In Conversation With
Poet Ricky Ray is the award-winning author of Fealty (Eyewear, 2018) and the founding editor of Rascal: a Journal of Ecology, Literature and Art. Pulitzer laureate Claudia Emerson has lauded his work "for its inventiveness, lyricism, and mystery" and admired "the way it works with memory and finally catches memory off its guard." I came across him on Twitter (you can follow him @RickyRayPoet), where he is unfailingly generous in his support of other writers. We caught up this summer to talk about his poetic process, living with disease and disability, and what has carried him through heartache, pain, and struggle.
Tom Simpson: You've said that years ago poetry "stepped in to save my life." What did you mean?
Ricky Ray: I'll tell you a little story. By some strange twist of fate (aren't they all), aside from Hamlet, I don't recall being exposed to poetry in elementary, middle or high school. Nor was it a personal interest in those years. I was obsessed with the logic of math, the way science showed me the invisible symphony of the universe. But I read voraciously, my headphones tuned into the local classical music station, under the covers with a flashlight at night, devouring any book I could get my hands on. The library was an oasis. For most of my days, books were my human companions, were proof that the world was far more complex and mysterious than I imagined.
At 18, I was dumped and experienced my first heartbreak. That sent me spiraling into a deep depression. I started dabbling in drugs, which—surprise, surprise—made it worse. I wasn't bent on self-destruction but I was reckless, and one night, after mixing too many drugs, I woke up in the hospital, charcoal in my mouth: an accidental overdose, saved by kind, nameless souls who called 911, picked me up off the pavement, ferried me to the hospital, pumped my stomach, and watched over the precious inner spark of the soul, ensuring that death couldn’t get his lips close enough to blow it out.
I had been writing poetry for a little while before that, crafting love notes to girls, trying—and failing—to win their favor. But there was something else, something special about it that, even during depression, brought me pleasure. So after that night I turned to poetry rather than drugs for medicine, and dove wholeheartedly into the craft. I read and wrote nonstop, juggling five books at a time, conjuring as many poems in a day. I very much mean it when I say that poetry threw me a lifeline by which I pull myself back to the land of the living, and soon after, I vowed to give my life to the art, in the hopes that my work might one day do for others what the words of my predecessors had done for me.
Thereafter poetry became a daily spiritual practice, the enactment of a lifelong promise to attend to myself and the world with the care and compassion they deserve. It became my way of living, and any way of living is, even if momentarily, a way of survival. It grew to encompass not only the words that arise from the tongue and unfurl upon the page, but the way I see my wife in the morning, the way I meet my pain when it rises up to strike me down, the way I bow my head to my dog's, talking with her in a language of mutual fealty that need never be vocalized except in yips and growls and barks.
Twenty years and ten-thousand poems later, my book Fealty has entered the world, and I can only hope that the lifeline I wove holds steady when someone reaches out in need of a reason to carry on.
TS: In one of the opening poems of Fealty, the speaker says, "We live longer / and call it progress." You've been through a hell of a lot in the last year or so. Are you getting a chance to heal, or at least catch your breath?
RR: The notion of healing takes on unusual connotations for someone who’s disabled or saddled with a degenerative disorder. I have a congenital spinal disorder, and by the time I was twenty-four, I had ten herniated discs, scoliosis, constant pain, and a bone at the top of my spine that presses into my brain stem, making me pass out, along with other lovely symptoms. No road is easy, but to live in a breaking body is to always have some aspect of oneself held close to the fire. Over time, however, various pains and difficulties become like house-guests, and you learn to operate in front of them while they go about the business of firing nerves and wearing the place down. For me, to be awake is to be in pain, but most of the time, I'm just grateful that it's not worse, and that there are still so many things I can enjoy. So in the sense that I've become almost friendly with my pains, yes, I've gone through a sort of metaphysical healing.
Last year, however, things took a turn for the worse and I lost my ability to walk. That was a tough swallow, but through luck and the skill of some very fine doctors, I've regained the ability, at least enough to take the pup for strolls, and even do some leisurely hikes. It's funny how life bends us to certain tasks. Since I couldn't walk and was stuck in front of a computer for months on end, I decided to spend as much time as possible trying to achieve long-desired goals: I took a few writing workshops and polished off my tenth manuscript, which became my first book. I launched Rascal and published a few of my favorite poets—among them Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, Clayton Eshleman and Christian Wiman. I won a poetry prize, and got into my top-choice MFA program, something that, at this stage of my life, I thought would never happen.
The possibility of passing out and hitting my head is a constant danger, so I still need the wheelchair for many outings, and have to do fun things like lie on the floor during lectures, but none of the achievements of the past year would have transpired, at least not the way they did, if the universe hadn't knocked me on my ass. As anyone who's been writing a long time can tell you, I was desperate to publish a book. It had been my New Year's resolution for two decades, and it was like life gave me the perfect conditions under which I could make it happen. I could almost hear her saying, “you asked for this, you prayed for this—here you go, let’s see if you have what it takes.”
I wrote a poem in my early twenties about waking at night and reaching for the wheelchair, even though it wasn't there and I didn't need one. So, in a way, being sidelined was the long-ripening manifestation of what I saw in that premonition. I love that about poems, how they can not only draw from the wellspring of our collective experience, but also sketch blueprints of a future we can't see.
TS: What new forms of literary community have you been able to find and form in the wake of personal struggle?
RR: I'm glad you asked this. My particular form of disability makes it hard to travel outside of my immediate neighborhood, so even though I live in NYC, it's been difficult to form a sense of literary community here. Places like the Poets House and the Bowery Poetry Club were important to me early on, but since I became less mobile, I've had to turn to virtual communities. And that's where I've found an abundance of friendship and support. Online workshops, listservs, social media groups and public forums are where I cut my teeth in many ways, and where, more often than not, I learned the craft through osmosis.
Last year alone, I took a workshop with the Irish organization Over the Edge, led by Kevin Higgins, another with Blueshift, led by Javier Zamora, and an MFA prep course with Brooklyn Poets, led by J. Scott Brownlee. I made fast friends in several writing groups, including a weekly prompt group led by David Lehman at The American Scholar, an international Facebook group called Poets Abroad, and an ongoing, virtual workshop associated with Rat's Ass Review. Every one of those undertakings contributed to getting my book published and to me getting accepted into Bennington. But far more importantly, it gave me a network of poets who continuously push me to evolve my craft, and who give me the opportunity to help them evolve theirs.
Social media has also played an interesting role of late. I joined Instagram in February and now have fourteen thousand followers—imagine, in a genre where selling five hundred books is considered a success! That platform has forced me to focus on crafting short poems that waste no syllables in pulling their punches. Bits of skill accrue from all corners.
Recently, after an unseemly kerfluffle between my publisher and literary Twitter, I undertook an initiative to support my fellow Eyewear poets, and the camaraderie that arose in response has been nothing short of astonishing. Hugely popular poets came to our aid, presses offered to read our manuscripts, readers offered to write reviews, and we formed a support network behind the scenes that feels like a meeting of true hearts in the desert.
One thing it inspired me to do was give away my book. I always dreamed of figuring out a way to subsidize my work so that there would be no barrier to access, so that anyone who wanted to read it could have it for free. What I really want is for my poems to be able to do some good in the world—that's what poetry is for me, an agent of good—so I took the hundreds of copies I have on hand and offered them to the public, and that offer will remain open until they’re gone. If you’re reading this and want one, just ask.
TS: How do elements of stillness, performance, and translation infuse and reinforce each other in your creative process?
RR: That's a hell of a question, and I haven't the foggiest notion how to answer it, but let's give it a try and see what happens.
Poetry, even on the page, is for me an aural (and oral) art. Stillness reminds me of silence, and strictly speaking, I don't believe silence is possible, at least not for human beings. I do however believe in deep quiet, in gathering all the scattered filaments of attention, peeling back the layers of sensation, and turning in on oneself until you can literally feel your heartbeat, and only the primal hum of existence remains, which sounds an awful lot like breath. Holding the body calm and the soul open, identifying with none of it and all of it, I think we can become a conduit for the creative principle we inhabit, a sort of voice through which the universe speaks. I see us as both creatures and creators, speaking as ourselves, of course, but also, if we tap into the forces that compose and propel us, speaking as a species, as the place that holds us up—even, at times, speaking as the Earth, quietly singing the ode of humanity to herself.
I never saw myself as a performance poet. I'm soft-spoken, an introvert, and someone who loves to converse one-on-one, but who speaks less and less the more people there are in a room. In 2013, I had the good fortune to be part of an anthology called Chorus, edited by Saul Williams. When he came through town, he invited me to join him on stage, and that was a turning point in my relation to the spoken word. Several folks came up to me after the performance to tell me how moved they were, and I felt something shift. A couple of years later I was asked to perform alongside the musician John Forté, best known for his work with the Fugees. Both Saul's and John's presences are frankly luminous, infectious, and seeing how they literally lit people up made me realize how much of a responsibility I have to that side of the craft. I don't perform often, but when I do, I draw from their examples, trying to focus all of my energy into the words in that moment, trying to reach out across the room and bend the flame of poetry towards everyone’s inner wick.
I turn to translation when I want to move away from the personal voice, from my past, my memories, my given culture and time. I turn there when I want to tap into the oversoul of language, the repository of utterance that represents our immeasurably immense, diverse experience of life on Earth. A mantra I formed early on, and that has always served me well, is to read widely and deeply, widely across times and cultures, and deeply within areas of interest. Americans are, by and large, monoglots, and the percentage of poetry published in this country in translation in any given year pales in comparison to that published by some of our European counterparts. Ed Foster, the publisher of Talisman House, speaks eloquently and passionately about this, so I won't crib his thoughts any further, except to say that every language gives rise to its own poetry, and makes contributions to poetry that no other language can make. Language issues from a particular place, perspective and set of experiences over time, so just imagine how much we stand to be enriched when we step into rivers of meaning other than our own.
TS: Your compassion for animals is exemplary and, frankly, adorable. Does it have a particular origin?
RR: Indeed it does have an origin—several, in fact. There was a half-wolf somewhere back in my infancy/toddlery whom I do not recall, other than my father's tale that he could open a crank window whenever he wanted to get out. There were also two white German Shepherds with whom I slept under my crib. My mother likes to tell how found me in the back yard, huddled with them over the food bowl, both of my cheeks bulging with chow. There was also a cat who hung over my arm like a rag doll wherever I went. Then, when I was seven, my brother, a Shepherd/Husky mix, came into my life and forever changed it. I had an unusual upbringing, living with my father as my primary guardian, a crackhead who was kind and loving, but often preoccupied or off dealing with his demons. My mother lived in another part of the state, and was also a loving but distant presence.
So for the most part it was me and Rascal, who became part brother, part father, part teacher, part guide. I learned from him many ways of existing in the world—devouring it with my senses, relishing in the complex bouquet of the moment, loyalty throughout everything, the delicate balance between compassion and hunger, desire and play, fight and forgiveness. He taught me the importance of communicating in gestures more intimate than speech. From him I learned to see our space as one of sacred mutuality, and that our responsibility to each other is as important as our responsibility to ourselves.
I didn’t have a dog for fourteen years after Rascal died. Then, around Christmas of 2014, Addie, a six-year-old Irish Setter/Chocolate Lab mix—a gorgeous dog who’d beaten heart worms and Lyme disease and a year of abandonment in shelters—came into our lives, and the depth of that bond came flooding back. From her I learned that the noblest beings are often the most gentle, the most patient and understanding, but also the quickest to correct misbehavior. She once corrected a police dog on its behavior, a charming story I’ll tell you some other time. I also learned from her that trust, equally given and received, doesn’t necessarily plateau; it can be an ever-deepening well into which we may both lower our heads and drink.
Konrad Lorenz describes the bond between man and dog better than I ever could:
The fidelity of a dog is a precious gift demanding no less binding moral responsibilities than the friendship of a human being. The bond with a true dog is as lasting as the ties of this earth can ever be.
As badly as humans can behave towards each other, I find that our attitude and behavior towards our fellow species is far, far worse, as though we're ignorant of the fact that without them, we wouldn't be alive, wouldn't be who we are in relation to them, wouldn't be animals ourselves, members of a kingdom of a membership of kingdoms. And so, when I speak of animals, of trees, of our relationship with creatures, it's in an attempt to invoke the ancient awareness of our fundamental ties, our mutuality on the field where they not only inhabit the world with us, but they support us and protect us and help guide us through it.
I also focus on the human-to-nonhuman relationship in an attempt to invoke the role of the human as caretaker, and as holon: a part which plays a role in composing the whole it inhabits, and which confers wholeness on the parts that compose it—a sort of inner and outer nesting of responsibilities. By that I mean we have a responsibility to ourselves and the planet, and also to the organisms who inhabit the landscapes of our flesh, keeping us alive as they go about their days and nights. We owe our being to our inner flora and the Earth. Even spiritual folks tend to overlook the primacy of the Earth when they cultivate connections to the divine. They try to go from person to God, as though they were standing in space, a holy sphere unto themselves. We literally are the Earth standing up. Her health is our own, and the role of caretaker, from personal to planetary, seems to me to be the urgent moral and aesthetic call of our age.
TS: Has an animal ever struck you as irredeemably bothersome?
RR: Mosquitos and ticks raise my hackles. I could do without the irritations, diseases, and death they visit upon my fellow human and canine companions. But on deeper reflection, I see them as inherent forms of balance, a necessary check, a reminder that the world is both beautiful and dangerous, that it requires both adoration and respect, spontaneity and caution—that this realm is not only a bed of roses, but a bed of roses and thorns, as Rilke, who wrote so breathtakingly about them, well knew:
Against whom rose,
have you assumed these thorns?
Is it your too fragile joy that forced you
to become this armed thing?
But from whom does it protect you,
this exaggerated defense?
How many enemies have I lifted from you
who did not fear it at all.
On the contrary, from summer to autumn
you wound the affection that is given you.
—Rainer Maria Rilke,
translated from the French by Barbara & Erica Muhl
TS: What's next for you?
RR: Kissing my wife, the real hero of the last ten years of my life, but I’ll save the interview about her for another time. Walking with Addie and loving life while I still can. Visiting the Adirondacks in the fall, the bridal path in Central Park in the spring, Bennington in January and June. As for poetry, many things. I have thousands of poems I haven't looked at in years, and I wonder if there's something to be done with them, maybe a grand collage sifted through self-erasure that leaves an intentional footpath of fragments, letting the poems be doors into the unspoken realms of the art.
I have a manuscript in progress, including my MFA work, that focuses on death, disability, dogs and childhood, the latter of which is new terrain for me. I'm slowly working on translations of the contemporary Persian poet, Fereshteh Sari, which I hope culminate in a book, properly introducing her to the West. I'd also like to do some adaptations of the 13th-century Persian poet Sa'di. And I have a project in mind, collaborating with the spirits of Rilke and Valery, that will require a least a solid year of work on nothing else.
I'd like to start a one-on-one mentorship program for disabled and disadvantaged poets. I'm editing an anthology based on the poets writing at Next Line, Please, the weekly prompt column run by David Lehman at The American Scholar. I'll be publishing more issues of Rascal, and introducing a to-be-named, fee-free annual prize for a group of poems. I'm starting to write serious, long-form reviews, working towards making some contributions to criticism as praise.
And there's a project, possibly scholarly, dancing around in the periphery of my imagination, that traces a line of eco-poetry passed down through Robinson Jeffers, Wendell Berry, Eleanor Wilner, John Haines, Joy Harjo, Hayden Carruth, and Brigit Pegeen Kelly. I mean, just saying those names makes me feel like getting down on my knees and giving thanks. And way, way on down the line, there's a book on a practical approach to mysticism I need to write, but I think I ought to let a couple more decades ripen that ink.