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! –Rusty Morrison
This interview concerns Bin Ramke’s book, Missing the Moon
Rusty Morrison: The title Missing the Moon has so many connotations. Can you speak about how the title came to the work, and why? In answering this you might also answer: how did this book begin? which were the first poems you wrote? when did the project begin to cohere for you?
Bin Ramke: As with all my previous books, this one began as a handful of not-consciously-connected poems which began to seem connected. First I thought the connection had to do with my old obsessions with mathematics—I thought the thing would be called “Figuring,” suggestive both of nudes and of numbers. For a while it was “The Inconceivable,” since poetry does operate within the realm of pre-conceptual ideation, too—the inconceivable turning itself into the language. But ever since the “New” section of my New and Selected (Theory of Mind, Omnidawn) I have been semi-consciously making poems as if to be read by my deceased older brother who worked most of his life for NASA in Houston—he was an electrical engineer working with the Apollo program, which did not miss: it put human beings on the moon, and brought them back. I miss him. I missed opportunities to talk with him about his work. I miss the moon as object of desire, of that particular strange desire to walk there first, as part of an absurd, dangerous ideological contest—contestation, with the word’s emphasis on witnessing. We, the world, watched this project unfold, fail, succeed, then turn into a triviality. Like a life when viewed whole as part of a past, I suppose.
RM: Poetry Foundation, in their description of your work, quotes you as saying “The sort of work I do is concerned with sound, but in a subtle, nuanced way. It’s a combination of personal imagination and experience—experience in an unrecognizable form.” I see in so many of the poems of Missing the Moon your intimate relation to sound. It is as though a word comes to you purely in sonic allegiance to the phrasing it follows, and yet you draw the whole into “nuanced” re-measure of meaning of often surprising relation. Can you speak to this process? Were there any poems that were particularly challenging for you when doing this sonic work? Is it through the sonics that you find experience unveiling its familiarity and opening the unrecognizable to you?
BR: Your interesting phrase, “purely in sonic allegiance to the phrasing it follows” is half the process—the other half being the allegiance to etymology. Or not allegiance, exactly, in either case, but fragmentary exploitation of connections and suggestions that sound and history-of-use offer. Even the book title works in such a way—its alliteration suggests further connections and significance. Absence, loss, and failure are all suggested by the path “miss” has taken in the language; and we all miss the moon once per month (in its “new” phase); and then there is “lunatic.” But I should speak of more than the title. The “sound” you speak of is for me a quite intimate relationship to things made of words. The vibrations I feel in my own throat and tongue and teeth much more than how an audience, listener, might actually hear those vibrations through the air. As I mentioned, I now believe this work was subconsciously intended to be heard by my brother who died in Houston as Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. Missing the Moon is a sort of dialogue after the facts. And by “after” I mean all its meanings.
RM: Although I want to avoid a reductive to attempt to summarize your signature approaches to writing, I can’t help but want to raise something you are “famous” for: your fascinating inclusion of such a range of science, mathematics, literature and history in your poetry books. What has especially delighted me in Missing the Moon, and in your last two books, Tendril and Aerial, is the way that you’ve contextualized this referencing and risked exposing such intimacies of personal experience. You make vulnerable a speaking agent struggling with some of the largest questions of the human experience, even as you canvas incredibly disparate, always delightful source materials. How do you perceive this aspecting in your work? Would you agree with me? I am so often stunned by the courage of Missing the Moon, by the agency’s exposure of culpability. How do you perceive this? How did these poems evolve?
BR: I may have inadvertently spoken of some of this in response to your previous question. And I am surprised by my answers there, and by how that inclusiveness you speak of became so personal, even emotional, in this book. I don’t mean to be elusive, but I want to allude here to what is known as the three-body-problem (I keep reading about it in biographies of Henri Poincaré)—the challenge was to predict the relative positions of moon, earth, and sun, their mutual gravities restricting each other’s movements, at some future date. You can see how this can become a figure for human relationships. What was the third body whose gravitational field Ken and I were caught in? Family? Conflict between “science” and “art,” between ambition and family?
RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything about you that is not in the bio printed in the book, and that might give insight into your more personal relationship to this text?
BR: I sometimes think I grew up watching two families in a sort of Southern Gothic process of decline. My mother’s branch of the Guidry name (common in south Louisiana) ended when her only brother died childless. My father’s family seemed to be thriving all through my childhood—most of his nine brothers and sisters, but not my father, moved back to the farm after they retired from various professions—the road leading to that spot on Vermilion Bayou was named “Ramke” by the post office—and then, after Katrina and Rita, 2005, the last of my father’s generation were scattered into surrounding states, geographically and emotionally. But I observed all this from a distance, geographically and emotionally. And I do think under various guises and disguises similar processes are reflected in this book. Maybe that three-body-problem is at work here, too—if you add more bodies (several moons, let’s say, or double suns surrounded by planets with their moons) the calculations become impossibly complex. My own situation is three—Linda and our son Nic and me, for decades quietly spinning around each other, watching the worlds around us.
RM: Who are the authors or artists or musicians with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you currently reading, watching, hearing?
BR: These may be two separate questions. At any rate at the moment I am reading Caroline Herschel: Priestess of the New Heavens, along with Maurice Blanchot, sort of bunches of his works alternatively and simultaneously (mainly The Writing of the Disaster). I was late to discover Giorgio Agamben, but I do feel a kinship, from a sort of a poor-relation perspective—recently I discovered his The Open…. Oh and I read everything by China Miéville—I am currently in my second reading of Embassy Town, an astonishing science fiction study of language at the edge of meaning.
I listen to all the strange new worlds of music my son introduces me to—an astonishingly rich world of sound is out there where pop, ethnic, classical, etc. no longer come near describing what is happening. But especially I am intrigued by Arvo Pärt and other composers who attempt to respond to the sacred impulse in the midst of nonbelief.
Three poets I am currently reading with deepening gratitude are Hazel White (Peril as Architectural Enrichment), David Mutschlecner (Enigma and Light), and Helene Cardona (Dreaming My Animal Selves). Oh, and I have just started Benoit B. Mandelbrot’s memoir, just out in paper The Fractalist, which is a delight.
RM: You chose the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Can you talk about your reasons for your choice?
BR: It is beautifully elegant in its “truth.” It is a self-portrait, a view from the spacecraft Messenger 61 million miles from earth, looking back at us and our moon. The mission of Messenger was to search for satellites of Mercury. The date of this photograph was the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. What I like about using this image for this book has to do with the act of observation, with the difference between assumptions about seeing as an act of imagination and seeing as an escape from imagination. Seeing is not believing. It is a lot more complicated than that. But seeing is a good idea, and is the basis of poems, which have relationships with truth, or at least flirtations with it.
Bin Ramke, former editor of a book series for the University of Georgia Press, current editor of the Denver Quarterly and holder of the Phipps Chair in English at the University of Denver, studied mathematics in college before turning to poetry. Prior to that he spent a summer at age sixteen studying with topologist (and famously racist teacher) R.L. Moore at the University of Texas. He continues to see similar patterns arising from language and mathematics in all aspects of human consciousness and human behavior. His childhood in rural Louisiana and east Texas is also a part of the central concerns and beauty that his work tries to engage. But along with the beauty he experienced a particularly virulent ugliness, the racial hatred that was part of the American experience of the 1960s. The American South was an explicit and obvious force and subject in his first several books of poems but Ramke was never an easy fit into the “southern writing” category—probably for lack of adequate narrative. And yet in the last several books he has written extensively out of, or around, the devastations of hurricane and flood, especially Katrina and Rita, on the region.