, I have always sort of resisted admitting that I like the AWP. You didn’t think that was going to be a complicated answer did you?
CHAPMAN: What do you like about it?
RAMKE: I love being in the city of Seattle, so it is an excuse to come here. There’s a great museum that few people seem to know about. I shouldn’t say that. I don’t know what other people know about. The Seattle Art Museum has a wonderful Asian, Pacific Rim collection. But also it’s not a bad idea every once in a while to collect together a bunch of people who have similar interests and let them reassure each other that it’s something that matters.
CHAPMAN: There’s sometimes a shame in enjoying it. If it potentially builds community, why is it shameful to like it?
RAMKE: Because of a kind of corporate professionalized behavior that can be associated with MFA programs. Writing matters not only because it enables people to get jobs and get their insurance. But if you institutionalize writing, that’s going to be a part of it. Maybe it’s even that we don’t want to be reminded that we also must deal with those other life issues and needs. In some ways, it’s parallel to the American Medical Association. The AMA is partly involved in supporting the best practices and research and all that, and it’s partly involved in making sure only the people who pay their dues get to practice their art.
CHAPMAN: You’re on a panel. Can you talk about it?
RAMKE: The panel is on “Ecopoetics, Ekphrasis, and Ethics.” Karla Kelsey, a former University of Denver graduate student, put this together, and it involves Sally Keith, Brian Teare, Forrest Gander, and me. This is the way Karla described it:
Recent thoughts on ecopoetics have concluded that nature writing is problematic because it treats ecosystems as though they are art objects. This panel operates at the junction between ekphrasis, ecopoetics, and ethics asking poets to respond to questions concerning the tension between forms of representation inherently necessarily to the act of writing and an ethical approach to engaging the world as more than mere object.
I’ll say something about my own take on it. I’m very interested in what might be called a scientific approach to the world. Which means, to my mind, looking, observing, not trying to minimize the preconceptions but actually looking at phenomena, large or small, and trying to be aware of what they are. And then, to expand from there, finding relationships. Some of those relationships become causal in the mind. There’s sometimes thought to be a conflict between the scientific and the aesthetic approach, let’s say. But I’m not using the word aesthetic very carefully yet, and I want to do that.
A somewhat shortened version of what I want to do is to point out that we’re always seeing only a version of what we’re trying to observe, but it’s never the full thing. There is always a measure of feeling, of aesthetic response, involved in this observation. Further, there are a lot of things that can only be observed, we might say, imaginatively. In fact, much of 20th– and 21st-century science is involved in finding ways to imagine the unimaginably small or the unimaginably large. We can’t usually see geological processes at work. Occasionally there’s an earthquake. But a lot of what we know about earth’s history has to be imagined rather than simply directly observed.
CHAPMAN: It reminds me of Renaissance science when that kind of approach became codified into science. So many of those texts resemble what we would now call interdisciplinary or even cross-genre and expose that imaginative approach, the necessary creativity.
RAMKE: There is a mathematical issue that’s referred to sometimes as the Four Color Map Theorem. Imagine a map of any sort of shape you want; what is the minimum number of colors needed so that no two adjacent countries are the same color? The problem needs to be defined a little more technically than that, but that’s it, more or less. It’s not really a practical problem, but it’s one of those mathematical phenomena that arises and intrigues people. It always appeared that four colors sufficed. The difficulty was proving it. You could imagine drawing a bunch of different types of maps, but that doesn’t work because you can always draw something a little bit different in shape. Well, in 1978, a proof was offered, and it seems to be correct. It seems to indicate that four colors suffice. It was the first computer proof offered in mathematics. But part of the proof is unobservable by human beings. It is only accessible to a computer. That is, a lifetime is not long enough to examine all of the steps. So, it requires faith in the computer because it’s an extremely complicated proof. And it’s mainly invisible.
RAMKE: Yeah. You take something that in the world seems very simple and directly visible. It’s about, in a sense, visibility—how many colors you’re going to need. And in order to prove it, in the computer age, you have to turn it into the completely invisible.
CHAPMAN: I used to struggle with math exams because I felt like I should just be able to answer questions by doing them, by experimenting with them, which is even more problematic than a heuristic approach. One simply runs out of time. But it sounds like in this case, there’s literally not enough time to prove the theory.
RAMKE: Yes. That’s right. As far as I know, the proof has never been completely examined and, if you’ll pardon the expression, proven to prove its object. This brings up the complexity of observing. What seems to be a simple concept—look at the world, and report on it and say what it really is rather than what you imagine or impose upon it or make up about it—as it turns out, can’t be done. You’re always in some sense being creative.
CHAPMAN: I thought about the proof as something that you do, that you test out, that you experiment with until you can draw some kind of conclusion. Do you see looking and observing as different from acting?
RAMKE: That’s an extremely interesting and important element in what we’re talking about. Because if you think about ecopoetics, which has to do with the environment that we’re living in that impinges on us and we on it, then a lot of talk is one thing and behavior is often seen as something else. But, they’re not essentially different and how we talk and think and imagine the world around us has obviously profound influence on how we behave in it and toward it. Well, I shouldn’t say “obviously” because often it’s not obvious. Often, it’s quite subtle.
CHAPMAN: I was thinking about the poem as not just representation but as something that is active and doing something. I think one understanding of ekphrasis is that it is merely observation, in which one sits in front of a document or a painting and records it into words. But we could also understand the ekphrastic poem as a stance, in which the poem is actively doing something. I was thinking that your work and the poems in Ariel, in particular, seem to take a stance.
RAMKE: We can sometimes think about the world as this thing that we’re going to take pictures of, literally, that is to say, with words, or, as in the other meaning of literally, with cameras and paintings. Part of what we’ve come to understand is that the world doesn’t remain static and that any attempt to depict how it is has to take into account change, over large and small scales both. So the poem itself enacts that sort of change. Even though the words remain fixed on the page, as words, they’re undergoing constant change. That’s part of the social, cultural nature of language. We read John Donne’s poetry, for example, differently now than it was read by his peers at the time he was writing.
CHAPMAN: So we change too. It seems like the reader is essential to that dynamism.
RAMKE: Yes. Not so much as a correction but as a recognition of complexity. When I say that the language as represented on the page changes, I mean the interactive dynamic process between reader and the words on the page changes. Well, and the poem, at least my concept of the poem at the moment, is not just aware of that, but is in its sense about that particular dynamism. Whether the poet intends it to be or not, it is. I’m assuming that learning something about how the poem operates tells us something about how the world at large operates.
CHAPMAN: It reminds me of Donne as well as the whole Renaissance era when the invention of effective microscopes allowed one to see the microcosm. It seems like one of the responses to that insight was to connect the small thing back to the larger thing, the self-same, which is actually reflected in Ariel; there is often that doubling or that fractal sense too.
RAMKE: It is interesting that at roughly the same period, the ability to see the very small through the microscope and the very large through the telescope came about. You brought up Benoît B. Mandelbrot’s ideas, which also involved the very large and the very small and the connections between the two. I don’t really have an end to this sentence or a punch line to this story, but I’m just thinking about that.
CHAPMAN: The proof that allows us to see something that’s invisible acts somewhat like a microscope; it’s a device that allows us to see. Another quality of Ariel and in much of your work is the role of imagination. I read an article recently that sought to remind us that we’ve become so accustomed to technology that we don’t stand in awe of it anymore.
RAMKE: I’m kind of in favor of not being in awe of the technology, and I like to remind myself that the word technology, technique, refers to how to do a thing. The technology for building a house is how you go about building a house. It is not the house; it isn’t the thing you live in. Because so much contemporary technology is so wonderful and complicated and in some sense, easy to use, we do often tend to see that technology and not what it is we’re trying to do with it or doing through it. This idea does connect us back to our relationship with the world around us: what we do to the world is often a by-product of making the technology to enable us to do things we’re not too careful about or even aware that we’re doing.
CHAPMAN: I was thinking about imagination as a kind of technology that allows us to see what’s not readily apparent.
RAMKE: Yes, I like to remind myself from time to time that the word image is in the word imagination. It’s an interesting question of whether we are imagining something when we cannot actually produce an image. Maybe mathematicians are producing an image. Even though that image is to most of us, me included, not available. It’s what we tend to refer to as abstract, which is another word I don’t fully understand. And in some sense what I might complain about in our relationship to technology a moment ago has to do with the failure to imagine the steps, let’s say, that are taking place between pushing a button on a computer and a letter appearing, something of that sort. I’m hoping at any rate that I’m not simply talking about a nostalgia for the days when you pushed the button and you saw the little lever in the typewriter push another little lever and a letter flew up.
I wrote down a quote from a recent article in the New York Times, a brief quote, someone referring to his Comodor 64, a computer from a previous century. He says of it, “you were never under any illusion that this machine was trying to be your friend. It did not want to talk to you, and if you wanted to talk to it, you had to learn its language.” When I first encountered computers, we referred to computer language; we were aware of that deep interior structure of the machine that had its own language with which it talked to itself, and then you had to learn COBOL, or some such language, to communicate with it. It was a tedious process. But it was, in a sense, a visible process. I’m referring to the mid to late 1960’s, when the computing that could be done was as nothing compared to what any of us can do on our laptops today. But there has been this loss of an imaginative relationship to what may actually be happening as opposed to an ability, a very useful ability, to simply deal with the end product of a long complex chain. I keep going back to thinking of what it is that we are imagining, what the image is of this process.
CHAPMAN: I prepared a question about the very obvious influence that Wallace Stevens has on your work and that, for Stevens, imagination was the light of the mind. You mentioned abstraction earlier; imagination is what allows Stevens to abstract himself from the world. Maybe I shouldn’t say, “abstract himself,” because I don’t know what that means, but imagination allows Stevens to create abstractions in his work.
RAMKE: I’m circling around the word abstract: to pull something from the world. One reason Wallace Stevens’ work was important to me was that it enabled me to imagine a relationship to the world. An oversimplification of it, I suppose, would be that the imagination extends out from the individual mind and encounters what Stevens referred to as Reality, and there’s an interface between the two—it’s a kind of film, like a bubble. We are constantly blowing these little soap-skin bubbles, and what we know is only that thinness of the difference between the air we’ve exhaled and the air of the world out there. It’s an extraordinarily fragile relationship that we have to the world, and in a way that is the imagination, but it’s not ever sufficient. It’s only the pressure between this interiority extending itself out and the exteriority trying to push itself in to us that maintains any kind of structure.
I was thinking of Stevens’ titles. There’s a poem of his called, “Phosphor Reading by His Own Light,” that always intrigued me. It produces an image of a person who happens to be named Phosphor, who, of course, provides his own light, and he’s able to read his own poems. The imagination is a kind of light. There’s an obviously, in one sense, false old idea of the eyes operating by sending out eye beams, but in another sense, it’s imaginatively accurate. We send out radar, something of that kind, to the world, which bounces it back toward us.
CHAPMAN: In a letter to Hi Simmons, Wallace Stevens said that it’s not necessarily that he believes in the imagination as its own thing, but it’s easier to believe in a thing created by imagination.
RAMKE: I see that. I see the argument that it brings. In some sense, we can only believe what we imagine. The world has to reappear in this form that the mind apprehends.
CHAPMAN: One way to put this concept of producing the light that one reads by is to consider its self-sufficiency. Another idea that continually comes up in Ariel is the doubling of the self. Is there a word for this: a doubling of the self, but instead of sending that self out, as with the doppelganger, you internalize it?
RAMKE: A kind of self-insoulment.
CHAPMAN: Yes. There are so many instances of it in Ariel.
RAMKE: One of the dangers in some readings of Stevens is that of isolation, of considering the imagination to be sufficient, solipsisticly. But Stevens continues to insist that the imagination exerts a pressure against reality and that if there were inadequate reality against which to push, it would be attenuated and weak. But the doubling that you’re speaking of is interesting. I don’t suppose you could provide some sort of an example.
I’ll point out that even though the act of writing imaginatively involves a reader, any time I experience a person who appears to have actually read the work, I’m slightly terrified. Don’t know what to make of that.
CHAPMAN: I feel a little bit terrified by it too. I feel then responsible for my reading. Nonetheless, the poem, “Ariel”:
Flakes of air into words
distill along a wire;
from the shape of an aerial
my brother could read all kinds
of information forming;
it seemed a sort of spying.
It seemed to make thing, matter:
every roof and radio
a writing writ by a god
in whose hand his breath was.
RAMKE: I steal from the Bible here as I often do. But something that I would point out is the use of the word matter, which is now a word that I’ve become obsessed by. And—I will finish this sentence, but I realize I’m actually distracting us from the doubling question that drove you to the poem—I’m intrigued by the idea of matter as a verb, to matter in the sense of to have an effect, to make a difference, as in, “does it matter that we think this way?” but also to actually make material substance. And there’s an interesting set of implications to that in the word matter, the idea of moving from spiritual to physical.
CHAPMAN: Yes. I think this concept happens in various ways, and I think I pointed out a complication of this doubling. Maybe doubling isn’t the right word. I mentioned fractals earlier and the idea of the self, that the parts resemble the whole. On one hand, we have a tertiary definition of matter—as verb, noun, and movement. If we go beyond that, we discover other ways to understand the word, such as the way that it sounds like mater or mother. It keeps opening up. Doubling may be too binary. The word contains within itself a “tissue of quotations,” to quote Roland Barthes.
RAMKE: It is an interesting poem to bring up then, for that case. I’m not claiming that the poem itself is interesting, but certain principles apply. It is in some sense directly responsive to my older brother, who was an engineer at NASA. His technical approach to the world and my interest in literature were occasions for a number of discussions between us. The poem deals with a moment when we were talking, and I realized that he was saying that by looking at the shape and configuration of an antenna (we don’t see them much anymore), he had some kind of idea of the information they were drawing from the air. I found that fascinating. It has a connection to spying, in a literal sense, as I used it in the poem—I know he was involved in putting up satellites, which the National Security Agency was interested in—as well as to the concept of radio waves in the air. We have these little machines that extract them and turn them back into another form of energy, which eventually becomes the sound waves that our ears can apprehend. So I began to see electricity drawn from the air condensing on little bits of metal like water vapor condensing on the clothesline.
The forming of information, or condensation of it, seems to me the action of the poem as well as the description of the action of the poem. Meanwhile, the title, “Aerial” is supposed to point to all of the different spellings, including the name of the horse that became the title of a famous book of poems that came out in the early 1960’s. So, I can see the sort of multiplying, multiplicative qualities that you were speaking of.
CHAPMAN: Which I think in some ways is what your poetry performs in both its meaning but also in the way you use language, the playfulness with spelling or the playfulness with sound, simply, or where words seem to accidently fall. I sometimes imagine that there’s a thought and then you realize as you’re writing the thought that these words actually look very similar to one another and then you allow that accident to create its own trajectory. To speak more broadly, it does seem like you recognize or the poems themselves recognize that there is unity and things are connected. Language is allowed to be playful, and there’s a kind of faith in allowing it to take its own trajectory. It will always be held in that net.
RAMKE: That’s a lovely metaphor, “held in that net,” with its doubleness. The net is a safety net under the acrobat performing on the high wire, but it’s also a machine for capturing and, thus, can be destructive. All of what you just said, I celebrate. I like the fact that you see that occurring: the accidental nature of so much, the processes in which the poem itself takes on its own momentum and realizes or recognizes connections and relationships, for instance, seeing the relationship between two different words reflected through spellings a kind of mirror-imaging that sometimes happens. It may even happen by noticing when one word is above another in a line. And all of that I enjoy, I love.
CHAPMAN: And that to me seems like a scientific investigation. I think that scientists allow an accident to happen—that is what an experiment is. But they also trace patterns.
RAMKE: I don’t mean to give myself credit, so I’m going to be careful to not make it sound too personal, but there does seem to be a way in which poetry participates in a Gedankenexperiment or thought experiment. Sometimes it is not experimenting but simply producing a product that has been predetermined, pre-established. But when it allows for the accident to occur, then, yes, that can be a kind of experiment. It’s interesting to be aware that the sort of thing that most of us did in high-school chemistry class ordinarily was not experimenting. It was trying to develop certain kinds of skills, and we would reproduce, or do again, processes that had been done many times before. And, if we did it right, if we did it properly, we would get the expected result, but if we did it improperly, then we would blow up the lab, then something real would happen. And the same sort of two approaches apply also in writing, that is, when we’re trying to produce the safe, non-explosive or expected result and when we’re willing to let it fall apart.
CHAPMAN: One of the definitions of aerial is something that’s fanciful or ethereal. You allude to Shelley in the book and, again, I think this comes up with Stevens, but fancy or fancifulness could be defined not necessarily as capriciousness but as a kind of associative thinking, an associative exploration. But it’s interesting that the other definition, ethereal, goes along with that. It’s like those associations seem to exist and seem so obvious once they’ve materialized, but at the same time there’s something very tenuous and contingent about them as well. Those connections are fragile and a little bit like spider webs that could easily come unbound.
RAMKE: Well, that is true, the fragility that you’re speaking of, but once the connections happen, there’s a toughness at work. Wittgenstein says that a certain act is like trying to repair a spider web with your fingers. To deliberately try to reconnect the threads of that web may be, in fact, nearly impossible, but the way to accomplish the act is to let the spider spin another web, to set up the situation so that it can happen again. In that sense, there’s a great toughness about it. It will continue to happen. All you have to do is step out of the way and the connections will reestablish, or there will be new ones, but they wouldn’t be there if you continued to insist on the same thing happening again.
CHAPMAN: It makes me think that to be a writer in the world, at least in this capacity, is the negotiation of involvement and also stepping back and allowing the world to happen.
RAMKE: That’s a very interesting way of putting it. A negotiation of involvement and retreat.
I mean, it would be almost cliché, I suppose, for me to say that one of the problems of our time, probably of all time, is that the act of retreat is seen as cowardly. And yet, it’s part of that necessary negotiation that you spoke of. We must always progress in one sense of progress.
CHAPMAN: There’s a writer, Charles Eisenstein, who, in his second book, The Ascent of Humanity, writes, “by naming the world, abstracting and reducing it, we impoverish our perception of it.” I was thinking about your poem, “Again, Against Numeration,” and how the difference that is essential to meaning in language might also create a kind of separation. I don’t know that I necessarily agree that this is absolutely the case because language is also conventional and, therefore, shared.
RAMKE: There are different places that I could enter into that. It is true that to name a thing begins to diminish it, but the act of naming, or the concept of naming, turns out to be complex if you think of naming as simply applying the predetermined. To name a thing is to say, “this thing is different from another thing.” If this thing has a name, we think we know where the boundaries are. But, of course, we don’t and naming needs always to be provisional. The names change. We tend to want there to be stability in naming. We want to know the difference between two sorts of wildflowers or between the wildflower and the weed. Context is everything: the context of what we want to grow in the garden that allows it to be a weed or a wildflower. So, then there is this idea that all we can know is difference. Whatever appears to us as a seamless mass is in a way unknowable. And then we begin making distinctions; we find places where there seems to be difference, so then we think we know whatever it is we’re looking at. People, for instance, mass people on the streets—they’re indifferentiable. We begin separating them out and naming them.
CHAPMAN: It reminds me of what we were just saying. Maybe the writer’s involvement in the world has to be naming in some way. It is inevitably to name, then also recusing yourself.
RAMKE: Yes, taking it back. Even at the same time as you assign a name, you withdraw from it. As soon as meaning occurs, what we usually think of as meaning, it diminishes the thing. To ask, “what does it mean?” is usually a gesture towards diminishing, reducing, making less dangerous. “What did you mean when you said that?” is an attempt to make the person reduce what they just said. And often the answer to, “what did you mean when you said that?” is, “I didn’t mean anything by it,” as a means of retreating.
CHAPMAN: And it’s perceived as a cop-out, an attempt to not take responsibility. But sometimes it’s true. Or, the meaning that one intends is not even really known by oneself. You genuinely don’t know why you said something.
RAMKE: I suppose some of us are more comfortable living in a contingent web of intentional and unintentional meanings and absence of meaning. I am happy with words floating around as objects, which have a kind of texture to them that I can allow to separate from what might be, or mostly is, associated with meaning.
CHAPMAN: The other day you said that you didn’t like going to readings. Why is that?
RAMKE: I should put it in a context. I think I said that I had just enjoyed a reading and that I was particularly pleased because sometimes I’m, I might have used the term, burnt out on readings, but I don’t think it’s exactly that. It’s something about my own particular interest in poetry as a visual medium. I mean, I’m particularly intrigued by the look of the poem on the page and being able to actually experience this difference between how a word is written and how a word is sounded. And none of that happens in an aural presentation. I suppose I’ve resisted the sort of tradition of oral poetry in a way. I need to think about it more, why it is I want to resist it. I like moving into this other realm. But I don’t think that’s the only reason. I do think that readings are sort of overdone.
CHAPMAN: There are too many readings? Or too many people reading at one time?
RAMKE: I think we live in a culture in which the word artist primarily means a performance person, usually a musician. And I don’t like the idea of poetry having to imitate that in a weaker fashion, that is, to think of yourself as legitimate only because you give performances.
CHAPMAN: Do you enjoy giving them?
RAMKE: It’s mixed. Yes, I do. And part of that is just a kind of pure ego. It’s problematic for me. I think I have a terrible voice. My poems are always designed for the page rather than for performance. And yet, I do understand something about the work after reading it that I hadn’t before.
I’m aware that people like to attach a voice, not the metaphoric sort of thing that we were looking for in our first creative writing class, but an actual voice to the words on the page.
CHAPMAN: Do you enjoy public lectures?
RAMKE: Yes, I do. It’s interesting that you mentioned that because I have to give one this afternoon. For one thing, in the lecture format, I feel at any rate, I may be delusional about this, that one is given leeway, that I can try out ideas and don’t have to really think that I’ve nailed the connection down and that I have all the footnotes in order. So I like that. I like that we can be somewhat loosely organized.
CHAPMAN: How do you start a poem, when you start writing a poem? What is your first step? Is it sound?
RAMKE: It could be. It seems to go against what I was saying before, the poem being essentially connected to the page, but it’s usually a contrast between the way the word looks and the way a word sounds or an ambiguous meaning that might change because of pronunciation: wind and wind. Just playing with meanings that are different and that can be intertwined could be a place to begin.
The other form of an answer to that question, though, is something like, I rarely begin poems anymore. That is, I just have so many unfinished pieces of writing that were intended to be essays or jottings in notebooks and so forth that I almost never have to confront that empty page, or screen, or whatever the writing material is. Which I think is an interesting set of phenomena to think about. I used to talk a lot about, in classes as well as to myself, this problem of the empty page; in a sense, the only moment everything is perfect in the act of writing is before the first mark is made on the page. So anything you actually do, anything you actually write is a descent from that. And then you have to struggle to get partway back to that perfect clarity of the page. The consequence of that psychological impediment is that at a certain point I began to rely heavily on pieces of work that I had started and hadn’t finished. I actually take poems apart when they didn’t seem to work very well—with scissors. I’m going back to the days of typewriters and paper. When I knew something wasn’t working well, but I liked two lines, I’d actually cut them out and put them in a cigar box. When I felt I needed or wished to write, I would open the box. It wasn’t intended to be the Surrealist cut-up method, but the process of pulling out two of these little slips of paper at random would provide a start.
CHAPMAN: It sounds like one of the ways you might distinguish prose writing, specifically an essay, is that it may feel less contingent and less open to the spontaneous trajectory.
RAMKE: And I am not comfortable with that. I’m a person who doesn’t know what he’s doing and, if not proud of it, am at least not terribly ashamed. And to put myself into a position where I need to know where I’m going next…
The word trajectory is curious because that actually means a determined path.
Do you remember, this is an aside, when the phrase “going ballistic” came into the vocabulary during one of our recent wars? The term was used to mean becoming very angry and sort of unpredictably dangerous, but in fact, “goes ballistic” means a rocket begins to operate the way a bullet would, which is to say, it is determined. You can mathematically map its path and which direction it’s going.
CHAPMAN: That’s fascinating.
RAMKE: It is to me, but probably not to everyone. I’ve never written the poem, but I was thinking about the way the term enters our vocabulary as quite the opposite of what it was originally intended.
CHAPMAN: I was thinking about the prose line too. I was thinking about how in your poetry there is often the beginning of what seems like just a basic sentence, let’s say, with a subject and predicate, and then you use enjambment in such a way that a clause will seemingly end in the middle of a line and then turn into another clause. You will also use a modifying phrase in a strange place in the sentence so that it seems like you’re sending the sentence or the line in another direction, but it’s actually staying the course. This creates a lovely sound and cognitive quality to your poetry. I’m thinking about those kinds of poetic lines and then what a prose sentence would be for you.
RAMKE: Oh, very good question. I like the description you gave. It suggests an image of sentences I’ve begun hanging in the air, and I will then decide which one we’re going to follow through with as they’re hanging like smoke. And I do think I tend to talk that way and think that way too. In some sense, it’s a normal behavior for me. I suppose I think of poetry’s basic unit being the word. When I arrange words into sentences or fragments of sentences in a poem, what I seem to be pursuing is something about individual words and looking at them next to each other and not really so much thinking about, to use the word again, the trajectory of the sentence itself. That one word is a kind of subject, and we do things to it with the verbs and then do some tweaking with various modifying clauses and all of that. But in writing prose, I do consider that there is something that the sentence as a whole is about that takes priority over the individual words that make it up. I’m not as comfortable with that as I am when I feel free, not to do whatever I want with the words, but to allow them to do whatever they want.
CHAPMAN: That’s an interesting way of thinking about the sentence. It almost feels like a family: each individual member has to sacrifice something for the family itself. I guess any kind of group, not necessarily a family.
RAMKE: Family might be actually an apt comparison for it because it is so problematic in our time. When someone used the word ninety years ago, there was a sort of culturally assumed set of operations and functions and those have all been challenged in the same way the sentence is challengeable.
One of my major failings in life has to do with other languages. The two languages that I offered were French and German, and I studied some Spanish and some Latin, but I did learn enough to get a sense of how differently sentences operate in different languages. In German the verb tends to be gathered at the end of sentences instead of in the middle. This makes an enormous difference between German and English. And then there are other ways in which the English is developed out of the German, so it’s fascinating to see both the great similarities and great differences at work.
When I teach in Chicago, for whatever reason, I’ve had a number of Chinese students in the Art Institute, and it is so interesting to work with English with these students. The two that I’m thinking of know English very well, but the most fascinating things happen with tenses. I’ve had them explain things to me and I’ve learned a lot from them. But it does seem that their writing deals with time almost entirely through context rather than with endings, –ed’s and so forth. So I don’t know the full implications of that, but it must be fascinating if not frustrating to translate back and forth.
CHAPMAN: Marjorie Perloff wrote an essay on Stein, in which she notes that Stein is writing in English, but she’s writing in English in France. Perloff quotes Françoise Collin, who calls Stein’s English a third language. It seems important to be in an unfamiliar place to write that way.
RAMKE: It’s making me think about, egoist I am, my own childhood during which my mother and members of her family would speak their Cajun French, which I did not understand. She wouldn’t teach it to us, I think because when she grew up there was a concerted effort to make her speak English and be part of the “American community.” But also I was Catholic, during the pre-Vatican era when the church services were in Latin, a language that I also didn’t understand. I was brought to church every Sunday and other “holy days of obligation,” and no one ever suggested I should know or ask what any of the words meant. They were presented as music rather than as words. Maybe this is my excuse for being bad at learning foreign languages—I was accustomed to them remaining a different kind of sound operation. To some extent what I do in my poems is to alienate the sounds and meanings and implications of the words so that I can experience them in a similar way to how I experienced language early.
CHAPMAN: It makes me wonder if one way that the poet exists in the world is as if the language that is native is not native.
RAMKE: There is some sort of Russian Formalist concept behind this.
CHAPMAN: Like estrangement or defamiliarization. When you’re surrounded by people speaking another language, you listen to the sound. You sort of let it wash over you, and you don’t feel the responsibility to understand it. At least I don’t. I just give up, unless someone is trying to speak to me. But I wonder if that’s how a poet, or a writer, lives in a world where even the native language is being spoken. I wonder if that’s what sometimes prevents me from really being as attuned to it. Maybe I listen too carefully.
RAMKE: I think this idea that you’ve hit upon is true. The alienation of one’s own native tongue is necessary to the manipulation of it. I want to find analogies: like realizing that you are breathing air and becoming intrigued by what air might be, what its qualities are, whereas most of the time you don’t need to, or are in fact, better off not even thinking about it.
CHAPMAN: Lately I’ve been writing about illness, a minor illness, not necessarily a trauma. Virginia Woolf has an essay, “On Being Ill,” in which she talks about illness in a lighthearted way, although in reality she was ill quite often. She hesitantly uses the language of a spiritual experience in which everything becomes much clearer. I wonder if feeling outside of the world is something the writer is sensitive to.
But even on the minute level—the way language sounds. We often think of writers as isolated, and there’s a romantic notion in that, but also maybe writers hear things differently.
RAMKE: That’s very likely. I’m thinking of how what you’re saying extends into other activities as well. That is, a sculptor somehow becomes aware of shape, of extensivity into the world in a way that others don’t. I wonder sometimes how a dancer walks from table to desk being so aware of movement and of possible choices that could be made.
CHAPMAN: Yeah, that’s interesting to me. The small sensory details with which we locate ourselves in space. Having those disoriented. Not just one’s existential feeling of belonging or not belonging to the world.
RAMKE: I’m still thinking about how you began the statement with the idea of illness, with a clarity that might be provided by it. I don’t want to romanticize illness, but there is to the concept of health a certain unquestioning and unaware quality.
CHAPMAN: You teach writing to various populations. You have MFA students at the Art Institute of Chicago and undergraduates and doctoral students at the University of Denver. I’m interested to know about some of the challenges of teaching writing to different groups. Can you teach this intuitiveness or sensitivity that we’ve been talking about? And, more generally, what are some of the challenges of teaching?
RAMKE: You used the word intuitive. Intuition is a sort of self-teaching. I have come to believe in that, that students are teaching themselves and that my job is to enable them. Sometimes it means just staying out of the way, and sometimes it calls for more active intervention. But can you teach writing? Absolutely, the same as anything else. Can you teach someone to be very fast? No. I mean a coach isn’t going to take someone who doesn’t have the physical characteristics and turn them into a world-class sprinter, but an experienced teacher is able to help people to become aware of what they’re doing and what the limitations are and what the possibilities are.
CHAPMAN: So how do you do that?
RAMKE: Well, I do that by listening. There is a difference between a beginning writing class and graduate students, but there are some similarities too. Even with a beginning student, I have found that nothing good happens unless the student has some sense of what they want to do with the language. So, you can help them mainly by suggesting readings, you can help them to get some sense of what they would hope to be able to do. It may be that they want to tell stories about family experiences; it doesn’t really matter. Once they have that, I guess I think teaching can be just listening carefully and responding to it. One of the great privileges of teaching creative writing is that we can ask questions because we want to know the answer. If you read the work, then honestly report to the student things that you understand from the work and what’s happening to you, and then ask the questions that really arise—that tends to be what I try to do when teaching writing.
Teaching writing is also an act of faith. I always assume that the student, regardless of the level, is telling the truth. I’ve found that taking seriously everything that they do works. Even if they’re not really into it—they’re taking the class because it’s offered at 3 o’clock on Thursday afternoon—I pretend myself that they really want to do this, to make these things and to make them as great as possible.
You asked about the challenges. It’s interesting how if you have a challenging student, generally that means a troublemaker. But, the other concept of challenge is there too; in some way, the most challenging students often can be the best, the ones who seem to be the most fluent in writing. When people are good at doing certain things, and they’re still students, it’s sometimes hard to make them see what it is they’re doing and to get them to question it. So, oddly enough, the certain measure of skill is usually, in my experience, more difficult to deal with than the ones who are always floundering around.
CHAPMAN: So do you find that with doctoral students?
RAMKE: No. I find it more at mid-level. The University of Denver, it seems to me, accidentally lucked on to a kind of operation that is amazing. By offering an actual PhD in Creative Writing, not just tacking on an option to do a novel at the end of a standard academic degree, we offered an invitation to those students who have been educated in great institutions, who’ve had the benefit of these wonderful teachers, to come join us. We tend to get people who are accomplished but who either want to go in a more academic direction and do a lot of reading in a particular area or are otherwise motivated to get back into this academic setting and push farther. So, I find that the students are already pushing themselves outside of what they know that they already know.
It’s one of those secrets of graduate education: what you really need is simply to find some way to attract the best students to come together. It’s not the faculty that should be given credit. Faculty are good at attracting students. People think they need to go study with Professor X to do something. So, you get enough motivated, well-trained, and well-read students together. And it doesn’t matter who they’re gathered around.
CHAPMAN: I think that it comes back to your pedagogical method. Your style of presenting your experience with the work, reflecting it back to me, and asking questions made a difference to me as a student.
RAMKE: As a practical matter, when students distribute their work in the usual manner, I ask other people to simply say what the work is, not to say it’s good or bad. I don’t forbid people to praise each other’s work, but when you get a report from someone of what they saw in your writing, it can be surprising. You may have thought you were doing one thing, and you see that the world sees it in a different way. It seems to me that that is far more useful than for someone to say, “this is pretty good” or “this is reasonably bad.”
CHAPMAN: So there we have that defamiliarization again, and it comes through interlocution. The unfamiliar, the estrangement from your own work can happen just by sharing your work with someone else and not necessarily having them confirm your every intention but simply interact with it.
RAMKE: I like putting those concepts together. The phrase that I’ve sometimes heard from the writer is, “she got it right,” that there’s one person in the class who got it right. Well, there’s a couple of ways to look at that. If one out of fifteen responded the way you were anticipating, what do you do with that? You can try to figure out what the others saw and see if that is something worth preserving, but to simply make the decision that the work you did remains sacred as it stands and one person has proved herself worthy of it doesn’t get you very far. But it’s also useful to have that enacted. Not just tell them about it, but actually just let it happen in the classroom.
CHAPMAN: That is something else you have to teach—the ability to use your judgment to sift through the experiences that other people are having or that they’re expressing. I remember as a young writer thinking that I had to take everybody’s advice, and it was often contradictory. You need to discern what that feedback means to you and how it’s important. And that part, I think, is difficult to teach. I find it challenging.
RAMKE: Teaching the students in the class who to listen to and who not to listen to. I would never want to put it quite so…
CHAPMAN: I think it comes back to the question of what you want. Do you want readers to have this kind of experience? Did you find your ideal audience and that motivates you to keep going?
RAMKE: Yes, that’s certainly possible. A person who wants to be in control, who wants to know what he’s doing and then do it and then offer it to the world can measure his success or failure by whether people respond in the way he’s anticipating. That is a certain kind of writing. Journalism, for instance, probably has to work that way. The journalist is supposed to get certain information across and can measure success or failure by how well the audience gets it. Most of this imaginative writing requires giving up some of that control. There is a sort of masculinist role that early creative writing programs perpetuated, that of being able to enforce intention on the page and through the page onto other people. And so there was a hierarchical difference: the writer as dispenser of something—knowledge, pleasure, information. And that’s I think why we tend to understand certain kinds of works, often poetry, as operating quite differently from the world.
CHAPMAN: I feel that writing can construct its own audience.
RAMKE: Oh, yeah. In a way that is similar to this old idea that the poem teaches us how to read it. I’m sure it’s true actually, to some extent, that we go into the experience as readers, thinking we know how to read, and we apply the techniques of reading that we have available to us, but they’re altered somewhat. Each word changes and works with and maybe even manipulates our experience. Because each reader is changed somewhat, simply by the act of reading, then, yes, all writing is forming, making a slight alteration to the reading and, therefore, forming a new audience. But they, of course, have to read it.
For every one early reader of Finnegan’s Wake who was intrigued, who said, “this is a new thing in the world, and I want to find how I can relate to it,” there must have been several hundred who said, “this is pretentious”—a favorite word of readers. It’s a very curious word, pretentious.
It’s assumed to be a damning criticism in the public media. But we are always pretending. There is a kind of pretense to the work. It suggests a person is trying to fool me, and I don’t want to be fooled. And, it ranges from the reaction people have going to an art museum and saying, “my six year old child can do this,” to reading challenging new writing.
Your question was about the formation of an audience, of a public that is interested in your work. I think there are similarities between the processes by which this happens in music, both popular music and art song, certainly in the visual arts, film. I’ve recently watched Sans Soleil again, one of the most amazing documentaries ever made. And, it formed me, it changed me as a viewer, in the process. I was learning how to see it, to receive it, as it went on.
CHAPMAN: That experience recalls notions of the incantatory text that enchants or acts on its audience—which, to me is more appealing than a driven, aggressive text that intends to form, to change the audience.
RAMKE: Yeah. Anytime I perceive someone else as wanting to impose on me, I’m going to be resistant, even if I know or secretly suspect it’s for my own good. But that was a sort of model of the writer, the godlike figure who has access to the truth. We tend, in contemporary writing, to see something else, something you might even say interactive, to borrow a term from the digital era.
CHAPMAN: Do you see any thought or technique in contemporary poetry that seems to you new but also reoccurring, that you would mark as a trend?
RAMKE: That is an interesting question. I don’t have an immediate answer and, I wonder why I don’t. I’ve been pushed toward discovering origins of this apparent newness in earlier works. Notions of fragmentation seem to be very important, like the work that understands the world as having a kind of unity that is inaccessible to us, and, therefore, even the “realistic” depiction of it is going to be in a fragmentary stage. That writing has caused me to reexamine ideas about unity in literary production, such as in Shakespeare.
I can be specific. I happen to have co-taught a class with Scott Howard in which we read Hamlet, and that was followed by a contemporary work that was clearly fragmented. We realized that Hamlet was full of fragmentation, things that don’t fit. No wonder Hamlet is unable to act. He’s continually trying to put some things together, to see the pattern and prove cause and effect. It’s really kind of amazing.
CHAPMAN: It is. I was thinking about how poetry can be a methodology for reading other texts that are not poetry, like critical texts or science and math, texts from other disciplines. This seems like a potential example in which a contemporary text can be used to read a canonical text.
RAMKE: In a pastoral course, I’ve been trying to use a set of ideals, values, and attitudes that get generally lumped into this sense of pastoral, and then we use it as a guide to all kinds of different things—architectural practices, science fiction. Science fiction turns out to be an extraordinarily pastoral genre, a sort of nostalgia, a search for a version of earth that’s uncontaminated. Taking the ideas, disciplines, practices associated with some literary practice and then pushing it out into the world is very exciting.
CHAPMAN: This reminds me of the way the university works and how it creates discrete disciplines that in some ways operate on the purity principle themselves. Scholars are critiqued for exploring something outside of their field. It seems that another way of conceiving the university is to conceive it as focused on issues and topics or problems even. The problem of the environment could be approached through the pastoral. What are you looking at?
RAMKE: I just got this memoir by Benoît Mandelbrot the fractalist at the Elliot Bay Book Company. Mandelbrot actually talks about just that. He says early in his memoir that he was attacked for not settling down into a field, not focusing. He writes, “I was not running from field to field but rather working on a theory of roughness. I was not a man with a big hammer to whom every problem looked like a nail.” The “theory of roughness” is obviously not a defined department in a university. So he moved around in various scientific areas but not only the scientific; the development of fractals involved word frequencies that an estranged, possibly slightly crackpot theorist had published, George Kingsley Zipf. Mandelbrot comments several times about the difference between working in the United States and working in European universities, which were often less well-defined in their boundaries between disciplines. He would not have come up with his insights if he had been restricted to a disciplinary field.
CHAPMAN: Even the concept of the fractal is so contrary to discrete disciplines.
This interview was conducted over two days at the 2014 AWP in Seattle, WA. Audio versions of the interviews originally published in The Conversant in April and May 2014.
Transcribed by Jennifer van Alstyne.