Interview: Brett Ralph
SPECIAL REPORTING BY BERND SAUERMANN
Brett Ralph is the author of Black Sabbatical (Sarabande Books), which was published in 2009 as the selection of the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature. He was the lead singer in the Louisville punk band Malignant Growth, and has released albums with the bands Rising Shotgun and Brett Eugene Ralph’s Kentucky Chrome Review, the latter of which can currently be heard playing venues in the Louisville area and elsewhere. His poetry has appeared in Conduit, Willow Springs, The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets, The American Poetry Review, as well as other publications. He is a professor of writing and literature at Hopkinsville Community College, where this interview was conducted.
WHOLE BEAST RAG: Your early career was in the punk scene in Louisville; tell us about that.
BRETT RALPH: Well, I guess the first poems I started to write as a teenager were really just lyrics to non-existent punk rock songs that had no music. I guess I aspired to do that, and I remember my sophomore year we had to keep a journal that we would write in every Friday in my English class, and I would write these lyrics to songs, and I remember one day my teacher wrote on them, ”You know I really like this poem,” and I was aghast, I was like, “That’s not a poem. Those are lyrics to a song.” She said, “Oh, did you write music for it too?” and I said “No, I don’t know how to play an instrument,” and she said, “Well is there a melody?” I said, “No, these are just lyrics.” She said, “Well if there is no music and there is no melody, then this is a poem, and you wrote a poem. You can put it to music.”
And I guess it hadn’t occurred to me that you could call that poetry, you know? I was still kind of resistant to call what I wrote “poetry” because I was a football player and a punk rocker and probably too “macho” and poetry seemed like an effete undertaking, but I met this woman, there’s a poem about her in my book, Black Sababatical, “Elegy for Lorri,” this woman whose brothers I played football with, she was part of the punk rock scene and was already a pretty well-know and accomplished performer, and she an I met and I really looked up to her and she was the first person I met who seemed to endorse poetry as just as intense and aggressive an undertaking as singing in punk rock bands, whereas my band mates (I had joined a band by then) and my football buddies and punk rock bandmates kind of looked the other way about me writing poems.
And that’s kind of been my goal ever since, to bridge the distance between, you know, academia and more intellectual pursuits and more street-level, populist, accessible popular art. I would like poetry to be as accessible to people as those other art forms. I’m not dumbing it down on purpose, but I’m definitely trying to write work that gives some immediate visceral effect that will hopefully blossom with repeated readings, but definitely punk rock taught me. I don’t want you to be able to figure everything out about a poem necessarily on one reading, but I want you to get enough from it that you don’t feel dumbfounded or alienated from it and that you feel you have a base to stand on for those repeated readings. I think that comes out of the aesthetic that I hold singing in punk rock bands.
WBR: Go back to what you said about the visceral. Jim Carrol talked about the blending of rock and roll and poetry. I think with music, anyhow, you have the music that kind of establishes a tone or mood. You have the music itself that helps to convey meaning, and with poetry that’s just not there. And I know your music has shifted from punk to, and I hate to use the term “alternative country,” but kind of like a blues/country, but how has your poetry shifted?
BR: I’d like to think that they’ve grown together; I think that when I was a younger man my poems were more solitary and more introspective and more dark and kind of lonely, and punk rock songs are antagonistic, they’re aggressive, they’re very extroverted, and I think one of the reasons I probably shifted to country music is because it allows you to tell stories more and go into more detail, you know?
I wanted my songwriting to become more story and character driven, you know, more lyrically oriented, and not so much about the power of the music or the anger of the delivery. At the same time, I’ve been consciously trying to make my poetry less solitary, it was getting kind of hermetic for a while. One time I gave a reading on a Friday night; there were a whole bunch of people there with dates and it was a restaurant, a coffee house in Louisville, and at the end of the reading I could just tell I had sucked all the wind out of the room and just bummed everybody out, and it was a Friday night, and people were on dates and trying to get laid, you know, and I had just spewed all this misfortune, and I just thought, “What a dick move.”
I think what happens is most of us start writing as disaffected adolescents and so our poems’ goals are catharsis, to get it off our chest, and to deal with these confusing emotions. Even as we mature emotionally, psychologically, and aesthetically, that’s a palette that we’re familiar with. When I was in punk rock bands, my model was, like, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, just like ten incendiary aphorisms that you just throw out there that are provocative and kind of cryptic. That was my rock lyric style. But now, I’m really trying to craft song lyrics that are as revised and as crafted and that hold up on the page as well as my poems do, so I think they’re growing together, that the songs are getting more crafted and literate, if not literary; and the poems, I hope, are getting a little looser and a little less rarified, you know — a little less Sylvia Plath and a little more Anne Sexton, whose work I think is a lot looser and more conversational.
WBR: You’re also a Buddhist, and there’s a certain element of detachment that comes with that philosophy. Does that make its way into your writing?
BR: Yes, I think many poets are drawn to Buddhism because the practices of meditation and of writing and of the observing and reflecting and the opening and inviting one’s soul that leads to writing. I think it’s not dissimilar from the Buddhist tenet of being in the moment and not living in the past or the future but responding emphatically to what is now; I think my attraction to Buddhism is that it gave me a vocabulary for a lot of stuff that I was doing already and cultivating, but placed it in a more moral and ethical context. Poetry was my first religion, like it taught me my place in the world, my relationship and responsibilities to other people and to the natural world and to other living beings. It taught me to pay attention, but I would day that the place that Buddhism enters my work most importantly for me is I’m drawn for whatever reason — it might be my punk rock background — but I’m drawn to writing about more messy, complex, difficult aspects of the human experience, because I find it interesting. I think that people are at their, often times, their most beautiful and their most pure at moments of desperation or moments of abandon or liberation. I’m very drawn to that. But I’ve never really fallen into dichotomous thinking. It’s always been really important to me to see the good, the worthy useful aspects of any experience, and with people too.
WBR: I know you were at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with James Tate. There’s been, in the last ten years or so, or I guess it goes back even further than that, a discussion of the workshop and its value to poets. Let’s talk a little about James Tate and workshops at UMass, how that went.
BR: Well, the different workshop leaders I had at UMass had very different approaches. The two poets I worked with most closely were James Tate and Dara Wier, who are both still there. With Dara we very much prepared for workshop. We got the poems ahead of time and spent time looking at them and commenting on them, kind the basic workshop model that I adopt now, and we’d get very close textual readings based on it.
With Jim we always did the poems blind. People brought poems, handed them out, the poem was read aloud, and then we’d start talking about it. Tthere are merits to both styles. What I learned fromm Jim in that context was that that really let you see initial reactions to your poems and misreadings. People hadn’t had a week to read the poem five times and think about it. You were getting the same experience you might get if someone came across your poem in a book and you weren’t there to explain, and so what I learned from Jim was just how pure and unassailable his impulses were for responding to different types of poems.
A lot of people came to UMass because they were fans of Jim’s work, and a number of people seemingly were emulating him stylistically and I think sometimes there was an expectation that Jim would cater to the edgier wilder poets and maybe be less receptive to those who were more conventional, but Jim taught me that every poem must be judged on its own merits and its own ambition.
WBR: Do you ask students to write a poem in an established form (a sonnet, terza rima, and so on)?
BR: We do some. I usually introduce a lot of forms, but they’re not necessarily traditional forms. I’m introducing prose poems and different free verse forms. At a community college, a lot of my students have never written a poem before. I feel like when I was a young writer, I just wanted to write, and for me, I had to work up to where I was committed enough to poetry for what I write to endure the rigors demanded by rhyme and metered verse. So I introduced the sonnet in an introductory course, but I don’t emphasize a lot of forms in an introductory class because I feel like it might scare a lot of them off, you know, and I don’t want to make it any more technical early on than it’s going to be anyway to discuss issues like enjambment, syllabics and stuff.
WBR: You mentioned prose poems and, from my perspective, they seem to be experiencing a surge of popularity. What is your opinion on prose poems? I know you’ve written a lot more of them lately than you have in the past.
BR: I love ‘em. I’ve always been a fan of the form even when I wasn’t writing them. There’s just something really pleasing about a little orderly block of prose, and what I love about the prose poem is I think that an obstacle to a lot of people that don’t like poetry to poetry is the seeming arbitrariness, you know, why are we chopping our thoughts up into these different lines, you know, and people don’t get poetry. The idea of breaking a line to create meaning or to hold off completing a phrase seems manipulative and melodramatic to certain idealists of authenticity.
And so the prose poem, what I love about it, is it feels spiritually, aesthetically like a poem. It’s short, they’re generally lyrical, you know, often imagistic, often surreal, yet it looks like prose; it abjures the technical conventions of verse, yet still achieves the substance of poetry, and it seems like the best of both worlds, almost like a kind of magic, you know.
It’s fun as a poet to keep writing charged, rarified, imagistic sentences without having to break them up. I’m so obsessed with line breaks and these really heavy rhythms of my lines; it’s fun to let go of that and discover the subtler rhythms of sentences, rather than of lines and let that drive the poem, more than line breaks and enjambment and the rhythm of the lines. But I love prose poems and I know some people reject them as a kind of bastardized genre.
WBR: We’re going to end with some advice to younger poets. You have your writing workshops and if you had to condense it all down, if you had to distill all the advice you give all semester, what would it be?
BR: Well, I guess the biggest advice I would give is to never stop interrogating your relationship with language, you know. It’s about the words, and when I see poems by inexperienced poets, they’re often on poignant themes, they might be detailed in their descriptions, you know, but oftentimes what holds these poems back is that the language isn’t charged and memorable and well-chosen, you know. It’s content based.
In ancient Greece, lyric poetry was accompanied on the lyre, but in a contemporary lyric poem, the words themselves have to create both the meaning and the music, and that’s what I find lacking in so many poems. And that’s what form and meter provides for lots of people, but I think as a free verse poet, too, with every poem we’re reinventing the wheel, and the challenge becomes, “How am I going to make this poem that doesn’t have a discernible metrical structure, how am I going to make it musically, sonically, and rhythmically memorable? How am I going to use my words, my rhythms, my line breaks to create an overall effect that is more than just the meaning of the words I put down? And that’s what I find endlessly fascinating as a poet, is deepening the musicality of my poems.
The other bit of advice I would give is this: The biggest problem with being an artist is we have to do all the other shit that everybody else has to do, professionally, personally, familial, you know, we have to all this other stuff. Then there’s this other thing that’s just as important to us as anything else in our lives that we have to make lot of time for if we’re going to be good at it. When I went to Austin Peay to read, they asked what advice I had for the writers in the class, and I said, “My question to each of you is, ‘What are you going to give up for poetry?’” I would ask any budding writer, “What’s the one thing you enjoy doing?”
I stopped playing fantasy football and watching football every Sunday because that’s one day a week I just can’t afford to burn, and so some people, you know, give up drugs and alcohol. I would ask any serious writer, “What are you willing to sacrifice for your art? What non-essential activity will you cut out of your life to devote that to poetry?”