Mary Ruefle -- A Name Without a Thing

Mary Ruefle
 "Names without a thing"

an interview with Dirk Marple

This interview took place over sixteen months with the use of hand-typed letters, stamps and envelopes.  Poet and poetical essayist, Mary Ruefle, does not own a computer.  She is the author of eleven books of poetry and two collections of prose, most recent of which is My Private Property (Wave Books, 2016).

What is your first memory of color as it pertains to fall?

I’d have to say gray.  When I was four years old my family lived in Rhode Island, and a squirrel (gray) got into the kitchen through a screen door (gray); it was my first experience of having a wild animal inside the house and thus imprinted on my memory.  I also recall the young bare trees (gray) in our neighbor’s yard, which she covered with some kind of big clear plastic bags, presumably to protect them from the cold.  I’d never seen trees wearing shower caps before, and this too stuck in my mind, and I believe that I first noticed the trees on the same day the squirrel got into the house, but of course that is a memory created to kill two birds with one stone, as our heartless idiom goes.

What role does your kitchen play in your mornings?

My kitchen plays an enormous role in my mornings, though I never think of it as “my” kitchen, only as “the” kitchen; I start my day with coffee and the coffee is in the kitchen!  More than that, there is a large long table in the “dining area” connected to the kitchen, and on that table I sit down with my coffee and erase two pages of whatever erasure book I am working on.  It is my favorite part of the day.  I generally work at this table, and not in my study; my study is the place I store things, papers and books and photographs and objects— I don’t actually work in there, though I do type in there, that’s where the typewriter is.  The kitchen, my study (I do say “my” study, it’s the only room to which I affix that word), the bedroom, and the bathroom are the most important rooms in the house; the living room is basically useless, whoever really lives in a living room?

How do you choose the paper used for letter writing?

I am something of a paper freak; I love paper!  I buy all my typing paper at an independently-owned copy shop here in town; they sell reams of old stock, and most of it is cotton paper with a watermark, it’s cheap for its kind, and they sell envelopes too and I buy those as well; this is the paper I use for writing of any kind.  The one exception is when I am writing very close friends, and then I might use the front pages torn out of very old books (19th century).  As Native Americans used every little bit of the buffalo, I use every little bit of old beautiful books; I use images and texts from them in my erasures, I use the front and back as trivets or coasters, and any blank pages I use for letter-writing.  What’s left I call a “glue book”, and on these pages I lay whatever text or image I am using and apply glue to the back, and of course some of the glue spills over onto the glue-page, and afterwards I throw them away (recycle them).  Odd pieces of blank paper I use for grocery lists and things like that. . oh, I just love paper.  For a long time, my curtains were paper!

How do you name or unname a thing?

I love naming things, and name just about everything.  My long-held dream job has always been to name paint colors, or nail polish colors, stuff like that.  From time to time I spend an hour in a paint store, looking at the sample chips— once I found a green named “Auden” and it remains a deep mystery, as none of the other colors had the name of an author, let alone a poet.  When I was in my twenties and first lived in the country, I took it upon myself to learn the names of all the wildflowers, and trees, and flowers in the garden, all of it; to this day people remark on all the names of all the flowers I know, you’d be surprised how many people can’t identify a simple violet!  Is it important?  I don’t know, there are times when we are walking in a field and the names of things seems inconsequential, a manmade presumption, which is certainly true (a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a camel doesn’t think of herself as “a camel”) but begin alive on earth as a human is a time for naming, first we name and then we unnamed, we name in life and unnamed in death.  I see I have answered your question quite literally; in poetry, we often unnamed things by giving them new names so that they might be seen freshly, as if for the first time, like calling a toaster The Altar of Burnt Offerings.  That is the literary answer.  As a matter of fact, when I was a little girl, the book I read most in the house was a big blue book of baby names my mother owned; I could sit for hours with that book, and choose the names I wanted to give my children, none of whom I ever had, but those names. . I still remember. . names without a thing, that’s an interesting concept, to have a name but nothing it belongs to. . that happens all the time, as when we find a scrap of paper with a few words on it, but don’t know what it is in regards to, and then we might write a poem using those words, so that the fragment finally has a home.  One of the saddest things is to look at old photographs of people no one can identify, but there they are, alive once, and named.