Interview with Michael Rutherglen, Young Ambitious Poet
By The Editors on 9.28.09
Rainer Maria Rilke told the young poet “search for the reason that bids you write.” Now more than ever, writers must take this charge upon themselves. Dana Gioia asked, “can poetry matter?” and the hesitant response from those concerned, calling from the last century to this one, was we certainly hope so.
This interview is the first entry in a new topic we are starting on Poems Out Loud that we are calling “Letter from a Young Poet” in which we will chronicle the experiences and insights of young poets as they find out what it means to call oneself a writer: from contests and rejections, to themes and obsessions, to what bids each of them to write.
Michael Rutherglen is from Charlottesville, Virginia. He was the recipient of a 2008 Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Some of his work has (quite magically) appeared in Poetry, The Colorado Review, and Prairie Schooner, and more is forthcoming in the Antioch Review. He lives in San Francisco.
Poems Out Loud: What is your day job?
Rutherglen: I work as a graphic designer at a small book design company in Oakland. As this occupies most of the daylit hours of the week and is but obliquely related to my true interest in life, I would have to call it simply a day job.
Poems Out Loud: How do you believe having your first book published will change your life?
Rutherglen: I think it will be comforting to pose my own slender volume against all the titles constantly eyeing me from my shelves. In particular, I am looking forward to an endless staring content between my author photo and the spine of James Merrill’s Collected Poems.
Poems Out Loud: Who do you read?
Rutherglen: Shakespeare is the foundation of my reading: every Sunday, I read one of the plays. After him, I’ve been rereading the Romantic poets, alongside Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, and Yeats of late. As for contemporary writers, Jorie Graham, Jack Gilbert, Seamus Heaney, A. R. Ammons, Lucie Brock-Broido, and Richard Kenney are in fairly steady rotation. In prose, Nabokov has been my latest project.
Poems Out Loud: How did you come to write poetry?
Rutherglen: To amend an old Zen punchline, it’s women all the way down: first my mother, an English professor, who read Dante to me when I was a kid, and then Mrs. Staggers, my third grade teacher, who organized an intensive unit on poetry that year. Later, Lisa Russ Spaar, my undergraduate advisor, was instrumental in directing me towards writing seriously.
Poems Out Loud: How often do you write?
Rutherglen: Every morning and some afternoons.
Poems Out Loud: What do you give up or sacrifice in order to write?
Rutherglen: Sleep, youth.
Poems Out Loud: What is the best advice you’ve received?
Rutherglen: “There are only two types of luggage: carry-on and lost.” —Charles Wright
Poems Out Loud: Do many of your friends read or write poetry?
Rutherglen: Among those who are not writers, a few read poetry seriously.
Poems Out Loud: Do you feel there is a community of writers where you live? Do you participate in it?
Rutherglen: I recently moved to San Francisco, where I am sure there are several such communities. Anchorite that I am, I have yet to feel my way into any of them.
Poems Out Loud: Do you have specific career goals related to poetry?
Rutherglen: The dream of a teaching job has long hovered vaguely in the middle distance, but I’m focused on the foreground these days, on writing my first book.
Poems Out Loud: How has receiving the Ruth Lilly Fellowship changed your life?
Rutherglen: It hasn’t fundamentally changed my life so much as made its furtherance possible. It will lead, I hope, to other and greater opportunities. (I have also noticed that, upon turning it up in disdain, the tip of my nose can now travel a single arc minute farther backwards.)