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Shauna Gilligan

Shauna Gilligan

Ruth Danon is the author of Word Has It (Nirala, 2018), Limitless Tiny Boat (BlazeVOX, 2015), and much earlier Triangulation from a Known Point (North Star Line, 1990.) Her first book, Work in the English Novel is being reissued by Routledge in 2020. For 23 years she taught Creative and Expository Writing in the program she created for NYU's School of Professional Studies. Ruth Danon teaches privately in New York City and Beacon, NY, and is a teaching member of New York Writers' Workshop. She curates the Spring Street Reading Series for Atlas Studios in Newburgh, NY. Her poems and prose have been published in Rain Taxi, Tupelo Quarterly, The Paris Review, Barrow Street, Fence, 3rd Bed, Versal, and many other publications in the U.S and aboard. She is currently completing a memoir and writing new poems. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry, Resist Much, Obey Little , and Noon: An Anthology of the Short Poem and new work is forthcoming in an anthology to be produced by the upstate New York organization, Calling All Poets.

Shauna Gilligan is an Irish novelist and short story writer who has received numerous awards for her writing including The Cecil Day Lewis Bursary for Literature and Arts Act Grants (Kildare County Council). In 2016/17 she was Writer-in-Residence at the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. She teaches in university, community and prison settings, is interested in creative processes and memory, and enjoys collaborating with other artists.

The Music That Learns Us

Shauna Gilligan Interviews Ruth Danon    


Ruth Danon talks about her latest publication Word Has It (Nirala, 2018) with Irish writer, Shauna Gilligan.

Shauna Gilligan (SG): Ruth, Congratulations on your latest publication, an intriguing poetry collection Word Has It (Nirla Publications: New Delhi, 2018) that just begs to be read several times. It has been described by Andrew Levy as one of your "most darkly oracular works" and that the poems are "acid, ingenious and unsentimental." I'm interested in process and voice. Word Has It brings the reader into a journey - uncomfortable at times - that echoes the current unease in our societies but did you set out to write a collection about politics through the dual voices of the speaker and the fascinating character "word" or did the collection emerge organically?


Ruth Danon (RD): Thank you for this question. I don't think I've ever written anything with prior Intention - the work always emerges organically and certainly in the case of Word Has It, the intention arrived after I had written the poems and looked at what I had. For a number of years before writing the book I had established a practice of writing each day. I didn't have much time so I wrote quickly, improvisationally, and went on the next day to another little text. Sometimes a series would emerge - so the "word" poems were like that - a little series that seemed to dictate its own progression. In 2015-16 my book, Limitless Tiny Boat came out and shortly after that Yuyutsu Ram Dass Sharma asked to publish a book of my work for Nirala. So I had to write another book. I took all my little bits of poems and the word poems and I sat in my house in the country staring at what I had. It was the summer before the 2016 election and I became aware that what I had been writing tracked the mood of the times. And then I decided that the word poems had a different voice but one that offered a kind of commentary on the other poems. By the end of my summer retreat I understood what I had been up to and that gave me an awareness of what the book was going to be. I tell my students that learning to read one's own work is not so easy and figuring out what I was doing, discovering my own intentions for this book was challenging and thrilling.

SG: It sounds like the collection is almost 'found poetry' - I found myself thinking of a feeling or a line from this collection, long after I'd read it. This, I think, is where your work is quite powerful. It slips into the subconscious, holds you, and demands that you return to read and re-read. I found myself returning to the voice of "word" in the first section "Rumor, Murmur". I think the way this character was slipped in between the poems, and presented in italics, made it feel like she was whispering in my ear:

"word flies all over town / in many quarters / huddle and nod / in many quarters / puzzle and frown / who knew word / could travel so far / so fast in so little time?" (23).

And in the third part "Divination", the haunting "The Clairvoyant" stayed with me like a dream: "I will hand out the seeds of mourning" (83). Do you think this is related to how your poetry speaks to the subliminal?

RD: Your question makes me happy because I feel so understood by what you ask. Yes, I do think poems are meant to create spaces in which the writer and reader meet at the level of preconscious or subconscious knowledge. Once I knew what the book was about I wanted very much to have the intimations of the first part recur in other parts of the book. We carry our history around with us even if we are not thinking about it and I wanted the reader to carry the somewhat elusive experiences of the first part into later parts of the book. As I write this I am once again aware of how much Joyce's "The Dead" has shaped my thinking about narrative progression. It's a story I've taught so many times and I love teaching it to people who have never read it. I love the way it feels almost like a shaggy dog story - the reader wonders a bit why s/he is being dragged through this long party— and then at the end the reader is hit in the solar plexus and upon reflection realizes that every word, every minute of the story has been leading to that ending. It's been working on us subliminally every step of the way. I think (and I'm only realizing this now, as I write this) that in some way that shaped my thinking about the book. We don't know what the experience amounts to or leads to until the end and then I hope that the reader becomes aware that hints have been there all along.

SG: Yes, there is something about emotion that cannot be articulated, or seen, or realized at the time, at the doing, it's a little like cleaning a window pane and wondering why you can't see that beautiful view while you're still cleaning...Throughout Word Has It there seems to be a dialogue between instinct, logic and memory. Here I'm thinking of history and repetition. Of knowing and realizing. Of the self, identity and society.

For example, in "Habitual" the link between reading and the experience of reading allows the writer/reader to understand how a murderer works:

"Murders in books are acts of imagination but after a while the mysteries become quotidian...She learns that serial murderers begin to leave less and less time between crimes because the kick doesn't last. The writer understands this. The body gone, there is only language. Serial murderers leave notes, write in code...They want to be found" (17).

And in "The Future" people are yelling warnings "herding cats, herding cats" (22) but there are no cats and no herds but still the tension builds, until just one striped cat "lost and small, chasing a tail" runs into the station.

Perhaps you could comment on how that dialogue between instinct (body), logic (public/political narratives) and memory (mind) plays out in the collection? (Again, I'm thinking of the personal and the political here).

RD: Again, your question goes right to the heart of what I'm interested in. The items you list - "instinct,"" logic,"" memory", "history," "repetitions, ""knowing" and "realizing," the "self," "identity,"" society" seem a gloss on psychoanalytic process. I didn't realize how deeply that process has impacted me. As a practicing analyst and a teacher who uses psychoanalytic theory as a framework for teaching writing I'm always working with these elements. And since to practice you do need to be in the process yourself I am always in the midst of my own encounters with the elements in that list. So how could they not influence my work? I do think that the way all these things add up, and that's hinted at in "Habitual", is that the self wants to discover itself but also wants to be known by others. That is the dream of the writer, to be found and known for the work that's been created out of body and mind. I believe that poems begin in the body and at their best are experienced in the body by the reader. As for the political (and as I said earlier, there was no intention to write a political book) it seems to me that we live our lives in a political and social context. Psychoanalysis would fail in its ethics if it did not include the social and political experience of individuals in its work. The people I sit with bring not just their personal or familial history to bear but also their cultural, political, economic, and historical context into the consulting room. That has to be honored and integrated. The personal is political and vice versa. I hope that answers the question.

SG: I totally agree with you - the political is both personal and the personal political and as artists this must be honored and integrated into our work. The link between the body and words, feeling and comprehension really stood out for me. Can you talk a little about the progression of the internal and external narratives that lie behind the collection, summarized, for me by the line that serves as an opening and an ending to "Compulsion and Sorrow": "I tell one story, then another, and it is always the same story" (24). And also by the beautiful and sorrowful "The Gates" where the past, represented by lapis, fig and duty, holds the narrator.

RD: If I understand your question you are asking about the relationship between the sub textual narrative and the one that is on the surface. A question, I guess, about surface and depth and maybe about the fictional and the autobiographical. Maybe the best way to describe this is that I am the child of refugees. My parents left Europe in the 1940s, well into the war, and by circuitous means ended up in the United States. The sense of exile was very strong in them and so in me. The exile's child is also an exile and the awareness that fascism is latent in America was with me from an early age. So the surface text is very much what is happening in the world today. The subtext is my terror that we will repeat what my family endured. "The Gates" suggests that past that is the burden of history, the "duty" is both a price to be paid and an obligation to be fulfilled. I guess I have always felt myself an outsider, a refugee in my own culture, and that does, I think inform the book far beyond any conscious intention I had. Your question has made me aware of that, so thank you.

SG: That is quite uncanny - there was something in the collection that was beyond it, and seemed to speak to me the way places often do; now, I, in return, am made aware and I thank you.

Some of the poems use every day images to represent the duality of meaning. For example, the images of the bees, and the eggs, and the simple familiarity of a glass of water in "Compulsion and Sorrow". In the second part of the collection, "Every Room in the house", "Beauty, Where You Find It" is chilling with the juxtaposition of beauty, comfort and violence: "The pretty scarf, the color of sunset, hangs around her/ neck. Who thought she could be so burdened? Who thought/she would take it on?" (45) And in the stunning "Habitation", twelve sections of inhabiting a house and its rooms. Do you ever use imagery as prompts or are you ever inspired by paintings, cinema and so on?

RD: Whatever imagery there is in my work is hard won. People often comment on the use of abstraction in my work so it's exciting to be asked about the images. I think my imagery comes from the everyday objects in my life or from some constellation of appropriated imagery that I find in relation to some larger abstract idea. When I landed on augury, for example, in the poem by that name that was written on Yom Kippur, I became interested in divination and so started researching Roman practices of divination. Roman divination because my family lived in Rome and it had special meaning for me. The bird material came out of that reading. The abstract idea became a kind of constraint to guide me as to what to look for. One of the sections of Habitation was inspired by a film made by the Brothers Quay, but that is unusual. More generally I am triggered by language or concept and then I have to find my images. It's a serious hunt.

SG: Really interesting. Much of what I write comes from an image or a sensory prompt and in a lot of cases, dreams, so the idea of writing from concepts is interesting to me. I'm also fascinated how your writing - poetry, in particular - has, it seems to me, helped other facets of your working life blossom, as well as many years teaching adults and non-traditional students at university level (and you're now teaching and consulting privately), you're also a qualified psychoanalyst. How do these professions affect or influence your poetry?

RD: Perhaps it's really the other way round. As far as I can tell I've been a poet since I was a child and to my mind that claim has to do with a way of seeing the world and experiencing reality. While poesis has to do with "making" there is much more to poetry than the making of an object. In Word Has It the central section has to do with the speaker's failed effort to retreat from the world into the domestic. By the end of the second section the speaker has to take on her vocation as poet and that has to with the obligation to attempt to see the world with clarity and foresight. It's kind of a doomed effort, but it's a necessary one. So in my work as a teacher and analyst I bring that sense of poetic vocation to the task. I don't, for example, teach the usual workshop method that involves handing poems around and critiquing them. Rather, I engage students in the kinds of spontaneous and improvisational processes that I perform with myself and those processes always involve physical experience, linguistic constraint, and formal structure. Constructing a class for me is constructing a poem. The students write in my presence while I watch and wait. This comes from my psychoanalytic training - D.W. Winnicott's work has influenced my own in profound ways. His essay "The Capacity to Be Alone" shaped my work in many ways. And when I'm in private sessions, either teaching or consulting as a therapist, I am always listening for the language people are using. I think of each person as creating the poem of his or her own life and my skill as both teacher and analyst is to help a person read the poems they are writing. None of that would be possible without my own poetry.

SG: Oh the other way around - how wonderful! I read some of Winnicott's work as part of my PhD research on how we can articulate traumatic events, turn them into words. I really like your approach to workshops and the practice of writing, very interesting and also very inviting. So, Ruth, to end the main part of our questions and answers, I'm interested in the publishing house Nirala Publications who are "the largest publishing house in the world for publications on Nepal and Himalayan culture". How does this collection fit into their remit?

RD: I think that Nirala is interested in establishing itself in the US and so Yuyutsu Ram Dass Sharma, the distinguished Nepali poet who scouts for them, comes to The US frequently. In thee course of his own work as a poet he meets American poets whose work he would like to promote. It was a lucky thing for me that while I was at NYU I was asked to curate an international reading series. Yuyu was the first writer we featured, at the request of the person who had previously run the series. That was great good luck for me. We got to know one another and after reading my work he asked for a book. Word Has It is the result of that happy good fortune.

SG: To finish off, some fun questions. Firstly, city or countryside?

RD: Both. I lived in New York City for many years and had a country house as well. Now I live in Beacon NY and work two days in the city and still have my country house. I go to the country when I need to concentrate. I need both trees and sidewalks.

SG: I live in a town that used to be a small village but as it's by a river and a large Palladian house complete with woods, it has kept something of the town/countryside feel. Like you, I need to be near nature, but I also love the buzz of the city. Words or images?

RD: Words, words, and more words.

SG: I guess it has to be words, doesn't it?! Dogs or cats?

RD: Cats and cats. I have a Gizmo - big grey boy - and Ella - sweet tabby.

SG: Oh I am such a cat person too! I have a tuxedo cat, Lucky who is black and white. Do you have a favorite drink for when you're writing?

RD: Coffee in the morning. Perrier all day. White wine at night.

SG: I'm a coffee person myself, though when I'm on long stretches, big pots of tea are always by my side. What are you reading right now?

RD: Just started Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick and am reading Hey, Maria by Jeffrey Yang. Downloaded Dark Money by Jane Mayer. That's in the wings.

SG: I love Gornick's work though I have yet to read Fierce Attachments. I shall look up Jane Mayer and Jeffrey Yang. Thank you for the recommendations. So, what is your next writing project?

RD: I am working on a memoir about growing up on the grounds of a mental hospital, where my mother was a staff psychiatrist. Like many of the other doctors she was a refugee. The story has to do with our relationship, with the way that aspects of history got replayed in that strange setting, and with my own process of Americanization. Even though I was born here my sense of myself was European and I had to find my way out of exile and into the experience of my generation. The draft is nearly done and I hope to finish it this summer.

SG: Well that sounds like quite an amazing and moving book, Ruth. I really look forward to reading it. Tell me what is your next teaching project?

RD: I will be teaching private classes in Beacon this fall as well as classes for New York Writers Workshop. I will also continue to work one on one with writers and visual artists.

SG: If only I were nearer to New York - I love the idea of your processes in workshop settings! Thank you so much, Ruth, for a warm and generous response to my, at times, probing questions. I wish you much success and joy in every aspect of your life.

RD: Thank you so much for this conversation. I enjoyed it and learned more about my own work. That is exciting.

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