Bin Ramke’s books include AERIAL (Omnidawn, 2012), TENDRIL (Omnidawn, 2007), MATTER (U of Iowa Press, 2004), AIRS, WATERS, PLACES (U of Iowa Press, 2001), and WAKE (U of Iowa Press, 1999). THEORY OF MIND: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS appeared from Omnidawn in 2009. Since 1984 he has taught at the University of Denver where he holds the Phipps Chair in English and is an Evans Professor, and where he edited the Denver Quarterly for seventeen years. He edited some eighty books of poems for the University of Georgia Press; he won the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1979. He lives with Linda Ramke and their son, Nicolas, and a schnoodle, Ollie.
“Much of my youth was spent in the bayous and marshes of the Texas-Louisiana border among many Cajun and German-immigrant relatives. When I moved to Colorado a quarter-century ago it was partly because of a need to move out of the south, but the effect of distance caused me to see regions and regionalisms as intense, energizing, agonizing necessities. Geography, geology, and the histories accrued by the residents, human and otherwise, are what poetry attempts to come to terms with, to provide terms (words and chronologies) for. Even though I never think of myself as writing ‘about’ either the festering humidity of the one region, or the desiccating aridity of the other, the phrases and intonations of the people who breathe those airs and who turn landscape into properties of region, they insist on asserting themselves.”
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
What changes the first book caused were gradual—I was teaching at a small college in south Georgia when Yale Press took the book, and I continued in that same place, teaching freshman composition five days a week, for another six years (I got a raise, though). The main change was a relief from the pressure I had felt to publish, to get work into print. Then the pressure I felt was to write a book which would make up for the failings of the previous.
My more recent work differs quite a lot from my earliest attempts, in my mind. I sort of lump the first four books into an experiment in autobiographical-geographical exploratory gesturing, some of it of some aesthetic interest, some less so. But with a volume called The Erotic Light of Gardens I began unhooking language from “experience” in a more interesting (to me) manner, and allowing the poem to be the place where I did the thinking and the ersatz-living. I stopped trying to be a reporter. But then two books later, in Wake, I think for the first time I allowed the poems to reflect how I thought (rather than present what I hoped others would think were interesting thoughts).
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to it out of mathematics—I was a mathematics major in college when I first began reading poetry. I was particularly intrigued by Wallace Stevens, intrigued by the range of things made out of words. But in fact my earliest attempts at poems were really imitations of Hart Crane, whom I was also studying at the time. I never thought I could write stories, and was never ambitious to write the Truth, that is, non-fiction. Looking back at it from across the decades, I suppose I did have some sense of poetry as the same sort of manipulation of symbols as mathematics was, but one I could do more readily, and more accurately.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I suppose starting takes no time at all, but then becomes a slow sort of development. I am going to combine questions here and note that for the past several books I have tended to have projects develop by writing short poems that I either combine into longer ones, or that begin a trajectory I follow for months or years. For instance, these days I am thinking about a number of people—Alan Turing, John Cage, and Edmond Jabès among them—who were born in 1912. Something about this centennial of their births makes me want to understand something of their various makings. But I doubt that the poetry that results from this thinking will actually point in obvious ways at these people themselves. But yes, I will keep taking notes and see where that takes me.
4 - Where does poetry usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
The process usually involves coming up several poems that seem afterward to share some motif or theme or structural similarity, and then I begin consciously following that trajectory—probably after I have accumulated thirty to fifty pages of work. So I work on a book from the middle.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
They are somewhat counter to my creative process, and yet I do enjoy doing readings. I do not like my voice and cringe when I hear it in recordings, yet the actual process of reading aloud does give me a kind of pleasure. But I write for the page, and take many of my clues from the look of letters and words on the page, at least as much as from the sounds they make. But the sounds I care about are not the sounds I speak, only the ones I hear when writing.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Those questions are no longer separable by me from the poems, the process of the poems. I am not so much hoping to answer questions as to find connections, follow connections, find where they lead.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think a writer—a person who makes things with words—should be aware of how words reveal the culture in small and large ways, and offer a (useful, beautiful, or at least interesting) version of that awareness to others. But I can only think about this in work itself, my own and others’. That is, when I see it happening I believe in a role for the writer, but when I try to separate the concept from the actual work I find myself saying banal truisms.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Oh certainly, both. The trouble for me is I tend to live with my attempts for a long time and come to see weakness and failure only gradually. To have failure pointed out abruptly is not merely painful but not terribly useful—I seem to need the time passing during which I come to understand my failures. But one doesn’t always have the time.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I am not much aware of advice. I don’t really believe in it. I believe in personal failure, lessons learned.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Not easy, but there are uses for prose, uses for different forms of thinking, and while poetry is by far the most “natural” mode of thought and exposition for me, I want to say those other things. I plan to attempt several essays very soon….but I do not expect it to be easy.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I write fragments, notes, phrases and words nearly constantly, certainly on average a page or more per day in a journal. And I suppose four or five times per week I type things, either reworking of material I have been working on or transcriptions from that note-taking. But none of this is planned or at a particular time of day. I like having coffee in the morning and taking notes from my current reading, and then returning to those beginnings at odd intervals throughout the day. But most useful writing gets done in the morning.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read. I read for that breathing in of language and idea, and I read for solace and because books surround me. But writing doesn’t much get stalled for me any more—it is just what I do, whether I do it well or badly.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Jasmine, gardenia—both plants which grew in my own yard and on the property of every relative I visited. And the smells of various cookings—browning of roux, for instance.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Yes to all of that—and mathematics in particular. I cannot do it, but I can read it. In fact I am deliberately moving away from a poetics arising directly from other poems. I read science and mathematics (preferably not popularizations but the sort of direct source stuff, see for instance arXiv. org, that I do not much understand but still find beautiful.)
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Lucretius (a kind of perfect writer to me); Beckett; various scriptures, Christian and otherwise. Barry Mazur’s website. The various writings of my students, current and former—this is a truth I came to realize only recently, how much they have influenced me over the years.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
An excellent question to which I have no answer, because there is so little I have done.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I suppose my “occupation” in the sense you mean is teacher—it is what I get paid to be. I fell into that, and it is what allowed me to do the writing. I simply cannot imagine myself doing anything else, although I would probably have done whatever was necessary.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
When my older brother was taking photography lessons from a certain retired Naval officer I wanted to be included. My parents told me he had his talent and mine was different, it was writing. I didn’t believe them, but I obeyed. Later I tried various visual arts, mathematics, etc. but I suppose the only thing I found consistent encouragement in was poetry.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last “great book”—The Death of Virgil, Hermann Broch. I suppose it is great in every sense of that word. The last great film was probably La Jetee, which I watched for the fifteenth or sixteenth time…
20 - What are you currently working on?
A group of poems, around thirty pages so far, with the title “The Inconceivable.” It includes those meditations on Turing, Cage, and Jabes, as well as other work arising from considerations of “the art of numbering and measuring exactly a thing whose existence cannot be conceived.”
12 or 20 (second series) questions;