Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Ruth Roach Pierson

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Ruth Roach Pierson

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series is a series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Ruth Roach Pierson’s highly anticipated third poetry collection Contrary (Tightrope Books, 2011) has finally hit bookstore shelves. Pierson is the author of two previous collections of poetry: Where No Window Was (Buschek Books, 2002) and Aide-Mémoire (Buschek Books, 2007) which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award in 2008. Her poems have appeared in many literary journals including Arc, CV2, Event, The Malahat Review, Vallum, The Fiddlehead, Literary Review of Canada, Pagitica, Pottersfield Portfolio, Prism International, Queens Feminist Review, Quills, and Room of One’s Own. She has also appeared in a number of anthologies including Crossing Lines: Poets Who Came to Canada in the Vietnam Era, edited by Allan Briesmaster and Steven Michael Berzensky (Seraphim Editions, 2008), Regreen: New Canadian Ecological Poetry, edited by Madhur Anand and Adam Dickinson (Your Scrivener Press, 2009), and Celebrating Poets Over 70, edited by Marianne Vespry and Ellen Ryan (McMaster Centre For Gerontological Studies and Tower Poetry Society, 2010).

Best God-Damned Poet in the USA

One spring afternoon after class
we all adjourned to the Red Robin Tavern,
and Roethke slapped me on the rump
declaring it plenty firm without a girdle.

“It wasn’t in the mind of girls to write,”
Nuala O’Faolain remembers of Ireland
in the early 60’s. Nor was writing in the mind
of Seattle girls in those constricted years. Poets
were like Theodore Roethke: bigger-than-life,
male, slightly unstable. Living his idea

of the Dylan Thomas life,
the wannabe poet John Pym became
a brawling, raucous frequenter of taverns.
One night, in the Blue Moon, he swept
all the bottles and pitchers to the floor, then,
losing balance, slipped and fell, suffering

a deep gash to his thigh. He walked around
pantless for days, displaying his dressed wound
like a badge. One night, bare-legged
and drunk, shirt-tail flapping like sails
in a gale-force wind, he showed up
at my apartment door. I managed
to talk him out of coming inside,

but I never managed to write, not one single
line, not for years. Though I read,
thanks to Roethke — Lousie Bogan, Leonie Adams,
Denise Levertov, and, above all,
Roethke himself — the mystical, magnificent,
towering Ted Roethke.

– poem is taken from Contrary (Tightrope Books, 2011)


TTQ- When did you decide that you were destined to become a poet and who were some of your early influences or mentors?

Ruth Roach Pierson- I had the good fortune when I was an M.A. student at the University of Washington to take Theodore Roethke’s course in 20th century English language poetry. At the time, 1962-63, I was working on a Master’s degree in history, but that programme required all students to take one elective. Two friends of mine, both in the English literature programme, persuaded me to take a course from Roethke. I have always felt deeply indebted to them, for Roethke was a magnificent teacher as well as poet and a magnificent oral interpreter of his own and other poets’ work. The course was, I should make clear, not in writing but in reading poetry.

My most recently published book, Contrary (Tightrope Books, 2011), contains a poem entitled “The Best God-damned Poet in the USA” which is a tribute and statement of indebtedness to Roethke but also something of an explanation as to why at the time (I was in my 20’s) I didn’t think I myself could become a poet. That had to wait for many years — until I was in my early 50s. Then, my reading of Dianne Middlebrook’s outstanding literary biography of Anne Sexton re-awakened my long dormant interest in poetry, Dianne, coincidentally being one of the two friends who had recommended Roethke’s course some thirty years earlier. And in 1992-1993 I began composing what I hoped were poems.

Eventually I screwed up my courage and showed a sheaf of them to Helen Humphreys whom I had got to know through her association with Resources for Feminist Research which had its offices just down the hall from mine at OISE. She very kindly took the folder home and read my stabs at poem writing and then suggested we go out for coffee and, instead of telling me to throw everything I had shown her into the trash, suggested that if I were really serious, I should consider signing up for a poetry writing course. In September 1993 I enrolled in the course she was teaching at George Brown College. And I’ve never looked back. Since then, I’ve had many further poetry teachers and mentors — including Don MacKay, Daphne Marlatt, Gerry Shikatani, Rhea Tregabov, Ken Babstock, Stan Dragland, and Barry Dempster — and learned from every one of them. Having started so late in life, I have always felt I had (and still feel I have) a great deal of catching up to do.

TTQ- Your latest book of poetry Contrary (Tightrope Books, 2011) deals with some difficult subject matter, namely the dying and death of your brother. Was your process in writing this book a lot different from your previous books? Was it cathartic in terms of saying goodbye to him? How close were you to your brother and what are some of your fondest memories of him?

RRP- Indeed, a sequence of poems about the dying and death of my older brother, my only sibling, lies at the core of my latest poetry collection Contrary. And indeed the process of writing the poems that address my maelstrom of contradictory feelings unleashed by this loss was very different from that of my two earlier collections, in fact from that of many of the other poems in this current collection.

The poems about my brother and our relationship were written over a period of more than a year and while writing them I often felt as if I were possessed — by some very strong emotions, for a start, such as anger, remorse, grief, regret, but also by piercing memories. In one, for instance, “a grieving walk (Chile),” I am seeing, hearing and feeling the landscape I’m walking in through the filter of grief. In another, I feel observed by my no-longer-living brother — “Four Months and Fourteen Days.” And in others I am carrying on a conversation with him, as in “A Little Knowledge.” Only in a minority of more lyrical poems contained in this sequence do I make much use of figurative language. As I was writing so many of these poems from a position of stunned disbelief at my brother’s swift decline and death and also carrying on arguments with him or myself or my memory of our shared past, I somehow felt simile and metaphor were too distancing and would ring false and so opted for bald, unadorned language.

The collection also contains a number of ekphrastic poems and in at least two of these I am reading the work of art through my shock at my brother’s death or through my guilt at failing him as a sister (“After Betty Goodwin’s The Memory of the Body” and “Louise Berliawsky Nevelson’s Night Zag IV”). I’m sure writing these poems did serve a cathartic purpose, not so much in saying goodbye to my brother as in giving me a forum in which to grapple with the conflicting feelings I had and still have about my brother and our relationship. For that relationship was “fractious” and “often broken,” as John Barton writes in his back cover blurb. We both came from an arch Protestant family and, while my brother became a Jesuit priest, I became a radical, non-believing feminist historian. Even my fondest memories of him, which I touch on in a couple of poems (“A Hard Nut” and “Twine and Rouge,” for instance), are shadowed by the conflictedness.

TTQ- What was the time frame like for you in writing the book and do you have a particular method or surroundings that you prefer when writing? What message would you hope your readers take away after reading Contrary?

RRP- Largely because of the swiftness with which I wrote many of what I came to call “The Brother Poems,” I completed Contrary faster than either of my two previous books. As for writing first drafts of poems, I can and I do do that almost anywhere — from sitting on the subway to lying in the bathtub. The revisions (and some of those number as high as forty or fifty something) I work on at night lying in bed before falling asleep and during the day at my computer on my desk in my very cluttered office.

I suppose I hope that my poems resonate with readers, i.e., that my ekphrastic poems might encourage readers to respond to a work of art in a new way, that my contrarian poems might comfort them that there’s someone out there in the world who often feels disgruntled and powerless, and that my poems about my loss of a brother with whom I had a conflicted relationship might console others who have experienced something similar.

TTQ- How important is reading your poetry in front of a live audience and is that a part of your writing process when composing a new book whereby you can try some of your new poems out on audiences?

RRP- I write my poems in order to be able to read them aloud and jump at any opportunity to give a reading. As I wrote earlier, Theodore Roethke was a wonderful oral interpreter of his own and other poets’ work. Indeed, in his classes, he never started discussing or analyzing a poem without first reading it aloud in order to give us an opportunity to hear it. He felt strongly that the sonority of the poem is of prime importance.

As I write my own poems, I read them aloud to myself over and over again. I revise them in light of their sound and rhythm as much as with respect to language and meaning, though all these elements are inextricable. I do not however tend to try out new poems before live audiences before I’m pretty sure I’ve got the poem in the best shape possible. Well, that’s not exactly true. What I mean to say is I don’t tend to try out new poems in public venues before large audiences of strangers. I do try them out before sympathetic friends and in my poetry groups.

TTQ- What is your opinion of the current state of poetry in Toronto? Do you feel poetry has a chance of becoming more popular with readers today or will it always be appreciated only by poets?

RRP- These are both huge questions, and I don’t think I’ve adequate knowledge to answer either one of them. I recognize that poetry remains a minority taste, but in other respects poetry seems alive and well in Toronto. There are many reading venues and a great variety of genres, each, to some extent, with its own audience. But it’s not always the case that these audiences are made up exclusively of practitioners. At the recent Poetry Read-A-Thon I hosted in my back garden which featured seven poets, myself included, about fifty people attended and I would wager that at least a fourth of them were not poets but lovers of poetry or people interested in hearing poetry read.

* * *

This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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