Arts

A cat lies across papers and pen on a table.
The poet at work. Photo courtesy of Jack Ridl. And his cat.

From Voice and Vision: An Interview with Poet Jack Ridl

By Kathleen Schenck
May 2, 2019

Interview conducted via email. Notes in brackets [… ] are the interviewer’s.

My process is to start writing and see what happens, to be welcoming, to no more know ahead what the poem will say than what a dinner guest will say next. ~ Jack Ridl

You’ve got a new book out, Saint Peter and the Goldfinch, released during National Poetry Month. What keeps you writing? How do you find inspiration?
My response will sound flippant but I am dead serious. Nothing keeps me writing. It’s there all the time. And I have never believed in inspiration. I write out from voice and vision, both of which bring about a poem for which I have no preconceptions. That doesn’t mean what appears is worth reading. Rather than writing out of inspiration I try to write out of care. I may notice something or have something come to mind and if I notice a feeling that I care, I follow where that leads.

Your parents appear in the lines of your poems from time to time (such as in the poem, Scrub). Do you find it difficult to approach the topic of parents? Necessary?
Not at all difficult. Parents live within us. So, there they are. However, I hope any revelations about them are respectful. It’s a moral reality.

How did your parents respond to your desire to write poetry?
Indifferently because they were taught, like the majority of Americans, that they didn’t know “anything about it.” Sad.

I’m not sure if it’s a conscious choice, but you write about the juxtaposition of Masculinity vs Gentleness, as if the two at times stare down each other across a slot canyon. Can you speak to how the idea or ideal of masculinity has changed for you?
How it’s changed for me. Forty years ago when asked about composing poetry I would always say, “And I’m an athlete: shortstop in baseball, point guard in basketball.” Now I think the very word masculinity is stupid, meaningless, harmful.

Related to that, perhaps: What was your first car? First dream car?
I always liked those kinda square Mercedes. My first car was a yellow Camaro with a black vinyl top, 1967.

1967 yellow Camaro with black vinyl top.
Yup.

What advice would you have for people writing poetry today? 
Dare the sappy. Learn the damn art for heaven’s sake. It IS an art. Artistry has to be learned. It’s what amplifies the creativity. Don’t you somehow have to LEARN to play the guitar? There are 14 ways to break a line. That gives you fourteen ways to work with to bring about an effect at the end of something as simple as the end of a line, 14 ways to have more fun. And write with musical phrasing.

Is it helpful as a poet to share one’s work with others, as in a workshop situation, or in publications? 
Only if they first respect your poem by attending to what IT is and not what they think it should be. And only if they know what they’re talking about.

How does a poet–or any writer–keep from becoming discouraged when those rejections roll in one after the other?
If one can keep from being discouraged, then one will extinguish empathy, turn cold, and become just another opinion carrier. One must assume being discouraged about most everything. Once one discovers discouragement as an affirmation of one’s being humane, one finds it a Friend.

A dog rests her chin on a couch pillow.
Vivi Ridl. Photo courtesy of the poet.

Can you take us into your process of writing a poem? What’s that like? Where does the magic happen? 
Magic doesn’t happen. It’s the essence of everything. Nothing can be explained. Magic goes by many names: mystery, the numinous, faith, ineffable. My process is to start writing and see what happens, to be welcoming, to no more know ahead what the poem will say than what a dinner guest will say next.

When’s your favorite moment: when the idea or inspiration for a poem hits, the scribbling of notes, the lines taking shape, the revising, the acceptance email, or something else entirely?
Something else entirely. But I do love learning from the poem. It has so much more to reveal than I will ever have.

And having a poem on a pillowcase! [Author’s note: Jack Ridl’s poems appear as rolled scrolls tied with pretty ribbon atop pillowcases in a vacation home up north. It’s the literary equivalent of mints.]

What’s your favorite thing about living along the Lakeshore?
Knowing it’s always there when I need it.

Metaphor time! If you were a Johnny Cash song, which one would you be? 
Folsom Prison. Did I spell that right? [Yes.]

If you were a planet? 
Pluto when it was.

A trout? (Lake or River? Rainbow or Steelhead?)
Definitely Rainbow.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I wouldn’t be alive were it not for Julie, for whom I get to be a husband.

And I wish I could have made it to the major leagues or been a carpenter.

A dog and a woman stop along the beach on a gray day in West Michigan.
Vivi and Julie Ridl comb the beach. Photo courtesy of the poet.
A gray bearded poet leans against a chainlink fence.
Photo of the poet. Photo credit Julie Ridl.

Bio: Jack Ridl’s newest collection is Saint Peter and the Goldfinch from Wayne State University Press. Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State University Press, 2013) was awarded the National Gold Medal for poetry by ForeWord Review/The American Library Association. His collection Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press) was co-recipient of The Society of Midland Authors best book of poetry award for 2006. His Losing Season (CavanKerry Press) was named the best sports book of the year for 2009 by The Institute for International Sport, and The Boston Globe named it one of the five best books about sports. In 2017 it was developed into a Readers Theater work. Winner of The Gary Gildner Prize for Poetry, Jack has been featured on public radio (“It’s Only a Game with Bill Littlefield,” “The Story with Dick Gordon,” and Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac.”) Then Poet Laureate Billy Collins selected his Against Elegies for The Center for Book Arts Chapbook Award. They read together with Sharon Dolin in NYC at Christmas after 9/11. He and Peter Schakel are co-authors of Approaching Poetry and Approaching Literature, and editors of 250 Poems, all from Bedford/St. Martin’s Press. With William Olsen he edited Poetry in Michigan in Poetry (New Issues Press). Jack’s poetry has been nominated for 19 Pushcart Prizes. He has done readings in many venues including being invited to read at the international Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, and was one of twelve people in the arts from around the U.S. invited to the Fetzer Institute for their first conference on compassion and forgiveness. In 2014, Jack received the “Talent Award” from the Literacy Society of West Michigan for his “lifetime of work for poetry literacy,” and The Poetry Society of Michigan named him “Honorary Chancellor,” only the second poet so honored. After the presidential election in 2016 he started the “In Time Project,” each Thursday sending out a commentary and poem. Christian Zaschke, the NYC based U.S. correspondent for the leading German Newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, wrote a feature about his work. Jack and his wife Julie founded the visiting writers series at Hope College where he taught for 37 years. The students named him both their Outstanding Professor and Favorite Professor, and in 1996 The Carnegie (CASE) Foundation named him Michigan Professor of the Year. Nine of his students are included in the anthology Time You Let Me In: 25 Poets Under 25 edited by Naomi Shihab Nye. More than 85 of Jack’s students have earned an MFA degree and more than 90 are published authors, several of whom have received First Book Awards, national honors.

In retirement Jack conducts a variety of writing workshops, welcomes readings, holds one on one sessions, etc. For further information about Jack and these activities, check out his website at www.ridl.com.