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  • Writer's pictureSiem Bruinsma

'Planet in Peril' Poet Interview: Ricky Ray

© Ricky Ray

In the run-up to the launch of the Planet in Peril anthology, we are excited to introduce you to another of our poets and photographers: Ricky Ray, whose striking poem "Something We Were Supposed to Do" is featured in the anthology. With the haunting theme of "something we were supposed to do" carried throughout the poem, he reflects on the notion "that we can live sustainably only by respecting natural limits—seems of paramount importance as we try to imagine our way towards whatever slim hope remains of harmonic survival." 

Ricky Ray is a poet, editor and founder of Rascal: A Journal of Ecology, Literature and Art. He was born in Florida, educated at Columbia University and currently lives in New York City with his wife, three cats and dog. His debut collection, Fealty, was published by Diode Editions in 2019.

“Something We Were Supposed to Do” contains striking imagery, such as “A boy turns to fire. / A girl breaks and no one wants to touch her” and “The trees twist / in a wind that won’t let them grow straight / and our lives look less and less edible.” Were there any specific images or events that inspired your poem?

As someone with aphantasia (the inability to visualize), I don't so much see images as feel them. It's something like swimming through the way things connect. In other words, many of my poems, autobiography aside, issue from the dark world of touch. A sensation will pass through me and burn its way into the poem. In this case, I was meditating on our ecological catastrophe—on warming and ruin, extinction and neglect—and I felt that inner smoldering lead to "ashes billowing up and out / from under the eyelids", a sense that the ruin is already happening where it started: within. Which isn't to say that present circumstances are entirely of our making or within our control. We are responsible for our actions, but are at best participants in creation. The Earth lives us as much as we live her. Recognizing that the elements shape us, that life in the community of creatures and landscapes is symbiotic, that even "trees twist / in a wind that won't let them grow straight," and grow stronger in the process—that we can live sustainably only by respecting natural limits—seems of paramount importance as we try to imagine our way towards whatever slim hope remains of harmonic survival. 

The first line of the poem is: “White is the wound of history / crying itself to sleep.” What do you consider this wound to be, and how does this tie in with the constant feeling of “something we were supposed to do”, as indicated by the title and final line? 

Perhaps as another product of aphantasia, or perhaps as the way I enter a compositional fugue, poems for me often ignite under a philosophical statement. The tension of wrestling with the pronouncement generates the poem's energy, and eventually the push and pull of the argument gives way, in the best of cases, to a fluidity of grace. This poem's opening statement pushes in several directions. Many of our present ills—societal, psychological and ecological—seem brought about by a Western mindset of conquering and domination, of ruthless exploitation in the pursuit of ephemeral pleasure and power: a deeply selfish and destructive way of engaging the human animal (there are other ways at hand). Only now, when the limits have been pushed too far, and the consequences breathe down our neck, do some of the primary perpetrators and their beneficiaries shrink under the clear light of conscience and begin to show remorse. But of course, they value their comforts, egos and possessions too highly, so after a night of responsible consideration, they return to their usual habits, "denying it / in the morning." Another layer at play in the poem's opening statement is more esoteric, something I can only half articulate, the emphasis on history, specifically geological history or deep time, the blinding obliteration of species that is the long movement of embodiment on the Earth, a movement that, in a fit of sorrow, causes someone to cry themselves to sleep.

George Washington Bridge and the Hudson River © Ricky Ray

You were born and raised in Florida, but are currently living in New York City. How have these different places/environments informed your poetry?

I read like Hermione, like a bookbug as a child, but had no interest in the study of literature or poetry until I came to NYC for college. So I consider myself mostly a New York poet, not in the lineage of the New York School, but in the sense of becoming a poet here, where for the past two decades, roughly half my life, I've lived and written thousands of poems. The pedestrian movements of living on one's feet, the long winters and ceaseless barrage of noises, and the teeming throng of humanity—all these belong to the general atmosphere I draw from as I compose. In my early years, I'd sit next to a busy intersection, or in front of a museum, people streaming and shouting around me, and learn to feed off of that energy, to hear the innate music in it, rather than see it as a distraction. Florida is something deeper, more archetypal. When Florida comes into a poem the air takes on weight, the corners of the landscape darken, something slithers in the underbrush, Spanish moss sways in the wind of the oncoming storm and sweat pearls, waiting for the downpour of relief. In Florida, the pretence of man dominating nature disappears as the sub-tropical, wild, dangerous flora and fauna remind you that you belong to her, not the other way around. When Florida lays claim to my imagination, the air hums and the soul trades the impoverished melodies of civilization for the music of grunts and barks and great clouds of mosquitoes and storms. 

Fort Tryon Park, overlooking the Hudson River and basalt rock cliffs of the Palisades © Ricky Ray

As the founder of Rascal: A Journal of Ecology, Literature and Art, could you briefly talk about your journey of starting and putting together this journal? What do you hope to achieve with Rascal, particularly in response to climate change?

First, I would point you to Rascal's about page. Our stated aim is to "wake the inattentive mind out of its doldrums and compel the shrinking heart to care." An impossibly large mission statement, but we think that having an impossible goal, reaching for it, and failing to achieve it, and reaching again, can lead to greater accomplishments than goals one can reasonably meet and put aside. Attending to the health of the Earth isn't impossible—her health is our own—but it's not something that's ever complete. It's the constant, ongoing work of being responsible stewards of our abilities and our impacts, our impacts to both the planet as our primary home and identity, and to all the members of the family of creatures, the Koala and the forest and the rivers among them. The idea for Rascal was born out of a love between myself and a dog, which overlapped with a love of literature and the natural world. Many years later it took the shape of a journal, the hope for which is to create a space where we might, through well-wrought words that attend to the intimacy of our relationships, become closer kin who come away from the reading experience compelled to be more devoted practitioners of care.

Planet in Peril is available for pre-order here. It will be released on the 7th of September, 2019.

Visit Ricky's website for more information on his publications, follow him on Twitter or check out Rascal: A Journal of Ecology, Literature and Art.

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