Margaret Ronda is the author of two books of poetry, Personification (Saturnalia Books, 2010) and For Hunger (Saturnalia, 2018), and a critical study, Remainders: American Poetry at Nature's End (Stanford University Press, 2018). She lives in Davis, CA.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The process of writing my first book, Personification, changed me in many ways, some that remain mysterious. The book took shape during the Iraq War years, and I was seeking language and forms that might grapple with the everyday barbarism and bewilderment of that time—allegory and personification were my ways forward there. At the same time, I was developing a meditation practice, and was learning to approach poetry-writing as a kindred training of the mind, an opening of space that is both intimate and impersonal. Having the book enter the world meant giving it over to others, relinquishing it, which was a great gift. My second book, For Hunger, emerged from a very different space. It was a meditation on loss and gain and care-work, drawing on elegy and calendar poems.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Many years ago in my elementary school classroom in Boulder, CO, we had a lesson from the wonderful eco-poet and great spirit Jack Collom, who often worked with schoolchildren in the area. We did an acrostic poem about birds. Following his suggestion, I started keeping poetry notebooks. I loved rhyme and concrete poems. I think poetry seemed to me then like a private language that could organize experience in both fun and serious ways. And somehow I was drawn, even then, to the line, as a distinctive unit of thought and play.
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’m a slow writer of poems. Sometimes there’s a good deal of research that has preceded them; sometimes there’s just the time of thinking and rethinking, unweaving and making again. I do like wandering in the dark with a poem, not knowing where it will lead.
4 - Where does a poem 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?
A poem usually begins for me with silence, the kind you listen to. Sometimes there’s a shape I know in advance that I’m writing toward, or a form I’m working into, or a tone I want to play with. Mostly I follow a phrase. I don’t know the structure of the whole book until very late in the process.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
The strangeness of what happens when a poem is voiced—it’s a risk, a venture, a leap. How closely you have to listen, to attend. Whether listening or reading my own work aloud, that space has been immeasurably important to me as a writer.
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?
At some level, every poem emerges from and dwells in the antagonisms of our lives within late capitalism, in whatever loud or quiet, resistant, repressed, complicit, angry or sorrowful way. Climate crisis, inequality, dispossession, the everyday violence of the state—it’s the world we make and struggle in, in and against which we create forms of care and love and made things. I don’t think poetry resolves social questions or conflicts. It can be there with these questions, perhaps posing them in distinct ways. In terms of questions my poems ask: I think they are interested in the ways consciousness is distinct from the psychological or personal. It’s a question that comes from Marx and Lukacs but also myth, folktale, allegory, and it threads through so many of the writing I most admire.
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 the role of the writer is to provide imaginative templates for perception, imagination, sociality, interiority. Also for ways of listening differently.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve been fortunate to work with Henry Israeli at Saturnalia Books for my two books. Henry cares immensely about the books he brings out, and he was wonderfully generous with my writing. I have some dear friends whom I trust completely with questions of editing and deeper rethinking of the work.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My partner’s (now late) grandmother, the marvelous fiction writer and memoirist Paula Fox, wrote her own prose every morning, no exceptions or interruptions. She had a fierce, untiring discipline about writing that is a life’s model.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Both critical prose and poetry are “languages of inquiry,” in Lyn Hejinian’s indelible phrase, and I suspect I turn from one mode to another as a way of deepening an inquiry, exploring different valences or dimensions of thought. Sometimes I find I need to work through a certain critical question via a poem, or the other way around. When I’m really able to give time to both pursuits, it’s a great pleasure to move from crafting an argument to forming a poem, to puzzle through the different kinds of structures and forms they demand and enable.
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?
If I can wake up early enough on a given morning, there’s time to write a few lines. Like so many writers I know, the time of day in which many of my poems are immersed is that pre-dawn hour, with the particular dreamlike, irritable, bewildered, sometimes luminous forms of thinking that accompany it.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Walks. Most of what I’ve written, poetry and prose, finds a way forward in long walks. I moved a lot in the past ten years for work, and my second book of poems is imprinted with the plants, trees, creatures, built spaces, sounds of my neighborhoods in rural southwestern Ohio, the Berkeley hills, urban New Jersey, the Central Valley.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sagebrush—western canyon, desert, foothills.
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?
All of the above, in many entangled ways. Most recently the photography of Susan Derges, the weavings of Anni Albers, the multimedia work of Cauleen Smith, and the earth art of Nancy Holt have been particularly on my mind. And there’s nothing better than Prince, Robyn, Whitney Houston for truest inspiration and joy.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside your work?
Some of the poets who have sustained me most over the years: Adrienne Rich, Joanne Kyger, Gwendolyn Brooks, George Oppen, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Brenda Hillman, Lyn Hejinian, AimeCesaire, Bernadette Mayer, CD Wright, John Clare, Inger Christensen, Lorine Niedecker, Juliana Spahr. I read novels before sleep to aid with dreaming—Ursula LeGuin, Toni Cade Bambara, Herman Melville, George Eliot, Rachel Kushner have recently been in the mix. For work and life I read environmental history and theory and writings on anticapitalism and liberation struggles.
16. What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
(and probably never will)? Write a novel.
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?
Psychoanalyst or some kind of work with children. Or a baker.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Some obsession with the sounds and materials and energies of language kept propelling me forward, I suppose. And as a young poet, I was fortunate enough to work with a series of incredible teachers and mentors. All of them showed me brilliant, generous, committed examples of what a life dedicated to poetry looks like. Being in community with other writers, whether near or far-flung, has also been essential.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Sean Bonney’s Letters Against the Firmament, Stephanie Young’s Pet Sounds, Fred Moten’s All That Beauty, Bertolt Brecht’s Collected Poems, Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout, Anna Burns’ Milkman. Ash is the Purest White, Jia Zhangke – above all for the haunting imagery of the Chinese industrial hinterlands.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A book of critical prose on surplus population and poetry. Some strange epistolary poems and a slowly unfolding hybrid piece on Central Valley agriculture.