Volume 5: DISAPPEARANCE

Friday, November 19, 2010

Andrea Rexilius, "A Conversation with Bin Ramke"

Andrea Rexilius

Bin Ramke on Folding an Origami Crane, Laura (Riding) Jackson, the Pastoral and More

Andrea Rexilius: In your book, Matter, you bring up, among other things, a relationship between mathematics and writing. How did this relationship between the two begin for you and why does it remain important to your work?

Bin Ramke: It began for me in stages. In my high school years I assumed I would be a mathematician when I grew up. During the summer of my sophomore year I studied in a National Science Foundation program at the University of Texas with a then-famous mathematician named R.L. Moore, and John Ettlinger. Moore did foundational work in point-set topology. I did not know, or understand the significance of this at the time. Some members of that group of students went on to do important work, but for me that was the high point of my mathematical experience, and it was where I began to understand just how much farther along others were than me. Then in my freshman year in college I encountered poetry, particularly Wallace Stevens in a course taught by then-graduate assistant John McNamara, who later became chair of the English Department at the University of Houston. Stevens’ poems were at first engaging to me in the same way many mathematical issues were—suggestive of clarity, suggestive of an area of precision not quite available, just beyond some human horizon. And in a way similar to the mathematical, the poetic suggested far more than it assured.

About nine years ago—maybe longer—I came across again the group photograph from that summer mathematics experience, and I tried to contact one or two of the people in the picture. The person I remembered most vividly was named Nathan Isgur. I found that he had died about a month before I started looking for him, and that he had fled the U.S. into Canada to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam era army (I merely failed the physical when I was called up—hardly a moral decision). In Canada he had done significant work in physics—his name is attached to certain phenomena in particle physics. The discovery of this life and death that had swerved away from mine, after a brief shared experience, caused me to go back into mathematics to some extent. I can read it, some of it, even though I can’t “do” it. I can read about philosophy of logic and mathematics, and I find this comforting at times, disturbing at other times.

I have tried presenting the parallels between poetry and mathematics in the classroom. I see both as involving claims of equality: poems progress by means of assumptions about similarities, in the form of metaphor, while mathematical formulae are exercises in balance, sides of an equation going through the most arcane and byzantine alterations, all of which are acceptable as long as the alterations occur symmetrically. But there is the idea of pattern, too—that both disciplines are about the discovery and/or creation of patterns among otherwise disparate events and things. Even the way each area continually questions “thingness”: what IS a “mathematical object”? what IS an image, a sound, a pattern of consonance? That the being of these “objects” tends to be understandable only as activities, as verbs, is terribly significant, and comforting.


AR: I see the title Theory of Mind as a statement of poetics, though perhaps a hidden or quiet one. This title refers to a book that encompasses excerpts from your previous work and includes a section of newer work. How did this title come to you? Could you describe how you see Theory of Mind engaging the various texts in this collection?

BR: I first encountered the term a few years ago while reading widely and generally on fetal and early childhood brain development. I admit that I was first simply attracted to the phrase itself, but then when I came to understand a bit more its implications—especially the very basic, very profound concept of a child having to learn that other people have minds, sort of like the child’s own, and the only way it can learn such a fact is somehow through its own mind—this came to seem to me the sort of phenomenon that making poems always engages, whether consciously or not. It all has something to do with empathy, a concept I consciously rejected for much of my life. I thought of the word as a pretension—I believed that one could be sympathetic, but never actually feel the feelings of others, and to pretend to do so was both arrogant and dangerous. What matters in relation to your question is that I am pushed to try to understand a boundary and to try to work with or against or through that boundary. The poem is a way.


AR: In the recent anthology Poets on Teaching you discuss Laura (Riding) Jackson's poem “As Many Questions as Answers” as a way to begin undergraduate poetry workshops. The exercise ends with the students pairing their questions with unintended answers. In the essay you discuss this exercise as a way to get the students to give up on “their individual ownership of poems.” Knowing LRJ's background and her relationship to poetry, this exercise becomes particularly interesting, not just because LRJ came to renounce poetry and its ability to “seek truth,” but also because of her adamant opinion that the poem should always mean beyond the poet and that poetry should not be commercial or profit oriented or movement oriented. I'm curious about how you feel about LRJ as a poet and in what ways you do or do not identify with her sense of poetry and poetics.

BR: I probably do not, in the end, identify with her sense of poetry and poetics, but I am nevertheless fascinated by both, but most of all by her poems and stories. I am aware that you, Andrea, know more about her work than I do, so I cannot speak authoritatively to you about this, but I think my attraction to her working with the idea of “truth” is that I cannot finally understand how she could believe it. That language could actually bear the weight she placed upon it. Well, in the end it couldn’t and she repudiated it.

But I need to move to the second part of your question—that the poem should mean beyond the poet, that it should not be commercial or profit oriented or, as you say, “movement” oriented. These are elements of the hope that poetry can tell “truth,” and I believe as she believed. Back when I was editing a book series for a university press I believed with a sort of missionary zeal that I was helping to find poems which could tell a truth the world didn’t know it needed, and I struggled against the economics of publishing, even the economics of university press publishing, to keep that series alive for twenty years. Each new director of the press was shocked at the tiny sales of these books, and when the third director I worked under first met with me she brought the print out of the actual figures. Finding a way for poems to operate without economic responsibility…well, whatever I thought I was trying to do was fraught with contradictions, in a way similar to some of Jackson’s contradictions (some of her statements in the 1930s about working class sufferings seem distanced from any felt responsibility).

For the moment I can only say that, first, I am impressed by Jackson’s ability to renounce poetry. That somehow she wanted something so important from it that she had to turn completely elsewhere when that something was not forthcoming. Second, I simply find that many of her poems, even against problematic personal and historical backgrounds, are astonishingly engagingly complex and beautiful—that particular poem in particular.

AR: As a teacher you're involved with two very distinct communities, the University of Denver and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In what ways does your presence in the classroom fluctuate from place to place?

BR: I am attracted to the SAIC because it is an art school—that is, certain unstated assumptions lie behind what happens there which differ from the unstated assumptions of a literary, academic environment. In practice this is not as clear as it is in my imagination, but I still find that the students at SAIC tend to turn my comments and questions into a practice, while the students at DU turn them into inquiries or answers. I like watching the two different tendencies.

AR: Are you able to engage assignments at SAIC that you aren't as likely to at DU?

BR: Yes, and there are things DU students do which are unlikely at the other institution. I suspect some of this has to do with my own implied expectations—the city of Chicago is deeply urban, full of the distractions and riches of the city, while Denver has some of that urban complexity but is also characterized by the lure of the mountains and the possibilities of escape. I am not sure that this matters to all students, but writers are always engaged with their surroundings in some way, even subliminally.

AR: At DU you teach a class on the Pastoral. I'm curious about how you experience and witness others (students, colleagues, friends) experience the pastoral (or lack of, or combination of) in Chicago and Denver or in general. It would also be interesting to hear a bit about the texts you select for teaching this course. What is the pastoral? Why is the pastoral a concept that you are drawn to?

BR: The rough distinction between city and country is at the basis of everything we do in the course, but we are as much concerned with urban as with rural issues. But the general overriding issues are all about narrative, and particularly the question of both why the narrative of Eden (retreat to an innocence represented by “nature” and return to “experience”) is so ubiquitous. To me the course is also about the fact that human beings constantly read their environment, and apply literary methods to the understanding of their surroundings.

I have them read The Country and the City, the Raymond Williams book of some forty years ago in which he looks at the binaries and bifurcations of pastoral through an economic, specifically Marxist, perspective. And then Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane, especially for its discussion of sacred versus profane space, and time. Meanwhile I keep bringing in handouts, primarily poems, from various eras so that we keep testing those large, general, sometimes dubious ideas against particular practices. A third primary text is Kevin Lynch’s technical sort of work, The Image of the City, which is about just exactly what its title suggests, and how people come to internalize place through images.

Each time I have taught this class the results have varied dramatically. Individuals seem to respond to some parts quite well, and reject others. It always turns out to be more of a struggle than I intended, with more interesting insights by the students than I could have hoped for.

Oh, and for the current version of this course I am using Thalia Field’s Bird Lovers, Backyard—a recent book which I find fascinating, but we have not gotten to it yet in class.


AR: Last year you spoke at a conference for DU honors students. As I recall, your talk focused mainly around a recent issue of the Denver Quarterly and the work therein. I wasn't able to attend this talk and I'm curious about what you said to them and how they responded. How do you contextualize the contents of a journal like the Denver Quarterly to students who are just beginning to read and appreciate poetry?

BR: I didn’t do a very good job. I find it is difficult to justify a literary journal and I am not sure an incoming freshman student, no matter how smart and educated, is prepared to hear about the significance of the community-on-the-page which such a journal perpetuates. I tried to demonstrate the subtle interactions among the poems and fictions and essays in a single issue of the journal, suggesting that it became a microcosm for the larger community.

Some years ago I encountered a comment by Edwin Moise, who taught mathematics at Harvard for many years—he said the job of the teacher at the university level is to introduce the student to the intellectual life as actually lived by the teacher. That prescription is daunting, since I am not sure how much of my internal life will bear scrutiny by students or anyone else. But I tried to suggest something of the sort during my attempt to talk about the Denver Quarterly. A journal exposes something about the lived internal life of the editors but it also becomes something of a mind, a consciousness itself subject to the investigations of its readers. The images and ideas of our writing and our publishing is a part of the life we live—they cannot be disembodied, they cannot be understood as isolated and refined into anonymity.

I tried to say something like that.

AR: One of my favorite things about the writing workshops you teach are the contexts you have us bring in. You often begin courses with contexts: newspaper articles, youtube videos, short films, paintings, but these have always been to begin a conversation about the particular class we were in. I'd like to know how you might provide contexts for your own work. Thinking about your most recent collection, Theory of Mind, which is a retrospective, what contexts would you have us consider as engaging in a kind of conversation with that work? And, if you'd like, what particular conversation do you see happening between each of those contexts?

BR: Part of the context for that book includes the title, and the painting that was used on the cover, oddly enough. In some ways it is the least attractive cover for any of my books (and totally my fault), but matters the most. I wanted to use the Gerhard Richter painting because of Richter himself, and because the painting is imitative of a photograph (one of the strange complexities his work arouses), and because in the “scene” of this ersatz photo there is the faintest suggestion of geometric ordering implied on a natural landscape—faintly, one can see a set of fence posts arranged to isolate a square. And there is the title, a reference to the ability of (usually) a person (although I do think dogs have theory of mind) to attribute to others similar abilities to think and feel and desire that one has in himself. When I first began reading about this it seemed to me that the making of poems was both dependent upon this concept, and a kind of investigation of it. We offer the poem to the world with the understanding or hope that others might recognize it, might re-know something by finding in themselves the same thing we felt in our self.

But your question did not ask for a lecture on but simply to present the contexts. I would list a few films, starting with Wings of Desire, especially the scene in which the two angels sit in a car showroom and talk about what they observed during the day—no evaluation, just observation. And another bit of context might be a documentary on origami. Or just the making of a paper crane, the completely symmetrical sequence of folds which culminate in a catastrophe of asymmetry when you decide to make one end the head (and fold that little triangle down into the horizontal) while leaving the other end as the tail. And then I would have to find something to show about family, my relatives in Louisiana and Texas as well as the two people and a dog I live with here in Denver. Ideally, we would travel down to Abbeville, and feel the humidity and heat and hear the sounds of the swamp and feel the fear of insects—our own fear of these invasions of the flesh—and then certain aspects of these poems might start making more sense.

[Film #4: On Origami]

AR: What are you reading / thinking about lately?

BR: I am in a certain sense rewriting and dismantling and admiring the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”—I am collecting from books and online sources some of the written work of third and fourth century Christian ascetics—women, too, although the term “Father” is still part of the old terminology—especially the hermits, who are important in the Greek and Russian Orthodox practices. I have been sort of extracting God from the messages (it’s a long story) and twisting and examining the remaining issues and messages, and turning them into what I suppose are my own poems.

I also continue to read mathematical material—again, I stress that I cannot do mathematics, but I can read (some of) it, and read about it. I am reading about the accomplishments of Felix Hausdorff, a man whose work is crucial to a number of areas of contemporary mathematical thinking, who died (suicide) on the eve of being taken to the camps by Nazis, and who during his earlier years had also published plays and stories and poems under a different name.

AR: Would you speak a little about the cloud manuscript you are currently working on?

BR: The manuscript, under the title “Conspire,” was accepted for publication (scheduled for 2012, a date I cannot fully comprehend), so I am not really working on it now. I will probably take it up again as soon as the press begins to do some actual work with it, and I will panic and try to rewrite it and salvage it, but for now Im trying to ignore it. I am in a certain sense simplistic as a poet—the making of poems for me is an ongoing singular process which either is, or is parallel to, thinking itself. Which is to say I am not very good at having a defined project with boundaries that can be completed. I realized this during the process of trying to select from earlier books for that new and selected. In the end I didn’t do a good job because the process came to seem wildly arbitrary and random. So I focused on something specific within the books that I thought I could trace from the first one on to the most recent. That something was never fully defined in my mind, but it had to do (oddly enough) with narrative—not with a particular narrative, but with the contradictions of narrative, of finding continuity instead of mere sequentiality in the events of a life. The first several books were annoying connected with personal experiences, but after 1989 I think the poems began to connect to the wider world, the more interesting world. All of this seems NOT to be an answer to your question about this next book, but it is: my current work on that book is to put it aside. Then I will take it up and discover things about it, in particular I hope to see clearly how it fits into the larger trajectory of my own writing, but also how outside the contemporary it might be. Then I will return to working on it, and to rethinking its title (to con-spire is to breathe together, etymologically—and each poem in the book engages either the word or the idea of “cloud,” which etymologically engages both clod, earth, and cloud, the emanations of earth in the form of water vapor—and how those shapes, clods and clouds, echo each other visually, conspire with each other).

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Bin Ramke was born in east Texas, educated in Louisiana and Ohio, then taught in Georgia before moving to Colorado where he now lives with his wife and son.  He has published ten books of his own poetry, edited about eighty books for a university press, and has been editor of the Denver Quarterly for over fifteen years.  He is Phipps Professor of English at the University of Denver, and teaches occasionally for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


Andrea Rexilius completed her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Denver. She is the editor of the online journal Parcel, and co-editor of Marcel. She used to belong to the Denver Quarterly. Her first book, To Be Human Is To Be a Conversation, will be published in April 2011 by Rescue Press.
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RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume 4 (2010): Emergence

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