This summer, Malahat poetry board member Jay Ruzesky was able to commandeer the Prime Minister's office in the parliament buildings in Ottawa for an afternoon. There, by a roaring fire to keep out the summer chill, he sat down with this year's Far Horizons Poetry Award Winner, Laura Ritland.
Let's pretend you just won the Rogers Open instead of the Malahat Review's Far Horizons Award for Poetry. How are you feeling about the win and what was it about your competitiveness that got you through the semi-finals to triumph in the championship?
After finding out about the news, I was in dead shock for the first 15 minutes, wildly ecstatic for 30 minutes, desperately nervous for several weeks, and now mostly thankful and happy. Competitiveness…hmm. This is the first magazine prize I’ve entered and for a while I was trying to talk myself out of entering it! I have a thing with rejection. I guess the reason I did end up entering was because of what Julie Bruck said about contests in her pre-contest interview and because a few friends kept bugging me to get going with this whole publication and contest biz. It was almost like I had to take contests less seriously to finally take a chance and enter one. Self-doubt is an awful opponent… but it just goes to show that you can often do more than you think you can.
Your poem is a pantoum. What drew you to form and to that form in particular? This year's judge, Julie Bruck, says your poem was “born to be a pantoum” because of the way the circular form is so appropriate for a poem that wrestles with memory. Was form an extension of content in this case or did you fit the subject into that formal mold?
Form as an extension of content. Although, in my mind those two terms have a more complex relationship than, say, one coming “first” in the creative process before the other. I see a poem’s meaning as inseparable from its form, as an inexplicable synthesis between structure and content. So, in this case, it wasn’t so much that the pantoum form “extended” or “represented” something about Van Gogh’s mental illness and his nostalgia for childhood as that it was the only way to really enact or produce an experience I wanted to convey – through repeated phrases, circulation, variation, and rhyme. The redundancy of pantoums can make them feel a bit like fever dreams or nightmarish merry-go-rounds, and yet this quality, as well as the end-rhymes, can also allow for tremendous songlike beauty. It’s this same beautiful, nightmarish effect that I get from looking at a Van Gogh painting – have you noticed how the brushstrokes of a Van Gogh painting repeat themselves? That kind of frightening beauty about his colour choices? – and it’s the same effect of nostalgia and sadness, that repetitive longing for something lost, again and again, on and on, in circles. I like to believe that forms create experiences for the reader, and so I hope this pantoum produces this particular emotional and psychological state of being.
No one is going to take your trophy away, but you sort of cheated with the form. Strictly speaking, the repeated lines in a pantoum should be repeated exactly. Can you tell me how you feel about form generally? What do you (or what does the poem) gain when you put yourself in a box and then poke holes in it?
Well, Elizabeth Bishop wasn’t disqualified for twisting the villanelle, so I thought I might play around with the verb tense and switch around a preposition here and there. I think it allows the poem a certain amount of independent, organic freedom, and it encourages the reader to pay attention to what the poem is saying rather than mentally tick off all the boxes on the Perfect Form list. For example, the first line of the second stanza technically should have started with “going on,” but instead I chose “that go on,” and that tiny departure, I hope, implicitly alerts the reader that “hey, this isn’t exactly the same line I just read. It is, but it also isn’t.” The mind stays interested; it stays attached to the line, doesn’t get lulled into pure repetition. My theory is that patterns are interesting, but breaking a pattern can be more interesting.
I’ve often heard forms should enable, not constrict, and I think that’s a pretty sound philosophy; you use them to your own ends, and shouldn’t become “used” by them. Initially, writing form poems can feel like a math exercise, but once you learn the rules, once you learn how to “think” in its terms, you can do anything you’d like with its routine and make it your own.
You take on the voice of Vincent Van Gogh. Are you often possessed by the dead? When you read the poem aloud, does your voice get all raspy?
Sometimes I hold séances with my cats at midnight and try to reach into the deep, dark recesses of the phantom world to make contact with wayward spirits. But so far, no luck with Vincent.
How much research went into this poem? Is it important to you to be accurate when writing about historical figures or are they fair game for the imagination? Did you dig up any new dirt on Van Gogh and, if so, can you share it?
Okay, confession: this poem is based on a specific letter Vincent wrote to his brother, Theo, on January 22, 1889, pretty much describing what my poem is about. Confession #2: the details in line 3, “each path, each field, the magpies in the acacia in the cemetery,” are paraphrased almost directly from the letter. The rest of the poem is drawn from my general sense of Vincent’s character after months of casual research and reading the Van Gogh brothers’ letters. Hmm, I didn’t discover any facts that no one had previously known about. If there’s anything very unique about my depiction of Vincent, perhaps it’s my attention to his childhood, something that’s relatively obscure in the case of many historical figures (it’s not like we can dig up Vincent’s childhood home videos and give them a watch).
That’s where the “fiction” had to come in a little more; I’m guessing this is what he felt, but I don’t know for sure. And, even if I don’t, does it really matter? I think historical facts are only important insofar as they give us pieces of a never-fully-knowable portrait; the actual process of composition, the imagination part, is far more interesting, because that’s where we have to make decisions about who or what a person was, that’s where we end up adapting a story because it resonates with something about ourselves or our present condition.
I'm fond of the line in your poem that goes: “There is a colour I find sometimes in stories.” Julie also points out that because your poem invokes the paintings of Van Gogh, it seems to be full of colour although you don't name any particular colours. If you made this poem into a movie, would you shoot it in colour or in black and white?
Colour, definitely. I’m intrigued by the idea that colours can create an emotional experience or that an emotional impression of a person, place or event can manifest itself in a set of colours. I think Van Gogh probably thought of colour in a similar same way. It’s not so much what we “see” as what we “feel” that becomes a “colour.”
You recently graduated from UBC and are working on your M.A. so you're probably spending more time in the world of poetry than a normal person. Does that have an impact on your ability to give people simple directions, or to fill out government forms?
Oh yeah, I bump my head on floating stanzas all the time, it’s awful! Actually, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do and study what I love, and among people who are so passionate about ideas, art and literature. Poetry can be a very anti-social activity. It involves a lot of reading and writing alone in quiet rooms. But through it, I have encountered people and community that have enriched my life in innumerable ways; if anything, it’s made me feel more connected rather than less connected to other people.
What do you hope poetry will do for you in your life and (to paraphrase JFK) what do you hope you will do for poetry?
I hope that poetry continues to do what it has done for me: make sense of the world, give meaning and significance to the myriad number of ways we live, create vessels for the mind to think, imagine, hope and aspire. If I can make my work resonate for another reader as poetry has done for me, then I’d feel my mission is accomplished.
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