Lee Ann Roripaugh's second volume of poetry, Year of the Snake, was published by Southern Illinois University Press and was subsequently named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004. Her first book, Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin Books, 1999), was a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. The recipient of a 2003 Archibald Bush Foundation Individual Artist Fellowship, she was also named the 2001 winner of the Frederick Manfred Award for Best Creative Writing, and the 1995 winner of the Randall Jarrell International Poetry Prize. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Roripaugh is currently an Associate Professor of English at the University of South Dakota.
Poetry Editor Alex Linden had a chance to get to know Lee Ann Roripaugh. She said of the interview, "When I heard that I was going to be able to interview Lee Ann Roripaugh, I immediately bought her second book Year of the Snake, and read it nonstop. It has a real ability to draw you in. Her similes and metaphors are incredible; I was especially looking forward to asking her about her process in coming up with such accurate associations between various images. Her first book Beyond Heart Mountain is written in different monologues and personas-a style I am particularly interested in. I felt that reading her poetry and interviewing her was to my own complete benefit."
Superstition Review: I have been reading your book Year of the Snake and really enjoying it. In what ways did it feel different publishing your second book as opposed to your first?
Lee Ann Roripaugh: You know, with a second book, there's only that initial "debut" volume to compare it to, and it seems to me the poet's in the unenviable position of having their first two books critically compared and contrasted with one another: Does the second book live up to the promise of the debut collection, or is the poet a One Hit Wonder? Is the book too similar to the first? Or perhaps too different? Is it "better" and hey, it should be "better," right? So yes, I was worried about all of those issues, I suppose. With a more established record of publication, it becomes easier, I think, for readers to take each new volume on its own terms. Nonetheless, like many poets, I don't feel as if I can take the possibility of a "next" book for granted, so I'm a total geek when it comes to seeing my books go into print. I was absolutely ecstatic when the first book came out, and although I thought maybe the second book couldn't possibly be as euphoria-inducing as the first, you know what? I was just as ecstatic when the second one came out! Plus, working with my editor, Jon Tribble, and all of the very talented people over at Southern Illinois University Press, was an absolute joy. I couldn't have been more pleased about the care they took with my book in terms of editing and proofreading, not to mention the beautiful, beautiful job they did with book design.
SR: You teach at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion and grew up in Wyoming. Could you ever see yourself teaching and writing in a larger, more urban setting? To what degree do your natural surroundings affect your work?
LR: There's a part of me that's definitely enamored with the notion of living, teaching, and writing in a larger, more urban setting. In fact, my alter ego—or do I mean my Author Function?—lives in such a setting, I think. Clearly, the natural surroundings of the American West have played a significant role in my work, and I'm definitely a person who's been irrevocably imprinted by open skies and haunted by mountains, but it's also interesting that the majority of the poems in my first two books were actually written while I was living in Indiana and Ohio. Distance—both geographical and cultural—can have an astonishingly clarifying effect, I think, and it's sometimes helpful to leave a place before attempting to write about it. That said, I suspect I'm one of those people that will never quite reconcile disparate longings for radically different settings. I live in a quirkily charming older upstairs apartment in Vermillion, and what I love most about this apartment is that inside, I can pretend I'm anywhere—even a (okay, uncharacteristically quiet) city somewhere—but then, later on in the afternoon, the river is a ten-minute walk from my door, and I can lose myself in a stand of trees and listen to the percussion of woodpeckers.
SR: you pinpoint a time when you wrote what you would call your first poem? How about when you started writing regularly?
LR: I wrote my first poem when I was about five years old, and continued writing poems, stories, and journals pretty regularly throughout my childhood and young adulthood. I took my first college course when I was ten years old, and—interestingly enough—it was a class in poetry/poetry writing.
SR: What specific event or events spurred you to write initially?
LR: My father is a writer as well, so one of my early childhood memories is that of falling asleep to the sound of his Olivetti studio typewriter pounding away like the sound of artillery fire in the next room. I supposed that writing just seemed like a completely natural thing for people to do—particularly in the middle of the night.
SR: What emotional significance or result does writing poetry have for you?
LR: I frequently feel as if writing allows me to simultaneously channel and challenge my best selves. Something about yoking together the rather disparate elements of intellect, attentiveness, attention to detail, meditation, and concentration with improvisation, accident, playfulness, and play feels both inspired and inspiring to me.
SR: Your first book, Beyond Heart Mountain, deals with the experience of being Japanese-American. In the poems you take on the personas of Japanese-Americans being forced to live in internment camps during the Second World War. How were you able to transfer yourself into this persona, and how much did you draw from your own personal experience?
LR: My interest in Heart Mountain emerged as a conflation of my own geographical history, as a Wyoming native, in combination with my cultural history as a second-generation Japanese-American. Much of my own life felt like a complicated dynamic of East meeting (sometimes even colliding with!) the American West, and the incongruities and narrative tensions of this particular geographical and cultural collision also seemed present, albeit in a different and much more fraught/problematic incarnation, in the history of the Heart Mountain internment. Because this was not a familial/personal history, I did a lot—a lot—of research prior to writing these monologues in the voices of fictional Heart Mountain internees. I read everything I could get my hands on about the Japanese-American internment and went through the entire archives of The Heart Mountain Sentinel—the weekly newspaper written and published by the Heart Mountain internees—housed at The University of Wyoming's Coe Library. By the time I finished many months of research and note-taking, the characters, their narrative situations, and the inflections of their voices, just started coming to me—sort of like Polaroids developing one by one—and the monologues almost felt as if they wrote themselves. (Secretly, inside my own head, it occurred to me that I felt as if I were channeling the characters a little bit, but this is the sort of thing that's difficult to say without coming off sounding like a total flake, yes?)
SR: How is the experience of writing a persona poem different from writing in a voice that may or may not be yours entirely? Is there one which you prefer?
LR: I think the persona poem is one of a number of poetic strategies by which one can break away from either too much of a reliance on autobiographical subject matter and/or entrapment within the voice of a single poetic speaker presumed to speak for and in the voice of the author. Like all such strategies, it can be incredibly liberating for the poet, and is also a fabulous canvas upon which to hone the techniques of characterization, voice, and tone in a hybrid genre blending together aspects of poetry, theatre, and fiction. I don't prefer any one type of poem over another, but I think it's interesting that poems which aren't written in the confessional voice, such as persona poems, can frequently become even more intensely personal simply by virtue of moving away from autobiography and uncoupling the poem's speaker from the author.
SR: I am struck by the elegant fluidity of your poems. As a musician, do you feel that your knowledge and talent in regard to rhythm and time has better enabled you to write in this manner?
LR: I definitely like to think of poetry as spoken song, and I intuitively tend to render and hear lines of poetry as musical phrases. Audience members at my readings often comment that they can see me marking out the phrases with my right hand. Which is true. That's exactly what I'm doing!
SR: Along those same lines, do you consciously choose a certain rhythm when writing, or do your poems navigate themselves?
LR: A little of both, I think. I like for the poems to navigate themselves in many respects, but yes, once I've developed some initial lines to work with, an overall sense of tempo, line length, and rhythm that feels appropriate for the poem will begin to emerge-an overall rhythm which I then freely deviate from (occasionally even envisioning musical scoring such as rests, fermatas, ritardandos or accelerandos, etc.) to suit different gestures and moments in language.
SR: When writing your second book, Year of the Snake, did you have an idea beforehand of how it would differ from your first book, Beyond Heart Mountain?
LR: I wanted Year of the Snake to feel more organically cohesive as a book, since Beyond Heart Mountain felt very much like a lengthy process of assembling individual poems and figuring out how they might work as a whole. After drafting some of the initial poems for Year of the Snake, it started to become apparent to me that I was writing poems about transformation. I was very interested at this time in traditional Japanese fairy tales, myths, and ghost stories, particularly animal bride myths—an interest that began to develop in the third and final section of Beyond Heart Mountain—and it felt to me as if these materials loaned themselves particularly well to explorations of transformation. I was also interested in writing poems that featured lusher, denser imagery, and were also more musical than the poems in Beyond Heart Mountain, which were, to my mind, more voice-driven, overall.
SR: One of the most startlingly accurate similes I have encountered is in your poem "Antelope Jerky" where you compare an injured thumb's stitches to "twisted insect legs." Can you explain any techniques or processes you might have in sharpening these images to such a degree?
LR: Thank you! Thank you, particularly since I get paranoid, on occasion, that I should perhaps be more concerned about the hegemony of the metaphor, etc., but I have to confess that I always have been, and will continue to be—at least for the time being—simile and metaphor's bitch. What fascinates me about simile and metaphor, I suppose, is the yoking together of two completely disparate impulses—absolute accuracy and precision with wild, unruly, unexpected surprise. A good simile/metaphor is, I think, simultaneously surreal and real. It should cause one to completely question perception, while instilling a delight in perceiving rigorously and closely and language transcends its utilitarian confines through these incongruous virtuosities.
SR: In your professional statement you write that you "... assume the multiple guises of mentor, guide, professional advisor, sympathetic reader, audience at large, critic, and collaborator." Which aspect of this position draws you in the most or gives you the most satisfaction, and why?
LR: Collaborator. Absolutely collaborator. Writing is so often a solitary activity, so collaborating with students allows an exchange of creative energies and sparks that can be both mutually inspired and inspiring. Although now I'm wondering if I should have said co-conspirator? Yes. I might like that even better! I'd like to be a poetry co-conspirator.
SR: Once again, thank you so much for your time and energy.