The Dragons Were Blue Too Soon
Max Ritvo and Elizabeth Metzger discuss music, meaning, and revision
Oct 25, 2016
15 Min read time
Poet Max Ritvo, who was 25 when he died in August, talks about music and revision in an interview conducted shortly before his death.
He “sounds like no one else,” Louise Glück writes of Max Ritvo, whose recently published debut collection, Four Reincarnations, appeared only weeks after his death in August at the age of 25. Anyone who knew Ritvo knows that what Glück finds true of him on the page was no less true in person. He was a gifted, idiosyncratic conversationalist whose wide range of interests, radical empathy, and often carnivalesque sense of humor turned even casual exchanges into something unique and uplifting. Ritvo conducted the following interview last April in Los Angeles with one of his very favorite interlocutors—and dearest friends—the poet and fellow Boston Review–contributor Elizabeth Metzger, whose own first collection, the Juniper Prize–winning The Spirit Papers, will be published early next year. In it they discuss their work and each other’s—its music, meaning, and how the two relate—as only they could.
Max Ritvo: When I listen to Nina Simone, or Sufjan Stevens, or any of the musicians I love, I get access to flashes of memory and imagery that don’t come up at other times. They feel deep, primitive, kind of Jungian. The colors are hyper-saturated, the proportions are warped—so if, for instance, I see a face, the mouth might be twice the size of the rest of the face. They’re emotionally overwhelming—they make lumps form in my throat and daggers in my stomach. And I feel, as the song continues, an urge to link those images and memories together into some kind of whole. They can become a story, or at least a cohesive PowerPoint. And there’s a fluency in that linking game, an ease—everything seems to match and add up effortlessly—even if the images have nothing to do with one another and the story ends up not making much sense.
When I read your poems, Elizabeth, my mind fills up with these image bones, and something in me sets them into a whole. It feels just like when I listen to Nina Simone or Sufjan Stevens. You write something like:
I dog-ear my days toward you,
pulling a javelin out of a see-through star.
and I feel a day, a whole day, fold over into a book page. I see someone keeping time by writing for a whole day-long stretch, I see a poet becoming a clock. And of course, the poet that writes all day is full of longing. And then I see the poet as this beautiful warrior of longing, like an Amazon holding a javelin that’s as long as her eternal longing. And she’s deep in love with me as the “you” in the poem. And she gives me her days. She’s throwing the javelin right at me, so I feel the longing in my gut, unignorably. And the javelin is coming out of her eye, which is a see-through star.
How do you get here as a writer? How do you take me here?
Elizabeth Metzger: I envy your relationship with music, but listening to music is rarely the source of my throat lumps and poetry flashes. It’s long silence, the kind that conjures a sort of internal music, that brings me to the page. I sit uncomfortably quietly until thought distracts me from the quiet. In the lines you quoted, the “I” clearly had the impulse to move toward the you, but the music came from an image with consonance. I imagined the speaker moving through pages with the doggedness of struggling through time: “dog-ear my days toward you.”
MR: So you punned yourself into a verb?
EM: That’s a good way of putting it. It’s hard to talk about what happens in the brain. I think the first thing I hear is a musical template to graft my thoughts and feelings onto—like metrical feet, these are the footsteps I have to follow and fill. The “about” of a poem is often a trigger, but it’s in making music of it that a poem gains meaningfulness. It’s the music of a thought becoming, through cadence and syntax and line, that brings the poem to life in a reader.
MR: I get what you’re saying—the spectacle of the poem is really watching sounds grow into meaning. Every poem is like watching a baby learn to talk.
EM: Yes! And it’s the closest we get to mindreading, to joining minds. The music is what allows the poem to be carried into another’s mind. Beyond any formal meter, this transfer between minds is what matters, a psychological meter.
MR: You’re starting to go a little kumbaya on me with this joining minds stuff. I don’t quite know what you mean when you say music allows the poem to be carried in another’s mind. I think language carries content between minds. We can assemble toasters using instruction manuals, and that’s a miracle of joining minds. I can become one with someone’s skill set, the fruits of their engineering degree, from a toaster manual. It’s the sense, not the sound.
EM: Well, let me use the end of one of your poems (one of my favorites), “Afternoon,” to think through this.
In the distance, behind several voices
haggling, I hear a sound like heads
clicking together. Like a game of pool,
played with people by machines.
For me, heads clicking together is a kind of loss of all humanity’s self-control. But it’s also a clicking together, an intuitive empathy between people, a beyond-language brain-bond. I wonder if there isn’t both a sense of pathetic friction among human heads—refusing to ever let one another in—but also a sense of wordless communion between our various brains. There’s music behind the voices, a symphony of sorts.
MR: I love that—there’s definitely a kind of sad slapstick that comes from trying to fix the fact that people can’t quite get into one another’s heads by knocking those heads together like pool balls. It’s sort of like wanting to hold hands with someone, and settling for vigorously high-fiving them over and over again.
But the pool ball image, for me, is much sadder because the sound behind the voices is not music. There’s no music behind voices, just some thunking. Voices are the only kind of music that minds use for accurate and specific communication—the kind of communication we find meaningful. I get the yearning for “wordless communion,” but it asks too much of a poem to carry the weight of eye contact. It asks too much of a human being—even locked in a deep gaze, we can’t ever turn off the little voices in our head.
Photo: Dorothea Lasky
EM: I’ve been thinking a lot about your actual speaking voice. Your music is often inextricable from the inflection of a speaking voice as much as a mind. Can you talk more about the significance of voices for you?
MR: Sure, my whole process is hearing voices. I hear individual sentences accuse or self-deprecate or beg—little tones. And on top of that, there’s a character to the voice. Not Genghis Kahn, or my mom or anything—not personae. But more nebulously there’s the way a human being cuts through the world with a particular intelligence and emotional predisposition, a range of what they could possibly express—a Big Tone, a Voice. First, I hear the extremes of that Big Voice rattling around in my head. And then, as I write, it’s just, line by line, a phrase’s inflection emerging, long before any content has come to mind. A kind of empty shape that tilts up at the end for questions, or slithers up and down for passive-aggressive things the (usually pretty Jewish) voice just happens to notice. It’s my version of those footsteps you feel like you have to fill.
EM: It’s interesting that those gobstopper layers emerge before content, and I also think that’s what makes your poems fun to read again and again, often aloud. You have taught me a lot about how to read poems aloud: each line can be inflected differently to alter the emotion. It’s not the meaning that changes, but the perspective. Even once you’ve established your content, it seems the footsteps, the words you choose, leave room for you to walk with different vocal shoes so to speak, stilettos, clown shoes, bare feet.
In the opening line of your poem “Sky-Sex Dreams of Randal,” you write, “I am raving at you with extremely good eye-contact.” There’s a punch to the line sonically, but the music of the scene is at once internal and external, funny and disturbing. For me, the line suggests a kind of tantrum of noise but also a silent battle. Is the raving non-verbal? Is this a moment of compassion and intimacy or aggression, even condescension? The line manages to absorb and contain all the contradictory readings.
MR: Yeah, for me that moment is look how deep and loving I am when I hate on you. Nobody will ever hate you with the sensitivity and commitment I bring to the table. But that can be more about self-love, or other-love, or self-hate, or other-hate depending on how you lean into it.
You’re right, my poems end up sounding different every time I read them, and I hope they’re different every time someone else reads them. There’s a chain reaction from the emotional tenor and vocal potential a reader feels in the moment down into all the little inflection patterns that are mapped out in a poem. If you ask a question with sarcastic anger, it’ll end up sounding differently than if you ask it with tender concern. When I write a poem, the smaller inflection units, the particular Little Tones, are born under the auspices of a particular Big Tone. But that doesn’t mean they’re beholden to it. People all have different Big Tones in their hearts, moment to moment, and so do I. I don’t really need the Big Tone that wrote the poem to be intact when I read it. And a new Big Tone means a whole new way for a poem to sound out loud.
What about you, how do you play with voices? How do they talk in your work? Or is it “All Wrested From Silence and Is Silence Itself”?
EM: Well, I must say, silence makes me a pretty great eavesdropper. Often I am moved by the sound of a word, a phrase I eavesdropped but didn’t quite catch that haunts me. I once heard that a bird who loses its mother can learn its species’ song by piecing together the notes it instinctively recognizes in other birds. I superstitiously wonder if my overhearings and mishearings can puzzle together a deeper thought than I knew I had.
MR: Your poor mother. She taught you how to speak and think. Not strangers on the street!
EM: It’s actually the subway that was my womb, Max. Okay this is goofy but bear with this example—I heard it on the 6 (and it was definitely a mishearing) “the dragons were blue too soon.” The musical template combined with my own context creates a heightened emotional state. I know blue means sad, but the real sadness in this example comes from the sonic arc, the hard consonants of dragons followed by three long o’s—oo oo oo—a mournful cooing.
MR: Bleh BLARGANS be boo boo boo? Like that? That makes you sad, Elizabeth?
EM: Well, yes—the sound divorced from sense. My emotional state becomes sad, but that’s too simple. I am not satisfied just being sad. My emotion, what I felt before the phrase combined with what the phrase conjured, shadows the arc and pattern of the sound. I then search my thoughts for memories or imagined scenes that match the particular music of the line. Maybe I remember a birthday party (dragons) at which I blow out candles (blue) and watch the smoke curl (too) through the air as the guests leave one by one (soon) and leave me alone (. . . blue too soon). It is over. I am at the farthest point from my dragons.
MR: Wow! I can’t believe you can pull an entire music video out of that one line of speech. That was really magnificent and I see the whole thing!
EM: Well, that makes me very happy because I think the whole purpose of pulling out the music video is to translate it back to the next person. The dragons on the train may end up on the cutting room floor of my ear, but I hope when people read my poem they’ll think of their own birthday catastrophe music. I want to translate my emotions into sounds that let readers hold their own blue dragons and feel the music of their own emotions and memories a bit more.
MR: Well the content in your misheard line does mirror your fucked-up birthday party—there’s a sad dragon, and dragons breathe fire like candles, and Barney and foam dragons appear at a bunch of kids’ birthday parties. Do you think the birthday was drawn out of your memory from hearing the word dragon, or were sad birthday thoughts already boiling in you, and so those vibrations hitting your ear became a dragon?
EM: I think it’s complicated. I mean I misheard so I was already projecting some content (“nonsense content”) onto sound, or presumed speech. I guess language is proof that human feeling and thinking have a shared root system. Psychological meter works in two directions: the sounds inform the emotional content and the content inevitably informs the emotion of the sounds.
MR: That makes sense. Because I can take your metrical pattern from “The dragons were blue too soon,” and if I put myself into a Happy Character, like a Robin Williams kind of mood, I can hear “The flagons were blew to the MOON!” And that’s just as close as I could stay to your meter and even your phonetics, while totally inverting the emotional valence. Now it’s a sentence for me about taking some silver goblets and sending them to the moon with dynamite. Which is . . . um . . . happy to me, I guess. At least in the aggressive way Robin Williams performed happiness. I used a different voice, with a different, albeit less compelling, internality, and was able to use pretty identical sonic properties to make a completely different vocalization.
EM: Okay, I can see that. And I can see how this might account for some of our differences on the poem level and maybe across poems. My dragons were sad to me because I felt I had no control over them. Your flagons were funny because you were steering the ship.
MR: Robin Williams wrote that line. I just misheard it.
EM: Maybe we can rocket back to the macrocosm for a minute and talk about books. I’m pretty blown away by the way you can just revise my dragons into your flagons. . . . it speaks to a compulsion to revise beyond vocalization, beyond tone. I’ve watched your first book, Four Reincarnations, spin and hatch from multiple cocoons. Am I going too far in seeing a connection between your Robin Williams line and your big picture revision process?
MR: I like sophistry in the old sense of the word. Peeling things apart, challenging things, making phrases mean their opposites, is a way to get to know them, a way to love them. For me to understand my work, I want to know when it’s boring. I try to let myself be bored by my work, grow cold if it’s not warm to me. I read my own work as I would a piece that hasn’t yet earned my love. Like the way I’d read a piece in a lit mag on the subway, half distracted, muttering to myself “The Dragons are Blue In June. . . . what kinda title is that?” As I edit, I try not to be on the poem’s side. And if a stanza or line of dialogue or a whole poem fails to keep me engaged, I kill it. Nothing to worry about, I always can find something else to say. And if that’s wrong too, then there’s something else else to say. The music I really really love holds my attention for three minutes without a break. That’s the standard I hold my poems to. Music, as deep as it goes, is also entertaining. Poems should be just as entertaining. Sometimes my thoughts aren’t entertaining. So out of the poem they go. This leaves a better poem. Perhaps a more musical poem, since music is so entertaining.
Let’s talk about you and revision. Your revision process seems to be the sense-making moment for your work. You’re quite the reviser yourself. I’ve seen your book The Spirit Papers go through countless versions. While gnomic music is still your very obvious jams, I see clarity and characters growing more and more out of each draft—I see specific fears and human beings clawing their way out of your abyssal music to the pages’ surface. Could you talk a little about revision, and how it relates to what your work is and is becoming?
EM: The paradox is that as I revise I become stricter about sense, like I am sight-reading my own poems. As I sing them, estranged from them, I become a masochist for meaning. If there’s a phrase I am attached to, there may be a battle between removing it for the poem’s sake (killing one’s darlings) or gnawing so deeply at the poem that it becomes a new poem, and my darling is the golden tooth. Sometimes I think of the revising ear as a microscope that would very much like to observe the particles of silence!
Many of the poems in The Spirit Papers are preemptive elegies. They take place in the pre-trauma of the mind, the world of fear and anxiety and possibility. This is my way of warding off those fears—while containing and, of course, continuing them. As I revise, lineation becomes psychological breathing, an obsessive almost breathless manifestation of magical thinking. If I hold my breath every other breath, can I breathe for longer? Eventually I stop justifying my choices and back off the page, in hopes that the very act of abandoning the poem will consummate its wishes, its “meaning.”
This is part of why I called my book The Spirit Papers. Spirit papers (also known as wishing papers) are flammable translucent pages on which one writes wishes. Once crumpled and lit on fire, the ash flies up in surprising shapes that make the wish come true. Likewise, I think once a poem is written it can be burned and once it’s burned it can live. The muscle that commits unspeakable feeling to language is the muscle that must let go and give the feeling away.
October 25, 2016
15 Min read time