An Interview with Mary Ruefle

Prior to the Wave Books reading on February 27th at this year’s AWP conference in Seattle, I had forgotten the depth of Mary Ruefle’s idiosyncrasies (Ruefle taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop during my time there). Sure, other poets may dress eccentrically or read their poems theatrically, but these external performances of artistic genius seemed contrived next to Ruefle’s genuine, no-nonsense nonsense. In Seattle, Ruefle took the stage carrying an antiquated hardback book and a large swath of ivory fabric. From the former she read one of her astonishing “erasure” poems (the book originally featured an oft-mentioned dog named “Loveliness” which after erasure became a lyrical horizon note). The latter turned out to be a fitted sheet, which Ruefle folded in a feat of numinous poetic performance. All of this was conducted without a shred of the contemporary fashion for irony or self-aware deprecation. And then she walked off the stage. 


Ruefle has published eleven books of poetry, most recently Trances of the Blast (Wave Books, 2013), reviewed here (, and has erased at least forty-five books. Ruefle does not own a computer; thus, this short interview was conducted by typewriter through the mails. A transcript follows.

Abramowitz interviews Ruefle

Rachel Abramowitz: In Madness, Rack, and Honey, you write, rather Wrightly, “I have wasted my life, I have wasted it gladly, remorsefully, willingly, and in full knowledge that there were many things that would not have been different, or would have been better off, had they been left unsaid.” You link this wastefulness to the concept of unhitching, taken from Claude Lévi-Strauss, which describes an apprehension of an existence, an expression of the world, above and beneath human activity. Are you still wasting your life? Is wasting your life a requisite to writing your poems?

Mary Ruefle: Yes I’m still wasting my life, and it does seem to be, for me, a personal requisite for writing my poems. No I think I mean “wasting time” (rather than wasting a life) and that this is the requisite thing, the wasting of time, the desire to have it be a rainy Sunday each and every day. Unless it is summer. The further north you live, the more of a special case summer becomes. I love the summer, and I write the fewest poems during those brief three months, often I write none at all.

RA: I particularly recall, as it seemed so creatively magical to me while you both were at Iowa, your friendship with Dean Young. Do your relationships with other poets, living or dead, shape your poems? With whom are you often in conversation in your writing?

MR: My relationships with other poets doesn’t shape my poems, the poems shape themselves, unless it is I don’t understand what you mean by the question. I cherish my friendships with other poets, they have been extremely important in my life, but I also cherish my friendships with a handful of others who neither write nor read poetry, for whom it means nothing, less than nothing, and these relations, too, have been important in my life. Loving poetry isn’t a prerequisite for friendship. A great many wonderful people have other interests.

RA: So many of your poems hover between earnestness and irony, between not-knowing and knowingness. Do you tend to err on the side of one or the other and revise toward balance? Or do you write with a mind and an ear for both?

MR: Some days I am feeling earnest, other days I am feeling ironic; much of the time others think I am being ironic others think I am earnest, and a little of the time I am being ironic others think I am earnest. The same goes for knowing and not knowing. Of course I write with a mind and an ear for balance, though it is not always possible, but but I don’t see what an ear for balance has to do with being ironic or earnest, it has to do with, um, syllables, doesn’t it, and syllables are neither earnest not ironic, they are just syllables. 

RA: Do you recall the first poem you ever wrote? Can you describe the impulse you had to write it? Has the quality of that impulse changed over your career?

MR: I remember one of the first, if not the first poem, I wrote. I was in school and it was an assignment– we had to write a Thanksgiving poem. Third or fourth grade. Mine got put on a bulletin board with large yellow and orange leaves cut out of construction paper, I remember those leaves as well as I remember the poem. I do think the quality of my impulse to write poems has changed, as I despise writing on demand; well, I despise it because I am not very good at it, have you noticed?

RA: Who and what are you reading now? Do you find yourself seeking out the newest of the new or do you generally revisit old book friends?

MR: I am reading Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen — about thirty years too late! And someone just gave me Neruda’s Book of Questions, which is right up my alley. And a novel by Bruce Chatwin, and the poems of Yiannis Ritsos, which I always go back to. And I’ve been looking at the photographs of Sarah Moon. I am not always so all over the place, but at the present time I am.

RA: Is there a poem out there in the world that you wish you had written? 

MR: There are hundreds of poems in the world I wish I had written! Every poem I ever loved!

RA: Is there a poem inside of you that you can’t bring yourself to write?

MR: No, I don’t think like that, I don’t think along the lines of “I want to write about this or that but I can’t.” Though sometimes there are poems I want to write but done, because I am too lazy. A poem have to have a particularly strong pull on my brain to get written. It didn’t used to be that way, I guess, but now I am interested in so many other things.