INTERVIEW WITH DAVID RAY BY SUSAN TEPPER
About David Ray
DAVID RAY's latest book is Music of Time: Selected and New Poems. Some of his previous volumes are:
The Death of Sardanapalus and Other Poems of the Iraq Wars; One Thousand Years: Poems About the Holocaust; Demons In The Diner;
Kangaroo Paws, Wool Highways, and Sam's Book. He is also author of The Endless Search: A Memoir which was praised by
Robert Coles as "a story of childhood vulnerability become, in the hands of a gifted, knowing poet and essayist, the
stirring reason for a lyrically expressive memoir."
David Ray has received awards for his writing, including the William Carlos Williams Award from the
Poetry Society of America, the Maurice English Poetry Award, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation Poetry Award,
and many others. He has taught at universities in the U.S. and abroad, and was founding editor of New Letters magazine
and New Letters on the Air radio program. He has also edited several anthologies and often presented readings and workshops.
He lives in Tucson, and can be reached at http://www.davidraypoet.com
NEW: Music of Time: Selected & New Poems
(The Backwaters Press, 2006.)
LET'S DIVE RIGHT IN AND DISCUSS YOUR BOOK "ONE THOUSAND YEARS: POEMS ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST." WHAT BROUGHT THIS BOOK TO LIFE?
I've thought about the Holocaust for years, partly to remedy my ignorance, which I was made aware of only after my
University of Chicago classmates challenged those of us from the Midwest who were, in effect, judged guilty not only of
ignorance but of callousness. I was recently reminded of that naiveté when the future King of England foolishly donned
Nazi armbands and threw a Mel Brooks mock Heil Hitler salute. I'm sure he had no idea what he was doing other than
cavorting, but to summon Holocaust images under any circumstances justifiably provokes outrage.
Another example of this kind of naiveté was the recent caper at Prospero's Books in Kansas City when the owners
staged a sidewalk book burning to protest the lack of interest in books, the fact that they could not even give
away the thousands volumes of overstock, yet some passersby were plucking books out of the flames. They foolishly
if unwittingly summoned up, as if cursed by Prospero's storm-making, ship-wrecking magic, a Holocaust image.
But my main reason for writing the One Thousand Years: Poems About the Holocaust was my own suffering, childhood
trauma so extensive that it was a sentence to suicidal attempts and a lifetime of therapy. To dwarf such pain
with attention diverted to those who suffered far greater horrors helped put my pain in perspective.
(Yes, writing is therapeutic, let's settle that question, at least for me, not Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf.)
To some extent such catharsis is life-supporting, though it has the downside of dredging up pain as well as
seeking solace. The same is true of most of my work, certainly "A Hill in Oklahoma," a poem about my parents
during their hardscrabble days in the Great Depression (and it was a Great one). It is true of Sam's Book,
which expresses the tip of the iceberg of my grief experience. As those who have lost children can tell you,
there is no greater pain, short of a Holocaust like Hitler's.
Someone commented that all my poetry seems to be about victims, and that's true, whether in a poem from
Dragging the Main about the waitress denied dialysis for lack of money or in those about Vietnamese peasants,
homeless people, children of Baghdad or Bhopal -- or Berlin, the children Hitler took on his knee in
"A Song for Herr Hitler," then sent them to die for his follies. A list of the various kinds of victims
in my work would be very long. It is presently lengthened by concern with those who, in the ritual
called capital punishment, are killed by the state, and by 'illegal immigrants' dying in the desert for
lack of a compassionate immigration policy in tune with our ideals.
As for abandoning our ideals by giving way to corporate and government betrayals as well as our own
acquisitive habits, Juliet B. Schor, in The Overspent American, has much to say about this betrayal of
Communitas. The book's cover is inspired by Grant Wood's American Gothic: the farmer's pitchfork is now
a golf club and his wife stands beside him in dark glasses, scarlet lipstick, low-cut blouse and three
strings of pearls, a cup of Starbuck java in her hand. Both she and her husband hold cell phones to their
ears and behind them their gothic-windowed no doubt refurbished house sports a satellite antenna.
Schor, following Thoreau's advice to simplify, attributes downshifting to "millions of Americans recognizing
that in fact their lives are no longer in synch with their values… Downshifting involves soul-searching and
a coming to consciousness about a life that may well have been on automatic pilot." I would add that poetry
is soul-searching. We write from grief, grief never ending because holocausts keep happening on all continents.
From One Thousand Years:
Europe bleeds again.
I am old enough to know
it promised not to.
The betrayal of ideals destroys our bliss, and each day is suffered as if we are forbidden ever to see rainbows again.
A book about the Holocaust should remind us that we should hold to our ideals at any cost, honoring Kant's categorical
imperative. There is unremitting sadness in knowing that the world is endangered by every weapon on earth and by our own
toxicity. When we lived on a farm in Calabria my daughter Wesley picked up a reminder that old evil burns on like the
radiation from Hiroshima and thousands of bomb "tests," preparation for future holocausts.
A PIECE OF SHRAPNEL
The Rock That Doesn't Break, she calls
it that, picks it up in a field of clover,
brushes off the mud, asks me what it is,
but who am I to explain war to a five-
year-old, who myself see something which
even to touch is dangerous, it is so sharp
and unshiny. I can feel it wanting
to hurt, to whizz through the air, land
in a tangle, be sold and resold. I can feel
how restless it is, not having found after
all this search a grave, where it can rest
and not be picked up, once more estranged,
plowing again through hands and delicate
faces. It is like a small, tired heart
begging not to be stolen still again from
this grave, which is in a field of clover.
Gathering Firewood and Music of Time
Thinking of such matters, I made another observation:
all journeys seem longer
images sharp, as you meant them to be
That poem's another of my shorties. I've loved the term since May Sarton wrote me that she loved
my shorties. I'll give her credit, and thanks, for the neologism.
What would it take to have hope for heaven as well as hell? Robert Frost seemed to think there's
even hope for the past. Imagine, finding hope despite such horrors as the Holocaust, a presumably
noble quest of questionable morality even to think of it. Mr. Frost, we can forgive our own crimes,
but not those of others.
THANKS, ROBERT FROST
Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought…
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear.
And I too, and my children, so I hope,
will recall as not too heavy the tug
of those albatrosses I sadly placed
upon their tender necks. Hope for the past,
yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage,
and it brings strange peace that itself passes
into past, easier to bear because
you said it, rather casually, as snow
went on falling in Vermont years ago.
Sam's Book and Music of Time
No matter how regrettably our "creative" intentions misfire, taking action is more honorable than evasion and paralysis.
I stray from your question, but that's precisely what my writings do, whatever scattered work you mention.
I hope my leadings of conscience, especially One Thousand Years and The Death of Sardanapalus, will not be
remembered merely as propaganda. I hope I will not, like Cervantes, wind up burning my manuscripts. I hope
I will not, like Flaubert and Tolstoy, curse my work as contemptible. I hope I will not, like Edna St. Vincent Millay,
depressed and addicted to alcohol and morphine, denounce as "propaganda" her work of humanitarian passion such as
The Murder of Lidice and her activism protesting the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Did she really want to be
remembered only for her sonnets and that splendid poem of enthusiasm for nature, "Renascence," which made her famous
while she was still in her teens? Instead, I would rather witness, in all senses of the word, to the unbearable
lightness of being, not the unbearable burden of darkness.
When one's work finds a single reader who really grasps that work, regardless of its rasa (Sanskrit for the various aesthetic modes)
all the struggle seems worth it. Perhaps, Mr. Frost, that's hope for the past. Occasionally a single reader finds you,
saying he found your book on a dusty lower shelf. (I think of E.A. Robinson's poem, "Crabb") A woman writes that one
of your poems made her weep every time she turns to it. Another writes for permission to read one of your elegies at a
funeral or other service. Another wants to reprint "Thanks, Robert Frost." Yet another, a composer who ran across
Sam's Book, asked permission to set my poems to music. He wound up composing music for my transcreation of a poem nearly
every Korean can recite from memory,"Azaleas." Such contact creates an instant I-Thou relationship.
One of my I-Thou relationships was with David Ignatow, who in a jacket statement for Gathering Firewood contributed
the truest insight that could be said of me and my work: "David Ray writes poems that are like a man with an injured
child in his arms walking from street to street in search of a doctor or a hospital. He finds none and keeps walking
doggedly, and we may tell him, David, such a cure you are looking for for your injured faith in the world is in the
truth of your poems. They will survive, they will survive."
Robert Hass writes that "the first impulse of any art is, no doubt, to make something, to act on the world."
He quotes Denise Levertov: "We are the humans… whose language imagines mercy,/ lovingkindness…" For all the faults
and flaws of my work, mercy and lovingkindness is all I've aspired to share. If only we could press those values into
action with the same enthusiasm others give to war!
IN 1966 YOU EDITED (WITH ROBERT BLY) "A POETRY READING AGAINST THE VIETNAM WAR." YOU CONTINUE TO WRITE PROLIFICALLY AGAINST
ALL WAR. ARE THESE WRITINGS FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF ONE WHO HAS BEEN IN A WAR, OR ESCAPED THAT HORROR?
First of all, I think that a position against war, though you have no more been there than Stephen Crane when he penned
The Red Badge of Courage, can be as valid as the opinion of one who has waded through the blood of battle. A stance against
war may derive from greater, not less, moral clarity, more knowledge of the lessons of history, and compassion for the world.
A warrior, understandably, for tons of propaganda will have been aimed at him, may become indoctrinated with the conviction
that the sacrifices demanded are worth it even if, in fact, the lives of his comrades were simply thrown away by the arrogance
and hubris of their leaders.
When Robert Bly and I started American Writers Against the War and stimulated efforts of poets to stop the Vietnam war we
sometimes had our lives threatened, at least I did. For years after that war, blame was assigned as much or more to those
who tried to stop the carnage than to those who carried it out. "Through the Vietnam War, American poets divided the country,"
the Poetry Consultant of the Library of Congress said in a Washington Post interview a full decade after the war. I
called the distinguished poet and shared my opinion that the politicians, not poets, divided the country. In
The Death of Sardanaplus and Other Poems of the Iraq Wars I satirized that exchange:
"HARMLESS POEMS", AN OXYMORON
I still find it easy to recall how we poets cleft
our nation in twain, broke the hearts of mothers,
almost brought down the government by flinging
sonnets through the air, launching sestinas from far
out at sea. Poets torched cities with flamethrower
ghazals and machine gun gathas…
In A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War, Robert and I rounded up choisis morceaux of anti-war poems, Nazi propaganda, news
clippings, satires, etc. Here's a typical quote from a U.S. pilot interviewed in The New York Times a month after my son Samuel's
birthday: "I don't like to hit a village. You know you are hitting women and children, too. But you've got to decide your work is
noble and that the work has to be done." Prithee, Sir, tell me why you've got to decide the work is noble.
Soldiers in Iraq are making similar statements today, and there is a great deal of propaganda voluntarily offered by the media
to make them continue to think their war is noble, lost lives worth any price. Curiously, one of the strongest anti-war statements
we chose for our book, "I Sing of Olaf," by e.e. cummings, was censored by his publisher, who would not let us use it.
In the copies that had not yet gone out we had to black out the entire page.
In our little book we included a passage from Freud, who wrote about how "the community no longer raises objections when
men perpetrate deeds of cruelty, fraud, treachery and barbarity so incompatible with their level of civilization that one
would have thought them impossible."
And our good gay gray poet Walt posthumously contributed a shortie:
TO THE STATE
What deepening twilight - scum floating atop of the waters,
Who are they as bats and night-dogs askant in the capitol?
What a filthy Presidentiad…
Then I will sleep awhile yet, for I see that these States sleep…"
Did our little book help raise consciousness? Some of its selections such as Goering's speech at his Nuremberg Trials
crop up in protests against the present wars. The propaganda of all wars sound like boilerplates with only minor variations
fed to unwary audiences. All tyrants are, in the words of General Sadao Araki on the eve of the Japanese seizure of
Manchuria in 1931, "exceedingly sorry that our enemies do not yet understand our sincerity. It is our mission to struggle
against all acts incompatible with freedom and self-determination…We have no other intention than to realize, with all its
power, the fundamental ideal - the preservation of peace." Haven't we heard this a few times, including lately.
I understand that the "decider" of the present war is extremely vexed with the Iraqis for not being sufficiently grateful
for what we've done for them.
Can poems help heal wounds of such horrors, such violations of common sense?
Whether yes or no, we must go on writing, for as Neale Donald Walsch writes in Conversations With God:
"You are always in the process of creating. Every moment. Every minute. Every day…you are a big creation machine,
and you are turning out a new manifestation literally as fast as you can…" You are meant to be "a light against
the darkness." As Quakers sing, "Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!"
But here's a satire on how it often comes out.
AT THE POETRY SOCIETY
She came up to buy a book and get it
inscribed, one of the most welcome duties
of writers, but my pleasure was short lived.
"I just love your wit," she said, "your poems
are so entertaining." She loved the one
about the child of Baghdad killed
by a smart bomb, and the others about
corporate mass murder at Bhopal,
and she loved the Holocaust, or rather,
my poems on the subject, especially
"A Song for Herr Hitler,"although
she wondered if I really admired him.
On and on she babbled, for she found
all my work enchanting. Christ,
I thought, how have I gone wrong?
She had misread me big time. The poems
were my bleeding heart, delivered by hand.
They were confessions of my sins
and crimes, and some were so ironic
that to miss the message was to commit
slander and libel. These poems
she had misread were my guts, spilled
like those of a gored horse in the Seville
corrida, so beloved by Hemingway.
This little lady had reversed the polarities
of life and traded Goya's horrors of war
for Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening
Post paintings of freckled boys in chairs
of dentists or barbers Yet, after reflection,
I felt a surge of gratitude for her mentoring,
for should I not give up and rest on my laurels?
Despite such encounters, my feeling toward readers is still what it was as expressed by one of my shorties:
Rounding up the family one chick
and kitten at a time, I see that even
the fly on the barn wall becomes
someone for whom I was searching.
PLEASE TELL US WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO WRITE YOUR MEMOIR, "THE ENDLESS SEARCH."
Writing autobiography is a near automatic experience once you take off from an incident or reflection on your past.
The Endless Search was merely the tip of an iceberg, about a third of the story, for a sequel languishes in manuscript.
I believe that writing is therapeutic, though as James Dickey said, "The trick is to climb in with the alligators but
make sure you can get out." There are a lot of alligators in any pool you leap into.
WHAT IS YOUR LIFE LIKE NOW?
When I sailed to Europe on the S.S. Rhyndam in 1966 I wrote a poem, later published in Dragging the Main, that anticipated
my present life. The poem was inspired by a white jacketed steward I saw leaning over the rail at the stern. He leaned
forward, gazing at the sea and the ship's moonlit wake. Watching him I thought of Melville's Redburn, the young sailor,
and the older Ishmael, and Melville himself. Somehow the vision was of a long and a serene life, a vision has survived as
counterpart to my despairs.
The sixtieth gull.
It begins to rain.
He turns too, in his
White coat, throws
His cigarette into
It is time to return
To those who do not
Love him, to babble
To sleep, to be
Part of the hum
Of the ship's engines.
The nights sail
Away, on the oil
Of manners and charm.
They stuffed with wicks
Those white gulls
Of the English Channel
And burned them for
Lamps, when Stuka
Provided the birds
And shore-watchers went
Dizzy. It takes
(This sea where we
Rock) the fieriest
Gulls, and it makes
The Stukas and
In a mist so thick
Few remember. And it
Gives for a bonus
The calm of white-
Dragging The Main
But, to return to your question: With my poet wife Judy, who saves my life two thousand and three times a day, and our
love for three grown daughters, lost son, and three grandchildren, not to leave out our loyal mutt, Levi, I have found
some serenity in my life, and am beginning to assign the past to deep time. The Quakers too have been important. Of
them I say "I don't have any faith, but I like to sit among people who do."
When I retired from my professorship at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, I had already been thinking a lot about
simplifying and downshifting, as reflected in some poems.
Space becomes sacred.
Don't wait for the grave.
A small shack will do.
Or perhaps none.
One cart for possessions,
none spilling over.
Just walking - an end
to that car crap, big house
and big chair crap,
bars on window,
gold coins, stocks
stashed, plastic cards
the poor don't have,
basement bomb shelter
and one in your head,
all secrets kept.
More cactus, more sun,
less bought and more thought.
New Letters, 1996
"My life is not perfect, nor is it close to being perfect," Neale Donald Walsch wrote in Conversations With God.
In my own way I have followed my bliss, but rarely did I realize it was bliss and that despite myself I have followed a
spiritual path all along, even when I was struggling for mere survival as top priority.
Literature has been a big part of my life, spiritual and practical. I could list a thousand writers who have done their
share in propping me up in my bed of woe and pointing out the light. And God bless Donald Bond, one of my professors at
the University of Chicago. In his class on Eighteenth Century Literature he asked us to write about what we would like
to be and do. Without hesitation (or pride) I wrote that I would like to be a writer (I already was), an editor, and
scholar. Strangely, I have managed to cover all three bases. Soon I became editor of Chicago Review, then went on to
help edit Epoch, found New Letters and New Letters On the Air radio program, and edit several anthologies and the books
of several writers.
One of the three ambitions in this triad, my "creative" writing, we have already discussed. As for scholarship, I have
researched many articles, including several in the St. James Contemporary Poets encyclopedia and one in the
Autobiographical Series of the standard reference series, Dictionary of Literary Biography. My research for both
published and unpublished books, such as my manuscript novel based on the lives of the Lindberghs and my collection
of poems about Hemingway - and many individual poems and stories for that matter - has been extensive, requiring work
in archives such as those at the Library of Congress and the National Archives.
My fat book of collected essays, still in manuscript, is about as scholarly as a poet can manage without becoming a bore.
When I retired from the University of Missouri-Kansas City (let me boast, as one does in interviews), I was listed among
the one hundred most distinguished individuals "whose efforts created a significant impact for this university," and more
specifically among the top seventeen "Scholar-Teachers" of the first seventy years of the university. What a surprise!
(See Perspectives, the News Magazine of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Winter/Spring, 2000.)
Day by day I am becoming aware of the bliss we are born to, and my luck of having survived to write each word you read.
And I am glad it was not bloody battlefields that I've survived. I am grateful that most of my crimes were misdemeanors.
YOU WRITE IN ALL GENRES. WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
I am deep into a story that feels like it will turn out to be a novel. It is not the first novel I have written, though none
are published. You say "at the moment," so I'll also tell you that at high noon on my 75th birthday, I worked on a letter to
our Arizona governor trying to stop the state's first execution in six years. It was also the day the New York Times Magazine
published my letter to the editor criticizing superficial journalism they had published about clinical depression. I am tempted
to include as a legitimate genre the thousands of Letters to Editors and Opinion columns, both published and unpublished, I have
written over the years, hoping to weigh in on crucial issues. Needless to say, there are often vested interests that block these
efforts, but some of these mini-essays get through.
I also write new poems nearly every day. When I run into another poet who is not ashamed of turning out more work than is
fashionable, I feel relieved to have found honorable company. One morning before 7 a.m. at the Banff artist colony in
Canada, I encountered Bill Stafford. "Have you written a poem yet today?" I jibed. "Three," he said with a grin.
Now there's a dangerous example!
HAS THE WRITING BROUGHT YOU A MEASURE OF PEACE?
Yes, and perhaps something of the serenity of "The Steward." Perhaps that's what I was aiming for all along, but didn't know it.
FOR THE INTERVIEW
For Gloria Mindock & Susan Tepper
Leave out the negative.
Stress the positive.
You dare not brag
though Mark Twain
said "Blow your own
horn lest it be not blown."
And do not rant or admit
you weep each day
for all that's wrong
and because you can-
not stop the war
or what fools do
in Washington. Above
it all, remember
that readers glean
the gossip, so serve
a bite but not too big.
And if there's time
consult your list
of words never ever
to use in poems,
the list that begins
with never and ever.