An Interview with Martha Ronk

Ronk Photo
by Andy Fitch

After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers.

This present talk focuses on Martha Ronk’s Partially Kept. Ronk is the author of ten books of poetry, including Transfer of Qualities (long-listed for the National Poetry Award), Vertigo, a National Poetry Series selection), In a Landscape of Having to Repeat (a PEN USA best poetry book), and Why/Why Not from UC Press. She has had several residencies at Djerassi and MacDowell, is an NEA recipient, and is the Irma and Jay Price Emeritus Professor of English at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Andy Fitch: Could we open with your “Partially Kept” section’s distinction between Sir Thomas Browne, let’s say (writing as botanist or gardening enthusiast, constructing an analogical, perhaps anthropocentric engagement with the garden—he’ll describe the plants’ “precocities” for instance), and a more modern sensibility that sees intricate, almost grammatical interweavings amid the garden and/or language (with “the sentence itself” at one point described as “an integument of flexible green / evoking a beginning and end / a half mirrored         a whole        a half, and beginning again—”)?

Martha Ronk: For me the sections fit together, because in all of them I was trying to think about the shifts of syntax and sentences and vocabulary dependent on the influence of location. In the first section I hoped to take up Browne’s focus on plants and gardens, and also to set his belief in a symbolic world order against our more despairing worldview; I felt I was entering an arena—the text of The Garden of Cyrus—in which plant life and the life of sentences intertwined, each creating the other. One poem names this location: “The particular state wherein you reside.”

In terms of differences, I was interested, in the first part, in the way in which Sir Thomas Browne has a sense of the world as divinely ordered, as repeating a certain shape or a certain number. He demonstrates confidence in the structure of the world because it’s a reflection of the divine, whereas today we are skeptical, confused, not even sure of how we’re going to finish a sentence once we start it, not rooted in that kind of cultural belief. I wanted to play with these differences all the way through. Secondly, I realized that for every section of the book I was influenced by the specific place I was in when writing. One location was Browne’s essay and my desire to connect my academic work and creative work—that is, the way in which the texts I taught in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature classes connected to the poems I was writing today.

Other locations included gardens. I wrote in a garden in Vermont called North Hill, which is a famous garden that was put together by two men who are professional gardeners and professional garden writers. I had a cabin at the back of their property, so every day when I took a walk I was in the middle of plants I didn’t know the names of, and things they knew the Latin names of, and thinking about petals and shapes and root systems. Part of the time I also spent nearby at the MacDowell Colony. So I think I’m often very influenced by both an arena I’ve chosen, which happened to be this literary essay, and then too the things that I see out the window especially when the rural view is so very different from where I live in Los Angeles.

partiallykeptFinally, all of the parts of the book were threaded through with a sense of disappearance. The past has disappeared. That kind of language has disappeared. That way of looking at the world. Disappearance runs all the way through, sometimes directly in an elegy or with an elegiac tone, and sometimes just with a vaguer sense of: I can’t remember the past, or I can’t see very clearly, or I’ve gotten older and the person I was isn’t there anymore, and the place I grew up isn’t where I live now. In Partially Kept I also wanted to suggest the silence of gardens and of elegy; I had had a few conversations about silence, some with Elizabeth Robinson, and I wanted to write a book that was opposite to the book I had written just before, Vertigo, where everything was rushed and crammed together. There I was interested in pushing sections of sentences together and still having them work syntactically. Now I wanted poems that were quieter or slower, allowing for spaces and contemplation.

AF: In terms of writing a disappearance, writing a silence, I also wonder about writing the invisible or incorporating the invisible into a visual repertoire. Even your opening epigraph from Browne states: “Light that makes things seen, makes some things invisible.” So I’d love to hear more about the importance of the invisible, the enshadowed in gardening, as well as about the broader place of silence, of the invisible in your poetics, or poetry in general, or rhetoric in general. Here I recall, again from Partially Kept, George Puttenham’s conception of rhetoric deceiving the ear and mind. And also, since you mentioned Vertigo, and given your interest in Sebald, and Sebald’s interest in Browne: when I read your book, I connect Browne to Sebald, and then to death, to reflections on death. So could we add to the topics of disappearance, silence, the invisible, that crystallizing topic of death?

MR: You’re right about Sebald bringing up Browne for me again, and the influence of Sebald’s sense of memory and of the way in which the past is lost and people have lost memories because of the war and because of the Holocaust. Obviously I didn’t undergo that history, but I’m really interested in what you remember, how you remember, what your perspective is as opposed to somebody else’s. Even your own memory changes over time because of circumstances or even because your body changes.

I was interested in the use of “rhetoric” as a defense, a somewhat artificial or heightened language as a protection, words spinning out as cover. I have a poem called “Let Rhetoric,” where I am trying to say something about how often we fall back on the rhetorical (imaged as the color red)—mainly because we don’t know what to make of things and can’t comprehend, for example, “how many years it’s been since the world began.” Our mind is dark in some way, and so we use rhetoric as a kind of prop or foil. But I also was just interested in the way in which, in the past, using formal rhetoric (as I think Browne does) was just what wordsmiths were trained to do, and, as Puttenham suggests, a source of creativity, a “lying” that is also able to create imaginative art. I don’t have an exact answer, but I was certainly interested in the effects of juxtaposing levels of language to convey cultural assumptions, most obviously here Browne’s sense of oneness with nature and my own estrangement and even despair, as in “Refusal,” where I counter Browne’s description of the glory of flowers with a line that echoes his own diction: “yet doth not suffice.”

Then I wanted also to use spaces in some of the poems, especially at the beginning but also in the dangling modifiers at the end, to assess the effect—because I’d never done it before. I had never quite believed that if you leave a space it meant quiet or silence, but I came to appreciate the influence of the visual on the verbal, the white space against the text. Partly because I had been reading Barbara Guest, whom I greatly admire and who does it in some of her very suggestive and ambiguous poems.

AF: I’ll want to catch up on how the different sections here get spatialized. But before we move too far from an emphasis upon perspective and how perspectives change over time, I wonder if we could bring in another recurring motif or scene—that of climbing. When you mention the types of individuated perspective that appeal to you, I think of this book arriving at expansive vistas, but not offering any totalizing, universalizing glimpse. Instead of expounding some God-like view, you offer a quite human view, still with something impervious to objective knowing, even from such heights. So in “Alpines,” for instance, I come across lines like “pushing up through the narrows above the snow line.”

MR: “Alpines” is focused on the extraordinary flowers you find when you’re climbing above the tree line. I happened to be in Colorado, and I became aware of the way in which the tiny flowers are able to push themselves through the stone. I saw myself as having to push through silence in order to get at any kind of language. So it really was my effort to feel a kind of analogy between that sense of effort or push. Everyone had always told me I had to see alpine flowers, since I was writing about flowers, and I had never seen these. So I happened to be teaching a class at the University of Colorado, and I got to go for hikes that took me there. But my perspective was most often down at ground level, trying to see quite tiny exquisite flowers.

AF: Yeah you’ll offer glimpses of human embodiment, rather than some soaring, floating vision perched above everything else.

MR: In the poem “The Fold,” I look at a fold in a petal, and then I fold my body over so that I’m down in a kind of crouch trying to see smaller things I wasn’t able to see when standing up; you just wait there in silence hoping that this will open up your vision and aural senses. It’s almost as if it’s a physical imitation of something seen, just because you saw a petal folded over.

AF: It also interests me how you here have described perspectives changing over time as one ages. I guess because you had mentioned perspective, Nietzsche and the concept of genealogy came into my head. Partially Kept seems to offer something like a Nietzschean/genealogical approach. Visions of gardens might have taken on symbolic significance for Browne, or overtly sexual symbolic significance for Shakespeare. By the time we reach someone like Coleridge, conceptions of the organic have developed a slightly different allegorical significance or locus. The decorative patternings of someone like William Morris then come to mind, again transforming the significance of gardenesque imagery. And in your book I sense each of these registers circulating. So while it makes sense to think of a garden as a spatial tableau laid out before us, I guess gardens also can offer a temporal tableau, with various elements growing and dying at the same time, even as our mind perceives one present snapshot. So could you talk about gardens as studies in/of time as much as in/of space?

MR: Yes, you are right: gardens do offer a temporal tableau and certainly mean differently in different eras and indeed geographies (think of the formal gardens in France). I wish I had attended more to these questions in the book, but more obviously, I got taken up with transience and the way in which gardens capture that sense of fragility and disappearance. One morning in Vermont when my “job” was to deadhead the daylilies, I was very aware of the fact that they are there for a day and then they just droop over and are completely gone. I’ve always been interested in the fragility of things, and with special urgency now because of climate change, but also because of the accidents of reading. Years and years ago I was teaching Japanese literature in translation and I encountered the phrase Mono No Aware, which suggests the strong empathy that you have towards things partly because you know that they’re dying, that they will die in a moment. If it’s a drop of dew, it will dissolve. Shakespeare, of course, makes us ever aware of transience, not only in the sonnets, but also powerfully in his plays—spectacles for a brief period of time and then gone, as when Prospero describes the pageant fading, leaving “not a rack behind.”

I’m always somehow drawn to that sense of how fragile things are and how a garden means so differently depending upon whose language you happen to be in or whose century you happen to be in. I think about the kinds of gardens that Queen Elizabeth put up. She made gardens in the shape of an “E,” for Elizabeth, just one more way in which she used symbolism to solidify her reign: appearing as the Virgin Queen, for example, or wearing a dress embroidered with eyes and ears to indicate that she knew all that was going on in her castle; she had spies.

Still I don’t think that I was historically focused enough in this quite personal book. It was really more that I had certain obsessions that came upon me from reading a piece of literature—not only from looking at flowers, but from encountering a piece of literature that was so extraordinarily different, where I didn’t know words or I could never have constructed a sentence like that. The possibility had disappeared. Also a very dear friend had recently died, and I naturally contemplated both his death and my own. On rereading I was shocked to recognize, Oh, there are several suicide poems. I hadn’t meant to find myself drowning or smashed to gravel in “Sound,” but there I was.

AF: Well alongside such sunderings, could we address how principles of grafting play out? For poems like “My partial tongue” and “The particular state wherein you reside,” we learn only in their last lines that their titles come from Browne quotations. So a generative, active mode of grafting occurs, where you have taken what could seem impossibly other and created something of your own from it.

MR: Yes, I was trying to use grafting all the way through, trying to quote Browne’s original phrases and to acknowledge my own dependence on their evocative brilliance. I felt somewhat stuck in my own writing and I had wanted to change. I felt as if this intimacy allowed me a joint enterprise—that’s where the “Partially” comes from. Each of us is present, but partially. I’m also dedicated to not having that language lost, to not giving up on teaching language that’s difficult (“unearthing the difficult past onto the blank page” in “Incision”).

I saw Browne’s language as generative in unexpected and often surprising ways, “errant in germination.” One of the reasons I like immersing myself in different texts, putting myself in the company of other writers, is that they do change your vocabulary. They change what you write about or they change the length of lines. So in Vertigo, I tried to write really long, complicated lines in the way that Sebald does, as both an homage to him and as a way of influencing what I was able to produce by imitating in this specific way. Partially Kept is a very different project, but I hoped for a kind of grafting from one person’s language to another’s and also from the grafting of plants to language.

I know that in some ways I operate from a kind of antiquated interest in imagery, while many contemporary poets are not so interested in imagery. I think part of it is my training, and just my visual sense of things. So many poems that I have written over time are about photographs or about paintings or about using ekphrasis in some way. My next book is about photographs. Anyway, I can’t get rid of imagery. I’m stuck with it.

AF: Your use of imagery does not come across as antiquated at all. Intriguing lines will appear, like “some analogy squeezed from proximity,” or “metaphors configured vine and branch-like”—pointing towards both metaphor and metonymy, fusing both imagistically and rhetorically that basic twentieth-century critical dichotomy. You’ll kind of move laterally. You’ll take what you want and then embellish upon it, but more in orientation towards the language itself, towards the prose itself, rather than towards the ideas.

MR: I hope so. In the poem “the stalks of mint,” I imagine lifting up the plant and seeing the way it sends out tendrils much as we germinate memories—you find yourself thinking about somebody’s face, and then about the way in which ink on a wet page runs off by itself in unexpected directions. It was one of those poems that really came from Browne’s line: “the stalks of mint set in glasses with the root end upward & out of the water.” I kept thinking about how it’s upside down, and the roots are going out and how sentences could go like that, and memories can move like that and ink drawings as well. I tried to stay in the material world, just as memories are often rooted in the chair you’re sitting in.

AF: Overall, Partially Kept seems to offer this continual lateral spread outwards, and/or this binding/integrating/synthesizing of whatever happens to come into a piece, into the book. But elsewhere you also have emphasized pruning or editing or solitary work. I wonder about that tension between the centrifugal movement, the outwards-reaching syntax, but then also this centripetal pressure, this inward-focused way of shaping the individual poems.

MR: Well, I spend a lot of time revising. I’m not somebody who can move slowly. I can’t move my body slowly. I can’t move the line slowly. So I end up with way too much, often opaque to me later. Especially in this book I had to do an enormous amount of cutting, particularly in the first part, but throughout as well in order to create a coherent manuscript. A number of poems don’t work alone. They need to fit together to work. So in some ways, the book has to be read as a whole to work. Some of the later poems could stand alone, but I prefer always to think that I am creating a book, not a series of stand-alone poems.

AF: And I don’t want to neglect the book’s other two sections. Again, questions you raised earlier about this book’s spatialization stand out in relation to these questions of pacing you’ve just brought up. The “No Sky” section fascinates me in part because it seems to start so breathless, with no physical space, similar to what you’ve described as your more familiar mode. Following the sculpted depths and textures of the “Partially Kept” section (with its silences and its spaces), “No Sky” felt like pure, flat juxtaposition, as evoked in the line: “Each item put next to the other, so something will be yielded up.” But later in this “No Sky” section space does begin to creep back in. Long lines start opening up. The later poem “Events” for example presents those single-word, hook-like extensions of lines, providing additional punctuations. Then this whole section culminates in “An exceptional reality’s” elegant densities. That piece’s thematics of dormancy, of potential energy, begin to coalesce into something more like a narrative, a manifesto, an apologia—however you want to describe it. Could you describe putting together this “No Sky” sequence? Perhaps we also could discuss your sequencing of the whole book, with, say, a movement in this one section toward something more like narrative fiction by the end, like prose.

MR: One other thing I would say, for instance, about “Event” is that I was really interested in how hard it is to delineate where an event begins and where it ends. In other words: you call it an event, but where did it start, and where did it end, and what kinds of things made it happen? How much is it about what I would call a participatory and willing obsession, so that you’ll impose an artificial form onto amorphousness? The shape of the poem tries to capture that by including one-word lines—a word left over as it were. More generally, this section tries to come at loss in a more discursive way, but still focused on a blank sky or a gap in the sequencing of time, or on an arbitrary label that leaves so much out. I wanted to suggest all that is omitted from any frame (the frame we call a poem or a day or an event or an interpretation), the random other stuff that is neglected. In “Interpretation,” a poem evoking Emily Dickinson, I tried to suggest that reading is influenced not only by the words, but also by “a blue under her tired eyes,” memories, overreading, “the delicacy of her skin,” old marginal notes and the continuous rain.

Much of this section has to do with time, and trying to get a sense of when something began, when something was over, and what that meant. Part of the reason for this is actually biographical. I was in a garden in Vermont and it was August (which comes up in the last section) and it was time to go. I had to go back to the city. The days start to be charged not because tomorrow you’re leaving, but because in three weeks you’re leaving. The future impinges. So you start to think about the frame. I’m really interested in the frame—going back to Degas, and the ways in which his framing is “off,” with half the dancer outside the frame and the focus often on what is customarily left off to the side. You can get a sense of the wonderful power of framing by holding your fingers up in a kind of square, walking around the room and framing it differently—how that changes the nature of what you think the room is like.

Years ago I was married to a photographer, and he’s the one who said: “No it wasn’t photographers who invented photography. It was Degas.” I think about that often, especially with regards to windows. Looking out a window from different vantage points changes what you see and therefore what you write. So I got interested in the experience of “after visiting for a time, it’s time to go.” I also thought through the anecdote about Emerson’s aphasia, because it coordinated with my sense of not being able to think of words that I wanted to get ahold of, and not being able to think of a language to communicate this lapse. When Emerson couldn’t think of the word “umbrella,” he said, “The thing that people take away with them,” which wouldn’t help very much. But I thought it was a very creative way to deal with his aphasia and also a strong reminder of the way language fails us.

AF: I actually read your book in mid-August. I felt deeply the sequence you’ve described. The “Partially Kept” section came across as one’s release amid a world of objects, of nature however defined. With “No Sky,” I had the sensation of returning to the world of work—or to the office or desk at least, with this latest deprivation providing for its own charged, crystalline vision.

MR: You’re absolutely right.

AF: Then with the elegiac, autumnal concision of the “August” section, I felt I just had undergone a very narcissistic encounter with your book, reflecting/projecting my own life in my own mid-August, but you actually did want to sequence that type of trajectory?

MR: Yes. So that it was not only about time in general, but also this specific sweep of time, and then the profound way the shadows change and the weather changes. I’m in California, so I know people who are natives who tell me there’s lots of weather here, but it’s not the same as being in Vermont. Since I grew up on the East Coast I miss that weather all the time. You’d think I’d get used to not having it, but I don’t. It was always reassuring to be there and have the sense that the year is really turning and the end of summer is clearly coming.

AF: That for sure came through. And we’ve discussed a bit your process of pruning for this book, your process of arranging the different sections. Could you put that all in the context of working with Nightboat? At what point did Stephen get involved? Which drafts did he see? How did the book take on its lovely square shape?

MR: The poems were pretty much finished. I thought it was so odd a book that nobody would ever publish it. I’d finished it but didn’t know what to do with it. When Stephen asked me if I had a manuscript and I said I did, I also said, “I just have to warn you: it’s very odd.” He just didn’t blink. I think Nightboat is wonderful in that way. They just seem (I say “they” but it’s probably mostly Stephen) open to so many different kinds of things. I saw Brian Blanchfield when he was out here for a conference at Cal Arts. He drove me to the conference, so we had time to talk. He’s about to have a second Nightboat book come out, and it’s so different from many of the others and from mine. I was so happy to hear that. It just confirmed for me in that one example the way in which the press is open to so many kinds of poetry.

So often poets fall into groups that exclude others, and don’t pay attention to those who write in different ways. It seems so limited to me. I want literature to open all the doors that I can’t open by myself, and to allow me to see things that I wouldn’t otherwise see. Nightboat is extraordinary in its range and openness and quality. I love also the cover on my book. I like the fact that the cover is white and that these odd little pods are showing up out of the snow, and that it conveys a sense of the work within, a sense of the partiality of plants and of blankness and loss. It just seemed so fitting for how I thought about the book. I was very, very happy. Everybody I’ve showed it to thinks it striking, perfect.

AF: HR Hegnauer did terrific work again. And for those flowers on the cover: I also thought of Ophelia. I thought of the snowscape you’ve described, but also of flowers streaming past, through water.

MR: There is an Ophelia poem.

AF: “Drowning,” right? It’s place in Partially Kept interested me. Or similarly, the Anne Boleyn reference in your “August” section could seem to shift the tonality of this book, to offer a gloomy non sequitur. But actually, to me, both instances seem to undergird much of what happens elsewhere.

MR: I hope so. They were again poems of disappearance. The poem “Sound” is about not being, and disappearing in the gravel, and “Drowning” focused, yes, on Ophelia and the painting by Millais. I had published an academic essay on Ophelia and the way in which she is imaged, and, in fact, I worked for many years on a long academic project about ekphrastic women in Shakespeare’s plays, on the way in which the characters at certain points became emblem-like—the transformation of a character from speaking to a frozen picture. That found its way into “Drowning.” The Anne Boleyn poem is there partly because of the sense of wanting to use dangling modifiers. It was my experiment again with trying to figure out if there are things one can do to suggest a kind of silence, a lack of transition.

I had read, I don’t remember where, of somebody who says the poem is a cylinder. I don’t think I made that up but I might have. Anyway, then I was interested in giving an example of a dangling modifier in which words are left out, and then watching the coat slip off her shoulder and thinking about the danger of being in that court, and being exposed physically, because she was being pursued by Henry. Everyone was frightened and spying was endemic. Do you know the Wyatt poem “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”? It led me to the sense of her extreme danger.

AF: Again on this topic of dangling modifiers, of delicate contiguities, things arranged side-by-side, one of my favorite such moments appears in the lines “Not that red, but geranium red in the sun / over the phone explaining.” I just love the sense of simultaneity, that color coming from the activity which happens to get placed next to it. I also hear echoes of James Schuyler, one of my all-time favorites, with his line “sitting thinking biting at a hangnail.”

MR: Thank you for saying that about James Schuyler.

AF: We could talk more about the “August” section, which seems so Schuyleresque, and which completes this triptych.

MR: Yes, all the way through I’m trying to contemplate time and the way that time changes, and then in the last section I bring it down to something more matter-of-fact, to the end of summer. So these poems are all hued with that tone at the very end as I try to attach myself to things around me so that they don’t slip away. If you can only remember clearly, then the fact that you’re going to lose them and move away, that the season will fall and the plants are going to die and wilt—but still if you just can name them. . . .

In many ways, that effort has been for me so much the function of poetic language: trying to keep things from going away, trying to get hold of them in some way, or to state them in some way that seems to be true. To write so that “everything won’t be forgotten.” But this attachment is very much about things that are forgotten. You say, “OK, if I could just know the name of this, that will keep it. That will nail it down in some way, if I only know what the name is.” Of course it doesn’t work. I think those of us who use language are always trying for this, trying to keep everything from floating away by trying to write about it despite failure.

AF: Does an aphoristic tradition appeal to you for such reasons? A tradition that does try to capture, within the embodied sweep of a single sentence, something more durable perhaps than the content it describes?

MR: I don’t think so. Rather, because of my background I think of Shakespeare sonnets where he talks about the ultimate death of the beautiful young poet, and claims that he will keep that poet alive in verse—which seems so impotent a desire as enacted in the poems. Although the final couplet asserts “My love shall in my verse ever live young,” the other 12 lines describe the power of death and destruction. The first 12 and the final two struggle against one another. One might say that the poem succeeds, in part, by means of a grand rhyming couplet. Again, that is why the title of my book refers to “Partially.” May the language in the poems function well at least “in part.”

One of the things I’ve always thought is that if I were to write a poetics, it would have to do with the poetics of failure, and the way in which all the things that you claim or that you try for are already based on the limits of language. I hope that this comes through, maybe in the sense of fragility—the sense that language is as fragile as the little alpine plant. I hope that’s an undercurrent in my work. Maybe that’s why the elegiac always gets in there. People have said to me “Your poems are so melancholy.” For me, failure has to be acknowledged, needs to be faced in some way.

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