Ruth Holzer lives in Virginia and works as a freelance translator. Her haibun have been published in Haibun Today, South by Southeast, bottle rockets, Modern Haiku, Lynx, The Nor’easter, Contemporary Haibun Online, and Modern Haibun and Tanka Prose. Her poems have appeared in journals in the U.S.A., U.K., Canada and Australia. She is the author of The First Hundred Years (Finishing Line Press, 2004), The Solitude of Cities (Finishing Line Press, 2006) and a haiku collection Silk Flower (ed. v. tripi, Pinch Book Series No. 7. Swamp Press: 2005).
PP: To begin with, I’m interested in your approach to the various genres in which you write: poems, haibun, tanka, haiku, etc. Is your approach to composition spontaneous or are you more interested in applying technique to material that you’ve previously written or that come from other sources?
RH: I’d say that my approach tends more toward the spontaneous. A poem will start to assume its shape and fit into a particular genre even before I start writing it, while it’s still somewhat amorphous. I don’t apply technique for its own sake to the material—only when I’m doing an exercise in formal verse as, e.g., writing a sestina using end words randomly picked from the dictionary. Of course, these don’t turn out to be among the most satisfactory pieces.
PP: Your work avoids reduction—all the different forms, voices and allusions are astonishing. Your poetry is very wide-ranging. How do you account for this? In The First Hundred Years, there are several poems that aren’t quite dramatic monologues and aren’t personal poems. How do you understand the voices in these poems as functioning?
RH: Thank you. I never thought of it being wide-ranging. It’s a mixture of memories and fabrication. Things I’ve studied, observed, or somehow received. The poems in The First Hundred Years are in the voices of various persona, either invented or partially based on reality. I’ve tried to make them work as the stories and thought processes of others, aiming for objectivity and the muting of my own voice, as much as possible.
PP: Can you say a little about the process involved in the composition of The First Hundred Years and also, by comparison and contrast, The Solitude of Cities?
RH: Both books evolved over a period of more than twenty years. I had started writing poems on random themes and then realized they could be integrated into these very slim volumes.
PP: From reading your poems, I get the impression that there are many influences from all over the world, that your work is very international. In your collection The Solitude of Cities, there are poems about specific places. How have your travels influenced your poetry?
RH: I suppose that living in other countries has added to my pool of influences. Although they weren’t exotic places—just villages and towns in Germany, England and Italy—I immersed myself in the environment and paid attention. Although I didn’t realize it at the time. And some of the other international influences are from reading and listening.
PP: I’ve chosen two very different poems from your books to illustrate your writing. The first, “In the Forest,” is about war and the effect of fear on the persona and the second, “L’Air du Temps,” is about a hungry young woman who is too poor to buy food and instead feeds on the fragrance of pastries wafting from a bakery. What drew you to these obviously very different scenarios?
RH: The events of “In The Forest” happened to me. As I wrote the poem years later, I realized it might also be a vehicle for referring to the experiences of multitudes of others that I’ve been spared only by chance. And so now I like to think of the poem, however slight, as a tribute to others’ lives and an expression of gratitude for my own.
“L’Air du Temps,” on the other hand, has only a trace of personal reality. I was picturing the heroines of Jean Rhys’ novels (Voyage In The Dark, Good Morning, Midnight and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie) and identifying the narrator with them. That’s the specific “story” with its “protective pages.” In the background are also old songs by Aznavour and Trenet. The perfume, too.
PP: Tracing poetic influence is always popular with readers. When you started writing who were the poets you admired? Whom do you find to admire amongst your contemporaries and among the newer poets?
RH: The first poet I read was Burns, and I admire him still, his simplicity and humor. Then Shakespeare, of course, and the English Romantics, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Housman, Rilke, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Cavafy, Seferis. Contemporary poets I appreciate are Anthony Hecht, Gerald Stern, Charles Wright, Philip Levine, Charles Simic, Jane Shore, Gary Soto, D. Nurkse, Seamus Heaney, Jeffrey Harrison, A.E. Stallings, Kim Addonizio.
PP: Taking the reader from the discussion of your poetry, I’d like to move on to your haibun. Can you describe your concept of haibun?
RH: No particular concept; I haven’t been writing them long enough to develop that perspective. I try with haibun, as with any other poetic genre, to provide the reader with a few enjoyable, perhaps surprising, moments. The relation of the prose to the haiku is the crux; why some of the “leaps” work and some don’t is difficult to explain. But you know it when you see it, and also when it’s absent.
PP: The discipline needed to achieve status in the poetry world will obviously inform your approach to writing haibun. Are there ways in which your poetry background has influenced your haibun?
RH: I view all types of poetry as being demanding and requiring a great deal of discipline, both in the initial writing and in the revision process. It’s unlikely I’ll achieve any sort of status; I’m pleased to think that a few people might be reading something of mine that resonates for them.
PP: Your haibun contain many references to your personal experiences and to travel. We usually distinguish between author and persona in a poem. To what extent does this distinction apply to your poetry?
RH: The author rarely makes an appearance. I enjoy the freedom of creating a persona, maintaining the distinction. I’m not fond of so-called confessional poetry.
PP: Since haibun starts out as “a story that needs telling,” how much attention do you then pay to stylistic elements? In what ways do you work on syntax, phrasings, finding the right ways to communicate your story?
RH: The style is very important, it’s what makes a piece coherent. So I work on stylistic elements the best I can. It’s necessary to keep the prose moving along, avoiding flatness of expression, bare description, repetitive phrasing, etc. Variation is important. And self-sufficiency of the prose. The haiku can’t carry the whole weight.
PP: You may start out with a simple thought or idea but the imagery you use is often quite complex. So do you make demands on your readers’ imagination? Is that an important part of your craft for you?
RH: I don’t introduce complexity on purpose, and hope my writing isn’t too demanding. I don’t think it’s part of my craft at all, at least not intentionally.
PP: How much do you revise texts that you’ve written? What is your process of revising?
RH: I revise over and over. Some pieces have been worked on for years. When revising, I aim for greater concision, fresher language, a more logical progression of thought, rhythm, phrasing, the overtones of words, other possible layers of meaning. I let poems cool off for days or weeks before reading them again. I consider what is necessary to the poem, rather than to the writer, and what should be omitted, even if it’s a favorite line. And what’s irrelevant, too much information. I usually end up with a minimalist version of the original.
PP: In your haibun “Heimerzheim,” you sum up so well the three characters, plus yourself, in this brief poem. You are able to contain their characters in just a few words of description. Does this kind of descriptive quality come easily to you?
RH: Absolutely not. Almost every word involves a struggle.
PP: As a general rule, how do you compose an individual text? Why do you write and how did you write a particular text? For instance, perhaps you could say how you came to write your haibun “Via dei Fiori”?
RH: This is difficult to answer. I don’t exactly go into a trance, but I don’t understand the process of composition very well. I’m just not conscious of it. I think about the poem for quite a while before I start writing. Then it comes out in words that often seem to be waiting there.
“Via dei Fiori” has some elements of autobiography, so I had memories and impressions to work with as a start. Then I wanted to keep the genders of all the characters unspecified, to bring out the universality of desire, frustration and farewell.
PP: In that particular haibun, the speaker sounds depressed. It’s quite a sad poem and then there’s the line “I could rely on you for anything: a place to stay, money whenever you had it, glasses of fiery cognac, a ride to Fiumicino.” That line makes me smile. I was wondering how important humour is for you, with regard to your work.
RH: Depressed is probably my default voice, but I didn’t realize it was speaking so loudly here. Humour is important in my work—the type of humor Beckett and Carver use to such wonderful effect. It’s part of the personality.
PP: The beautiful haibun “Pirmasens Caserne” has a lovely mixture of images about the loneliness of army barracks contrasted with the beauty of the forest and countryside. Then there’s the hint of war and combat boots and the thoughts of a woman, not anchored anywhere, free of domestic duties but not able to settle. How do you relate to perfection contrasted with the bitterness of war?
RH: That contrast will always exist, unfortunately. We’re determined to mess up our world, ignoring the uniqueness and beauty of it. I touched on this theme in “Mondschau,” another poem in The First Hundred Years, where convoys of defeated soldiers move through a lovely natural setting and there’s just no connection. This incongruity has often been noted by writers, especially after the First World War.
PP: One reads a poem and, if it grabs you, then you want to engage with that writer. I feel this particularly in the haibun “Gorsehayes, Ipswich.” This may be because I can relate to the countryside you are writing about which I know. Does it matter where the poems are placed provided that the poems come?
RH: Yes, the place is as important as any of the speakers or characters. Every place naturally produces its own poetry, even if it’s only hinted at or suggested in a few words.
PP: The feeling in your poems is of a strong momentum and flow but there’s also a precision of placement. I’m tempted to say it is just pure flow but at the same time there’s a weight and measure going on. Do you agree?
RH: Yes. It’s the precision of each word that creates the impression of flow. Pure flow is a total illusion. I think of the great nineteenth century French novelists, for example—how their narratives appear to flow naturally, and yet we know that their writing processes were extremely painstaking (not to say maniacal).
PP: Do you research any of your ideas to stimulate your incidents, in the sense that it creates different possibilities that you then think about transforming in certain ways?
RH: The ideas are primary, not needing any stimulation. I might do research after drafting the poem, to check on historical or geographical accuracy.
PP: What are you currently working on and what are your plans for your future writing?
RH: I’m assembling two chapbooks: one inspired by Diane Arbus photographs and the other a miscellany. I’m also continuing to work on tanka, haiku and haibun and hope to be able to continue with them into the future.
PP: Many thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
RH: Thank you for this opportunity, Patricia.