Max Ritvo’s poems live with me long after I read them. I close my eyes and see a skeleton walking around town; I see mice infected with tumors; I see lovers who have turned into a buried bulb. The poems exist at the edge of life and death, and, from there, they celebrate the mind and love, all while dissecting cancer and laying it bare.
Ritvo’s first book, Four Reincarnations, is forthcoming this September from Milkweed Editions. In 2014, he was awarded the Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for his chapbook, AEONS. His poems have appeared or are upcoming in the New Yorker, POETRY, and as a Poem-a-Day for Poets.org.
Jean Valentine described Ritvo’s work as having a “playfully deep sense of wonder.” When Lucie Brock-Broido introduced his work for a Poet’s Sampler in the Boston Review, she said, “He risks the ridiculous. He courts the sublime… He can write the dreadful beautiful. He can make the unbeautiful humane.”
His prose and interviews are equally enchanting and have appeared or are forthcoming in the Huffington Post, Boston Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. His radio appearances include NPR’s Only Human and The Dr. Drew Podcast. He is a poetry editor at Parnassus: Poetry in Review and a teaching fellow at Columbia University.
This summer I had the good fortune of interviewing Ritvo about his writing process and his debut collection, Four Reincarnations.
[Sadly, Max Ritvo passed away on August 23, 2016, after this interview was completed. The Rumpus is grateful to be able to share this conversation with you. –Ed.]
The Rumpus: Did you begin writing before cancer? Do you have writing to compare to post-cancer writing?
Max Ritvo: I’ve written poetry since I was four years old with no break longer than a month. So, yes, I have plenty of pre-cancer poetry. But I got cancer when I was sixteen. Pre-cancer or post-cancer, juvenilia is juvenilia. It’s all verbose to the point of frippery, super angsty, and generously seasoned with obvious references to Greek mythology. I also did this thing where I tried to write persona poems as hoboes or creepy Edgar Allen Poe narrators. I think if sixteen-year-old me wrote a manifesto, he’d title it: Beauty of the Unhinged and Desperate. Sure, once I got cancer, I got to say I was dying. But I wasn’t any good at saying it.
After my diagnosis I started a project called Cancersong: An Autobiographical Liberetto. It was a collection of short stories and poems and the hook was that at the top of each page, I charted the medication I was on when I was writing. You could see how different chemotherapies, sleeping pills, anti-nausea pills, all influenced what I was writing.
I just dug up two stanzas to put side by side for you, one pre-cancer and one from Cancersong. The first one is about stage fright, and the second one is by far the most confessional poem in Cancersong. It was written minutes after my biopsy and diagnosis, under the influence of Propofol and Dialaudid. You’ll notice both poems are up to the same cringe-worthy tricks.
First, the stage-fright poem:
the receded Nile,
a partially exposed shipwreck,
bleached splintered masts,
bloated sapless corpses,
Then, the poem from Cancersong:
The sea rich with Hypodermic Porpoises
that leap and scatter across the ocean
The sea with kelp forests of stomach’s contents
long wavy tendrils of seducing, sashaying, mucous—
little bulging seeds of vomit
pinned to their collars
ornaments on the Christmas tree.
Rumpus: [Laughter] Well, I love both those stanzas and their frippery. What were some of the things, then, that marked a turning point for you as you became the writer you are now and wrote the poems in Four Reincarnations?
Ritvo: I went through a period of existential dread my sophomore year in college after I dumped my childhood sweetheart. That’s when I started writing really good work. Some of the poems in Four Reincarnations are from that time—the really dippy, berzerk ones about baboon orgies and haunted cities that existed before people.
I have always loved therapy, and used to (hilariously) believe you could talk yourself to a point of feeling peaceful and psychologically whole. My first real poems came from a real need for help—to be saved—and that desperate faith in language, combined with a brain that could barely string a sentence together. As Four Reincarnations continued to grow and develop, the poems got more controlled, a bit wiser, but I never really gave up the core belief that the poems could save me, that language was magical.
Rumpus: I love the word “magical” to describe Four Reincarnations. I like the word “surreal” too, but that carries all the weight and specificities of the French Surrealists. How did you come to the wilder images and conceits of your poems?
Ritvo: Ugh. French Surrealists. Ruining a perfectly good word. I think the word “surrealism” is tainted by the clinical and emotionally barren and arbitrary way the French Surrealists distorted reality. And how self-congratulatory they were. And what a sausage fest their little club was.
My artistic lineage starts with Van Gogh. I think he was the first confessional artist. He gave us the world recast in a cloud of his emotions. The world couldn’t look too real under the weight of all that soul.
So my imagery simply arises because something happens inside of me, and I need to convey it to the outside world. And saying, “I’m confused” somehow doesn’t express the specifics of the confusion as well as having a fish become its own tail because it swims in such tight circles. Or I have this need to tell my ex, “You stink for breaking up with me,” but it just is way more satisfying if I tell her that in the voice of a falling apart blanket. As strange as it sounds, the weird imagery is for the sake of increased accuracy. Emotional accuracy is just a higher priority for me.
Rumpus: Yes! I also think those moments are so successful in your poems because of how they are balanced. So, for instance, you follow this more surreal moment—“The aqueducts of the city of my language / clot with lather”—with direct, plain-spoken statements: “The world is bad / and I am bad.” Do you think about balance as you write? Are there writers who you look to for how they manage wildness and magic?
Ritvo: Yes, I think balance is very important. I’m going to talk about good taste, which makes me feel a bit silly. Especially when I have a poem in my book in which I poop over an enemy’s eyebrows to give him a unibrow. Or poonibrow, as it were. But I believe in being tasteful, in my own way. I want to challenge people but never frustrate them. I want any moment of hysteria to be tempered by a subsequent moment of intellection or honesty. I live for the brink, but not to go off the deep end.
In terms of sustaining this balance, this management of the magic, I don’t find myself immediately thinking of writers so much as visual artists. The way Schiele will put just a touch of banana yellow on the face of an otherwise all-puce portrait to keep your eye open. Or how perfectly meaty Pollock’s clumps get without ever seeming glutted. I think of a Raku glazed pot that’s all electric green but for a little pop of burnt rainbow floating like an island in the green sea.
My shrink calls it Doing and Undoing. If I do think of writers—and perhaps I should—I think of Berryman and Glück. They’re really masters of doing and undoing. They turn on themselves in their poems, line by line. Despair and comedy come in lightning succession, as if to neutralize what came before. But, in the end, it just makes what came before more vivid and real.
Rumpus: Do you read other people’s writing about cancer or death? Does it change how you write?
Ritvo: I don’t like reading about cancer. My one exception is Suleika Jaouad, who is brilliant. But I think I can read Suleika because she and I are very close friends, and I’ve actually lived with her through a lot of what she writes about. I think my tendency, when I read about cancer, is to imagine myself going through the horrible cancer stuff, and that’s really triggering. But since I know Suleika, I can’t be that narcissistic with her writing—I actually see her, and I empathize with her, and can learn what she has to teach me.
Death art, I love. It’s my jams. But I like death art when it’s Sarah Ruhl or Jean Valentine or Nathaniel Mackey or (again) John Berryman and Louise Glück—somebody really swinging for the fences on the afterlife and existential questions and Despair. When I read great death art, I want to live up to it. I want to rush over to the pier’s end of my suffering and see what monsters lurk in the dark waters. In the past six months, this death art has pushed me to try to explicitly philosophize (or maybe pontificate) around death in my poems more.
Rumpus: Do you have a favorite poem or a favorite realization or philosophy about death that came out of writing?
Ritvo: I like my poem “Afternoon” a lot. It’s about how, when I get scared of dying, I feel a sensation like the one you get when you notice your wallet is missing. That hole where your wallet belongs sort of glows and feels empty. But instead of my wallet missing, it’s my body. And instead of that empty glow happening in my pant pocket, it happens across my entire body. Since when I die, my body will go missing.
But any “realization” I have about death is temporary and small. I don’t think there’s anything definitive to say about death. But it doesn’t stop me from trying!
Rumpus: Who and what are some of your favorite influences?
Ritvo: I just named some poets two questions ago. But Kafka is missing. I don’t think there’s a better writer or thinker in history. He taught me what brutality was, what comedy was, he showed me the insanity and poetry of our political world.
But honestly, writing isn’t the art form that moves me most. Music does. I wonder if it’s because I’m really distractible. If you get distracted when you’re reading, the text goes away—you lose your relationship with the art. But if your mind wanders when you’re listening to music, the music just fuses with whatever new thing it is you’re thinking. If you’re listening to an angry song and get into reverie about insulting someone you hate at a dinner party, the song becomes a music video you star in. Reading a poem is like being a guest in someone’s house, but listening to a song is like being in your own home with family who’ll let you rant.
Nina Simone is the artist I love most. She always sounds like she’s on the verge of breaking under her significance. And she sounds so naked and so controlled. Tom Waits is like a one-man cinema. He’s a poet too, but I hang on his every word, which I can’t say I do at poetry readings. Also, Radiohead speaks to me deeply—the way things thump and bump around in the dark corners of the imagination, and tiny little scraps of imagery float up through the black so close to your eye that you almost burn up.
Rumpus: Do you have desires about what your work accomplishes for a reader?
Ritvo: Of course. I want the reader to be entertained. I want them to laugh at some point and almost cry or even cry at another. I want them to have access to a chain of psychological states and thoughts that they couldn’t otherwise have. I want to loan them my soul and for them to have a damn good time wearing it.
Rumpus: I know we’ve talked about how we think the word “logic” belongs in the discussion of poems. Do you want to talk about the “logic” of your poems?
Ritvo: Sure! I think I started hinting at this when I said I want to give my readers access to thought chains. So I love philosophy. It’s much better than poetry at communicating most kinds of truths. If I want to learn about the mind, or about the world around me, Hume is my best bet. But my favorite philosopher, Wittgenstein, changed the way philosophy thinks about truth. Plato says if you want to know what love is, here are four bullet points. If you want to define piety, you need these three conditions met. And pretty much every philosopher after that just was picking their own bullet points and conditions to describe concepts like piety and love and truth and everything else.
But Wittgenstein realized that language doesn’t function like this. There can’t be one coherent and solid and complete definition of piety. There can’t even be one for chair. If you say, “A chair is a four legged object you sit on,” someone can reply, “Well, what about those wheelie chairs with eight legs?” And if you then say, “Well, it’s just something you sit on,” then someone can shoot back, “Well what about couches, are they chairs? What about the floor, is that a chair?” And on and on.
So Wittgenstein says, if you want to understand what a concept is, stop trying to bullet point it. Just use the concept, use the language, use the word over and over again, and all those different uses will add up to the meaning, even though any one of the times you use the word might contradict the way you use it another time. Language is a game that we play. And knowledge comes from playing it.
Well, poetry uses language in ways philosophy simply can’t. It can use the language of paradox, of self-contradiction, of negative capability. It can make itself understood by inference. It can progress via free-association and spiritual leap and emotional transfusion. Aren’t games supposed to be fun? As far as language games go, it doesn’t get more fun than poetry.
This is a very roundabout way of saying, when I tell you, “Sarah, I love the logic of your poem right now!” I’m telling you “I love the way you’re thinking.” A poem’s logic is not the poem’s ideas so much as it is the unique mental process that puts the ideas into motion. The best thing a poem can do is give you temporary Virtual Reality immersion in someone else’s brain. A poem with good logic is an entertaining and moving VR simulation.
Rumpus: I love how generous you are with the word “love.” And you have a ton of love poems in the book. And perhaps my favorite part of the book is how it continuously offers up beloveds for the reader. Can you talk about your relationship to love poems?
Ritvo: I love that you love that. And I love you. I guess the reasons I write poetry haven’t changed since I was a teenager. Poems are spells. And they’re spells for people, about people. A healing spell to save my friend’s life, a love spell to make my wife fall in love with me, an evil spell to kill my enemy.
I’m never more compelled as a reader, or listener, or watcher than when the art I’m taking in is about people and relationships. When you’re in high school, all you talk about is who you like like, and who is dating whom, and the person you hate because they scored better on the chemistry test and then humiliated you about it in front of your friends. And it’s totally engrossing. It’s just the most interesting thing on the planet. And we can pretend we outgrow that. But if we did, then why do we spend most of our adult lives still talking about people? Why do we watch sitcoms that are just people falling in and out of loves and hates?
We evolved to cooperate, and our brain built all these weird wires into us to get us to do it. Our pleasure is concatenated with other bodies, other human beings, in a way that it is with nothing else. And so, of course I write of love. I write to summon love, so I will get the girl in the end. I write to commemorate love, so that it will last forever. This is the ancient way poetry works.
Rumpus: The word “concatenated” is a new one for me! What a great word! Do you see pleasure concatenated with other things? What about illness? Can you make some chains for me?
Ritvo: Oh, dear. Yes. For the uninitiated, concatenation, in formal language theory, is when snow and ball become snowball. A muddling into new meaning. And, more generally, concatenation is chaining together of anything—events or voices or whatever. I think illness definitely concatenates with pleasure. My pain ropes in lovely opium. The bottom of my fatigue falls out into the sweet blank space of sleep.
And I’d love to make you some chains à la snowball. Maxhands. (They’re the best hands for back rubs.) Giddydeath. (It’s the surge from despair into giddiness that comes from contemplating something as final as death.) And there’s Sincerityirony. (It’s the way you regard something when you ironically problematize it due to a deep, sincere love of it in your core.)
Rumpus: Is there anything you’d suggest readers pair with Four Reincarnations? A particular drink? Another book? A tactile experience?
Ritvo: I don’t like drinks. But I’d recommend some herbal pairings: Headband, Platinum Girl Scout Cookies, or Blue Dream. And I think the book should be read only in very comfortable clothing. In sweat pants, or PJs, or—if you’re really gonna go for it—naked under a cashmere blanket. And I think musically the book goes down beautifully with Philip Glass’s opera trilogy: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten.
Author photograph © Ashley Woo.