Exclusive Interview: “Dunce” Author Mary Ruefle


For some poets, seeing a poem in print — be it in a book or journal or online — means that’s it, it’s done, and can never be rewritten or revised again (save for typos). But in the following snail mail interview with poet Mary Ruefle about the paperback version of her poetry collection Dunce, she not only scoffs at having such a self-imposed rule, she admits she changed something in this new version of Dunce.

Mary Ruefle Dunce

Photo Credit: Matt Valentine


To start, is there a theme to the poems in Dunce?

To my mind there is a loose theme, as threaded throughout the book are poems dealing with duncehood, by which I mean a kind of innocent ignorance, the village idiot, the kind’s fool, and also of course the joy of writing stupid poems. I did not write the book with duncehood in mind, it was a thread I saw in the work I had been doing from which I chose the poems in the book, and see it I went with and chose the title Dunce.

Why did you think this would be a good theme around which to construct this collection?

Whether a book has a theme or not, you still have to choose the poems which will be in it. I write a great many poems which will never see print, and I had a great many poems from which to choose for this particular manuscript; I simple chose those I felt were the best. But as I am a very poor judge of my own work, my editor jumped in and dismissed some of the poems I had chosen and brought in some that I hadn’t chosen, and his is always the better choice. For instance, I had nixed the opening poem in the book [“Apple In Water”], deeming it too stupid, but he brought it back in and made me appreciate that poem in ways I had been unable to before.

So did you end up having to write a bunch of poems to flesh out this book?

Never! I don’t work like that; such a thing is alien to me. As I said before, I chose the poems in the book from hundreds of poems. I don’t know the number, I no longer remember.

Unless I’m mistaken, most of the poems in Dunce are free verse. What is it about that form that you think just works for what you want to say?

Me and free verse…well, the answer to that is kind of embarrassing. I write in free verse because I am untrained in any other way. I once tried to train myself. I went to an island with that idea, and a week after I got back — this was years and years ago — I had forgotten everything, everything except that blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter. Is it?

Regardless of my total ignorance of prosody, my poems are, I believe, carefully attuned to sound and cadence and all other manner of traditional poetic gestures. Some of the poems in Dunce ever rhyme. In other words, I do the best I can within my limited abilities. Or try to. Doesn’t everyone?

Are there any writers, or maybe specific poems, who you feel had a big influence on the poems in Dunce but not the ones in your previous collections?

No, I can’t think of any.

What about non-literary influences; were any of the poems in Dunce influenced by any visual art or music or a movie?

My life is what influences any book I write. And in my life, I read a great many books, listen to a lot of music, and watch far too many films. But none of those things in a particular way influence specific poems except in those cases where it is made apparent in the title or in the poem itself, such as the poem “Lillian” [from Dunce] which referring to the great silent film star Lillian Gish, or “Genesis” [also from Dunce] which obviously refers to The Bible. Most of the time it is just life as I live it, such as swimming with an annoying piece of apple skin caught between my teeth.

Some poets like to read their work aloud, both on their own and in public, as a way of working out the kinks. Is this something you do as well?

I always say the lines out loud as I am working, or immediately after; I need to hear how the poem sounds. And I have given a great many readings in public, and sometimes I go home afterwards and make changes in what I have read because I heard something that was to me amiss. I’ve even made changes ins on the pages of a published book. I’ve made such a change in Dunce. I am not going to tell you what it is, but when I read that particular poem in public now, I read it with the change.

Well, that answers the question I was going to ask about whether there was any difference between this new paperback version of Dunce and the original hardcover. And it kind of also answers another question I had, about whether the versions of these poems are the same as when they previously appeared in such journals as the Columbia Poetry Review, The New Yorker, and Poetry, and whether you have a personal policy to not change things once they’re published.

I don’t remember if I made changes in poems after they appeared in a magazine; I don’t keep track of stuff like that.

But, obviously I do not have a personal policy that a poem is done when it is published. In fact, I think that’s a ridiculous policy. For me, a poem is finished when I stop thinking about it.

Mary Ruefle Dunce

Finally, if someone enjoys Dunce, which of your other poetry collections would you suggest they read next?

If someone enjoyed Dunce, I guess I would suggest they read either my Selected Poems, or my previous book of poetry, which is called Trances Of The Blast.

But mostly, if the reader is a young poet, I would hope that they would be unafraid to be stupid.



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