We sat down with Lee Ann Roripaugh to ask her about life and poetry.
How did you hear about WISC?
I first learned about WISC through Facebook. Former WISC fellow Mariko Nagai had posted the call for applications, and so I came to the website and thought it sounded amazing.
How did you decide to become a poet?
My father is a writer. He writes fiction and poetry, and taught creative writing and Wester Literature at the University of Wyoming. I grew up surrounded by books, and by a love of books, and as a child I was always snooping and reading things I wasn’t supposed to: grown-up books, creative writing assignments from my father’s students, etc. I used to steal blue books for exams and make my own “books.” I went to an experimental University lab school, and so in the fifth grade, they let me start taking college courses in English and creative writing. Although I originally went to school to be a concert pianist, in my mid-twenties I returned to English and creative writing, possibly my “first loves”— leaving a Ph.D. program in musicology and applying for an M.F.A. program in creative writing, where I concentrated on poetry.
Who were your favorite teachers?
At Indiana University, I was lucky enough to study with Yusef Komunyakaa . He was very generous with me, and mentored me through several independent studies, before eventually directing my thesis after I joined the M.F.A. program in creative writing. Yusef was crucial to my development as a writer—particularly as a writer struggling to think through and write about mixed-race identity, and Yusef was also the one who introduced me to seminal Asian American poets. I also studied with Maura Stanton, David Wojahn, and Roger Mitchell, and took fiction coursework with Tony Ardizzone and Cornelia Nixon.
What role does teaching play in your life?
In the positive sense, talking about poetry and creative writing with my students, getting to have the privilege of mentoring their work, is replenishing and continually circulates an kind of electric, creative energy. I’m lucky enough to be able to work with so many talented and amazing writers, and it is such a positive and exciting experience!
At the same time, teaching is a huge professional, intellectual, and emotional commitment, and it takes a lot of energy. When you mentor someone else’s work, you are investing it with your own creative energies and this requires keen focus and discipline, and it can sometimes be difficult to find a healthy balance.
What is the current status of your project?
My project, Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50, is really close to being finished! I’m currently making final revisions and doing end-stage polishing, in preparation to turn it over to my editors at Milkweed Editions. Hopefully, will be coming out in 2018. I’ve also been using my time here to write my way toward/into a new poetry project, as well as do some work on some short fiction and essays.
I immediately noticed the lyricism and musical quality to your work. Can you talk about music? How music and poetry work or don’t work together?
For me, music and poetry are intimately connected. I tend to think of poems as a kind of spoken song. The performative aspect of a poem is important to me: the way a word, or words, sound when they’re spoken out loud, the sensual pleasure of how a word, or words, feel when you speak them out loud.
I also noticed a lot of nature and animal imagery. How does your relationship with the natural world appear in your work?
I’m completely obsessed with the natural world, and take a lot of inspiration from animals and insects. Nature is chock full of unlikely things that you couldn’t make up if you tried! I grew up around mountains, and it’s a landscape that I feel alternately haunted and inspired by—both beautiful, but also humbling/terrifying. I feel very lucky that my poetry has taken me to so many interesting places and landscapes.
What would you say to someone who said they couldn’t read poetry or didn’t understand it?
I would say that poetry doesn’t come with a magic secret decoder ring. When you feel that you need to understand or “get” poetry in a specific way, that’s the wrong entry point. Sometimes I tell my students to give themselves permission to really let poetry wash over them, like music. Experience and take pleasure in a poem first before trying to understand or interpret it. So, in other words, enter a poem experientially, first, and then you can begin to think about it—how you respond to it, the ways in which you might make meaning out of it, or the ways in which it might be resisting or eluding meaning. I also think that considering the types of aesthetic, or artistic choices that a poet is making in a particular poem can be very helpful, and can guide the way that a reader engages with a poem. A lyric narrative poem solicits a very different response than does a linguistically experimental poem, or a surrealist poem, etc.
What is or could be the “function” of poetry?
Maybe part of poetry is its functionless-ness! As an art form, poetry is the least commercially viable, in that poets aren’t making a living through royalties—which also means that poets aren’t beholden to, or are much less likely to approach their work as a commodifiable product. Its “uselessness” (in the sense of commercial, or capital) to my mind, potentially makes it an incredibly pure art form—one driven by the needs of art, as opposed to the needs of capital. Perhaps even the purest of the literary arts?
Narrative can sometimes be a very powerful poetic tool, particularly given the challenges of space and compression, and I’ve been drawn to narrative poems in my own work, perhaps because I write fiction as well. That said, I don’t feel exclusively tied to narrative in my poetry, nor do I feel that all poetry should be narrative. Like any aesthetic strategy, it’s a formal choice, and its effectiveness relies upon how well it engages with or reflects the content of a particular poem.
Top three (or 5) female poets.
Elizabeth Bishop because of her keen eye (her attentiveness to nature, landscape, animals), as well as the ways in which she makes language seem effortless.
Sylvia Plath because I think that her use of imagery, particularly with respect to simile and metaphor is virtuosic. I also admire the intensity of her voice.
Sei Shonagon, a Heian-period Japanese woman writer, from 10th-century Japan. She wrote The Pillow Book. Shonagon was also a colleague of Lady Murasaki who wrote the first extant novel, The Tale of Genji. I find it particularly inspiring as a woman writer to discover that women were such a crucial part of forming the groundwork of the Japanese literary canon.
Anne Carson because she is phenomenal and strange, and also such an intelligent poetic voice.
Confessional poetry gets a bad rap, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s also because confessional poetry is, more often than not, feminized. It strikes me that there’s a false binary between “universal” poetry (which is coded by default, as being white, male, hetero-normative) and confessional poetry (feminine, personal, transgressive).
What are you reading right now?
Max Ritvo, Four Reincarnations
Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, My rice tastes like the lake
Princess Shikishi, String of Beads
Hillary Gravendyk, Harm
Rosmarie Waldrop, Gap Gardening
What talent or skill would you like to have that you don’t have already?
I would like superpower of making extra hours in the day. It’s so easy to become over-committed!
Can you say something about balance?
I think finding balance is really hard. I’m constantly on a quest for better balance. When I speak to my women friends, many of whom are also writers, musicians, or artists, they all seem to have a similar struggle. A lot of it has to do with giving oneself permission to prioritize one’s own artwork, in a climate where women artists—even successful women artists—are not culturally entitled to do so. I think it’s still more difficult for women artists to claim this space than for male artists, and that doing so requires setting aside, clearing off, or ignoring not only cultural expectations, but also numerous forms of invisible labor: domestic, administrative, professional, emotional.