getting to know john ronan and his new book taking the train of singularity south from midtown
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I remember wanting to write - always, anything. One of my earliest memories is of reading the Chicago Tribune comics with my father: Pogo, Prince Valiant, Dick Tracy…. I started a Dick Tracy novel when I was six. In the words of Dylan Thomas, “I tumbled for words at once.” The turn to poetry was a gradual process, through exposure to nursery rhymes and through high school, college, reading Thomas and Frost and Auden… The joy of writing poetry matched and then passed that of prose and….I was better at it. Gave up prose, mostly, though I’ve done a good deal of journalism over the years.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I do. I write every morning for about three hours and sometimes it is wonderful and deep, sometimes tedious, unproductive. But as Tim O’Brien once told me, “You have to put in the butt time.” And I believe that. A writer has to sit down to the job and be ready when (if) the lightning strikes. The schedule extends to the afternoon, too, for a couple of hours, but that is usually secretarial work: mail and email, submissions, correspondence, lining up readings….
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
I like your list. My answer is: “Yes.” I can think of poems coming from all of those sources. It doesn’t really seem there’s a majority from any type of source. The subconscious toils away and when something is about to pop up into awareness, anything can trigger that process. Photographs at the Museum of Modern Art once prompted a poem, the Boston Marathon another, riding the One train in NYC, a meal, drinks, funerals…they are always fertile, of course.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Names pop up: Yeats and Heaney. Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, Linda Pastan. Kooser and Collins. Derek Mahon, William Meredith. On the other side of the fence: Welty, Marquez, Camus, Elmore Leonard. More and more I re-read books, even individual poems, go back again and again, say, to Bishop’s “The Moose” or Derek Mahon’s “A Garage in County Cork.” I really believe the most important tool a poet has is recognizing what doesn’t work, throwing it out, and going back at the problem again. Reading (poetry or prose, plays) creates that sense.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book?
The key to the book, naturally, is the title poem: “Taking the Train of Singularity South from Midtown.” I have often had, on subways, trains, and planes a sensation of not having to go anywhere anymore; I am already there, everywhere, among my fellow brothers and sisters, rich and diverse humanity. Most powerfully, that has been a sensation in New York City, riding – in reality and symbolically - the One train. The bulk of the book is about that sensation in other places, other moods.
To give a little background, I’ll risk repeating myself a bit.
Love and language create community, an idea more crucial in America today than it has been in many decades. It is the theme of the book. There is little confessional self-reference – or only when I couldn’t help it. During a term as poet laureate in Gloucester, MA, a commitment to civic poetry - a poetry of place and witness - grew strong. By civic poetry, I mean poems written for the public on community topics. I mean poetry accessible to an attentive, general audience. And since it is often meant to be read in public, I mean poetry that relies heavily on sound and familiar forms: rhyming tricks, assonance, consonance, regular rhythms, refrains, the workhorse sonnet... And of course, civic poetry, like all poetry, is insightful and fresh, never talks down.
Some fine civic poems have been written for inaugurations. Sadly, there have been only six, counting James Dickey’s work, read at an event the evening of Carter’s inauguration. I keep in mind two lines from Miller Williams’s “Of History and Hope,” read January 20, 1997:
“We mean to be the people we meant to be,
To keep on going where we meant to go.”
The book’s development was straightforward process: sorting out the best I’d done the last few years, pulling what didn’t fit the – recognizing what didn’t work. Then, going back and forth with editors and friends on the poems’ strengths, weaknesses, their placement.
Watch John read from Taking the Train of Singularity South From Midtown