Poet Of The Week

Michael Ruby

     April 24–30, 2017

Michael Ruby is a poet and journalist who lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of five full-length poetry books, including Compulsive Words (BlazeVOX, 2010) and American Songbook (Ugly Duckling, 2013). His trilogy, Memories, Dreams and Inner Voices (Station Hill, 2012), includes Fleeting Memories, a UDP web-book, and Inner Voices Heard Before Sleep, an Argotist Online e-book. He is also the author of four Dusie chapbooks, including The Star-Spangled Banner (2011) and Close Your Eyes (2013), which was No. 1 on Artforum’s Top 10, and he is the coeditor of Bernadette Mayer’s collected early books, Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words (Station Hill, 2015). Recordings of four of his books and an interview are available at PennSound. A graduate of Harvard College and Brown University’s writing program, he works as an editor of US news and political articles at the Wall Street Journal.

Author photo by Susan Brennan

From A Red 2001 Standard Diary

O Tuesday September 11 say Sunny and blue, can a day hard to excavate,
               you only two days later. see Primary day in New York.
By Russ leafleting the near P.S. 321 dawn’s as I took the girlies early to
               their schools. light Was there a blast
What on the way home? so Louisa calls: proudly “Turn on the TV.” we
               The plane’s hitting hailed the second tower.
At Sam calls. the I go up to the roof twilight’s with binoculars, last
               describing what I see gleaming over the phone.

Whose Huge plumes of black smoke broad arc over us in Brooklyn.
               stripes I look through binoculars and at the burning floors.
               bright “I don’t see how anyone stars can survive above the
Through Back and forth the from the roof to the TV. perilous Why is the
               smoke suddenly going down? night “Did it collapse?”
O’er I yelled to the next rooftop. the The guy nodded. ramparts I lay
               down on the roof and cried. we Thousands dead. People we
               knew. watched Phone calls poured in:
Were Maude, Billy…. so Louisa’s walking home gallantly from the Upper
               East Side streaming with Janet.

And Where’s Mom & Eli? the Debra’s worried about Michelle. rocket’s
               My boss Jesse says red the newspaper’s moved to South
               Brunswick glare and I can’t get there.
The TV, TV, TV. bombs No lunch. bursting On the roof, smoke in
               obscured Lower Manhattan. air I left Mom and Eli
Gave to get Charlotte at 3. proof Charlotte and I got the Emily and
               Natalie at 4. through The girlies were worried about Hudson
               River Park. the TV, TV, TV. night Phone, phone, phone
That for what seemed like days. our Total hypnotism and paralysis. flag
               Maybe I went to the roof. was I was basically needed still to man
               the phones there (for the family).

O Louisa got home at 5 say from her endless walk. does After that point,
               that the day is a pure jumble star of lying on the bed spangled
               watching TV, banner talking on the phone, yet listening to
               Louisa wave talk on the phone.
O’er I must have talked the to Mark countless times. land Talked a long
               time to Sandy of (Liz called the and Louisa never told me). free
               Bush’s speech infuriated me,
And it had nothing for us the here in New York. home Another night of of
               sleeping in the study the to avoid the mosquitoes brave in our

–From The Star-Spangled Banner, Dusie, 2011.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

In the jingoistic summer of 2002, when cars plastered with American flags were running me off the Staten Island Expressway on my drive to work, I happened to be writing the early poems of my book American Songbook. If there was ever a time to write a poem based on one of my favorite songs, Jimi Hendrix’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969, this was it. I so enjoyed working with the words of the national anthem, with a symbol of America, that I decided to write a series of similar poems. At first, I used my standard surrealist technique of dropping the song words into my mind and writing down the words they displaced. Here are the first lines of the initial poems I wrote:

O frogs say irresponsible can north you blow see measly

O magazines say spineless can oracles you perspire see Bremen

I soon realized I didn’t have to put unconscious words in the spaces between the 81 words of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I could insert all kinds of verbal materials in the spaces. I could insert my favorite things. The years of our lives. The red states and the blue states in 2004. My favorite phrases in Allen Ginsberg. I could insert a diary entry from 9/11, which, after all, was the beginning of the whole contemporary misuse of the flag and other national symbols.

What are you working on right now?

Unfortunately, I’m working on many books right now. Here are the names of the poetry books: The Star-Spangled Banner; Visions; Sounds of Summer in the Country; Album of Old Verses; Moonlight on the Ocean; and expanded versions of the long poem “Titles & First Lines” and the book Compulsive Words. In addition, every day on my commute to work, I write short “subway poems.”

What’s a good day for you?

A good day is when I’m totally free, when I have many hours to work on poetry and then can go out to a performance at night.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

After I finished the graduate writing program at Brown, I moved home to my mother’s and stepfather’s apartment in Greenwich Village. I lived with them for nine months while I found my first job in journalism, at a sweatshop financial weekly on Wall Street, not far removed from “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Living in their guest room, writing imitations of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, watching my friends’ band the Cucumbers playing at clubs in Manhattan and Hoboken, I wasn’t thinking about moving out. But my stepbrother in Park Slope knew a lawyer who was giving up his apartment on 12th St near Prospect Park. One night after work, I took the unfamiliar F train to 7th Ave, which would become my lifelong subway stop, and walked up 12th St past the ruins of the Ansonia Clock Factory. The street felt desolate, more desolate than it actually was. At 8th Ave, there were several junk shops, a Palestinian-run bodega and a storefront motorcycle club. To some degree, it was still the South Slope neighborhood immortalized by Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life and Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant. Inside the one-bedroom apartment on the park block, which cost $440 a month, I had an immediate feeling: “This is a place where I could write some poetry.”

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I’ve lived at three addresses in Park Slope since June 1984—on 12th St in the South Slope, on Garfield Place in the North Slope, and on 4th St in the Center Slope. I like the Slope for somewhat shallow reasons: I find it physically beautiful and peaceful. It has the rarely crowded Olmstead and Vaux park, which flows across the top of Grand Army Plaza into Brooklyn’s main library, botanic garden and museum—“monumental Brooklyn,” such as it is. It’s the second most beautiful place I’ve ever lived, after the East Side of Providence. As for how Park Slope is changing now, I can’t really say, because I haven’t been out and about much in the past decade, not since my three daughters finished elementary school and I started working more hours at my job editing newspaper articles about American politics. One thing I would say: Moving to Park Slope in 1984 wasn’t pioneering. Much of the neighborhood was gentrified by then.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

When I was growing up in South Orange, NJ, I vaguely knew that my mother’s father, Nathan Handler, grew up twenty miles away in Brooklyn, but it wasn’t until I lived in Brooklyn that I learned the extent of my forebears’ life here. In the spring of 2008, right after my mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, I drove her and my daughters to the many Bedford-Stuyvesant addresses where our close Handler and Friedman relatives were listed in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses, as well as to their schools and the little shul they founded on Jefferson Ave. We saw the houses on Hancock St where Mom’s grandfather, the hosiery wholesaler George Handler, died of a stroke at the age of 44 in August 1911, and where her grandmother Rezi Friedman Handler ruled as a “disciplinarian” thereafter. We saw where her many great-aunts and great-uncles lived with their large families, where her great-grandfather Joseph Friedman lived out his long life, studying the Talmud on Gates Ave. We could readily intuit this whole world of relationships and daily movements that she never knew about, that were before her time, that no one remembered now. One thing I learned from this outing: Brooklyn contains an infinite unknown past—as well as an infinite unknowable present.

My wife, Louisa, has made similar Brooklyn discoveries, including the fact that her grandmother’s grandfather, Howard Jaffray, died in a gloomy house on Prospect Park West less than four blocks from where we live. By the way, her grandmother used to say to people, “It’s Brook-line you want, not Brook-lyn.”

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

For most of my writing life, I wasn’t part of any poetry community, except a dwindling number of college friends. I was almost a total outsider. If I had another life to live, I hope I would proceed differently. Luckily, around fifteen years ago, I became friends with a few poets: Sam Truitt, Aaron Kiely, Bernadette Mayer and Phil Good. And in the past ten years, I’ve gotten to know a number of Brooklyn poets through Ugly Duckling Presse, through the Greetings reading series at Unnameable Books, and through the Dusie Kollektiv’s chapbook exchanges. Sadly, working until 9 PM every night prevents me from attending many readings. I hope that will change one of these years.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

I learned to write long lines from Walt Whitman and several of the poets who came out of him, including Fernando Pessoa, Federico García Lorca and Allen Ginsberg. My favorite Brooklyn poem is Lorca’s “Landscape of a Vomiting Multitude” about Coney Island in Poeta en Nueva York. Louis Zukofsky’s Rudens was the sole influence on my homophonic translation of Virgil, “Sic Fatur Lacrimans,” and my ensuing book The Edge of the Underworld. Many years ago, a poet friend accused me of being an Objectivist, long the best-known Brooklyn poetic movement. Marianne Moore has always been the ultimate poetic standard for me: Not a word could be changed. I hate it when Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath condescend to her in Birthday Letters. Bernadette Mayer, who was the big influence on my hypnagogic trilogy, Memories, Dreams and Inner Voices, went to high school in the early 1960s at Saint Saviour on 8th Ave, where I took my daughters to day camp on July mornings forty years later.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Beyond the mostly dead poets I admired, I had no poetic mentors when I was young. I had a number of poetry teachers, even a couple of great poetry teachers, but no mentors. As an adult, I have had perhaps one mentor, Bernadette Mayer, but if I said to her today, “Bernadette, I think you might be the only poetic mentor I’ve ever had,” she would say, “Who-o-o-o cares, Michael?”

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I recently read The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. The first half of the book is a ceaseless melodrama, with the goldsmith Cellini careening from one violent encounter to another. Multiple times, he fought off a half-dozen armed men trying to steal the gold or jewels on his person. I love the way Michelangelo casually appears in the book—poking his head out a window, talking to people down in the street, coming downstairs for a while. One could write forever about Cellini’s transforming religious experience while he was imprisoned by a psychopathic warden in the lowest dungeon of Castel Sant’Angelo, with no hope of ever being released. And finally, Cellini recounts the intrigue around the commission for the Neptune fountain, which ultimately went to Ammannati over Cellini and Gianbologna, both of whom were far greater sculptors. The uninspiring fountain in the center of Florence is a classic example of favoritism and poor decisionmaking by artistic gatekeepers.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

That’s a difficult question. There are so many. For some reason, these books come to mind today: Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, John Lyly’s Euphues, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. But on other days, I would make entirely different lists. I might start with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Ragazzi di Vita, or with Ulysses.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I read several physical books at a time. Lately, first thing in the morning, I read a few stanzas of Guido Gozzano and Giuseppe Ungaretti in Italian, then twenty minutes of contemporary poetry, usually by a friend or in connection with an editing project. Around noon, before I go to work, I read a page or two of English Romantic poetry, such as an ode by John Keats. On the subway ride home from work and before bed, my main reading time every day, I’m currently reading Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I have piles of poetry books, a pile of books about neurobiology and dreams and surrealism, and a pile of novels, and I try to read through these piles. I take notes sometimes.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I would like to write a book of experimental poems in iambic pentameter, maybe including some rhyme.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I like to read on the subway. I have been reading books on the subway for decades. In recent years, I have also written a lot on the subway. When my mother took a turn for the worse in 2011, I started writing a few sentences a day about her on the ride to work. After she died in 2012, this segued into my writing poetic sketches on the ride. I also started writing lines about Wall Street and the Statue of Liberty, the two world-famous symbols that are visible when the F train runs above ground over Gowanus. Here are a couple of sentences about Wall Street written in December:

Wall Street doesn’t mind if we don’t pay attention today. Two guys—Dodd and Frank—are getting cleaned out.

I also like to write sitting on the grass at Prospect Park, on the front porch of a farmhouse in upstate New York, and on a rocky coast in Maine.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

My favorite space in Brooklyn: the baseball fields in the southwest corner of Prospect Park, near Bartel-Pritchard Square. When I lived on 12th St, I started sitting and writing in that section of the park on spring, summer and fall mornings. I played a lot of ball as a kid, so I enjoyed watching the games out of the corner of my eye. I continued to write in the ballfields for two decades after moving away from that part of Park Slope. I had a longish walk out there, long enough to observe many trees and flowers, long enough to clear my mind of anything. I sat in many different places around the ballfields, gravitating toward the shade as the sun became more toxic. The popularity of baseball steadily declined in the background. If other people distracted me, I would just look around and immediately spot some favorite place from past years, walk over there and continue whatever I was doing. Through 2008, I wrote most of my poems in the ballfields on summer mornings. I hope to get back to that one of these summers. I wouldn’t mind getting back to the cherries, lilacs and roses at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden either. And BAM.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I have chosen to copy Whitman’s own words from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Now, I will copy from the final edition of Leaves of Grass, so we have Whitman’s first and last words on the subject:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Whitman added one phrase: “and sing myself.” He appears to have had the classical epic in mind.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

I tried writing a nine-line poem, but only the last two lines are worth showing:

Only the dead know Brooklyn
God bless the dead, Biggie

Why Brooklyn?

Brooklyn was a place where I felt I could write some poetry.