As a whole, Ritual and Bit seems to blend past, present, and future to create a pseudo-tense in which the reader is submersed in all three at once; that is, that the reader is forced to reflect with the poet, pray with the poet, and look forward with the poet constantly. You open the book with this sort of amalgam in “In the Garden,” mentioning “loved ones disappear like fog,” “children laughing, dragging, kicking,” and that “I will be a reward in the cellar.” Is this idea reflective of your process? How do you draw on past, present, and future as influence for your poems?
That pretty much sums up my life: resisting change, feeling ambivalent about the future, obsessing over all of it; it’s unceasing, and therefore plays out most when I sit down to write. I don’t think I’m consciously drawing on it; if anything I’m trying to exorcise these obsessions. There’s a whole industry of self-help propaganda telling us to forget the past and, as the Bible says, “strain toward what is ahead.” Sure, that would be nice. I would love to do that.
But it’s bullshit.
Without getting in over my brain talking about physics and eternalism, whether we like it or not, the past is with us; I think all points in time are real, and they’re always changing. I’m particularly interested in how this functions when it comes to trauma. Current trauma is contingent upon past trauma and visa versa, but the past has the upper hand: it besets the present. The fabric of time as it functions in our imaginations is patchwork, pinned and stitched and always getting torn and repaired. Art allows us to try to hold it all up to a light.
It seems that you pay very close attention to crafting images in your poems. For instance, “In Pine Barrens” invokes a very specific place in the title, but the poem travels through many different spaces, “shoulder high grass” and a “parking lot.” Do you find place plays a significant role in your poems? Do you draw on place as a means for reflection, or ties to specific memories?
I have a gut feeling, however erroneous, that in order to be a person, I must be in a place. But this is complicated because I left the place where I was raised a long time ago, the place I refer to as home, where much of my family still lives. For various reasons, I escaped that place, but escape can also be self-exile.
Since I left home over twenty years ago, I’ve felt placeless and I think that on an unconscious level, that makes me question whether I’m still a person. I think this relates to your last question—poems can enact the imagination mulling over the debris of the past. The reoccurring images in my work, which I keep trying not to put into poems, are often the images of where I grew up. There’s definitely an urge to safeguard these memories inside the poem (inside the stanzas, the poem’s locked rooms), and maybe this is also an attempt at self-preservation.
The first poem in my first book is called “Bone Map.” (Things are about to get dark.) When I was a kid, my girlfriend’s mom was missing, and later they found her body in the woods outside my hometown. And ever since I left home, I’ve been obsessed with it. In grad school, I came upon this term “bone map” when reading the court transcripts from the trial. In forensics, these maps record all the bones, clothing, jewelry, and other evidence at a murder scene.
Poems can act like bone maps. I hope they’re not murder scenes, but all these fragments of place, each image that you cull from your memory, hold meaning for you even if they’re all disarticulated, maybe put in the wrong landscape, much like they might occur in dreams. I have to believe that the collection, combination, and placement of these images in a poem adds up to something meaningful, and for me, when I’m writing the poem, I hope it solves something.
Of course, writing only about the place you know might get pretty boring. I think it can be more fascinating, more revealing to write about places you’ve never been to. I heard that after writing the poem, Yeats tried to row out to the Lake of Innisfree but couldn’t find it. I hope that’s true; I don’t know if it is, but to me that factoid makes the speaker’s unfulfilled longing sting a little more.
It’s interesting that you use “In Pine Barrens” to ask about place in this book. I’m infatuated with the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. They’re picturesque and eerie in all the right ways: ghost towns, pitch pines, the Jersey Devil… c’mon. The Pine Barrens are everything a poet could ever need. And I’ve never been there. (Full disclosure: I did go to Six Flags in high school, but that doesn’t count.) I don’t want to indulge in explicating my own work, but I think that poem addresses what I’ve been talking about: the speaker has lost his companion—his familiar has abandoned him in unfamiliar territory— and he is left with only himself.
I hope he makes peace with that. I hope he’s a person. Also, I have every intent of going to the Pine Barrens.
The section entitled “Cross the Bridge Quietly” is taken from the Estonian myth. Did this myth play a role in the inspiration for the poems, or was it after the section was written that you decided on that name? There are clear divisions throughout this section, yet none of them are titled. Presumably, this reflects the title of the section, in that the reader is indeed crossing a bridge of sorts. What was your intent with this section? Is it meant to be read as one long poem taking different forms, or rather individual poems?
Instead of a single voice mulling over memory, I wanted to get two people’s perspective of a shared past. So I imagined these two people who used to love each other standing in the setting of their love affair. For most of it, the setting was Estonia, and I drew on traditions, stories, and images from that place. I wanted to get these two people to reflect candidly with each other, which we rarely do because it can be so painful to find out how differently we experience common experiences.
I didn’t want to pick sides. I wanted them to lead me. The logic of that allowed me to try to push form and language in each section. Although fragments of it had been written earlier, the whole thing was one of the last poems I wrote for the manuscript, and I was surprised by how it felt like an actual bridge in the landscape of the book.
Speaking of form, you utilize a number of different poetic forms, from prose to couplets to a sort of dialogistic style, to name a few. What does poetic form mean to you and how does it relate to content? For instance, “The Six Swans” is a prose poem of a man chasing a beast and then freezing to death as he sees the beast. Are your poem’s stylistic elements predetermined, or do you allow the form to find itself?
The poem’s form is almost never predetermined when I write. There’s something in me (maybe it’s OCD) that wants control, wants symmetry— neat stanzas with even lines— and I think it’s important for me to push against this. I love prose poems; on the surface, they don’t flaunt their artistry, yet they’re filled with trails and warrens, they can mislead and come back. Almost all of the poems I write, I try in prose at some point.
I’ve also learned a lot from erasures; I erase most of my poems. Sometimes I leave these gaps on the page but most of the time I don’t. Still, the act of erasing often changes the form.
Why did you choose to end the collection with “Introduction to What You Are About to Read”? Is the poem alluding to what the reader will encounter after reading Ritual and Bit, or is it reflective on what has already been read? I found that it seemed to be a bit of both of these things, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this paradoxical choice.
I’m more interested in how readers might interpret the placement that poem, but honestly, for it to stay in the book, there was nowhere else it could go. There are a series of litanies spread throughout the book, and many other poems use anaphora or epistrophe; the final poem is a part of those while breaking away from them. In a book that struggles to find ways to control, the speaker of this poem has taken over. I hope there’s more to it than this, but it seemed to work as a coda that might propel you into the future or back to the beginning or into nothing.
In Pine Barrens
through shoulder high grass
like this he said and held out
his arms until we reach
a parking lot Recited to each
other our birthmarks: anything
if a lake and then if what
was said We made logic
out of 40s thought up nuanced
narratives of what our lives
would be mostly our
lives were should I wear
shoes or boots
Then my favorite
ran off I couldn’t
hold on to him
not even with teeth I went looking with
unripe apples I tried to call him
but his name what was
stuck in my windpipe
He could hear me
choking and could smell
the apples but he raced toward
something that would make
my insides burn Past pine
in the parking lot now
I’m all I can tell you
Rob Ostrom is the author of The Youngest Butcher in Illinois (YesYes Books, 2012). He teaches at New York City College of Technology and Columbia University, and lives in Ridgewood, New York.
Nick McMenamin is a student in the College of Liberal Arts at Temple University, where he studies English with a concentration in creative writing. He is a resident of the city of Philadelphia.