INTERVIEW WITH RON MOHRING
BY ELLEN MARGARET LEWIS
The first book of yours that I read was The David
Museum -- your second chapbook, I believe. I read it straight through, like
a story, and it spoke to my feelings and experience in a way that made
me weep and feel better at the same time. I promptly ordered Survivable
World and Beneficence -- and Lisa and I are tremendously pleased, now, to
welcome you to speak with us here at Sunspinner. Tell us a little about
yourself. Who are you, Ron Mohring? Where are you from?
First of all,
thanks so much for this opportunity. Many people seem to find my work
through word-of-mouth, and I find that very gratifying. About me, hmm: I
was born and raised near Cincinnati, in a small rural town. I moved to
Houston in 1986 and stayed for 13 years -- that's where the poems in
Amateur Grief and The David Museum, as well as a good part of Survivable
World, were written. I have lived in Lewisburg, PA for four years now,
and I love it here. I'm very tied to this central Pennsylvania
landscape, this weather -- four distinct seasons again! -- and in some ways
it's similar to the landscape of my childhood. Plus, if I need to tap
into the energy and variety of the city, it's an easy trip into
Baltimore, Philly, and especially New York.
One of the things I like
about your poems is their solidity. Realness. I feel, when I'm reading
them, like I can reach in and pick up those gryphon candlesticks or open a drawer to find baby mice abandoned in my sweater. Can
you talk a little bit about the process of writing a poem?
important to me to write poems that a reader, any reader, can move into,
regardless of whether the particular experience is one she might share.
I absolutely think of the poem as a place, so initial details are often
essential: sketching a scene, populating that scene with "real things."
I want the reader to feel invited into the poem, as into a comfortable
room, even if some elements are uncomfortable, or even unnerving! This
tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar, what's safe vs. what's
unknown or unsafe -- dangerous -- hopefully enables the willing reader to
inhabit the poem, spend some time there (again, as in a room). I think
this applies to a large portion of my work, and even more so to my new
manuscript, which I'm hoping to complete this year: it's called "The Boy
Who Reads in the Trees."
When do you write, and where? What (and/or
who) supports you in your creativity?
I'm terribly undisciplined: no
set writing schedule, no self-imposed deadlines. As a result, I can go
weeks or sometimes months without writing, until a poem clobbers me on
the head and I run to my computer or journal and try to hang onto it
long enough to get it down, get it out. Back in Houston, I met weekly
with three or four other poets for several years, and turned out a poem
a week. So those structures can be good for me. My problem is that so
many things call to my attention: for instance, I'm a quilter, and
currently I'm trying to put in a couple hours every evening on a quilt,
with two or three more in my head that I urgently want to piece and get
to work on. I also garden -- I could not live without dirt and seeds and a
place to grow things -- and I'm eager to get outside and see what's waking,
make plans for this year's herb garden.
To me, it's all intertwined,
all part of the same dialogue: when quilting, I'm deeply connected to my
mother, to my grandparents and aunts who quilted. And this connection
finds its way into the poems, for example, "Windows." Gardens and plants
are everywhere in my poems. I tell my students that every thing around
us, living or not so obviously living, is telling its story, and that we
have to train ourselves to open up, learn to see and hear, this ongoing
narrative. Teaching creative writing, as I sometimes do, is a more
obvious source: I do all the prompts and exercises with my students, and
these often lead me to poems. So the short answer (to which I always
take the long path) is that everything supports me in my writing,
everything feeds that awareness and process.
Have you ever tried to
write fiction or plays? What is it about poetry, specifically, that
makes it the way you tell stories?
I do have a couple of unfinished
plays, which I started back in Houston as an undergraduate in Edward
Albee's playwriting workshops. It's a medium I'd love to explore
further. And I dabble in fiction and nonfiction. My dear friend Dan
Jaffe, who's a great fiction writer, has encouraged me to write more
essays, so I just pretend that I'm writing to Dan: it helps me stay "in
voice." I love fiction, love reading it, and I'm happy to serve now as
fiction editor of West Branch.
I would argue that poetry can do just
about anything that fiction can do. Elements of scene, of narrative, of
voice and dialogue, patterns of movement and character engagement -- all
can be achieved in poems. A poem needn't have narrative to feel inviting
to the reader, but, for me, it ought to provide a space in which the
reader is both welcomed and challenged. There are probably many worthy
exceptions to this rule, but I think that it pretty much covers the way
I write poems, and the way I read them.
When I read your poems, I
connected with them immediately -- recognized the truth in them, even
though I hadn't experienced all the worlds you take your readers to.
Would you talk about the challenge (and importance) of writing about
difficult subjects -- loss, sexuality, and AIDS, for example? What kinds of
responses have you had to your work?
I wrote many of the poems in
Survivable World while my partner, David Wright, was dying. At first, I
tried to write somehow against that inevitability, to imagine facets of
how it would be: it was almost as if, by writing the event, I could
"jinx" it from occurring, or somehow prepare myself. The poems felt so
personal, so real, that I didn't know what to do with them: were they
too solipsistic, too much mine, to be of any value to a reader? It was
on the freeway in Houston one evening (the setting of the poem "Amateur
Grief") that I finally realized: Loss is loss. We all carry it, and at
any given moment, on the freeway, in the office, all around us, people
are barely holding together: working the copy machine, driving the bus,
welding steel, simultaneously here in the physical world and out of
their minds with grief. My experiences as a gay man, as a caregiver and
surviving partner to someone with AIDS, may be "different" from someone
else's "world," but only in the most arbitrarily specific details. How
does mourning a child killed by a sniper in Baghdad (or Arlington)
really differ from the loss of a beloved partner? Human love, human
grief: we all share these, and the difficult subjects must be written
I've been truly moved by responses to these poems: teachers
have adopted The David Museum to teach in the classroom, and others have
recommended it to friends who have experienced the loss of a loved one.
My partner, Randy, mentioned to one of the tellers at our bank that I
was a poet, and told her about Survivable World; it turns out she had
lost her brother, and she bought a copy, and then all the bank tellers
wanted copies! Here in this small town, where we were nervous about even
applying for a joint checking account, we found overwhelming acceptance
and connection. It's wonderful.
How did you find a publisher for your
poetry? Did you submit individual poems and have them accepted, then put
together a chapbook, and then later move to putting together a book? Or
was it that orderly a process?
That's pretty much it. Whenever I end
up with five or six new poems that I feel good about, I send them out to
journals. It's just automatic now, and so separate from the making of
the work that I do it with hope, but with no expectations. Once or twice
a year I spend a week with all the poems: lay them out on a conference
table and move them around, think about how they are connecting in terms
of theme or image or narrative. These get grouped into possible books or
chapbooks. For example, my third chapbook, Beneficence, is in two
sections: all the poems in section one were written here in Lewisburg in
June of 1994, when I was a fellow in the Bucknell Seminar for Younger
Poets. And the section two poems were written during the fall of 2000,
again at Bucknell, when I was a writer-in-residence. As I started
thinking about these two batches of poems, I realized they were linked
thematically as well, and the chapbook came together very quickly.
What is the difference, in your mind, between a chapbook and a book
of poetry? How do you approach the two when you're putting your poems
together for publication?
A chapbook is a book of poetry. It's like a
one-act play, as opposed to a play in three acts: you get the voice, the
situation, and a tight arc of narrative or juxtaposition, elements
linking or playing off one another. The best chapbooks are complete,
but leave you wanting to read more. I think the arc is important: there
has to be some linking mechanism, some clear connection from one poem to
the next. My least favorite chapbooks are the sort of "best of"
collections that abandon that arc. (I'll probably get in trouble for
that remark, but oh well.)
I don't really think of my chapbooks as
"baby books" in the sense that they feel incomplete in any way. I have a
lot of poems, published in journals and unpublished, that resonate with
the themes in Beneficence, for instance, and it's possible that a
full-length manuscript will come from that, but I won't necessarily feel
compelled to include that chapbook in the larger work. The chapbook is a
wonderful form, and I'm happy to see larger presses publishing
them -- Tupelo and Sarabande, for instance. Parallel Press has a very nice
series. I have three or four new chapbooks currently underway, and two
full-length manuscripts: "The Boy Who Reads in the Trees" is nearly
finished, but from that manuscript, there's a tight group of poems that
felt like a chapbook, so I have been circulating that around. I love
chapbooks, and last semester taught six of them in the poetry unit of my
intro creative writing class: several from Maggie Anderson's terrific
Wick Poetry Series, plus Betsy Sholl's wonderful Coastal Bop.
Oliver and T.S. Eliot are particular influences on my poetry. Ms. Oliver
because she loves the outdoors, and Mr. Eliot...well, I'm not sure I
can explain what I like about his work. But when I'm in doubt, I re-read
Four Quartets. What are some of your literary influences? What are you
reading right now?
I continue to be very excited about contemporary
poetry, though sometimes I read it like popcorn. For re-reading, I go
back to Lowell, Bishop, Yeats most often. Neruda. If I could only save
five or six books of contemporary poetry -- and I have a couple thousand in
my apartment -- I'd grab Jack Gilbert's Monolithos, Mark Doty's My
Alexandria, Larry Levis's Elegy, and hmm, all of Mary Ruefle, Louise
Gluck, something by Gerald Stern -- oh hell, I'd die in the fire with my
arms loaded down. There are some wonderful first books out there: I'm
thinking of Deirdre O'Connor, Eliot Wilson, Paul Guest. On (and under)
my bedside table right now: new books by Mark Wunderlich, Kevin Young,
Ben Lerner, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Kimiko Hahn, Patrick Phillips, Peter
Streckfus, Jason Schneiderman, Moira Egan.
What was a breakthrough
moment that you've had as a writer?
Attending the Bucknell Seminar for
Younger Poets in 1994. I was a "nontraditional" undergraduate, having
returned to school in my early thirties to finish my B.A., and had been
taking CW classes a couple of years in Houston with wonderful poets:
Garret Hongo, Jill Rosser, Linda Gregg, Cynthia Macdonald. Working
full-time and chipping away at my English degree. David was ill and, as
it turned out, would only live one more year. I applied for the Seminar
and got accepted, and then had to leave David alone for the whole month
of June. But the June Seminar was an incredibly pivotal experience: I
came back knowing that I could write, that it was worth nurturing and
How do you balance a life of writing, teaching and being
an editor of a literary journal?
I don't. I careen, pretty much
joyfully, from one to the other. When I'm not writing, I'm reading. I
love teaching, hate grading: who doesn't? When I'm watching television
or a movie, I'm also quilting. When none of it works, and if it's warm
enough, I'm digging in the garden. It all feels part of the same big
yummy pie. I generally go around feeling very lucky.
What are you
working on now?
Coddling seedlings under lights in the attic: four
o'clocks, violas, basils, and daylilies and miniature roses (!); midway
through quilting a four-patch quilt and piecing a baby quilt for a
friend; writing on three or four longer poems that will hopefully pull
together "The Boy Who Reads in the Trees"; writing also some short
personal essays that complement that manuscript -- I'm not sure yet what
those are going to grow into; reading lots of fiction and poems for West
Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?
"being a poet" with the pure joy of patterning language into poetry.
Keep writing about whatever moves you.
lives in central Pennsylvania, where he serves as Fiction Editor of West
Branch. His poetry collection, Survivable World, won the 2003 Washington
Prize and is available from The Word Works Press. Mohring's poems have
appeared or will soon appear in The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly
Review, Hanging Loose, Indiana Review, Florida Review, and many other
journals and anthologies. His work has twice been nominated for the
Pushcart Prize, and he received the 2003 Oscar Wilde Award from Gival
Press. Mohring has also published three prize-winning chapbooks of
You can keep up with Ron's latest news and musings at his blog
site, "Supple Amounts."
FEATURED WORK AND LINKS
Six poems online at Lodestar Quarterly (2004),
Between Them (2002) featured in Verse Daily.
Suddenly (2003) featured in Verse Daily.
Brief review of Survivable World (2005)