The poem that marks things
Stephen Ratcliffe with Linda Russo
Note: on Monday, July 28, 2010, I met up with Stephen Ratcliffe in his home in Bolinas, California, at the suggestion of Joanne Kyger. I’d been in Bolinas for almost two weeks, exploring in my own writing the landscape and the particularities of that place as do both of these poets, who have lived in this coastal community for over forty years. Ocean waves crashing and the ridge beyond, variations of fog — such particles of landscape perception comprise Temporality (Eclipse Editions, 2011), the third installment (of 1,000 pages) in a trilogy (including Portraits & Repetition and Remarks on Color / Sound) that Ratcliffe was then working on, and which he concluded on January 4, 2011. We talked primarily about the daily writing that comprises Temporality and how this project intertwined with his interest in experiencing physical space. I was eager to hear about Ratcliffe’s writing within a landscape that was, to me, new and exciting. And so we talked, recording the interview, and we must have talked for about an hour, when, in my rush to be moving along, I neglected to allow the digital recorder to write the file before unplugging it, a fact I would discover only later. We both remembered the conversation as interesting and decided to try again. A few days later I phoned him from my home in eastern Washington, and we recommenced.
The conversation picks up with Ratcliffe providing some information about the chronology of his back-to-back writing projects and continues with him touching on some topics we had originally discussed. At the time of the first conversation, Ratcliffe had pulled out various books and notebooks as we considered the details of his writing process, and I had documented several of these in photos. Later, conversing over a considerable distance, these images became useful in aligning our discussion; Ratcliffe again pulled a book off the shelf and we could get together “on the same page” as we tried to re-cross some of the ground we’d covered in the first, lost interview. It strikes me now how nicely this process rhymes with — is in a way an extension of — the themes of experiencing and documenting moments of experience that are his central concerns in Temporality.
In our discussion, Ratcliffe details the conditions he sets up to “transcribe” the moment every day (to translate the “ephemeral” into permanent text), and how he pairs that with already-textual language that documents visual experience (in this case, T. J. Clark’s The Sight of Death). The whole “day” entry/poem, he later clarified, is assembled in three pieces at different moments/places, as mirrored in the three-part text. This allows for an experience of and a thinking-through the repetition-with-difference that so absorbs him. As I reread the interview today (July 4, 2011), what I find most interesting is the linking of synchronous “moments” and diachronic “materials” that is exact and inexact at the same time; not arbitrary and not truly subjective either, such that “reality” is open to continual exploration. In one sense, how can it not be? In another, how can one accommodate that fact? As Ratcliffe talks about the various aspects of his practice, it becomes clear how this simple act can become an extended engagement (why it must be, as Ratcliffe would point out) because it is given over to “mystery,” an idea he conveys early in the conversation: “But that relation between the world that’s out there and the words that are trying to transcribe it, it’s mysterious.” In this statement, he interestingly defers agency to “the words”; he later asserts: “In some ways I’m a scribe noting real things.” This act of noting is the “creative” act, as he later suggests, proposing art as a means of differentiating the otherwise undifferentiated: “Everything is moving and evolving, and I actually think one of the things that poems and art do is mark things.” And his structured works do heavily bear the marks of the shaping hand of poet as he moves from the handwritten page to the typeset — always in Courier, always left- and mostly right-justified — manuscript. In the end, talking with Ratcliffe gave me a sense of how his writing exists between experience and language: “I find myself over a period of time moving back and forth between writing that comes entirely out of perception of things happening around me, and writing that comes out of language.” And landscape? Is it just a place to be, what presents itself in its own particularity to be perceived? We never did get around to talking about landscape, though we did arrive at the horizon. This makes sense: to wind up at a concept that links perceptual experience and material world even as it holds them at an unbridgeable distance. What follows is a lightly edited version of our second conversation. — Linda Russo
Stephen Ratcliffe: So, one thing, we should just say what the date is, it’s July 28th, and it’s 8:08 on the West Coast. I believe we’re both in the same time zone, at least, according to my laptop. And I’m sitting here outside looking at the last light on the ridge, just to enter that into the background of this conversation.
Linda Russo: Alright.
Ratcliffe: I was just thinking about how we were talking on Sunday, and now trying to find a way back into that, but I was thinking of one of the points that we got to late in the conversation about the relationship between the place, or the geography as you might say, and the time of being in this place, and then writing these series of ongoing poems, one poem after another, one and then the next one, then the next one, and not just a few but actually doing this for years now and what that all means. It’s really interesting for me to think about that. To sit here now looking at the light, just at the top of the ridge, the first day that we’ve had clear now — when you were here it was almost always foggy, I think, it wasn’t possible to see the ridge a lot of the time — but it cleared off yesterday afternoon. It’s a cloudless day, and there’s light up there on the ridge, and you can see the whole thing. But that relation between the world that’s out there and the words that are trying to transcribe it, it’s mysterious.
Russo: So, how many years would you say you’ve been doing this kind of noticing or documenting?
Ratcliffe: You know, actually, I did a little homework because when we were talking on Sunday, I didn’t have this at my fingertips, but it made me think about it: what is exactly the chronology of these poems? So, I went back and found it, and I wrote it down here, because I think it is important, to me at least, and it goes toward what we were talking about. I had been doing daily poems for a much longer time. A book like Present Tense, published by the Figures, I forget the date [March 1995], but it actually was one year’s worth of writing that then took many years to evolve and take the form that it has in the book. It was 365 days of writing it as prose, and then I began to work with it after that for a few years.
[Here, Ratcliffe describes a succession of works (and the lapses in between works), emphasizing the immediacy with which a new one began — i.e., the day after the previous one ended — including Portraits & Repetition, written February 9, 1998, to May 28, 1999; REAL, written from March 17, 2000, to July 1, 2001; CLOUD / RIDGE, written from July 2, 2001, to October 18, 2002; and HUMAN / NATURE, started on October 19, 2002.]
[…] Actually, I want to mention this to you for the record, the title CLOUD / RIDGE came to me one day when I was hiking up in the mountains, in the Sierra in the summer, and there were switchbacks for 500 feet on a hot day, at, I don’t know, 10 or 11,000 feet, and there was a ridge that we were approaching where there was a pass, and there was a cloud above it, and I realized that the cloud was above the ridge. I thought of that as a title, and I realized that’s what I see here all of the time. And right now there is actually a clear sky and one little eye of a cloud, which is just above the ridge there. So, when I wrote this title down in my mind, I printed the word “cloud” in all caps, and then I drew a horizontal cloud line, and the word “cloud” has five letters and so does the word “ridge,” and the line between them was also five spaces long. So, the cloud is literally above the ridge in the world, and also is in type, in the print here, in the word, in the letters. And this was for me a kind of insight into what these poems were trying to do, something about trying to transfer or write down in words, in letters, what it is that’s happening “out there in the world” with no embellishment, or no poeticizing of it. Somehow to document it. That’s part of what I’m interested in.
Russo: You could definitely think of the formal aspect as a kind of poeticizing.
Ratcliffe: That’s true. I realized that as soon as I was saying that, that in the poems there is a way of constructing in the medium of words the work or the object of the poem […]. To take the analogy of a painter, the painter is making marks on the two-dimensional canvas or paper, and the poet is also making marks on the two-dimensional page. And the world out there is in three dimensions, and moving through time. So, it’s true, but there’s no metaphor. I sort of assiduously avoid saying that something is like something, or using self-expression. The work, I think, appears to lead us to be unemotional, or maybe not […] I don’t know. That’s a whole different question. But to go back to this chronology, and then I’ll finish with it.
Russo: Sure, sure. I’m making notes for some questions, too.
Ratcliffe: Sure, that’s great. Let me just go back to the chronology, because you raised that and I have it written down. So, CLOUD / RIDGE and then HUMAN / NATURE, which began on October 15, 2002, and went through July 14, 2005. And then, immediately, on July 15, 2005, I began a work that came to be called Remarks on Color, and then I added after a slash mark, Sound. Remarks on Color / Sound, which went from July 15, 2005, to April 9, 2008. And then in that April of 2008, I had gone to Paris and I was there with Oona, my daughter. I went to do some readings, as I had done for two previous summers. I had this streak of going over there, which was pleasing for me, as I hadn’t been for many years before that. So, that was a pleasure. When I was there in Paris, I didn’t have the wherewithal to invent a new form, and I just realized why do you have to invent a new form, just keep going. So, the poems that follow after that first thousand, the Remarks on Color / Sound continued into this breadth of work, which now I have realized I would call Temporality, that is for a long time what I would call it. As it seems to happen in writing these long works, and this is another thing I didn’t quite get to Sunday, but I wanted to tell you that somehow, in the process of writing a very long work, I discover what it is I’m actually doing, and it takes a very long time to hone that down. I think it was Rousseau who said “Cultivate your garden.” If you spend enough time looking at a small plot of land, you actually begin to see what’s there. It’s maybe like Blake finding eternity in a grain of sand. Anyway, these long works that extend over a long time, I finally begin to figure out what one is. Then I think that’s why toward the end of these works, to me, they always seem to get better. They realize toward the end what it really is that they’re doing.
Russo: And yet you still think it’s important to publish the whole work. We talked about that, the integrity of the whole project.
Ratcliffe: Well, that’s another question. I have […] and actually I do think so. I think that concept of having the entire work as being compromised by doing this book of selections, which we also talked about on Sunday, where Tim Roberts at Counterpath declined to publish all of CLOUD / RIDGE at 474 pages because he said it was too long and too big for them, which I can completely understand. He proposed instead to do selections of several manuscripts, and I decided since I didn’t want to lose the opportunity, as I told you before, which we talked about. Would you like me to go into that for a second?
Russo: Yeah, really quick.
Ratcliffe: Well, it’s just that James Sherry had said to me some years ago when I was writing to him about composing a manuscript and he said, no, don’t do a long one. He wanted to do a selection from several manuscripts or books, and I said, well, I wanted to publish these works in their entirety because it seems to me the whole length of the thing is what is important about it and unique about it. So, we went back and forth on emails, and I said I really want to find someone who can do the whole thing. It was CLOUD / RIDGE at that point, or I think it might have been REAL. He said fine, you can arrange that, and if anything changes […] after a couple of years I wrote to him to say maybe it was a good idea to do a selection, and he said, well, I’m no longer interested. So, I thought, with Counterpath, I didn’t want to lose the opportunity, and I thought maybe the selections would be a good way of getting work out, and there could be preface to the work that explained to readers that this is the tip of the iceberg.
Russo: Right. Or another metaphor might be a many-paned window onto these different sites.
Ratcliffe: Right, a glimpse of some larger work, or total work, in the background that they won’t know about, but at least this is a branch of it. Yeah, many-paned windows of which the rest of it is missing.
Ratcliffe: I’m actually going to move inside now as it’s getting bit chilly now even though I’m dressed in three layers including my warm fleece. You asked a question about why it was important to do the entire work, and that’s a good question. Maybe for many people it wouldn’t be a question. And it might be a venture of diminishing returns, because who could read it or how can it be read?
Russo: Well, when you say the entire work, I’m interested in your revision process. Do you revise these a lot? Or do you write every day and then move on to the next day? How does revision fit in?
Ratcliffe: When I’m writing, I write them and I make adjustments as I go. From one day to the next, I don’t go back to reinvent the previous day’s work. Sometimes, if I do a reading, I always try to read the most recent work that I’ve been doing. So, when I’m reading I might use twenty minutes’ worth of the most recent work.
Russo: Is that because you think the most recent work is always the best?
Ratcliffe: No, just because I’m interested in hearing it. That’s the main reason. I’m interested in it and I haven’t read back over it, so that’s the main reason. It’s what’s closest. If I did a reading tomorrow, I might end on July 29, and start twenty pages above it.
Russo: How important is vocalizing it to proceeding with it?
Ratcliffe: Well, I don’t have to read every one, but, for me, I actually love to read the work. One of the things I was going to say is that when I read twenty pages or something, although I haven’t revised yet, and I usually don’t read it over before I do a reading, I just read it cold, so it lets me hear how it works and how it sounds. Sometimes I find an actual mistake, like there’s a word missing or there’s something I didn’t see when I was doing it, probably because I was moving quickly or I put an adjustment aside and I didn’t go back to look at it. So, a reading actually gives me the opportunity to find things like that. [Ratcliffe comments on recently making “adjustments” to a 1990s manuscript, Conversation.]
Russo: I’m interested in the seemingly arbitrary nature of the [formal] constraints especially vis-à-vis the fact that you’re dealing with, in terms of phenomena, something organic and changing and ephemeral.
Ratcliffe: You mean the change in the landscape in weather and time?
Russo: These two seem to clash or come together in your work, and the constraints seem very arbitrary.
Ratcliffe: I guess they’re arbitrary in that I make them up myself and then, in a sense, impose them upon the landscape or build the poem around them. In some ways, they are not at all arbitrary because they come out of this long experience writing and thinking about writing. So, it’s quite consciously, in some sense, planned out or determined by choices I’m making. Then, on the other hand, it’s full of accidents. The accidents that come in, and randomness and happenstance things are happening in the world and enter the poem. The one thing I try to be as accurate as possible to the things I am perceiving and writing down in the poem. They are actually happening. I’m not making them up. So, there’s no arbitrariness involved. In some ways I’m a scribe noting real things. Then, there’s also the textual material that’s coming into these poems in Temporality, and its given materials. But, at the same time, selecting what to leave out. The accident of the text that I am drawing the words out of couples with subjective selection of materials. It’s not really like Cage or Mac Low, using the I-Ching or some kind of diastic chance selection that chooses actually what sort of letters to use out of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, or something like that. There’s much more subjectivity going on in my own work.
Russo: There also seems to be more of a rhythm. Why is it that when you, in Temporality, when you have the first stanza and there’s usually three things that you notice —
Ratcliffe: It’s always three things. It’s true. It’s not usually, it’s always. There’s always two commas in the first three lines, and that divides into three sections.
Russo: But is that something that’s predetermined or something that you come to find is appropriate to the work?
Ratcliffe: I think I came to find it appropriate, as you say. I came to find it a possibility or a way of scoring what would otherwise be complete flux. Then I liked it, so I repeated it the next day. And now, in these poems, I’ve been using punctuation, punctuation and line breaks as ways of marking or measuring out units of time in the poem and space in the poem on the page in what otherwise in the world is undifferentiated fluxation. The sun rises and sets, and time marches on and we have calendars to mark off days but the world itself is not marking off seasons. Everything is moving and evolving, and I actually think one of the things that poems and art do is mark things. The human intends somehow to process experience, to mark things, somehow, as a way of making sense maybe. I don’t know. It’s pretty profound. The cave paintings in France [at Lascaux], of the deer on the wall, and the deer wasn’t being stopped by the person who saw it. It kept moving. Your question is very interesting. Even in all of these works, there’s been some way in which the ongoingness works. In the 474 pages in Portraits & Repetition, in the first one, on each page there are five couplets, and in each couplet there is one comma and one line break and there’s one word in parenthesis, and all those things are ways of making a rhythmic mark in what otherwise would be an ongoing ongoingness. As Ginsberg says, “mind is shapely.”
Russo: Yeah, Joanne Kyger talks about that, too.
Ratcliffe: There’s something about the human endeavor to shape things that I think is going on in my own sense of what I’m trying to do. It comes in a way of shaping things.
Russo: I think there’s something different between the mind shaping the thoughts on the page as they arise, and this kind of shape that you choose. Well, I think of it in terms of efficiency. When you choose to sit down and write in the morning, you pretty much have this rhythm and you know you’re going to write these three observations and then put the middle section [with source text from books] in. So, there’s actually two questions in there. One is that difference between sort of shaping, and the other is, you should talk a little about your process.
Ratcliffe: Well, I write in the morning. I write one of these poems, and there’s a certain already determined shape that the poem will take on the page, and it appears to be the same when the eye looks at it on the page. From one page to the next, it looks the same. They don’t vary in terms of number of lines or kinds of punctuation.
Russo: Well, the content also shifts (varies) subtly, too.
Ratcliffe: It does. That’s another thing I’m interested in, the way the change of one word in a line from one day to the next seems to be a minute change, but in some way it registers, I think, a big change, a cataclysmic change. Yet, it’s very subtle, from one poem to the next, or the way things shift inside of poems, which, to me, somehow, in my way of thinking about this now, it seems that my experience in the world is sort of like that and, in part, that sensation or that sense of things, that perception of things, might be increased or furthered by living in this situation where there’s not a lot of hustle and bustle in the world. Every day I wake up and when I’m writing the poems I look out at that same ridge and sky. There are clouds. There’s the channel. This work is completely tied up with or involved with the place where it’s being written. When I go to other places like to New York, where I make maybe four trips a year, or if I go to Paris, or if I go to the mountains, some of the details shift, and at first, when I would do that, I’d find that it was a little traumatic for the poem, like what’s going to happen here? Then I realized, no, it can happen. Instead of a ridge over there, there’s a building. There’s a cloud and the sky. I’ve enjoyed finding that there’s a kind of continuity shifting from one location to another, even though some of the details are very different.
Russo: Well, what’s the continuity then? How are they continuous?
Ratcliffe: Well, for one thing, the physical material of the words on the page in these long poems, whether its a kind of determined formal quality to the poem, X number of lines or characters within lines or commas, things like that, the physical earmarks of the poem, words and letters on the page can maintain themselves in the shift, even the drafting shift of the location.
Russo: That also confirms what I’ve been thinking, which is on first glance, thinking about the Temporality series, it seems to be really involved with documenting the phenomenal world, but it’s actually, I think, engaging the language as material with the mind, and working with the material of language. Especially with the middle stanza, which is all about selecting language. Maybe you can talk about how you collect the language in the middle. In this poem, this is the first time you’ve been importing language into the texts?
Ratcliffe: No, actually, it’s not. It’s not at all the first time, but it’s taking a its own shape and material here. Some of the texts that I’m using here I was also using in Remarks on Color. I’ve been importing, well, it’s not really importing —
Russo: We talked [on Sunday] about harvesting.
Ratcliffe: Harvesting, yes, I like that. That’s an agricultural metaphor. I’ve been harvesting texts in numerous previous works, including these long ones. In HUMAN / NATURE, I have a lot of lines in there about a man and woman on the phone. And often, the phone was email. There’s a lot of conversation. And in REAL, there’s a lot of quotation of the things that are being heard, and they come in. […] In other books that I had written earlier, the one book called SOUND / (system) [Green Integer, 2002], all the words came entirely out of one book. I think it was volume three of Henry James’ letters. I never read Henry James before. It was a gap in my education, but I found a very nice book, and I made use of it. All of the language, all the words come out of this other text, and I was finding ways of making, ways of writing about things that were going on in my day-to-day life, but all of the language was basically found language. It was a word here and word there, and I would make punctuation marks and all of that. I find myself over a period of time moving back and forth between writing that comes entirely out of perception of things happening around me, and writing that comes out of language. So, a work like Temporality really splices those two things together. I really agree with you that, despite everything I’ve said about perceptions of things in the world, which, I think, are true for the opening and closing sections of this poem, it goes toward exploring how these words are being put together. And the middle lines in these two little couplets in Temporality are trying, in some way, in mining these words from texts, to comment upon or almost be like essays or critical writing about the poem itself, and about the processes of what I’m trying to do. So, that’s the way I see it. It only happens in a glimpse here and then a breath there. Back to your question about how do I select the material from the readings, I put things together that somehow speak to the question of what this activity is about. We would have to look at a specific instance to detail that.
Russo: Well, we photographed a page from, what book was it? Clark?
Ratcliffe: Clark, oh yeah, T. J. Clark.
Russo: Maybe talk about that book in particular. It will go with this page that I have photographed that has annotations. [At this point, I read text from the photograph I took of the page of a book that he was holding to help him find the page.]
Ratcliffe: Maybe I can find that here. I’m looking at the book now.
Russo: I don’t know what page it’s on, but it’s on a left-hand page and to the right —
Ratcliffe: Can you read in my handwriting what the date is?
Russo: 9-23, and I guess it looks like ’02. Or ’06, I don’t know.
Ratcliffe: Oh, really?
Russo: And on the right hand page, there’s an image, a reproduction of an image.
Ratcliffe: Okay, so what is the handwriting date. Did you say nine?
Ratcliffe: I see it. And the right hand page it says: “detail of landscape with a Calm”?
Russo: Well, I didn’t take a picture of it, I could just see the edge of it. It’s something about calm and snake.
Ratcliffe: Oh, I see it: 9-21-08.
Ratcliffe: I would have to do a bit of hunting to find —
Russo: Well, it’s interesting, as I start to read the text, because it’s about the writer’s process of looking at the painting. Really looking at what it is representing, the water, the birch leaves. Anyway, it’s a writer, you’ll have to say his name, writing about —
Ratcliffe: His name is T. J. Clark. I’ve been using this book since, well, I didn’t make dates early on, but back into ’07, the summer of ’07.
Russo: But he’s basically recording his perception of this landscape painting.
Ratcliffe: That’s true.
Russo: It’s a strange coincidence.
Ratcliffe: He is, and the word that I have bracketed in my entry on 9-21-08, and in the next one, 9-22-08, but the bracketed words are “format combined with the spatiality of the Snake” — and that’s the painting he’s referring to — “the space of its front and middle stage,” and then end bracketed. So, something out of that passage, something in those words were taken up in note. I don’t know if I could find them here. No, I can’t. I’d have to go outside and read this notebook to find that. Anyway, out of those words I used some of them. The words that pop out as being of interest to me are “form,” “format,” “combine,” “spatial,” then “space in its front and middle stage.” I was spending so much time thinking about onstage and offstage action in Hamlet, so the word “stage” was really loaded to me. These books that I’ve been using, all of them have a lot of interesting material in them that somehow has a congeniality to what I’m thinking about myself.
Russo: Is it more, let’s say, the vocabulary that’s being invoked, or the kind of thinking that’s being done, because it’s a strange coincidence that he’s reflecting on a representation of a phenomenal landscape.
Ratcliffe: Well, I did a job of reading a manuscript for the Yale Press, and they gave me as payment either $250 or $400 worth of books. So, I chose the books, and this was one. I mentioned to you that previous book by T. J. Clark called Farewell to an Idea that I had used before this. It’s a big, long book. His work was very interesting because he’s writing about painting, and his prose and vocabulary are interesting. I was reading not so much to understand or get what he was thinking about, but to look at the language there and make use of it.
Russo: And yet there is a strong relationship in your own work to painting and the visual field.
Ratcliffe: It’s true, and for some reason what Clark is doing has been interesting […]. Clark is very descriptive. Now, I’m using some Einstein and some other physicists writings from the ’20s who had a whole different vocabulary. It’s also, to me, very interesting because a lot of it has to do with space and time and objects. Physics. The physics of things happening in the world, which is completely pertinent to what I’m trying to look at out there in the world. There’s also a Van Gogh book of drawings where there’s various art critics or scholars thinking about his work. It’s one of these large books with picture and text, probably put together for a show in New York of Van Gogh’s drawings. Again, it’s people writing about art. So, yeah, it is curious. And Clark, he’s doing something with painting not unlike what I’m trying to write about with landscape. He’s writing about landscape painting.
Russo: So, why do you use Courier font?
Ratcliffe: Oh, Courier. Well, that’s it. Early on I was writing on a typewriter where there was Courier, and some of the earliest writings, there was one early book called Mobile / Mobile. My first wife was from Mobile, Alabama, and we went on a trip there and I wrote in my notebook some poems during the week that we were down there, and I came home and I typed them up and they were all rectangular poems. They all had [different lengths of lines] lines, but all had a right-justified margin that was determined by adjusting the lines to come out that way. When the book was finally published, it was a letterpress book, but Les Ferriss [the publisher/typesetter] didn’t want to use Courier. So, I realized the whole shape of the right margin would be lost. We talked about it for a while, and I thought, well, the constraint of the right margin was instrumental to me in helping me write the poem, but it no longer needs to appear that way in print. It doesn’t. So, now the right margin is ragged. But for me, Courier, each letter, space and punctuation mark occupies the same space. A period is as wide as a W. So, in Courier, it measures out a width of a line. Also, each letter will be directly above or below the mark of a letter or gap in the adjoining or adjacent lines. In Courier, each character has a fixed width.
Russo: You can think of even getting a sort of grid-like effect on the text.
Ratcliffe: It is like a grid. That’s why I’ve been interested in Mondrian as a model, in what he did in those abstract lined paintings. The grid, the idea of the grid seems to me to be something I’m interested in doing in poems, to make a grid-like structure where the line goes across the horizontal two-dimensional page and there’s a kind of verticality that takes place with the shapes of lines from one to the next.
Russo: Well, your daughter’s painting certainly employ lots of planes and not quite squares but a lot of square-like lines and planes.
Ratcliffe: Yes, the ones you saw here, some of them did, for sure. She doesn’t do that now. Responding or being aware of her work, you know, I’m mentioning some of these painters like Mondrian, it’s been interesting to me —
Russo: I’m looking at the photographs of your house now. It’s very symmetrical. Not symmetrical, but there are a lot of right angles.
[What follows is an explanation of where these works fit in Ratcliffe’s daughter Oona’s works.]
Russo: While we’re talking about this, the form and the grid, I’d like to throw in for contrast the kind of organic feel of the line. In the work that we looked at, I think it was REAL. I also took a photograph of that. We were talking about how I was noticing that even though the line breaks were arbitrary, and maybe you could talk a little about the form in that work. The work had a very organic feel. Each page was slightly different.
Ratcliffe: That is absolutely true and real for my Temporality stuff. The poems in REAL, although, there were certain repeating features, like each poem has seventeen lines, it has five sentences, each sentence has a comma. There are things like that that repeat from one page to the next. The shape of the right margin varies from one page to the next. The eye can see that, although the ear, the listener wouldn’t perceive that.
Russo: How did those line break choices come about?
Ratcliffe: They came about because there was a kind of fixed measure or width that I was working in. I don’t know if it’s four inches or four-and-a-half inches. Something like that. On the screen, the line couldn’t be longer than a certain width. There was a right hand margin. It also was not going to be much shorter. It was as if it were prose, and in a typeset piece of prose, you get to the right margin and you click in to the next line. Right?
Ratcliffe: So here, I was going with the first line until I got to a complete word. I’m looking at number 2.23 on page 346 that reads “spots of sunlight on the otherwise shadowed wall.” And that’s a line break, and the next word in the next line is “to” and it goes on “shadowed wall/ to the left of the yellow and blue bed.” That’s the second line and there’s a comma after “bed.”
Russo: Actually, I have a photograph of page 229.
Ratcliffe: Okay, let me look at that.
Russo: It’s got “clump,” “from bamboo clump in upper right corner” [reading text from photograph].
Ratcliffe: Did you say 329?
Ratcliffe: 229. Date number 2-29?
Russo: No, the page number.
Ratcliffe: Let me just look again, I didn’t see “clump.”
Russo: It starts “Large” —
Ratcliffe: Yeah, “Large dun-colored bird …”
Ratcliffe: Oh, “clump,” yes. [Reads from text.] “Large dun-colored bird moving from bamboo clump / in upper right corner to tobacco plant branch in lower / left, the crow flying in from the field below / the small white cloud in otherwise blue sky.” In each case, the line is determined. The word “clump” is close to whatever the measure of these poems came to be. I don’t know how many; on the computer, or on a typewriter, the right margin is set and you can’t go beyond it. And the word “in” couldn’t sit after “clump” on that line because the margin was bumped in there. It would automatically get put on the next line.
Russo: So, why do you have so much space after “table” seven lines down?
Ratcliffe: Because the word “thinking” is next …
Ratcliffe: … and it won’t fit on the line. I’m also adjusting the words in these lines to make this shape that begins to emerge. So, you can see “clump” “lower” “below” “sky” “corner” “thinking,” “table,” “water.” [“period.”] It’s the word that comes after each of those words, if you look at the right margin, excuse me, the left margin, you see “large” “in” “left” “the” “yellow,” “behind,” “symbol,” “thinking” — those words at the beginning of the line on the left would not have fit …
Ratcliffe: … into the previous line, so there’s both the necessity of going to the next line, and also the shaping hand of the poet, which has made it work out so that this line continually moved further to the left and created this kind of descending curve that happens. So, there’s both the accident of hitting the right margin, and the subjective selection, the choice-making that makes that shape come out. Those things are both happening when I’m writing.
Russo: I’m not sure how that’s subjective. If the words don’t fit on the line, they don’t fit. So, what’s subjective about that?
Ratcliffe: Maybe, instead of “woman at the table / thinking about taking on persona.” Do you see that section?
Russo: Well, your finger is blocking it, but I see “woman at the table.”
Ratcliffe: Yeah, well, “woman at the table,” maybe when I wrote this in my notebook, I’m not sure, but I might have written “woman at the table who is thinking.” Then, in that case, “who is” might have fit on there, but then it would have wrecked the shape.
Russo: Ah, I see.
Ratcliffe: So, I’m making adjustments in moving from handwriting to type, that make the shape take place, whereas in handwriting it was just prose. There was no shaping. I just went to the end of the margin in the notebook.
Russo: Well, the shape of the margin or the placement of the line on the page can just mean everything at a certain moment, right?
Ratcliffe: Right. When I wrote these poems in the notebook, I didn’t break the lines. I wrote them as prose. Then, in the typing on the same day as the writing by hand, I made all of these minute adjustments to make the picture of the poem on the page. The poem, to me, becomes a visual shape on the page, which happens at the stage when it gets typed. And before that, it’s words on a handwritten page that doesn’t have that shape. It’s the same with all of these works. I mean, for instance, I’ll write a three-line unit, then a two-line unit and a two-line unit, but, in typing them on the page, they take on this preciseness of shape that they wouldn’t have in handwriting.
Russo: Do you think that if you let yourself shape the left-hand margin too, would that just be too many decisions to make?
Ratcliffe: No [laughs]. Joanne always used to say, “you know, you should get off the left margin.”
Ratcliffe: She’s so great at that. She’s off the left margin. There were some poems I wrote earlier on where I was off the left margin. I’m happy to be on the left margin in my own work. You know, you hit the return key and go back to the left margin, although I certainly appreciate a work that doesn’t have that fixity, like Larry Eigner. It’s so beautiful the way his poems move off the left margin. It would be nice. Maybe I should do that.
Russo: I think this also speaks to the minimalist aspect of your work, that you do cut down on the number of decisions you have to make. The question I asked the other day was about the senses, that they appear in your work, and I’ve just come to this realization that you really are sort of limiting sensory input, that that’s part of the minimalistic aspect of the work. It only deals with sight and sound, and primarily with sight, whereas other works included more senses.
Ratcliffe: That was very interesting to me on Sunday when you brought that up. I do see that, the sense of restricting the amount of material that is possible to enter, which is somehow, in some literal or factual way, is taking place in Temporality now because the opening lines are written sitting up in bed, looking out a window, seeing what I see out there and hearing the sounds. In some ways, sound in my work has always been really important, like in SOUND / (system) or the writing on Campion [Campion: On Song]. My sense of sound in words and sound in lines, I think I have an ear, which has become highly tuned through my work and my studies of Campion. I talked a lot about and have written about that. In Listening to Reading, there’s an essay called “Notes on Sound.” I pay a lot of attention to sound and it does come into the poems, but it does appear to be mostly sight. I was thinking after we talked on Sunday, I wanted to say this as it popped back into my mind: there’s some almost humorous way in which Proust, whose work, I haven’t read his novel, but I did write a book called Selected Letters, which are based on the letters of Proust. He sat up in bed and he was writing in a soundproof room with cork-lined walls, and he was writing about his imagination, I think, writing about his life experience, sitting up in bed. And thinking “here I am, sitting up in bed and writing these poems just looking out the window.” I’m not in a cork-lined room. There’s a bit of the world coming in, but it’s a small picture. I’m not even going downstairs and going outside to see all the other things. I used to come downstairs and go outside in the morning and there were numerous things that were going on, and I would choose this and that. I used to think years ago you had to keep moving and changing. Now, since the book Portraits & Repetition, and thinking about Stein for years [inaudible], she claims that she never repeats, at least in writing. I read and come to her and say, jeez, it’s so repetitive. It’s very interesting, I’m sort of exploring the possibility of how things keep seeming to repeat, but they’re not really.
Russo: I had this realization while I was in Bolinas about your work, and I shared it with Bob Grenier. I said I think the reason why I think your work is so minimalist is because you’re a surfer, and when you surf, it’s just you and the board and the water. Of course, the water represents or embodies so many atmospheric conditions or realities or facts. Anyway, that was my theory, why I think you write the way you do.
Ratcliffe: [Laughs.] Well, I don’t think that’s the whole reason, but there is some evidence there. You’ve got [a cloud?] and you’re on the same ocean, and yet all the molecules are different, and the weather and the conditions are always different. Yet it seems to be the same.
Russo: There’s a lot of difference, but there’s also a lot of sameness, too. I was struck …
Ratcliffe: The appearance of the world out in the water seems to be very abstract. You have a horizon line. You have a plane that is the water. Then you have this dome over your head, the sky above the horizon. There’s a cloud, so it looks vertical. And for me, here, there’s the ridge, which appears to be a vertical plane, but, in fact, it’s full of contour. Actually, that’s something I’m really conscious of, and have been for a long time, seeing how, if you look at the three-dimensional world, if you look at it, there’s a way it’s totally flattened, and that’s what a landscape painting does, takes the three-dimensional world and puts it on a two-dimensional canvas. And it sits there on a wall and it appears to have depth, but that’s all an illusion. It is true that there’s something really abstract about being on the water. Even when I was a kid, I sailed across the Pacific from LA to Hawaii and back on a sailboat, and before that I had gone across, during one summer that I was in the merchant marine, and I had crossed to Hawaii and then to Asia back and forth four times in a summer. So, there’s this sense of the horizon. The horizon line and the space of the ocean, the flat horizontal plane of the water, and the dome of the sky. It’s kind of imprinted in my consciousness, I think, from early on.
Russo: I think the endlessness of that space and the possibility it represents is reflected in these long serial works.
Ratcliffe: Oh, I love that. That is brilliant. I love that, what you said. I haven’t quite thought of that. I haven’t quite thought of these things we were just saying so consciously before. But that’s beautiful, and that might be a reason why these works, if possible, should be presented as whole things because it’s crucial to the work. And the other thing is, there’s nothing like it. No poet that I know is doing anything like this. I know of some visual artists. There’s this guy On Kawara. His project is to write down the date, to paint the date on a canvas, and he’s been doing this for years. So, it might say “Jan. 7, 1982.” […]. He just goes on. I love that concept. I mean, that work is totally minimal. He paints the date on the same size canvas, which is tiny, probably in the same color paint, and I think it’s just black on white. In the art world, he’s a very well-known, written-about person. To me, that possibility gives me some hope or courage to continue with this. I really like what you said about how this endlessness of the horizon on the planet is something like the endlessness of these poems. That’s really an insight.
Russo: I’m glad.
Ratcliffe: That’s brilliant. That’s great. I’m going to write that down.
Russo: Well, I’m going to transcribe it and send it to you [laughs].
Ratcliffe: Yeah, okay. We should probably wrap this up because my phone is beeping, my voice is … it’s been great. Are you going to transcribe this, is that your plan?
Ratcliffe: That’s great.
Russo: Yeah, I was thinking of giving it to Julia, for Jacket2.
Ratcliffe: That would be very interesting. I think the interview form is great. One of the things I did with Avenue B, I did it together with Leslie and O Books, we published Ted Berrigan’s interviews. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.
[What follows is a summation of the Berrigan project and mention of about 10 years’ worth of Ratcliffe’s conversations with Bob Grenier, which are archived on PennSound].
Ratcliffe: The interview form is very interesting; it’s free flowing. That’s why I was sorry to hear the tape had been lost, and you thought we could maybe write it down […] talking is great. I appreciate you taking this on, your interest […].
Russo: The audio recording will still be there in some form.
Ratcliffe: Well, that’s great too. If the quality is good, it might be something we could put up on PennSound. They seem to want to do this kind of stuff, which is terrific.
Russo: Oh, yeah.
Ratcliffe: I’m not sure if anyone would want to listen, but it’s there for the record.
Russo: I don’t know if I’d want to listen to myself again.
Ratcliffe: I don’t like to listen to myself either, actually. The voice, well, it’s not quite what you want.
Russo: It’s probably better to be in the moment anyway, just be doing and thinking about that thing anyway.
Ratcliffe: Well, what we were talking about, subject matter, it’s about being in the moment, what you do with it or how you somehow record or acknowledge it. Or notate it. Yeah.
Russo: Alright. Are you still there? Hello? Hello? Well, just for the record, we lost him, we lost the connection. But I’m going to hit the stop button, just for the record, so that we don’t lose this recording.