July is the perhaps the most frivolous of the twelve months. It lacks the excitement of June, but also the grogginess of August. July is a month in which humor can be served up in minty juleps—and both can be savored in the shade of a magnolia or a maple tree. If, by the way, you’ve got a swing or a hammock handy, so much the better.
But before you pack your picnic lunch, reach down into the cellar and pull out a bottle or two of vintage Koertge. His stuff can be heady—but so can the heat.
As always, and before we begin, here is Ron’s bio:
Ron Koertge (pronounced KUR-chee) lives and writes in South Pasadena, California. A recently retired teacher of English and creative writing (Pasadena City College 1965-2002), all he does now is write, go to the movies, and bet on thoroughbreds. Poetry—an end in itself with nearly a dozen books, an NEA fellowship, a California Arts Council grant, and work in the Best American Poetry series—is also a means to an end, making his prose “some of the best in Young Adult Writing.” Chronically immature, writing for teens is a perfect medium for him, as a decade of honors and awards attests: ALA Best Book; ALA Notable Book; ALA Quick Pick; Friends of American Writers Young People’s Literature Award; New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age; Young Adult Library Service’s Best of the Best; Booklist Book of the Decade; Kentucky Blue Grass Award; Children’s Literature Council of Southern California’s award for Outstanding Work of Fiction for Young Adults; and twice a P.E.N. (West) choice for Children’s Writing. The author says, “If you think writing fiction is tough, try picking horses.” He is married to Bianca Richards and considers himself a lucky man.
Among the books of poetry Koertge has published are, most recently, Fever (Red Hen Press) and Indigo (also from Red Hen Press, and due out in two to three months). Geography of the Forehead and Making Love to Roget’s Wife are still available from the University of Arkansas Press.
RRB:I first heard of Ron Koertge where I first hear of so many poets—on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. (I really do need to get out more often.) Garrison and I don’t see eye to eye on many of his selections. On Ron, however, we did. I heard Garrison read the following piece, had my own little giggle, then gave Ron a Google. Lucky for me, whoever picked up my inquiry at Candlewick Press forwarded it on to Ron the next morning. I had a response from him before noon—and here we are.
RRB:Tell us if you will, Ron, what brought this one about? The “disappearing act” is certainly not a new theme. And yet, I think you’ve done a magnificent job with it in this piece.
RBK:"Moving Day," like a lot of my poems, is heavily autobiographical. In grad school, the poet Gerry Locklin and I were good friends. (As an aside, without Gerry's guidance and encouragement, I doubt I'd be a poet.) We hung out a lot at The Green Dolphin, shot some pool and stayed out of the Tucson heat. Gerry also regularly helped me move. I'd squabble with roommates or girlfriends—or just move out to find a cheaper place. Everything I owned would go into the back of my '58 Plymouth. It got to be a joke. He'd say "Want to get a beer after class?" I'd say, "Sure, but why don't we move me first." "Sure,” he’d say. “That should only take about fifteen minutes."
I have a pretty light touch when it comes to poetry. I guess there's a dark side to moving: the accusatory tears; the downhill slide into generic shabbiness; etc. But my motto is this: life may be desperate, but it's never serious. Years ago (and I mean 1965 or so) an A-list poet told me I'd never really get anywhere if I didn't stop kidding around. He meant well, and he may have been right. But I just couldn't take him seriously.
RRB:And we, Ron, as your readers, are all the better off for it.
This next piece seems to me to be a bit of an exception for you. Sure, it has that light touch. But a ghazal is formal poetry – hardly light (or “lite”) in anyone’ book. Tell us, do you engage as much in forms as you do in free or blank verse, or is this really an exception?
RBK:The ghazals are an exception to my usual lax rules about what I do and don't do. In general, I like to have a good time, especially when I write. About a year ago, I was fooling around with different forms because I was writing a sequel to one of my books-for-young-readers. In both books (the original "Shakespeare Bats Clean-Up" and the sequel "Shakespeare makes the Playoffs"), the fourteen-year-old boy discovers poetry and tries out various forms—much like somebody who discovers fashion and tries on lots of different clothes. So, he wrote a sestina and a pantoum and, among other things, a ghazal. I liked the form a lot, tried my hand at a few, and then wrote one-a-day (like the vitamin) until I had seventy-five or so. At first, I followed the rules—but that got boring fast, so I started breaking them. A few of the ghazals went way off the rails, crashed and killed all the passengers; but enough were sufficiently wacky and high-spirited to interest Red Hen Press.
RRB:“One a day?” Now, that’s output! It takes me anywhere from three to six months—and sometimes, as long as a couple of years—to complete a poem to my satisfaction. But I’m not a natural.
Which brings me to a follow-up question before we move on to your next poem. How much time, on average, do you spend on a given piece—and what sage advice do you have (other than “My God, man, get a life!”) for those of us who dilly-dally on a poem for months on end?
RBK:Everybody has a comfort zone, and mine is usually above the speed limit. I've always been a fast writer and often not a very good writer. But that's why there's this little thing called ‘revision.’ I used to tell my poetry students to write every day and expect to write badly. Most poets, especially young poets, have unrealistically high standards; if those standards resulted in wonderful poems after weeks and months of practice, that'd be one thing. Often the same high standards just paralyze (young) writers. Writing fast and letting the chips fall where they might often frees those writers up—at least to write another day.
I've been clever (and many would say shallow and facile and clownish) all my life. Working methodically on one thing doesn't suit me. On the other hand, I write regularly. My parents were blue collar folks; I've worked at one job or another since I was twelve years old. When I take Buddy and cat and go upstairs to my studio, I'm going to work at the word factory. What happens up there is always a surprise.
RRB:And usually, I dare say, more pleasant than not!
As an example, let’s look at your next piece, “Soigné.” After we’ve had a chance to read it, Ron, please tell us how it came about and how much of that famous “revision” you might’ve had to undertake in order to whip this one into shape.
RBK:For “Soigné”—and, for that matter, for all of the ghazals in the collection—I was trying to slip things past Mr. Ordinary as he stood guard in his Rockports and Sansabelt slacks. The rules helped, in that ghazal stanzas should be related only tangentially anyway. Think of the poem as a house-in-the-woods. How far away can I get without losing my way entirely? How seductive is the idea of a fire in the hearth and hot meal? What will I sacrifice to be warm and comfortable?
Musicians will do this when they start with a melody everybody knows; then, they see how lost they can get before everybody in the audience loses interest and starts talking about buying a new refrigerator.
That’s almost my greatest fear as a poet, anyway—namely, that my readers will yawn, put down one of my books and start talking about appliances.
RRB:Very amusing, Ron—and yet not so amusing. I think that must be the nightmare all poets and writers wrestle with long past midnight.
And speaking of “past midnight,” your next piece would appear to have found inspiration at some point in the wee small hours—or is this just my reader’s imagination working overtime?
RBK:It's not your imagination at all. I've never been a sound sleeper.
Going to sleep is easy, but after a few hours I'm awake and that's that for the night. This is an old poem, but I remember the circumstances vividly: I was unhappily married, drinking a lot, misbehaving, etc. I used to keep lists of words that I like and that called to me, and "provident" was one of them. So at some point, I worked it into a poem—this poem. Clearly I wanted another, more useful life than the one I was leading. I never liked writing poems from the I'm-miserable-look-at-me school of verse, so I came at most feelings like a carom shot in eight ball.
RRB:And you clearly had fun with these last two. Were they also composed in the wee small hours after a roll in the hay with Mademoiselle Spiritus, or did they—paw in, paw out—come barking at you early one morning looking for a fist to gnaw on?
RBK:The poems in question really did come like dogs in the night looking for a bowl of fresh water and a warm place to lie down. I sometimes work on a poem off and on all day (between errands, between races from Santa Anita) and only get it late that night and in another setting.
I lead a fairly simple life with few distractions, so my empty head is usually available.
RRB:And we, Ron, are the clear beneficiaries of that vacuum. I think there’s obviously a lot to be said for a life free of distraction. It leads—at least in your case—to true productivity.
I can’t thank you enough. It’s been a blast. G’night and God rest!
While sitting home one night, I hear burglars fiddling
with the lock. This is what I've been waiting for!
I run around to the back and open the door, invite
them in, and pour some drinks. I tell them to relax,
and I help them off with shoes and masks.
In a little while we are fast friends, and after a dozen
toasts to J. Edgar Hoover, they begin to carry things out.
I point to the hidden silver, hold the door as they
wrestle with the bed, and generally make myself useful.
When they get the truck loaded and come back inside
for one last brandy, I get the drop on them. Using Spike's
gun, I shoot them both and imprint Blackie's
prints on the handle.
Then I get in the van and drive away,
a happy man.
They paid me in words. The most valuable of them was soigné.
Antonyms were mere chump change. I could buy anything with soigné.
Good hair, better shoes. First at the scene of many accidents
with tea and toast. Even holding a chili dog’s leash, he’s still soigné.
No, no, no. It’s not the, uh, soapsuds incident. It’s not even the armband.
It’s what’s on it, stupid, that keeps you from being soigné.
Please, get away. What if my wife sees you? You’re not a “sick friend.”
You’re a highway. And nothing eight hundred miles long can be soigné.
The light turns and the voice-for-the-blind says, “I’m dying to talk to you.”
He’s barged in. Now he tries to barge out using as a weapon a copy of Swann’s Way.