LG: In your essay “To Sleep, to Wake, to Dream,” you write about your childhood intimacy with nature to the point in which you felt it as “one entity not separate from myself, as I myself was this place, the world.” Does this experience of place—as part of the self, inseparable from ourselves—exist for you as part of memory just like people are part of memory? Or would you characterize it in a different way?
PR: The experience of place that I focus on in this essay has many aspects to it. The physical details of places where particular experiences in my childhood occurred are players, like people are, in my memories.
The overall tone in the essay is tentative. The voice is a questing voice, wondering about an experience that seems strange and important but not entirely understood and beyond the everyday use of language to explain. And beyond the everyday use of language is poetry’s purview.
I’m not attempting in this essay to define this experience philosophically or theoretically. I mean to question it. I searched for a few examples of what might be expressions in poems of experiences similar to mine. The childhood experience of belonging within the earth isn’t a new subject. Wordsworth writes of the “child being the father of the man”, meaning the memories of early experiences of the earth linger throughout adulthood. In “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”, Whitman writes of childhood experiences in nature enduring not just in memory but constituting a part of the psyche of the adult. Frost broaches the subject. And there are others.
The experience I’m describing in this essay is fleeting. It comes and goes quickly, bringing with it a feeling of renewal, a comforting and consoling feeling of belonging on this earth, with this earth. I believe the lines of poetry I quote in the essay reflect that type of experience.
LG: Can you talk about places and names in your work? I loved the reference to the “Queen’s Chair,” a particular set of branches on a particular elm tree where you used to sit as a child. How important are names to you in your experience of place? And how do you think about names in your own writing?
PR: Names are very important to me for many reasons, not least of which is the lyrical beauty of their sounds, the music of language. Some people think naming things separates us from the world. And some think that, when an object or action is named, then it has been captured, bound up and limited by the name. I don’t agree with either of these opinions.
Naming helps me to be aware of the magnificent multitude and layers of life and reality existing around us. And naming, for me, is honoring, a way of showing respect, perhaps for a beetle or the vein in a leaf or the planet nearest to Earth, for example. Naming does not solve any of the mystery of the universe. It reveals, heightens, and deepens the mystery.
When I began to identify the various trees in the hardwood forest where I first lived, I began to perceive a new beauty of complexity.
After the act of identifying and naming, then it’s a different experience to put everything back together in its entire sensual experience–images, fragrances, motions, sounds–and become immersed in the surroundings.
LG: In past interviews, you’ve talked about the important of music and singing in your early life and its connection to poetry. In the last issue of Boo’s Hollow, I asked the poet, Wayne Zade, if “jazz was a place” for him. I’d like to ask you a similar thing: has music kept place(s) for you? Or does your musical background have another influence on your writing?
PR: I could call music a place, a place of experience. I remember once hearing a lecture on Beethoven’s music. The speaker referred to the conclusion of one of Beethoven’s symphonies as “taking the listeners home”. The assumption in that statement is that those who were listening to the symphony had been somewhere else.
Music is a place, and wonderful music is a journey through a landscape. In my most recent book, Holy Heathen Rhapsody, there is a 14 line poem titled “Scarlatti Sonata Testament”. Once a sonata by Scarlatti I was listening to took me to a place. The poem is what I learned in that place.
Music is a crucial element in poetry. I believe my background in all kinds of music–singing in choirs and choruses, playing the piano and the flute, taking ballet and tap dancing lessons–has helped me to hear the music in spoken language and, if I’m successful, to incorporate that music into my poetry.
LG: You and I have Joplin, Missouri in common as I went to my last few years of high school there and my mother still lives there. Can you talk about that particular place as a place of influence on your work? Do the Ozarks as a geography have any recognizable influence on your work? Or are there other parts of that place—its history, etc., that have had a lasting impact on you?
PR: The Ozarks and the countryside around Joplin definitely have influenced my work. I write a about this in some detail in Dream of the Marsh Wren. Moving to Houston when I was 29 was the first time I had been separated from Missouri and the Ozarks. I was almost sick with longing for that countryside. “…I realized for the first time that I loved a landscape, loved it like my own body, that it was my own body, my body and my pattern of perception, that it had informed and constructed me, that I had defined myself by it, that I had a union with it, a union I recognized now because that union had been broken.”
In the years since, I’ve learned to discover and to love other landscapes where I’ve lived–Houston and the semi-tropical Gulf Coast; Denver and the semi-arid front range of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains.
It seems obvious to me that landscape has an influence on humans beyond physical survival and the potential for wealth. Whatever the landscape happens to be, its life forms, its weather, its geology certainly must shape to a degree the humans who inhabit it, their temperament, their tolerance, what they admire, what they disdain, their definition of beauty, their definition of art, their creation of divinity.
Photo By: Niv Singer