Mary Ruefle, the American poet, essayist, and professor, recently visited Sarah Lawrence College as part of a Poetry Residency. Her residency included both a craft talk and a reading, which took place last week in the Slonim Living Room on Nov. 4 and 5, respectively.
Ruefle, who currently lives in Vermont, teaches in the MFA program in Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and has previously taught at the widely regarded Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. She graduated from Bennington College in 1974.
She is the author of twelve poetry collections, the most recent of which, Trances of the Blast, was published in 2013, as well as one collection of prose. She has also been published in various journals and magazines, including Harper’s, The American Poetry Review, and The Kenyon Review, and her work has appeared in many widely-known anthologies, such as Best American Poetry and Great American Prose Poems. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others.
In his citation for the William Carlos Williams award that Ruefle received for her 2011 poetry collection, Selected Poems, Rodney Jones of the Poetry Society of America included, “What a civil, undomesticable, and heartening poet is Mary Ruefle…any Ruefle poem is an occasion of resonant wit and language, subject to an exacting intelligence." Lisa Beskin, a critic for the Boston Review, has written of her, “Like John Ashbery and James Tate, Mary Ruefle investigates the multiplicities and frailties of being with an associative inventiveness and a lightness of touch; the purposefulness of her enquiry never eclipses the remarkable beauty of her work.”
Last Tuesday afternoon, Ruefle began her craft talk with a speech that focused on the concept of imagination. She expanded on how it can manifest itself in negative ways, such as through mental illnesses, but in positive ways as well, primarily through art. "The imagination is not what you play with, but what plays with you," she said. She continued, “The imagination is my demon because it is my best friend and my worst enemy.”
She also talked about how her ability to communicate with today’s poets is getting harder as she grows older, and how modern technology can be limiting. "Freedom is being able to pay attention to what you want to pay attention to,” she said, “And I'm upset because it seems like in today’s society the media is always trying to direct your attention and you don't have the ability to be curious and imaginative."
After her speech, she played "Imagine" by John Lennon through the speakers and sat down while it played and answered questions from the audience. She talked about her attitude towards being a writer, saying, "As an artist, I like many mistakes. Not all, but many of them." She also expanded on her attitude towards poetry specifically. “A poem is an experience in and of itself,” she said, “No one cares what your experience with the poem is."
Michaela Brady ’17, who attended the talk, said that she was, “in awe of [Ruefle’s] normal voice, how honest she was,” and empathized with some of the things that Ruefle said that she worried about.
Towards the end of the event, Ruefle went back to where all writers start out, and talked about her experiences as a reader. "Lately,” she said, “I read a good poem or a good book and I am fulfilled, but then that feeling goes away and I need another hit."
by Janaki Chadha '17
Georganna Poindexter '17