Shin Yu Pai: The environment and ecologies of California permeate the poems in your new book Floating World—from grunion runs on the beach in a poem like “Silversides,” to the arid landscape of the Mojave in “Another List of Lost Things.” How did growing up in urban Los Angeles inform your sense of place and your engagement with the natural?
Rick Benjamin: Urban Los Angeles and the many land- and creature-scapes of California frequently find their way into my lines. Since “place-based” has lately lost its meaning, I’ll just acknowledge that I think a lot about where poems and lives take place. For me, growing up was at least somewhat about nearly drowning in the Pacific, suffering sun-stroke in the Mojave, climbing in the Sierras and swimming in its glacial lakes, being among tortoises and lizards and coyotes. Places get into our bodies—under skin, in our blood, in our psyches. Every creature I have killed, everywhere I have stepped: I suppose both of these are fully imprinted on and inscribed in me. My native city and state are two of my floating worlds, certainly. Another locus, however, is meditation, focusing on all of the places one’s mind, for instance, typically wanders off to. I am as interested in interior topographies (in the emotional contours of the heart, say) as I am in the exterior geographies nearest to home. I don’t like to distinguish too much in my poetry between Los Angeles and California, on the one hand, and experiencing brutality, paying attention, being in love, on the other. Places take place in time, and each time we suffer or enjoy human experience in any profound way, it always happens somewhere.
SP: Floating World continues the thread of your first book Passing Love, which concludes with a poem that takes a specific genre of Japanese woodblock prints, or ukiyo-é, as its subject. The theme of your present collection weaves together longing and desire with a fullness that is replete with both love and loss. How do these oppositional concepts operate within your greater worldview or perspective?
RB: Oh, that’s a lot of questions in one question! First of all, I think that how you describe my second book might actually, for me, define ukiyo-é, which you rightly notice is a pervasive subject in my first book. It’s an important conceptual and spiritual space for me: I am less interested in wood-blocks, though, than in impermanence and evanescence and some mix of that mud that is both dissolution and evolution at the same time. I like thinking that we are all dissolving into the dirt and emerging out of it at the same time and in every moment. Like everything else on this earth, we are primordial; maybe we also make, one hopes, a certain progress in our capacity to be more compassionate, more enlightened in our thinking, to treat everyone and everything as if each second mattered more. Life experience is important, so I make sure that I let all of that “love and loss” you mention in my own life into the poems. The life of the spirit is equally important, so hopefully I also allow room for the ineffable, for what eludes us generally: the more mystical elements of the human and the non-human. I want to write about my family of origin at the same time that I am thinking about belonging to nothing! You have me noticing how I frequently start with something ordinary or mundane that happened or is happening to me, and also want to kind of watch it vaporize and become insubstantial.
SP: In poems like “Shed Door” and “Building the Den,” you write about the everyday tools that enable survival and progress—a shovel to dig a person out of a hole, another for planting seeds. The speaker of “Building the Den” reflects on how “I’ve made a whole set of tools to use / when the time comes.” What has poetry meant to you, in terms of the tools or gifts that it has provided?
RB: I love this question! It reminds me that, for so much of my life, I felt like the son and grandson who couldn’t do anything with his hands. My grandfather repaired cars, my other grandfather made cabinets and designed houses, my father could build most anything, my twin brother even now builds and makes sculptures with his own hands and tools. It took me a long time to see that how I was using and shaping language in poetry was my shorthand for all of this. Sometimes I think of myself as a carver. Other times it feels more like hammering something out. Way less often, I feel as if I’m engaged in the same diagnosis and fix that mechanics engage in on a daily basis. I am at peace now with seeing that poetry is my work, with its own kind of lunch-box and tools and even (if more supple) schedule. I get up every day and do something with it. I like to work and play poetry hard and it rewards me all the time for doing so.
SP: When I first met you at the Dodge Poetry Festival, you were very interested in a poetic practice that could bring together community and poetry in a public practice. You spoke of setting up a desk on a busy pedestrian mall where you could write poetry and engage with the public. Seven years later, you are now the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island. How were your commitments shaped by your work with the Dodge Foundation and its programs? How is your tenure as Poet Laureate different than those appointed before you?
RB: I cannot separate poetry and community. I even teach a class at both Brown and RISD with that title. I have always liked going to a lot of places with what I do creatively. Just now I am working with college students, high-school students, thirteen-year-olds and elders, all at the same time. Each week when I am teaching I am also writing: Every workshop in community with others is also an opportunity for me to get my own work done. I facilitate something creative on behalf of others most every day, and that also benefits me. If I offer up a prompt for writing and thinking to any particular group of people, I offer it up to myself at the same time. I never squander an opportunity to write, and I much prefer to write in the company of others! Some poets create in solitude. I like finding contemplative space in the middle of assisted-living centers, bustling youth-art organizations and busy diners. Last month I typed up new poems on command all night at an art exhibit at New Urban Arts with people all around me—fast and loose, without thinking too much about it. At probably ten minutes a poem, oddly enough they weren’t any worse, I bet, than anything else I write. I know now how to bring my 54 years long to even short increments of time. If you get longer, well, great, than that day you’re lucky!
SP: As a teacher of poetry in innovative settings like Goddard College and Rhode Island School of Design, you have the opportunity to work with young artists working in a variety of disciplines. Can you speak on your relationship to the visual and performing arts and how your work teaching at Goddard and RISD has shaped your work? How did a poem like “Explosions from Planets & Stars” evolve?
RB: Though I’m not teaching in the MFA Program in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard at this particular moment, I can’t tell you how important my six years teaching there so far have been for my own work. I’ve been fortunate to work with accomplished dancers, tabla players, stone-carvers, painters, composers, glass-blowers, installation and performance artists, painters, even a few poets—in other words, with artists working in every conceivable medium and mostly in, and with, more than one at a time. Also, we spend a lot of time at Goddard thinking about intentions and context and affinity, and working in and thinking through several disciplines at the same time. We privilege practice and process over everything else. How can I help but think now of encaustic painting, calligraphic printmaking, free-jazz composing, glass-blowing, of turning vessels on a potter’s wheel when I am writing? I am so fortunate to have been around so many others who do not work either the way I do or with the same materials as me. It’s to an artist’s advantage not to be saddled with one way of looking at or shaping the world, even if poetry, for instance, is my primary medium. I’ve been able to experiment with music, video, audio and performance, and to collaborate with musicians, videographers and sound-artists, among many others, because of my relatively low-paid but otherwise abundantly remunerated work at Goddard!
The Rhode Island School of Design is an altogether different institution, filled with no less accomplished, but more specialized artists, most of whom are highly driven and disciplined and inclined toward gainfully employed production work of some kind, even if in the so-called “fine arts.” They are trained toward polished, accomplished work, primarily in individual disciplines, and they are both made to, and learn to, sacrifice a lot in order to succeed in this environment. One advantage of being in the “liberal arts” at a prestigious art school is that you have the opportunity to offer some breathing room through your own offerings. When I teach poetry and community, for instance, or poetry-writing, or co-teach a studio course called Queer Ecology, I am with my students in something reflective, contemplative and, relatively speaking, deliberate. It is a balance to the more hyper-driven aspects of an education in prestigious art institutions, which tend to justify themselves by hard labor and enormous sacrifices (like sleep). When something spacious is mixed with something hard-driving, the alchemical product of that interplay and work can be pretty ecstatic: I think of it as what it must feel like to become ready-to-eat rice in a pressure cooker!
Both of these places, as well as countless schools and arts and community and assisted-living centers, have had their way with me, and I find my way into a poetry that is very much informed by a myriad of affinities and affiliations. I have worked with an actor and musicians on a performance piece featuring poetry and live music, with a tabla player on putting poetry and voice to contemplative and classical Indian percussion, and am currently thinking with local printmakers and public artists about various kinds of pieces and installations. And I write poems that have cello players, stone-carvers, painters, glassblowers and bees and many other kinds of artists in them. These people and places and beings also become my own raw material, find their way into language, too.
Rick Benjamin is the State Poet of Rhode Island. He teaches or has taught at Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, the MFA Program in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College, in many schools and in community and assisted living centers—where he has passed good time in the company of people who range in age from six to ninety-six. His books, Passing Love and Floating World, came out in 2013. He lives with his family in a very small village in the smallest state.