Saturday, April 23, 2011
"Poet Ruth Kramer Baden: A Writer from 'East of the Moon'”
Interview by Doug Holder
Ruth Kramer Baden is well into her 70’s, but is an emerging poet with her first poetry collection “East of the Moon” (Ibbetson Street Press). This book which was recently selected as a “Must Read” by the Massachusetts Book Award, is according to reviewer Barbara Bialick “a mythic narrative, storytelling, and busting with flavor beads… she takes the reader through life cycles of a mature woman—with the span of her first collection, it is obvious that her writing of this work was in the back of her mind for some time.” I talked with Baden on my Somerville Community Access TV show “ Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: So Ruth what took you so long?
Ruth Kramer Baden: Well I guess I succumbed to the myth that was thrown around when I was a young person. That was once you get married—you have children and you stay at home. I know Sylvia Plath was writing at 2 A.M. with two little children—but then she put her head in the oven. I felt like I had to devote myself to my husband and children. It wasn’t until the Feminist Revolution that I got the message that there is room for family but other things too. Yes there was love for the family but you had to fulfill your promise in the world as well. I started writing because of a teacher who inspired me in high school. I decided that I wanted to be a world famous writer, if not that, somewhere near that. So I went to college, and did what women of my generation did-- I got married and had children. I turned away completely from poetry and all the things I was thinking about in college. My husband didn’t want me to do anything that would interfere with my duties as a wife. I think I accepted that. That was your job—you didn’t think about your own needs.
DH: As Lois Ames, a confidante of both Sexton and Plath told me you were a revolutionary if you were a woman, and doing something outside the kitchen.
RB: I guess then I was a revolutionary. I took a writing seminar at the Radcliff Institute which was for “older women.” So there were some of us in our 30’s. (Laugh) I just got hooked, all I wanted to do was write, write, write. So I started writing poetry. And my dream was to publish. But somehow I didn’t think I was good enough. I didn’t know how to go about it. It was not like today when you can go on the internet and find all these publishers. I was very lucky to go to a reading at Porter Square Books to hear Kathleen Spivack read. She became my mentor and later I got my book published with her invaluable help.
DH: You were a lawyer—does this experience figure with your work?
RB: Yes I was a lawyer and I decided to retire at 70. The law did not inspire my work, but my teaching does. I teach at Brandeis University in a program for adult learners. It has been the greatest experience working with these people. They are seniors with a lot of life experience.
DH: What do you consider the traits of a good poetry teacher?
RB: In my own case I’m told that I communicate my passion for poetry. You really have to like and enjoy people. You should be able to explain in a very down-to-earth way about what you are talking about.
As far as Kathleen Spivack goes she had been a teacher many years ago when I was in my
30’s. When I saw she was reading in Porter Square ( Cambridge, Mass.), I also found out she helped her poetry students get published. I hooked up again with her. She was very encouraging. She made feel like I could become a published poet.
DH: Your poems seem to have a strong Jewish bent to them. Do you consider yourself a Jewish poet or a poet who is Jewish?
RB: I guess a poet who is Jewish. I didn’t realize that I have a decidedly Jewish slant. But now I realize it is true, many of my poems are imbued with Jewish Humanism. That is that they have a feel for the culture, the history, and what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust. Writing poetry is a way to find out who you are—where you came from.
Under The East River
What would you give to ride again
to Flatbush Avenue in the front subway car
wondering about the rails, why they meet
in the distance of the dark tunnel?
to climb the stairs up to the ozone-scented morning
holding your schoolbooks tight against your blue-sweatered
and stride under the arch of Erasmus Hall High School
where Desiderius, the bronzed Dutch scholar stands
with his tome eternally open to the same two pages
to throw a Lincoln penny into his book for luck
in passing all your tests, and you do
to have your luck follow you out into the copper afternoon
and to never doubt it will be with you forever?
What will you do when your luck slips clinking onto the
somewhere between Times Square and Coney Island
and you ride to and fro under the East River
while your reflection watches you from the soot-smeared
you know now you will never get off at the right stop
you will fail all your tests year after year
the rails will never meet.
What would you give to ride to Herald Square and see luck
wearing a faded Dodgers cap and his back-pack of tricks?
when he moves to the strap-hanger next to yours
when he sways with you
will you dare look straight into his cobalt eyes
and invite him to come home in the lowering afternoon
to lie with you, to love each other’s bones
until they meet in the tunnel of light?