Interview with

Ruth Lepson: National Poetry Month

We would like to learn a bit more about you. What do you most appreciate in life? What passions do you have outside of poetry? What things make you feel content and/or happy?

People are of course most important to me. The poor Earth. Animal rights. Various political causes. Everything is political. The ocean, walking, gardening. Jazz concerts; sometimes classical concerts.

Of course reading poetry, and it takes many years of reading to begin to put one’s poetry into a useful context. I loved recent trips to Spain, France, England, and Russia. The community of innovative poets. Looking at art, especially painting, and once in a while taking an art course.

Do your poems begin in observation? Do your poems typically have a catalyst of some kind?

Lately I write early in the morning and it’s no longer an image or a metaphor or a desire to express something psychological that gets me going; it’s sound as it creates meaning. It’s what happens in the act of writing itself. It’s where the words take me. It’s the existential questions, the ones with no answers.

Did you always believe in your work, even at an early stage?

I don’t know that I believe in my work in the usual sense. When I was young I studied music and thought I’d be a singer and composer, though the poetry took over. I knew was pretty good, not great, and though because poets I admire have been writing such laudatory notes about my new book I’m wondering if I’ve underrated my abilities. I never expected to do anything earth-shattering–what a term–I just needed to do it. Wanted to do it. Now my voice and rhythms are strong enough that I’m beginning to do something more effective with the music of poetry.

You have a book, ask anyone, published from Pressed Wafer earlier this year. What can you tell us about this book? Did you have a process for assembling poems for this collection?

My publisher, Bill Corbett of Pressed Wafer, moved from Boston to Brooklyn shortly after he accepted my book, so the book got put on hold while he made this and other transitions. This gave me time to revise the book, which made it stronger. I deleted and added poems, worked on sound & rhythm, worked on concision. I wondered if the collection would cohere because the diction varies, but people tell me the voice is strong so they experience it as held together through voice.

Can you remember exactly what sparked the fire for this collection?

There was no single spark. I just wrote and it was time to assemble another book. But my style had changed somewhat. This book is less personal, contains less figurative language, is more sound-driven and succinct than the others, except Morphology, which is a different kind of book altogether, which contains synaesthetic moments from dreams and photos to suggest relationships between dreaming and the waking life.

You teach poetry at the New England Conservatory of Music. Could you share a couple of common areas in which many of your students need improvement? In what ways have your students inspired you?

My students at NEC are accomplished musicians, so reading poetry with them is a pleasure and often they notice things I don’t. Of course I tell them about particular poets and movements in poetry and techniques but they get poetry quickly and think complexly. In the last decade I have been in two bands with former NEC students and have performed with them in NY and MA, lucky me. And collaborated with many others. This spring, for example, I’m making an album with NEC musicians.

What are you currently up to?

I am currently up to writing interviews!

Actually I’m promoting my book, teaching Contemporary American Poetry, starting an album and getting ready to collaborate with a composer as well. Giving readings from the new book. I see how much time it takes to promote oneself and have mixed feelings about it but I’m very happy that the book has been so well received.

Though I always gave readings and got published I didn’t push myself beyond a certain point. Now I’m going in another direction, not Emily Dickinson’s direction, for better or worse. I want to be out there more, and I hope the poetry is meaningful even to people who don’t live in the world of poetry.

Want some advice? Don’t be nice in your poems. Let the poem take you for a ride. Remember that poetry is a conversation, not a monologue. Read read read. Avoid jargon. Be merciless when it comes to technical aspects of the poem. Listen to poets read their poems. Your writing comes from your sensibility–keep improving your sensibility to the degree that you can. Think of the visual art and music that you love and try to translate something of their effects into your work. Don’t think too much. Avoid the academic and the pretentious. Don’t present yourself. Be yourself. Be playful.

And if you’re so inclined, read some literary theory and of course read the old poets as well as contemporaries and think about ways in which they’re changing the language.

Ruth Lepson is poet-in-residence at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Her books of poetry are Dreaming in Color, Morphology, I Went Looking for You, and ask anyone, and she edited Poetry from Sojourner: A Feminist Journal. Her poems have been published in well over a hundred journals and she has given many readings, mainly in the Northeast, but also in Barcelona and in St. Petersburg, Russia, and on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”