The Poet Next Door: Ruth Danon

Ruth Danon

Ruth Danon (Photo provided)

Ruth Danon of Beacon, the former director of the creative and expository writing program at New York University’s School of Professional Studies, is the author of three collections of poetry. With National Poetry Month upon us, she spoke with Jeff Simms about her work and teaching.

What was the program you ran at NYU?
The standard for writing programs was the workshop method in which everybody sits around and exchanges poems and then people talk about them. My model was different. I created constraints, which means rules or games involving experience, formal structure and language, and then I asked people to write. I don’t think it’s my business to tell people what to write about. I ran the program for 23 years until NYU became more interested in vocational subjects and it was discontinued. I retired and moved to Beacon and started a new life here. 

Made not Born

to compose to gather
oneself to calm down
after turmoil a turn or
a swerve a look up and
out the window see that
bird carrying a bare twig
in its mouth landing on
the drastic porch light
attempting a nest this too
a form of composure

Do you still teach writing?
In 2018 I started teaching what I call “live writing,” which is for the reading, writing and performance of poetry. With teaching, if you do it right, eventually your students don’t need you anymore. 

Has your writing changed since you left New York City?
In some ways being in exile from where I had been for so long had an impact. But the surrounding landscape has changed me in certain ways. Since the pandemic started, I’ve been writing an awful lot, not “about a pandemic,” but more about what it means to live through a time like this. I’m pretty comfortable. I have good work, I have a nice place to live. Yet, there is unspeakable tragedy around us.

The “as if” problem

Do you remember the past?

It had a beauty in it. Do you think
About the future, Don’t. It’s too
Hard, demands too much of you.

Today, a deer walked past
The window and stopped,
As if posing. And then
Another came, and stopped

And bent its legs, as if
Praying. It’s the “as if”
I need to pay attention to.
Because I am asking the
Sweet animal, with its
White tail and fragile legs,
To take on what I cannot.

The future is hard. It’s
Hard to bend one’s knees.

What is your assessment of the poetry scene in Beacon?
It’s rich but it’s also a little hidden. There are some major writers who live here, such as Jeffrey Yang and Edwin Torres. There’s also Terry Hummer in Garrison. Mary Newell just did a beautiful anthology of environmental poetry. And Jimmy Eve, one of the founders of Calling All Poets. And some of my students — I don’t even like to call them students. What I do is more like instigating, and some of my instigatees have started to publish.

Do you see value in having National Poetry Month?
I’m of two minds about any of the “XYZ” months. As I see it, poetry is part of life, because it’s a way of fostering an inner life. The idea that you have one month a year in which you have an inner life seems not a great idea. On the other hand, it’s good to honor poetry, which, in this country, has had a huge resurgence in the last number of years. To be a poet is not to take on a career, it’s kind of a way of life. It’s a way that you live in the world with a certain porousness, a certain willingness to absorb sensation and experience, and to translate it into a form that might speak to other people. That kind of life is an antidote to social media and television and the violence of this culture.

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