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Volume I, Number 1 (Summer 2006)
ISSN 1934-4324

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Patricia Ranzoni

The Aroostook Review Interview by Geraldine Cannon Becker

Patricia Ranzoni

Pat Ranzoni at the William Ryan Gallery reading one of her poems, chosen by book artist, Jan Owen, to interprete for the collaborative Poetry Walk at Festivo 2005 in Belfast.

AR: Thank you for giving us the opportunity of this interview. We appreciate your willingness to be our first featured poet. Your book, Claiming ((Puckerbrush Press, 1995) has been reprinted now three times, and Settling (Puckerbrush Press, 2000) is also in its third printing--evidence of staying power. Your poems pull me in, as a reader, to places that seem hauntingly familiar.  I have Irish/Cherokee ancestors, and I grew up in Southern Appalachia, but I do not think a person would have to have a similar background to enter your poems and find connections.  When I read ONLY HUMAN~ Poems from the Atlantic Flyway (Sheltering Pines Press, 2005), I sometimes found myself having a physical reaction.  This anticipatory feeling of excitement or a kind of "goosebump" sensation only adds to the overall appeal of the poems, for the writer's craft is evident in your work.  I enjoy poems more when they appeal to me on many levels:  physical, emotional, and intellectual, and I look forward to talking with you about your work. I think it would be a good idea if you would start off telling us about what kinds of things have influenced you as a poet. Obviously, your ancestors play a huge role so tell us about that here.

PR: First, thank you for this, for your interest. Yes, ancestral influences are a good place to begin, perhaps with your mention of your own Irish/Cherokee beginnings in Southern Appalachia. You aren’t the first from that background to find my work familiar. Most notably, the distinguished Cherokee-Appalachian writer, Awiakta Thompson, who hunted for me to tell me the same thing after finding Claiming  in a shop in Bar Harbor. She told me how she’d been searching for seven years for what she calls a “well-spring poet” from this region, and once she’d located me, began telling how the kinships in histories and ways “flow up and down the chain,” as she put it, pointing me to the ancient sources of these relationships, especially between American Indian and Celtic clans who had much in common. (She tells the story in her introduction to my collection, Settling.) This new (for me) realization, and her encouragement to follow this path, resulted in 2002 to my being the first poet from the northern reach to be invited to read her work at The Women of Appalachia conference at the University of Ohio, Zanesville, where photographs of my early childhood in Mt. Katahdin country, along with the nature of my poems, were my well-received and well-respected credentials. Thinking of your theme, I can say a number of old barriers were transcended there. Yes, the maps I was born to have everything to do with what I've come to write. Both the physical maps of our family's bodies and the geographies and cultures we have inhabited through time. I mention our bodies first because the particular neuro-muscular history I seem to have inherited has defined my life profoundly. Most notably, with the onset, at 43, of paroxysmal dystonia (twisting muscle spasms, including those involving speech) changing my life forever and turning me toward the need for a deeper, further-ranging and (at the same time) compressed language. The reading and writing of poetry became my prime medicinal map for the management of dystonia, showing me nothing less than the way to go in my severely diminished world when I could no longer drive nor continue in my profession. As for the other aspects of ancestry--who we've been and from whence we've come--yes, my awareness of the peoples from whom I've descended has grown from the oral traditions we all hear from childhood (those adults will allow us to hear), to an insatiable interest in the limitless genealogical information available through the internet (not available when I began writing for publication), as it combines and informs the knowledge kept for us (and from us) by elders and other historians. In this regard, I think of my work as documentary, believing that I, myself, am not an important presence in the work except as a witness and keeper of the record of my people's lives, ways and voices. It was an honor to be invited to speak on this at a plenary session I entitled, KINDLING~ milk tongue, work song, love tracks, curse. Poetry as History: History as Poetry, Especially in Maine, for the University of Maine's 2002 Teaching History in Maine conference. So my poetry involves a great deal of traditional and nontraditional research and becomes more than it is, if you know what I mean. Not only this, but, continuing to follow human and electronic paths back, including the undeniable information available through new dna testing (which I could not resist for its importance to me) my ancestry is still being revealed. There's no end to it! And you can be sure I plan to write every bit of it I can get down in the time I have left. Clearly, the families from which I descend, and their ways of life in the various locations throughout original Indian Country from Plimoth all the way down through the Canadian Maritime Provinces have shaped what I notice and hear and what I do with it, particularly the dissident in me. But my cells, I now (astonishingly) know, contain estimated memory from not only Native America and what became Canada, but beyond Scottish, Irish, English, French Huguenot and German Europe to East Asia, and sub-Sahara Africa. I have discovered I am truly full-blooded and plan to write poems from this mixed racial revelation as long as I can hold a pen and press these keys. And I will speak it, as long as my voice holds, to anyone who cares to listen. My early work knew only partially who was writing it, so is, to that same degree, misinformed. On the other hand, it can be viewed as a timeline or one of the paths marking my people's location of ourselves.

Nor am I alone in this. Those who claim this state lacks diversity do not know Maine deeply. This territory now called Maine has always been a border-less middle ground and borderland throughout which peoples from all reaches of the earth have crossed (by land and water), mated and melded into what now, centuries later, are looked at as plain Mainers, but who are, in truth, many-cultured, rich-blooded. The future will prove this as genealogy by internet and dna becomes more readily available and people continue to long for and claim their origins and identities from all sources. The literature of mixed Maine has not even begun to be written. My poetry shall continue to be devoted to our family's small portion of the story. In these ways, especially, my ancestry (along with what I can and cannot physically do) influences my writing. Brought down (or up) to the here and now, even the immediate and far yesterdays, it has to do with culture and class, doesn't it? How I heard and learned language. The nature and meanings of the languages I grew up using.The place and character of poetry in our households, neighborhoods, places of learning, worship, and other institutions. All of this is to be found in my work.

AR: How did you get started writing poems?

PR: My mother tells me that from the time I was a "little bit of a girl" I enjoyed everything to do with reading and writing, which was, even then, no doubt, a shelter from the trauma of the war threatening to keep our father from ever coming through that door again. What an early childhood vocabulary! "See Dick run. See Jane run. See Spot (do his dog thing) and Puff (her cat). Nazi. Jackboots. Kamikaze!" She tells me how I loved my Weekly Reader and to write "all kinds of things." I remember from primary grades writing gift poems for family and friends for important occasions, and adoring the memorizing of poetry our teachers (thankfully) expected during elementary years. When, in my mid-forties, I began to write poems accepted for publication, my youngest sister sent me one I'd written for her birthday one summer when I was a high school student working away from home. But who can say how it starts and comes about! My mother has written poems since our childhood so it seems natural that along with songs, all of her children have composed poems. It strikes me that I can't do better answering this than to invite those inclined to read my experimental narrative poem, "Making Maybaskets, Context: Aprils 1947 to 1957, Hancock County Maine (with remnants of songs, riddles, chants, and rhymes/from our schools and buses, churches, families, and outbacks)," composed for the centennial of the Ellsworth Public Library Festival of Poets, April 1997. This documentary piece, published online at XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics shows the whole picture, including some of what we touched upon in your first question.

AR: What advice would you give someone who is just starting out as a writer What was the best advice you ever got?

PR: Let me speak to the last part first. When, after the onset of dystonia while a young woman, I turned to writing seriously, which is to say with the hope of publication, I knew only that the meaning of language, like the meaning of life, itself, was changing for me. While I had always written considerably--both personally, then as a student, educator and counselor--and had begun having papers accepted in the journals of my profession, and several poems published, when it came to poetry I didn't know what I was doing. Coming to writing (or writing to me), outside the usual steps thought to prepare one to be a writer, has had advantages and disadvantages. One need only subscribe to any of the rich resources for practicing writers online, say, for example, Writer's Almanac or Poetry Daily , to find glimpses into both traditional and often surprisingly unlikely ways people have "become" writers. What I have to offer might sound pretty plain coming as it does from a home where there were times we couldn't afford the newspaper and which I worked my way through college in spite of there being virtually no support, let alone basic approval to attend in the first place. But there were double messages--"A person can do anything he sets his mind to." "Anything worth doing is worth doing right." And this same cultural background gave me a deep well from which to draw, I realized, once I found the courage to claim it through voice.What I am offering here is but a portion of my truth. Take what fits from your own truths about writing and formulate your own rules, remembering the importance of exceptions. One will do well to keep the "border-less" theme in mind and not fence oneself in artistically. What we believe changes with experience and insight.I had to decide early whether or not I could believe I have the right to write. So, returning to your question, I'd have to say, looking back, the earliest best advice ( I didn't realize the implications of) came in the form of expectations from my English teacher, Pauline Whitmore, at Bucksport High School. She required a "theme" a week in which our homework was writing on an assigned topic. Too, she would announce surprise, on-the-spot theme-writing sessions in class. And she graded severely on the rules and skills she was teaching. The papers had to be perfectly done to be accepted or done over. Not even an ink smudge and this was before ballpoint pens. It was in the margin of one of these particularly imagistic themes that I first encountered the question--in red, no less--"Have you considered becoming a writer?" Of course I hadn't. If we daughters of papermill workers went on it would be as secretaries, teachers or nurses. What did we know of writers and the writing life, even if (unbeknownst to us), some of the world's most famous and infamous authors were summering along our neighborhood coasts? Including the distinguished American and Maine poet, Philip Booth, who would generously, a lifetime later, write me, "Be hard on your writing self," echoing the work ethic it was my fortune to have learned at home and my hometown school.The next most powerful and useful guidance I'd receive as a novice writer would come from my first publisher, the esteemed poet, critic, and UMO professor of English, Constance Hunting of Puckerbrush Press, to whom I'd submitted my first manuscript. She coached me through some most difficult times when I was struggling to make my way in--rather outside--the often discouragingly tight Maine literary circles made up mostly of people from elsewhere from vastly different classes (in all meanings of the word). "Put it in the work." she would simply and wisely advise. "Put it in the work." She was right. The work has to earn its way. Which is not to say it must sound like the academic poems of people of privilege, but that it must hold up to what it promises to be.But long before any of this, were words to which I was born and which will sustain me as long as I live.On the back cover of the documentary work, Penobscot Man (UMO Press), is a photograph of John Andrew of the Penobscot Nation with whom we were sharing a house at their winter lodgings on Cold Stream where my father worked for the tribe's governor, Albert Nicola, the season of my birth. When my mother expressed fear she'd be marooned and I'd be born in a blizzard, he comforted her, and to the extent an undelivered soul in the primal spring can be comforted, me, with "Don't be afraid, Don't be afraid." He'd know what to do. Having heard and carried this story with me my whole life, I have drawn from it whenever the need. Applied to writing, it's as if Old Buck's spirit dwells on in my heart, strengthening me whether in deciding to write or not to write on a particular subject, and how. Or where to submit, what and how to read. It reinforced my resolve in getting down "Cultural Guide, Or Why Doesn't the Humanities Council Fund a Documentary Before /Those Who Know Are Gone" (Settling, Puckerbrush Press 2000), called "groundbreaking" by the Bangor Daily News poetry critic, Dana Wilde; and fortified my testimonial class poem, "To Colby Trembling (Am I Your Sister?)" (Wolf Moon Press Journal) composed for a "Women in the Arts" conference there. It shored me up to read at Maine Arts Festivals, the UMO New Writing Series, the Blaine House (governor's mansion) tea honoring Maine poets, and whenever I've been invited to read among people of substantially differing backgrounds. And don't think I didn't call on it in deciding to do this interview! Just as important, it's given me what I've needed to recite and read for my own people in coastal, upriver and outback Maine, the question to myself always being, "Am I getting it right?" So, I say, begin within. Believe in yourself, but humbly. Because at the same time we have within the depths and heights of ourselves everything it takes to realize ourselves as writers, respect for that capacity is magnified beyond measure when we open ourselves to, and respect, the word aspirations of others as our own. Further, as may be evident from what I've said, I've come to see how essential it is to embrace one's doubts as well as beliefs, allowing them to teach, even if the lessons aren't immediately apparent. Honor (rather than trying to completely overcome) your mother and father tongue, the wellspring of your heritage, then follow it wherever in the limitless world of languages it relates. Above and through all--notice and note without ceasing!

AR: Would you discuss one or more of the poems you sent us?

PR: Under most circumstances, I resist discussing what my poems are "about" (not even thinking in these terms during their writing, in order--speaking of borderlessness--not to limit them with preconceivedidea fences). I prefer not only to allow my poems (in progress and settled, however temporarily) the freedom to speak for themselves (to be what they need to be), but to permit readers and hearers the freedom to make of them what they will from their own experiences and imaginations. I hope enough mystery and ambiguity remain to enhance this exchange. We know how poems can change purpose mid-stream, becoming something we didn't expect along the way. And how others can find meanings in our work beyond anything to which we were attuned. Suspecting your question has broad intent, let me see what I might add. The poems I chose to submit to AR had to relate, for me, to some aspect of your theme which I hope your readers will envision, if not locate--the plentiful ways open to us aesthetically to interpret a concept unbounded as your subject. In company, I hope my selection shows some of the possibilities as this thread connects across theme, dream, time, home. Too, I would like to mention "title as opportunity" which, if hopes for mine, here, are realized, might illustrate the chance I view titles as being. By this I mean a position of prime importance in the poem for words to accomplish a role not played elsewhere in the work, but without which a poem would be diminished. I tend to regret the way some waste their titles with ho-hum words that might have been written by anyone about anything, not just by them about what only they could have written. A good title should set up the promise the poet is undertaking to fulfill, should it not? Should be artfully seductive? Act as a marker for gauging the extent to which a poem does or does not realize itself? Should be layered with meaning yet suggest clarity? What else? Still, let?s not forget the necessity of exceptions!As for a specific poem in this group, I will mention "Looking Both East & West At The Same Time/Along Passamaquoddy Shores" for how it further illustrates some of what I've tried to show regarding choices I make in my work. Borrowing from the historical method of recording "treating minutes" in order to set the poem's tone and timing, this piece shows how it's possible to document scholarly work ethically by integrating facts (that might otherwise go in footnotes) into the poem, itself. For me, this poem is traditional as well as experimental, not least because of the concreteness of the constellation of stars and their placement. Further, it is an early example of the documentary mixed-blood, mixed-race, mixed-Maine poems I am being pulled to write. Another personal ethic this poem fulfills is my rule of submitting writings drawing from my relations with Native cultures for their scrutiny (in terms of both accuracy and respect) and permission.

AR:  What do you hope readers will take away with them after encountering your poems?

PR:  Dare I wish for a sense of authenticity? Something recognized or realized? Reaction?  But my chief hope for my poems is for readers to be glad to have met them, though my satisfaction doesn't require that. As with any art (if I may be so bold), I know my work will be appreciated by some, not as much by others, just as I admire the poetry of others to varying degrees and on different levels.  I've known the thrill of having seekers on a pilgrimage to the Far East contact me for the words of my "Way" (Settling), heard from a pulpit in the mid-West, to use as a group prayer in China; and I've had neighbors in outback Maine tell me they start their days reading from my books. These, and other real respects, help offset the inevitable rejections or exclusions that go with putting your work out there and with which most writers who challenge themselves are familiar. Of course, I am gratified when readers find themselves touched, however momentarily, in some way, by my work. Learning of such connections lasting through time endows my work with all the more meaning. To have readers give my poems time and regard here, is a gift, the extent of which I may never know, but I love imagining it if my words might be thought to contribute to your new journal effort and its first theme in an original way. 

AR: Thank you so much for responding to these questions in such detail. I'm sure our readers will appreciate the significance of your contribution.




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