Part 3 in which Ray discusses Poetry as therapy, in education, its popularity and his future plans
J: Talking a more personal sphere, let’s talk about therapy. Is poetry a tool for therapy in your own life?
R: It’s one of the primary ones.
J: Could you offer a poem that you felt cleansed an especially raw node?
R: Yes. This longer poem may seem like it comes out of left field, but I don’t think so. I think it tells a story that I wanted to tell and it tells it in poetic form which is sometimes, in fact often, a form I’ved used toward seeking understanding of myself and the world or the relation of some kind. This poem has stuck with me as something I’m glad I wrote. Something I feel proud of. Something I feel good I wrote. Proud in the sense of I pulled all of my faculties together, sat down with pen and paper and something good came out. It’s called “Memory and Prelude” something I wrote last summer, soon after Kassie and I moved from the West Coast.
Memory & Prelude
I woke this morning, early, writhing,
a dream’s lingering claws, stroked,
squeezed, & no more sleep, not even close
what was it? Not a woman, known or stranger,
nor a man, animal, god. A memory, old one,
released last night when I found a high school
essay. In a pile, a glance, a nod, none else.
But enough. A teacher I don’t remember but
he liked me. Those years weren’t pretty. He graded
me high, smiled, taught me with a worn man’s
hope that someone listened. All I wanted to do
was fuck a cheerleader. Or the poet girl
I adored. Or quite a few others. No why
in it. The rest of my grades made nobody
proud, nobody smile, hope. I skipped school
for the library, to write a paper on my
favorite books, the ones with no money &
a laughing kindess for all. I wrote & I wrote,
then typed & typed. He smiled, hoped, gave me
the best grade he could but knew it wasn’t
good enough. I wanted to fuck her, & fuck her,
& fuck her. Skipped school, hid, read,
wrote. Then one day came & suddenly I
remembered. This morning, no more sleep.
I had a friend, his name was John,
he was a rough piece of work. He liked me
too, & it mattered more. Here’s why. One day
he saw me getting pushed around &
stepped in. I didn’t have many friends,
none like him. His act, his word, protected
me. I didn’t know how to fight any more
than I knew how to fuck. Nobody had
taught me. I knew how to hide, elude, get
through the day, keep my thoughts my
own, close. I don’t know why he liked me,
or stepped in. I had nothing to offer me.
He could have taught me how to fight & fuck,
maybe, I would return & ask: “How do
you do it? Use your body’s power, its want,
its will? Show me.” Maybe he would have.
What did I have for him? It was another day’s
answer & maybe this is what wouldn’t
let me sleep this morning, what drove me
from bedroom to living room couch.
Is this a lesson, something like that?
I don’t think so. Or a lesson thus spoke:
shit happens. All the time. Maybe something
else. You see, he asked me a question,
this friend, John. And I answered because
I had no friends like him & no cheerleader pussy
& no skills to fight, make way in the world.
He was in the hallway, taking a make-up
test in the class where I’d given the teacher
hope. I came out to go to the bathroom
& he asked me to help him. The teacher
called it cheating later, when he caught me.
I suppose so. The teacher’s heart broke
& he crushed my grade down low. Probably
my friend outright failed. I went to college
& he probably didn’t. We were different kinds
of failures. I could contrive a sentence &
write it out. He could beat up a fellow &
then lay his cheerleader girlfriend
out smooth, give it to her twice hard, make
her moan, writhe, cheer, forget awhile.
And what was all this for? Maybe all these
years later I simply look back & wonder
how little connection any of us made then,
& how this not-much truth is so often true.
That hour, helping, cheating, hoping, breaking,
it passed, passed long, long ago. Nobody
left from it. Just an old sheaf of typed pages
I found yesterday, what was called onion
skin back then. A grade scrawled over it,
the dead bones of a gone pride. A breakable
certainty in me about the world years back
replaced by a working doubt. The universal
flow collects it all, whatever its seeming worth
Now let me answer the question in more detail. There have been times when my life was not very good. At least some of the time by my own doing and I would turn to the writing of poetry to focus myself on what it is that was going on. I would not be so much interested necessarily in the external details but more the inner strife – in other words -not the smoke, but the fire. What was driving me to harm myself, what was driving me to harm others, what was driving me to not do well, or what was being done to me externally that was causing me to suffer.
I don’t always write poetry for that reason, but in terms of therapy I would want to understand and I would want to find precise and potent language to express what was going on with me.
J: I like the way you say that: “potent language.” Okay, do you have something you’d like to add to that?
R: When I was younger, before I was married and I was moving from one failed love romance to the next, poetry was one way I measured how I was doing – well or poorly.
There was a time when I was living in the city on my own and I wasn’t doing very well in a lot of ways and I wrote more poems during that time than I can hardly believe now. I kept returning to the poetic form over and over again trying to distill from what wasn’t a very pretty life, something meaningful. I was trying to squeeze the value out of the suffering and the darkness. I wanted the poems to be valuable not simply as expressions of the moment. I wanted them to have resonance beyond the moment. I wanted them to live beyond the times in which they were composed. That was my entire goal – I wanted something good to come from that period – and the area of control that I most held, at least in my own mind, was writing. Nobody could tell me how to do that. It gave me focus, it gave me meaning, and it made me feel like at least in one corner of my life I was not a complete failure.
Therapy is about helping you to realize that you’re not a powerless person – and if you can start to regain that sense of yourself, of control and power, then you can expand it to more places of your life where you feel powerless. So poetry was a place that I started. Other people start elsewhere.
Poetry in Education
J: In general, are you in favor of teaching poetry in schools? If so, are there any poets you’d personally select for young teenagers?
R: Yes I’m in favor of teaching poetry in schools. The challenge is who’s teaching it and what they’re teaching. There are teachers who end up teaching poetry who don’t have a poetic bone in their bodies – and they may simply be teaching the wrong subject. They may have some other subject they’d be much better at. If you don’t have a poetic bone in your body and you’re teaching poetry, then it’s probably not going to come across very well to your students – they’re going to resist it because they’re resisting you.
What I would do in terms of the poets would be to try to show a range – I think that’s what some teachers do. They will teach a little Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and then they’ll throw in some Bob Dylan – and maybe, since he’s kind of old school now, they may throw in a rapper guy who’s particularly good with words. They’ll say, okay, there’s the formal Elizabethan way of writing poetry, but then if you range on down, you’ve got this guy you’ve heard on the radio and you could call his lyrics poetry.
That’s probably about the best you can do to show that there’s a range of poets. I’d want to make sure that some of the poems are funny. Because you’d want to emphasize that poems can be serious dark and cosmic and they can be silly And there’s validity to all of that. And I would encourage all students as an assignment to try writing a poem.
Beyond that –it’s just a matter of who takes to the idea and who doesn’t. But me, I wouldn’t want to do that. I wouldn’t want to be the person doing all that.
J: So my next question about the idea of running a poetry workshop in schools, would that interest you? Let’s say we’re talking about a two-week workshop. Would you consider it?
R: I’d only consider it if the students in the classroom had signed up for it voluntarily. If you’ve got a bunch of kids who got there because it was an assignment, or just required to do it, no. There are teachers who would take that on and happily. I’m just saying that I’m not one of them. I don’t have the frame of mind to try to convince people that poetry is valuable.
But if it were a group of students who had signed up, they were interested, had some kind of positive or curious idea about the whole thing to begin with, then sure that would be fun. It might be fun. You know how I’d start it? If I had 10 students who’d signed up, I’d communicate with all of them beforehand, that on the first day of the class, I’d want them to show up with a poem that they admire that they’ve read which shows why they’re sitting in that classroom, because that poem is an example of why poetry interests them. That would be kind of neat.
J: Yes, very interesting.
R: Yeah. That’s all I have on that one.
Popularity of Poetry
J: Okay, about the popularity of poetry. Do you think that poetry has become more popular over the years?
R: I don’t know. Do you mean commercially?
J: I mean if people are more widely read – more fluent, more exposed to poetry.
R: I would say it’s hard to measure that except by things like: is it taught in schools, bookstore sales, can you glean if there are more poets giving readings out in the world and are the audiences getting bigger or smaller. It probably waxes and wanes like a fad. There are probably periods of time when poetry is more popular because of a movie or because some well-liked famous guy comes out and it turns out that he not only puts out great records but that he is also a really good poet – or maybe some kind of internet thing happens – where everybody’s getting inspired to write poetry.
I think it’s always present and at any time there’s a little more present and a little less but in terms of a waxing popularity over the course of time, all we have to do is think how about a century and a half ago, there was no such thing as recorded music – there were no records, there was no television, no films. All people had were books and libraries, so poetry was probably more widely read then, by a smaller populace that was actually literate.
So it’s all numbers. I’m not giving you a good answer because it’s all numbers. If 90% of the population’s literate, it doesn’t mean they’re all reading poetry. If 40% of the population is literate but they don’t have all those other kinds of options, then they’re probably reading more poetry but in terms of the exact number of people, who knows.
I’m just saying the optimistic answer is ‘Yes’ because everything has become much more popular because it’s more widely available. But in terms of if it’s more socially important then I don’t know.
You know there was a movie some years ago called ‘The Postman‘and it prominently featured poems by Pablo Neruda. It was a very popular movie, so popular that Pablo Neruda, who’s always been kind of a well-known poet, had a brief period of time when his books were selling crazily because people went to the movie, heard his poetry and rushed to the bookstore to get a book of his poems for themselves. So I think that’s an example of a momentary spike in popularity.
But one thing disturbing me about American schools is that Bush instituted this thing called “No child left behind”. The idea was that more children would get through to High School and hopefully to college. So they set up standardized tests to get people from grade to grade, but the problem was they didn’t fund it. So you ended up with schools that had to show that they were getting more students graduating by these standardized tests but they weren’t being given adequate funding to really give the students an education that would result in passing the tests. So instead of that all happening, students were simply driven to take the tests, practice them over and over again. Pass the test, the school gets the funding.
What you ended up with was a lot of students getting High School diplomas who really didn’t have a good education.
J: Okay, and you’re tying this into the popularity of poetry…
R: Well because the tests, I’m fairly certain, are standardized tests that were much more geared toward science and linguistics and mechanical things that you can test more easily than poetry. So, poetry and art and music and things were de-funded. So then Obama comes in and Obama is very much an education President. He’s probably the most pro-education President this country has had in many years and he’s always talking about that. I mean he’s ‘walking that walk ‘ whatever people think of him otherwise. He’s always pushing for more money and that we have to get more people to graduate with a good education, we’ve got to give more students money to go to college. I mean he’s no bullshit about that and so I have no doubt that with the additional money he’s giving to the schools, the schools are then going to parse out to English teachers and to music teachers and art teachers. So, more people will be exposed to art and literature and music.
It’s not poetry in itself; it’s just funding and attention.
J: Okay, let’s move on to the last question. This is about the future.
I find you a very inspiring energetic force in the world of poetry and self-expression. You’ve created a radio station, a magazine, ScriptorPress, and the Jellicle Literary Guild. Do you have any more plans for the future you can share?
R: Well, the first thing that I’ll say is that keeping all that stuff going is very a fulltime effort – so I don’t plan starting any new projects any time soon – I think I finally have a full plate of projects where nothing’s missing. The only thing I don’t have a hand in is video or television – and I don’t have any interest in that.
But I’ll give you something more solid.
I moved back to Boston after not living here for 8 years – I lived out west, in Portland and Seattle for those years. And when I moved back to this place where I’d lived for many years prior to moving out west, I vowed that I was going to have a much more meaningful relationship with the Boston area – I was going to invest in it more. I was going to both make people more aware of my projects and also learn of other people’s projects and perhaps foster collaboration.
So the answer is in terms of additional plans, I want to take all the things I’ve learned about connecting with people on the internet and apply some of them to connecting with people in real life. Because I think developing a balance between the two is a really good idea.
At this point, since I haven’t been here very long it’s still the beginning of a work in progress.
But I will say on a note of hope that The Cenacle has published already several Boston area writers, some of whom I’ve met only in the past few months.
J: And they’re marvelous, also.
R: I think you have to start somewhere. And I’ll elaborate on this to one more level. I had this notion that I’d love to be part of something similar to what was going on in the sixties, here and elsewhere – a kind of an underground media existed at that time– it was a pre-internet time, so the underground media was print journals, it wasn’t electronic form. But I’ve always thought it would be neat if I could distribute my publications in other places and then as a return, help people in other places distribute in Boston.
That’s been a long standing wish of mine.
J: Okay. Is there anything else you wanna add?
R: Anyone can do what I’m doing or rather they can find their own equivalent. The door to making art and to disseminating it far and wide is open to everybody – whoever has a desire to do so and the willingness to put in the time and effort.
J: Okay, it’s a great final comment. Offering the gesture opening and asking people to listen to you and then start their own movement.
R: I’d rather that someone after having listened for all that time, ended up by listening to themselves at the end. To think wow, listen to this guy doing all this stuff and I can, too. That’s always the deal. The more people we have doing this kind of stuff, Jude, the less people we have planning wars and making bombs.
J: Even though that sounds like so much fun the way you say it. ..(laughter) So thanks, Ray.
R: Okay, thanks, Jude. This was lots of fun. We breach the geography between us by these collaborations.
J: Even with technical glitches.
R: Even with technical glitches. Speak to you soon.
Ray Soulard, Jr can be read at Scriptor Press
For those in the Boston area, stay tuned for future developments.