So Tall It Ends in Heaven: An Interview with Jayme Ringleb
Words By Jayme Ringleb, Interviewed by Alex Schotzko
I’m curious about the process of creating and/or curating a book of poetry. What was that process like for you with So Tall It Ends in Heaven? Did you begin with a precise idea of overarching themes, or did the collection sort of build itself as you wrote individual poems?
First, thanks so much, Alex, for taking this time with me and the book. I’m very grateful to be invited into this space.
So Tall It Ends in Heaven started with individual poems. From there, themes and narratives began to emerge, and the question became one of structuring the book. The overall process took ten years, and, near the end of that process, I tried many times to write individual poems in the hopes that they would fill out narrative gaps or speak to absent considerations or nuances of individual themes. That really didn’t work for me. Those poems read as a little forced, a little overcooked, and they didn’t make it into the book.
What is your relationship with form in your work? Does a poem’s form come to you as you write or revise, or is it something you have in mind from the poem’s conception?
I use form in revision. For me, first drafts of poems often involve freewriting with pencil and paper, and later drafts involve a computer. With those later drafts, I’ll often use form to pressure and invigorate the language of the initial drafts.
I should maybe say I’m speaking to form broadly here. I would typically focus just on the number of words or syllables in a line as opposed to any inherited, named form. There are only a few of times when I worked with something like the sonnet in the book, and I broke the rules to the point that I think they’re not easily identifiable in the final drafts.
I found the form of Part III of So Tall It Ends in Heaven especially distinct. To me, this section felt sort of like reading a novel excerpt in the middle of a poetry book. What are your thoughts behind the prose style of this poem/section? How do you interact with the constraints of genre in your work?
That sequence began as haibun, which I studied with Garrett Hongo when I was a student at the University of Oregon. In traditional haibun, the form is a narrative prose block followed by a haiku. As I edited the sequence, I removed the haiku and broke up each of the prose sections into different paragraphs. In the original drafts, the haiku I wrote were often deeply disclosing or revealing when it came to the speaker’s psychology. There was something distanced about the speaker as I’d written him in the prose, and I wanted to exclusively center that instead.
I play with genre a lot—with love poetry in particular, but also devotional poetry and odes, elegies, the ars poetica, greater Romantic lyrics, and itinerary poetry. When it comes to writing creatively, I think I consider genre in terms of affordances more than constraints. It’s true that a genre sometimes makes demands on the structure and content of a poem, but I don’t think of these demands as particularly monolithic or fixed; I think of them as generative and fluid.
Your book grapples beautifully with confusion, tenderness, longing, pain—yet I found myself surprised by moments of rather self-aware humor. What is your relationship with humor in your writing, and how do you navigate creating/balancing the tone of a poem?
I love poems that slip from humor into grief, or that flash a little humor in a moment of vulnerability. I think that kind of variation makes each of the tonal modes of a poem more expansive, more vulnerable. Surprise might be part of it, but I think it’s also a speaker telling on themselves. Moving from humor into grief or grief into humor means a speaker has taken off or put on a kind of mask; somewhere in there, there’s the impression that the speaker has both invited you in and kept you at a certain distance.
Many pieces in So Tall It Ends in Heaven center around your father, or fatherhood in general. How do you navigate writing so intimately about another person, especially when your writing explores the difficulties and hurts of your relationship with them?
Many of the poems center on my speaker’s father. I think it’s important that I give myself permission to create and maintain distance between my speakers and myself. My speakers’ hurts are theirs, and mine are mine.
Which authors/works have had the greatest impact on your own writing practice?
My teachers, by far—especially Erin Belieu, Geri Doran, and Garrett Hongo. I recently found Carl Phillips’s My Trade Is Mystery helpful and reaffirming when it comes to writing as a practice. It’s been a while since another work has had a substantial impact on the way I think about my writing process—but if we’re talking about the content, form, structure, or craft of the writing, my influences are numerous.
You’re also a professor! How does your writing practice impact your teaching, and vice versa? And do you have any tips for balancing work, creation, and “everyday” life?
Yes, I’m an assistant professor of English at Meredith College, a historical women’s college in Raleigh, North Carolina. I teach poetry and queer literature at Meredith, and I find that many topics and techniques from my classrooms make their way into my writing. I try to keep the opposite from happening too much—I’m wary of stymieing my students’ interests by redirecting them toward my own.
I don’t think my tips are revolutionary—and they’re mostly inherited—but here they are: (1) your relationship to writing is idiosyncratic, so consider the process-based advice of others without taking any of that advice as gospel; (2) structure your time spent writing, and hold yourself accountable to that structure; (2a) remember that time spent writing isn’t always literally putting or revising words on the page; (3) spend time in art; (3a) remember that nearly everything can be understood as art; and (4) create and maintain personal and professional boundaries to safeguard your happiness and passions.
I struggle with the last one the most. A lot of the work I do when it comes to making time for writing has to do with checking in with myself to make sure I’m not internalizing the pressures and time-suck of work, of economic survival. I have a lot to say about the injustice of those pressures, but what I can currently control is making sure that I don’t feel like I’ve done something wrong when I’m not able to make as much time for my writing as I want to. I don’t think I know of a writer, especially early in their career, who is able to make what they consider to be an ample amount of time for their writing. I think it’s important that we give ourselves grace—and time. Measuring art or artists in terms of productivity isn’t a cultural model I’d like to buy into, so to speak.
The process of publishing is incredibly daunting, especially to new writers. How did you navigate the process of publishing So Tall It Ends In Heaven, especially with regards to the ever-increasing involvement of the Internet in the publishing world? How does this differ from the process of publishing individual poems?
In my experience, the process of publishing individual poems versus a poetry manuscript isn’t too terribly different. It’s about finding publishers, prizes, and editors you think are a match, then cycling through submissions and rejections until you get what you’re looking for. It took me a few years—and a good deal of luck, I think—to place my book.
For me, most of the work of placing the book involved making emotional room for the process of submission and rejection, its slowness, its stressfulness, its tendency to cause self-doubt, and its costliness. I relied a lot on communities of writers and friends at that time. For some people, online communities—Twitter, say—accomplish some of what I’m talking about here; for me, online discourse often adds to my sense of anxiety. Instead, I vented and commiserated about publication stresses with writer-friends over dinner and drinks, and I made work dates (“submission dates” sounds a little kinky, but here we are) with friends over coffee or dessert.
What advice might you have for an aspiring author who is just beginning the publishing process or currently trying to navigate it?
I feel the urge to say something aspirational here, but I’m worried about being disingenuous. People will tell you that the work of publishing is just part of the job of being a writer and to treat it accordingly—clock in, clock out, and don’t let it affect you or the writing. But I’ve never seen somebody actually do that. I’ve never known a writer who is magically and comprehensibly able to separate the stress of publishing from the stress of writing from the stress of just being and surviving.
Instead, I’ve seen every—every—writer I know (and I’m including myself in a big way here) get frustrated with themselves because they’re not able to compartmentalize those stresses. So, I come back to the ideas of giving yourself grace, of naming and processing the stresses you experience, and of acknowledging that those stresses are part of a cultural model that doesn’t adequately support writers and artists. What you can control in that is your refusal to internalize or enact that inadequate support.
And finally, just because I can’t help myself: In the poem “The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon,” a line states that the word Ringleb (your last name) “sounds / like a persistent foot infection.” Do you actually have some beef with your last name?
Ha, I mean—so, when I’ve introduced myself to a person, I’ve never heard back something like, “Oh, what a pretty name,” you know?