Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Poet Ruth Lepson: Poetry Is Music To Her Ears

( Painting by Celia Gilbert)

Poet Ruth Lepson: Poetry Is Music To Her Ears

Interview with Doug Holder

Poet Ruth Lepson is well aware there is music in the art of poetry. And probably this is why she is a good fit to be the Poet-in-Residence at the New England Conservatory of Music. She is an accomplished poet, with yet another new collection of poetry out from Blaze Vox books titled: “I Went Looking For You.” I talked with Lepson on my Somerville Community Access TV Show: “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: You had your first poetry collection published by Alice James Books that originated in Cambridge, Mass. Tell us what the organization was like back then?

Ruth Lepson: It was really a cooperative back in the 70's. It was started by a small group of writers who felt that women weren't getting enough play in the small press.

DH: How did you get involved?

RL: I had been living in Cambridge, but I moved to Ohio for a few years. So I sent them a manuscript. They took it. I came back and became part of the cooperative. It was very gratifying, because it was very hands on. We got to choose our covers, choose the typeface, etc...

DH: You were an editor at the now defunct Sojourner Magazine, and you edited "Poetry from Sojourner: A Feminist Anthology." It deals with poets from the second wave of feminism. What is the second wave--and when poetry and politics mix doesn't the work become more polemic?

RL: Yes, Sojourner is defunct now. I was one of the poetry editors. My friend Kathy Aguero was a poetry editor there at the time as well. The magazine folded about five years ago.

The really good poet can write about anything. A poem in the anthology by Adrienne Rich deals with Yom Kippur, a woman who is a lesbian, and Jewish. She wonders what it would be like to travel around and not feel oppressed and estranged. There were an enormous number of subjects written about in that anthology.

The second wave of feminism was more infused with sociological issues rather than just basic rights, like increase in wages. Everything was open for investigation.

DH: Do you consider your work innovative. What does innovative mean to you?

RL: My friend the poet Joel Sloman likes to tease me when I use the word "innovative" because he doesn't like to use the distinction. He feels good poetry is good poetry. There is kind of shorthand that I use. This is to differentiate between poets who write more lyric and narrative poetry and the people from the Black Mountain School. These were poets, like Language poets, who broke down syntax.

DH: I find the Language poets difficult to comprehend. How do you feel?

RL: I wouldn't be writing poetry now if they didn't exist. I think they really changed the language, and influenced poetry more than any other group in our time. It goes from Whitman to Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound to the Black Mountain Poets--to the Language Poets...on and on.

DH: But your new book of poetry is very accessible, and I always found the Language poet the opposite.

RL: I know. And I was surprised that Blaze Vox took it. They published my last book that was much more experimental. Maybe they are branching out. Some of the poems in my new book are very old, and traditional. It is selling well and got good reviews.

DH: You are a Poet in Residence at the New England Conservatory of Music. As we both know poetry has to have a musicality to it. How does this fit with your role as a poet and how do the music students respond? Is it a good fit?

RL: Yes, very much so. There are the classical musicians, the composers, the jazz composers, the singers. They take to it right away because of their complex sense of rhythms. I am learning all about rhythms all the time. Also they pick speech patterns right away. I talk about William Carlos Williams saying that writing poetry was like staying in one room and hearing people talk in the other. You can’t hear every word but you could hear the phrasing--and the students really got that. I talk about the instruments they play and how they produce effects. I talk about how you translate that to poetry. It really is the best place that I have ever taught. My students are all accomplished artists. They are disciplined, they know what art means, and they know why it is important.

DH: A lot of your poems take place in Swampscott, Mass. Why has this been an inspiration for you?

I used to spend a fair amount of time in Swampscott. I spent a couple of springs up there in the Poets in the Schools program.

DH: Tell us about the Poets in the Schools program.

RL: The poet Ruth Whitman started it in Massachusetts. She called up a bunch of us very informally and asked us if we wanted to teach. This was in 1974. The Mass. Council of the Arts took it over. I participated in it for 14 years.

DH: In your poem "These Trees" from your new collection you write:

after I've left
these trees
their insistent green humming
will shine
and all my emotions
will have been
just that

Is this a sad poem, bemoaning the transitory nature of life?

RL: I meant we project things on the environment. It is totally subjective. It will all continue to shine after we are gone.

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