Interview with Boyer Rickel on remanence — October 11, 2008

Boyer Rickel's previous books include arreboles (Wesleyan) and Taboo, essays (Wisconsin). Recipient of poetry fellowships from the NEA and Arizona Commission on the Arts, his poems and nonfiction have appeared in more than sixty print and online journals and anthologies. Since 1991 he has taught in the University of Arizona Creative Writing Program. Visit his website:

Christopher Nelson: Can you talk about the structure of remanence and the constraints you set for yourself?

Boyer Rickel: There’s a bit of history to this set of constraints. About five or six years ago I felt weary of my own mind and imagination, and I was searching for a way to work with the blank page in directions that didn’t always create the same shape. In my experience, working with constraints does not limit, especially when you work within a sequence, such as a sequence of villanelles or sonnets. When you write in a form repeatedly and get comfortable with the nature of that structure, things happen that you don’t expect: you get forced into re-imagining, and you take your material in surprising directions. I find that constraints can liberate — not the old metaphor of pouring the poem into a vessel that’s already shaped; that’s not my experience of how forms work. So I started giving myself constraints five or six years ago for poem sequences in which my command was that poem to poem I would try to do something different, or if I found myself falling into patterns then I would break those patterns. The first one that really went on at book-length I wrote beforeremanence, a manuscript titled forty-five figures; all of its poems are fifteen lines because I wanted something sort of sonnet length but not a sonnet. And I wanted poems that were unbroken, that were continuous, that were seamless, but that traveled distances — imaginatively and intellectually — within that short space. And they weren’t to be titled; I didn’t want a reader entering the poem with any direction. I wanted the poems to travel a long way, but I didn’t want to predict anything for a reader. I worked on that sequence for a little over a year, and when I was done with it I felt a need to do the opposite, which is pretty common for me. I’ll work intensely in a particular way for a period of time, and then I need to write poems that argue with what I’ve just done. In this case, I aimed to write poems that were broken, that were discontinuous, that had gaps, that had ellipses. Line break was critical to momentum in forty-five figures, so for the new poems I wanted the sentence to be the line. And because I wanted the material to collect, to accrue, to accumulate, not to move rapidly and be connected, I needed a space between each of the poem sentences. Then titles became extremely important. I had to have titles because the individual sentences, I had decided, would be as different as they could be from one another: some would be very abstract; some concrete in detail; some might have a personal pronoun; some would not; there wouldn’t be a story or argument offered. Each sentence was to work off the title and have some resonance internally. So then I found myself in patterns: for example, I reached a point where I would write second sentences that answered ironically, or even in some direct way, first sentences. But I gave myself the right to revise, and I simply moved the sentences around. Sometimes I would have my five sentences, but it would take me a very long time to determine their order. Some of this comes from loving a very great sonnet from the seventeenth century called “Prayer” by George Herbert, who is one of my favorite poets. As I read it the poem is simply a catalog or list of definitions of the word prayer. The first stanza:

     Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
     God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
     The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
     The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

It’s a gorgeous poem. In each of its stanzas is a certain realm or notion of prayer. The second quatrain opens: “Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower, / Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear.” It offers more threatening, more dangerous notions of prayer than the first stanza. Then the third quatrain is quite ethereal: “Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, / Exalted manna, gladness of the best, / Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed.” Herbert breaks a lot of his lines in two: “The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage”: each of those is its own item in one line. Every single element stands somewhat in isolation, and yet as they accumulate over the whole of the poem, you are forced to shift and hold in your mind the complications of these notions of prayer. I wanted something like that, only my poems are simpler: five lines, not fourteen. I’ve ruminated on Herbert’s poem for over thirty years, and it’s really become the center of what I’ve been doing for the last two or three years as a means of not writing poems that arrive but that force readers to collect and hold and accumulate and simultaneously consider discrete elements.

Nelson: One of the pleasures of the poems comes from simultaneously holding two often startlingly different images, such as “Listening to the musical passage, no words for what I thought I understood. / / Steam off the lake.”; “But his eyes moved, conducting the silence. / / The ocean in the distance.” This is something that permeates the book.

Rickel: I think it’s possible for the imagination — and the heart — to make meaningful connections out of more far-ranging material than we often challenge it to do. And I’m excited when I’m forced to do that. I’ve never stopped loving that George Herbert poem. For well over thirty years, daily it goes through me because it continues to offer me new possibilities. Those selections that you mentioned, they’re not arbitrary. I felt resonances. I could talk through some of my ways of making connections, although I won’t. My intention isn’t that we all have those same connections and same resonances. I’m not trying to write that kind of poem anymore, after having written a lot of them. Not that that kind of poem is a bad poem; I don’t deny the power and the beauty of a whole lot of poetry of the sort that I am no longer writing at this point in my career.

Nelson: Often your images remind me of Robert Bly’s notion of the Deep Image — the idea that the image can have a sort of psychic energy that comes from somewhere other than the reasonable mind. For example, “The fox who hears the water running under ice.” And: “Through the trees it might have been a pond, though we were in a hurry to return before darkness.” Powerful images.

Rickel: One thing that gives them power is their isolation. In isolation, images gain largeness from the attention they demand of us. I’m interested in letting something stand so that its full set of resonances can come out. Another poet who is foundational for me esthetically is George Oppen. His poems often have gaps, and I read those gaps — and the impossibility of filling them any one way — as compelling the reader to do what I think of as “the good work,” of being a partner in the making of this thing. I want to be in partnership with the imagination of my reader. The poems in remanence require more work than certain kinds of poems — I’m aware of that. But I am increasingly interested in that work, and I’m looking for readers who are interested in doing it with me.

Nelson: I felt a connection between those strong images and the title of the book. Those images gave me the sense of remanence: they stayed inside of me.

Rickel: That notion of what’s left behind; what endures; that notion of the ghost; the thing remaining after the event — that’s what memory is, this thing left behind. I was so glad to find that word, remanence, because it spoke to me a great deal about the conduct of the poems.

Nelson: Some of the titles seem to be straightforward indicators of subject or theme — “Vestige.” “Childhood.” — but other times the connection between title and content is less apparent, as in “Blood tracer.” and “Face to the wall.”

Rickel: Another thing that I tried to do as the poems were evolving was to make the distances between sentences, and the distances between each sentence and title, different. I was interested in how variations might work. At the time of composition, I had notions about connections and relationships, but some of those slip away, and I don’t care. I know that some of the titles are more direct than others, and again that’s an aim of mine to create differences within formal similarities. In the writing of forty-five figures, I found myself with a kind of crisis at the seventh line, then at the eleventh or thirteenth: Isn’t that interesting that a mind makes a turn or thinks it needs to make a turn here, and then there? Similar things happened with the prose poems, but it had more to do with those distances. So I can only say that I agree with you; that’s the case for me as well as a reader of the poems, and that is okay for me.

Nelson: In the note at the end of the book you write that “the material of remanence in part derives from quoted, paraphrased, alchemized, or misprisioned language” from a wide range of sources. What is your process with these sources?

Rickel: It’s different for different lines. It’s hard to talk about the range of mangling and the degrees of theft or borrowing. And a lot of lines are simply from my own imagination and experience. There’s probably more autobiographical material in there than you might know because of the way that it’s imbedded in the context of other kinds of thinking and expressing. …I was directed once by a poet in a workshop to collect in a notebook what I overhear, the chance phrase, words that jump out at me from a page, misreadings (which are wonderful free material), an image from a film that stays with me, an image from sitting on the beach, a dream. I collect everything I possibly can, and then, who knows? A lot of autobiographical poems by me and by others that I know are filled with material that has been shaped to look as if it were a part of a historical moment, when in fact it comes out of many sources and moves toward a larger truth in that poem. remanence is not that different, but there’s a wide range of ways in which I worked with material. In my notebook I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll make a note after an entry, like “terrible paraphrase of” or “rearrangement of.” If it’s a direct quote, it’s in quotes. In fact all the things that are in quotes in the book are things that people said, often artists. I read all kinds of things, so my material can come from anywhere. There’s a detail about a flaw in Michelangelo’s David: I was sitting in my vet’s office reading Newsweek — maybe it was Time — and in one of the caption boxes I read this amazing thing, and it went in the notebook.

Nelson: What about the final nine poems of the book? Are they an accrual of the previous, smaller poems?

Rickel: After working for a year or more on the smaller poems, I had to break the pattern. It was so important to do something else if this was to become a manuscript. The smaller poems by themselves didn’t speak enough to my interests as a writer and a reader; I had to shake it up. It occurred to me to read all the poems without the titles, just as a collection of sentences. In doing that, the themes of the final poems came to me. I found a set of sentences about consciousness, a set of sentences about he and she, and so on — I came up with nine. Then I went through and numbered all of the sentences of the smaller poems, each number corresponding to a theme, and I gathered them — absolutely in order, so that there was an element of chance in their relation to one another. The smaller thirty-nine poems were constructed very carefully: I was working with distances, rhythms, and sounds; sentences were moved around a lot — I was really constructing very carefully. Then I wanted something that incorporated chance, something that was out of my hands. So I didn’t change any of the sentences, except maybe a verb tense here and there, maybe a little syntax for rhythm, then I blocked them into paragraphs. In eight of the nine, you’ll find that a poem’s first sentence is the earliest to occur on that theme in the short-poem sequence, the second sentence can be found in a poem farther along, and so on. (I actually found ten themes initially, but blended two in final revision.) It was an attempt to take the same material and throw another procedure at it and see what came out. I think that most readers will hear that the sentences have come from the previous material. I don’t know how many people will discover that there’s an actual order that’s determined.

Nelson: I’ve heard other poets say that when they set up a structure to work within, they eventually feel compelled to break it.

Rickel: I’m such a person in love with balance that it just seemed so right to create a manuscript that was unbalanced. It seemed right to create what I think of as a necessary imbalance.