Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #9
Inside issue #9:
An Interview with Chris Ransick: Sleeping and Dreaming
BK: All the 79 poems in your new book, Asleep Beneath the Hill of Dreams, have the word “dream” in their titles. Did you think of this controlling device at the beginning of writing these poems or did you realize while you were working that they could become a whole or was there some other history regarding this concept?
CR: This happened by accident, at least initially. I was traveling around England back in 2004 and all that history and culture, and the unfamiliar sights and sounds and smells, were cranking up my imagination. I was at the British museum in London one afternoon and it was overwhelming—museums do that to me—so I sat down and starting writing. I fell into this voice that was insistent and rather surreal and came away with the poem, “Dream on a Foreign Street.” I didn’t intend to write others like it but the voice kept asserting itself. It continued after I got back to the States and by the time I had five or six of these, I realized something special was happening. I took that voice with me wherever I went and remained open to it, and just kept transcribing what was given to me.
BK: How do you take the idea of dreams here? Some seem to be nightmares, some are what I’d call “good” dreams, like “The Teacher’s Dream,” and others seem like “regular”, if I can use that adjective neutrally here, imaginative poetry. I’m thinking of poems like “Dream in the Chlochan, Skellig Michael” in which you could be speaking of an actual monk. What’s your take on the use of the dream as a form and organizing structure for the book?
CR: These are daydreams, in the truest sense. There’s intentionality and cohesion—more than is typical for any REM-sleep dream. I have always had a tendency to daydream, deeply and fiercely, so much so that I can become a bit detached from present time and place. I don’t mean that in any metaphysical sense, only that my imagination is a dog that’s snapped its lead and given the right stimulus, or sometimes a complete lack of stimulus, I leave the yard for a while. This has been the cause of some trouble in my life, especially when I was a kid in school, but I’ve learned to cultivate it, to call it up when I want it, and that’s what I did with these poems. Most were written right on the spot they evoke. “Dream in the Clochan, Skellig Michael” was literally written while I huddled in a 1,300-year-old beehive hut on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. I wrote “The Teacher’s Dream” in the parking lot of the school where my wife works after she called me, terribly upset about the absurd shit teachers have to take from people around them on a regular basis. The poem is therefore a kind of exorcism, and I gave it to her and her co-workers to pass around the staff room to restore bit of courage and hope.
BK: You also use the second-person singular in these poems, each of them a dream a “you” has. How did you find that useful (or difficult, helpful, dangerous, etc.)?
CR: I’m fascinated by second person point of view, the richness of tone, the nuances it creates, the way it disjunctures the expectations of the reader. I mean, whom exactly is the speaker addressing? It’s common for people to misunderstand this dynamic. The you is not the reader—at least not in these poems. The speaker here addresses the subject of the poem; readers get to eavesdrop on what is essentially a very intimate monologue wherein the speaker recounts the subject’s experience directly to him, and comments editorially. The reader’s experience is voyeuristic. You asked if this was dangerous and I’d say it felt that way when I was writing. There was an urgency in the voice and I wanted to do nothing to mediate that tension for the reader.
BK: You work with a lot of sound-value, in my opinion. To take an example at random, “March sun melts the mesas north of town / until they slump like neglected sundaes, / red mud puddling around the base.” How conscious are you of sound-value as you write and how important do you think it is?
CR: Richard Hugo wrote, right at the outset of his great little book Triggering Town, that “all truth must conform to music.” It can’t be said better. Poems begin in sound for me, and sounds pull me through every line, right to the end. Words and meanings fall into place, each in turn, but only if they sing. Sometimes that comes in a rush of sounds, and sometimes I have to pause and squeeze the ether until just the right music drips onto the page. And a lot of that work is done later, in revisions, as clunky lines get pressed out or cut or replaced or remolded. But every move I make serves music first. I don’t know any other way to write poems.
BK: As they used to say, What’s your line? It seems you’re working in a loose syllabic version of the traditional 10-syllable line (from 8 to 13, or so). Some, like the section “Domestic Dreams” can be read as 4 accents per line. Or it could be ‘free verse’ controlled by the eye as you write a line. How do you think of your poetic line?
CR: About the time I started writing Asleep, I was reading Seamus Heaney’s masterful translation of Beowulf, so the old Anglo Saxon line was in my head with its regular four beats. I actually had his translation, plus two others, open on my desk as I read, comparing all three modern English versions to the Old English original text so I could tease out the spaces between them all. I relished the reading aloud of these versions, and especially enjoyed butchering the Old English, which I can’t really pronounce right, though that didn’t stop me from trying. At the same time I happened upon 27 traditional Welsh verse forms, which are incredibly densely packed and swirling soundscapes, and I started writing my way through those. I also teach Shakespeare, and my favorite part of the class is when I and my students just let fly with readings from the plays and poems. That 10-syllable line of blank verse sets up a cadence in my body. I didn’t intentionally set out to conform to any particular music when writing these poems, but like many poets, I’m an amalgam of what I read and hear. A voice took over the poems and it turned out to have its own preferences—and it was an assertive voice. I wrote what I was given. There was enough looseness in the composition process that I was never bound by truly formal structure, but my influences were a steady wind blowing through the tall grass.
BK: I was struck by some vivid moments of what is sometimes called “social concern” in some of these poems. In “Dream in Salida,” for example, you write “Every alley you skirt / harbors defrocked Klansmen who/ scurry into dilapidated shacks or dive / into dumpsters, mumbling of nooses, /shotgun blasts and crucifix ash.” How does this perspective come about in your work?
CR: When I’m in a creative zone, strange things stick to me. I was visiting a friend in Salida—a town I like a great deal, as a matter of fact—and he mentioned to me that in the early part of the 20th century, it was a hub for Klansmen in Colorado. That stuck in my imagination, and one night after a poetry reading at the Old Vic, I was walking around town and the poem came to me. Salida has these great little alleys in its town center and at one point I saw a shadow dart behind a dumpster—it was probably a cat or something—but my imagination kicked in. It became the guilt-riddled ghost of a Klansman. One of the problems of writing about the American West is that there’s the overwhelming tradition of romanticism—you know, you’re in Colorado, so write about the majestic Rockies and the leathery old cowboys, and all that. But every town, no matter how many good people live there, has a history, and history has its horrors. There’s no shortage of that in this land. I love Colorado, but I don’t mistake it for anything other than what it is, so I have to write about what I find. I’m not here to write travel brochures, and anyway, a poem that tells a truth like that ought to make a place more, not less, interesting. One of the oldest functions of a poet is to “bless and curse,” so one had better do both well.
BK: What strikes the reader of Asleep Beneath the Hill of Dreams before the book is even opened is the cover. It’s photo, a little out of focus, of a hill of stones, with a human figure about halfway up. It looks to me like a huge burial mound you might have seen in Ireland. I know from your website you take really good photos and I wondered if you took that one and how you think photography and poetry may “go together” for you.
CR: The covers for the last four of my books have used photos taken by my wife, who has a very fine eye for imagery. If I’ve ever taken a good photo on my own, it’s because of what she’s taught me. The cover of Asleep is a shot of me about to summit Croagh Patrick, the sacred mountain of the Irish who live on the west coast. It rises about 3,500 feet right out of the Atlantic Ocean, a great mass of raw, tumbled rocks. It’s stunning, and easy to see why it has been considered sacred for thousands of years, since well before Patrick got his name slapped on it. As for photography in general, we live in a visually-oriented culture. The image rules. I work with words, and imagery drives my writing. I know readers want their visual sense provoked by language, which is a kind of sleight-of-hand for a poet. Give readers music, give them imagery, and you may manage to give them what they crave.
BK: One last thing. You’ve taught writing at Arapahoe Community College for twenty years now. Any observations on the familiar subject of teaching and writing?
CR: I draw a pretty thick line between what I do to live and what I live to do. Teaching is my profession, and I’m humbled by the work, its necessity and beauty and challenge. But I keep it compartmentalized, away from my writing life. That’s easier for me to do because I work at a community college. If I were teaching in an MFA program, my own work would be somewhat relevant to my students and I’d have to conduct my teaching in light of that. At my college, few students even know I’m an author, and I don’t generally tell them. Almost no one knows I’ve served as Denver Poet Laureate for the last four years. Rarely do they show up at my readings. Virtually none read contemporary poetry, and even in the creative writing classes, the real hunger is to write screenplays and fiction. So I fly under the radar there, and that’s how I like it. When I come home from work, my writing life open up and lets me in, and it’s fresh and separate from my working life.
Poetry is either language lit up by life or life lit up by language. (Peter Porter)