An Interview with Rusty Morrison
Mar 08, 2011
Colorado Review Associate Editor Felicia Zamora interviews Rusty Morrison, co-publisher of Omnidawn and winner of (among numerous other prizes) the 2004 Colorado Prize for Poetry for her collection Whethering. Two of Morrison’s new poems, “Inventions” and “Necessities,” appear in the soon-to-be-available spring 2011 issue of Colorado Review.
Felicia Zamora: In what atmosphere do you prefer to craft your poetry?
Rusty Morrison: I actually like changing my environment, and then watching how my internal atmosphere reconfigures in response to the external atmosphere. What’s most important to me is to bring my sensations of listening internally and externally into a state of loose and lively attention. I’m always excited about traveling because I’ve noticed that writing in new environments, in airports, in hotel rooms, can usefully disrupt the thought processes that normally take me into poems. I’ve been surprised by the new work that I’ve been able to find and then follow, when I’m traveling. At home, I tend to write in the morning, usually in the Omnidawn office, before the work of the day begins. But, if I’m up early enough, I also might just pull out my laptop and stay in bed to work there. I used to feel annoyed when something would disrupt my thought’s motion, like a ringing phone, but I’ve become more open to seeing how the serendipitous interruption can actually shake up what I’m doing in productive ways.
FZ: Your poems often reflect a genuine sojourn through voice. Do you find yourself journeying and discovering, personally as well as literally, as your poems unfold in your mind before they reach the page?
RM: I see my writing process as one in which I work to heighten the echo of resonance in the language, as the words become a sounding board for whatever energies are arriving, asking to be heard. I revise quite a lot. For me, the first ideas that I “feel” seem to have color/shape/ sound of energy/energies, but I don’t often see that the words I put down on the page have the flexibility to resonate fully with what that “something” might be that I’m feeling. As I work in the meditative state of re-vision, I think of it as finding words that most fully reverberate. I listen with my body as much as my mind. I actually feel a hum, a tingle, a difference in my skin, especially around my ears, when things are moving. I know that sounds odd, but I think the body knows in ways that support the poem’s deepest resonances.
FZ: In your poem “Inventions,” the voice offers itself over to the natural world. This offering leads to a confidence where the voice understands its own impact: “Tomorrow, I will walk more gingerly / among the all-sensing earth worms and all-seeing mud.” What influence does humanity’s role in the natural world have on your poetry?
RM: I find it hard to speak to “humanity’s role,” since we are living with such devastation, so much loss, so much that is irreparable, and it is too easy to fall into despair about what humanity has done to our planet. I imagine I try to write “with a closeness” to trees, insects, mud because I am made more alive to the world in that practice of writing, I am remade. I imagine that’s selfish, but in remaking my relationship to the natural world, I hope that I can live in more and more intelligent and intuitive ways to value it. I had to stop and think about the word you used: “confidence.” But when I look at its etymology in the dictionary, I think you’ve given me a good word to think about. I see that it comes from the Latin confīdere, which is made up of con- + fīdere to trust, akin to foedus; fidelity. So, I see now that it is a good word to describe what I want to do: to use the act of writing to find a more expressive, more insightful “with-ness” in my “fidelity” to nature.
FZ: In your poem “Necessities,” the voice grapples again with its place in the natural world. It is as if we are re-grounded by the mosses and not by our words, which “fill our lungs with the dust / we eventually will become.” Here we read a stunning recognition of all life’s connectivity. What is the importance of taking our cues as readers and writers from the natural world?
RM: I hope my last answer helps to give a sense of my thoughts here too. But I do want to add that I appreciate these two questions you’ve asked. You have asked about lines that continue to work upon me, and ask of me energies that then fuel new poems. I am continuing to write quite a bit about death, since my parents both died. I have found myself more amazed by the simplest acts of living, and how each motion of aliveness breathes with death…
FZ: In “Inventions,” subtleties in acknowledging the potential wisdoms of other natural entities speak loudly against a western philosophy of human-centered thought. Do you consider your poetry or parts of your poetry as ecopoetics?
RM: I read avidly many poets who have been placed in this category. Arthur Sze comes to my mind because I just heard him read at UC Berkeley. It was a stunningly wonderful reading! His poems are inspiring to me because of his way of mingling the familiar and the strange, the metaphysical and the physical, quantum physics and human culture. In reading his work, I feel inspired to listen more deeply, more widely, to have more compassion, to trust in the constant motion that is living. Also, there is a fine book that comes to my mind: Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction, which is a collection of essays edited by J. Scott Bryson. These two examples just happen to come to mind, though there are so many excellent poets and prose writers in this area.
FZ: “Inventions” and “Necessities” seem in direct conversation with each other. Are both poems part of a larger project? If yes, can you share the direction of this body of work?
RM: Yes, I’m writing a long series of these. I can’t really discuss it while I’m deeply in it. But I can say that I work in forms that come to me in the process of writing a first poem of a series. In this series, all Necessities poems begin with 4-line stanzas, then a 3-line stanza, then 2, then end with a 1-line stanza. And the Inventions begin in the space of first glimpse (the inspiration in an invention), or as a 1-line stanza, and follow on down to a 4-line stanza. In this way, what is necessary is drawn down to its essential. That is how I see it, but truly, a form will come to me organically, and then become the limitation that frees me to press beyond my usual thinking process.
FZ: Your poetry often returns to both the necessity for and caution of language. In your book Whethering, which won the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2004, you write “Here’s a word, / which can’t stand for other than itself.” Will you speak about this tangled reliance upon language as both instrument and inadequacy?
RM: I appreciate that you use the words “instrument” and “inadequacy,” since we humans are tool makers and create tools (instruments) to save ourselves from our perceived “inadequacies.” But, while each tool may put us more “in control,” it also leaves us more “at a distance” from our environment. So, too, with words… Each more succinct, more lyric description of world sets us farther apart from it. But this is such an enormous question you have asked… and so many poets and philosophers have spoken with such gorgeous honesty and irony on this dilemma… Bataille says we can never be like animals, who live in the world, in immanence, like water in water. We long for that union, but in articulating our longing, we only distance ourselves farther from that union. Our fear of death (and change, and all that is uncontrollable), too, is deeply interconnected with the desire in us to place words into the world, to use them to hold steady our meaning of world with language. How ironic is this!? Keats is the master I always am bowing to, whenever I write. And you are correct: this subject matter is endlessly compelling to me. I return over and over to Keats’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale.”
FZ: Whose poems do you pick up when you need rejuvenation and new perspective of the craft?
RM: I have so many poems that rejuvenate me. If I make a list, I will leave someone out. But I’ll trust that you’ll understand, this is just a short list… The poetry books on my writing table today are by Brenda Hillman, Elizabeth Robinson, Lisa Robertson, Donald Revell, Melissa Kwasny, Susan Howe. Every one of these writers is a guide and gift to me. There are so many more! But these are the books here, right now…
FZ: With all the distractions visible and invisible in a single life, how do you find time to make writing poetry a priority?
RM: I think I answered this in the first question… but I can add that I do try to grab every moment I can… A half hour here and there… I never thought I could work valuably for just a half hour, but I’ve found some fine things can happen under pressure. But I do try to take one morning, every week, and give it entirely to my writing. And I try to write a little bit at least five days out of seven. This keeps me in attunement. I can become horribly crabby and dull if I haven’t been stealing a half hour here and there throughout the week.
FZ: As a poet, I’m deeply curious about origins. When you first realized you were a poet, what were the circumstances, what were your thoughts, and what actions ensued?
RM: I thought of myself as a poet when I was still in grade school. But that’s because I was a lonely child. My parents were very troubled, and I lived a very reclusive life. I wrote to survive. But I gave up writing poetry for years… It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I realized I needed to try to “be a poet,” and so I took a sabbatical from being a high school teacher and went back for an MFA at Saint Mary’s College because I’d fallen in love with Brenda Hillman’s books, and she was there. That experience changed my life. But it took time. I graduated in 1999, and I didn’t win a book prize until 2004. But I just kept at it. And in that time, my husband and I started a press: Omnidawn Publishing. When I left high school teaching, I thought I was crazy. I gave up so much security. But I had realized that I couldn’t face myself if I didn’t try to live the life that my secret inner self wanted.
FZ: What one piece of advice would you offer to new poets?
RM: I wish I could give a good piece of advice that would be meaningful to every new poet who might read this. We are all so very different. The best advice I give myself is to notice when I am getting stuck in patterns of the past, and to keep opening myself to this very alive moment, as it is happening, moving, remaking me. I think I’d say that we are each “the poet of our own unique life writing the poem of that life.” Sometimes we are writing the poem on a page, and sometimes we are living the creative process that is our life. Whether on the page, or in a sensitive moment with a friend, or on a walk in the sun, anything can hasten an insight shift, if we are awake to it. I just keep asking myself: Am I bringing my “poetic attention” fully to my “life”? And I keep asking myself: Am I bringing my “life” fully into my “poetic attention”? The more often I ask, the more alive I find that I am to the motion that feels most valuable to me. When I feel despair about my failures and start berating myself for my stuckness or my laziness, I stop and say: OK, don’t waste time on that self attack! I pull out Charles Olson’s essays and just get moving again. That’s the advice I give myself.