Interview by Jean Tobin with Bruce Renner
BR: I just wrote a new poem called "Things." A poem is a thing;
it's an object, or whatever you want to call it. You've made it.
It's this made thing. It's a bit like an animal leaving tracks.
I'm aware of the fact that I'm leaving these tracks behind me,
but I don't have a sense that this is terribly important for me
to do. Not that many people read my things. And even if you could
pick a famous poet, one of the twentieth century greats like T.S.
Eliot--he certainly left a lot of tracks but he's dead--you can't
take these with you. So it's a bit like resolving those moments
as cleanly as possible, in the present, if that makes sense.
JT: Yes, it does. Do you have a sense of your poetry as being
BR: Yeah, I'd say so.
JT: That doesn't go along with your tracks.
BR: Well, tracks only in that they're recognizable. They're
funny little squiggles. Poems are strange. And often pretty
momentary. I'd like to believe that by and large I've made some
fairly decent decisions, that there's something there that's
worth somebody else's time to read. I don't say that easily; I
think that's kind of an extraordinary thing for anybody to say.
I puzzle over it. Why do I suddenly think this book over here by
someone is worth reading, and this book isn't? I make those dis-
tinctions, we all do, and sometimes we agree about certain
writers and sometimes we don't. I think it's an incredibly
mysterious process. I can't even say why I believe some of my
poems are pretty good, but I do. I don't know where that comes
JT: Talk a little bit more about your writing in the present,
which you mentioned, writing in the present about past tracks.
BR: You decide you want to do something else with them; you
turn them in a slightly different way.
JT: When you think of your own creative process, what meta-
phors do you use?
BR: I use metaphors, but I don't think in them. Let me tell
you a story. I have this old friend, who I hadn't seen in twenty
years, who waved to me across the street and ran over, and he
said he recognized me because I had the same damn blank look on
my face I always had. For me a page has the same blankness. I
walk around, making connections, then I know I'm writing.
For me the pleasure is arriving somewhere through words,
when I'm writing that is. Working my way through what becomes
metaphor ultimately. In fact, I think that's how the mind works.
We're always making these comparisons between what we know and
what we don't know. I'm usually more interested in what I don't
JT: So you start out with a kind of blankness.
BR: It's hard to explain. Blankness itself is mostly a metaphor,
so what? For example, in the last few years I've repeatedly be-
gun to throw away each notebook I've begun. I used to keep all
these things like most everyone else. You can go back to them in
a dry time, or whatever. When you're hot you can turn even bad
writing into gold. So I don't have that any more.
I like writing on the edge, right now, better. I lose a
lot of writing that way, and I don't know how long I'm going to
do this. But it's exciting. It's right there, but you also have
to retrieve as you go. And you have to trust that, as well.
The best comparison that comes to mind is with athletics.
You can be in the middle of a baseball or basketball game, what-
ever it is, and suddenly take the game over. It's unconscious,
for the most part, it's not planned out. lt's you at your best.
JT: If I think of that moment happening in sports, you don't
have to think about making moves because your body does. How is
that like the way the mind works?
BR: It's actually not quite like that, because what I was talk-
ing about has to do with the game itself, which involves other
players. And competition, involving not just what you can do,
alone, but in relation to the other team as well as the players
you are playing with. I think, for me, writing is similar.
All of this sounds pretty self-referential, even to me.
Probably a lot of other writers are very solipsistic, too. You
are sort of at the center of your own universe when you are
JT: How does this sense of spinning off of other people come
into your writing?
BR: When you're in a game it's hardly solitary. The main dif-
ference from writing would be all the other things. Here, there
are a number of other buildings, for example. A larger gradation
of things to pay attention to. In writing, it can be a building
as well as another person, or anything else really. It's simply
bigger and more complex. It's not a sport.
I have long dry spells in my writing. But I also have long
writing jags. This is similar to sports.
JT: What does it feel like to be red hot in a game?
BR: What is the creative process? How can you be writing so
well one minute and so badly the next? Sports are like this too.
One of my best games, ever, was a baseball game. A doubleheader.
I taught myself to switch-hit, as a boy, by throwing up stone
after stone in the middle of a field, and learning how to hit
left-handed. I was four-for-four hitting from the left side in
the first game. Four home runs, each one just clearing the right
field wall. People were coming up to me and asking me for my
autograph. In the second game, trying to duplicate the first one,
I struck out all four times. You can go from being red hot to
ice cold in a nanosecond.
JT: Was it self-consciousness?
BR: Yes, I was trying too hard, I was too aware of myself. You
are dead, simply dead, when you try to hit all of those home
runs. They came naturally in the first game. So what does this
say about writing then? We tend to write ourselves out of things.
You can't go back. You have to learn to recognize the point when
it is over. You have to move on. I've often gone past that point
without recognizing it. When I realize I've lost it, I have to
work my way back.
JT: Ok, so then it's used up. Is what feeds it a new experiment
in the art itself?
BR: You know, in some ways, it's simple and complicated at the
same time. Doris Lessing thought that, on any given day, we have
a certain amount of energy, and you can choose whatever you want
to do with that energy. But, once it's used up, that's it. I hope
I got that right. We're getting into physics. But I think it's
true that there's a certain amount of energy for any given thing.
It's true weight; what's right for it. Maybe it's as simple as
saying you can get mentally or physically tired, or both. Maybe
you can draw from other resources, but according to Lessing, I
think, you're still borrowing. Somehow that energy gets borrowed
from the future, so it's like you have to sleep on it, or what-
Things always seem to be looking to find their place. If
you don't get certain things resolved, as you get older, they'll
come out in negative ways. Maybe that influences why I write. I
seem to need to find places for the things I've written.
JT: When you're red hot, does it matter what you write about?
Is there something that's not dependent on content?
BR: Yes and no. But I think it's dependent on all that energy
I was talking about. Where does it come from? Why do we choose
to focus it, or focus on it, in a certain way? Why do we pick
one particular interest at one time over another? When you're
red hot, you simply do this.
JT: So it's a focused intensity?
BR: Very intense; highly intense.
JT: What's the opposite of that?
BR: Depression? Did you burn yourself out up to that point
where you have so little energy left over? Jon Anderson, in his
book THE MILKY WAY, has a line I've never forgotten: "Feeling
the lulls endlessly." He's a wonderful poet.
JT: This is a different experience from lying fallow?
BR: Oh yeah, sure. My wife and I do a substantial amount of
gardening on our farm. I dig it all up every year by hand.
That's such a pleasure, to work the soil that way, every
spring. The inital process, especially, of digging every-
thing up. My wife is better at the rest. So when I think of
fallow periods, they seem to me to be very rich. But the
other, the depression, is something else. Henry Miller once
wrote, very romantically, about "the dark night of the soul"
--but it comes back. He got this from someone else, I for-
get who. The bottom simply falls out, then it comes back.
I think that's mysterious. Why does it come back?
JT: Where does the energy come from and what does it feel
BR: I think that, without sounding too psychological, I
become aware that it's time to write again. Usually, now,
it's in the morning. It used to be at night, when I was much
younger. It's a feeling mostly. A thread I want to follow.
That's how I begin... Maybe the word resolution is a good
one here. I can usually see the glimmers coming ahead of
time. There's this huge pool of things, most often, going on.
Maybe I have simply learned to pay attention to them. I heard
Joyce Carol Oates being interviewed, once, and she said that
she usually has several stories going on in her head at the
same time--or something like that. I'm not like that. Maybe
that's why I prefer the word blankness, instead. Except that
I probably have far more going on than I'm aware of, like
most of us, at any given moment. What happens in the act of
writing is that you become far more acutely conscious of this.
Sometimes I begin to feel extremely uncomfortable, even. So
in this regard my writing is about resolutions. But resolu-
tions about what? What the hell am I doing? I recognize,
however, that no one else can do it for me. Maybe it's an
absence, too, of any sort of formal religious belief that
makes me want to sort it all out for myself, to simply make
sense of what is going on. I was raised Catholic, however,
and that's still in my writing.
JT: What types of things help you to write?
BR: Well, I've always been pretty physical. So I think that
just getting myself back into feeling good physically helps.
I like to run, for example... Having this farm for seven years
has also helped. And I still play sports. Right now, this is
the longest I've ever been anywhere. But the first two years I
had the farm I didn't write anything about it. I thought that
was strange. I had a lot of work to do. It was an abandoned
farm, and I had to restore it. But in the last few years, it
seems, that's all I've written about. Or at least that terri-
tory, that space out there.
JT: Is that the farm of the "hung barn"?
BR: Yes. There are a number of hung barns where I live. The
beams and rafters along the top help support the floor boards.
They're actually hung with poles, so that the floor is in large
part supported by the ceiling.
JT: Do you use a notebook when you write?
BR: Usually not. Let me give you another example. The first
year I took the farm, I took a series of photographs. I cata-
logued the farm, for one full year. But I've never done that
before or since. I'm not a photographer. Most of the time, I
would not want to carry a camera around. Or a notebook. I don't
want to consciously alter the experience. I want the experience
itself, whatever it is, and maybe I'll do something with it later
and maybe I won't. But I don't want to be thinking about this in
the middle of it... I like driving. I like driving all night long,
but I've never wanted to write about it.
JT: So that is not a time for poetry?
BR: Not at that time. The sense of space I have about poetry,
the poems I do now, there's a lot I leave out. I'm that kind of
writer. I would say that driving all night long is very much like
me in that it feeds the inner space that ultimately results in a
JT: So how clearly do you envision the poem you are about to
BR: I seldom think about the form beforehand. But as I start
to write, it's just amazing to me, how it comes. Over the years,
I've written so much or little, depending on your point of view.
The form tends to write itself. I find myself writing a certain
way. And it's very different, depending on what I'm writing.
But there are certain signposts... I work in bits and
pieces, definitely. In some ways, my own work always feels
to me very fragmentary, and yet not, at the same time. I
tried, once, as an experiment to remove the titles from all
my work, maybe put numbers down or something, because they
felt so arbitrary.
You mentioned you liked my titles. I kind of like most
of them. John Koethe, on the other hand, doesn't seem to think
they matter very much. We've talked about this. It's just a
different point of view. But there they are, right? I put
JT: It's an art form in itself.
JT: When you're working with form, for example in the first
poem in THE LANGUAGE OF LIGHT AMBITS, you pull the lines out
to the left margin. Would you talk about that a little bit?
Which lines move out?
BR: You know, it's funny you picked that poem, because I
haven't written another poem quite like that. In the new piece
I mentioned, earlier, I have an image about a single bar of
light, and they're a bit like that in that particular poem in
LIGHT AMBITS ("Moon Winds"). A bit like bars. The title of the
poem comes straight out of a long, unpunctuated page from
THE AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCH (Marquez).
I do a lot of walking at night. I love the moonlight.
To go out into the garden under a full moon, for example. We're
totally isolated at the farm, in a deep valley, surrounded by
woods and unglaciated terrain. Uplands.
But, once I've found the form, I know I'm on the right
track... For some reason I like to keep changing forms, al-
though there are certain forms I like to come back to. I've
tended to prefer four-line stanzas in the last few years, for
example... I don't like to decide on a particular form before-
hand. I like to find it as I proceed, then go with that. If I
become too self-conscious it simply gets in the way...
And usage is fascinating. I love to dip into different
dictionaries at different times. I have a poem titled "In Praise
of Song." The last line comes from a beat-up old dictionary.
The definition of resonance: "The prolongation of sound by
reflection, by the bones of the head, and upper chest, and
by the air." If you look up resonance in any other dictionary
it certainly isn't going to sound like that. Isn't that amazing?
JT: Let me probe that a little more. You're talking about a
sense in which your poems are not quite your own. But you put
it in an unusual way, because some people will simply say that
this is a given...
BR: Yes, a particular awareness of language is not something
I have very many conversations about, except in situations
like these, or with close friends. You and I, in fact, are
carrying on this conversation in a very specific way. If the
guy who just delivered milk next door came over here we'd both
begin talking in a very different way, not out of any phony
considerations, but simply to be understood. We'd begin to talk
in a slightly different way.
For example, my neighbors closest to my farm wouldn't have
the faintest idea about many of the things I write about. There's
only one person I've shown anything to out there, and he's push-
ing eighty. His father built my farm, and he grew up there, spent
the first half of his life there. I wanted to share my poem,
"Finding an Abandoned Farm," with him. He said he'd read it and
let me know what he thought. I never heard a word from him about
that poem, but we're still friends.
But, to be fair, there are all kinds of peopleuniversity
people or whoever--who never know what to say to me about my
work... The fact is we can't possibly all be in touch with every
thing each of us does.
I have particular concerns, however, about how we all box
ourselves in. I try to be aware of that in terms of what I do.
JT: You were saying that you start with a kind of blankness.
Does that mean your writing starts before or after you actually
sit down to write?
BR: Well, it's not just the experience itself, but what it
means at the moment of writing, too. Both things. I have a poem
called "Los Angeles, 1944." It's about where, and when, I was
born. It's a kind of dialogue with myself. I tell my students
that language is one of the only ways in which you can deal with
time. You have all these different tenses, and you can make all
these shifts. It's one of the best ways to make sense of your
own life--past, present, and future.
JT: What a splendid way to look at verbs... Do you often work
with one poem at a time, or a series of poems?
BR: That's interesting. I usually let a particular book deter-
mine its own form in the same way I might work on an individual
poem. But generally I find I write five or six poems in a series,
at most, and then move on.
JT: Do you like revising?
BR: It's funny. Compulsive comes to mind! I think revising is
a bad word, bad for me anyway. I don't even think about it. Un-
til something is finished, I keep going after it. Whatever you
would want to call any part of the revision process, I would
call writing. It's all the same. The initial experience with
which you begin becomes a composite of possible experiences,
those that prompted you at the beginning as well as the end...
JT: Do you have procedures which help you start up after a
BR: Not really. If I feel I've gotten bogged down, I'm better
off doing something else altogether.
JT: At one point you were talking about your needing to write
your way through certain material, even bad writing...
BR: I think that even when you're writing badly the impulse
may be true. At least that's the way I work. I'm the prompter,
after all. I'm the one who wants to get it out. I think it's
important to do that even when things aren't going well...
I'm simply trying to get a little closer to who the hell I
am no matter what.
JT: How do you decide to send things out?
BR: Well, that's changed a lot for me over the years. I was
pretty organized at the beginning. I kept a card file, and tried
to keep things moving. I was typically eager to publish, but I
didn't have very much. I was in my early twenties. I sent out a
lot of bad stuff. Things I would never send out now. Yet I
was published in quite a few good, small magazines. Having
done that, I backed off. Then I found a publisher who liked
my books. So I stayed with them. Now it's time for a change...
I'd say a good share of what I've published has been
by invitation. But sending something out blindly and having
it accepted is wonderful, too, because it feels like there
are no strings attached.
I have horror stories, as well. Publishing can be ex-
citing and depressing at the same time. I think everybody
has these stories. You run into these buzz saws from time to
time. Somebody has an axe to grind.
JT: Does that kind of thing stop you from writing?
BR: It never has. I think that publishing and writing are
two completely different animals. I try never to confuse them.
I try to focus on the writing, and get that straight, then
worry about the rest later. People have a tendency to either
over-praise or over-kill. I've been an editor, and a reviewer,
and I've been dead wrong often enough...
It might be peculiar to me, but I like being wrong at
times. It wakes you up. It keeps you balanced, it really does.
And you can be wrong on both sides. Over-praising or under-
JT: Let me ask you this. What stages have you gone through
in your writing?
BR: I think we all get deluded at certain times. I think my
work is more whole, now, and clearer. But that's just the way
I feel. There are other writers who express the same thing...
I'm aware that I might be full of self-delusions myself. For
example, it's curious how many writers claim their new work is
their best. That they've gotten better. This simply isn't true
most of the time. Some things are simply better than others.
For most of us, they're kind of spotty. This clearly, for what-
ever reason, is the creative process. You have certain periods
when things are better. Things are certainly not getting better
all the time. But I'm trying for the same kind of clarity, now,
as I did when I was twenty-one. For whatever that's worth.
JT: Did you ever feel you had to give yourself permission
BR: No. I've never questioned it. That's never been a problem
for me. I think it's an incredible thing to be able to write
exactly the things you want to write and have someone print them
besides. You're answerable; you're it. No one made you do it. No
one twisted your arm. And no one makes us publish, or not pub-
lish. But others seem to have far different ideas about this
process than I do.
I think you take your chances. No one owes you anything.
There are going to be people out there who may love your work or
hate it. That's been my experience. But I think we would all love
to have more readers. I don't think you publish anything without
that feeling... I have a pretty big ego, but it's also a personal
one. I think I was far more abrasive when I began writing. Now I
try to take a longer view.
JT: When was the first time you wrote something no one asked
you to write?
BR: I took a creative writing course in college. I wrote a
short story, and I got a good grade. But I sensed there was some-
thing missing. I'd done it for the assignment. So I started to
look a little more closely at what I was doing. I suddenly had
this idea that I would simply go over the first paragraph of my
story and try to write it over the best way possible. That was
a breakthrough for me. I knew I was on to something. I knew I
wanted to do more.
JT: How did you learn your own techniques?
BR: Well, as I said, I pretty much stumbled into writing. I
never thought about being a writer. I had no idea what I wanted
to do. I flunked out of college my freshman year. I was running
around. I cut classes. I didn't do the assigned reading, etc. I
worked in a gas station. I crawled around under cars for a year.
When I went back I earned a scholarship. I got more serious.
JT: When did you become committed to writing?
BR: Basically I kept going from that first story, when I knew
I'd found something.
JT: You talk about your work in a very personal way.
BR: I've published some--I've been told--very personal stuff.
That's a whole other area. It always seemed to me that I didn't
put in too many personal things, but others have felt differently
Here's one example: I did one of my infrequent readings a
few years ago at the University of Virginia. Unbeknownst to me,
I was following in the footsteps of Diane Wakowski. Some things
I read, were taken as sexist. I didn't handle it very well.
JT: To what extent do public matters enter your work?
BR: I don't think much about it, which is kind of interesting,
because I love newspapers and magazines, and I seem to keep up
on those things pretty well. But they don't necessarily go into
my writing. At least not directly. I think I write, for the most
part, to help make sense of my life as best I can at different
points in time. I don't believe my work will save me, or anyone
else, for that matter. As far as news goes, it strikes me all we
ever really get are bits and pieces, which is better than noth-
ing. But, ultimately, I guess I mistrust information from other
sources. I trust myself more.
JT: When you write essays, fiction or poetry, do you prepare
BR: I haven't done any essays or fiction for quite a while.
Lately, I've been thinking about that. I've been writing a lot
of poems, but some things simply don't fit into poetry. There
are other things I'd like to write about.
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