Halden-Sullivan: I find, for the most part, poets hate labels. Your work is often characterized as “experimental” or “innovative.” These are highly contested descriptors. How do you come to terms with such labels and categories?
Ratcliffe: “Labels” are useful as classifications for purposes of teaching “literary history” (what was happening when: English Renaissance Poetry, English Romantic Poetry, Modern American Poetry) or for announcing some new “literary movement” (think of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” Pound’s “A Retrospect,” Zukofsky’s Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine, Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay) as well as for making anthologies (Donald Allen’s New American Poetry, Pack and Simpson’s New York School, Ron Silliman’s In The American Tree). But labels are just and only that, names on collections of a group of writers whose work is, if one looks closely enough, always essentially different, never exactly alike. My own interest has always been to look at the work itself, to see what’s going on in this poem or that one, which thereby leads one to see the differences between this writer’s work and that one’s. As I said in “. . . sound . . . shape . . . meaning . . . “ (Listening to Reading, SUNY Press, 2000):
The essays that follow offer a critical and performative presentation of “experimental” writing – “avant-garde,” “postmodern,” “innovative,” “language writing”: I am less concerned with labels than with asking how this writing works, how it invites us to read – from Mallarmé, Stein, and Cage to books published in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, David Bromige, Clark Coolidge, Beverly Dahlen, Michael Davidson, Larry Eigner, Robert Grenier, Lyn Hejinian, Paul Hoover, Susan Howe, Ron Padgett, Michael Palmer, and Leslie Scalapino – writers whose work is viewed as difficult, ostensibly inaccessible, and has as yet been largely ignored by criticism.
Many of the literature courses I taught at Mills were classified by historical periods: English Renaissance Poetry (Wyatt, Sidney, Spenser, Greville, Raleigh, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Morley’s and Dowland’s songs, Campion, Donne, Jonson, Herrick, Herbert and Marvell); English Romantic Poetry (several weeks on each writer, from Blake to Wordsworth to Coleridge to Byron to the two Shelleys to Keats); Modern American Poetry (Stein, Stevens, Williams, Pound, H.D., Moore and Eliot followed by the Harlem Renaissance, Objectivist, Black Mountain, Beat, Confessional and New York School poets). I also taught courses more narrowly but also more variously focused: one on Paris in the Twenties that read Stein, Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and H.D. and also looked at visual art (Matisse, Picasso, Braque), Paris Noir and the Harlem Renaissance Connection (Césaire, Hughes, McKay, Josephine Baker), music (Stravinsky, Milhaud, Satie) and dance (Diaghilev and Nijinski and Massine); another called “Black Mountain College: Experiments in Poetry, Music, Painting and Dance” which started with Josef and Anni Albers and moved on to the poets (Olson, Creeley, Duncan and Eigner) and then the painters (Willem and Elaine deKooning, Kline, Rauschenberg, Frankenthaler and Twombly) and musicians and dancers (Cage, Cunningham and David Tudor); another on the New York School (the first and second generation poets and the painting of Pollock, deKooning, Rothko, Newman, Johns and Warhol); and the one called “Listening to Reading: Sound Shape and Meaning in Contemporary ‘Experimental’ Poetry,” which took up work by Stein, Scalapino, Hejinian, Silliman, Armantrout, Waldrop, Retallack, Bernstein, Grenier, Howe, Berssenbrugge, Myung Mi Kim, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Harryette Mullen, and several Conceptual and Flarf poets (Kenneth Goldsmith, Christian Bok, Vanessa Place, and Rob Fitterman).
The interest in each of these classes was always to talk about what the poet/artist was doing in this or that particular work – what was going on in the language (words or paint or sound) and why it mattered; how to read writing and talk about it, how the student might herself make use of it in her own writing. Close reading of the text being always the point, a general sense of the historical period (“label”) was hardly of concern – not every student’s cup of tea perhaps, not so useful to someone wanting talking points about a literary period or movement (“What is Language Poetry?” as I was once asked early on at Mills in an English Department meeting by its then Chair).
Having this sense of the labels as a means of classifying periods of literary history, I’ve also never thought of myself as falling into this or that “school” of writers. Maybe because of the circumstances of my life at the time (beginning graduate school at Berkeley in 1970 and moving to Bolinas in 1973, writing poems and eventually as it turned out a dissertation on Thomas Campion) I didn’t find out about Language writing or begin to meet the poets associated with it until some years after its first appearances in magazines like Barrett Watten’s and Robert Grenier’s This along with Bob Perelman’s Talk Series in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Charles Bernstein’s and Bruce Andrew’s L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine in New York. Nor when I moved to Bolinas did I know anything about the poetry and art scene that had begun here in the late 1960s – Donald Allen living here by then (editor at Grove Press and publisher in Bolinas of Grey Fox Press), Richard Brautigan, Bill Brown, Arthur Okamura (who had taught for years at the California College of Arts and Crafts and had illustrated a book by Creeley) and Paul Harris (who also taught at CCAC). And Creeley himself moving here in 1970 with his wife Bobbie Louise Hawkins, followed by Joanne Kyger, Tom Clark, Bill Berkson, Lewis MacAdams, Duncan McNaughton, Aram and Gailyn Saroyan, Anne Waldman, Jim Carroll, Lewis Warsh, Joe Brainard, Larry Kearney, Michael Wolfe, and Shao John Thorpe (who alone among all of these still lives here and is still my friend) along with passing visits by other poets and artists from New York and elsewhere (Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, Clark Coolidge, Rudy Burckhardt and Yvonne Jacquette, Elaine deKooning among others), and later also Robert Grenier (still my good friend who moved to Vermont a few years ago). I had known about Creeley before I came to Bolinas (already one of my heroes) and Donald Allen too (from his New American Poetry anthology) and as time went by began to meet some though not all of these others, many of whom appeared in On the Mesa: An Anthology of Bolinas Writing, ed. Joel Weishaus (City Lights, 1971) which as it turns out has just now “reappeared” in On the Mesa: An Anthology of Bolinas Writing: 50th Anniversary Edition (The Song Cave, 2021) in an expanded edition, which includes “65 new poems by 19 more authors who were in this geographical area around the time of its publication” (Preface), one of whom I’m pleased to say is me – and so it seems that I too am also at last a Bolinas poet.
In any case, I don’t think of my own work as falling into any category – “innovative” / “experimental” is okay perhaps, “not mainstream” also okay. I try to go in my own direction living in this particular place, the aim of my work being to document it, testify to its presence here at this time, from one day to the next. And now, having written three 474-page book-length poems and six (going-on-seven) 1,000-page poems, I do think of myself as writing long durational works (poems written over an extended period of time) in the tradition of Pound’s Cantos, Zukofsky’s A, Olson’s Maximus perhaps but even more so – the same kinds of things repeating over and over again but never quite the same, always in new contexts and always different, something like minimalism in music (“in a tradition akin to the minimalist music of Steve Reich . . . the repetition of the open note hold[ing] the listener mesmerized for hours, suspended just outside the body’s frame, only for the slightest tonal shift to return one’s geist to form,” as Michael Cross wrote on the back of my second 474-page book REAL) or the grids of Agnes Martin – works with lines that go on and on, not ever quite being finished until the numerical principle that guides their shape (474 pages, 1,000 pages) becomes accomplished. (I write more about my “poetic lineage” in Part II of this EXCHANGE.)
Halden-Sullivan: I find the questioning that propels your verse to be deeply philosophical in regard to your awareness of language’s potentialities for making present being situated in time and place. While you capture discrete moments in lived experience, your exploration of poetizing invites thinking both with and beyond the particular. But I wonder: do you ever find yourself wanting to address current topical issues? For example, the Black Lives Matter marches that galvanize political consciousness or the misery of the coronavirus pandemic—would you ever choose to include these aspects of reality in your poetizing? If not in verse, in what other sorts of texts might you offer your thinking of these issues?
Ratcliffe: Yes a good question, something I’ve done in the past – bringing “current topical issues” into the daily poems, the Iraq War for example appearing in these lines from “5.11” in HUMAN / NATURE –
Cheney claiming Rumsfeld is “the best Secretary of Defense we’ve ever had, people should let him alone to do his job,” Bush adding that he’s doing “a superb job”
Also these lines from the next day (“5.12”), following the three opening lines which focus on things taking place right outside my kitchen door in Bolinas that same morning , and followed by lines focused on perception of things I saw when I was out surfing in the channel the previous morning – this framing of “these aspects of reality” (Bush, bin Laden, Truman, Nagasaki) by events going on in the present moments of my daily life here, where I am aware of those other “aspects of reality” (the “news.” which I read about and hear about on the radio every day, living here locally but thinking globally as they say), such a framing acting as a kind of critique of those “aspects of reality,” a correction that means to refocus attention onto other matters, details of real things going on not only here but in variously different ways everywhere else:
blinding silver circle of sun rising above ridge in left corner, curve of waning white moon in cloudless blue sky across from it, sound of jet passing overhead man on radio recalling that Bush flew 24 members of bin Laden family home after 9/11, asking “what can I do to help the bin Ladens now” man across table claiming that Truman didn’t lose any sleep after dropping bomb on Nagasaki, explaining “when you deal with a beast, you must treat it like a beast” whiteness of bird moving across circular green pine on point, half circle of white moon in pale blue sky to the left of it
Likewise in w i n d o w (the most recently completed 1,000-page book, 6.27.16 – 3.23.19), where Trump appears five times –
Trump taking the Fifth Amendment ninety-seven times in 2011 after second ex-wife threatened to tell all (“7.6”) Trump claiming Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines will create 28,000 jobs (just 12 will be permanent) (“1.27”) Trump pressing Comey for loyalty at dinner party in January Director of F.B.I. promising only “Honesty” (“5.19”) conservatism about so called strict father morality Trump’s father beat him in front of all his friends (”10.11”) mother recalling 10-year old adopted son asking her will Trump send me back to Ethiopia if he’s elected (“5.31”)
And then disappears, because I didn’t want his name polluting my work, wanted to focus my attention on the perception of present things in the world around me –birds, the sounds of the birds, the sun coming up, the wind, the water, the sky, the light, the clouds, the green, the seasons, passing moments. Because my work is about noticing things in time, paying attention to what’s around us, the detail, writing it down, memorializing it, recording and documenting every day, these moments of every day. And all of this is political, in its focus on “the environment” (“ecopoetics” so called, “nature poetry” perhaps) whose point is to show people what’s there, inviting them to join in or come along, to notice what’s going on around them too. Political also in the sense of taking action to preserve what’s important, being aware of where we are and what we have, being grateful for what we have in being alive in the moment. And also, because I live in a particular place (here at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, which stretches clear across the world to Asia, Japan, China, Southeast Asia, Australia and which, as I said in Part I of this Exchange, I sailed across once, shipping out on the SS President Roosevelt from San Francisco to Honolulu to Yokohama to Hong Kong to Manila and back again through all those ports on two round trips, getting my first camera in Yokohama and starting to take pictures of the horizon from the deck of the ship – the horizon line of the Pacific like the lines of the poem, line after line going across and down the page – still taking pictures of the horizon from the Surfers Overlook down the street from where I live here in Bolinas, which someone might like to look at too, reading about it, “seeing” it in these poems), because it’s fragile and worth preserving in poetry as well as for people, hopefully our children and grandchildren . . . and so here we are.
Halden-Sullivan: As you know, I am interested in addressing verse as event: as a kind of “play,” to borrow Gadamer’s term (“Relevance of the Beautiful” 23), that invites readers as partners in the event of language, the life-energy of knowing. Please discuss the event made possible by your 2007 text human/nature that was performed in 2011 (available on Ubu.com). You read aloud for a live audience who were invited to participate in your presentation (I believe for twelve hours) of human/nature, one thousand days of poems accompanied by music, a dancer, and a sketch artist, the latter two appearing to improvise their movements in response to your reading. Please discuss this special event. How did you conceive of it? How did your audience—your partners in play– impact this experience? What does this performance reveal about your aesthetics? Have you composed other multi-modal performance pieces?
Ratcliffe: Ah yes, that 14-hour reading / performance of HUMAN / NATURE in collaboration with musicians and artists at U.C. Davis. I had met a graduate student, Dylan Bolles, who was in the Music Department at Mills and taking my poetry workshop. In the tradition of Harry Partch who had once been at Mills building instruments in the basement of the Music Building, Dylan was also building his own instruments (bamboo flutes among others). And that same semester a graduate poet Dan Godston started something he called Borderbends, an evening of collaborations for writers, musicians, dancers, painters at Mills (something like what had been going on at Black Mountain College back then), and Dylan and I took part in that first event, me reading poems from HUMAN / NATURE, Dylan playing a flute (and maybe someone else making a drawing?). And after that we got together in the Concert Hall to do some recording – reading poems, Dylan playing a flute along with a couple of other grad students (Edward Schocker playing glass bowls with water in them, Zackary Watkins playing electric guitar and recording, and someone named Taka singing). And after Mills Dylan went to UC Davis for a PhD program in Performance Studies, and later set up an event for a reading of the by then complete HUMAN / NATURE together with Edward and Zachary and other people variously connected with Mills (Keith Evans video, Suki O’Kane drums). It began at 4 PM on June 6, 2008 and ended at 6 AM the next morning, 14 hours non-stop except for a few bathroom breaks. I brought my 3 year old child Johnny along (I was a single parent by then), other children there too, other people coming in and going out, an open-ended event performed over a long period of time, something like the reading of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans at a gallery in New York I had once taken part in and other long readings such as of Joyce’s Ulysses on June 16 every year. Johnny at one point was sitting in my lap when I was reading, later falling asleep on a gym mat on the floor. At one point in the middle of the night, sitting there at my little table in front of two stacks of 500 pages each, reading one page after another under a light in the pitch black room, I realized that no one else in the room was awake – the musicians had stopped playing and the video had stopped playing and someone was snoring and there I was, reading to an audience of one – kind of a great moment I thought. The complete text of HUMAN / NATURE is available at Editions Eclipse (http://eclipsearchive.org/projects/HUMAN/) and an audio recording of the event with a photograph and this statement about the performance is at PennSound (https://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.php):
human/nature, which explores collaborative work in a variety of mediums, is based on Stephen Ratcliffe’s 1,000 page poem, written in 1,000 consecutive days between 10.19.02 – 7.14.05. The performance extends his investigations into the integration/interaction of human beings and natural landscape: “the relation between things seen/observed in the natural world and how such things might be made (transcribed/transformed) as works of written (or visual) art.” The reading of the poem will accompany sound, light, movement and sculpture in an open dialogue with the architecture of the surrounding space. Audience will be free to move between an activated courtyard area and a more focused interior environment, creating a dialogue between reception, memory and stimulus.
Nearly two years later, on May 6, 2010, I read the complete text of Remarks on Color / Sound (1,000 pages written in 1,000 consecutive days, from July 15, 2005 to April 9, 2008) in a performance event with the same musicians (Dylan Bolles, Edward Schocker, Suki O’Kane and Zachary Watkins) at Marin Headlands Center for the Arts, a former US military post. The event went from 6:00 AM and 8:00 PM, a cold grey foggy spring day (fog never clearing, day never warming up) in the old wooden gymnasium with basketball lines inlayed on the floor and a bank of window on one side of the room. I sat at a small blue wooden table in the middle of the floor toward one end of the room, huddled up in my jacket reading from two stacks of 500 pages each – cold air blowing in through those open windows (freezing it seemed at the time), musicians arranged around the room each doing their own thing, people wandering in and out during the day and into the evening (not many but some, including a few of my loyal friends from Bolinas and the city– Bob Grenier, Sean Thackrey, Susan Thackrey, Tinker Greene) but mostly playing for ourselves judging from the photos (see attached) and the recording made by Zachary to document the event. The text of Remarks on Color / Sound is available at Editions Eclipse (http://eclipsearchive.org/projects/REMARKS/) and a complete recording of the event is at PennSound (https://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.php).
The next reading of the next 1,000-page book, Temporality, took place almost exactly two years after that, in the multi-level entrance hall at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art. The event poster reads in part: “LISTENING TO THE EARTH II / TEMPORALITY / A 14 HOUR COLLABORATIVE ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE ART EVENT” followed by the names of the performers (Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, both of whom have just won Guggenheim Fellowships, and others from UC Santa Cruz, whom I didn’t know and never met) along with “Thingamajigs,” as the musicians now called themselves, and me and the date and time: “May 26, 2012 / 6:00a–8:00p.” Lots of people showed up for this event, being in downtown Santa Cruz on a Saturday and connected to the UCSC Art Department, but the recording of the work somehow disappeared – some kind of post-production technical disaster as it turned out.
Less than a year after that there was a second reading / performance of Temporality, this time at the Mills College Art Museum on February 9, 2013, from 8:00 AM – 10:00 PM. Again combining spoken word, improvised live sound, projected images and dance, the 14-hour durational multi-media event took place in the Museum gallery surrounded by the painter Hung Liu’s show “Offerings,” which included
Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain), over two hundred thousand fortune cookies create a symbolic gold mountain that engulfs a crossroads of railroad tracks running beneath. The junction where the tracks meet serves as both a crossroads and terminus, a visual metaphor of the cultural intersection of East and West . . . . Tai Cang—Great Granary . . . a reinterpretation of an earlier mural Liu painted while in graduate school in China which has since been destroyed . . . [and] a selection of 34 antique dou, a traditional Chinese food container and unit of measure, which contain a grain, cereal or bean from each of the 34 provinces and regions of China . . . situated to form a map of China on the gallery floor. [Museum Press Release]
So there we all were, me sitting at a beautiful wooden table in front of Hung Liu’s enormous mural, the same musicians improvising on their various instruments (now calling themselves The Thingamajigs Performance Group: Dylan Bowles on hand-built flutes, Edward Schocker playing glass bowls and two different Japanese wooden flutes (Hichiriki and Sho), Suki O’Kane on a big bass drum, Keith Evans projecting video images) along with Shinichi Iova-Koga of InkBoat performing his improvisational dance movements through the gallery. The text of Temporality is available at Editions Eclipse (http://eclipsearchive.org/projects/TEMPORALITY/) and a complete audio recording of the performance with photograph is available at PennSound (https://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.php).
Just over a year later I flew to Philadelphia to record a reading of c o n t i n u u m (again written in 1,000 days, between January 5, 2011 and September 30, 2013) for PennSound. The reading took place on March 25, 2014 in a studio room on the top floor of the Kelly Writers House, no musicians and no audience, just me sitting at a table with my two stacks of 500 pages each reading into a microphone to an audience of one (me) with an occasional visit from Zach Carduner (the “Studio Coordinator”) to check on the recording equipment and see if I was okay. I started sometime around 8:00 in the morning and finished up somewhere around 10:00 at night – dark and cold outside by then, as I could see looking out of the little window above the table – with a couple of hours break to do a recording downstairs for Al Filreis’s PoemTalk series. It was a strange experience, coming after the previous collaborative reading / performance events, reading the words of the poem (page after page after page) into the microphone, no one else around. The complete recording, some photographs taken by Zack and me, and the following program note is available at PennSound (https://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.php):
Listening to Ratcliffe reading the words of the day on the page as it turns from one day to the next, one hears the poem’s acoustic ‘shape’: the length and pitch of its syllables and words (plus those silences between them) sounding the air. What one doesn’t hear is its visual ‘shape’: words set in Courier, font of equivalent spacing; the nine lines on the page divided into four stanzas; first three lines all the same length, followed by two pairs of indented lines (both first lines the same length, both second lines six spaces shorter), followed by two final lines (back on the left margin, both lines also the same length) (see photo of “9.30”, top right). The visual ‘shape’ of the words on the page ‘corresponds to’ / ‘performs’ the ‘shape’ of ‘things’ / ‘actions’ / ‘events’ out there in the world, which are themselves being ‘pointed toward’ / ‘simply recorded’ / ‘described’ / ‘transcribed’ / ‘enacted’ / ‘documented’ / ‘testified to’ / ‘celebrated’ in the first and last stanzas and ‘considered’ / ‘thought about’ / ‘reflected upon’ in the two middle ones.
The most recent (and thus far final, though I hope there will be more) performance event took place on October 1, 2016 at the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve inside a World War II bunker carved out in a hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Sitting at a small table in the middle of a large dark cold cavernous “room” with no electricity (a generator set up outside to bring in power for lights and recording equipment) and amazing acoustics. Starting at 6:00 AM (just as it was getting light outside) and finishing 8:00 (PM) just after dark), I again read the 1,000 pages of c o n t i n u u m, this time accompanied by the Thingamajigs musicians, Rae Diamond and her Long Tone Choir, Shinichi Iova-Koga of InkBoat, Noh dancer Jubilith Moore, and other special guests, and witnessed by a good number of people who made the pilgrimage to see and hear what was going on. The text of c o n t i n u u m is again available at Editions Eclipse (http://eclipsearchive.org/projects/CONTINUUM/) and an audio recording with photographs is at PennSound (https://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.php).
Doing these long extended durational reading / performances with the musicians and dancers in public spaces has given me a sense about the work that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. It takes a thousand days to write one of these poems, fourteen hours or so to read it. Time seems to speed up when I read it (two and a half years or so to write it, fourteen hours to read and hear it – including breaks for water, food and bathroom, hoping my voice doesn’t go out). Even though they are all available on Editions Eclipse (and the next one in the series, sound of wave in channel, also available as a book from BlazeVOX [books] 2018), it’s unlikely that anyone would sit down and read any one of these works on their own, page after page after page in one sitting. They are in some sense “unreadable texts” – too long to hold all at once in the mind, poems that can only be experienced over a long period of time, fourteen hours in one of these performances or, if one reads just one page a day, 1,000 days for the whole work. In any case my experience reading the books in these events is really intense. Getting lost inside the reading of words on the page (page after page after page), I hear the sound of my voice making the sound and rhythm of the words line after line after line, kind of like running a marathon or a meditation, breathing, in and out, page after page after page, going into a kind of trance, thrilling and also exhausting.
One other thing I’ve realized when I read my work in performance is that it has already been written. I’m reading words on the page and the musicians and dancers are improvising in real time, making it up as they go along – two very different kinds of things going on. The words a kind of metronome that keeps time and determines the time of the event; the music playing alongside it, with it and against it, making sound and also at times silence, everything really fluid and unfolding moment by moment in the present moment in time.
Halden-Sullivan: As Director of the Creative Writing Program at Mills College and a teacher of creative writing yourself, how do you open creative spaces for young writers? What pedagogical advice would you offer other instructors of creative writing? How do you effectively mentor young poets? How were you mentored and by whom? What have you learned from your students about composing? What advice do you offer young creative writers about the milieu in which they find themselves today?
Ratcliffe: As I might have said in Part I of this EXCHANGE in talking about my own education, I never took a regular “Creative Writing” class until my junior year at Berkeley (spring of 1969 – Vietnam War protests, National Guard marching across the campus, helicopter flying low over the campus dropping teargas, classes meeting off campus in teachers’ houses, Kent State going on elsewhere along with everything else). That first class was in the Comp. Lit. Department, taught by the visiting Peter Whigham, whose translations of Catullus had come out in 1966 and who had also worked with Pound in Rapallo in the 1960s. As with other classes that spring, we met at Whigham’s house a few blocks from the campus, listened to him read the poems in the Catullus book (still hearing the sound of his voice, those Pound-like rhythms of the “free-verse” lines, spellbinding) and we all chose some project to work on – mine in French, translating some short poems by Eustache Deschamps and Joachim du Bellay, something from Valéry, and finally Mallarmé’s “L-Apres-midi d’un Faune,” which won the Emily Chamberlain Cook Poetry Prize that spring (and was later my first published poem). So in some sense that’s how I learned to teach “Creative Writing”: sit down with students and read poems aloud (to hear how they sound, see how their words are put together, how they “work”), and let everyone write their own poems.
A few years later (I was then in graduate school at Berkeley, beginning to find my way into my work on Thomas Campion, which I also talk about in Part I of this EXCHANGE) I got a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. It was the fall of 1974 and I was living in Bolinas by then, married with a child on the way, and so I commuted down to take the three required writing workshops – one taught by Kenneth Fields, one by Donald Davie and one by Helen Pinkerton (married to Wesley Trimpi whose book on Ben Jonson had been important to me for its connection to Campion, and who I also took a class from) – all three of these workshop carried on more or less like Peter Whigham’s: students and teacher talk about poems by other poets; students write their own poems and bring them to class, where students and teacher talk about those poems. And so in response to your question (“How were you mentored?”) I would point to these classes, though that really isn’t the whole story, since when I got to Mills College and started to teach my own poetry workshops I had to figure it out for myself.
The workshops I taught, usually one a semester along with all the literature classes, appeared on the face of it to be always the same: talk with students about poems by poets on the reading list and poems by the students themselves, which they would write each week (perhaps inspired by the work of the poem we were reading that week, perhaps not). Early on in the beginning level classes we also put together a little magazine called “Four to Six” (the workshops meeting once a week from 4:00 to 6:00 in the afternoons), a way to give them the sense that poetry could go somewhere, beyond the walls of the classroom. I thought of these little magazines as connected to the publication I had begun to do with Avenue B (started in 1986) and included one of my own poems in them, to give the students the sense that we were all in this together.
In the beginning I taught only beginning level workshops, but as time went by I also taught the advanced undergraduate class, and then, as the graduate program grew larger, only graduate workshops. The course description in those classes was always something like this:
The purpose of this course will be to help you realize your own directions and aims as a writer; specifically to provider you with both a context and ‘deadline’ for writing poems; to encourage you to read and talk about each other’s work; and to look at a number of works by other writers that might be useful to your own work.
and the requirements, printed in Courier to give the lines a certain shapeliness, always some variation of this:
To write a new poem every day.
The texts I used began with Xerox copies of poems I wanted them to read and later became one of several different anthologies, including Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovating Writing by Women (ed. Mary Margaret Sloan, Talisman House, 1998); American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (Eds. Cole Swensen and David St. John, 2009); Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (ed. Paul Hoover, 2013). Sometimes I made up the reading list but as time went by I usually let the students choose, each student doing a presentation on one poet from the anthology. I also met with students in conferences, which worked really well at first but as time went on and I got more involved with Mills College faculty “business” (English Department meetings, Letters Division meetings, Faculty meetings, Executive Committee meetings – meetings with the ones I called “the adults” always the worst part of the job I thought) there was less time to meet with the students – too bad for them, and for me too.
The classes were small, no more than 12 students and sometimes only 5 or 6, and usually met once a week for 2 ½ hours. We would begin each class by going around the table, each student reading her or his (if it was a graduate class, men in graduate program). Sometimes a person who didn’t write the poem would read it (one way for the writer to see how the poem might be read, or misread, by someone who hadn’t ever seen it). Then we’d spend the rest of the time talking about each student’s work, giving the same amount of time to each student (if the class met twice a week we’d talk about half of the students one day, the other half the next). My job was to be the time keeper, keep things moving and point out things I thought needed to be noticed, mostly things that were good about the poem (always wanting to encourage each student!), things that showed where she or he was going, what was “working” in the poem.
Sometime along the way, after I had begun to write my 1,000-page books of daily poems, I thought that I should ask the students to do the same thing – write a poem every day. Some of them did it, most of them didn’t, but everyone wrote more than they might have otherwise without that “assignment.” What I’d learned in my own practice was that writing every day got you in shape (like running or surfing or playing the piano, the more you do it the more you learn how to do it, and the better you get). Anyway that was the idea and it seemed to work. The students would turn in two manuscripts at the end of the semester – one their daily poems (whatever that might be), and one the poems they had brought into class each week, perhaps revised in light of comments they’d received back from other students in class or in writing (students required to make comments on the poems turned in by other students in class – the aim being to sharpen their attention as readers of and writers about poetry).
I hope that my students learned as much from me as I learned from them – about how to read and write poems; about attending to words as objects placed in lines and from one line to the next; about the sounds of syllables in words and the words in relation the words around them; about the visual shape of the poem on the page in relation to the acoustic shape of the poem in the air when it’s read aloud; about how to read the poem aloud, bringing the sounds of letters in syllables in words from the page into the air; and about how the poem that one writes (and reads aloud, and shows to others) can become an ongoing and sustaining part of one’s life. And if that becomes the case you just keep going, doing what you can as best as you can and as long as you can.
Halden-Sullivan: How would you characterize American poetry—“innovative” or otherwise—in 2020? Which poets, contemporary or otherwise, do you read regularly? Why do they engage you? Which contemporary poets do you read? In relation to the diverse possibilities for poetic construction available today, what work excites you? Is there any body of work that disturbs you? If yes, why?
Ratcliffe: At this point I’m not reading as much poetry (“‘innovative’ or otherwise”) as I used to when I was teaching at Mills – Shakespeare, Modern American Poetry, Contemporary “Experimental” Poetry, graduate and undergraduate workshops. Aside from reading occasional poems that arrive in the US mail (the Poetry Project Newsletter for one) or in email correspondence or online links or in social media, most of the reading I am doing these days is non-fiction – a Heidegger reading group has been going for years (we’re now reading Heraclitus: The Inception of Occidental Thinking and Logic: Heraclitus’s Doctrine of the Logos), various books used as source material for the poems I’m writing; magazines and newspapers (the NY Times, SF Chronicle, Marin Independent Journal, Point Reyes Light, Bolinas Hearsay News).
In any case American poetry today seems to be all over the map, so many possibilities going on in so many different directions, which is all to the good. It’s like everything is now on the table, and from out here on the west coast as far as one can see it’s thriving. Look at the number of poetry readings now taking place in the virtual world of Zoom (one of the few good things to come out of the pandemic). And so for me too, most of my reading of other poets has become seeing and listening to them reading their own work. There seems to be some kind of live “event” going on almost every week: Peter Gizzi and Marta Werner in conversation about her work in making an edition of Emily Dickinson’s “Master Documents” just two days ago; Edwin Torres in the Enclave Reading Series coming up in two days; and so many other previous readings happening in that series since just last fall (Cole Swensen, Carla Harryman, Erica Hunt, Rodrigo Toscano, Susan Gevirtz, Charles Alexander, Elizabeth Willis, Layli Long Soldier, Norman Fischer and Tenny Nathanson). Other reading series I’ve tuned into in the last few months include ones at City Lights (Paul Celan at 100 celebration); Chax Press (Kyle Schlesinger, Andrew Levy, Joseph Lease, Hank Lazar); and the weekly Segue Reading Series (Rae Armantrout, John Sakkis, Mónica de la Torre, Joan Retallack, Will Alexander, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge). Before the pandemic arrived I didn’t get to as many readings as I used to (such a long drive to the City or East Bay, more traffic than ever before). Once in a while Norman Fischer (who lives in Muir Beach) and I would drive in together to see someone we know read somewhere – Ron Silliman and Bob Perelman and Moe’s in Berkeley; Forrest Gander and Brian Teare at Alley Cat Books in the City; Norman and I reading there too; Kit Robinson and Ted Pearson at Café Vanne in Berkeley; Norman and I reading there too; Bill Berkson memorial event at the SF Art Institute and another not long after at the Luggage Store in the City; Tom Clark memorial reading at Bird & Beckett, also in the City. So even though we’ve been sheltering in place here for over a year, not getting out to any public events (including readings) I’ve been able see and hear poets reading and talking about their work from all over the country, and see other people also tuning in from all over the country – it’s been a really welcome pleasure.
But as to the character of American poetry – “‘innovative’ or otherwise – ” in 2021 and where it might be going next, who knows? I talk in Part I of this Exchange about what you called my “poetic lineage,” the poets I grew up reading and have continued to read – the early Modernist poets, the New American poets, Renaissance poets and Language poets and the many contemporary poets I taught in my classes at Mills – all but the last of these seeming to be part of history now. Ron Silliman frames this history in a recent Facebook announcement for an event called “The Next American Poetry” (which took place just today, April 13, at the Kelly Writers House) as a prelude to the question of “what’s next”:
Lately, I[‘ve] been thinking of the Language Poetry era (1970-1990) as the second phase of the New American Poetry (1950-70), an epoch roughly as long as modernism (1910-1950). In March of 1990, the New Coast Conference put a loud, clear closing gong to all that, precipitating what has now been a 30-year “conceptual moment” that encompassed political documenta, performative high-art conceptualism & even flarf.
But with the end of the Trump era, the rise of white nationalism & the rapidly heating up of the climate crisis, it seems evident that poetry in 2021 is ripe for renewal. And it won’t be coming from the same ol’ cisgender white guys who have moved stuff forward dating back at least to Wordsworth & Coleridge. So what’s next?
Next Tuesday, with the help and support of the Beltran Family Program & Kelly Writers House, I’m going to put that question to Levi Bentley, Susan Briante, Simone White & Timothy Yu. And you are invited.
I missed tuning into this event (and look forward to seeing it in a replay one of these days) but am sure the panelists had plenty to say about what’s going on in poetry today and what’s coming next. My own path in the world of poetry began in reading and writing – finding out what’s been done and how to make use of it in one’s own writing, how to “make it new” as Pound said. At this point it has become a daily practice of looking and seeing, listening and hearing, and still reading and writing –how to “make it new” more than ever a matter of paying attention to where we are. In any case, it’s clearly up to the next generation(s) to figure out where poetry is now and where it’s going next. Meanwhile and otherwise, I do my own work as best I can.
Halden-Sullivan: In the face of textual variegation that includes the blurring of or even re-making of genre expectations that poetry presents today, conceptual poet Craig Dworkin has suggested that practitioners must re-think the whole category called “poetry.” What re-thinking would you suggest? What questions might poets ask of their pursuits?
Ratcliffe: Poetry, like the other arts, is always being reinvented (rethought) by its “practictioners,” who have often joined themselves together (or are at some later point connected by critics or historians) to form groups or “schools”: Conceptual poets (speaking of Craig Dworkin), Flarf poets, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, New Formalist poets, New York School poets, San Francisco Renaissance poets, Beat poets, Black Mountain poets, Harlem Renaissance poets, Objectivist poets, Imagist poets, just to name a proverbial few. Pound’s “Make It New,” which seems to have come from Ch’eng T’ang (the first king of the Shang dynasty, 1766–1753 BC) and which Pound discovered through his work on Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, has everything to do with this. The art of poetry reinvents itself from one generation to the next, often accompanied by manifestos proclaiming what poetry should be doing now, for example
to chuse incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way
in Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” (“For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”).
Poets today have in their sights issues facing all of us: social and economic justice, race and gender relations, the climate crisis, survival of the planet. At the same time, poetry today can be anything one wants it to be: from copying the New York Times word for word (Kenneth Goldsmith); to creating “living poetry” by “translat[ing a] poem into a sequence of DNA for subsequent implantation into the genome of a bacterium . . . which cause the organism to manufacture . . . yet another text . . . in effect engineering a life-form so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also an operant machine for writing a poem—one that can persist on the planet until the sun itself explodes” (Christian Bok); to composing a poem for a Presidential inauguration which leads to the poet’s appearance weeks later on the Super Bowl Halftime show and the cover of Vogue (Amanda Gorman). Or one can simply write a poem every day for years, keeping track of the present passing moment of things taking place out there in the world (clouds in the sky, birds on the fence) along with thoughts in words passing through the mind.
Halden-Sullivan: What aspects of your life and work as a poet have you not discussed that you would like to share? What questions do you wish interviewers would pose? And then, of course, please respond to these inquiries!
Ratcliffe: Many questions come to mind still to be asked and answered (and many thanks to you for asking these), but I already seem to have gone on for too long so it’s probably a good time to stop.