getting to know scott ruescher and his new book waiting for the light to change
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I remember sitting in my basement bedroom, under the influence of marijuana, responding to a quote from Pascal—“Man is the animal that laughs.”— on a senior high-school English homework assignment, thrilled to realize that I could write down whatever I wanted. That creative freedom is the one I associate with the writing of poetry—coinciding with the dictum that poetry is for saying things you’re not allowed to say anywhere else. I won’t bother you with the story about the limerick I wrote for that same high school English class—the one about the man from Kentucky who lived in a holler with his dog named Foller; nor the one about the satirical doggerel I wrote in college at Ohio University before being redirected by a survey course from Stanley Plumly and the creative writing courses of Wayne Dodd and Norman Dubie. The first poem of my own creation that surprised me, that gave me a sense of discovery, “Scrapmetal,” was addressed to Henry Ford and indebted to the critique of commercial totalitarianism in Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving as much as it was, say, to the prosody of William Carlos Williams and others writing free verse in the American grain.
I continue to mine the social vein in my poems—using a machine that is remarkably similar to the coal mining machines my father, uncle, and grandfather made in their jobs at Jeffrey Manufacturing in Columbus—good mainly for scratching away at walls and dislodging big chunks of stuff. I began scratching away at the walls of the underground tunnel and hauling out chunks of black anthracite coal in lines that run out of me like coal in a motorized railcar.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I try to arrive at one of my favorite Harvard Square coffee shops—the patio at Peet’s is great, as are the second-floor lounges of Starbucks and Tatte Bakery— with my notebook and my laptop an hour or 90 minutes before work every weekday morning. Given my obsession with poems of place, especially historically or sociologically loaded places, I might circulate among all of my favorite geographic settings in a single session. My book includes poems set mainly in Memphis, Boston, Columbus, Central America, and Spain—all mixed together in each of the six sections (except for the entirely Hispanic final section) like a six-tiered lazy Susan. Over the course of a weekend I might get in three or four of these sessions of varying duration. After a couple dozen rounds, if I’m as lucky as the man from Kentucky, I will get the proportions of a poem right and it will feel as if it has written itself.
I draft new poems by hand in a journal—but more and more my poems seem to be splitting off from longer drafts of other things in process at the keyboard. That was the case with my 2009 chapbook, Sidewalk Tectonics, all six long poems of which evolved from a single three-page poem about a road-trip from Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky, to the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis.. Just recently a long one set in Hyden, Kentucky—“The picturesque seat of the second-poorest county/ In the nation at the time of the 1970 explosion/That killed 38 workers in the nearby Finley coal mine”—broke into three pieces, each of them seeminly destined to be its own poem of 40 or 50 lines. For the record, that former seismic event took place at a café in Johnson, Vermont, in a café near the Vermont Studio Center. I think the latter geologic event took place at a café in Pittsburgh during a recent road-trip with my wife, not before work in Harvard Square—but it may have happened at an organic AirBnb farm outside of Athens, Ohio.
I can’t decide whether these work habits resemble more those of a coal miner attempting to get the maximum number of chunks of coal into a rail car, those of a group of workers bolting and welding together the molded parts of a coal mining cutting machine, or those of a sheet metal fabricator or pressman bending to the specs on the blueprint just one piece of a larger machine.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
A friend pointed it out in passing one day that my more successful poems come from. juxtaposition—efforts to balance and bridge discrete subjects in one poem; attempts to reconcile contradictory conditions or eras; cracks at describing two concurrent activities.
I first tried this comparison-and-contrast strategy in a poem about the different connotations of the formal word “perhaps” and the informal “maybe” that doesn’t appear in my book. More recently this habit has resulted in at least one adventure in comic anachronism (“The King”—about a pre-Columbian hunter coming upon Graceland) and in several essentially narrative descriptions of cultural conflict, including “The Apology” (about an interaction with the current residents of the house my mother grew up in in Columbus); “Beneath the Tobin Bridge” (about the Charles Stuart murder case in Boston); “Across the Asphalt Avenue” (about the culturally polar activities I imagined happening in the JFK American Legion Post on Chestnut Hill Ave. in Brighton (and the Shim Gum Do Zen Martial Arts Center.
Amused, confused, and excited by these examples of cultural diversity, I liked describing the old-school Boston Irish guys playing cards in the brightly lit cellar of the JFK and the presumably more cosmopolitan young people practicing Tae Kwon Do in the Shim Gum Do. There’s additional historical tension in that the Zen Martial Arts Center is housed in a renovated Protestant church of some indeterminate domination. I suppose I should write next about the JFK American Legion Post being converted to a mosque since I wrote that poem, juxtaposing that to the secular hedonist hipster café down the street where a Syrian falafel shack used to be. After all, “it is a privilege to see so /much confusion,” as Marianne Moore wrote, and there’s some good coal for me to burn in them there hills—at the risk of emitting a lot of CO2.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Somewhere during the satirical doggerel phase of my late teens, I was introduced to the poetry of Walt Whitman. I thought I’d never dare to emulate or imitate him, for fear of making a complete fool of myself the way beatnik street poets of a certain age have done, and yet I’ve found ways to work up my own sort of litanies—lists of people in action, say, as in the catalog of footprints in “The Snow Angel,” the opening poem in my book; the list of potential Elvis impersonators in the poem “Double Album”; the list of Vietnam War veterans, perpetrators, and victims in “Tunnel Rat”; the list of interesting young women you might have known in Ohio during the late 60s and early 70s in “Perfect Memory”; and the Woody Guthrie-esque lists of American towns in “Anthem” and “Slow Dance” that serve as background to the intimately depicted action in the foreground.
I’m no longer ashamed to say that Allen Ginsberg has always been among my favorites too—“America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?”—and that I greatly admire the poetry of such heirs to the Whitman legacy as the late CK Williams and Galway Kinnell. I suppose there’s a literary lineage there in the long lines, the attention to the public and the social. My lines are long too—if not as long as theirs.
But I also feel a certain irresistible temptation to emulate Elizabeth Bishop in her descriptive and “painterly” belaboring of the obvious setting and the ordinary creatures or people in those intimately depicted foregrounds—and indeed my vaguely “blank verse” style of rolling poems down the page, albeit in lines of 13-15 syllables rather than seven or eight syllables, is more akin to her and to the iambic pentameter blank verse of Wordsworth and Frost than it is to Whitman. I love a talkative, disarmingly casual approach to big topics. My long sentences are not particularly declarative and oratorical. I try to accommodate the tangential through subordination and coordination, with as little loss of incantatory momentum as I can manage.
Plus I feel some kinship with living writers such as Tony Hoagland and Denise Duhamel—even if I’m nowhere near as funny or pithy as they are—and I’ve recently been enjoying books by Carol Moldow, Sherman Alexie, Mark Halliday, Patricia Smith, Marie Howe, Robert Hass, Major Jackson, Jennifer Rose, and James McMichael.
The list goes on. And Theodore Roethke is sometimes at the top of it.
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? etc.
Two years ago I asked Al Wigen, a student from the HGSE Arts in Ed program that I have administered for fifteen years, whether she would put her past editorial experience at Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis to work and help me put my poems in some sort of sensible order, making a publishable manuscript out of them. Though a veteran of the English department at Brown that tends toward the elliptical, she seemed to take well enough to my old-fashioned poems—guided, as I hope they sometimes are, by Galway Kinnell’s mandate, from The Book of Nightmares, to practice “tenderness toward existence” and to salvage what they can of experience.
I rolled Al a whole railcar of finished poems out of that coal-mine, mostly ones completed in the past several years of late-blooming inspiration, including a number of poems, such as “Memphis Bus Driver,” “At the Lorraine Motel,” “At the Intersection,” and “At the Birthplace of Lincoln,” inspired by or indirectly related to a road-trip to Memphis, but also some from previous periods of imaginative activity in Central Ohio, Boston, and Latin America. I’m not ashamed to say that these oldies but goodies from Ohio included a few poems, such as “Gold Mining,” and “To the Memory of a Bought-Out Farmer,” from as far back as the 1980s, as did a few Boston poems such as “Across the Asphalt Avenue,” “I Look into the Pothole,” and “The Cold Garage.”
A reader would not be wrong to infer by now that this book was a very long time coming. I came close to having my first full-length collection published in the early 1990s—but fell into a funk for a long time when that didn’t happen, only gradually, after the Memphis road-trip and a month at Vermont Studio Center, gaining my momentum and finding both my full voice and my richest seams of extractable anthracite coal—the kind that burns more purely, more hotly, with less smoke, less CO2, than bituminous coal from a strip mine.
Al recommended that I sequence my poems in sections of 20 pages or so—varying shorter poems and longer ones, poems set in the South and those set in Boston and Central Ohio, modulating the volume and showing the range of interests of the first-person “witness” who’s usually doing the intimate depictions in the foreground. She recommended that I avoid grouping the poems by place or concern but to mix it up judiciously, letting the recurring obsessions in the poems guide the manuscript—the prevalence of historical “ghosts,” the effort of the so-called “speaker” to make connections to other cultural demographics, and the interest in exploring setting in detailed narrative action.
In the title poem of Waiting for the Light to Change, I am stopped at a light with my mother in the “geography of nowhere” suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. There are juxtapositions all over the place—primarily the present-day “shopping malls and dealerships” overlaying the pastoral scene my mother remembers of “white picket fences/And streams that her senses perceived to be those that her senses caressed,/Flowing their way to forgetfulness.” There’s my curiosity about my mother’s distant past experiences—juxtaposed to her almost complete lack of interest in remembering much about them. I describe the tension in these contradictions and try to resolve them through conscious action of the conscience. It works, too, at least temporarily.
At the Intersection
I’d already begun to get those rushes of agape,
That feeling of unconditional love that Martin Luther King
Wrote about so eloquently in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”
For just about everything, and for just about everybody,
In the decidedly downbeat streets of Memphis that day.
Some came from the waving of children from the windows
Of their huge yellow school bus, others from the greeting
Of a skinny young trash collector who gave me the thumbs up
For no apparent reason as he dragged a plastic barrel
From the curb to the back of his wheezing garbage truck.
And I’d already resolved to maintain that mood all day
When I saw her coming my way, a teenaged mother
Crossing the street against the yellow caution light
With what I thought initially, even pre-meditatively,
Was a look of resignation on her lotion-polished face.
From less than a block away I saw a red bandanna keeping
Her pressed hair in place, a big pair of gold hoops
Dangling from her ears, and a pink pair of high-top sneakers
Lightening her step. In the battered early morning
She was pushing her sky-blue baby carriage up a block
Of cracked sidewalks, boarded-up buildings, and charred trees
That brought to mind the pictures of sordid life in Soweto
That had appeared with regularity in the papers in recent years.
More evidence, if I needed it, in addition to that
Of the ramshackle houses, garbage-gargling gutters,
And broken bus-stop benches, of an American apartheid
That we still had not repaired. Of a systematic failure
To keep the descendants of antebellum slaves from suffering
Indignities like they did in the squalid South African ghetto.
But now that I was closer, I saw her statuesque physique
Like that of some transplanted princess from her heritage
In some Senegalese, Ghanaian, or Cameroonian village.
I admired the bronzed beauty in her broad-nosed face,
The big brown butterscotch eyes that caught the sun’s fire
And the long loping stride that she used to cross that street
Without losing momentum on the progress of the baby carriage.
Heading home to her Section Eight apartment building,
She passed right by me in the white-striped crosswalk
In the black asphalt intersection, making my spirits rise
With the slightest trace of a smile, the merest recognition,
And just the hint of a wink that she might have offered me
With utter abandon if she had really wanted to
Before vanishing into her forbidden neighborhood.
Watch Scott read "Anthem" from Waiting for the Light to Change at a TED talk event at Harvard Graduate School of Education