Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes! The subject of this interview is Ronk’s book Transfer of Qualities.
Rusty Morrison: I have been an ardent reader of your books since I happened upon Eyetrouble. I recall when you read at Cody’s Books in Berkeley. I think you were reading from Why/Why Not. I introduced myself and had the audacity to ask you if you’d let Omnidawn publish a book of yours. You were so gracious! And even more marvelous is the fact that you gave us In a landscape of having to repeat, which remains one of my most beloved books. I still keep it at my writing table. It won Omnidawn our first major award, the PEN USA Poetry Prize. It’s a privilege to bring out this new book, Transfer of Qualities. I saw poems (prose poems) from it, I think in Colorado Review? And I recall feeling that I absolutely had to read more of the work, and I lusted to publish it! The work in it has your unique sensibility, and yet it is unlike much of your past work. Could you say a bit about how you see the collection?
Martha Ronk: Transfer of Qualities addresses the uncanny and myriad ways in which people and things, but also people and those around them, exchange qualities with one another—moving in on, unsettling, altering: stance, attitude, mood, gesture. Each entry in the book probes the dissolving boundaries between those sharing space with one another; and the various cross-genres in the book (prose poem, creative non-fiction, personal essay) echo the theme of inter-dependence. Material things often seem amazingly alive and tropic (a puppet or toy, a plate, a rug underfoot, a dim photograph on the wall across the way), and this collection follows in the footsteps of other authors also obsessed with the boundaries between life and death, the moving and the still, the stone-like book and the vivid stirring within the pages.
RM: How/why did you begin Transfer of Qualities? Which poem or poems were the first you wrote?
MR: I began this project with my own experiences in the potency of tropic objects around me; in my somewhat vertiginous experience when objects in my house are relocated; in my interest in ceramic or glass bowls that became manifest to me after the shelves were full. Obviously, I was very influenced by Henry James (the title is a quotation from him) and all his focus on the power of objects in The Golden Bowl and The Spoils of Poynton—the ways objects seemingly press against, even determine the relationships of the characters. More specifically, I became interested in photograms through the work of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy, and the ways in which, again, objects seem to press against one’s very skin. With certain objects, like books, clearly there is no way I could not have thought about making them, holding them, collecting them. As a boy, my son collected “found objects,” and I think one of my first poems was of a piece of scrap metal I found on a walk on Kings Road in Vermont. Finally, I have a colleague, the artist Mary Beth Heffernan, who was making life-sized cyanotypes of the outlines of clothing (seams of a suit, a dress) at the time I was writing; they are haunting images of material stuff just coming into or going out of being.
RM: Would you talk about the relation of the title to the text?
MR: I tried to create a book in which prose poems, essays and creative non-fiction pieces transferred qualities with one another. That is, I hoped that distinctions blurred enough to match the title.
I wanted the book to try to present the idea that categories, useful as they often are, can also allow for some merging and playful exchange. The poem’s title might also suggest a definition that the prose poem itself would deform. (No doubt this is irrelevant, but: Alice Munro’s story “Comfort” concludes with a wife tossing her husband’s ashes, but this action is given by way of an image that is amazingly “unrelated” to the narrative; it is a poetic moment of bravura, I think, that both closes and refuses to close the story.) Several years ago, I taught a course entitled “Hybrid Literature,” which included poetic fiction from Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust, for example, and narrative poems such as The Autobiography of Red and Paris Spleen.
RM: Manuscripts often undergo revision before reaching their published form. Would you discuss your relationship to revision?
MR: I revise a great deal—but never enough—and often am helped by suggestions from other poets and editors. I usually compose in a sort of trance, or “state” of some sort, where I am captivated by an image or rhythm or concern; trying to make something of this that is communicable depends on returning to the initial draft time and time again. Alexander Pope was right: The longer the better.
RM: Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship? Who influenced Transfer Of Qualities? Who are you reading currently?
MR: There are many authors behind Transfer of Qualities, but the major genie of the piece is Henry James, whose musings on his own, The Sacred Fount, provided the book’s title and direction. In addition to James, the work is influenced by Walter Benjamin, numerous photographers and critics, Baudelaire, Francis Ponge, Virginia Woolf and many writers who have examined the nature of things.
Many of my books have been influenced by literary sources and by a firm belief in dialogue with the language of others—in the interdependence of reading and writing. Why/Why Not is a collection of poems focused on Hamlet’s inability to decide, the title an echo of his “To be or not to be” monologue. Vertigo, my book on the confusions of memory, was written as a homage to W.G. Sebald’s book of the same name. My long, somewhat convoluted poetic lines in Vertigo echo Sebald’s efforts to capture memory in long sentences. Freud’s essays on repetition and the uncanny stand behind In a landscape; and Sir Thomas Browne’s Garden of Cyrus specifically influences and provides phrases for Partially Kept.
RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything you are willing to share that might not be in your short bio that is published in the book?
MR: The major influence in my life is my career as a professor of English literature. I have always taught poets, especially Shakespeare, Milton, John Donne, George Herbert and more contemporary ones as well—with Wallace Stevens being my favorite. Teaching and scholarship often rest on the asking of questions, the examination of technique and meaning. I began writing my own poetry more seriously when I needed to ask questions of a new geography, specifically the desert, when I moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast. It stunned me. Part of my work from that time appears in Desert Geometries, and I think each project since is the result of having been stunned again in a similarly unnerving way. As I was working on Transfer of Qualities I was also returning to work in a ceramics studio, which I hadn’t done since my son was born; working with clay makes one very aware of objects in a state prior to themselves.
I had residencies at Djerassi and The MacDowell Colony, and taught summer programs at the University of Colorado and Naropa. In 2007 I received an NEA Award. I worked as editor for Littoral Books and The New Review of Literature, and I am the Irma and Jay Price Professor of English at Occidental College in Los Angeles, teaching Renaissance Literature and Creative Writing.
RM: You chose the image that is used in the cover design for this book. I believe you are friends with the photographer. Would you be willing to describe your affinities to her work and/or to this particular photograph?
MR: I know the young photographer and artist, Farrah Karapetian, through my step-daughter, who has been friends with her since childhood. I love her series of glass bottle photograms because they are images of fragile, transformed, broken (some even melted) bottles. I saw these objects as akin to what I was after. They are both familiar and strange.
Martha Ronk is the author of ten books of poetry, among them Transfer of Qualities (included on the long list for the National Book Award), Partially Kept, Vertigo (a National Poetry Series Selection), In a landscape of having to repeat(a PEN/USA poetry award winner) and Why/Why Not. She has also published a fictional memoir, Displeasures of the Table, and a collection of fiction, Glass Grapes and Other Stories. Her work is highly influenced by her academic work in 16th and 17th century literature, especially Shakespeare, on whom she has written and published. She is the Irma and Jay Price Professor of English at Occidental College.