Max Ritvo (1990–2016) is the author of the poetry collection Four Reincarnations, which will be published by Milkweed Editions in September, just over a month since the poet’s death, on August 23, 2016, after a nine-year battle with cancer. He was twenty-five. Poet Dorothea Lasky spoke with Ritvo in June about his new book, performing poetry, the Illiad, and Sufjan Stevens.
I met Max Ritvo just over three years ago, on the first day of his first workshop at Columbia University’s MFA program, which I was teaching. After that first class, he told me he wanted to try something new with his writing process and asked if I could help him. I obliged and sent him a series of experiential writing exercises: take several baths, drink many juices; adorn many costumes. After being the subject of my sadistic enterprise, he started writing new poems, many of which are included in his 2014 Poetry Society of America prize-winning chapbook, AEONS. In the following years, he published poems and prose in the New Yorker, Poetry, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Boston Review. His first full-length collection of poems, Four Reincarnations, is a book that in its four parts tells the tale, in four directions, of a soul unafraid to speak. The persona of his book transcends fear, with a voice draped with echoes of Samuel Greenberg, Wallace Stevens, lounge singers, and holy hymnals. The voice is wholly American, because Ritvo’s poetry represents the hard-won language of suffering and rebirth: Ritvo was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, at age sixteen. After a few years of remission the cancer returned, and eventually began to spread. When we spoke this past summer, Ritvo’s cancer was terminal; he passed away two months later, at the age of twenty-five.
The book’s title is fitting. Ritvo’s voice is one that will surely live on, well beyond the physical plane of the young poet’s tragically short life. His work, as his former mentor Sarah Ruhl tells us, will “make [us] love poetry again.” To use Ritvo’s own words, from an interview with NPR last year in which he spoke of making plans for the future with his new wife, despite his prognosis: “I think as long as you engage with reality sometimes, it’s okay to acknowledge the fact that reality isn’t very well suited to us. We do better elsewhere.”
When did you first decide to become a poet?
I’ve written poetry since I was four, and have never taken a break longer than a month. It’s just a part of how I get by in the world. I used it to pick up chicks in high school. I used it to help me through my cancer. Poetry has always been there for me. And it’s never felt like a burden to make time for it, it’s so much fun to write. When my second cancer came back, and I realized my life was going to be very short, I decided to use every minute I possibly could to write poetry. This is perhaps the moment I decided to become a Poet. I still can’t bring myself to put “Poet” on business cards though, I just say “Writer.”
You are bicoastal and grew up both in Los Angeles and New York City. How did this sense of the United States play into the crafting of your poetic voice?
Cyeah dude. Totes magotes I can talk about Lah! I lived in L.A. until I was sixteen, then moved to New York City for cancer treatment and have been back and forth ever since. When my poetry is set in a city, it’s almost exclusively New York. Or a phantasmagorical city that is distinctly New York-tinged. Apartments, subways, dirty birds. When my poems are set in the natural world, they come from my west coast life. No meadows, no forests. Oceans and deserts. I grew up scrambling after lizards and writing haikus about granite in Joshua Tree National Park. And I have spent far more time on a Jet Ski than any non-L.A. person on the planet.
My voice has a certain breeziness and ease to it that I associate with L.A. diction. But I really care about words, I’m passionate about them to a point of neurosis, and that’s all New York. New Yorkers have a very special relationship with reading. People read here. All sorts of people. On the subway. And in parks and coffee shops. And they sell dingy books on the side of the street. And they buy dingy books on the side of the street. Sure, people write in public in L.A.—but they never read in public. L.A. people just want to be seen writing a screenplay and get discovered by a producer. New Yorkers, they just wanna read, even if it’s a Rupert Murdoch rag.
Can you tell me about what inspired you to write Four Reincarnations? How did the book come to be?
It’s funny how a conceit can sometimes get away from itself and become a good book! I initially had a very rigid idea for what my first book would be. It was called Eight Reincarnations. It was divided into eight short sections. Each section opened with a Heavenly poem. These poems were taut, elegant love poems, complete with dedications. Then we moved from Heaven to Earth. Three or four messy, bombastic poems full of Indian mythology, cancer hospitals, and ex-lovers. Then, of course, each section resolved in the Underworld. A single ragged, clipped lyric about death. I even color-coded the poem titles to hammer the point home—a lovely lavender for Heaven poems, and green for the Earth poems, and the Underworld was pitch black.
Of course, this was untenable. Goofy. I love Changing Light at Sandover (James Merrill) a bit too much for my own good, probably. But the poems forced me to my senses. They started to speak to one another in ways I couldn’t predict, and demanded that they neighbor poems who would make them more emotionally and dramatically rich. The tiresome eight sections shrank to four. But each section did have the feeling of the same life form, or I inhabiting four very different narratives, four different lives. So they were still Reincarnations! I got to keep that in the title!
What was your writing process in creating Four Reincarnations? Is it the same or different from the poems you are writing currently?
The poems from Four Reincarnations span a broad time period. From my second semester my sophomore year of college back in 2010 all the way up to a few months ago. My process had some remarkable consistencies considering this, and considering the radically different circumstances these poems were written under. In this book, there are poems written during my remission, when I thought I’d live to be eighty or ninety. And there are poems written with the knowledge that I’ll probably die this year. There are poems written in the unimaginably comfortable bed at my honeymoon hotel, and in hospital cots. But, almost exclusively, these poems were composed between 11 pm and 1 am. Almost all of them were composed while listening to the Sufjan Stevens song “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” on loop. For reasons beyond my understanding, this song is the only one I can tolerate when I compose poetry. It’s not even my favorite song. It’s just my poem song. It makes my brain feel like it’s being shaken clear like an etch-a-sketch.
My editing process is also very consistent. I write a poem. Send it to my reader, Elizabeth Metzger. Elizabeth insults the poem. I smart and vow to never change a word. A month later I accept almost all of her edits. Three months later I decide half the poem is irrelevant and boring and cut it. Most of my poems, in the first draft, are two or three pages long, and they rarely break a page and a quarter after editing. You’d think this would make me self-conscious when I’m writing a first draft. That I’d worry much of what I’m writing isn’t important, and will end up being cut. And that that would paralyze me. But no, I’m always convinced this poem is different, and needs to be this length, and I’ll keep every word. And I never do.
You said earlier that poetry has helped you get through cancer. Can you ruminate on that? How does Four Reincarnations engage with mortality within the context of your diagnosis?
Poetry is the purple plastic squirt gun I brought to The Shootout with cancer. This squirt gun is both useless and my super secret weapon. I write poetry about my emotions. It’s purgative, cathartic, even sometimes angsty. I also write poetry marked by my experiences of the world beyond me. When I write a poem my favorite little bits of what I’ve seen or heard or read are, in a way, sealed into my mind and body. It’s like I’m filling myself with World-Tumors in the hopes that they’ll push out the tumors built of my DNA, the Me-Tumors. This method of combat has proved itself useless in the empirical battle against my tumors’ spread. But it gives me the energy and peace of mind to shovel hateful, curative chemotherapies into my maw for nine years and counting. (With some long breaks.)
Writing Four Reincarnations in the context of cancer forced the poems to meditate on the relationship between growth (or growths) and death. It’s a book in which dead things grow—in which bones shoot right out of the ground as in the poem “The Big Loser.” In which promising things grow wrong and wish to die—as in “Dawn of Man,” in which a caterpillar ends up being in a human body post-chrysalis instead of becoming the butterfly he dreamt of being. Cancer isn’t really out to kill you; it’s just out to grow. My cancer wants to explore new places, just like me as a hospital-bed-confined sixteen-year-old. I just happen to be those places.
Dying is easy to talk about. It’s just another kind of growth. It’s just more of the passage of time. Talking about death itself is another story. Talking about no time at all is hard. All my work approaches a limit in what it can express. I try not to force it—grace will leave you if you try to hammer a poem too hard and get it to say one specific thing. But maybe one day my distress and cognition will give me that last little bit of insight. I have to keep trying. I’m too frightened not to. I’m too curious not to. But I wonder if cancer, which is growth and violent pain, must be stripped out of that particular piece of writing in order for me to do it. Cancer reflects back at me my desperate will to live. It’ll never let me interrogate Death Itself. The question is how to let it all go slack, while still being in the world of language long enough to cough up a truth or two.
What poets and artists have influenced you the most?
Berryman has been a massive influence. Abject comedy, and an outsized self, and silly voices. Plath too, and Glück. Perfect metaphors and lethal irony. Thylias Moss really made me feel like my poems could be massive one-man-shows, self-epics. And her metaphors are so wild and bonkers but cut right at the heart. Like you could never come up with it, but once you heard it, you know it’s the only possible way to express it. And Homer is a big influence. I really love theIlliad and Odyssey, as flawed as they are. I read them once every six months or so. Since I was a little boy, I’ve had deep faith in biting off more than I can chew. Homer is still the best at this.
Now having done it, what advice would you tell a fellow poet beginning to construct a first book?
Come up with your plans. Be ready to let them go. Let the poems do the talking. They know who they need in their corner better than you do.
Order and sequence really matter. A book is its own artwork.
All poets are heroes. Your book is your hero story. The sequence of the poems needs to tell that story. Take your reader on an adventure.
Be willing to drop a great poem out of your book for the sake of the book. Chances are, if it’s really vital to your story, it’ll find a way back in eventually.
What are two favorite first books of poetry and why?
I love Alan Dugan’s first book, Poems. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and nobody in the world thinks like Dugan. Many of the I’s of the book are monstrous exaggerations of all that’s worst in Dugan. Even as he hates on other people, the take-away is very obviously self-hate. And it’s a riot. The second section of Four Reincarnations is a hate section, and it wouldn’t exist without “Lovesong, I and Thou,” the funniest poem in Poems. The book also has so much confidence, clarity, ease. I worship its light touch.
My other favorite first book is Prufrock and Other Observations. It’s spooky, it’s vaudeville, and it fuses high phantasmagoria with social anxiety and crippling neurosis. In some ways, both Poems and Prufrock remind me of Van Gogh—they show me a world refracted back and blown out of all veristic proportion by the intensity of the artist’s emotions. The poem Hysteria, in which Eliot essentially travels down a laughing woman’s mouth until he’s in her screaming stomach, has never left me for longer than a week since I first read it. Another thing I love about Prufrock and Other Observations is how short it is. It’s a mercilessly brief book—no more than forty pages. And that makes it that much more unforgettable. It’s like how the chef Thomas Keller says that he deliberately portions his courses so that they’re slightly too small. Your mind tries to hold onto the flavors that much harder if your tongue feels abandoned just a moment before its ecstasy is completed.
When you read your poems out loud, you ooze charisma, like the way a classical performer does—how does your understanding of the effect language and gesture has on an audience affect the way your poems are constructed?
Performance is central to my understanding of what a poem is, because all the language that’s moved me the most has come out of the mouths of human beings. The speech that has come out of my wife’s mouth, my mother’s mouth, the stupid mouth of the guy in high school who super-soakered me in front of a girl I was trying to impress—this is the language that has moved me most. All of that speech was full of music that tore open my heart. The music of natural speech is fathomlessly deep. Just by peeling my vowels open and pitching my voice up, I can make a sentence sarcastic, I can make it mean its opposite and riddle it with nastiness. Just by growling the syllables under my breath, a simple statement of fact turns into a threat. Why would I divorce language from this magic power? What more could I want for my poems than for them to participate in the drama of human life?
Dorothea Lasky is the author of four collections of poetry: ROME (Liveright, 2014) Thunderbird (Wave Books, 2012), Black Life (Wave Books, 2010), and AWE (Wave Books, 2007). Lasky has also written several chapbooks, includingPoetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). Her writing has appeared in Poetry, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, the Atlantic, and Boston Review. She is a coeditor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (McSweeney’s, 2013).