September 26–October 2, 2022
Sarah Ruhl is a playwright, essayist and poet. Her plays, including In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, The Clean House and Passion Play, have been produced on and off Broadway, around the country and internationally and translated into over fifteen languages. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Tony award nominee, she has received the Steinberg award, the Sam French award, the Susan Smith Blackburn award, a Whiting award, the Lily award, a PEN award for mid-career playwrights and the MacArthur award. She is also the author of two books of poetry, Love Poems in QuarantineBook link opens in a new window (Copper Canyon, 2022) and 44 Poems for YouBook link opens in a new window (Copper Canyon, 2020), and a collaboration with poet Max Ritvo, Letters from MaxBook link opens in a new window (Milkweed, 2018). Her book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to WriteBook link opens in a new window was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and her recent memoir, Smile: The Story of a FaceBook link opens in a new window, was listed by Time as a must-read book of 2021. She teaches at the Yale School of Drama, and she lives in Brooklyn with her family. On Friday, September 30, she will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Wo Chan and Tawanda Mulalu.
Follow (poem for a friend)
For P. Carl
It has been a long time since
I let a friend lead me in a car to a place.
Most of the time,
I let my little map on my little screen direct me everywhere—
a fantasy of self-sufficiency.
But it’s raining, night is falling, flooding even, in Providence,
and I don’t know the roads.
(My mother always says, “You gotta know the territory,”
even though the Music Man was a charlatan.)
So I in my silver car and you in your blue car,
I follow you through the rain.
And I think: how tender, to lead, and to follow.
The driver in front thinks of the driver in back and goes slow,
does not make this turn or that turn,
watches for oncoming traffic, not for one self, but for two.
Orpheus’ task was to not look back at Eurydice: that is a lover’s task.
But a friend’s task:
looking back constantly in the rearview mirror,
and adjusting the speed of travel,
to ferry a friend to safe harbor.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote the poem for a friend after he helped me with a ridiculous task that you’d only ask someone to help with if you truly considered them a friend. It’s sort of like the colonoscopy test—would your friend pick you up from a colonoscopy?
In the case of this poem’s origin story—would your friend help you close out a storage unit and help you lift a child’s rather heavy trampoline into your car? My friend P. Carl (brilliant writer, check out his book Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition) did indeed help me, and then I followed his car in the rain before taking him out to dinner to thank him. Sometimes I write poems as gifts.
This poem is, I think, about the risk of interdependence. In the digital age, and after the social isolation caused by the pandemic, letting oneself physically rely on a friend feels vulnerable, and also important, like a lost art. I also think we don’t celebrate friendship enough in literature. We are so focused on romantic love, particularly in the poetry world. But good God, what would life be without a couple of good friends?
What are you working on right now?
I’m getting ready for a play coming to Lincoln Center Theater this fall. It’s called Becky Nurse of Salem and was postponed two and a half years due to the pandemic. It’s my comic rant and response to The Crucible. It opens November 21st.
And the paperback of my memoir Smile comes out at the same time this fall, so I’m doing some events around that. I hope when the fall busy cycle ebbs I’ll plunge into writing a new play.
What’s a good day for you?
A long walk. A bit of writing. A conversation with a friend. Eating with my family. Someone making me laugh about nothing.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
We used to live in Stuyvesant Town in the East Village, but when we had more children (I have three) we were craving more space and I’ve always loved Brooklyn.
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 in Brooklyn Heights for twelve years now. I love that I can hear a foghorn at night. I love that I live near where W. E. B. Du Bois and Walt Whitman wandered around. I love that I know the barber and the cobbler and Tony who sells shoes and Sam who sells pet stuff on Montague St. It’s quiet here. The changes during the pandemic were extreme; many, many small businesses shuttered. (Thank God Brooklyn Poets came in to fill the breach.)
Also, there is more suffering on the street here after the pandemic, more people unhoused, more mental illness. That too is palpable.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I’m going to share a little poem from my book as a way of sharing a Brooklyn experience. I wrote this poem (a tanka) for Sam who owns Pet Emporium on Montague St after I bought dog food for the first time in person after quarantine.
Sometimes God is when strangers touch
And we’ve been without
touch for so long. I pay cash
for dog food and my
hand touches the storekeeper’s hand.
Goodbye, friend, he says, as I leave.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I have a wonderful writing community. It’s not genre-specific, it’s mostly a cohort of playwrights who also write fiction and nonfiction. We call ourselves the Pickle Council and pre-pandemic we met in Cobble Hill once a month and ate delicious food and shared writing; sometimes we ate pickles and often we would share “pickles” as in writing problems. And I sent the Pickle Council poems all through the pandemic.
As for what a writing community means to me—it means everything. You can only write in complete solitude for so long before you become insufferable to yourself or others. Or both!
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I love Marianne Moore, and when I’m crossing the Brooklyn Bridge I often sing to myself the poem Elizabeth Bishop wrote for her, which begins and ends:
From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
And Walt Whitman I love for his expansive sense of identity and containing multitudes and for his prayer-like litanies. I love how he expands the sense of “I”:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I love Auden too, if Brooklyn can claim him for his few years here. My favorite poem of his is “Musée des Beaux Arts,” in which he writes:
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
But I don’t feel that particular poem captures Brooklyn, actually. Brooklyn does not turn away leisurely from disaster, does not sail calmly on.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I never formally studied poetry. I went to graduate school in playwriting, where my mentor was Paula Vogel. However, being a secret poet since childhood and being interested in the intersection of poetry and playwriting, I eavesdropped on the poets at Brown University, and sort of lurked around them, hoping I’d pick up something by osmosis. During that time in Providence, I was influenced and supported by the poets Craig Watson, Keith and Rosemarie Waldrop, Mark Tardi and E. Tracy Grinnell.
Probably my biggest poetry mentor was my student to begin with—Max Ritvo. He and I had a running conversation about life and art and poetry ever since we met up in my classroom at Yale until his death six years ago. And it was he who encouraged me finally, at around the age of forty, to publish my poems that I’d been squirreling away in drawers or giving as gifts to friends and family.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
The latest books by Ada Limón and Joy Harjo were such gifts, as were Kaveh Akbar’s and Jericho Brown’s—beautiful, fierce compassion. Sharon Olds’s newest book is now in my bloodstream, an infusion of searing honesty. Since I just mentioned Max Ritvo, what about this stanza from this beauty, “Your Next Date Alone”? The poem is from Max’s book The Final Voicemails, edited by the brilliant Louise Glück.
The stage is empty.
How do you fill it?
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Gosh, as soon as I want to read poems, I pretty much read them. I read them standing up in a bookstore sometimes when I’m eager. The big books I Both Want to Read but Avoid Reading are prose; James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example. And Proust.
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?
If I’m reading something plot-driven like a novel or play, I devour it in one go. If I’m reading poetry or nonfiction, I dip in and out and read multiple books at once. I prefer physical books and I write copiously in the margins. I love the look and feel of a book, the look and feel of real paper. (Sorry, trees.) I love the memory of where I read a book that was important to me, and the sense of place, oddly, is totally disturbed for me if I’m reading on a Kindle. I don’t ever remember where I read a book on a Kindle. And no one can really give you a book on a Kindle. But if someone gives me a physical book, I think of them when I read its pages. So for me a Kindle is useful if I’m traveling, but disrupts something in my memory / reading / embodied circuit. I don’t know if I’ve ever cried when reading a book on my phone. It’s a less embodied experience.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
It’s funny, I don’t really plan poems formally or think of them in terms of effort or sequence. I love what Elizabeth Gilbert said of the poet Ruth Stone, which is similar to how I feel about poem-catching:
[Stone] told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. She said it was like a thunderous train of air, and it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And when she felt it coming—because it would shake the earth under her feet—she knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” She would run like hell to the house, and she’d be getting chased by this poem. The whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it, and grab it on the page.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Rhode Island. Illinois. The Amtrak Quiet Car. Any library. I used to love to write in cafés but got out of the habit in the pandemic. The Brooklyn Poets space is looking mighty fine and I hope I come there and read and write soon.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Vineapple Café. Used to write there before the pandemic. Cozy chairs and in the old days you could write there all day. BAM, for obvious reasons. The Brooklyn Promenade for the quiet and the view of water. Sahadi’s for the olives. Books Are Magic. Greenlight Bookstore. The Center for Brooklyn History. The Center for Fiction.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate this particular morning,
and what I gave you in the middle of the night, and what you gave me too,
for every way you had me while almost sleeping was as good as almost dreaming you.