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.