The Rumpus Interview with Terese Svoboda

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The epigraph to Terese Svoboda’s biography of Lola Ridge, the radical modernist poet, reads: “Let anything that burns you come out whether it be propaganda or not… I write about something that I feel intensely. How can you help writing about something you feel intensely?” Reading Anything That Burns You it becomes clear that this can be applied not only to Ridge, who writes poems in the name of the working class, lives off donations from friends, and throws whatever money she earned toward literary parties, but also to Svoboda, who writes about Ridge with a focused, passionate, and painstaking intensity. The result is a portrait not just of the poet, but of an entire era, an era when poetry was widely read and widely quoted, when it actually seemed to influence public discourse.

Svoboda, the recipient of a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship, grew up the eldest of nine children in a small-town in Nebraska. She’s published six books of fiction, five books of poetry, one memoir, and a book of translation, in addition to seeing her original opera staged in LA. Recent books include When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley, a collection of new and selected poetry, and the novel Tin God. She currently lives in New York City.

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The Rumpus: Lola Ridge—tell us briefly: who was she and why haven’t we heard of her?

Terese Svoboda: Lola Ridge (1874-1941) was a very prominent proletariat modernist poet, a movement that was buried under the anti-liberal, anti-female, and anti-experiment sentiments of the WWII period. Though she was good friends with William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, and Jean Toomer, Ridge’s legacy was not revived due, in part, to a continued critical disdain for political poetry. It also didn’t help that her executor, intending to write her biography for the last forty years, would not share her papers.

Rumpus: Can you talk more about this “critical disdain for political poetry”? Where did it come from?

Svoboda: When Ridge wrote her best work, mixing politics with poetry was considered part of the modernist search for new subjects and affirmed the radical potential of the modernist revolution. Perhaps the modernists were too successful, given the inroads of socialism in the 1930s. By the 1950s critics were saying that all social commentary belonged to journalism, and work that was not easily understood was Communist. By 1953, even the young Galway Kinnell stated: “Only meaning is truly interesting,” and “this explains why the so-called experimentalist schools are the most boring and imitative of all.” Such disdain was rooted in fear. According to Al Filreis, author of Counter-revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-60, the McCarthy Era made poets, “linguistic skulkers along meaning’s back alleys, trench-coated, bearing illegible sectarian messages, picking among the litter, and avoiding the light of clarity.” This suspicion of all but the most straightforward poetry lingered for decades, warping the practices of many late 20th century poets to the extent that most political poetry came from abroad, in translation. This, at last, is changing. We now have poets like Claudia Rankine, who is both experimental and political.

Rumpus: How did you discover Ridge’s work?

Svoboda: Five years ago, Robert Pinsky wrote about her in a Slate essay under the unlikely title of “Street Poet.” He was primarily lauding her amazing first book that chronicled the lives of the Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the 19th century. Looking at the piece now, I don’t understand what struck me so irresistibly about her work or person—except that she lived in my neighborhood a hundred years earlier. Nevertheless, I left some breathless wowie-zowie in the comments section; it was love at first sight.

Rumpus: You note that Ridge had lived in your neighborhood as an afterthought, but, in my experience, it’s precisely that personal connection to a writer or an artist that usually draws me in.

Svoboda: Probably all biographers acquire a list of strange confluences like these: Ridge spent her first four years in the company of kin who claimed to be descended from a race of Irish princes; I was an Irish princess, according to my mother, whose great-great grandmother ran off to America with a commoner. Ridge’s New Zealand childhood was spent in Hokitika, once home to a gold rush as big as San Francisco’s; my hometown in Nebraska was once the rip-roaring end of the Texas Trail, and boasted as many saloons as Hokitika, and the same Western storefronts. Ridge arrived in the US under the name of Sybill Robson; I too took an alias when I worked illegally in Canada. What’s more, as Nebraska is in some ways as exotic as New Zealand, I understood her struggle as an outsider beating on New York’s literary door. Traveling in the South Sudan for nearly a year, I lived with the Nuer, pastoral Nilotes who are born anarchists, and hold beliefs that echo hers: “There is no master and no servant in their society, but only equals who regard themselves as God’s noblest creation,” wrote anthropologist E. Evans Pritchard. Last year, rummaging around in my mother-in-law’s legacy, I even discovered that I own a print by Martin Lewis, one of Ridge’s best friends. So, yes, there are a number of strange personal connections—but I discovered most of them only after I’d begun work on the book.

Rumpus: Anything That Burns You is as much a portrait of modernist poets living in New York as a biography of Ridge. Was that your intent, or did the literary community hijack the biography as you worked?

Svoboda: Ridge’s contribution to American modernism was not solely poetic. As a sort of American Pound, the social aspects of her presence in the poetry world needed to be tracked just as much as the critical reception of her writing. She worked hard as an editor of two major modernist magazines and as an active salonniere to unite and inspire poets and critics on the issue of what was genuinely American poetry. This kept the flame of modernism going when it could easily have burned brightest in Europe. Also, since she is comparatively unknown today, it was important to show how respected she was by contemporaries who knew her work well. And lastly, in order to understand her more radical views on feminism and how her personal decisions derived from these ideas, I felt I had to show those of other women poets of her time.

Rumpus: It’s interesting you emphasize her American-ness when she was, in fact an immigrant: she moved to the US from New Zealand at age thirty-four.

Svoboda: Aren’t immigrants usually the most patriotic? After all, they actively choose to move to the country. When Ridge sailed from New Zealand, nationalism was at an all-time high. New Zealand had just decided not to join with Australia but to be its own nation. But its parochialism was stifling. Ridge emigrated to the US for its promise of freedom. Her disappointment with the reality did not dissuade her from trying to realize an American voice; in fact, such disappointment was part of that voice—it was what kept the country’s ideals fresh and relevant.

Rumpus: Ridge reinvented herself when she immigrated to the US: she changed her name, lied about her age and citizenship, denied motherhood, and told no one about the husband she’d abandoned back in New Zealand. Do you think this other, secret identity might be the reason she rarely wrote about her own life?

Svoboda: She considered writing a second semi-autobiographical book (the first being Sun-up and Other Poems) in a proposal to the Guggenheim. Over a period of several years she discarded the idea, gradually coming to believe that the more impersonal and far-reaching stance was the one that mattered most. In my opinion, this impulse to write more abstractly came not from a desire to cover up what could be called idiosyncratic responses to her own personal challenges, but rather from the desire to explicate the larger world—as Pound did in his Cantos and Williams in Paterson. I believe she wanted, in part, to project a strong worldview in order to counter the rising threat of fascism.

Rumpus: Do you think Ridge believed that her poetry—or any poetry—could in fact help to counter the rising threat of fascism?

Svoboda: Fascism always begins with voice, and voice was Ridge’s strongest weapon. It was what she had. Since poetry was still being read in the newspapers, Ridge’s hope to influence public opinion was not totally unfounded. Her poem on the wrongly-jailed activist Tom Mooney was widely circulated and kept his cause alive, even in Europe. In 1935 he was one of the four best-known Americans in Europe, after FDR, Lindbergh and Henry Ford.

Rumpus: I’ve thought and read a lot about what it meant to be a woman writer at another time in history, but I found myself shocked by some of the anti-female-intellectual rhetoric you document in the book. And yet, I couldn’t help wondering whether little but the rhetoric has changed.

Svoboda: Ridge’s emphatic statements in her lecture “Woman and the Creative Will” that women’s creativity is not naturally inferior to men’s sounds elementary, but seeing how many women are published, as compared to men, in today’s yearly VIDA count… Well, these numbers show that women’s creativity still isn’t considered on par with men’s. The assumption in Ridge’s time was that if art was made by a woman, a man had actually done the work—or that, when it came to creativity, a woman was the equivalent to an ape; an ape—not even Samuel Johnson’s dancing dog! But my own mother often assigned my accomplishments to my husband, I think because she herself was so frustrated as an artist.

Rumpus: Wow—that seems like a lot for you to carry. Can you talk more about your mother—both about her aspirations as an artist and how they maybe transferred to you?

Svoboda: My mother painted until she had her fifth child. She taught art history to women’s clubs, occasional art classes to my grade school, and organized painting excursions en plein air weekly. She painted my portrait while I stared at the TV. But the five children she bore…It was too many. After she stopped painting, she and my father still recited a lot of poetry, and her brother published a book of poetry when he was just beginning to teach at the university. I knew that much could be done. When I went further, she tried to discourage me. Envy? Or was she trying to protect me from that terrible defeat she herself experienced?

Rumpus: You’ve written across many genres, but this is your first biography. How did the experience of writing a biography differ from that of a novel, a memoir, or a collection of poems? What did the research process entail?

Svoboda: Writing a biography was an Oulipian challenge: every sentence had its footnote, and only the weight of evidence illuminated the life. It was invigorating to work within those constraints. I was unlucky in the research process with the executor holding back half of the archive, but lucky in that I had less of Ridge’s impenetrable writing to decipher. I was lucky also in having an invitation to speak in New Zealand the month I received a contract to write the biography. I wasted no time in hightailing it down to fascinating Hokitika where the mines are still visible and the storefronts still evoke the wildness of the gold rush 150 years earlier. Of course I made pilgrimages to Harvard and Yale and Columbia where traces of Lola remain in the modernists’ papers. It was especially fascinating to uncover the machinations of Matthew Josephson in her overthrow as American editor of the avant-garde literary magazine Broom.

Rumpus: There’s a tension running across the book between Ridge’s beliefs and her life: she has, as you say, “clearly defined theories about the education of children, but little love for their own”; she’s an anarchist who must encourage entrenched capitalists to fund her art; she champions the new in literature yet finds Stein’s work “missing substance.” What do you make of these apparent contradictions and inconsistencies?

Svoboda: The raison d’être for all Ridge’s actions was the exercise and the pursuit of freedom. Whether she had to leave her child in an orphanage, or court capitalists for funding or dismiss the judgments of her peers with regard to Stein, Ridge maintained her freedom. Modernism was founded on the idea of artistic freedom of subjects and styles, and, like Isadora Duncan, Ridge found ways to embed that belief in every aspect in her life. When assessing her contradictions, I considered the end results: she won time and money to write, and she certainly developed her own opinions about poetry. This was especially noticeable when she trashed seventeen of her peers in a Saturday Review piece in 1929. It was not the best career move but one she stood by.

Rumpus: What can writers—perhaps specifically women writers—learn from Ridge today?

Svoboda: As foremother to Grace Paley or Brenda Hillman’s activism, Ridge found ways to imbue her ideas on freedom in her life and her work. She stood up to the police horse at the Sacco and Vanzetti demonstration, an act she celebrated more than once in her poetry. We should not shirk from expressing ourselves about the contemporary political climate. It is possible now to see the connections between child-rearing and global warming and the rise of fascism and write beautifully about them. We should and we will. Some of us have.

Rumpus: I’d like to end with Ridge’s voice. Could you give us a taste of her at her best with a short poem or excerpt of a longer work?

Svoboda: I’m particularly taken with the wildness and startling honesty of the little girl’s voice in the title poem of Sun-up and Other Poems.

There is no one to play with
and the flies on the window
buzz and buzz…
…you can pull out their legs
and stick pins in their bodies
but still they buzz…
and mama says:
When Nero was a little boy
he caught flies on his mama’s window
and pulled out their legs
and stuck pins in their bodies
and nobody loved him.
Buzz, blue-bellied flies—
buzz, nasty black wheel
of mama’s machine—
you are the biggest fly of all—
you have the loudest buzz.
I hear you at dawn before the locusts.
But I like the picture of the Flood
and the little babies getting drowned….
If I were there I would save them,
but as I can’t save them
I like to watch them
getting drowned.


Deputy Interviews Editor Emma Winsor Wood is a poet and editor based in Santa Cruz, CA. She grew up in New York City and tweets anti-aphorisms. @emmawinsorwood. More from this author →