Ruth E. Walker
At a Spring Thaw retreat, one participant spent much of her time squirreled away in her room, papers spread across her bed, editor’s pen in hand. Poet and artist Ingrid Ruthig was completely focused on her manuscript and surfaced occasionally for meals and evening chats.
After the retreat, Ingrid continued to refine her manuscript. A poetry collection is meant to be far more than the sum of its parts. Not only does each poem have to stand on its own, but there needs to be an cohesive “whole” that pulls together the entire work and leaves readers changed.
As poet Emily Dickinson would have it: If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
Right on, Emily.
Eventually, Ingrid’s manuscript was accepted by Canadian publisher Fitzhenry & Whiteside. And the collection, This Being, was launched in 2016. And then, just last month, Ingrid was awarded the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. This League of Canadian Poets’ prize recognizes the best first book of poetry published in Canada, and This Being fits that bill completely.
We are thrilled for Ingrid. She’s an artist on many levels and brings an architect’s precision into everything she does: from curating collected works and shepherding insightful essays on Canadian poets, to designing exquisite chapbooks of her poetry and textwork, to preparing solo shows of her outstanding art — all of it, perfected before she releases it to the public.
So what drives a poet — this poet, in particular — to be committed to exactitude? And what happens to that clear direction when creativity pushes its inevitable way in? A recent interview on her publisher’s website intrigued us, so we’re sharing it with you today…
Congratulations, Ingrid. What was your initial reaction on hearing that your first collection of poetry,This Being, was awarded the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Memorial Award?
I punched the air and whoohoo’d! And I knew for a fact, then, that patience can pay off.
You worked many years as an architect and have written a fair deal of criticism. How has this affected your writing of poems?
It is all related, I suppose, but it’s not easy to measure or describe – it’s a way of thinking, of approaching the task at hand, which is to order and resolve something that is, at first glance or in a sense, chaotic. By inclination and training, I’m used to connecting dots – I notice things on a number of levels and begin to sort, align, or discard them, paying as much attention to detail as context. Then I set out in one direction, following clues, trying to keep sight of the big picture or the intended plan, hoping I will arrive at some kind of resolution. Sooner or later the creative process takes over, and I have to give in to it. Without that willingness to relinquish a measure of control, there would be no discovery. And it’s at this stage that writing poems veers away from kinship with raising a building off paper and up out of the ground. In architecture, surprises are usually costly and unhappy ones!
The opening poem in the collection is “Ten Mile Point”, which starts at a stop on a journey – Manitoulin Island – with car doors flung open and “water far as you can see.” But as you turn the reader back to land, with its gift shop and model tepee and our commercialized habits we’re led to something gently epiphanous, that we are somehow standing at a brink. Why did you choose this poem to start the collection? (Click here to see the poem Ten Mile Point.)
Although the poem was written much earlier than others in the collection, it seems even more timely now. It’s a recognition of the most important moment – always and ever the present moment, because we can’t go back and change what has passed, and the future is impossible to grasp. So, here we are, teetering on the edge of a precipice, surrounded by all this apparently endless beauty which also sustains us, but rather than pay attention, we let ourselves be distracted by the shiny stuff. The land’s continuance, and ours as well, hinges on the choices we make from here on in, individually and collectively. This piece set the right tone for what follows – an invitation to the reader to look around and see where we’re standing at this moment in time. To see how we change, and can change. Hopefully in time.
In terms of change and its possibilities, what can you tell us about the title, This Being?
A title, in my view, is like a key that unlocks the door of the book. This one rose slowly to the surface and insisted on staying put. Those two words brought together weave a mystery, and the meaning remains fluid. While it points at humans as beings, it also points to the act of being, of understanding we’re only able to exist in the present, and there’s no living in the past or future. So much about us, about our habits, doesn’t change. Nevertheless we remain fluid as we move from moment to moment. In fact, we’re always changing. And in those small, sometimes imperceptible alterations lies the possibility that we might yet become something better.
Is that the ultimate goal of poetry, to help us become something better?
W.H. Auden, who is quoted excessively from his tribute poem to Yeats, wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Of those who read poetry, many, including me, will disagree – it can strike a chord and resonate long after the book is closed; it reveals things we’ve become blind to; it settles or unsettles by mirroring shared human experience; it stirs thought and emotion. It changes the reader. If we look again at Auden’s poem, it goes on to say “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” Maybe that’s as close to an answer as any. A poem offers a different way of being. It’s an open mouth providing a way to speak and the words for what’s next to impossible to say, even if it’s only a trace of what we really mean. Yet, we keep trying.
DID YOU KNOW?
Revered American renaissance poet Emily Dickinson (1830 to 1886) was known for her reclusiveness, remaining much of her later years in her bedroom and refusing most visitors. Maybe the reception her poems received from publishers contributed to her solitary lifestyle.
Fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published in her lifetime. That’s probably because nobody really knew what to do with her poetry at the time. The ones that got published were edited to fit what constituted “true poetry” at the time (you know: pure end rhymes, regular stanzas, no darn dashes…)
She probably just gave up in frustration. And can you blame her?
What would Emily make of how her poetry is viewed today? Her work is studied in schools and universities throughout the United States and beyond, and you can’t pick up a decent anthology of English language poetry without a Dickinson poem or two in there. The renowned critic, Harold Bloom, cites Dickinson as one of 26 central writers of Western civilization. Her poems and her strange, solitary life have inspired music, plays and feature films.
Is there a lesson here? Emily Dickinson wrote her poetry, her way. The world wasn’t ready. Eventually, the world woke up. Patience, as Ingrid Ruthig notes, can pay off.
The lesson for you: stay true to your creative vision and your voice. Hope that others get it but if they don’t, that doesn’t mean it isn’t exactly what the world needs.