Ruth Thompson grew up in California and received a BA from Stanford and a PhD from Indiana University. She has been an English professor, librarian, college dean, and yoga teacher in Los Angeles. She now lives in Hilo, Hawai’i, where she teaches writing, meditation, and yoga. Her poems have won the New Millennium Writings Poetry Award and the Harper Palate Milton Kessler Memorial Prize, among others. Her website is http://www.ruththompson.net/
Interview by Claire Farley
TCJWW: In your web post for the “My Writing Process” Blog Tour you write, “Many figures appear again and again in my poems – especially the goddess Inanna, who descended into darkness and returned. She’s asking for the whole cycle to be told and maybe I can write that now, at last.” How do you see your journey as a poet? You took a twenty-year hiatus from writing poetry before publishing Here Along Cazenovia Creek, what did poetry mean to you during this time? Do you feel that your poetic voice changed as you descended and returned to your work?
Thompson: Inanna chose to descend into the world of her shadow self, and was destroyed. It was her witness self, the compassionate listener, who reunited shadow with light and brought her back to life. To me this is the myth, the woman’s journey, as well as my own story. It permeates the book. But only one of the dozens of Inanna poems I’ve written actually made it into Woman With Crows – when Inanna turns to her usurping husband and says, “Now you go.” That one makes me laugh.
Part of my own story is that in my thirties I was trapped into a long marriage with an abusive, manipulative sociopath. Because of him I lost my child and spent many years in a kind of blankness of soul, which in the book I call being “dead between the ears.”
During the years I was in the “country of the dead” I didn’t write at all. I didn’t even read poetry. There was no privacy, no safe place either at home or at work. By the time I started writing again, in secret, I was older than most poets are when they start out, and I had been through a long dark journey. I was free, but consumed by grief and regret. My voice had absolutely deepened and changed.
From the beginning I cringed at the idea of self-indulgent confessional writing. The archetypal voices, the fairy tales, offered a way to understand the personal through the lens of the impersonal.
So I wrote about “Sleeping Beauty” and the spindle prick of the mother’s envy that “sows the radiant child with death.” About living in the “country of the dead.” About the child left on the shore as the mother drowns.
I wrote “Jill and the Beanstalk,” in which Jill escapes from the Ogre, “takes up what she has found and runs!” I made an ill-wishing, “Song for a Dead Man.” I mocked the male hierarchy in “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Persephone Tells All.” I wrote myself back to life.
But I want to add that one great gift came to me from having lost everything and then returning to life: an extraordinary experience of joy in the physical world. The sensual is what brought me home. In the end, my life, and the book, is mostly about joy — joy in the body, the natural world, the discovery “that all of it is singing.”
In “Journeying West” the women leave behind everything, and only when they are empty can they “cross the mountains/ and bring themselves down to the sea.” This is a major theme in the book and in my own life. I know from my own experience that what you come to, through the death of the self, is a place where the light pours in.
TCJWW: Reading Woman with Crows feels like being taken on a journey and each section is nested in the whole but also stands alone. Can you discuss the form of this collection?
Thompson: This is a wonderful question. Because as I’ve said, the book does contain a lifetime’s journey, and it was difficult to know how to structure it.
Finally I decided to start with poems about where I am now – free, happy, celebrating my own body and the physical world – and circle back through poems of the dark years and of the childhood that set the stage for the dark years – and then return to the light in the last sections of the book.
It’s interesting to me, how much new experience is opening up as I age. I think for many people, the last third of their lives is the time they begin letting go of things, stripping down to what matters, taking stock. But for me the last ten years has been a time of doors flying open and new experiences flooding in.
So the last part of the book is in part a summing up – certainly the last poem in the book, “Sometimes in Dreams,” is a kind of Credo – but also asking some new questions, opening some new doors. For example, “The White Queen” imagines the oncoming of dementia, and asks whether dissolution is a kind of opening up. I don’t know the answer, but a whole series of new poems has arisen from that question.
“The White Queen” and “Journeying West” are, in the end, joy poems, like so much in the book. They circle back to the beginning, to the poems of celebration like ‘Second Childhood” and “Walking on my Birthday.”
So the form of the book is a circle or spiral. And inside it are nested – as you suggest – the wounded child, the wounded Hungry Ghost mother, the woman who escapes from the Ogre’s house, “takes up what she has found/and runs!” Who chops down the beanstalk. And is still chopping. But the form holds all these figures as if in the arms of the wise and joyous crone, the woman with crows.
TCJWW: A clear sense of place informs the poems in Here Along Cazenovia Creek and Woman with Crows—whether Western New York, California or Hilo, Hawai’i—and you seem to derive the strength and wisdom that emanates from your work through your commune with nature. How do you imagine your womanhood in relation to the spaces you inhabit? Would you consider yourself and your work as part of an ecofeminist tradition?
Thompson: Since childhood I have had experiences in which the separation between self and world dissolves. I think it seemed perfectly natural when I was a small child, and I became aware that it was peculiar as I grew older – I turned away from it. I had no conceptual context for the experience of nature itself as sacred and full of meaning, of the spirit as immanent in the world. I had no tradition of religious mysticism, no knowledge of the goddess or mystery traditions. This was before ecofeminism – indeed, before either feminism or ecology.
Much, much later, as an adult, I began practicing Shambhala meditation and yoga. But when I began to do yoga with Angela Farmer the connection between body and world opened up for me. And then I began to play with Motherpeace tarot and animal images and other ways to connect with my own deep awareness.
So yes, I do see myself as part of the ecofeminist tradition, though I don’t know much about theory. I experience my body and the earth’s body as one, yes. I also feel connected with the tradition of sacred poetry, including Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Sufi poets and Christian mystics.
In the fall of 2005 I moved to the hill country of western New York to live with my sweet heart, Don Mitchell. I had never lived in a place with four intense seasons before and everything was a revelation. “Fat Time,” which won a prize and opened so many doors, just came pouring out. That whole first year was magical. I walked and walked and wrote and wrote – like opening my mouth and singing. Those poems became Here Along Cazenovia Creek. And eventually they were choreographed and performed as “Dancing the Seasons” with the famous dancer Shizuno Nasu — and another whole new world opened up, the world of chant and sung poetry and percussion and dance.
But even during the dark years I was able to grow flowers and take my dog for a hike in the hills every morning. That experiential connection laid the ground for regained freedom and joy. Now, as I explore the dissolution of boundaries in these new poems about dissolution, madness, and joy, I wonder. Is part of what frightens us about dementia akin to an experience I’ve had all my life?
I will add here that I think the rhythms of the body are the ground of all poetry. Our deepest consciousness of being alive is awareness of heartbeat and pulse and breath. A poem makes the body feel something physically. Consonants contract, vowels ease, we inhale, exhale, feel its pulse even when we read silently.
I don’t mean only what is pleasant music, but in the terrible poems too – it is sound, the jackboots of cruelty, sharp in-breath of terror, keening of grief – these are intended to cut through ratiocination to the physical ground of being. That’s where the power lies.
TCJWW: You’ve created your own personal mythology that draws on eastern tradition diverse of Kali and Buddhist preta, as well as Grimm fairy tales and Greek goddesses. What do these archetypes help you to build and to express in your work and what sort of dialogue do you feel you have with the sources themselves?
Thompson: I believe that what I would call the vastness of my own being offers these archetypes and images as a kind of language, through which I can hold a conversation with my deepest awareness. The world seems to me infused with meaning and all of these archetypes are there to play with if we wish.
I am never sure what energies – what voice, let us say — is going to start speaking. And I feel that the primary level of all I write – now, at any rate – is just letting those voices, those energies speak, and going where they take me. Later, after it’s all down on paper, comes the long, long process of craft and consciousness.
Currently I’m working a lot with the figure of the Pythia – the priestesses who served as Oracles at Delphi. This image of being taken by the smoke out of one’s “right mind” – becoming demented – and speaking messages which were then “translated” by the male priests of Apollo – who wielded the power but could not hear the true voice of the goddess – this fascinates me on so many levels.
TCJWW: I’m very interested in “The Hungry Ghost” who distracts us from the fullness of our experiences. You write a feminine hungry ghost who is insatiable and barren, “big-bellied with shadows.” What does the hungry ghost have to teach us as women?
Thompson: When I first saw a Tibetan image of a hungry ghost, I was struggling with a series of poems about my mother. The figure was originally called the Birdwoman, and came from a dream I had of a sort of pteradactyl-ish flying creature.
When I saw the hungry ghost image, I knew immediately this was the deeper image of the Birdwoman. Even more importantly, it opened me up to compassion. Suddenly I saw my mother in context of her own life, her own starvation. The mother in my book – the main Hungry Ghost figure – became a tragic figure. “Rapunzel” and “Why Hungry Ghosts Must Keep Flying” come from compassion, not anger.
Hungry ghosts have big flapping empty balloon bellies. They are starving. They fly around and around, screaming to be filled. But their necks and hearts are so compressed – the central channel is so constricted there – that they cannot take any nourishment. They are empty of inner resources. They can neither give nor receive.
Hungry Ghosts cannot be filled, fed or saved by anyone else. They cannot become “human.” They belong to their own realm.
I think the image has also been useful for me as a kind of touchstone in my own growth. We all have this hunger for validation from outside. There have been times when I’ve asked myself, in this situation, or with this person, am I doing this? Am I asking “fill me, feed me, give me the approval I don’t feel I deserve, and can’t give myself”?
TCJWW: Your poems seem to draw from an endless wealth of inspiration. What poets inspire you and your writing?
Thompson: Oh, there are so many! I’ve already mentioned Hopkins. Whitman. They are always with me, those two. Theodore Roethke, whose “The Waking” I literally carry around in my purse in case I should die among strangers and need a eulogy.
Yeats. Rilke. Eliot. Wordsworth. Not so much the other Romantics, but Wordsworth. Shakespeare. Donne. Neruda. Rumi, Hafiz. Dylan Thomas. Virginia Woolf. Jim Harrison – both his poetry and fiction. William Faulkner – I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Faulkner’s novels and that bardic rant is still in my head. Eudora Welty, another voice.
Deborah Digges, Frank X. Gaspar, Ilya Kaminsky, Mary Oliver. Margaret Atwood. Anne Sexton. Irving Feldman.
Recently, Diane Gilliam and Evie Shockley. And Eleanor Wilner. Right now I’m reading Memorial by Alice Oswald, based on the Iliad.
And I draw so much from the community of writers. I left behind dear writing friends in Buffalo, to whom I am still deeply connected, though we now only “see” one another through email. The A Room of Her Own Foundation’s biannual women writers’ retreats at Ghost Ranch, NM, have led to wonderful friendships and to online groups like The Haiku Room. Most of all, there’s my own group of “flamingos,” my mostly online – and once or twice a year in-person – writing group. All these amazing women writers inspire me, offer support, critique my work, encourage me to take off in new directions – it is a continual freshening and deepening and opening of new waterways to have this community.
Thursday, June 19, 2014 – 7:30 pm – POETRY FLASH SERIES @ MOE’S BOOKS (2476 Telegraph Ave, Berkeley) “Three Bodies, Many Voices” – with poets Michelle Wing (Body On the Wall) and Tania Pryputniewicz(November Butterfly, forthcoming)