"My father will die
in his small body of paintings, abandoned
for sensible things: a wife, a three-bedroom ranch."
-Where Did It All Go (1976/2016)
This February marks the release of Ivy Raff's debut poetry chapbook Rooted and Reduced to Dust. This is a work steeped in memory, traversing generations. It is full of movement, and inescapably vulnerable.
I interviewed Ivy Raff about her writing process, her journey as a writer and the themes that the collection delves into.
‘Rooted and Reduced to Dust’ is your debut poetry chapbook. In three words, can you describe what this new book is about?
IR: Time as spirals.
Can you speak about the process of writing the poems included in these pages, and of bringing them together into one cohesive whole?
IR: Anyone who asks me about process is eventually going to get tired of hearing me talk about Natalie Goldberg. But here we go.
I wrote many of these pieces during, or in the several months after, a two-week writing intensive where I studied with Natalie on a little rocky island in the middle of Lake Superior. Natalie's style of teaching is that she'll ask you to write about something that sounds totally pedestrian, almost flippant. She'll say, "Tell me about a bicycle," and instruct you to follow your wild, bucking mind wherever it goes, and write down every detail it spits at you -- don't gloss over a thing.
So, in writing about a bicycle, the first one my mind handed me was my father's storied Schwinn from when he was a kid in the 1960s. How he rode it across the bridge from Queens to Brooklyn, how that seat was the one place he felt totally free of the bullying he endured as a noticeably deaf and speech-impaired child in those times. Almost all the pieces in this book came via that channel, coaxed out with Goldberg's instruction.
For several months I practiced this way, with Natalie's many books on my side table. A build-up of pieces emerged, which circle not only specific family members, but how we all moved through time together before and after our lives. I'm keenly interested in generational memory. Though I didn't set out to write a poetry collection about it, that's what ended up happening because that's the pickle brine, if you will, my brain steeps in. The vinegar gets into you.
Around the time I was culling pieces on this theme from my big fat Google Doc of ten thousand poems, ordering them in a way I thought unfolded into a layered narrative across four generations, I read this from Isaac Bashevis Singer: "Heaven and earth conspire that everything which has been, be rooted and reduced to dust. Only the dreamers, who dream while awake, call back the shadows of the past and braid nets from the unspun thread." Immediately, it was the title. It was the only part of this book that came in a flash.
The poems span generations, sitting in conversation with figures from your past, generations previous. How has it felt to reach backwards, and to spend time with the family members the poems speak to and speak about?
IR: Liberating! We write about what we must, what won't let us go. Unprocessed trauma underpins so much of the Eastern European Jewish immigrant story, in ways that have become, in my opinion, destructive. We know that when an individual cannot or does not fully accept their powerlessness over the abuse they've endured, they disconnect from their shared humanity and become abusers themselves. We're seeing this play out at a national level in Israel and Gaza today. My spending time with, writing through, and accepting the historical fact of abuses perpetuated on my tribe, my family members, my own body and mind, unites me with the vast numbers of Others who know exactly what this all feels like. I'm grateful for the stomach to do it.
This feels like a very personal collection. How did it feel to write something so close to you? How do you look after yourself when you are delving into difficult topics that sit close to your heart?
IR: Oooh, aren't all poetry collections personal? For me, the act of delving into difficult topics that sit close to my heart IS taking care of myself. Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun, writes about touching into the heart and meeting everything we find there with unconditional compassion. There's a difference between that kind of "touching in" and ruminating. God knows I've done more than my share of the latter. Writing -- getting it down on paper -- is the process by which ruminations alchemize into witnessing. These topics were always close to me. Befriending them by speaking them, and speaking with them, has been a relief.
Movement and displacement are running themes through the collection. Can you talk about what they mean to this work, and how they have shaped it? What does it mean to you to call a place home?
IR: You know, I still feel like a poor authority on what calling a place home means. Ha! Maybe that's the real subtitle of the book: "No Authority on Calling a Place Home."
People have felt like home to me, the way my shoulders drop when I'm sitting with my friend Laura and her three big dogs on her porch. The way my friend Rebekkah's five-year-old strategically ambushes me screaming, HUG ATTACCKKKK!
Lately -- just lately, since I hit 40 -- my body has felt like home to me in a way I could never access in my image-conscious teens to thirties.
The places I've taken long-term residence -- New York City, Dominica, Detroit -- have never, of themselves, held me like that. I hear people use the term, "forever home." As in, "I'm buying a forever home for my kids." I can hardly imagine that as anything but illusory, especially when recessions, bank foreclosures, and eminent domain exist. So I try to relax where I am. Many days that comes sweetly and naturally; sometimes, it's like chewing sandpaper.
That's where my personal experience of movement and displacement intersect with the work, I suppose. The book visits and revisits the irony that in trying to secure, to grip onto, a solid place we might relax -- a forever home for our kids -- we risk thwarting open-hearted human connection. Connection with our own selves, too.
Can you speak about your journey as a writer? Where did it begin, and how have you got to where you are today?
IR: I think it started about five years before I was born, when my father was an undergrad studio arts minor. He dropped his paintbrush forever following harsh criticism from a professor. There's a poem about this in the book. Blocked artists are doomed to raise writers. I'm no daddy's girl, so there's no bias in saying my father's paintings were exceptional. Think, if Edvard Munch leaned slightly more abstract and had a Japanese calligraphy period.
That kind of spirit-rupture has to go somewhere. It floated around the house I grew up in like fumes. Writing was my way of making sure they didn't just ferment inside my body. So I wrote -- informally, mostly in private journals -- for a quarter century. All through the twenty-year career I built in industries that actively killed creative processes. I knew I had books to write, and I kept waiting for the divine inspiration to strike. We know how that goes.
In 2021, I was feeling particularly suffocated at my corporate job. I knew I wanted to leave it and focus on writing. The idea of jumping into another full-time position filled me with the color gray. So I decided to "detox" for a few months -- finally put a manuscript together, do 90 minutes of yoga every day. Being partnered at the time and child-free, I had the practical ability to take that kind of hiatus.
I dived into dozens and dozens of literary submissions, polishing my work and sending it off to magazines and literary journals. I slapped together a mini-MFA from a half-dozen workshops, and joined up with a weekly writing group where we critique and support one another. "Last month, I had the immense good fortune to attend Under the Volcano, the residency in Morelos, Mexico that Magda Bogin founded. It's hard to explain the concentrated magic of writers bouncing off writers. But it feels something like love.
What tips do you have for other poets working towards a chapbook? What have you learnt through your own experience of writing this, and putting it together, that you’d like to share with other writers?
IR: The act of writing is inherently solitary, but living as a writer requires an artistic ecosystem. Join a writing group. Be in writing community, or create one. That means attending and giving readings and workshops.
Apply, apply, apply for every residency and conference that interests you. Submit, submit, submit to every publication that looks like it might be interested in your kind of work. You will get lots and lots of rejections. Greet them like they're no big deal, because they're really not. On average, writers receive twelve rejections for every acceptance. I receive nine rejections for every acceptance so I think I'm killing it.
I learned small presses leave much of the marketing to you, the writer. And self-promotion feels icky, unnatural if you're an introvert, but it gets easier the more you try it. When you tell the manager of a book store you're interested in having your book there, they're invariably warm and receptive.
Lots of literary magazines have open positions for readers of submissions. This only takes a couple of hours a week, and reading lots of unpublished work will train you to spot fatal errors in poetry writing like unnecessary syllables, heavy-handed rhetoric, and losing a message in fluff.
Take care of your physical body. It's easier to hear the voice (you know which I mean) when you don't have indigestion.
Visit art museums, galleries, and street art every chance you get. I can't explain how, but it makes you a better poet. Maybe something to do with breaking logic open.
And spend time with trees.