This interview formerly appeared in Wild River Review
by Kimberly Nagy
“Watch out for abstractions!” warned California-born poetess Renée Ashley, with a pitch of urgency only one or two tones below that exclaimed in a nearly missed automobile accident.
Many years ago, I remember scribbling these words down during Fairleigh Dickinson’s low-residency Creative Writing MFA program, where Ashley taught (and still teaches).
There’s something about Renée Ashley that inspires vigorous note taking.
Perhaps it’s that Ashley exudes the appropriately intense awareness of a poet along with the steely precision of a detective. Utterly careful with the words she holds sacred, she is as resistant to vague abstractions as she is to overly “clever” wordplay and poems that in her words, “reek of competence.”
Today, I sit across from Ashley at the Princeton Public Library where we meet to discuss her life and work-teaching and writing poetry.
The award-winning poet’s books include Salt, The Various Reasons of Light, The Revisionist’s Dream, and The Museum of Lost Wings. Her novel, Someplace Like This, was published by Permanent Press in 2003. Ashley also received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, and the Charles Angoff Award from The Literary Review.
Ashley’s call to write poetry came late and unexpectedly. “I mean you wouldn’t even say the word in my household!” Ashley recounts. “I thought it was some big, scary, prissy, upper class, have to answer questions for tests, kind of thing.”
But one fateful writer’s conference, she wandered away from the fiction writers into John Logan’s poetry reading. She was amazed. “All of a sudden it dawned on me, it’s somebody talking to somebody else! You know, that’s what a poem is… And all of the fear and stigma dropped away.”
WRR: Tell me about the place you grew up.
Oh. Redwood City, California. Salt, my first book really takes place there-most of it. Some of it took place after I came to New Jersey. Redwood City is a concrete suburb of San Francisco, which has changed a lot over time. Where there used to be bay, deep- water harbors, actually, and salt ponds, there are now shopping centers and restaurants! Which, by all rights, with the earthquakes, should be at the bottom of the bay. I haven’t been back in about six years.
I had to get out of there by the time I was in my thirties. I mean I didn’t grow up with a sense of mobility. I thought you had to stay. Other people left, but that was other people. Once I left I thought, “Whoa (laughs) you should have done this a long time ago.” So, yeah, I’m really not happy going back there. It’s not the place, really. It’s the ghosts. And who I’m expected to be.
When I grew up it was just a pretty quiet, concrete suburb with a good side and a bad side. I’d lived on both. My parents were, well not divorced, but they were split up since I was in grade school. And my father lived behind a bar for a while and then had a cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in Boulder Creek and that’s very much like where I live now in New Jersey. Very forested, very mountainous. My kind of land.
WRR: What did your parents do?
Neither of them graduated from high school as far as I know. My father, when he worked, worked in a ball-bearing factory. But he was off on disability-he drank and was very ill. And they split up. My mother was a PBX operator. The old kind of telephone operator with all the cords and stuff. That’s what she did. And secretarial work. Once she was the secretary at my grade school. That sucked.
WRR: Did your parents influence your writing, in your view?
I don’t think they did. My mother’s unhappiness influenced the way I live, certainly. I guess having no books in the house was an “anti” influence, but I was an only child and my parents were a lot older. I mean my father was almost fifty when I was born; my mother was close to forty-and that wasn’t as common in 1949 as it is today. Everyone thought they were my grandparents. It used to really piss my mother off. Anyway, back to the question: Let’s just say once I got to the library I was in good shape.
But my mom still thinks if you’re reading you’re not doing anything. “Have a sandwich,” she’d say, and “Talk to me.” As I mentioned, she’s ninety-five now, and she lives in a house by herself. She’s one tough cookie.
WRR: Do you remember the first poem you ever read that first struck you, knocked you off your feet?
I honestly don’t. Not that I read. What I remember, actually, is that I never really got poetry. Although, my father had a little red leather bound copy of Evangeline. I’ve got that now. I just didn’t really get it back then. I always wrote it, because I had a good ear and so I could get extra credit in grade school. But the first time I realized that poetry could be interesting-other than for extra credit or for cultivating the teacher’s pet position — was really as a young adult when I went to a conference at Foothills College in California. But I heard John Logan read out loud. It really was like seeing a light come on.
Logan was, well he was evidently a very kind man, really a character physically and psychologically. I was just totally bowled over. I mean it was really amazing. He was scary he was so real. He was dangerous because he was so real!
WRR: Had you already written poetry at this point?
I had written poetry, but I didn’t know anything about it at that point. I didn’t really know what a poem was. I wrote poetry the way kids do — mindlessly, sing-songy embarrassing stuff. I was really only writing fiction at that point.
WRR: One thing that’s always interesting is who people like to read first as they begin and continue writing…
I’m probably the world’s worst role model. My life hadn’t really opened up for that sort of thing. I don’t think I really started reading poetry until I came to New Jersey. Oh, in California, I went to Kepler’s and bought poetry, hoping someone would notice, but I don’t think I read much of it. In California, there were just too many prohibitions, at least I felt there were. I was somebody else there.
But, it’s funny: Though I thought I hadn’t read any poetry, one day-long after I’d come to New Jersey, and that was over twenty-five years ago — a friend came up to me and said, “Your poems remind me of Edward Taylor’s” and I said, “Oh that’s cool. I’ll go find out all about him.”
So, I opened my Norton anthology that I had in college and had carried all the way to New Jersey and my notes were all over it. You see, I had read it, but nothing had stuck. I didn’t even know I had read it! But there was the word imagery with a long green line and an arrow running down the page to an image. And I went back to college late after having a bit of a sordid life. So we are not talking about too bright a bloom here. It was funny. Because none of it had stuck! Nothing! I was lucky I recognized my own handwriting. I still have a horrible memory. But that was really bad.
WRR: But you were already competent in that way, you had a good ear.
Well, I did have a good ear. And there was the mixture of dictions and that sense sometimes of almost being out of control but not quite-which you know also makes a good guitar player. (Laughs)
But later, as I grew as a poet, I found out I really had to say something. You know, before, I could write all this stuff that sounded like poems, but there was nobody home. It was really late when I realized I had to say something and actually had something to say. Now, I read everything. Everything. And all the time. I’m blessed, at this stage of my life, with time. Of course there’s never enough.
WRR: Do you think all good poets have to be good poetry readers?
I have no doubt about it. Either that or they are far more talented than I am, which they probably are, but the thing is I think you need to see what’s being done just to know what the tools are that you can play with-and especially if you hope to publish, which shouldn’t be the first concern-but it is a concern.
Though, I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t published I would still be writing. Because I write to find out who I am, what I think.
WRR: Does writing take you to new places?
Absolutely. Writing, reading, music-they’re places to me. When they’re good I forget I have a body.
WRR: Do all of your poems surprise you?
If they don’t, they get thrown away. The idea for me is to never settle for what I meant to say. And I seldom start out meaning to say anything. I wrote one poem trying to do something specific-from an idea. I wanted to recreate the rhythms of the gospel church I grew up in. Ma used to drive me there, drop me off, and I’d walk home. But that poem was a booger. The poem is fine. I stand by the poem. But the process was hell. I hope I never have another idea. Shoot me if I have an idea.
I like it much better when I find out what the poem’s trying to say and then start aligning the images within those terms. If I have a premise, it’s time for me to write an essay. And I do love to write essays. But in a poem? I think surprise is essential. Otherwise you’re just taking notes or you’re just talking. Too many poems are just talking. If I want talking, I can call my mother.
WRR: I want to turn to a poem called “What She Wanted” from The Revisionist’s Dream. It’s an alternative reading of Leda and the Swan and what is interesting is how, instead of simply turning the tables, you offer a deeper complexity to the myth. I wondered if you could talk about that because your take is really not about Leda being a victim in any way. Some lines read…
She wanted him to traverse oceans, cross
silver bodies of perilous water: she wanted
him reflected there, and vulnerable-blind
to all but fierce need and the brave wind
teasing her hair
Well, I think it’s my bitch side. (laughs) I think you get tired of the same fiction. And you know, I’m a real opera nut. So, I’ve probably gone off the other end with the melodrama. But, she had a good right to be pissed. And instead of being taken advantage of, maybe she was, one could hope, in charge. I mean women get angry too, we get hungry for certain things too. And we don’t often act upon them because, well if you ask my mother because it’s not ladylike or it’s just not “good.” You know, too much assertiveness, or wanting too much. I was brought up to not ask for anything. In all aspects of life, you take what you’re given, keep your mouth shut, and deal. But I probably didn’t remember this about myself until I wrote this poem. Anyway, this poem cracks me up. Perhaps because I think I’m being naughty!
WRR: Tell me three cardinal rules you have for yourself. What makes a good poem?
You mean in process or after the fact?
WRR: Well, okay, both…
In process, I would say that there must be an engine driving the poem that is not the writer. A rhythm, an image, an impulse, but not merely the writer’s will.
I would also say the poem is not done until it says more than you meant to say.
And everything has to be set up so that it rolls down the page seamlessly.
WRR: How about after the fact?
Well, I would still say that the poem has to say more than you meant it to say… I think it’s tough to edit for though. The matter is something that has to come in the process. John Gardner talks about it as “the vivid and continuous dream.” He talks about it for fiction. If something makes you realize you’re reading rather than experiencing the piece, then the dream is broken-and that’s a glitch. Something wrong with the piece. It’s true for a poem as well… If I have to stop then I’ve left the poem, really, and I don’t want that to happen to my reader.
I like poems that have a sense of play, yet still have a serious side-the difference between matter and material-matterbeing the word for the stories and images you’re using and material, the emotional core. I do like a sense of play. But I don’t like the play to totally obfuscate the core. I have to be able to get a foothold somewhere, have to be able to get in, and have a place to stand once I get there. Then I’ll be in a position to enjoy the play in the context of meaning. That’s crucial for me.
I tell my students 100 things, but right now I can’t think of anything else at all. They’d be astonished to hear that, I’m sure!
WRR: How about when you asked, “Can you dance to it?” I remember that rule…
Yes, can you dance to it. Well, yeah, I like the music. The really flat prosaic poems interest me less. It’s not that they don’t interest me. It’s just that they interest me less. Because then I have to really look at the dynamic of the traveling and the meaning. As opposed to being carried. It’s very different.
I definitely don’t like things that reek of competence. That’s a problem. If competence is so evident that you realize it’s competent before you realize what it’s about or what you might experience, that seems problematic to me. Problematic, anal-retentive, and boring. Of course there are exceptions to everything. But I do hate boring. Anal is easier to live with.
WRR: Like an over polished stone…
Yeah, I mean let’s just polish it down to dust, or kill it and pin it to a board! Beat it to death with decorum! Even if the meter is perfect and it makes perfect sense. Or when it’s infused with prose logic as opposed to a poetic logic, which relies on very different things. It’s easy to tell way too much in a poem.
I think people very often mistake their impulses. In the abstract, romantic notion, they want to be a poet, so they think their impulse to write is a poetic impulse. Very often they’re wrong. If being a poet is the issue, a writer’s in trouble. If making poems is the issue, you’ve got a better chance at doing something of interest.
I think a lot of the pseudo-autobiographical poems are prose impulses because the poem never gets bigger than the poet. It has to… by my definition… get bigger than the poet… to be a poem. Otherwise it’s prose. And prose broken into lines is… a kind of sad happening.
WRR: Although maybe some prose writers feel that the writing has to be bigger than the author as well?
And I think they do and I think it does. But, they’ve got a lot more room to play. I mean, we’re [poets] really working in a bell jar…
For instance, we’re working on some exercises in our MFA’s forthcoming residency on the issue of backstory. And I think that in a lot of poems there’s too much backstory. They’ve had something they wanted to tell. And the problem is if the thing that they wanted to tell is about themselves and they stand in front of the writing, I’m already bored. The poet stands behind the poem. The poem is the center of attention. I just want the poems to take me somewhere I haven’t been before, or at least show me a familiar place in a new light.
WRR: The other thing I remember you saying is “Stay away from too much light. There’s a bit too much light out there.” So, is the other impulse to try and capture a universal a bit too soon?
Boy! You were really listening! Maybe I should borrow your notes…
Well, that was a Tess Gallagher quote. She said that contemporary poetry was flat-footed and suffered from too much sunlight. And that there should be more shadow. It’s probably a bad paraphrase — it’s my rotten memory again-but I think that too. I think the difficulty for a lot of beginning writers is to know the difference between shadow, which is mystery, and the unanswered story questions, which are a whole different, logistical issue. But yeah, “flat-footed and suffering from too much sunlight”-that’s Tess Gallagher.
WRR: I’m going to switch gears a little. Emerson wrote that poetry is a confession of faith. Do you agree or disagree and why?
Well, those are two great big abstractions, confession and faith. I guess it is a confession. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a public confession. I could get off on a real toot about this, but I think too often confession is equated with art. Art is not confession for me. Was it Ad Reinhardt that said, “Art is art. Everything else is everything else?” I think so. I guess my point is that we’re not as interesting as we think we are. Confession is confession. Art is art.
I do have faith, though, that the act of writing will help me articulate what I don’t already know about myself. I think a lot of people misconstrue the meaning of risk in poetry. Risk isn’t telling your story. Risk is finding something new out that happened to you because of the story.
WRR: And maybe faith in the powerful ways that writing can help you connect with others and larger meanings?
Yes, and that usually happens the smaller you write. You know, the more microscopic. As soon as you go to the macroscopic and the large generalizations and the abstractions you’re probably going to run into problems and maybe sound like a pompous ass as well. And I’ve been known to do that. Actually I love abstractions. But they’re dangerous. There’s always that aspect. To get to the large, you go through the small.
WRR: How have you experienced teaching poetry?
Oh, I’ve learned a lot. I am forced to push my intuitions and insights further, to articulate what needs to be tightened, arranged, deleted, and just plain fixed in poems so that students can understand me. I love it. I’ve got the best job in the world. Hate the grading thing, though. Luckily, our MFA program is Pass/Fail.
WRR: Can writing good poetry be taught?
Talent can’t be taught, but craft can and should be taught. Because the talent can and usually does let you down sooner or later. And when you run into that pothole in your poem where something sucks or is loose or just plain wrong, you’ve got to know how to locate it, identify it, and fix it and that’s where craft comes in. Like a tool box. Quite handy.
WRR: What are you working on right now?
Well, in October, I spent the month at Vermont Studio Center trying to finish my second novel. I almost made it. I’d been poking at this novel since I completed the first one-over twenty years ago. Anyway, I almost finished it. I write lyrical novels, poets’ novels, I guess. Not just novels with musical prose, but novels of a somewhat different shape and agenda. Let’s say they’re situational rather than plot-driven.
My first novel, Someplace Like This, was first person, present tense. Please kill me if I try to do that again. But this one, Wing Theory, is third person, present, with three point-of-view characters. Quite a change. It has the same geographical arc the first one had, a spread of experience between the East and West Coasts. This one has to do with an artist’s past, her confinement in the assembly center at Tanforan, and later at Topaz in what can only be called a concentration camp for Japanese Americans.
As soon as I turn my grades in, I’m going to finish it up and send it off to my agent. I’m going to do a little, not-so-demure happy dance. Then, I’m going back to the poetry book I deserted to finish the novel. If I can remember how to write a poem.