Turn Up the Heat: A Conversation with Ruth Danon —curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Ruth Danon’s fourth book of poetry, Turn Up the Heat, has just been published by Nirala Series.  Her previous books are Word Has It (Nirala Series 2018), Limitless Tiny Boat (BlazeVOX, 2015), Triangulation from a Known Point (North Star Line, 1990), a chapbook, Living with the Fireman (Ziesing Brothers, 1980), and a book of literary criticism, Work in the English Novel (Croom-Helm, 1985), which was reissued by Routledge in 2021. Her poetry has appeared in several anthologies., including Eternal Snow (Nirala, 2017), Resist Much, Obey Little (Spuyten Duyvil, 2017) Noon: An Anthology of Short Poems (Isobar Press, 2019). CAPS 20 Anthology (CAPS 2020), Stronger than Fear: Poems of Compassion, Empowerment and Social Justice (Cave Moon Press, 2022), and is forthcoming in the Poetry is Bread Anthology (Nirala Publications, 2023.) Her work was selected by Robert Creeley for Best AmericanPoetry, 2002.  Her poetry and prose have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Post Road, Versal, Mead,BOMB, the ParisReview, Fence, the Boston Review, 3rd Bed, Crayon, 2Horatio, Barrow Street, and many other publications in the U.S. and abroad. She has been a fellow at the Ragdale Foundation, the Corporation of Yaddo, the Ora Lerman Foundation, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. For 23 years she taught in the creative and expository writing programs that she directed for The School of Professional Studies at New York University and was founding Director of their Summer Intensive Creative Writing Workshop.   Those workshops ran from 1999 to 2016.  She is the founder of LIVE WRITING: A Project for the Reading, Writing, and Performance of Poetry, which has been operating since 2018.  Before the pandemic she curated the Spring Street Reading Series for Atlas Studios in Newburgh, New York. In 2021 she was co-curator of the Newburgh Literary Festival in Newburgh, NY and is currently one of the curators for the newly created Beacon LitFest, that took place in  June of 2023.  She lives in Beacon, NY and teaches through LIVE WRITING and New York Writer’s Workshop.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your new book, Turn Up the Heat, just launched from Nirala Publications. Can you tell us about the meaning of the title?

Ruth Danon: There are a number of ways to think about “meaning” in relation to the title. The truth is that I do hate and fear cold, literal and metaphorical. Beyond that I am fascinated by the way heat can both preserve life and destroy it. In my last book I quoted from Yuyutsu Sharma, fellow poet and my publisher, that “to be a poet you must burn your house down.” So to burn the house down you need to light a fire and let it get out of control. There is something about the paradox of intensity – necessary and risky – that seemed central to these poems. The figures of St Anthony of the Desert and Giordano Bruno suggest the paradoxes inherent in “turning up the heat.”  Finally, I think it’s risky to try to fix what poems are “about,” what they “mean.” If the reader is, in some profound sense, co-creator of “meaning “then the work needs to be multi-valent, and so open to many readings and possibilities. I’m always interested in the various “meanings” that readers arrive at. 

KMDTurn Up the Heat is a masterclass in structuring a book-length collection of poems. What advice do you have for poets who struggle to sequence work in the context of a larger collection?

RD: Thank you for asking this question. The structure is an aspect of this book that I take pleasure and pride in. The first thing I would say to any poet putting together a book is that each book is different. There is no one way.  As others have said, every book teaches you how to write itself. Certainly, I never think of structure in advance of the poems themselves. Structure emerges from the poems. Some books are organized thematically, some narratively, some musically. Some have multiple parts; some don’t. First collections are often just that – a collection. Some sequencing is obvious, or at least seems so. In my first book I had a series of poems called “Sensible Shoe.” Those poems were grouped together.  So, if you have a sequence, you can put those poems together – or not. In Word Has It, my last book before this one, I used a sequence of what I called “Word” poems (“Word” is a character) as forms of interruption or punctuation. In that book each of three sections had a series that worked in a slightly different way.

Once I had the poems and worked with my editor, David Groff, to understand what threads were there, I made some very specific decisions. I decided I wanted the reader to be surprised from one page to the next. I didn’t want poems to look the same one after another. Since the poems use a variety of forms, that seemed the obvious thing to do. I wanted the book to be continuous, so I decided against parts. Two observations came to me as I shuffled poems around – one. that Giordano Bruno and St. Anthony of Egypt would provide the spine for the book – two, that elements appearing early on would reappear in slightly different form later. So that gave me another clue – recursion would be an important element of the book’s structure.  That seemed to work with the way time operated in the poems and so I had no hesitation mixing up times or locations because wanted the reader to feel a sense of spiraling rather than of simply going forward in a linear way.

KMD:  I’m impressed by your ability to publish internationally. What has surprised you most as readers around the world encounter your work?

RD: It’s a lucky accident that I found myself with Nirala, an international press based in New Delhi, for the last book and this one. So, the first answer to your question is that I was surprised that they had such interest in my work. I don’t know how readers abroad experience my work, so I must plead ignorant about that. I am excited that on July 5 of this year I will be (or was) interviewed by a media company in India and after that I may learn more about how my books are being received there. I do hope that Nirala will take the book to international book fairs and that I will extend my reach in that way. So far my two experiences with Nirala have been very pleasurable and rewarding.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a poet, you are beloved as an educator. What has teaching opened up within your creative practice? 

RD:  I love teaching. I work only with adult students and have for most of my professional life since graduate school. I love working with people who have always wanted to write but who have held back for one reason or another. The relationship between my teaching and my writing is complex. In some ways they compete – am I writer or teacher? How to be both? I think that teaching, especially since I work with people for a long time, forces me to be attentive to the world, literary and otherwise, that I live in. I’m always looking for new ways of approaching language and writing. Students often want to write in “forms,” which for them, means sonnets and villanelles. So, when I introduce non-western or non-traditional ways of writing wonderful surprises occur for all of us. In Turn Up the Heat I include zuihitsu, an epistolary poem, a golden shovel, prose poems, poems that rhyme and poems that don’t. I feel that a contemporary writer has all of literary history available to play with.  I like to do that, and I encourage my students to do it as well. So, teaching makes me more open. Robert Creeley once told me, after I expressed surprise at his suggesting Longfellow as someone to read, that a poet must be “catholic” (small c, please) in taste. Teaching encourages openness and demands precision. I like to think that is what I bring to my work and that is what teaching has taught me.

KMD:  Will you share a writing prompt with us?

RD:  I have to confess that this question made me laugh out loud. I have been writing poems about spies and now I feel that I’m like those former spies who appears on television to discuss aspects of tradecraft. I do think of poets as spies, I guess. Anyway, to your question. The first thing I need to do is slightly alter the language of the question. I don’t do “prompts,” but I do offer “constraints.” “What,” asks dear reader,” is the difference?” To my mind “prompts” imply subject matter, while “constraints” provide experiential, linguistic, and formal rules that are meant to be broken by the writer. In other words, the constraints take the writer to a place of discovery not anticipated before the writing begins. In my classes the participants write under constraint in the presence of other writers and the observing but non-interfering other (namely me.) This idea comes from the work of the great British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott in an essay called “The Capacity to Be Alone.” Additionally, my constraint based improvisational methods are shaped by surrealism (“the unconscious is structured like a language”), Oulipo (“the writer is like the rat who builds the maze from which he must escape,”) as well as the aleatory practices of Jackson MacLow and John Cage (chance operations.) 

The best constraints include 1) some sort of physical experience that can be quite small 2) some sort ot structural rule and 3) some gathering of language. Given the “rules” writers are encouraged to break them. Harry Matthews, ( the important American Oulipean,) and I once had a huge  but very friendly argument about whether it was okay to break constraint. He said it was not okay. I said it is necessary.

So here is a simple constraint that will work with a group. (Individual work is different.)

Ask the participants to grab their notebooks and pens and walk to a place where they can share a view. The view does not need to be interesting or compelling or aesthetically pleasing. But the people need to share the view. Ask the writers to make a list of 10-15 items they see. These should be detailed phrases but not sentences. So not “a car” but “a red car with a dented fender.” Not “a plastic bag” but “a 

garbage bag hanging on one branch of a tree.” When the group has done 10-15 items (this should be timed so that the writers can’t think too much – 15 minutes maximum) ask them to return to their original places.

Now, give them a very ordinary phrase as a starting point – “yesterday” is fine as an example. Ask them to write a text (I never specify genre) in which they incorporate as much of the gathered language into a piece of 20 lines or sentences. Of course, they can use language other than what has been gathered. I always tell writers that there is no way to do it “wrong.” Whatever happens is of interest. I’m invested in process and I want my students to be as well.

After they have finished (25 minutes) have them read the pieces out loud. What will become very clear is that each person will create a projection of his/or her internal state. The writer will discover what it is he or she wants and needs to say. Even though the view is the same perceptions will be vastly different.

KMD:  What’s next?  What events, workshops and projects can we look forward to?
RD:   I’ll be doing as much for the book as I can over the next year. I will be finishing a memoir I’ve been working on for a long time. I’ve been saying “it’s almost done” for too long so now it’s time to actually finish. I’m starting a new round of Live Writing classes that will go through the summer and fall. I’ll be a curator for next year’s Beacon Literary Festival. The inaugural event this year was very successful, and we intend for next year’s to be as well. And of course I’ll be writing poems, because that keeps me happy.