by Gina Chung
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2019.
Mary Ruefle is the author of several collections of poetry, the most recent of which, Dunce, was longlisted for the National Book Award and is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and the LA Times Book Prize. She has also published two collections of prose (My Private Property and The Most Of It) and a book of collected lectures (Madness, Rack, and Honey).
In Dunce, Mary Ruefle examines death, endings, and our relationship to the everyday objects and rituals that remind us, even while they provide comfort and solace, of the fundamental frailty and uncertainty of life. We spoke recently by phone (the “Contact” section of Ruefle’s website states, wonderfully, that she does not own a computer and that “The only way to contact me is by contacting my press, Wave Books, or by running into someone I know personally on the street”) about duncedom, balancing the contradictory needs for attention and solitude, and the importance of wonder.
I thought we could start by talking about the title of your book. What do you think are the benefits of embracing one’s own “duncedom”?
You know, we’re all dunces, to begin with, and I guess at my age, I am not afraid to be one. We’re all, when we’re young, self-conscious, and we judge ourselves against other people, and we’re embarrassed or ashamed to be who we are and often feel stupid. I know I did. And I’m no longer embarrassed or ashamed to feel stupid.
Do you think that that’s extended to your writing life as well?
Yes, I’m not afraid to write stupid poems.
There’s a line in one of the poems in Dunce where you say, “I hate my poems,” which I related to a lot—it encapsulates that feeling of being in the midst of writing and having a moment of self-consciousness but persevering through it.
Oh yes, absolutely. One perseveres. One can only persevere when one, ultimately and finally, doesn’t care. You do what you want to do and what makes you happy. I always thought that people would say, “These poems are so stupid.” And then I could say, because of the title, “That’s the point!”
Many of the poems throughout Dunce touch on the idea of uncertainty. Do you think it’s important for writers and artists to become comfortable with uncertainty?
Absolutely. It’s essential. If you’re not comfortable with uncertainty, you wouldn’t continue to create. Because you never know if what you’re doing is worthwhile. You can’t presume to know if it’s worthwhile or how others will react to it, if you’re going down the right path, the wrong path—there is no certainty in creative activity. The only thing that’s certain is that it gives you joy to do it, to engage in it.
In an interview you did with the WMFA Podcast, you mentioned that a lot of writers, especially younger ones, have to learn how to balance the need for community with the need to be alone and write. How have you managed to balance those two needs throughout your writing life?
It’s a constant struggle. [laughs] There have been periods in my life where it was easier to do. Part of the problem with work getting attention is you always want to be left alone. But at the same time, you want attention. Everyone does. I’d be lying if I said that artists didn’t want attention. But they also want to be left alone. It’s a rack—I use the word rack as in, an element of torture. It’s difficult, I’m not always successful at it. I don’t know how I do it. I get overwhelmed very easily. I’m not a person who likes a lot of activity.
What does a successful day of writing look like for you?
A successful day of writing would be a day in which I’ve written something. It could be a letter, it could be a poem, it could be jotting something down. A successful day of writing is getting anything at all done. I do not think of myself as highly disciplined, but I feel grateful every day that writing comes naturally to me. I don’t necessarily run after it. It finds me, knock on wood. I write something every day. It might not be what you or I would call creative work, but it all is. I keep shopping lists; that’s writing. They look like poems, right?
Yeah, I think that so much of the work you’re doing as a writer is unconscious, and it’s happening while you’re doing other things.
That’s how it is with me. My writing—I do it while I’m doing other things. It’s taking place in my head, and I could be driving or washing dishes, and I’m writing in my head.
Has your relationship to your poetry changed throughout your writing life, including, perhaps, how you feel about poems you’ve written a couple years ago?
No, that’s pretty much stayed the same. I know a lot of poets, and I know many of them have the same experience, when you write something and you think “Oh, this is great. This is the best thing I’ve ever written.” And then you look at it the next day, and you see that it’s miserable, that you’ve failed once again and it’s terrible, and you hate it. And then after ten years, you look back on it, and you’re kind of fond of it. I think every ten years our relationship to our prior work changes. It’s like looking at old photographs. You know—the girl who thinks she was very ugly when she was a teenager and is absolutely convinced it’s true, then at 50, she looks at old photos and says, “Hey! I wasn’t.” My relationship to my work does fluctuate. I don’t spend a lot of time actually thinking about my relationship to my work. It’s just something I do because it gives me the greatest pleasure on earth, and my head would explode with pressure if I couldn’t write.
Many of the poems in the collection seem to be coming from a place of wonder. Is that a perspective that you have to consciously cultivate for yourself in your writing?
I wouldn’t say I cultivate it. It’s how I perceive the world. I perceive the world as being absolutely full of wonder. And things are wondrous to me that are quite ordinary to other people. Many years ago, I remember there was some discussion online about an old poem of mine called “Peeling an Orange.” And it was these young students trying to figure out what it was about, and it made me laugh because it was me describing peeling an orange, literally, peeling the fruit. And later I said something like, there’s nothing more wondrous than to peel an orange. And someone else completely thought that was the most ridiculous statement in the entire world. To them, it was this ordinary, boring, un-wondrous thing. But to this day, I think peeling an orange is pretty cool. [laughs] So I suppose it’s extreme in my case and perhaps that’s unfortunate, but again, I don’t care. Look, electricity, running water is miraculous to me. Just miraculous. I still don’t know how electricity works. But it’s amazing, you know? You touch a switch and there’s light.
I feel like a lot of what poetry is trying to do is asking us to slow down and take a look at the things that we take for granted, to think about what it means to turn on a switch and suddenly have a room filled with light.
Hopefully, poetry does help us see the world in fresh ways or consider very serious problems as they unfold on earth. There are many different aspects to wonder. We can wonder how it is that our species fucked up so badly and destroyed the planet. It’s not always wondering about delightful things. Sometimes we wonder about the sources of evil in the world. I say that because it’s important at all times to see the fuller picture. Wonder does not belong exclusively to joy. Wonder also belongs to grief and sadness.
You also work as an erasure artist. Do you find the process of creating by erasing to be similar or different from the process of writing poetry?
They have a lot in common but they’re also very, very different. One is much more of a visual activity, and I am very disciplined about that. It’s about the only thing I do that I am very disciplined about. I work on erasure every single morning first thing, every morning that I’m home. Very often, I use the text that’s left on an erased page. If I really love it, it will go into a poem. So there are lines in my poems that come out of erasure. I’m sure there are in Dunce.
What do you think is the most important trait for emerging writers to cultivate?
Patience. Patience. Patience. Which would be acceptance that things aren’t going to be easy and that this evolves over a very long period of time, a lifetime. So many young writers are miserable if they don’t publish a book by the time they’re 25. That’s outrageously stupid. Get a grip. Patience.
What kind of advice would you give yourself as a younger writer?
I would tell myself—but my younger self would not believe me—that all the things I thought mattered, none of them mattered. The only thing that mattered was writing. In other words, writing is the key to my own personal happiness. But when we’re young, we’re searching for many other keys, right? I think I’ve said this much more eloquently in an essay, but if the only thing you need to be happy is writing, you’ve got it. But you’re looking for community, you’re looking for love, you’re looking for a job, you’re looking for money, you’re looking for attention, whatever you’re looking for—you already have it, if you have an activity that completely satisfies you.
Mary Ruefle is the author of many books, including Dunce, My Private Property, and Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. She is an erasure artist, whose treatments of nineteenth century texts have been exhibited in museums and galleries and published in A Little White Shadow. Ruefle is the recipient of numerous honors, including the Robert Creeley Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a Whiting Award. She lives in Bennington, Vermont.
Gina Chung is a writer and editor pursuing an MFA in Fiction at The New School. Originally from New Jersey and now based in Brooklyn, she is the Communications Manager at PEN America and is currently working on a collection of short stories. Find her on Twitter @ginathechung.