Welcome back for episode two of Line / Break, featuring poet, playwright, and Pulitzer Prize-finalist Sarah Ruhl. Sarah joins us to talk about the beauty of mentorship and how an idea finds its form as a poem or a play—and recites the very first poem she wrote (at age 6!).
We’re back next week with Hurston/Wright Legacy Award-winner Alison C. Rollins. Stay tuned!
Line / Break is a new interview series from Copper Canyon Press that goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We’re hungry to see poets on screen talking shop, answering questions, and taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. So we’re giving them a call, and bringing those conversations to you. New episodes, hosted by Director of Publicity Laura Buccieri, launch on Fridays this spring.
Laura (00:00): Hi everyone. I’m Laura Buccieri, the Director of Publicity at Copper Canyon Press. And I am coming to you live from Brooklyn. You are watching our new interview series Line / Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. I’ve always had the dream of seeing more poets represented on screen, talking shop, answering questions, and kind of taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. Working with these poets at the press has truly inspired me and challenged me. And it’s been a lot of fun. So in this series, I wanted to bring that spirit to you wherever you might be. Each season we will be bringing you episodes from different Copper Canyon Press poets. This episode, we are speaking with Sarah Ruhl. Sarah, thank you so much for being here. How’s your day going?
Sarah (00:56): Thanks for having me. My day’s going just fine.
Laura (00:59): Well, good.
Sarah (01:01): And all the better to be talking about poetry with you.
Laura (01:03): I love that. I know. It’s my saving grace. So I’d love if actually you could just do a quick intro of yourself.
Sarah (01:13): Sure, yeah.
Laura (01:14): If you could just say maybe your name, pronouns, where you live, most recent book you’ve published.
Sarah (01:21): Yep. My name is Sarah Ruhl. I live in Brooklyn most of the time. I most recently published 44 Poems For You with Copper Canyon Press. And I go by she, her, hers.
Laura (01:37): Thank you. I’m curious. How would you describe 44 Poems For You in a word or a sentence or a phrase? I love hearing how poets would describe their own work.
Sarah (01:54): They’re all poems of dedication and address, which is why I called them 44 Poems For You. I think the reader is the final person of address. So I think of the poem as kind of a circle for me to a specific person in my life usually, and then to the reader, and I suppose back to me in some way, once the reader has read it.
Laura (02:17): I love that. Well, that was quite eloquent. Thank you. I like that. So we’ve all kind of read interviews or at least I have that kind of open with the question, where did you find your start or what was your first job, or so on and so forth. But when it comes to poetry, I’d kind of say that, for me, at least everything can be traced back to that first moment of inspiration, kind of that first moment of seeing oneself represented in a phrase or a song or anything like that. I kind of wanted to open with a similar but different kind of question. Can you maybe tell me about the first time you saw yourself represented or the first time you kind of felt seen in a show, a film, a song, a poem, or kind of anything similar?
Sarah (03:07): Yep. I mean, I started writing poetry and short stories almost before I could write. My mother used to write down for me little poems, short stories, and… I was really a morbid child. I mean, I think when my grandma died, I wrote a poem about that, that rhyme.
Laura (03:30): What age are we talking?
Sarah (03:32): Like six.
Laura (03:35): Oh wow. Okay. Okay.
Sarah (03:40): But in terms of seeing myself in a poem, it’s such an interesting question. Remember, my father’s favorite poets were E.E. Cummings and Dylan Thomas, and he used to read those out loud to me or give me the books. I used to go through them and I love those poems, but I don’t think I saw myself in those poems. I remember being in a bookstore in high school, I grew up in Illinois. So the bookstore was probably in Evanston, Illinois. I remember coming across the poetry of Sharon Olds. I remember the cover. It was like a naked figure, two naked figures. I think it’s her book, The Living and The Dead (correction: The Dead and the Living). I remember seeing myself in those poems in a different way. The way she writes about being a woman, embodiment, all of the secretions, all of the flashy, all this stuff that you’re not going to see in a class, like in a Wordsworth poem, that was all there. I think that gave me a different kind of idea about voice and what could be told in a poem.
Laura (04:56): Oh, wow. So around that same time, you’d already been writing poetry or at least having your mom transcribe poems for you. So did that push you at all to write more… Did that get you more into poetry or was it just nice to be seen and nice to kind of read?
Sarah (05:17): It did. It made me write differently and it made me write, I think, more from the body.
Laura (05:30): Oh, interesting. Do you think that carries through to what you write today? Or do you think that that was more your kind of intro, your foray into writing poetry?
Sarah (05:44): I think it was a transition. It was a transition from childhood to adulthood in a way.
Laura (05:53): That’s fair.
Sarah (05:54): And in a way taking stock of the body as part of what it means to grow up. And when you grow up inside a female body, you have different ways of imagining the body. I mean, just for an example, I think I can recite to you my first poem that I wrote about my grandma’s death. It’s very rhymey. Let’s see if I can remember. Rhyme usually helps you remember things. It was like, grieve not when in the earth I’m laid for though my face will doubtless fade, my heart with you will always be. And in heaven we will meet one day, remember in a joyous rush, all our memories green and lush from being locked inside our hearts for the time we were apart.
Laura (06:40): My god. You had “lush” in a poem?
Sarah (06:45): Because lush, it was very rhymey, very disembodied, very Christian.
Laura (06:52): I mean… Go ahead.
Sarah (06:54): Anyway, I was raised Catholic.
Laura (06:56): Me too. And I feel like the, you said something about imagining the body. I feel like that was never something that I felt inclined to do. I felt was even something to do. Like imagining the body, it was just… To me, the body was just sort of something that happened, it was just there. I feel like imagining the body, imagining how it grows, how it can transition, all these different things it’s capable of is something that I have never thought of before. I feel like the Catholicness of it, for me, that you say the body and I automatically think the body of Christ. I automatically think-
Sarah (07:42): So screwed up.
Laura (07:42): Yeah. It’s a stagnant thing that’s just being given to us. You know what I mean? It’s like, yeah. I don’t know.
Sarah (07:51): In a way, imagining the body is such an odd phrase because we shouldn’t have to imagine the body. The body is, as you said, just sort of given to us and we are in it. Maybe I was a little dissociated from that. I was sick a lot as a kid. So maybe writing from the body to… Maybe reimagining the body is the first step before you can write from the body.
Laura (08:16): Oh, wow. Were you aware as a kid that being sick was something different that other kids weren’t sick? Yeah.
Sarah (08:27): Yeah. I was out of school a lot. I was probably out of school for about a month a year.
Laura (08:31): Oh, wow. Okay.
Sarah (08:34): Now I know… I mean, this is kind of not on topic, but you can always edit it out. Now I know it’s probably because I had celiac disease, which is an autoimmune thing that I didn’t know about then.
Laura (08:45): Oh, wow. Autoimmunes are the worst. I also have an autoimmune condition and it’s just like… It’s doctor’s way of saying, “We don’t know why. Just it happens.”
Sarah (08:57): Idiopathic.
Laura (08:58): Right. Exactly. Exactly. I know. I’m learning the doctors are more of just… I take their opinion with a grain of salt, in my opinion. Anyway, I’m going to take it back to writing. Not that medicalness isn’t poetry in and of itself. So I’m curious. You wrote from age six on, you’re still writing now, obviously you’re writing poetry. Was there a moment or could you take me back to that moment if there was one where you thought like, “Hey, maybe I’m a poet.” Did you have that kind of aha moment or was poetry just kind of something you kept coming back to?
Sarah (09:44): I always wanted to be a writer from a very young age and I never chose a genre. Or I kept changing them and I continue to go back and forth. But from a pretty young age, I wanted to be a writer of some kind. I think poetry presented itself most immediately to me. And then I started writing plays, which was more of a surprise in a way. Although, my mom’s an actress and I went to the theater all the time as a kid. And then essays started coming and then more poems started coming. So it seems like I tack like a little sailboat through different genres, depending on where I am in my life.
Laura (10:31): Is there a ping that goes off when you know which genre, some type of feeling or ideas supposed to go into, or do you write them in all the different ways and then you figure it out?
Sarah (10:43): I always know what genre and—
Laura (10:46): Wonderful.
Sarah (10:47): Yeah.
Laura (10:48): I love that.
Sarah (10:49): Is it a ping? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s a ping. I don’t know the sound of it, of knowing what genre it’s supposed to go. But I do think… I’ve been writing a lot of haiku during the quarantine and the thought it’s such a compressed form. It really only has room for one or two thoughts in it. So you kind of know, oh, that’s a haiku and not something else because it’s maybe one thought that leads to a second thought and that’s about it.
Laura (11:20): I wonder, was there a moment you thought… Maybe a different way of asking my second question is, was there a moment you thought, hey, maybe I could do this professionally, like writing professionally?
Sarah (11:36): I always wanted to do it professionally.
Laura (11:39): You always wanted to be a writer and you always wanted… I love that. I love that’s one track. I love it.
Sarah (11:44): So boring. But—
Laura (11:45): That’s not boring. That’s lovely.
Sarah (11:49): I never thought I’d make a living doing it. Never crossed my mind. I mean, I thought maybe I’d be a teacher and I’d write, and I’d write some poems. And it was sort of Paula Vogel, who my teacher at Brown, who was a playwright, who made me realize I could make a living writing plays. And that was a curious thought. I mean, that had really never occurred to me.
Laura (12:09): How did they make you realize it?
Sarah (12:13): I mean, Paula literally, she had her grad students over to her beautiful house in Cape Cod, and she sat us on the deck and we looked out at the ocean and she said, “Listen, this is what playwriting can buy. Look at this view”
Laura (12:27): Oh my god. You’re like, “Yes.”
Sarah (12:32): It can give you view. It can give you a view of the water. Who knew? And I think for a lot of people meeting a living writer, whether it’s a poet or a playwright, actually making their living (inaudible – technological error) moment, because you might always know you wanted to write. But because books kind of come without bodies into your life, it doesn’t occur to you that you can walk around and eat and go to the grocery store, and make this artifact. Or at least it didn’t occur to me before meeting a living writer in that way and becoming close with her.
Laura (13:11): No, I think that’s fair. And that’s like half the reason why I wanted to do this. I think it is important to realize the poet behind all the poems.
Sarah (13:22): Right. Was there a first time for you, who kind of said?
Laura (13:28): That’s a good question. I feel like for me, it wasn’t realizing that I could necessarily make a living as a writer, one, because I’m not doing that. But to make a living as working in publishing, I didn’t think, that didn’t ever occur to me before I went to grad school. I didn’t even really know all the different facets of publishing. You see the writer, you see the editor, you see the teacher. Those are the kind of three main things that you see. And then kind of when I went to grad school, I had Mark Bibbins as a teacher and John Freeman as a teacher, and they kind of opened me up to, “Hey, there are all of these different, you could be a publicist, you could work at a book distribution, you could work in so many different facets of the industry.” I think that was really eye-opening because I was like, “Wow, I can be around what I love, and buy groceries with that. I think that’s crazy.
Sarah (14:35): It is crazy. I mean, I remember telling a young friend who loves to read that there are jobs you can get… Why is my thing doing that? That there are jobs you can get where all you do is read. She was like, “What? Jobs that you can read? And that’s your job?” I was like, “Really. Yeah, there are.” I think there’s probably only one or two poets who actually make their living writing poems. I mean, most poets are teachers or do some other thing. It’s something I also love about the genre that there’s a kind of purity about that. When I think about Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift, and when he talks about poets being inside a gift economy, I kind of love that a poet doesn’t kind of sit down and think, “I have an idea that I’m going to pitch, that’s going to make me millions of dollars.” I mean, there’s none of that show business. Nothing like that intervenes. You just have a thought and you write a poem down, that’s it.
Laura (15:38): I feel like the poetry community is almost what I was drawn to before even poetry. And just the beauty that’s found within the poetry community, within poets, within indie publishers, within just all. I was so like, “Wow. These are the people I want to be surrounded by. There there’s such beauty in these people.” So even before the art form, yeah, I see that.
Sarah (16:09): When I was in graduate school, I went to Brown for playwriting. And luckily at Brown you’re in the… It’s a literary kind of department so you’re with other poets. So I spent most of my time eavesdropping on what the poets were saying.
Laura (16:26): Oh my god, what were they saying?
Sarah (16:27): Or I watch them. I would watch how they would pick up a glass or what color their walls were. This poet, Tracy Grinnell, who was there, and Mark Tardi, and just wonderful poets who became friends. So even then, I loved writing plays, but there was a part of me peering at what the other poets were doing.
Laura (17:02): I love that. I guess, I think we have time for one more question. So I’m going to go for it. Let’s see. I’m trying to think. I guess I’m kind of curious about this, so as a poet, as a playwright, as just a writer in general, you’re publishing these books that are out there away from you, you’ve let them go. The public can buy them and read them. You’re subject to complete strangers, basically reading and drawing conclusions about your work. So I’m curious, have any conclusions or kind of generalizations about your work surprised you? Or was there any type of, yeah, I guess, has any type of review or yeah, just conclusion kind of been like, “Wow, I didn’t know I wrote that,” or, “I didn’t see it that way”?
Sarah (17:57): I’m pretty careful not to read writing about my writing because it makes not want to write the next thing. I’m kind of a horse with blinders on as far as that goes.
Laura (18:10): I think that’s fair.
Sarah (18:12): I was reading this little book, a little beautiful book. I have it here. You have it.
Laura (18:20): Yeah. Let’s see it.
Sarah (18:22): The Clothing of Books.
Laura (18:24): No, I do not have this.
Sarah (18:25): It’s a wonderful little group of essays or a speech that Lahiri was giving. And it talks about a book as text, being this personal thing. Again, it sort of goes back to what we’re saying about embodiment. And then the book acquires clothing, like a cover. And then it’s revealed and the pride of that, but also the alienation of that. I do think… I mean, in the theater, there’s a live quality where what people think about my work is pretty in my face because I hear if they laugh or they don’t laugh. I hear the quality of their attention, I hear if they applaud or don’t. I hear all of that in the moment.
Sarah (19:17): Whereas with a book of poetry, I have no idea what readers are thinking unless they write to me. So sometimes, I got a letter recently and it went to my Yale mailbox, which I never check. It was about my book with Max Ritvo, Letters from Max. It was this beautiful letter and I didn’t get it until two years later. I loved getting that letter and loved knowing what that reader was thinking. So I really treasure all, I treasure those kinds of interactions with readers.
Laura (19:51): Yeah, I do too. Copper Canyon sends these little postcards in each book and you can actually send them back to the press. And we read those, in case anybody feels that we don’t, we read each one of those and they’re so beautiful. And we share them with the author usually. They’re just cool to hear directly from the reader. Anyway, I could say a lot about that, but I won’t. So I would love to close with maybe you reading a poem if possible.
Sarah (20:25): Yep.
Laura (20:26): Maybe reading a poem and maybe giving a shout out to a book that you’ve been reading that you’ve been loving and want to shine some light and love on. Is that possible?
Sarah (20:35): Absolutely. It happens to be Copper Canyon. So it’s The Essential Ruth Stone. I think it’s the perfect book to read during quarantine. The way she talks about poetry and how poems come to her resonates with me deeply. The font is very small and I’m going blind in middle age.
Laura (21:02): Oh, the body.
Sarah (21:04): I’m going to turn the light on. Watch this.
Laura (21:06): Turn it on.
Sarah (21:07): Be exciting.
Laura (21:08): Get comfortable.
Sarah (21:10): There we go.
Laura (21:12): It looks the same, but I’m glad it’s different for you.
Sarah (21:18): This poem by Ruth Stone is called “Green Apples.”
In August we carried the old horsehair mattress
To the back porch
And slept with our children in a row.
The wind came up the mountain into the orchard
Telling me something;
Saying something urgent.
I was happy.
The green apples fell on the sloping roof
And rattled down.
The wind was shaking me all night long;
Shaking me in my sleep
Like a definition of love,
Saying, this is the moment,
Laura (21:57): I love that. I actually read that poem. Instead of a prayer for our Thanksgiving meal, I read that poem. I just think it’s so beautiful.
Sarah (22:05): It really puts you right where you need to be in which is in the moment.
Laura (22:09): In the now. Yeah, exactly. Are we going to get to hear one from your book or no?
Sarah (22:14): Yeah. Why don’t I read one from my book in progress.
Laura (22:17): Yes. I would love that.
Sarah (22:19): Okay. Now I’m actually, I’m putting on the screen. So strange. It’s like on your face.
Laura (22:25): Technology.
Sarah (22:27): This is called, “What are We Folding When We are Folding Laundry in Quarantine.”
Standing four feet apart,
you take one edge of the sheet,
I take the other.
We walk towards one another
Like solemn campers folding a flag
in the early morning light.
But this is no flag.
This is where we love and sleep.
There was a time we forgot to do this –
to fold with and toward one another,
to make the edges clean together.
My grandmother might’ve said:
There’s always more laundry to do –
and that is a blessing
because it means you did more living
which means you get to do more cleaning.
We forgot for a while
that one large blanket
is too difficult for one chin to hold
and two hands to fold alone-
That there is more beauty
in the walking toward the fold,
and in the shared labor.
Laura (23:21): Oh, Sarah, I love that. You’ve done more living and therefore you can do more cleaning that, oh, that’s so good. I’m going to think of it now, I can’t do laundry ever again without thinking about that.
Sarah (23:34): Oh good. I mean, I have been doing a lot, a lot of laundry in quarantine.
Laura (23:37): Me too.
Sarah (23:37): So I had to make sense of that labor.
Laura (23:41): Oh my gosh. Making sense of the labor. I love that. Oh man. Well thank you so much. And thank you to everybody for listening. Thank you to Sarah for being such a great guest. We will see you next time and feel free to check out coppercanyonpress.org for the other episodes, more info about Sarah, about her books. And thank you, I hope you all stay well.