Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “Ash” is dedicated to Tim Russell. Can you tell us about the specific history here? How do you see the dedication inflecting the poem?
Kevin Rippin: Tim Russell is a good friend and a terrific poet whose roots are in West Virginia. He now lives in Ohio. We were colleagues in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. We are still friends after many decades. He is considered a haiku master (no kidding). He’s travelled to Japan by invitation, instructing others in writing that form. He wrote an untitled poem that I keep taped to my office wall, where I teach writing at NC A&T University, so I can read it every day. The poem is quite lovely: meteor shower/the river takes his ashes/away to the stars.
Tim wrote that poem after his father died. My father died earlier this year. I began to consider what happens to a body after it passes. Tim’s poem was one option, but I had my own poetic ideas. I’d always mistrusted sentimental and religious versions of after-death possibilities. I also mistrust the unspoken conceit, sold and practiced by companies selling DNA testing, that some parts of everybody’s DNA contain royal connections.
I knew that my DNA, along with my family’s, contained no royal connection. My family, on both sides, and especially my father and my grandparents, were middle class people who worked in mills and factories and stores to make ends meet.
My grandparents were not cremated; they were buried. That didn’t matter for the poem. I figured, with some black humor lurking in the background, that the ashes of my dead relatives didn’t fly into space or settle on the stones of “bucolic Lynn Run,” an actual stream located near my maternal great-grandparents’ cottage/house where we swam as children.
I began to consider “ash” as the center of the poem. Where did those ashes go? Where do we go? I grew up in the Western PA mountains, where ashes were shoveled from piles and sprayed from trucks, to melt snow. Ashes had a purpose. With the help of Newton’s law that stated that matter could neither be created nor destroyed, I had my poem. My grandparents, who I miss very much, had a purpose, and were still “alive”. The poem helps keep them alive. I hope Russell likes my poem as much as I like his.
RR: There’s a shift in tone at the end of the poem with the salutation to Maude & Ralph and to Ellen & Wes, which feels celebratory but also resigned to not knowing. How did you arrive at this ending?
KR: It occurred to me that the poem had symbolically brought my grandparents back from the dead. That’s what poems often do. Of course, I don’t know where their spirits reside, but there they were. They have/had names. I assumed the reader would replace my grandparents’ names with names of their grandparents. That’s what readers do. If my grandparents are out there, anywhere, it would be rude not to say “hello”. I also played off the notion of everyone saying to everyone else, “have a nice day,” even if you’re lying on a snow-covered road.
RR: You mention in your bio that you’re a resident of North Carolina – how do the landscape, atmosphere, and culture of the South, and specifically your area affect what you write and the way you write it?
KR: Well, I’ve been in Greensboro for 24 years. I dated and married my second wife here. My first wife and two of my three children live within an hour of me. I work here. I write here. My best friends live here. I’m rooted. While I can never be a NC “native,” people are people.
“Ash” could’ve been written in the mountains of NC, or the mountains of PA, or in the mountains of WV, where I’ve also spent considerable time. All locations are sources, where my poems start. I’m not interested in writing “Appalachian” poetry, or “working” poems, which I wrote as the factories and mills came tumbling down. Those poems seem like architectural relics now, of their time that’s passed. I don’t like those limits. I have mountains, plains and beaches in NC; they’ll do. I’m more interested in writing about how people behave than where they behave.
RR: How do you approach revision?
KR: Revision is 90% of a poem. Precision is everything, along with the rigor that makes precision possible. The first draft sets the direction and the tone, and it’s always rough, sometimes so rough I let it sit for weeks. The first draft is fun before the work begins. I write around a single idea; that idea may have plenty of spokes and tentacles, but there’s always that single idea.
I can’t think of one poem I’ve ever written that came out whole. I’ll look for the strongest line, and that line often sets the rhythm. Lines are the delivery system—how one cuts against another, where that juxtaposition moves the poem. I have this conversational writing voice, urban but laced with a background in the hills of PA. I trust that voice. It tells the truth, or as close as I can manage. When that voice veers from its native syntax, I can hear it go wrong.
I reduce the poem to its essence, eliminating extra words and phrases until I hear my voice emerging. I’m a “taker-outer,” not a “put-er inner.” I want the reader to read my poem from beginning to end without stopping. I have a poet friend who reads every poem I write, as I read hers, and we’re brutal critics. I never show her a poem until it’s almost finished. She helps fix mine and I help fix hers.
“Ash” went through about 20 drafts. I had problems setting the early pastoral tone that I would later disassemble. Phrases like “the vast” and an adjective like “bucolic” came in later drafts. I had the phrase “unthaw” in early drafts, rather than “help thaw” and my reader took me to task, reminding me there is no such thing as “unthawing.” Her second set of eyes and ears keeps me honest and humble.
RR: Your poetry collection Amber Drive came out with Main Street Rag earlier this year. Since the release, what else have you been working on? Would you say “Ash” connects in theme and style with your work in that book, or is it part of a new project?
KR: I love the poems from “Amber Drive,” but my new poems have more tendrils and layers. I’m working on a manuscript entitled “Riding the Streams.” The poem “Ash” is part of that new manuscript that explores jumping from one subject and time to another with, in some cases, the help of technology.
There are many voices besides mine in this new book, with dramatic monologues, and cartoon characters, and versions of myself in fictional futuristic situations. For example, I had fun writing “On Facebook, In the Future,” where I turn on the laptop and find all of my dead have suddenly replaced all of my living, and my dead are trying to “friend” me.
My poems are generally “dark,” but hopefully they’re mitigated by some black humor. Life is horrible and funny in equal measure, eh? Work is fun. It’s all one big oxymoron, or as Terrance Hayes writes in one of his terrific sonnets, all encounters are “existential jambalaya.”
Kevin Rippin’s work in Issue 6.1: