An interview with Ruth Madievsky, Columbia Journal 2019 winter contest poetry judge. Conducted by Matthew Dix, print poetry editor.
What struck you about [the winner’s] poetry?
I was surprised and delighted by the form. It reminded me of Alejandro Zambra’s “Multiple Choice,” a book of fiction written as a standardized test, which I loved. From the first line, I was very moved by the rich narrative and imagery of the answers provided to the naturalization test’s rigid questions. The tone shift that occurs between each question and its answer is so striking. “Every summer, the fires come” — what an opening. It also hit me on a personal level: my parents had to take naturalization tests when we immigrated in the 90s, and I don’t think I’ve ever considered exactly what that looked like.
What poem of yours scares you most?
The other day, I told a writer friend that abject terror has become a necessary part of my process. Wondering “Am I about to ruin my life for a poem??” is almost a litmus test for if the poem is any good. My new book has a series of poems called “In High School” which reexamine that time through the lens of rape culture. It’s not purely autobiographical — some characters are composites, some details are changed to protect people — but it’s still kind of horrifying to be that vulnerable. I go there in my writing all the time, but it never really gets easier. I’m always terrified of whatever I’m writing, it seems!
In what ways does your work as an HIV and oncology pharmacist influence your writing?
It’s hard to pinpoint a direct relationship, but my clinical work definitely does have an influence. It’s most obvious in my lexicon, in the ways I write about the body, and in my obsessions. I’m especially interested in how the body moves through the world and how the world moves through the body. The body’s potentials and its vulnerabilities. My work influences what I read and vice versa. The literature of HIV/AIDS, books like David Wojnarowicz’s “Close to the Knives,” Danez Smith’s “Don’t Call Us Dead,” and Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do,” has made me a better clinician. Right now, I’m working on a novel that foregrounds the opioid epidemic — that’s probably the clearest example of what I’m seeing day in and day out making its way onto the page.
I’m obsessed with the title poem from your new collection, There is No Lake. Sometimes, when my roommate or myself are in a good mood or a bad mood, we will quote a line or two to each other as a greeting or a warning. I’m struck by your use of negative reasoning in many of your poems—Propofol and Jaws both come to mind. What doors do you open in your writing through “no”?
This is so cool, thank you. I love that my poem comes up in any extremity of mood, good or bad. It’s funny to think of negation as an open door, though I think you’re onto something. With my poem “There Is No Lake,” the negation enacts a kind of gaslighting. Insisting that these things have not happened, these things are not real, summons them into existence in a way. And it’s an echo of the ways we learn to self-police after being told repeatedly that our reality is not our reality. Negation can also be a form of self-soothing, a reminder that anxiety is not intuition. In my poem “Propofol,” negation is a kind of grounding. It can be a way of doubling down on a particular narrative by naming what is not, or as with the last line of that poem, it can be something softer, a moment of self-conscious hope.
So many of your poems feel so deeply connected to the landscape of Los Angeles. How, if at all, has your writing transformed since moving to Boston?
Ha, I think about that a lot. Moving across the country from my family and friends to a place whose shitty weather encourages you to stay inside has made my time here almost like a writing fellowship. I’ve made a lot more time for writing, which is how I ended up finishing my second poetry collection and writing a novel within a year-and-a-half of moving here. I also got into writing essays while living here, which I don’t think is coincidental. I think distance from home was necessary for some of that work to incubate, specifically for me to push past the shame and fear of writing about things I kind of don’t want anyone who knows me to read. I don’t really see a Boston aesthetic entering my work, but I feel braver and more capable than I did before.
What contemporaries of yours are you most inspired by?
SO. MANY. I’m part of The Cheburashka Collective, a growing community of women and nonbinary writers whose work has been shaped by immigration from the Soviet Union to the U.S. The work that my fellow cheburashkas are putting out is hugely inspiring to me, and has pushed me to reckon with my heritage more often. Some recent books by cheburashkas include Gala Mukomolova’s “Without Protection,” Luisa Muradyan’s “American Radiance,” and Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach’s “The Many Names for Mother.”
Deciding which of my contemporaries most inspire me fills me with anxiety, so I’ll just name a few books I read recently that really inspired me, all written by folks I’ve never met in person:
“The Twenty-Ninth Year” by Hala Alyan
“Simulacra” by Airea D. Matthews
“Not Here” by Hieu Minh Nguyen
“Hard Child” by Natalie Shapero
“Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi
“Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid
“Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl” by Andrea Lawlor
“Topics of Conversation” by Miranda Popkey
“Confessions of the Fox” by Jordy Rosenberg
“Lot” by Bryan Washington
“What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About” edited by Michele Filgate
“Good Talk” by Mira Jacob
“Heavy” by Kiese Laymon
“So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo
“Excavation” by Wendy C. Ortiz
“Mother Winter” by Sophia Shalmiyev
What’s one line of poetry currently stuck in your head?
I told the man to assume
there’s an arm around me / even when
from Emily O’Neill’s 2nd book, “A Falling Knife Has No Handle.”
What can we expect from you next?
I recently finished my second poetry collection, so I’m shopping that now. I also surprised myself this fall by writing a novel. I’d been very casually working on it as a short story collection since 2013, and in October I got feedback that it would work better as a novel and decided to give it a shot. I was surprised by how much fun it was to write. I thought I’d have to muscle through it, but it turns out having 60,000 words to follow my own weirdness was kind of delightful.
What’s an answer to a question I haven’t asked you?
This is kind of gross, but whenever I talk to writers about process, I always want to know if they’re bleeders or pukers. Bleeders are the ones that agonize over every word as they write it, revising as they go. Pukers are the ones that barf something onto the page and clean it up later. I’m Club Bleeder, always.