Books In Conversation
The Life-Long Sentence
MARY RUEFLE with Tony Leuzzi
“I was born into a world that no longer exists,” Mary Ruefle told me as we sat down to lunch at a Mediterranean restaurant in Rochester, NY. Although referring to how entrenched electronic devices are in our daily lives, and how terribly sad it is that more and more people have never known what it feels like to be off the grid for a day, let alone a week, she appeared to be talking about more than iPads and Bluetooths. So few people give themselves time or space for contemplation and sustained concentration. In such an age where deep reading has been replaced by rapid-fire consumption of e-books, reality television, and video games, Mary Ruefle—the writer of some of America’s most compelling poetry—must seem to the masses like a strange bird facing extinction. And yet her quirky poems are neither escapist fantasies nor precious artifacts that risk falling apart at the slightest touch of a hurried hand. Rather, Ruefle’s voice has earned a wide and eager readership among poets and non-specialists. Her Selected Poems (Wave, 2011) is an essential starting point for any curious mind; and 2012’s Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (also Wave) was a worthy finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The author of twelve books of verse and two prose collections, Ruefle’s imaginative powers have remained in full force, as evinced in Trances of the Blast (Wave, 2013), her single most powerful volume of poems to date. Our conversation, initially recorded during her brief residency at Monroe Community College from October 23 – 24, 2013, reveals she is a great talker as well. Incisive and knowing yet always warm and playful, Ruefle speaks about metaphor, her ruthless revisions, the imagination as a place of refuge, and the importance of a vital, youthful spirit.
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Recently, in conversation with a fellow admirer of your work, it became clear to us that one of the reasons your poems are so unusual and original is that they possess the kinds of wonder and awe that we lose when we leave childhood. There is everywhere in them the spirit of the child.
Mary Ruefle: Well, there are two sides to being childlike. On one side you have an intense imagination, which is capable of doing what any child can do: animating an inanimate object, being playful. The other side involves being naïve in a vulnerable way that may lead to a skewed vision of the world, one that is inaccurate, and not to be trusted. How can my reality be trusted if it’s imaginative?
I often describe myself as being 8 years old at heart, in both good and bad ways. I am not being judgmental when I say “8 years old at heart.” I use these words as a kind of shorthand that allows me to consider the power of the imagination and the weakness of the imagination.
Imagination can create beautiful worlds. It can also create distorted monsters. We think the possession of imagination in the arts is a great virtue, but we seldom stop to consider that those who are clinically paranoid also have extraordinary imaginations—they think that the salad is bugged, that the government is eavesdropping on them. There are two sides to this, too, because very often salads do have bugs in them, slugs that have clung to the leaves. “The salad is bugged”—is that literal or figurative?
The waitress has just served us salads and I believe mine has a microphone in it!
Rail: The language in your poems is invigorating, imaginative, and often comic, but the poems themselves seem informed by deep sadness and inescapable loneliness.
Ruefle: Every human being is ultimately a solitary story. We all have a life, but no life will ever be wholly shared by another. People come and go. Parents, siblings, lovers, friends—none will be able to share your life from start to finish. Often people who are with us in the end were not with us in the beginning; they arrived somewhere in the middle. You’re the only person that is with yourself from beginning to end.
I am not a lonely person. I love solitude. There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. Writers know that. I have never met a writer who does not crave to be alone. We have to be alone to do what we do.
The pervasive loneliness people see in my poems is not intentional; I see it when it’s pointed out to me—I’m no fool—but that loneliness is, I think, part of human consciousness. At the same time, of course, it’s second nature to me!
Rail: Maybe, then, it’s a kind of honesty, an articulation of the human condition, as opposed to a posture.
Ruefle: Maybe. You’d have to ask the others, the ones who see the loneliness in my poems, but I think you’re right about that. I posture language all the time, but never my solitude.
Rail: It’s interesting that your description of an entire life is similar to the description of the life-long sentence you discuss in your essay “On Beginnings” from Madness, Rack and Honey, where you write, “This is what Ezra Pound learned from Ernest Fenollosa: Some languages are so constructed—English among them—that we only really speak one sentence.” Not only are you the only one who is with you your whole life, you’re the only one that knows your entire sentence.
Ruefle: Yes, our entire spoken life is one long sentence, with the proper punctuation added, of course. When I told the poet Ralph Angel about this he said, “That’s a lot of semi-colons!”
I would love to have a computer printout of my life sentence to date. Wouldn’t you? Of course, it would take me more than a lifetime to recover from—I would certainly want to edit it. And more than edit, I’d love to make an erasure of my life-long shame and pride.
Rail: I wonder if that’s what poets are doing all the time, anyway. When we write a poem, are we, in some way, editing a portion of our life-long sentence?
Ruefle: Everything that gets down on the page we have thought. It originates in the mind as a thought. There’s no such thing as writing what you don’t think. In that sense, yes we are editing our thoughts.
Rail: I find “Pontiac” to be one of your most moving poems. In that poem, the persona and her bathrobe “pass the afternoon in communal affection / without which the most benign of god’s creatures / would inconsolably wither.” The poem is filled with moments at once comic and sad. Do you think it is literally possible for a person to share communal affection with an inanimate object?
Ruefle: Absolutely. No question. Resoundingly yes. The imagination can make something unreal real. That’s part of the joy and power of it. I understand there is a pejorative side, but I am someone who has always talked to inanimate objects—to pencils, to stuffed animals, to the dead. And with regards to living things—let’s consider spiders: the spider in my shower has a name. That kind of thing. I’ve gone wild with communing. I live alone, and people who live alone are never alone. You commune with the objects around you. Think of people who are in prison—I’m taking an extreme example. Think of the prisoner who adopts a mouse that skitters across the floor of the cell, or how that person might turn a simple object into a companion. What fascinates me is that the human mind can do that. The human mind is a tool for survival like none other I know. The human mind assists in our survival again and again and again.
Back to the woman and the bathrobe. I hadn’t thought of it until this moment, but actually there is this cliché of a woman wandering around the house in a bathrobe. At least the cliché used to exist when most women stayed at home and were housewives. Why get dressed if you don’t have to go to work? I spend a lot of time wandering around my house in my bathrobe and after a while I realized “she” was my friend, someone I felt comfortable with. If you’re my close friend, I feel comfortable enough around you to wear my bathrobe, but if I don’t know you very well I might feel a little awkward, or more than a little awkward.
My bathrobe is a friend I don’t mind wearing my bathrobe in front of. I suppose my awareness of that ended up in the poem.
Rail: In a presentation earlier today to students at Monroe Community College, you said—and I’m paraphrasing here—that there are those who become writers because their parents impressed upon them the importance of their cultural heritage; and then there are those who became writers because they felt different from their families.
Ruefle: Yes, and the latter type were lonely until they began to read and literature became their companion. I’m not lonely now. I was lonely until I discovered all the writers that I love from all over the world. Their ideas, thoughts, and feelings were more interesting to me than most of the people around me. I was a kid, what did I know? Perhaps a kind of blindness led me to literature, and over a lifetime taught me to see.
One thing I don’t understand is how so many young students are reluctant to read anything written before 1950 or 1960, dismissing what came before that time as “historical,” the distant past, rather than contemporary. Well, the act of reading is a contemporary act. When you are reading a book that was written in 1822 it’s happening on the day you read it! The notion that literature from other ages is antiquated—I’ve never understood it.
Rail: So, in some ways, the pleasures of reading are related to being able to access in the immediate present that which would otherwise be inaccessible. You’re able to jump back and forth in time.
Ruefle: No, I’m in the present. I’m in whatever present moment is being offered me. I’m not “going back” to anything. But, of course, all of academia today is under the influence of Postmodernism, which I am neither for nor against. Postmodernism has been extremely beneficial and constructive to the world as we know it; but it has been destructive, too. In academia, literature is taught within a cultural and historical context. Within this context, it often never occurs to the reader to simply read literature as an act taking place in the present, not having a context other than the present moment as the text unfolds. And yet that is precisely how I learned to read. I do not read a 19th-century novel from England, or a 13th-century poem from Japan with questions in the back of my mind like, “What was the power structure at the time this haiku was being written?” I don’t do that! As a reader, I have a direct experience with what is unfolding on the page, which is unfolding in my mind.
Rail: As you say this, I think of Stephen King. In his short novel, The Body, which became the movie Stand By Me, Gordie, the white, middle-class narrator, reads Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and identifies with the unnamed narrator of that novel not on the basis of the latter’s struggle as a black man but because Gordie is invisible to his parents.
Ruefle: You’re luckiest when you encounter an author whose environment, atmosphere, and mood match your own. Two bells ringing in harmony. I’m always pontificating on the fact that poetry is a matter of mood. What I respond to in January, I may not respond to in July. The greatest literature of all, however, is that which has the power to take you out of your present mood and put you into the mood of what you’re reading. That’s the really great stuff: literature that can override the mood match.
Rail: Many young readers unwilling to read literature from another time and place are unable to do precisely that.
Ruefle: Young readers perhaps don’t understand that all their thoughts and feelings have been thought and felt before. Every human being that has ever been alive and has been interested in this thing called language should know this. “No one can understand me unless they are alive in the age I live in,” means you just don’t understand life yet. The older you get the more keenly you’re aware that anyone who has ever lived has gone through the same experiences you have. Everything has already been said and done. But, then, if this is so, why do we need more poems in the world?
I once read a Jane Hirshfield interview where she said something quite wonderful. She essentially said we have to keep writing because it’s every generation’s job to put in the present vernacular poems that are called upon for rites of passage, such as poems read at weddings or funerals. I hadn’t thought of this before. Your ordinary citizen should be able to go to the library and find a poem written in the current vernacular, and the responsibility for every generation of writers is to make this possible. We must, then, rewrite everything that has ever been written in the current vernacular, which is really what the evolution of literature is all about. Nothing new gets said but the vernacular keeps changing.
Rail: As much as this wonderful explanation might be true, I can’t imagine any of your poems being read at a wedding or a funeral.
Ruefle: I don’t write poems for occasions, but that doesn’t mean such poems shouldn’t be written, only that I myself don’t write them. I suppose I’m trying to tell you about the human condition in my own vernacular, or the solitary imagination, or some other thing that’s only occasional to 2:36 p.m. on a Saturday.
Rail: If there were a sentence or notion that is written underneath all of your poems, what would it be?
Ruefle: I haven’t a clue. That could be written: “I haven’t a clue.”
Rail: Your new book Trances of the Blast may be your single best book, outside Selected Poems, which appeared a year-and-a-half earlier. Did your experience compiling Selected Poems change the way you worked on the new book?
Ruefle: It did. Each of my previous books before Selected Poems came about after I’d written a hundred poems and then just published them. After choosing which poems went into my Selected Poems, I was able to approach Trances of the Blast in a new way. I was selective, vigorously selective—ruthlessly selective! Those hundred pages were culled out of three hundred. This is something most writers do, though I never did. I guess I’m a slow learner. I was never interested in that process before. My attitude was, “This is what I did; these are my children; some behave better than others; some get better grades than others. So this is it; here’s the family; take the photograph.” It’s a silly metaphor but what the hell.
I didn’t become aware of the book as a constructed, singular project or endeavor until the 1980s. Before this, it was common to see a book of poems as merely a collection of individual poems. What happened to books with Poems as a title? Today we have books that are thematically consistent; a book of poems is somewhat akin to a book of short story cycles, where individual stories are connected through interrelated characters.
I suppose it doesn’t make any difference which approach you take. Whether or not a book is going to resonate with a reader has nothing to do with how it is constructed. I respect the process of making a unified book of poems, but that’s not something I’m interested in. When I say Trances is more deliberately a book than the previous books, I mean it was more selectively constructed. I simply separated wheat from chaff whereas formerly I wouldn’t have done this. As I said, working on Selected Poems enabled me to be more self-critical. Because I liked the experience of picking and choosing which poems to include and exclude, I decided to do it for the new book. I finally got it. It’s as simple as that. I’m a very stubborn person. I held back for years, punishing no one but myself. Now I’m trying this new approach.
Rail: Your Selected Poems is roughly 150 pages, which is fairly short in comparison to the selected poems of other writers.
Ruefle: Is it that long? I wanted it to be under 100 pages. How many pages exactly?
Rail: Of actual poems, 142. With back matter, 158.
Ruefle: Wow! My editor and I were very clear on a few things, and one of those things was we wanted a readable book. We did not want to divide the book into “first book,” “second book,” etc. We just wanted poems in a readable order.
Rail: Even though you organize the book chronologically, according to year of publication, you don’t actually provide those divisions within the main text itself. One has to go to pages 145 – 47 in order to find out which poems belong to which book.
Ruefle: Yes. And this upsets some people. Someone mailed me a review of the book that was terrible. The reviewer just hated this decision and thought it was so frustrating to not know what book each poem was from. What did I do? I just laughed. That was her experience, not mine.
Rail: You and your editor appear to be proposing that all the poems have an equal footing.
Ruefle: Yes. I mean you are reading the poems sequentially, so there is a sense of early poems, middle poems, and later poems. However, within any given book, the poems chosen were rearranged. Their original order was mixed up.
Rail: To discuss “growth” in your poetry is a challenge because your earliest poems show so many of the features that appear in the later work. While your work has changed over time, one has to consider “growth” as a concept in a new way. Your earliest poems in Selected Poems show a maturity one doesn’t normally see in the early work of a poet.
Ruefle: Gee, I wish I knew that at the time! I can’t respond to that because it’s a flat-out compliment, except to say thank you. But I’ve always been obsessed with the same things. Love, death, loss, loneliness, the imagination—all subjects of mine—
Rail:—as well as George Washington!
Ruefle: George Washington?
Rail: I’m teasing you. He’s in more than one of your poems.
Ruefle: No he’s not. Is he? I know he’s in “My Timid Eternity.” Where else?
Rail: “A List of Things to Do on a Rainy Day.”
Ruefle: Yes! That’s right: “Imagine that George Washington has asked you for a loan.” Oh, I mention George Washington twice! Another obsession.
Rail: You write poems and you write essays. Your essays in Madness, Rack, and Honey are remarkable. Although a very different genre than verse poetry, they don’t really seem separate from the poems.
Ruefle: Well, those essays are really orchestrated lectures. I’m aware of that. They are built the way one builds a poem. They are not spontaneous, off-the-cuff lectures. They were consciously constructed after first drafts. I make some pretty wild connections in those lectures, and I guess I make some pretty wild connections in my poems, too. That is just the way my mind works. The essays also tend to be lyrical. Whenever I delivered those lectures before a live audience, I always played music as part of them. There were very often blown-up images. Those features had to be essayized for the book version. Initially, they were more like performance pieces; they had an artistic structure to them, with a multi-media dimension. They were written, but there were other features to them. It felt like a creative endeavor to write them. All I mean by that is I had fun! Wait—actually it was hell.
Rail: Your poems are so naked and honest, and yet they seem strangely cloaked and oblique.
Ruefle: It’s hard to talk about that. All I can say is I know what you mean. They are both honest and oblique, depending on what angle you’re looking at them from. There’s a lot of posturing. My voice postures a lot. At the same time, I don’t care what I say; I say what I think. It’s actually a line from one of my poems: “I no longer care what I say.” It’s all an onionskin. One layer it’s all posturing, and the next layer it’s the truth, and the next layer it’s lies, and the next layer it’s the truth, and the next layer and the next, and there’s never any end to it, and you will never, ever trace it back to the source because I’m the author and I can’t trace it back to the source. Beats me. That could be said of all poems. Truly. All poems.
Rail: But your work demonstrates this in ways I don’t normally see. I can’t tell the lies from the truth because everything in the presentation seems so earnest. I don’t get a sense of semi-surreal posturing I see in some writers who want to seem quirky. All of the weird leaping and posturing seems natural.
Ruefle: I don’t go out of my way to be or sound strange. What a waste of time that would be! I am just too old to be anything other than myself at this point. Having not a clue as to who that person is, I just continue in poem after to poem to try and explore it.
Rail: You use similes a lot. But unlike more traditional uses of simile, which attempts to explain the strange or unfamiliar by evoking the familiar, your similes often make the familiar stranger than it would ordinarily seem.
Ruefle: This would go back to imagination and the child’s perception of the world, in which a commonplace object to you or I, as adults, is something infinitely strange to a child. We see a hat rack, they see a pony. I hadn’t thought of this reverse-simile observation before. I do love similes and obviously metaphor, and I obviously love rhyming and rhythm and all the traditional vertebrae of poetry. My newest poems are so singsong rhymey. They’re just really rhymey! It’s how I feel like expressing the world and myself at this time.
Rail: Your observation about the child’s perception of the world is apt. Your poems are like bursts of the wondrous imagination children have. It’s enviable. You never seem to have lost that world.
Ruefle: I think I lost it there for a while. We all go through periods where we strive to be more sophisticated than perhaps we naturally are. But now I’m at the point where being alive is such a miracle. I want to play as much as I can.
Rail: Is older age a lot like youth?
Ruefle: No, no, no! Youth has enormous pressures. There are so many expectations, so many worries about the future: who am I?; what will I become? You are surrounded by authority figures: your parents are still alive; your teachers are a presence in your life. You are trying to please all of these people. What’s liberating about getting older is that after a certain point there are no more authority figures in your life. And you are so keenly aware of the gift of each day. One of my favorite titles is from Henry Miller: “Paint As You Like and Die Happy.” I couldn’t have taken that advice when I was 20. I couldn’t. I didn’t have the perspective. But now those very words by Miller are my motto. It’s not always possible to paint what you want, and it’s not always possible to die happy, but boy you can die trying.
Rail: But there’s that period in a child’s life before all the pressures and expectations become a part of his or her consciousness. That liminal space in childhood before the world shrinks to a rational, logical world. Now that you’re older and feeling free from the burdens of authority, can you feel some of that liminal space coming back?
Ruefle: Yes, I do. I absolutely do. And if it doesn’t want to come back, I’m going to drag it like a hobbyhorse behind me!
Rail: I love the poem “Cul-de-sac.” The ending is pretty heartbreaking: “Brother, I have been unable to attain a balance / between important and unimportant things.”
Ruefle: That question at the end of “Cul-de-sac” brings us right back to the imagination. When is it important and when is it unimportant?
Rail: Do you think that balance is something one can strike or are we always out of balance trying to find balance?
Ruefle: I think we’re always out of balance trying to find balance. Artists tend to be pretty lopsided people. I don’t think there’s anything balanced about us. We have passions and obsessions and predilections. We overreact to the world. Let’s face it! Ordinary people don’t see a fly on the wall and want to talk to it or write a poem about it or think about its existence or its lifespan or draw it. We do. We like the little things. Or we pay attention to language: we see a sign on the side of the highway and it makes us laugh out loud when no one else is laughing. We take the literal figuratively and the figurative literally: it works both ways. We’re lopsided. Balance, balance—I don’t know. I don’t think people who are truly balanced need recourse to artistic expression.
Rail: Does such a person even exist?
Ruefle: Oh, I’m sure they do. I’m sure there are a handful of monks and monkettes out there who are perfectly balanced people without any need to revert to forms of expression you and I call art.
Lopsided. As soon as I use that word I see long, floppy rabbit ears. Long, floppy rabbit ears, which are perfectly balanced!
Still, I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t lopsided in one way or another. It’s how we define our own unique features. We’re alike and we aren’t.
Rail: Do you feel some people who aren’t writers assume all writers are alike? That they could ask one writer a series of questions and, through that one writer’s answers, think they’ve uncovered the mystery of all writing?
Ruefle: Yes, I have met people like this! It’s sad. Such people also assume all poems are alike. They read one poem and don’t like it, so they give up. They don’t understand that if they keep reading they will eventually encounter a poem or a poet or a book that could change their lives. Poetry doesn’t make anything happen but it can change individual lives. Sadly, a lot of people give up before discovering this. Part of the joy of poetry is the sheer variety of poems that are being written. In this country alone there is an astounding variety, and I love it! I don’t understand why people who read one poem and don’t like it give up. “I read a poem, didn’t like it, and therefore I will not like any poetry.”
Rail: That logic is ridiculous.
Ruefle: It is. It’s like saying, “I met someone and didn’t like that person, so now all people are assholes.”
I know a lot of writers. Do we all have some things in common? You betcha. Are we still individually distinct people? You betcha.
Rail: Before I turned on the tape for this interview, you were talking about your personal library and how you are at a stage in your life where your desire to re-read certain texts means you will not have time to read new things. I think of the final two lines of “Thirteen”: “I read three thousand books, / and then I died.”
Ruefle: I recently unpacked 17 boxes of books that I haven’t seen in 22 years. Many of the books were texts I first read in college. I thought I would easily be able to get rid of them. I found myself extremely attached to them. An example would be my old Penguin edition of Ulysses. I know I will never read it again because I don’t have time but I couldn’t part from it. I realized that my wanting to re-read so many of these books again was actually a desire to live my life all over again.
For a writer, books are like a photograph album. When I look at my library of books I have the same emotional reaction that someone must have sitting down with a family photograph album. My whole life is in front of my eyes. I am not quite ready to part with it. This surprised me. I thought, “Oh, I can get rid of this book.” But doing so would be like tearing up the photograph of a beloved. I couldn’t. Someday I will, I suppose.
My relationship to books is my life. With every one of my books I know where I was when I read it, how old I was, and where I was living. If I didn’t like a book, I wouldn’t keep it. All the books I’m talking about are books I love.
It’s hard. What do I want to re-read and what do I know I am not just going to have the time to re-read? I have read many books and many poems more than once, but as the sands of time descend in the hourglass I find myself having to make some pretty quick decisions.
Rail: What are some books you will never get to read at all?
Ruefle: I don’t think I’m ever going to finish Don Quixote, sorry to say. I want to, but will I? I’ve never read D. H. Lawrence. I think I missed the right time. It just slipped by. Now I don’t think it would be the right time. The list is enormous. There are some pretty big books I never read.
Rail: The history of any reader is, in part, an admission of books one hasn’t read.
Ruefle: Exactly! You’re reading one book so you can’t be reading another. Huge, huge lacunas: some of them I seek to fill in; some will remain forever blank and empty.
Rail: I like to play a game with fellow readers; it’s called “Undisputed Masterpieces No One Reads.” The game is simply that: list books everyone says are masterpieces but few if any really read. One is The Paradisio from Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Ruefle: I’ve read that. But I hadn’t read Dante for a long time, and I said, “This is something I have to read.” I remember I was blown away. I was completely blown away! What else?
Rail: All volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, after Swann’s Way.
Ruefle: I’ve read every one of them!
Ruefle: Every single one. I’m a huge Proust fan. And they’re not all equally good, but you are still reading Proust, and reading Proust is still better than reading just about anything.
Rail: You’re ruining our game!
Ruefle: [Laughs.] Well, I do kind of balk when I look at 1,000-page novels now. I never read Gravity’s Rainbow; I never read Infinite Jest—I was just so daunted by the size of those books. I might as well be honest about it. I have read big, long, fabulous books like Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Wow, that’s a great book I just read last year. A great Russian 20th-century novel I would highly recommend to anyone. But will I ever read Tolstoy again? I’d like to read Anna Karenina again, but not War and Peace. I’d like to read Moby Dick again. Will I? I don’t know.
Rail: An interesting conundrum: what do I read again?
Ruefle: Totally. You either have the same exhilarating experience—sort of like watching a movie you love for the second time—or it’s going to be an entirely new experience, which in and of itself is why we read.
Rail: When I read your poems, I don’t think of you as an “American” poet. I’m curious where you see yourself as a poet.
Ruefle: I don’t think about that. It’s not my job to think about it, seeing myself from afar. I think my influences are wide, so imagine little pieces of mud being thrown from all corners of the world, making up this mud doll, who is myself. Yeah, little pieces of mud being thrown from all corners of the world. Some of them coming from the North Pole! I don’t know.
I didn’t really grow up in one place. I have no finite experience with a home base. We moved every one to three years. Three years was the longest we would stay anywhere, and in the very beginning of my life it was every year. So I’m like a tumbleweed, picking up a little bit of fluff everywhere I go, but not putting down roots. It might be an apt metaphor for my work. Linguists can’t pin down my accent because they’re picking up Midwest, Northeast, South, all the different places I’ve been. A linguist once correctly concluded from my voice that I had no home base and had traveled a lot. At the same time, I’ve lived in Vermont for 40 years, more or less—I can’t not mention that. I was speaking of the formative years.
Rail: So, in some ways, the imaginative wandering in your poems is emblematic of the wandering of your childhood.
Ruefle: Maybe! I’m just a wandering fool, searching and seeking, searching and seeking with no end in sight. At the same time, as I age, I do know I am not searching for anything in particular anymore. Those days are over. Whatever reaches me, reaches me by surprise.
Rail: Dolls. You mention them a lot in your work.
Ruefle: I had dolls growing up and I loved them. I wasn’t super obsessed. I wasn’t more obsessed with my dolls than any other girl. But the very word doll becomes to me a kind of short hand figure for the inanimate object that we animate. Rilke has written so beautifully about dolls. I love that moment when he says the first moment of communing doesn’t happen when you speak to your doll, it happens when the doll speaks back. And he’s absolutely right. The ways in which we project ourselves onto unreal creatures that resemble us fascinates me. It’s a world that I very much respect and admire. I don’t want to make fun of it. It’s a privilege to watch a child play with a doll or an animal.
Ruefle: Because they are unaware you are seeing the innermost parts of their mind. If you pay close attention, their interactions with dolls speak volumes. It doesn’t have to be girls and dolls. It could be boys and action figures, or girls and action figures, or boys and dolls. It doesn’t make any difference. You are watching them reveal parts of themselves through action. I know a lot of child psychologists will observe children playing with toys. I am interested, once again, in the power of the human imagination to invent ways that enable us to survive, because perhaps survival is ultimately imaginary, perhaps survival is but an act of the human mind.