Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with
The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: The balance between natural occurrences and human emotion was particularly intriguing in your poetry. How does Attleboro’s environment influence your writing?
Ruth Foley: I don’t know if I’d say Attleboro in particular—much of Attleboro is like any other former New England manufacturing town, in that there’s a lot of down-at-the-heels stuff going on. There’s a constant battle to revitalize the center of town, for example, and there are old jewelry factories that no one quite seems to know what to do with. My husband and I have a tiny bit of woods on our property, and a bit of a yard—more of a suburban lot than a city lot—but we’re right off the highway, and now that the leaves are coming down, we’ve got a really spectacular view through our back yard to the 24-hour gas station on the corner. Sometimes the cars make it into a poem about crickets or something, so I’m not going to claim there’s no influence.
Then again, I’ve always been a poet of place. Many of my poems are centered around the south coast of Rhode Island, where my grandparents had a summer house (one they winterized when they retired). If any place has influenced my writing, it’s that one. I have two lakes—one a couple of towns over and one in Connecticut—that show up fairly regularly, too. But as I’ve begun to work toward an expansion of my understanding of my interconnectedness with the natural world, I’ve also begun to expand into new places. The bees in “Cleansing Flights” live in our back yard. The snake-turned-root in “Doubt is the angel of our time” is in the wooded lot next to ours, where exposed roots turn momentarily to snakes and back again almost every time I walk the dogs through there after a rain. What I’m discovering—and I address this in a little more depth below—is that there are so very many things around us that we tend to ignore, because we are too busy doing our important human things. But the more time I spend paying attention to the natural occurrences, the more they speak to me about my own world. They’re very different, my world and the natural world, but they’re overlaid upon each other, so it interests me to address the places where they might meet up for a little while.
RR: How much did John Canaday’s “The House of God” influence and shape your poem “Doubt is the angel of our time”?
RF: “The House of God” is in The Invisible World, which won the Walt Whitman Award in 2001, and is well worth the read. Canaday and I are very different poets, but both poems deal with the unknown, with not really knowing what to believe, with a moment when we understand that maybe we don’t understand much of anything. Both poems try to come to a level of comfort with that moment. The passage from which I take the title comes from the last third of the poem and goes like this:
Doubt is the angel of our time; and who
among us cares to wrestle with that voice
of burning fennel, or the corduroy
rustle of its crippled wings? And what should we
believe? Our senses?
I’m a huge fan of the unknown in poetry, in part maybe because I’m not so much of a fan of it in real life. I want answers! I’d settle, most days, for simply knowing what to believe. But life is rarely that comfortable for me. I’m also trying to come to terms with the idea that I truly have very little control over the world. Someone once told me to stand up and draw a circle around my feet: that’s how much of the world I get to control. Okay, I said, but I’m not gonna be happy about it.
RR: Would you feel comfortable being placed in the tradition of writers concerned with the natural world like Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Mary Oliver? Do you consider those poets strong influences on your work?
RF: Well, those are some heavy hitters you’ve got there, so if you want to put my name in the same question with them I’m certainly not going to stop you. I’ve read Frost quite thoroughly, and was lucky enough to spend three weeks at the Frost Place in Franconia, NH, over the course of three summers, and that absolutely helped shape me as a poet. I’ve read more than my fair share of Oliver and probably not as much Stevens as I should, and admire them both. I’ve also always been a poet of place (see your question about natural occurrences and Attleboro, above), and specifically about the natural world as it appears in a given place.
My interest in the natural world outside of its position as an aspect of place has developed more in recent years. I think it’s directly related to the fact that my husband and I started keeping bees a couple of years ago. I found it impossible to have sixty thousand bees (more now!) and ignore all of the rest of the little creatures in our yard and in the environment in general. I was always sort of earthy-crunchy—I grew up with a compost pile, and I’ll pick up earthworms and move them out of puddles or whatnot—but I’ve become one of those people who moves spiders outside instead of squashing them. If I see a giant wasp on a flower, I’ll hang out and watch it for a while and then maybe do an image search to see if I can identify it. If it’s nearby, I’ll run into the house for my good camera and see how close it’ll let me get with my macro lens. I’ve gained an appreciation for snakes. And I think slugs are beautiful, truly beautiful. They’re all—like us—just doing the best they can, and who am I to say it’s less valuable than whatever I’m trying to do?
Also, a developer came in and cleared a lot that abuts ours—he claims to want to build a house there. In a heartbeat, all of these trees and plants were knocked down to nothing, and it was just heartbreaking to me. That was over a year and a half ago now, and there’s still no house, just a scar of wood chips and a few piles of brush where there should be trees. They came in at the beginning of October and mowed down all the pokeweed and such that had grown in over the past year or so, and then left again. Still no house, no sign of a house. It felt, and continues to feel, senseless to me, this clearing of land for a house that nobody even seems to want to build, much less buy. All summer and into the fall, I watched our bees—and a bunch of other insects—rummage around in the jewelweed and pokeweed and whatever else was growing in there. They’d come out laden with pollen and nectar. They’re not spending any time at all questioning what they’re meant to be doing—they just do it. It’s not a realistic state for a thinking human being, this lack of questioning, but it does sometimes seem like a lovely ideal for me—to just know what’s needed and do it. It’s akin to going on vacation and deciding you want to live there. Real life doesn’t work like that—real life intrudes. But wouldn’t that be nice, once in a while, to not make any decisions? The members of the natural world don’t question their place in it—we’re the only species, as far as I know, that does that. And since I’m concerned with letting go of things I can’t control, and I have this near-obsession with place, taking on the natural world as a subject was pretty much the next logical step.
RR: All three of your pieces published in Rappahannock Review seem to have a speaker who is comfortable with surrendering to something larger that is unnamed and unspecified. How important is it to you as a writer to leave those questions – “And I can’t tell you / now whether it was intervention or / reinvention, salvation or distance” – unanswered for the reader?
RF: Oh, how I wish I were comfortable with that kind of surrender! I wrestle with it a lot—maybe too much. My cousin, Turquoise, who was one of the dearest people in my world, died of secondary liver cancer a couple of years ago. She was in her mid-forties, and a few years older than I, and I am still not sure how to negotiate a world that does not have her in it. The word I use most often is “baffled.” I am baffled by the lack of her presence. If I weren’t already desperate to make some sort of sense out of the world—and I was—losing her would definitely have raised those questions for me. And I do wonder whether it’s simply a matter of finding the right place—if I can surround myself with the right things, will everything become clear?—or the right kind of faith or the right sort of intellect or…whatever. Give me an answer, and I’ll be glad to consider it. The poems I’ve written since it became obvious that Turquoise was dying and in the years since her death are absolutely part of a search for answers, despite the fact that I’m all too aware of how unlikely it is that I’ll find those answers. Not in this lifetime, anyway.
In terms of my poems, I have a couple of reasons for sometimes leaving questions unanswered. The first and simplest is that I really don’t know the answer and it would feel false for me to pretend I did. It’s one thing to pretend that a train arrives at a station at 3:57 if that’s what the poem needs; it’s another thing entirely for me to pretend I have an understanding of some Universal Truth (whatever the heck that is) and have chosen to share it with my reader.
The second is that there’s a tendency for poets to do just that: assume knowledge they don’t have, or certainty they don’t have, as a means of gaining an authoritative voice or something. I can’t speak for everyone—wouldn’t it be ironic if I did?—but I know that when I reach for that sort of omniscient speaker, it’s because I’m vying for authority in my own work. In my opinion, though, that sort of certainty is more arrogant than authoritative. If I’m writing a poem about seeing an otter while walking my dogs, I’m unwilling to speak to the otter’s motives as fact. I’d much prefer the speaker of my poem to wonder about them—isn’t the world full of wonder, after all? And how much do we lose if we’re so busy trying to be right about our answer that we forget to even ask the question?
RR: What are your writing rituals, if you have any?
RF: I read a lot. That’s probably the biggest thing. I read plenty of poets I love, poets whose work resonates with me, but I also try to read poets who aren’t at all like me, if I can. This might mean spending time with someone who is stylistically different from me, but I also try to read work by poets of color, poets from other countries, poets of different economic classes, poets with different sexual orientations, poets of different ages, poets whose subject matter or obsessions or experiences are different from mine. If I read the same kind of work in similar voices all the time, I’m missing out on a major source of fuel for my own growth.
In terms of the composing, it depends on where I am. If I’m in my office on campus, my best bet is to try to write as quickly as possible, to get the initial impulse down before I get interrupted. And then I can move on from there in revision. If I’m at home, I tend to be settled in on my couch. I’ve got my feet up, my laptop on a breakfast-in-bed tray we got for our wedding twenty years ago and have never once used for serving breakfast, and a stack of books on the end table. I’ve got pens and paper if I want to go old school and draft by hand, and sticky notes in case I’m reading from library books and want to interact with something in the text. We’ve got two greyhounds, and they’re great dogs for poets—I joke that they sleep twenty-three hours a day, and it’s really only a slight exaggeration. They do just want to hang out with me, and I find it comforting to have another presence in the room, especially since they’re so undemanding.
I also tend to write in silence, or as near to silence as I can get. No television, no music. If I’m out in public somewhere—at a conference or a coffee shop or what have you—and there’s a general babble of noise, I can tune that out, turn it into white noise. But I can’t do that with the TV or with music. Also, I don’t want anyone else’s rhythms or lyrics getting onto the page unless it’s a deliberate choice of mine. I try to limit the accidental input as much as I can. I’ll admit to being online, though. I’ve become accustomed to instant access to information, as a source of language or image, for example. And if I write a line and get stuck, sometimes it’s good to just go to Facebook or email for a minute or two and distract myself while I wait to see if the problem will resolve on its own. Sometimes it does, if I’m lucky.
Ruth Foley’s work in Issue 2.1: