It Complicates Things: On Art, Isolation, and Pandemic with Mary Ruefle
In an interview with Seven Days last December, Vermont poet laureate Mary Ruefle describes herself as “an extrovert who doesn’t like leaving her house.” Perhaps she is just the literary leader for our times. Famously “unplugged,” Mary is old friends with isolation—it is, as she says, “a writer’s dream come true.” This writer can relate. And yet, as Mary also noted in our recent conversation, even dreams come true are complicated in a time of pandemic.
Mary has lived in Bennington since the 1970s. She is beloved around the world for her poetry and prose, and her honors include a Guggenheim, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Whiting Award. Her most recent book, Dunce (Wave Books, 2019), was longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry. Beside me on my desk right now I have her marvelous book of prose, My Private Property, and another poetry collection, Trances of the Blast. Mary’s website is designed to feature her erasure books, “which can otherwise not be seen as they are old, friable, one-of-kind things.” She taught for over two decades in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, which is where I had the pleasure of being her student. Mary is easy to talk to, whether about writing, rain, relationships, or ashtrays. We spoke over the phone recently about art and social isolation, and the mysterious interconnection of all things.
Editor’s note: In the course of this interview it is stated that 25% of COVID-19 carriers are asymptomatic. Recent studies of COVID-19 carriers suggest that number is higher, at 44%. Also mentioned is Montpelier’s Bear Pond Books’ curbside pickup program, which to clarify is open as of Monday, April 20 to local orders through the Bear Pond Books website only.
This interview is a transcript of a conversation conducted via telephone between Mary Ruefle and Desmond Peeples. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Desmond Peeples: How are you holding up?
Mary Ruefle: I’m okay. I mean, you know, we’re all in the same boat. What can I say? It’s scary, but I’m glad I’m not in New York. I mean, it’s scary here too, but it could be worse.
Desmond: I remember hearing that during your tenure as Poet Laureate, you intend to mail 1,000 poems to 1,000 Vermonters. Can you tell me a bit more about that project? And has the pandemic changed your plans?
Mary: Oh, that’s a project that I applied for a grant for. If the grant comes through, I would do it big time and do 1,000. But I have started it, and I plan to do it even if I don’t get the grant—but I am doing it in a more limited capacity, if that makes sense, 500 poems or something. It’s a lot of postage and stuff.
Yeah, I’ve sent out twenty, and I thought that this is a perfect time to begin to do it, with everyone being at home, receptive for getting a poem. But I haven’t gotten a list of Vermont addresses yet, so what I’m using is the last phone book I received, which was a 2016 Bennington phone book. So, they’re all going locally here in southern Vermont. But yeah, 2016. I hope they haven’t moved!
It is a good thing to do. I should do it in earnest and spend the entire day and get a bunch out, but my thing is just one a day. I literally open the book at random and choose an address. I try to do one man and then one woman, one female name, one male name, to be fair.
Desmond: Have you done anything like this before, lots of mailed poems or mailed art?
Mary: No. It’s a project I came up with to keep myself at home. That was serendipitous.
Social isolation is a writer’s dream. It’s a writer’s dream come true. Everyone I’ve talked to among my writer friends, we all are kind of ashamed, but we have to admit, we love it. But it’s also fraught with a great deal of anxiety and pain, because we pay attention, and we are aware of the illness and death and the loss of income for people. These are devastating circumstances. When your dream is fulfilled through such terrible suffering, it becomes a very strange thing. Does that make sense?
Desmond: It does. I also see so many people saying they want to write during this time, but that they can’t. They feel that boon of circumstance you spoke about, but the anxiety stops them. They can’t pick up a book and read. They can’t put pen to page.
Mary: Artists have always felt this way in times of catastrophe, it happened in 2001. I do feel the anxiety, I’m worried all the time, especially because my husband and I are elders. But it’s not stopping me from reading, my god, no. Now’s the time to pick up that 1,000-page novel that you wanted to get around to someday.
So I’m not suffering from the anxiety of not being able to work, at least, knock on wood, as of today. I have so many projects going and so many things that I want to get to. And I was personally affected because I support myself by traveling around. I travel in the country doing poetry gigs, and everything is canceled. New York, California—I mean, the traveling stopped. But I’m fortunate because I have enough money to live on without doing that through Social Security and stuff. I’m not freaking out yet about that.
But yeah, it’s a dream situation, but one that’s brought about through terror and anxiety, which really complicates things. But one thing I hope comes out of this is that people fall in love with reading again, or families come around to spending time together and doing things that are not online. And also paying attention, noticing the birds in their backyard, which they never would if they were at work.
So, I’m hoping that those things happen… but I could be naive. I have friends that have teenaged children, and the teenagers could care less about reading or looking at the birds. They’re frustrated because they’re teenagers, as they should be. Social interaction is number one on a teenager’s list. But the mom says, “Well, let’s play Monopoly,” and the kids roll their eyes. I’m hoping, I think with older adults, that it will increase readership.
Now you probably know this more than I, but I was told you can’t order books on Amazon because they’re considered non-essential. I was told that, but do your homework.
Desmond: Oh really? That sounds like a mean joke.
Mary: It’s horrendous. Yeah, it’s absolutely horrendous. Now is the time where they might sell more books. Someone might want to order a book about the 1918 Spanish flu and learn history. I was told you can order toilet paper from Amazon, if they have it, but you can’t order books. That’s what I was told. Now, bookstores and libraries, the libraries in Vermont were allowing you to check out, but they ran into some hygienic problem and, to the best of my knowledge, now they can’t. The bookstore here in Bennington is still doing curbside pickup. You can order a book and go outside and pick it up through the bookstore. Someone told me Bear Pond [in Montpelier] was doing that.
Books are essential in times like these. Books have always been essential in social isolation. For instance, someone who is not an artist or a writer said to me, “You’re lucky because you know how to do this. You’re used to it. You’ve always worked from home. You are completely satisfied when you’re left to your own devices. But the rest of us are not. It’s new to us and it’s hard.”
I mean, there are things I miss. I miss my swimming pool, the YMCA. I miss my thrift store. But that’s about it. I miss seeing my friends. I’m not seeing my friends here in person. So, does my life feel different? Yes and no. Again, it’s complicated.
Desmond: Does it remind you of any other periods in your life, periods when what was going on in the world or around you changed your creative practice?
Mary: I haven’t thought about it, but off the top of my head, I would say the answer is a sad one. It reminds me of a period in my life when my life was in upheaval, and I was very depressed, and I had no money, and I had no friends. I was what’s called socially isolated because of many circumstances. That was a very difficult time and I did not go out and see anyone. But when I went out, I was not afraid of getting sick.
Desmond: Do you remember how your writing felt then? The way you related to your practice, was that any different?
Mary: It was off the charts! But again, knock on wood, right now I don’t feel my writing is affected at all. I suppose because while I am writing, I am in a place that is very much isolated itself, almost like when I write my mind is in a bubble.
Desmond: That reminds of that someone-who-wasn’t-an-artist-or-writer who said that you were lucky, that artists are lucky to have gone through this kind of distancing in an internal way. Do you think they meant that what we create provides the people who haven’t gone through it with some kind of roadmap?
Mary: They have no roadmap, but I think they’ll find their way. I mean, people who have hobbies, they can say, “Well, I have a kit in the basement to put together that airplane or that doll house, and I guess now I can do it.”
Or even people getting back into cooking is a big thing from what I hear. You make a recipe that, if you were coming home exhausted from work, you simply would not care to take the time for. But now, hell, you’ve got all day.
I suppose in my very specific case, there’s another reason I’m familiar with social isolation. I don’t have a computer, and I don’t network. I mean, I have an iPad and I look at the news. I have some friends who are stuck in Europe and I email them. But other than that, being online is not part of my life. I don’t need any social media. So, I’m used to that. I suppose all that’s a lifesaver for people now. But me, I’m reading, I’m writing, I’m cooking, I’m watching films.
Desmond: Can you see your neighbors from your house? Do you interact with them much?
Mary: I live in a house where I only have one neighbor. Because I have an empty lot on one side, a parking lot on the other, and a church across the street. But behind me there is a house, and I am looking at my neighbor right now. I’ll describe that situation. The house is empty. It’s been empty for over two years. It was for sale and now it’s not. No one lives in the house, but my neighbor is homeless and living on a tiny, covered stoop off the back of the house. I know him, I’ve talked to him. I’ve known him for five years. I left him a bag of food yesterday and some water.
But I’m looking at him how. He’s rolling his sleeping bag up and waiting to start the day. Yesterday I brought food and told him, but I was 10 feet away. He could hear me. I left it in the driveway of the house. He asked me to do him a favor, and I said, “What?” He said, “Would you drive me to Willy’s?” That’s this mom and pop grocery store.
I said, “No, I would not do that because we would not be six feet apart.” He kind of blew up. He can be difficult. He blew up because he’s not taking the virus seriously. He thinks people are overreacting, and he said, “I don’t have a disease.” I said, “I know you don’t, but I could.” 25% of the carriers are asymptomatic, and I don’t think he watches news.
And I simply said, “No, I won’t.” He got mad. But I gave him all this food. Yeah, my only neighbor is a homeless man. Because my house is on a hill, I can see him, look down and see him. I’m looking at him as I’m speaking to you. But I’ve written about him before. I have a whole long essay about having a homeless neighbor.
Desmond: I hope he stays safe through this. Do you hope to send poems to homeless shelters or folks who don’t have houses, anything like that?
Mary: No, I wouldn’t have any way because I need an address. I suppose one could take a bunch of anonymous envelopes to a shelter and say, “distribute these.” I’d have to think about that. In a way, it seems condescending and presumptuous.
Desmond: I hear that. The arts have been so struck by this pandemic. People are losing their incomes. Organizations are having to close. They don’t know when they’ll be able to open again, if at all. And yet, there are so many folks who feel, because they are in the arts, they don’t want to act like they need attention or relief, or like the arts are an “essential” part of everyday life.
Mary: Oh, of course, but artists don’t know how to build respirators. Art is what we know, and it is essential. But the whole issue is a toughie, and it’s always been with us.
I mean, let’s say you have $10 to give, and you have a choice. You can give it to a homeless shelter or you can give it to a poetry organization. It’s always a choice. Most people would give to the homeless shelter, but an artist would give it to the poetry. Artists tend to support the arts given a choice, if you’re in a position to be able to do that. But you know, I have a firm belief that, in the end, everything is deeply interconnected in very mysterious ways. I mean, there’s a sense in which you could give your money to the homeless shelter and you could end up affecting the arts. Or you can give your money to the arts and it ends up affecting the homeless. Someone might write a poem that, for some mysterious reason, comes to the attention of someone who has a lot of money, and the poem deals with homeless shelters, and so they give their money to homeless shelters.
You don’t know how these things are going to play out. Every action results in another action, which then results in another action. Different religions have little tales about this, that something good happens but it leads to something bad happening, or something bad happens but it leads to something good happening. You don’t where the streak’s going to end.
Right now, what am I doing? I am buying food for my homeless neighbor, and I bought elastic headbands so my sister can make masks because she’s frantically involved in a mask-making project, but there’s no elastic available for these women who are sewing. So, she needs elastic, so I am procuring elastic for her. What else do we do? We do what we can. I’m still writing and reading.
Desmond: What are you reading right now?
Mary: I’m reading an 800-page novel by Trollope. And I’m always reading a poetry book at the same time. I’m reading Tomas Tranströmer, a late Swedish poet. He won the Nobel Prize 10 years ago.So, I’m reading Trollope and Tranströmer. Hey, they both begin with T.
I do what I have to do. I go out and about. I wear a mask and gloves. It makes everyone feel like a superhero. And then the mail comes. What do you do when the mail comes? I guess I pick it up, I bring it in, I wash my hands. Then I open it and read it, then I wash my hands again. I still don’t know what to do. Somebody told me that you can disinfect paper by hanging it in sunlight.
You hang your money bills or anything paper on a clothesline in the sun. That’s what I was told. But have I done that? No.
I feel like the world will never be the same, but many events cause us to feel that way.
Desmond: That’s true. And yet this one, like so many big events in the modern day, feels like it has a grander impact—though that may just be because of the way that we communicate so instantly.
Mary: What’s interesting about a pandemic is that it affects every country and every person in the world.
But bad things can, as we were saying, lead to good things. You may have heard that the canals of Venice are clearer, that you can actually see fish because the tourists are gone.
The air quality—was it in Paris or London?—improved 30% in the first days of the lockdown because of the lack of traffic. In northern India you can see the Himalayas for the first time in thirty years. So, everyone staying home is helping the environment. Nature has her own system of checks and balances, who knows but that the pandemic is one of them.
Desmond: There are so many people who are hoping that this is a kind of watershed moment for humanity, like the kind of millenarian, how-do-we-turn-this-era-over moments we see throughout history. What do you think when you hear that?
Mary: I hope it’s true. I personally will not be around to see the end results of it, but it would be really nice if the environment became the number one global concern.
But there’s one thing it’s not affecting—look out your window and tell me what you see. The robins are coming back. The trees are budded. Things are coming up out of the ground. The green things are beginning to grow and sprout. As a poet, those are the things I notice. I’m not ashamed of that. There’s always something hopeful about spring.
“As if nothing had ever happened.
and the willow,”
That’s one of the haiku I have mailed out anonymously.