Thursday, January 14, 2010

Spring 2010 Sneak Peek: Paul Ruffin: New and Selected Poems

"They bounced down the dusty runway,
Gathered speed, and rose that final time, their shadow sliding over jungle trees, bellies full of New Guinea Thunder Beans, another leg of the journey before them:"

These were the lines that brought 2009 Texas Poet Laureate Paul Ruffin back to writing new poetry after many years.

In May, Texas Christian University Press will publish Ruffin's finest works in Paul Ruffin: New and Selected Poems as part of its Texas Poet Laureate Series.

Here, Ruffin, who is also director of Texas Review Press, talks about inspiration and the writing process. A poem from the forthcoming book, "Nesting," follows.

"When I was advised by TCU Press that they would be bringing out Paul Ruffin: New and Selected Poems as part of their Texas Poet Laureate Series, I was both elated and dismayed. It would be fine indeed to have a book of poems published by such a prestigious press, yes, but where was I going to find twenty or thirty pages of new poems?

"Well, I rummaged through fragments of poems written long ago, and checked to make certain that all my finished poems had been published. I found nothing of any true value in the bits and pieces, and I didn’t have a single finished poem on hand that had not already appeared in a journal and/or book. What to do?

"For several days I fretted over my dilemma. I tried finishing some old fragments, but I couldn’t get anything to click. Nothing.

"One morning, around 2:30, I was lying in bed staring at the ceiling, when a notion came to me. I had not been thinking at all about poetry but about my newspaper column for the next week. Sometimes, when I’m really busy and don’t have time to write about something new, I’ll go back five or ten years and find something I really like and run it again—this saves me time and effort, and chances are that those reading my column will not have read that particular piece or will have forgotten it.

"So I was trying to decide whether to run the column on Amelia Earhart or the 3000-year-old mummy who ended up pregnant in a Cairo museum. Both were entertaining, and I had quite a lot of feedback from the mummy piece in particular. Then there was the one on the female diver off the Florida Coast who was sexually assaulted by a 300-pound turtle . . . . And Larry the Lawn Chair Guy, who tethered himself to a bunch of
balloons and realized a life-long dream of flight . . . . And how to eat chicken
backs . . . . Mack Dryden’s version of ancient history . . . . Marilyn Monroe’s
death at the hands of the FBI because she was a vampire . . . .

"The next thing I knew, these lines came to me:

"They bounced down the dusty runway,
Gathered speed, and rose that final time, their shadow sliding over jungle trees, bellies full of New Guinea Thunder Beans, another leg of the journey before them:

"My column piece about Amelia Earhart and her ill-fated flight was evolving into poetry. It went on and on into deep morning. I was writing in my head these poems based on column pieces I’d written, and I was having a ball doing it. I woke Amber up three or four times giggling. Finally I just got up, around five-thirty or six, and went to the computer and started typing out the poems still fresh in my mind.

"In only a couple of weeks, I had some forty pages of new poems, all but one based
on some of my wilder columns (and I have written a lot of wild ones).

"I immediately shot some of them out to magazine editors I know—I had to get them
published right away, since the TCU book is due out in the spring of 2010. I sent three to Richard Burgin at Boulevard, one of the most highly acclaimed literary magazines in the country and one that pays really well for material they publish. They had already published a novel chapter of mine and have scheduled a familiar essay for September, so I thought I might have a chance there. They bought all three. Then Louisiana Literature took three more. Then Langdon Review took four.

'OK,' sez I, 'you are a poet again, boy.'

"I have on hand over 1,200 column pieces written over twenty-five or so years, and I calculate that at least half of them can be converted to poetry.

"So I have returned to my first love, and I am delighting in it. These poems are very different from most I have written, and maybe that’s a good thing. There’s one thing for sure: I am likely never to tire of them."


About her she has gathered pillows and blankets,

arranging them just so, then peopled her nest with dolls,

those with anatomies quite far from correct, glittering

eyes of glass, flesh very unlike her own, some merely

limp or plump, dimpled and dappled pieces of cloth

with dull fabric eyes and skin, no fingers or toes.

It seems to make no difference to her as she places

them about her in the ring, tucking each one in for the night,

the one with the rocking blue eyes shining in their sockets,

the one with round black patches where eyes should be.

"Keep well," she tells them, crawling into bed,

to dream whatever she will dream in that lovely haunted head.

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