In American Songbook (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013), Michael Ruby’s fifth full-length collection, Ruby responds to recordings of 75 American vocalists, each an homage of sorts. Many musical traditions inform the poems, including blues, jazz, gospel, country, folk, bluegrass, electric blues, R&B, rock, disco and hip hop. This interview took place both in person and by email.
Marietta Brill: What inspired you to write American Songbook?
Michael Ruby: I’ve always been unhappy with the political direction of this country, ever since the assassinations and Vietnam War of my childhood. Carter and the slide to Reagan were very hard to bear. In the late ‘90s, I could feel it again, the slide to George W. Bush and everything that came with it. I felt so unhappy about America that it somehow triggered an opposite reaction in me, a desire to find something beautiful about America. What’s more beautiful about America than American singers and songs? Isn’t that our most influential art form worldwide?
While my initial gesture might have been celebratory, I don’t believe the poems themselves turned out that way. My unconscious, apparently, isn’t a patriot. My unconscious probably went too far in some poems. It blasphemed. It was perverse. It was criminal. Language contains infinite blasphemy, perversity, criminality, when words are truly free to combine with other words. Language might contain far more monsters than it contains real beings.
MB: The songs are solely 20th century—some are very obscure. How did you select them?
MR: It certainly isn’t the greatest hits of the 20th century. I’m sure there’s some ideal view of American songs in the 20th century that would pick out a better selection, from a position of greater knowledge of all the genres, and more singers, and obscure American singers. But I’m just a person who listens to music, listens to the radio, hears a singer they like and listens to a bunch of their songs and wants to work with one or two songs poetically.
It was the transport of listening that led to the transport of engaging artistically.
There are many singers and songs I wish I had used, and I hope to work with them poetically someday. Oddly, I didn’t use many of my favorite songs, or my obsessive favorite songs—you know, songs you play five times in a row. It wasn’t really about my favorite songs. It was about the songs I wanted to work with artistically. But I do hope to work with more of my favorite songs, too, someday.
MB: Are there through lines that connect these poems, aside from their being from the 20th century?
MR: That’s an interesting question. I have a book built on “through lines,” or “through phrases,” called The Edge of the Underworld. American Songbook doesn’t have through lines as such. With one exception: “In the Good Old Summertime.” That poem, one of the last written for the book, was constructed exclusively from what I call “compulsive words” in the older poems in the book. Those are words that are repeatedly displaced from my total vocabulary during composition. I suppose compulsive words are, overall, “through words” in the book.
MB: The first lines of “In the Good Old Summertime” read:
In the good old lemon elegance
Megalomaniacal summer time
In the good old elastic blueprints
Soft real estate this summer time
I can see how you work with the structure of the song. Could you elaborate on compulsive words?
MR: Everyone has a vast number of words embedded in the neurons of their brain. We don’t use many of those words in conversation or in writing, but they’re within us. We hear them somewhere, we read them in a novel, we come across them in professional or technical studies—they take root in us. That’s each person’s total vocabulary, all the words within them, all the words that ever took root, many of which they never use. I found that when I started using simple techniques to displace words and phrases from my total vocabulary, all types of words came out that I would never ever use, and that struck me as very interesting. I had studied 16th and 17th century English poetry and I was surprised to find that language coming out. I also found that some words would emerge again and again, as if they had deeper grooves in my mind. I felt that they were forcing themselves upon me, jumping out like frogs at the edge of a pond, and that interested me a lot.
In 1999, I started collecting those words and initially called them “neurotic words,” then settled on compulsive words. I collected about 150 of them. Since then, I’ve collected many hundreds more, and it strikes me that there are probably 1,000 words within me that are supercharged to such a degree that they amount to a secret architecture within my total vocabulary. I would imagine that this is the case for other people or all people. It seems to me these words only emerge in automatic writing and more guided surrealist practices, such as when I take a phrase—say, Aretha Franklin’s “Stop trying to be”—and drop it into my total vocabulary and see what comes out to join it.
MB: How much are you influenced by Surrealism? Do you believe your poetry falls into any formal classifications—Surrealism, so called “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E”, Dada?
MR: I consider myself to be a Surrealist more than anything else. In most of what I’d call my composed poetry, I use phrases—or sounds, landscapes, etc.—to displace words from my total vocabulary. I consider that to be a surrealist practice. It involves continuously opening myself to all of the words within me, as opposed to looking for specific words, “the right words.”
I also consider myself to be a Constructivist, which emphasizes the view of poems as artworks made out of pre-existing materials, words. Poems are constructions of words. In writing American Songbook poems, the initial gesture is constructivist—to pick words from songs and distribute them over the page as a sketch. The second gesture—using those words to displace words within me—is surrealist. So I guess I am a Constructivist/Surrealist. But I think my poems end up looking to readers like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E affiliated writing. Perhaps that’s because they’re surrealist at the level of each word or phrase, as opposed to surrealist at the level of the image or narrative, the predominant surrealist approaches. For some reason, I think surrealism at the level of the individual word has the “look and feel” of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing.
I always found L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E affiliated writing to be very liberating from representation and personal expression—not so liberating for me that I would never do personal expression or representation, because I do a lot of that, but very liberating.
As for Dada, I wish I were a Dadaist, but I think it was largely a historical movement tied to an extreme moment, Europe during World War I, and it seems to involve a level of theatricality that I have always lacked.
However, as evidence of my affinities with certain Dadaists, let me say that I first learned to write the way I do from the French poems of Jean Arp. Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau is my favorite work of 20th century sculpture. Tristan Tzara’s L’homme approximatif had a big influence on my style. I always call Velermir Klebnikov’s Zangezi my favorite 20th century long poem. Federico Garcia Lorca’s Poeta in Nueva York is my favorite 20th century poetry book.
MB: What are some of your surrealist practices?
MR: I’ve used all sorts of materials to displace words from this total vocabulary. I’ve listened to waves and written down the words displaced in my mind by the sounds. I’ve looked at clouds and written down phrases. No descriptions were allowed, no paraphrases. Not that there’s anything wrong with them. They’re the basis of almost all writing. But I was interested in the opposite—the words that emerge in response to a stimulus that aren’t apparently related to the stimulus. I’ve listened to birds and foghorns and frogs many times. My second book, Window on the City, is based on looking out my window at Lower Manhattan in the distance and writing down the words that the landscape displaced within me. I think of those poems as “unconscious landscapes.” Most often, I’ve taken a word or phrase, like “dread” or “even you” or “tu ti spezzasti,” and used it to displace words. I guess I see the mind as a beaker, filled to the brim with words, including neologisms and words whose meanings I don’t know. If I deliberately drop words into this full beaker, some of the words in the beaker will be displaced and slop into consciousness, slop onto the page.
MB: Do you use chance operations in creating your work, like John Cage throwing the I-Ching?
Altogether, chance operations are not a large part of my work. I don’t want to leave things mostly to chance. I enjoy using chance sometimes, but always within a consciously constructed framework. I don’t want to give myself over to chance.
That said, I have employed chance operations in some poems. In my book Compulsive Words, I picked compulsive words out of a hat to place in a group of poems, including my long poem “Titles & First Lines.” In American Songbook, I used chance operations only in the one poem, “In the Good Old Summertime,” also to place compulsive words. In my chapbook The Star-Spangled Banner, which is an offshoot of American Songbook, I used chance operations to place phrases in “My Favorite Things in T.S. Eliot” and “My Favorite Things in Allen Ginsberg.” I picked out of a hat my 81 favorite phrases from each of those poets—there are 81 spaces between the words in the national anthem—and placed them on the page in that order. I used chance operations in a number of other poems in The Star-Spangled Banner.
I suppose chance is partly embedded in my surrealist practice of displacing words and phrases from my total vocabulary. I don’t know what’s going to come up, what’s going to come out. It feels random. This somehow connects up with Robert Motherwell’s influential idea that when you know what’s going to come out, you’re producing academic art. Often, I’m interested in writing something I don’t know, rather than something I do know.
MB: In your trilogy—Fleeting Memories, Dreams of the 1990’s and Inner Voices Heard Before Sleep—you talk about documenting varieties of unconscious experience: a “stream of voices flowing deep within us.” You describe these “lines” as “psychic underpinnings of poetry”—an idea that I love. I see it as an aquifer that feeds creativity, although you talk about it in reference to the voices heard before sleep—don’t you think it’s coming from the same system of aquifers that feed other poems, or even more generally, creativity?
MR: I believe we have any number of what I call unconscious channels of words or images or stories flowing within us. I documented three of them in the trilogy you mention. Since then, in my book Close Your Eyes, I described what I saw with my eyes closed, mostly colors and shapes, but also some fragmentary visions. From that experience, I concluded that we have colors and shapes and visions constantly arising within us that we don’t perceive when our eyes are open. I believe there are actually a number of entirely different kinds of visions we can see with our eyes closed, and I’ve documented one kind, narrative vision fragments, in an unpublished sequel to Close Your Eyes called Visions.
As for their relation to creativity, these streams running through the mind have all kinds of formal implications. Inner voices before sleep tell me that single lines spoken by different people are continuously present in our minds. We might experience a rain of lines every moment of our lives. No wonder that forms of verbal expression in lines—poetry, songs—would emerge. We experience a rain of different voices. No wonder there is drama, though I’m not sure this multivocal experience has been fully exploited artistically. Similarly, Fleeting Memories and Dreams demonstrate that slideshows and movies exist in our minds long before they appear in reality.
With their endless materials, I believe all of these acquifers can, and do, feed creativity. I think that I have mainly chronicled these channels myself, rather than drawn from them creatively. I have a few poems in Compulsive Words where I have consciously drawn on them. And I would love to figure out a way to tap what I call “inexplicably repeated fleeting memories.” The acquifer that I have tapped the most by far is the total vocabulary.
MB: In American Songbook, in your poem “The Thrill is Gone,” you write:
“The thrill of spoiling for a songbook/Gone away owl of sanity”
I felt like you were making an appearance here as a poet—and I sensed the same thing in other poems. Did I imagine this?
MR: I look at those lines and wonder: What am I saying? It sounds first aggressive and then forlorn. It also sounds like I might be saying that I enjoyed writing a songbook so much I lost my sanity.
Let me say something about how the lines were composed. I started off here with the song words “the thrill” and “gone away,” which I then used to displace “of spoiling for a songbook” and “owl of sanity” from my total vocabulary. I wrote these displaced words, which I often think of as “unconscious words,” next to the song words on a page. I had no initial conscious intention to say anything about songbooks, or my book. I did make a conscious decision to keep the words, and so I ended up saying something about my book, “of spoiling for a songbook.” That’s not a thought I’ve ever had about thrills or songbooks. That’s probably why I kept it. As for the “owl of sanity,” I should say that I tend to associate owls with my father, whose eyebrows made him look owlish in old age. He died when I was 28, so it’s not surprising “Gone away” might displace something to do with him. But this is a private association, inaccessible to a reader except in a liminal way.
In general, I don’t think I often appear in these poems, with the ‘I’ of the text identified with the ‘I’ of the writer, nor do I often deliberately use personal references. The ‘I’ of the poems is more the ‘I’ of the song lyrics, plus the words displaced from my total vocabulary. Occasionally, let’s say, my ‘I’ might sneak in, and I let it stay. The same with personal references. And then, there are a few whole poems where I do appear consciously as myself, or use materials directly from my life, such as “Truckin’” or “They’re Red Hot.”
MB: In “Walk on The Sunny Side” words are scattered across the page, whereas “Walk on the Wild Side” follows a kind of conventional stanza form. Can you talk in general about how the songs drove the form of the poem—and specifically about these or others?
MR: That’s a striking pairing of poems. I’ve never looked at their titles together. That could lead in a number of directions.
“Walk on the Sunny Side” is a case of the sketch becoming the poem. As part of my process of writing the poems in the book, I would usually make a sketch by distributing words and phrases from a song over a page or two. After a number of years of doing that, one day I looked at a sketch and realized, duh, the sketch could be a poem itself. I mostly tried to avoid that temptation. But when I didn’t, as in “Walk on the Sunny Side,” the poem is a work of partial erasure. Erase part of a song, and you get…a poem. Generally, if you simply erase words from a text, the result will look spaced out on the page. That’s what happened here. There are two similar poems in the book, “Summertime Is Past and Gone” and “I Don’t Want No Woman.” Also “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” to some degree. I see now that these poems might be a case of the song words silencing the words within me.
The raison d’etre for these particular minimalist poems varies from poem to poem, I think. There’s awe at the purity of the foundational songs of country music and bluegrass. I was struck by the very strong emphasis on certain words in the Magic Sam song. (On the other hand, I felt the same way about Hattie Ellis’s “Desert Blues,” and that ended up the longest poem in the book.) With the Bob Dylan song, one of my all-time favorites, which I used to listen to every morning dressing for school in 9th grade, I felt, “What can I possibly add to this song?” It’s such a plenitude, like his “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” And so I decided I wouldn’t try to add anything, but would make something out of what was there, mostly erasing, but also recombining, mixing words from the verses into the words of the refrain, which itself subtly changes, because Dylan varies the caesuras almost every time he sings the refrain.
In “Walk on the Wild Side,” I followed the form of the song, which I often do. I didn’t have any problem displacing words with the song words, though I do actually have a few minimalist lines here, too, pure Lou Reed with nothing added: “Do do-do do-do do-do-do…”
MB: You mentioned heavily emphasized words?
MR: I noticed in some songs that certain words are emphasized much more than other words. I began around 2005 to underline those words and just look at those words, which I call “exploded words,” where I felt the singer’s unconscious broke through the song. In a few cases, I felt they were so prominent that just isolating these super-emphasized words yielded the poem.
MB: I see in “What a Wonderful World” where the way the lines are constructed emphasizes the rhythm of the song.
MR: I like that song so much that I have a plan to write a version of it every summer for the rest of my life and do a book, What a Wonderful World. One of the reasons is that I’m known to have a negative view of things and I’d like to try to be positive about life in one book.
MB: Who would you consider to be your major influences? And how did they influence you?
MR: I have had many major influences. I want to be influenced by the writers and artists I admire. I want to be like them.
My personal masters are Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound before The Cantos, Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein. They are the standards for me. I think of them as the grandparents I never had. I always want to visit with them. At the same time they entered my life, in college and afterward, I studied 17th century Puritan sermon series and 16th and 17th century English poetry. My being became imbued with the language of that time, including the King James Bible, which came pouring out of me years later. Another outcome of those studies was I aspired to the polychromatic style of the Elizabethans. I believed they were the only poets who had such an exuberant relationship with their language that they could be said to write one word at a time. In graduate school, I also translated poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, Louis Aragon, Andre Breton and Paul Valery. I revere them and several dozen other French poets from 1840 on. I also translated poems by Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti and Guido Gozzano. The biggest influence on my reading, then and afterward, was my roommate, the scholar and editor Peter Baker. The summer after grad school, I believe I literally learned how to write poetry from
Frank O’ Hara’s second Poems Retrieved and John Ashbery’s The Double Dream of Spring. I always say my single favorite book of American poetry is The Complete Poems of Charles Olson.
Somewhere or other, perhaps from Williams’ essay on Moore, I got the idea that the essence of poetry is to slow readers down to the point that they have to read one word at a time. I got the idea that I should try to write one word at a time. I first learned to do that by imitating Arp and Michael Palmer, and then, most important, by following in the footsteps of Louis Zukofsky’s Ludens, a homophonic translation within his epic A. Doing a homophonic translation almost forces you to write one word at a time. That became my book The Edge of the Underworld, which begins with an epigraph from Zukofsky. My biggest influence of all was Clark Coolidge. His poetry taught me to write one word at a time by listening within for one word at a time. I dedicated my book Window on the City to him. At the same time, Gertrude Stein taught me that a subject can be a point of departure; it doesn’t have to be the focus of attention. That freed me to look out the window at an urban landscape and write down the words that arose within me that were apparently unrelated to what I was seeing. Walt Whitman and his descendants, such as Lorca and Allen Ginsberg, set me free to use very long lines. Stephane Mallarme set me to free to use the whole page. Another big influence during those years was Jackson Mac Low, not for his chance-related or sound or computer works, which have been most influential to people, but for conceptions such as “The Presidents of the United States of America.” I’m not sure I would have conceived of American Songbook or The Star-Spangled Banner without that. In the late ‘90s, I met my close friend and frequent collaborator Sam Truitt, who re-taught me to write books, not just individual poems. I would have never written “Titles & First Lines” without his multivocal long poem “Fall Time.” In the past decade, Ginsberg’s dense strings of words in long lines had a big effect on me. Strangely, some other poets who influenced me stylistically in the same direction, such as Aimee Cesaire and Antonin Artaud, initially repelled me.
MB: What about the biggest influences on American Songbook and some of your other books?
The biggest influences specifically on American Songbook were Jimi Hendrix, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. They taught me to be free with American symbols. This is even more the case in The Star-Spangled Banner. Jazz, though it’s not very well represented in American Songbook, taught me to be free with popular songs. Free jazz, like Albert Ayler’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” taught me to be very free. The poetry of writing-through and the poetry of erasure, which have cropped up in recent years, are obvious influences, but I always want to add something to the words of the original. I want something of myself to be in the poem. And I want something from the specific moment of engagement with the song—improvisation.
In my books that I consider to be examples of psychic research, such as Memories, Dreams and Inner Voices and Close Your Eyes, I have a different and much smaller set of influences than I do in my composed poetry, mainly Henri Michaux and my friend and teacher Bernadette Mayer. Also, Georges Perec and William S. Burroughs.
MB: Like Olson, you don’t espouse academic approaches to poetry – your process encourages discovery. There’s a quote that reminds me of you. Olson once said that “if (the poet) is contained within his nature and is a participant within a larger force, he’ll be able to listen, because hearing through himself will give him secret objects to share.”
MR: Wow. That’s a good description of my whole process. What I like about Olson is that there’s so much wisdom, as in those lines, coming through so many of his poems. He is a teacher. I have not tried to follow in that direction, you know, being more interested in what comes up that I don’t know, rather than trying to teach what I know.
MB: I’m wondering about your connection with the reader. Your compulsive words are very personal, but the readers overlay their own interpretation—there’s a ripple effect. What kind of experience are you trying to create—or does that enter into your mind?
MR: In American Songbook, it’s similar to a jazz performance, where some of the notes are recognizable to the listener, and there are a lot of notes where they don’t know where the musician is going. The reader has a mixed experience of knowing where they’re going—because they know the song—and not knowing where they’re going.
Marietta Brill writes poetry, essays, and reviews. She and her family split their time between Brooklyn and the Catskills.
Michael Ruby is the author of five full-length poetry books: At an Intersection (Alef, 2002), Window on the City (BlazeVOX, 2006), The Edge of the Underworld (BlazeVOX, 2010), Compulsive Words (BlazeVOX, 2010), and American Songbook (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013). His trilogy, Memories, Dreams and Inner Voices (Station Hill, 2012), includes Fleeting Memories, an Ugly Duckling web-book with 80 photos. He is also the author of three Dusie chapbooks, The Star-Spangled Banner, Close Your Eyes and Foghorns, and is the co-editor of Bernadette Mayer’s forthcoming collected early books from Station Hill. A graduate of Harvard College and Brown University’s writing program, he lives in Brooklyn and works as an editor of U.S. news and political articles at The Wall Street Journal.