Something unseen stirs the words in Ron Rash poems
by Rob Neufeld
Ron Rash, award-winning novelist and short story writer, is also an acclaimed and accomplished poet. His new book, “Poems: New and Selected” (HarperCollins) draws from six volumes and adds eight new poems. He comes to Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 5 p.m., Sun., Apr. 17, to present his book and to introduce Robert Morgan, who presents his new novel, “Chasing the North Star.”
Interview with Ron Rash, April 9, 2016, on occasion of publication of Poems: New and Selected
RN: Are you about to hit the road again?
RR: I had a couple of weeks off, and next week, I’m going to be traveling again. I’ve had a very productive last couple of months. I’ve written four stories.
RN: Oh, wonderful!
RR: That’s a lot for me.
RN: I love these collections that are coming out—the stories and now the poems. Do you feel that when you create a book of selections or move into new territory that you are creating a unified body of work?
RR: To me, it’s like a quilt. Even though they’re separate patches, they’re part of one large canvas...I’ve got a novel coming out in September—I’ve got some big patches—but I’ve got some smaller ones I’ve got to fill in.
RN: What kinds of subjects are those?
RR: I’ve got one new story that I think is important...It’s something I’ve always been fascinated with. It deals with cave art.
RN: It deals with what—K-Mart?
RR: No, cave art in France. A soldier comes back from World War II and starts recreating it in his own house.
RN: Okay, good!
RR: That’s something I’ve always been fascinated with, caves, and also going into that deep, deep Jungian myth area.
RN: Oh, this is great. There is a poem in this collection in which you go into a cave in this region and have this strong desire to see cave art—the poem, “Passage.”
RR: I had seen (photos of cave art) in “Life” magazine and I had this weird imagining of it being there in that cave. And in “Above the Waterfall,” Becky talks about it because it goes back to the beginning of art. I’ve worked it into a novel and a poem, and now it’s coming into a short story. You’re looking at it from different angles, trying to make it resonate in different ways, but also, in a sense, interconnecting it with the other work.
RN: That’s interesting having a World War II soldier involved.
RR: He’d been in France and had gone into one of the caves. Forty thousand years ago, you had incredibly sophisticated art. Look at the cave art in Lascaux and Pech Merle, it’s stunning.
RN: What are the thoughts and feelings you get from that ancient way of life?
RR: There are very few human figures in the cave art. It’s that incredible moment in human history when the connection with nature was so great that the animals dominate. In “Above the Waterfall,” what Becky wants—and something I want as someone who cares about environmental issues—is to reconnect on that kind of level.
RN: I think it would be fun to talk a little about craft. When you write a poem, I imagine you are trying to do a few different things.
RR: To me, the essential question for a poem is, if I made this into a paragraph, would anything be lost.
RN: Let’s look at “In the Springhouse at Night.”
RR: Well, let’s look at the fourth line: “Cabbage and beets, beans and sweet corn.” These are all seven or eight-syllable-lines. You have the hard “c” of “cabbage,” and the line ends with “corn.” In the middle, you have “beets” and “beans” centering that line, same sound; and then you add “sweet” to it. Everything is echoed in that line.
RN: Sound is extremely important to you.
RR: Oh yeah. To me a poem is a net for catching sounds.
RN: There’s almost something incantatory.
RR: Yeah, I want it to feel like an incantation. That’s why poetry has traditionally been connected so much to religion. It’s a way of saying things that goes beyond the mere conveying of information...It’s like music. There’s something else that is being conveyed just in the sounds... One thing I love about poetry is it demands attentiveness. The way poetry is often taught, it’s like they’re dissecting frogs. The first thing it should do is give pleasure. Part of that pleasure is the sound. Sometimes when I read my poems—I’ll read a poem like that, and I’ll say, the emphasis in that poem is from a Welsh form 1,500 years old, and it’s syllabic, and each line has some kind of internal (rhyming)...and, I’ll say, if you noticed that, I failed.
RN: I was going to ask you about the Welsh form.
RR: That’s the center of what I’m doing, cynghanedd; it simply means chiming. The Welsh had very particular forms.
RN: I notice that there are certain kinds of sounds you do use, and others that you don’t.
RN: And then I notice some sounds that you’re newly developing. One of your new poems, “The Country Singer,” the first two lines and the last two lines, hey, you’ve got a country song going there.
RR: Yeah, I had Lucinda Williams in mind.
RN: Is that kind of lyrical sound going to be entering more of your stuff? Are you playing with that?
RR: It may. As you can tell, I haven’t written a lot of poems lately because I’ve been writing prose, but you don’t want to do the same thing over and over. That was the poem in that group that I felt was doing something new. Different poems demand different emphases as far as how to create them. In “Eureka Mill,” I wanted to give the sense of their (the mill workers’) work and the rhythm of the mill. I used a longer line and a more cadenced iambic line because it’s a reflection of how the mill dominated that world. The machines affected the rhythm of their thoughts.
RN: When you write a poem, is it very early on that you try to figure out what kind of a sound the poem is going to have?
RR: The poem reveals the sounds. I start with an image, but then, I start playing with the sounds. I start looking at the lines. What can I do to load this poem up as much as I can with sound and sense, and to get the most out of each syllable.
RN: Let’s look at the poem, “The Call,” one of your new poems, which has a bunch of spondees in it. You have: “When the old man’s last breath left.” How did this poem evolve?
RR: It started with an image of dogs howling, and is based on something someone I knew told me about his grandfather. The dogs knew even miles away that he was dying.
RN: How long ago had you heard this story?
RR: I guess maybe 20 years ago.
RN: Where were you when you decided to resurrect this?
RR: Oh, it was like 15 years later. One day, I was thinking about that image of those dogs out there in the dark, and it struck me. Spondees, I think, worked in that line. It slowed the line down, and it made the emphasis of what was happening.
RN: You begin that poem: “That afternoon as last light drained.” Did that line come automatically as the first line?
RR: I think so. Then, of course, you have “last light,” “last breath” playing.
RN: I’m trying to picture you in the process of coming up with words.
RR: To me, it’s fun. Working on poems is fun. Writing fiction is not always; it’s sometimes more like mule work. The part that I love about fiction is when I get to the end, when I’ve pretty much done all I can, and my last drafts are all about sound. It’s about vowels and sounds rubbing up against each other; it’s about what syllables are stressed and unstressed.
RN: Do you have an example of one of the sound changes you made in one of your novels?
RR: This new novel, I had two hard “d” sounds in a row, and I knew that that was a kind of an ugly repetition. So I changed the first word that started with a hard “d” with a nicer sounding “n.” Sometimes, as with a spondee, you want that—like Auden writing about Yeats, “The day of his death was a dark cold day.” But I didn’t want that in this because it was a more peaceful moment. It was about darkness coming into a neighborhood. To have two hard sounds starting off the sentence about that would not work.
RN: What was the “d” sound that you changed?
RR: Maybe (I was writing about how) “dark dims,” and I changed it to “night dims.”
RN: Some of your poems are story poems. “Eureka Mill” connects different story-poems in a book. Is there any way to link story poems so that a book of them becomes a story in itself, with an arc?
RR: One of the tough things about doing the selected poems is that I want my books to do that very thing. It’s most obvious in “Eureka Mill,” but “Raising the Dead” starts off with those graves and those people being moved out of that valley; and then it arcs into the more personal, about the death of my first cousin in a car wreck when I was a teenager; and then it comes out into that world of the lake. To me, it’s almost as if you’re going into that lake in that book... “Raising the Dead” is very structured, and you don’t get that when you’re reading the selected poems because I couldn’t put them all in there.
RN: So what did you try to do with the selected poems?
RR: All my books of poetry had been published by small presses, and I love those presses. This was a chance for people who didn’t know my work to pay a little bit more attention to it because (the publisher) is HarperCollins.
RN: It’s nice when you’re a poet like Ron Rash to have connections with a famous novelist, like Ron Rash.
RR: You know, the only way to get it published was I had my agent tell HarperCollins, if you’ll publish the poems, I’ll give you the (new) novel, too. So, we did a two-book deal.
RN: I hope the novel sells great, but what if the poems sold more than the novel?
RR: That would be a great thing. You can’t imagine how happy I would be for poetry because I love poetry. It’s the wellspring. I tell my fiction students, “You may not ever write a poem in your life, though I think you should try, but if you’re not reading poetry, you’re going to hurt your fiction.” Every good novelist and short story writer I know reads a lot of poetry.
RN: Your story poems have an exciting flow. With “Bloodroot,” the first eight lines are plant descriptions, and then you realize you’re following someone who’s looking for snakes, and then you realize this guy is a drinker and a snake-seller, and then he ends up attending to a church service, having to still the rattling in his heart. I think, “Wow! That poem took me all kinds of places.”
RR: Yeah, I wanted you to feel the pleasure you get out of a story.
RN: Is it difficult to fit your poetry-making craft into a story?
RR: That, to me, is the challenge. You can do both... Several times, I’d write a poem, and I’d go from there to a short story or a novel. Actually, “One Foot in Eden” began with an eight-line poem. (Another time) I had a short story, and I realized it wasn’t going to work. I started tampering with it and realized it would work as a poem, but not as a story.
RN: Is there a yearning in your work for life being visionary? Why aren’t we living life like the cave painters.
RR: We dominate the world so much, there’s no way we could. I certainly don’t see the world that way all the time, but I have those moments...I (once) had the most amazing moment. I wrote about it in “Saints at the River.” Twenty years ago, I was trout fishing on a tributary of the Chattooga River. It had been foggy and raining, and it was the fall. I was in a grove of poplar trees. They were on both banks, about 20 of them. I was there and the sun broke through, and it was like the world was shimmering—those trees and that light coming through...It was almost like the world was charged...And man! I felt I was in the midst of the sublime.
Q: The first poem in “Waking”—it’s a beautiful poem. You know what I’m talking about, right?
A: Yeah, “My First Memory.”
RN: “Dragonflies dip, rise. Their backs/ catch light, purple like church glass.” And then, later on, “tadpoles flow like black tears.” Don’t you just love that line?
RR: I’m pretty proud of that. (both laugh) I’m not going to lie.
RN: Do you remember writing that line?
RR: Yeah. I felt that it was true to the way a kid would see it...The ultimate hope is that a reader would never be able to see a tadpole again and not think of that
RN: You’ve got the sound working real well, too. The tadpoles flowing, the long o sounds...
RR: And they go into the next line, “Minnows lengthen their shadows.”
RN: And then that wonderful last line” “Something unseen stirs the weeds.”
RR: That last line, I’d say, sums up the whole experience of what I’m trying to do in my work, that sense of mystery. Even as a kid, I felt there was more in the world than I was seeing. Francis Bacon said it, the role of the artist is to deepen the mystery, whether it’s in human motivation—those moments where a character does something unexpected, suddenly revealing what was unseen before—or in nature. There’s always something transcendent just out beyond our eyes.
RN: Do you find that Bible imagery feeds your imagination?
A: I read the Bible growing up. I think it’s a great gift for a writer, particularly the King James...It’s funny. My daddy paid me $5 to read the New Testament...I think I was 12.
Q: And how did you feel about that?
A: Well, I wanted the five dollars. (laughs)
Q: What were you going to do with that five dollars.
A: Probably buy some fishing equipment, I suspect. Funny, I’d forgotten about that. He was going to pay me $10 to read the Old Testament, and I just figured that wasn’t worth it after I realized how big it was.
Q: That’s hysterical. This is actually a theme. In the poem, “Bloodroot,” this guy was meant to learn the Word, but instead learned the world. And then there’s the poem, “August 1959: Morning Service,” in which a boy looks out a window of the church and follows the ringing of a cowbell, in his mind, to a spring pool where salamanders swirl. And here, your father gives you money to read the Bible and you want the money to go fishing.
Q: Hey, there’s a poem in here, Ron. How would that poem start?
A: Oh, wow. Something like, “late night, black as a Bible.” I don’t know, something unfolding. I remember those pages were so thin, you had to lick your finger every time you had to turn the page.
Q: How would you work the $5 offer into the poem?
A: I don’t even know if I could write that poem for whatever reason. One thing I was thinking right away, it would have to be late at night. The child would have to be alone, in bed maybe, and there’d be a soft light coming over the page, and the feel of that page, almost silky.
Q: Would you have the kid in the poem go to a particular part of the Bible?
A: Possibly. I’d have to get the first words down and let the poem lead me. It might even end up that I didn’t mention the five dollars. I never go in with a set idea that a poem’s going to do this or that. I don’t do that in fiction, either.
Q: Would the poem have to get him fishing somehow?
A: It might, it might not. I have to let the poem surprise me. The rhythms, the sound will have a lot to do with where the poem goes. I don’t understand why an image comes to me, or a line. I don’t know why a story reveals itself. I just want it to happen.
A wonderful discussion on craft, Rob!