Jack Ridl's latest collection is Losing Season from CavanKerry Press. The book explores life during a long, hard winter in a small town that is obsessed with its high-school basketball team's losing season. Ridl's previous full collection, Broken Symmetry, (Wayne State University Press) was co-recipient of The Society of Midland Authors award for best book of poetry published in 2006. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins chose his collection Against Elegies for The Center for Book Arts (NYC) Chapbook Award. He is also author of the chapbook, Outside the Center Ring, a collection of poems based on his childhood experience with the circus. Ridl is also co-author with Peter Schakel of Approaching Literature and of Approaching Poetry, both from Bedford/St. Martin's Press. In 2008 The Institute for International Sport named him one of the 100 most influential people in sports, and the Institute named Losing Season as best sports education book for 2009. The book has been featured on NPR’s “Only a Game,” “The Writers’ Almanac,” and “The Story.” Ridl, professor emeritus at Hope College where he founded the college’s Visiting Writers Series, has had more than sixty-five of his students go on to complete their MFA degrees and to publish nationally. Jack was twice awarded outstanding professor awards from the Hope College students. In 1996 The Carnegie Foundation named him Michigan Professor of the Year. You can connect with Jack at his web site.
At times like these, we should
sit down, maybe pet our dogs,
or listen to the way even Bach
left out notes. We should have
a sandwich, something light,
thick tomato slices, lettuce,
slather on the mayonnaise.
I wonder how fish let their
impulses settle in their cells.
Sit down. Just sit, there,
on that end of the couch. Let
your arm drape over the side.
Imagine the wind has come
through the window, has turned
itself into a garden monk who is
opening his sack, flicking his
bamboo fan in front of your face.
Let every word in the world
become a vireo. Let them
overrun the yard. We'll count
back into yesterday, the widower
knocking at the back door.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I started writing this one about ten years ago. It started with the title. Most of my poems start with some trigger, inner or outer. I then let something associate itself with that trigger. The trigger this time was something about the aggressive command often heard as a kid that puts an end to something. Then off I went in my usual way of thinking of such, of thinking of "that's enough" in a different way, even a comforting way.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
It's a bit hard to say because when I looked at the poem just now I saw some places that could be adjusted. There are lots of alternative possibilities here because it's that kind of poem where in one sense you could insert anything. "Let every word in the backyard / become a tulip." for example. Revision for me is not something where I do a different version of a poem and have the versions mount up to the ceiling. I change something, take a long look at it, keep it, discard it right on the computer. The usual time lapse between first draft and sending out a poem is about a month to six weeks. When the poem comes back rejected, that leads me to look further. I often find something to change, so rejection is a kind of prompt for a closer look. I didn't go to grad school and have never been in a workshop so I don't have that kind of experience of knowing exactly what to do with anything I've written.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do and I don't believe in inspiration. I've studied zen for more than forty years and this practice has enabled me to sustain what I guess I'd call a kind of inspired way of being in the world. Anything can inspire me, but I hasten to add that it's not inspiration in the common usage of being overcome or having a kind of higher consciousness experience. I probably work to have a lower consciousness experience! This poem is a pretty good example or embodiment of this. Our daughter when she was a little kid would always say about just about anything, "How can that be!" To this day she does. That's pretty much how I am as well. It's that kind of inspiration. After that, in the writing, no sweat and tears. I always say that I have enough of that stuff in my days. I don't want poetry to be just another thing to "Deal with, cope with." Nope. The "work" is a joy. It always rewards, brings realizations and surprises. I'm a basketball coach's son. You learn early that work is not tedium. It's a profound form of play, joy. You learn to play the game. I loved to practice. I'd practice all day. Same with poems. And it's not to be misunderstood as taking things lightly or just messing around or settling for. I love the revision part. It's practice. "Let's see if I can crossover dribble and hit a fadeaway."
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Well, I really don't know if it's in its final form. How would one know. Is the Mona Lisa "finished"? However, my techniques for hoping it's in a final form are:
1. Checking the effectiveness of the rhythms of the lines and how they work with one another.
2. Making sure any shifts or jolts in tone or focus or material are purposeful.
3. Checking to see the timing of the arrival of every single thing is right.
4. Reading the poem out loud.
5. Making sure the poem is not a "faulty lawn mower." When it starts up, it should keep mowing.
6. Cutting what needs to be cut. Adding what needs to be added.
7. Making sure that if there are any surprises, that they are not pretentious.
8. Deciding if the poem is a turtle crossing a highway.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I don't remember. I think it went through several rejections and then it found its home.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I'm not one to set a poem aside for years, months. I read all the time that this is what I should do. But I'm not smart enough to think that after a certain amount of time I'm suddenly going to have insights I didn't have from the start. What I do is take the poem to two other poets. We meet every three weeks or so and have them look at it. Then I'm kinda like the parent who tosses a kid into a swimming pool hoping the kid will swim or that the kid will get pulled out safely.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I'm so confused about the difference. Does that come from being in an English department for thirty-seven years? I guess my stumbling response is that I try to use facts in a fictional way. This poem is full of facts, but put together they form a fiction that I then hope becomes a fact.
Is this a narrative poem?
If narrative means story, then yes. I tend to think everything is or has a story. If narrative means "sequence of events" then I guess it fulfills that notion in that "this follows that." But the narrative is there to serve or create a lyrical experience.
At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?
I'm an old Presbyterian guy who grew up in a small town full of right and wrong so I would imagine that the moral, the ethical is embedded in the poem. But I am lousy at the good poem/bad poem argument. Students were always frustrated by my Tai Chi evasion of their question, "Is this poem any good?" I'd like to think that a "good" poem is one that brings out the best in us. But that certainly depends on the "us" who is reading the poem. So I'm trapped there. I do think there are bad poems. Those are the ones that deceive, obfuscate, lack Pound's sense of sincerity in the craft, hurt those who do not deserve to be hurt, cynically dismiss what may be keeping someone walking on. I guess I'm kind of like a parent saying to that poem, "Go to your room. Come out when you are ready to treat people with kindness."
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was reading the poems of Mary Ruefle, Bob Hicok, Heather Sellers, and James Schuyler.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
This may sound pretentious, but I try to write for the one who just might need the poem.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Yes, two wonderful poets always look at my poems and help me immeasurably. They are Jane Bach and Greg Rappleye. I hope everyone who loves poems gets to read theirs.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
In some ways it's more chatty and laid back. But I've written several that way. It feels so good to just sit back and let the breathing slow down and feel cheerful and feel like "It's okay to interrupt me. No. Nothing special, just writing a poem. Come on in. Grab something from the fridge. Let's hang out."
What is American about this poem?
What a wonderful question. I'm tempted to say everything is. There, I said it. At the same time it's difficult to discern anymore. We've had the blessing of having poems from so many eras and cultures come to us in the last number of years. I suppose it's a stereotype of an American poem, that "Hey, Dude, chill" side.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?