The lyric ruminations Ryo Yamaguchi offers in his debut book of poetry, The Refusal of Suitors (Noemi Press, 2015), sink deeper than the ink on the page—and they rise up higher than the oxygen masks in the overhead compartment of the plane I was on as I read this impressive first book for the first time.
The Refusal of Suitors is a collection of poems that speaks to the you who’s on a level you’re hardly aware of—to the you who’s under there, somewhere, wondering what it’s all for and how. Ryo’s words unfold like music, his language both sharp and soft, his poems altogether dreamy in their fleeting effervescence, like city lights blinking through city smoke. (“Ode #1” ends: “This is the boulevard smudged with vacancies.”)
Reading Ryo’s poetry, it’s as if trapdoors open to hidden heart-caves between the lines, each poem glowing like an intangible peach. The words summer, flowers, and memory echo throughout the collection, melodically painting “the anxiety of landscape” with a brush of precious promiselessness.
These poems take a chance at impermanent transcendence, and it’s worth it. “What we call the beginning,” Ryo writes in “Post,” “is really just / the first thing we have recorded.” The Refusal of Suitors exists now as its own kind of record, presenting an exciting debut for the poet.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Ryo about his book. (Editor’s note: you may have already met Ryo via his essays for MQR.) We discussed poetry, philosophy, anxiety, cities, love, and dreams—and about his hopes for the future.
How did you conceive of and begin writing The Refusal of Suitors? What is the writing process like for you?
I always had this anxiety that I never had a project—I was just writing poems, trying things out, different forms, getting different lines in my head, all with a book vaguely in the background of my ambition. Joseph Campbell gave me the title with his discussion of American Indian stories in The Power of Myth. I walked around with the line in my head for years, until one day I thought, “That’s it! I’m being courted by all these possibilities, and I’m refusing them all!” It wasn’t long before I was thinking about Penelope and her suitors, the story she rewrites night after night, and Odysseus refusing his suitors (each island he visits), and I was seeing all these ghosts in my poems (like Odysseus, who returns from the dead), and from all that swirling mythology everything started to come together as an organizing force for these decidedly contemporary poems.
The Refusal of Suitors is made up of sixty-eight poems, nine of them odes. What is it that attracts you to the ode? How do these nine odes speak to one another?
I love these odes—I like to think of this style as “New Lyric” or something like that. I’m pretty rhythmically oriented (I wanted be a drummer for a lot of my youth), and just kind of had this lyrical verbal tic, O this, O that. I thought it was funny at first, but then I thought, what if I start putting deliberate nouns: bird, city, youth, so on, on the other side of that “O,” and take them as bona fide subjects?
There are five poems in the book also titled “The Refusal of Suitors.” Can you speak to the significance of repeating the collection’s title in the titles of individual poems? Is there a connection among these same-titled poems?
Ha, to be perfectly honest, I knew I needed a few poems that stitched all these disparate poems together—I wrote one with the title (I can’t even remember which one now!), but then I saw and wrote new poems that all seemed like good candidates for the title poem. Pretty quickly I realized that my equivocating over the title poem was thematically relevant! And I liked that it was a little cheeky. I then kind of pushed all these title poems into a similar tone—an address—as though each title poem represented a different amorous suitor.
Many motifs appear throughout the book (summer, windows, swimming, airplanes, landscapes, glimmer/shimmer, flowers, grass, animals, memory, measuring, millions, time, clouds, softness, sweetness, plastics, gold, fish, fires, stories, songs, etc.), creating their own kind of landscape across the text. How conscious were you of these words as you wrote? Do they hold personal/universal significance?
I love this question! This is like therapy for me! I can’t really explore the significance in an illuminating way, but just to say something about myth, seasonality, time, affect, and this desire to know (that clears it all up, doesn’t it?). To respond a little differently, a lot of these themes feel inescapable, and in fact a lot of my work in revision is writing myself out of them, trying to recognize when I’m leaning on an image too automatically, that sort of thing. At the same time, when you are looking at many poems back to back, you see these kinds of repetitions and try and build something out of them, let them start creating dialogues across the poems, and that is such a thrilling part of assembling a manuscript.
In one of the poems titled “The Refusal of Suitors,” you write: “It is difficult to gauge exactly where your thinking ends, but here / against the table things could be said to be naturally complete, insofar as / they have found a certain rhythm.” Did rhythm and language itself play a role in how you structured the book (connecting poems with homonym threads—“Are” before “Our Wars,” “whether” in the first line of “Register” after “The Weather”—to guide the order of poems)?
Wow! I was never consciously linking the poems in these homophonic ways, but I bet I was subconsciously (that verbal tic thing). It’s amazing to see you point this out! My deliberate sense of ordering was way coarser. I had little mini groups of poems (similar formats, written near the same time, probably sent to the same magazine as submissions), and I was really trying to balance groups—like little stands of trees—with more individualistic recurrences, and all of that swelling toward some height. So there are things like sections of prose poems, but then the Odes will arrive with regularity, like angels or ghosts or henchmen. And then title poems only appear in the latter half of the book and increase in frequency—so the ordering was kind of a balance of these three techniques.
How do you balance making time to write with working at the University of Chicago Press? What do you find to be the best and most challenging parts of working in publishing today? Do you have any thoughts on the future of publishing (poetry in particular)?
I feel so lucky that I have a non-renewing job (cough, I don’t have to fight for adjunct classes every quarter) that folds so fruitfully into my artistic life. Writing and publishing make obvious sense—many of coworkers are also writers (and lots of musicians, too!). Balance is always an issue—I get up way early in the morning to work on poems; I read and review books while commuting; I clear weekends to do things like answer these amazing questions. I’ll admit there is a masochism to the schedule that I kind of enjoy, and moreover I find work to be a necessary component of my artistic life, as I’ll talk about in a bit.
For publishing, the most challenging thing about it is so plain: there’s no money. Starting a small press can be an amazing thing to do, but it will suck so many resources from you. Even working at a big university press, like I do, has many challenges. That is, perhaps, part of the beauty. But the tools grow cheaper and easier to use as each day goes by, and there are legions of talented people out there with the will and energy to put those tools to innovative use. For these reasons, I have an intense ambivalence about the future. I think poetry publishing will continue to flourish, articulate, and electrify, but it will also continue to subdivide, specialize, and silo. The days of all of us reciting Longfellow—and thereby, having a public poem in our collective psyche (how wonderful!)—are long gone, and that is truly both good and bad.
In “Zeugma,” you write: “I will tell you one thing and write, in a letter, another.” You echo this elsewhere in the book: “You are designed / to feel this uncomfortable in your speech.” And in “Headlong”: “I was plunged / into the work, and the work / took what it would, the way a telephone can take your voice, / that we mean not what we say . . . I do hope these anthems / set the universe right.” Is this idea of not meaning what we say crucial to poetry in some way? Do you see poetry as a vehicle for exploring the words/choices/lives we haven’t picked?
This is such a synthesizing observation! There is so much theory behind this, from “esoteric writing” to “the trace,” but generally I agree with you, yes, poetry is a vehicle for exploiting what we have not picked—I love it! Meaning and language—and the divide between them—is crucial and highly generative terrain. I, for one, love the idea of language and even logic as kinds of performance, and especially the way that that performance negotiates resonance and connotation, this balletic folding of hints, claims, ironies, etymologies, and all kinds of other stuff, and of mishearings, slips, and accidents. Nature works like this—every copy of the DNA introduces tiny little aberrations, and that’s how we get what we have today—nature mishears itself. This all makes me think of a super cool project I reviewed at NewPages, absolutely a great read.
I love your poem “Ha Ha Ha Ha”: “It seems we are always waiting for summer, / but when it finally gets here we withhold our youth from it, / let it pan stiffly over us as we get ourselves arranged in the room.” This feels just so—at the core of everything—true. Your characters/speakers seem to be dreaming of other worlds, other lives they’re not living, alternate realities in which they do not withhold their youth. In “Our Wars,” you write: “You were curled up in your bedroom like a statement you want to, but cannot, make.” And in the last poem titled “The Refusal of Suitors,” you write: “our various pursuits had been submerged, / where we learned we could not live except as a kind of image. // You have in your mouth the final section; you have been its guardian, / in the apartment above the street, during the night that won’t ever exist.” What do you think it takes to break our habitual withholding and finally mean what we say (in real life, or at least in poetry)? Did you write what you meant to write in The Refusal of Suitors?
This is such a profound question. I don’t know, I don’t know if I wrote what I meant to write—let me be a rotter and say that I must mean whatever I ended up writing. I definitely believe in the surprising, this idea that what you anticipate ALWAYS ends up differently (if even just a little), and I believe in the insistence of the impossible as a kind of magic, and in the finite as an organizing principle. Just look at our world. Shouldn’t we be a utopia by now? We are a global community. We have iPhones. More important, we’ve all pretty much already agreed that we are going to care about each other and our environment, that we won’t objectify, use, or abuse, that we will celebrate uniqueness and the rich tapestry of existence. But we don’t. Those things feel like trenchant impossibilities. Love fails. People go missing. We are injurious and we are reactionary. We obsess and we endure. We withhold and we await. I think my feelings on these profound inabilities to connect, to make good, manifest themselves in these lines that you quote.
The urgency of a city (Chicago?) plays a role in these poems, as does something meditative (in “Ail”: “We have a way of knowing just by closing our hands”; in “Fin De Siecle”: “The universe darkens / like a set. I say to myself that you have it all underneath you”; and in “The One Way, which Happens to Be This One”: “There is a way, all the teachers intone, through.”) Finding oneself, fear of uncertainty, longing to no longer withhold—these themes recur throughout the book, and many poems consist of fragments. How much do you think our human (or the city’s) sense of urgency is responsible for these fragments, uncertainties, and withholdings, and does this have a negative effect on our spiritual health?
Urgency, yes! It is the defining characteristic of our times, especially post-9/11. Our panic is ruinous, I totally believe that, but I don’t know about our spiritual health—maybe panic is a necessary part of being healthy (like, a survival instinct). I think you are getting at a kind of balance—there are moments when the words just come flying out of our mouths and others where our silence is vaulted over us. These opposite modes are deeply and maybe mysteriously intertwined with each other. And this dynamic plays out at the scale of the city.
“I felt the anxiety of landscape,” you write in “Delayed by Author”; and in “Ali”: “I was led on by shape, never fully in one place but always levered toward another.” Do you see the city’s landscape as a consequence of our anxiety, or vice versa? Is there too little room for dreaming in the landscape of a city, in a world where what must be done leaves too little space for what one deep down wishes one could do if one’s time was freely one’s own?
So the city and anxiety—my friends, my wife, they can tell you how much I obsess about this. I have all these rules, particularly for the train, i.e., as we are “never fully in one place but always levered toward another.” I love this idea you bring up about space for dreaming—it’s funny, because the city is a dream, it’s a lot of peoples’ dreams: “I’m gonna grow up and move to the city,” that sort of thing. But the city suffocates, too. Above my desk is this line from Wallace Stevens: “In the world of words / Imagination is one of / The forces of nature.” I think of the city that way—it’s a force of nature. It can enrapture you with its pulsing marquees or literally blow broken glass in your face. Where I live especially, the wind blows, and it’s either the smell of chocolate (from a nearby factory) or sewage. A stranger starts talking to you and you don’t know how to feel—you are guarded, but then you are friendly. You love this and you hate this. You are tired because it’s hard, and you feel strong because it is. And anxiety pulses beneath all of this, it (here we go with Heidegger) wakes you up to yourself, and in the very best situation, it makes you remember that you are the city.
The last sentence of a “The Refusal of Suitors” poem reads, “I am waiting for you like I wait / for an emergency.” Urgency feels juxtaposed with an incessant sense of waiting throughout the book. In “Birthed Like a Bell,” you write: “The world reads like two books simultaneously … I was to find myself waiting again.” In your view, what does the city or the need to make money do to our human need for love? Are we becoming too busy, too withheld, to love fully—or do you think there’s hope?
Money and love, it’s like a sequined coat! When I think of money, I think of work, specifically, work abstracted, and I view a lot of these poems as concerned or beleaguered by this most ubiquitous activity. By abstracted I mean that you are specialized, a cog in the machine. There’s also the kind of work where you build a chair and then sit on it—that’s, like, concrete work. Having a so-called “professional” job—i.e. working in an office—abstracts you in ways that are damaging, totally, but are also really interesting.
In these poems, that interest is especially in what it means to push oneself in volume, to condition oneself with repetition, email after email, for instance, or copying documents. I don’t think nearly enough poets write about working, and I hazard it’s because poetry is an escape from that (I also love to write about birds). But I think it ought to address it, because that’s actually how most of us find meaning, in the work we do, even if it’s looking at spreadsheets all day. And what I want these poems to express is that deep within this working life—say, on a Wednesday, right before lunch, in the copy room, while we are digging through a box of paper—there is love. It’s right there. It comes and it passes, but we feel it. Maybe we are thinking about someone far away. Maybe we are thinking about the city. Maybe we are thinking about ourselves. But the sentiment is distinct: it’s love, and we feel it not in spite of but because we are there, deep in that Wednesday, trying to live.
Ryo Yamaguchi has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, American Letters & Commentary, and Tin House, among other places. He lives in Chicago, where he works at the University of Chicago Press. Find out more at plotsandoaths.com or follow him on Twitter.
The Refusal of Suitors is available now to order from Noemi Press.
Author photo courtesy of Kate Goddard.