The poet Jack Ridl is professor emeritus at Hope College, my alma mater. In my time as a teacher (in public schools, in academia, and now in the corporate world), he has been my gold standard for teaching. Every day I have a "What Would Jack Do?" moment. As I said in a previous post, this is my enduring memory of being a student of Jack's in one of his creative writing classes:
Each week for homework we wrote a poem to share with the class. I have to think, looking back, that we were awful. Collectively we were only slighter better than a Hallmark card. After each of us would read our poem aloud, Jack would chime in with his thoughts. I can still picture him now: he would sit back in his chair, take a deep breath, look up to the ceiling, and stroke his red beard. Somehow--somehow--he found something good to say about each of our poems. And it was absolutely genuine. He believed in the goodness of our writing. When I taught in both the public school and university settings, my personality and skill as a teacher was a collection of the traits of my best teachers. And while I do not have a red beard, Jack's ability to see the value in every piece of student writing always stuck with me (of course, many of his other traits stayed with me as well).
Jack Ridl’s newest collection, Losing Season (September 2009, CavanKerry Press), chronicles a year of hope and defeat on and off the basketball court in a small town. It's a fantastic read, and a unique one, too: it's a series of poems that tells the story of one season of a high school boys basketball team. So it's a narrative told through poems. All the cast of characters is featured, from the coach to his daughter to his players to the scoreboard operator. You can read one of the poems here. Jack was recently named one of the 100 most influential sports educators in America by the Institute for International Sport. Jack grew up around sports; his father was the legendary Pitt basketball coach, Buzz Ridl. (More about Losing Season here.)
I have long advocated that if you want to know how to use language—that is, if you want to see how words matter in your writing, whether you are a poet, a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, whatever—you should read poetry. A good poet says more about an image in one line than most of us say in ten pages. In a poem, every word, every sound, every breath counts. Nothing goes to waste.
Jack’s awareness of his process and his language is what you would expect from a poet. Yet his answers are effortless to read. They just—and I hate to use this word because it’s so nebulous—flow. Why? Because he is a poet all the time. Pay attention to the rhythm and cadence of his sentences. Even his prose is poetic (he writes I’ve instead of I have, for example). Listen to Jack tell you that, even though he lives on the beach, he never writes there. He also thrives on rejection. And his advice when you get writer’s block: lower your standards.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I don't know that I ever actually wanted to be a writer. I came in to this poetry stuff through a side door. I wanted to be a songwriter, wanted to kick Paul Simon off the charts. I wrote songs for Fifi Lee, whose brother is the poet Li-Young Lee. Li-Young was around 8 years old at the time. Then Fifi got married and put her singing career on hold. I thought well, I'll just shift over to writing poems. Nothin' to it. And all I need is a pen/pencil and some paper. I was introduced to the poet Paul Zimmer and asked him if he'd take a look at my poems and help me out. He took a look at my poems and said, "I think we had better start over." I learned right then and there that there was more to this poetry stuff than I certainly thought. Paul told me that he'd tell me when he thought I'd written a poem. Three plus years later he said, "This. What you've written here is a poem." I should likely say that I actually did want to be a poet, but for reasons that don't really exist. Now if I'd ask myself if I want to be a writer/poet, I'd say no. But I'll always be grateful for all the wonderful people and moments that have come my way because I wrote/write.
Talk about your writing process. Do you have a regular routine?
No regular routine. The last thing I need in my life is one more grind. If the writing doesn't bring something nourishing, especially in these times, I'm not going to bother with it. I grew up as a coach's son. I know what it means to work and work and work and end up never wanting to do it ever again. Besides, I never want writing a poem to usurp the responsibilities that I should attend to. The world doesn't need and never has needed a poem from this guy. My wife, daughter, family, friends, etc: I need to attend to their worlds.
I'm often misunderstood in two ways: One, some think that I'm opposed to those who have a regular routine, who sit down and "go to work." Not at all. I completely respect that. I'm unable psychically to do that. Second, some misunderstand and think I'm saying this is not something to take seriously and/or that I'm just blowing it off. Nope. I would trust that spending all that time with Paul Zimmer is evidence that I have enormous respect for poetry and the ways poetry can enrich our lives.
So then, what is my process? I react, respond. I turn anything into a title and then trust that something will emerge on the page triggered by that title.
So for example--
"Sitting Here Staring at My Computer Screen Talking to Ben on a Hot May Afternoon"
First line: I wonder if the pansies will wilt in this heat?
How do you revise your poems?
I love to revise. I call it, and pardon the pretension here, re-visioning. I hold off revision as editing as long as possible. The poem on the page leads to more triggers for things that I can add, cut, move. I love lines, love moving them around to see what happens when they are located between different other lines. I love line breaks, how they can create, evoke, suggest, mean, surprise and more. I love how the musicality of one line interacts with that of another line. I love how a line in itself can do so much within the overall poem. And I love how maddening the choices are. Just think of the difference between W. C. Williams ending "So Much Depends" with those chickens and ending with the rainwater! It's a whole different world, whole different aesthetic, whole different experience. I love that.
I write in long hand at first. Then I go to the computer and the first shifts start to happen. After I get the poem where it's working, I take it to two people, two terrific poets (Greg Rappleye and Jane Bach) who respond. Then I go to it again. And the interesting thing is that I often don't see an effective change until a poem gets rejected. Why? I don't know. Maybe the disappointment of rejection makes me care more for the poem, makes me want to help it become what IT wants to become. Maybe that's one of the only ways I get kicked out of the poem's way, have what I WANT to say give way to what the poem wants to BE. I wonder.
Are there any quirky parts of your writing process that help you write?
I love this stuff. Ellen Bryant Voigt told me that all these things are never needed but are necessary. I know what she means. As a ball player, I know why you tap the bat four times before stepping into the batter's box. Most call this a superstition. I don't think it is. I think it's something that shifts the psyche into the place it's meant to be. So yeah, a certain pen, blank book, comfortable chair, ragged shirt and comfortable socks, all that stuff creates something like integration. Whew, heavy. And I've a chair that looks out a window down the creek behind our house. At the same time, I developed a way to write that enables me to start writing anytime. Kind of like Frank O'Hara saying something like he better know he can write on a Manhattan bus at rush hour. I always asked my students what their "writing quirks" were. I loved learning them. Can you believe that one said, "I have to have the TV on." WOW!
What do you do when you get writer's block? What advice would you give people who have it?
I think William Stafford was right when he said, "Lower your standards." We so easily self-sabotage. I've never had writer's block. My standards are never high enough for that to happen. I've told students who have it to lower their standards, wear a hat, write nonsense, doodle, wear dress clothes, write for a kid, take on a persona, and best of all, don't write; go take a walk, get a pizza. Often people need to get re-charged, get filled up again. At Interlochen Arts Academy a year ago I gave my craft lecture on what to do when you are NOT writing. But the best is still, I think, "Lower your standards."
Assuming you still live on the beach, how does living there affect your writing process? Would you be a different writer if you lived in New York City, for example?
I never use the beach. I never want to be in any setting where I'm tempted to be inspired. Because of the process I use, it doesn't matter where I am. I don't think of something to write about. I let the subject find me and it always does. That doesn't mean I create a successful poem out of it, just that I can write. We live on four wooded acres at the foot of a dune with a creek running by and while it is a healing, comforting setting and I write, for example, when the dogs go romping in the stream, it's not a dependence; it of course can be a trigger leading to a response and a surprise. I always taught in the worst room on campus: basement, no outside light, awful. The students would always yelp at the start, "WHY do you always have us be in this horrible room???" I'd say, "Pretty soon you'll realize why." And they always did. It was one of the better things I did for them. (my note: yep)
Is exercise a part of your writing process? Do you find that it makes you more creative or
helps in your invention stage?
I should exercise more. Isn't that the American mantra today? But ya know, growing up a jock, man, I just burned out on all that. I walk the dog or dogs. Charlie, our dog now, brings me lots of subjects.
What are the two or three most valuable practical editing/revising tips you would give writers?
1. Move stuff around. Move lines around. Try different openings and closings
2. Try, when it's appropriate, to modify elements that go beyond description and lead to fresh perception for the reader. "An anonymous weekend."
3. Walk down a few lines to see if the poem begins later than you may have thought. Move up from the present closing to see if the poem closes at an earlier time or push past what you think is the closing to see if there's more surprise lurking beyond what feels like that seductive "click" closing.
For people who want to write clear, direct prose, what poets would you recommend they read? Yes, poets. I tell people that reading poetry will make them better writers, regardless of their genre.
I never offer writers to read in a general sense. I always studied my students' poems and then made recommendations of poets that would affirm them, some that would challenge them, some that would extend their visions, abilities, some that would simply be their friends.
Along those lines, how can reading poetry make anyone a better writer--scientists, attorneys, engineers?
That's a difficult one to respond to because it seems to me that reading poetry attentively ends up being internalized and therefore enriching anyone's writing. There is such a range of poetics out there that I would think that some would work and some would distract. I'm gonna be snide here and say that I'd hope reading poetry would make scientists, attorneys, and engineers more soulful. But I'd hope that for anyone, so I don't mean to say that those three need poetry's help!!!! In fact, I've terrific friends who are attorneys, scientists, and engineers and they write fine fine poems and I'm just getting myself into a mess here. It's a bit like when a student asked if I thought poets should be politically active in their poems. I said, "No. They should be politically active in their lives."
Why is poetry so important--why should more people be reading it?
Because it's the only way to have in one's life what poetry can bring. There is no other way to have your life enriched in this way. There is no other access to what poetry has access to. Same with jazz, dance, painting, a tree, a lovingly cooked meal. Lots of things. Poetry has access to something nothing else has access to.
Let's talk about your latest work "A Losing Season." What was the impetus for writing this?
I started it over 25 years ago. It was important for me to become a poet separate from my father's world. (My father was a very successful basketball coach). So I ignored or avoided this material until I'd made my own way. After that, I saw all the riches in this world I'd grown up in. It was time to explore it, time to honor it.
One of the things that struck me when reading the collection is that it must have been hard to make the spoken passages from the characters poetic, to make them flow with your words. In other words, when the characters talk, their words are someone else's, not the narrator's.
What a wonderful observation, Ben. And I don't know how I did that. I've always been a mimic. You should hear my Brando! And I do voices of poets and thought of doing them in public until, duh, I realized that most people don't know who these poets are so they wouldn't know who in the world I was impersonating! I could hear the voices of these people in the poems, wrote down what they said, felt their cadences, and then tried to make them work with the cadences of lines, the timing of line breaks, etc. I'm glad you feel it worked. I'm never sure.
What is the most poetic of sports, and why?
So many say baseball and they go off on the pastoral thing. Baseball is not pastoral, not if you've ever played it, truly played it. It's existential as hell, it's reactive (The ball causes everything), it's full of grit and high spikes, and 97 mph fastballs, and embarrassment, and short-lived success. It's mostly failure actually. So, maybe it IS baseball, but not as pastoral. Football? I don't think so. Basketball is jazz improvisation so maybe it comes close.
But I bet it's golf. Yep, I bet it's golf that's the most poetic of sports--you have to learn how to shoot the next shot because every shot is different; you have to master the elements; even if you've mastered the elements, you don't know if you'll shoot par; par itself is improbable for most; you have to respond to the outside world you are playing in; you have to blot out the bystanders; you have to cope with the utter absurdity of hitting a little ball with a stick and somehow getting it to plop into a hole; you have to be honest; you are all by yourself; you have to keep going to next hole even if you've quadruple bogeyed the last hole; you have to constantly adjust and re-adjust; and if you lift a trophy, the next time out you may not make the cut. Oh, and you have to keep coming back, coming back, coming back never knowing for sure if this time . . .
Visit Jack’s website at www.ridl.com