Poetry from the Body: An Interview with Ron Price
Kentuckian Paul McDonald talks with Ron Price, a self-described Southerner by geography rather than culture, about his new collection, A Small Song Called Ash From the Fire, (Rattapallax Press, 2001), about his art and the mentorship of Etheridge Knight. Price is poet-in-residence at The Juilliard School in Manhattan.
PM: In reading your book I flashed back to when I was a kid living in Paducah, Kentucky, and I remember a real sense of wildness that you could feel in the atmosphere. Did you ever detect that sense living in Memphis?
RP: I think it was there all the time, but I wasn't aware of it having a specific personality until I left Memphis and moved to Philadelphia. Philadelphia was very different. I'd notice it walking out of some pleasant little restaurant, something off, something odd in the air. Memphis is a different story. There was never that subtlety. Things were right in your face. You could be in a bar with somebody having a conversation one moment and the next moment, they were exploding.
This country was built on violence and
I lived in Philadelphia during the Reagan administration. It was the first time I started to think about the different kinds of violence, rage and anger that was just below the surface of Reagan's forgetfulness. I was learning what Malcolm X meant when he said that anything south of Canada was the South.
I lived in West Philadelphia, about fifteen blocks from the MOVE house, one of the first places where the United States bombed its own citizens and, in the process, burned down sixty other row houses. And West Philadelphia was then a good place to live compared to North Philly. It still is.
I had been living in the city only a few days when I turned on the news, and saw a burning cross planted on the front lawn of a house in Upper Darby, a suburb of Philadelphia, because a black man and a white woman moved in together. It was an Irish Catholic neighborhood, and rumored to be a stop along the IRA underground for men and women on the lam from British and American authorities. People were funneled out of New York down to places like Upper Darby on their way to disappearing in the Midwest.
I used to hang out with a few folklorists at this bizarre Irish Catholic country & western bar. Some of them were doing fieldwork in various parts of Ireland, and they talked about what they knew of the underground. I remember one of them saying, "See that little girl in those boots doing that country & western dance? She's wanted in England." "Well," I said, "how come you know and the FBI doesn't?" He just winked and said, "She won't be here very long."
I sopped that sort of thing up because W. B. Yeats, along with Etheridge Knight, was one of my primary teachers. Both Yeats and Knight were into folklore and oral genres: fairytales, folk tales, toasts.
The racism in the North,
PM: Is the urban sense of wildness the same in New York as it was in Philadelphia?
RP: Just after I moved to New York, Bensonhurst happened. As far as I can tell, the racism that exists in the North, the racism that exists in the South -- it's all racism.
In the same way that Homer said the Trojan War was fought over Helen, the industrial economy characterized the Civil War as one fought over slavery. The real issue of the Civil War didn't have to do with racism. It had to do with two competing forms of economy, one agrarian and the other industrial. It's not that slavery wasn't an issue, but this country didn't go to war on the basis of that. It went to war on the basis of economics.
This country was built on violence and an enormous effort of forgetting. It's probably why we don't value history. We set up a country by decimating another culture. Who knows? Maybe that was nothing more than the equivalent of a tidal wave moving through. In our schools we say there's a difference between nature and civilization. If we accept that distinction, how are we to consider our actions as an act of nature? Maybe our culpability is what Shakespeare is talking about, the way we keep acting like assholes. We feel remorse and recrimination after we've done something, but it's not enough to stop us doing it again.
I was waiting for the sun to shine on my back door.
PM: How did you hook up with Etheridge Knight?
RP: I met Etheridge at a Robert Bly reading in Memphis around 1976. I was standing in the back, feeling an unaccountable hostility toward Bly. Of course, it had nothing to do with him--just as my grim version of Philadelphia has more to do with my heart than it does with the City of Brotherly Love. I was waiting for the sun to shine on my back door, hungry for something I hadn't found yet. Bly read a Knight poem. I knew the name and had read some of his poems--and liked them.
About then, this guy bumps into my shoulder walking into the auditorium. Memphis. He excuses himself. I'm distracted watching a Colt .45 bottle roll up the aisle. Memphis. Bly stops and says, "Well, here he is!" Etheridge did two or three poems.
red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
PM: Do you remember the poems he read?
RP: Yeah, he did "The Idea of Ancestry" and "Belly Song." I had just left a program in English and American Literature and Philosophy. I had read Aristotle. I knew what 'catharsis' meant but I'd never experienced anything like what Aristotle describes can happen in a theater. By the end of the Etheridge's first poem, I was in tears. At the end of the second, I thought, I've got to get out of here. I couldn't possibly hear anything after this that's going to live up to what I've just heard. So I left.
I was involved with a married woman at the time who wanted to be a writer and was trying to talk me into going down to Mississippi to do an interview with Jerry Lee Lewis. I refused. I said, "What the hell's wrong with you? There's a great poet here in Memphis no one's paying attention to."
She ended up contacting Etheridge and invoked my name--not that he knew me--saying I was a poet, as a way of getting us in to talk to him. I didn't want to go because of my experience with poets on small college campuses: Too many head games. I thought if I met him I wouldn't like him. I finally gave in and went.
What I learned from Etheridge is what Whitman
We arrived about 10:30 one morning and to this day I don't remember what happened to her. Around six o'clock that evening I realized she was gone, and Etheridge was saying, "We need to get some dinner."
We'd been talking about contemporary poets who I'd been reading, but who he knew. He wasn't living in a world of dead poets buried in books. He knew these people, poets like Audre Lorde, James Wright. He would quote parts of their poems and I would say, "Okay, but what about this one?" And so it went, back and forth, until he got hungry.
"I don't know how to do this," I said then, "but I'd really like to study with you." He said we'd work something out. I did an apprenticeship with him for two years.
PM: So he was literally a mentor.
RP: Yeah, in the same sense of the word that Gwendolyn Brooks was his mentor. We stayed friends after I left Memphis. We split an apartment in Philadelphia for a while. Later still, I helped him get out of the Fort Washington homeless shelter in New York, and back to Philadelphia.
Lorca's duende -- Knight's belly . . .
PM: What would you say were the things that you learned from Knight that really made an impact on your writing?
RP: I can't reduce it to a few things, but one thing I've been thinking about lately has to do with Etheridge's way of contextualizing a poem. The context doesn't explain, but it helps to clarify what moves you.
For instance, one way of demarcating poems has to do with head, heart, and belly songs, areas of the body a poem seems to emanate from: maybe more from the head like the metaphysical wit of John Donne or the linguistic wit of Heather McHugh or heart poems, like a lot of Yeats's early work or the grief poems of Anna Akhmatova. Etheridge often excels at belly songs.
What I learned from Etheridge is what Whitman had been trying to teach me all along: art comes from and is of the body. Maybe it seems to issue from one part of the body or another, but the body isn't separate thing from the poem if it's alive. It's something like what Lorca's talking about with duende. That's part of what Etheridge is talking about, something that comes up into you from the rhythms of the earth, up through your feet, rather than descending as an angelic influence towards earth. I learned from Etheridge how to dance with that power rather than to become dumbstruck by it. I grew up with Irish Catholic priests and nuns, so there was more of a tendency toward angels and muses. Yeats's "fecund ditch" of the heart helped too.
From Donovan to Dickinson . . .
PM: I have the impression that you were born writing.
RP: I've been writing since I was 12. I didn't have good poetry teachers in school. Actually, I did have one, but by then I'd already drifted toward music. I started writing lyrics for musicians in Memphis, but they kept changing my lyrics rather than rearranging their tunes! I wasted a lot of time listening to Donovan, but his short little clipped lyrics, like Robert Johnson's, led me to Emily Dickinson.
It was an easy thing for me to get into her because she was something of a heretic. I grew up Catholic and it didn't stick, but I didn't fall into Jung. I remain Catholic, and a heretic. Ignoring religion and arguing with God made Dickinson an easy poet for me to hear. When I was in school I was into John Donne's sermons, not his poetry. I liked the Elizabethan and Jacobean Poets, disliked Pope and Dryden, loved Christopher Smart.
Like a lot of white poets from the South I tend towards an influence from Great Britain. It feels strange though because little from England after the Second World War matters to me; some Irish poets, a few Welsh, but I never felt drawn to contemporary British poets. My interests moved to Europe, a little toward Africa and South America. It's a consequence of growing up Catholic in the South.
Eastern European writers are as marginal to Western Europe
I lived fifty miles from Faulkner's house. I like Faulkner, but love Flannery O'Connor. All my adult life I've felt drawn to writers who were marginal to their culture. Eastern European writers are as marginal in relation to Western Europe as Southern writers are in relationship to the Northeast, as Irish and Welsh writers are in relation to England. I found myself drawn to those kinds of writers all over the world.
PM: Are there any recent writers that interest you that you haven't mentioned?
RP: I'm Southern by geography more than by culture, which makes it easy for me to love William Pitt Root's work. On the other hand, Charlie Smith is Southern by culture. He's an amazing novelist. I don't know if he's as good a poet as he is a novelist. It's a rare thing to run across anybody who's able to do both well. He's a powerful writer. He comes from a part of the South different than where I grew up, but I hear something familiar, something I value.
I know I've got something right if they're
PM: Are you arguing with God?
RP: It sure sounds like it in Ash From The Fire. I have another manuscript which is more overtly hostile towards God. You know, I used to sneak out at night and watch revivals--with snake handlers. What do you do if you grow up in a place where the culture is imbued with this stuff? If, on the one hand you're watching these revivals and, on the other, you're in a parochial school, memorizing pages out of the Baltimore Catechism, you realize that after you let it all go, some version of God is still there fucking with you! There are lots of different ways that we can reduce a civilization, and one way is to reduce all of Greek civilization into a single insight: The gods love to watch us scratch.
PM: I felt that you had a lot of found poetry in your book. [See Reviews. Ed.] Am I correct in assuming that?
RP: The main part that I would disagree with you is that poem, "Rita Warns Her Daughter-In-Law." The quote from the Muhammad Ali Theatre -- "I done broke life & death down" -- you locked into. That was found. Adrienne Rich has a letter-poem from Paula Becker to Clara Westoff that's been cited as an example of what a great editor she is, because basically she's condensed a lot of letters into a poem. That's more or less what I did with "Pilgrim's Rest."
Reverend Taylor reached his peak at the time the civil rights movement begam. His work helped keep a community from completely breaking down. He was constantly having to hold shit together. His own life fell apart as a result. I've changed a significant amount, but I made the poem, in part, from archival material. "Reverend Peterson's Notes for Ideas for a Sermon Suggested by Reverend L.O. Taylor" is a sermon made from the memories of five different people who heard his sermon the same day 22 or 23 years before and remembered it for the rest of their lives. It was that powerful a sermon.
It was the part of the poem I was most uncomfortable with because I'm not a charismatic preacher. I couldn't possibly stand up and do justice to the saying of it. But I knew I had gotten close to something when I did it at a reading a while back in Philadelphia and there were City Hall preachers sitting in the front row taking notes. I thought, "I know I've got something right if they're getting ready to steal this for their sermons."
those 'personas' that Yeats talks about . . .
PM: Your book is so rich and has so much in it. How long did it take to compile?
RP: It took me eight years and in the process I wrote a second book that will probably be the next one that comes out. It took me five years before I started to realize what Ash was actually doing. For me, the book tends to be about coming to grips with the presence of death on the most personal level.
The second section of the book is about a miscarriage. Everything else is like a pebble thrown in the middle of a lake; the circles keep going out from there. I started to think about all the other versions of death that I knew about, like Fletcher in "Surviving Brothers," like "Maddog." I grew with a lot of people who were 7 or 8 years older than me. When I was thinking about the possibility of being drafted for the Vietnam War, some of those guys were coming home in body bags.
PM: Was there also a strained relationship with your father?
RP: (laughs) Well, I know about that conflict. There are these others in Ash who take on my voice for a moment. I believe it's a valid kind of work to do, but I don't mean to suggest that the 'I' in most of the poems is someone other than myself. I'm not creating fiction. It's probably like those 'personas' that Yeats talks about.
There are characters in novels, in plays. Yeats's personas, unlike Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, are more like those impulses in fairytales that probably make more sense if you think about them the way Maria Louise Von Franz describes such characters, as the contradictory impulses inside one psyche. It's not that one voice is more true than the other; it's just that all of them are required to close to the truth.
Paul McDonald is a poet and freelance writer who lives in Louisville, Kentucky. His poetry has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, disClosure: A Journal of Social Theory, Booglit, and VOiCE Magazine. His reviews have appeared in Big City Lit™, Beat Scene, Fringecore and The Louisville Courier Journal.
 Born Corinth, Mississippi, 1931, died Indianapolis, 1991. Left school at age 14. Life marked by alcohol and drugs. Wounded during military service in Korea (1947-51). Convicted of robbery, sentenced to 8 years at Indiana State Prison. Poems from Prison (1968), The Idea of Ancestry (1968), 2 Poems for Black Relocation Centers (1968), For Black Poets Who Think of Suicide (1972), A Poem for Brother Man (1972), Belly Song and Other Poems (1973), Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems (1980), The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986).
I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch,
A blind man battering blind men;
Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.
(From "A Dialogue of Self and Soul")