Kyle Austin Interviews Jack Ridl on His Stellar New Book, Losing Season

1. What first sparked your interest in poetry, or writing in general? Have you ever had any extensive experience writing in any other genre?
My interest developed out of the time I spent as a song writer. I then chose a mentor poet and worked with him, Paul Zimmer, for several years, learning the ropes!
I've written personal essays, have started a memoir, tried and failed at a novel, and a long time ago wrote many songs. I've also ghost written several psychology textbooks, and co-wrote with Peter Schakel a book about poetry and a book about literature--drama, fiction, non-fiction, poetry.
2. It's obvious from reading "Losing Season" that your father taught you well about the game of basketball. What were your experiences with sports in your schooling days? Were you an active athlete or just an admiring observer?
I began learning to be an athlete at a very early age, three or four. I was a guard in basketball and a shortstop in baseball. My dream was to be a professional baseball player. My experiences were the usual ups and downs of any athlete. Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that you can always develop further and discipline, actually learning to live the discipline of practicing. I started on the varsity in both basketball and baseball when I was in ninth grade, the last ninth grader to do so in Pennsylvania. They recently restored the chance for ninth graders to play varsity sports. I was a better baseball player and still hold batting average records some fifty years after setting them. Both my jump shot and my hitting eye have faded into the past!!!!
3. I think that too often in our society, athletic and literary pursuits are seen as being at odds with each other, but your book deftly illustrates that this is not always so. What is it about basketball, or sports in general that inspires poetic exploration and discovery?
Yes, it's an unfortunate fact that athletics and the arts are often at odds. It's sad and silly that they are. Both ask for very demanding imaginative skills that are distinct from the usual definitions of intelligence in our culture and this narrowing of the idea of what constitutes intelligence has been oppressive.
For me, sports are stunningly aesthetic. They often embody aspects of jazz, symphonic structure, performance under strict scrutiny, drama, ballet, the compositional skills of an artist, the shifts of tone and of rhythm that make for an effective poem. When one writes, one can feel all through one's body the movements of a work of art, movements that are also within the athlete's performance. I really don't get the chronic confrontation between the two. It might come from misapplying our society's emphasizing sports over the arts. When one does that, one then can set up an antagonism between two worlds that should be compatriots.
4. "Losing Season" reads more like a novella than a collection of poems. Do you try to achieve this same effect with every collection of poetry? Do you think that a collection like this has more power than say, a single poem about sports?
I'm so glad you noticed that. That was a major experiment for me, to see if I could write and organize the poems so that a reader would actually be the one to create a novella or novel in her/his imagination. I wanted the reader to realize this as the collection was being read.
I haven't tried to create a novel or novella in any other collection. However, I do take the arrangement of the poems very seriously, spending a lot of time trying to see the effects of the placement of one poem with another as well as when in the whole book a poem appears.
I don't know if this has more power than a single poem. I kinda think they are two separate experiences, ones that defy comparison.
5. My favorite aspect of the book is the wonderful cast of characters it contains. The majority of the poems are written from the point of view of a single character. What is it about getting inside a characters thoughts that fascinates you? Do you find yourself writing about people more often than writing about say, nature or objects?
I do tend to think of all my poems as being voiced by a distinct character, even the ones that have no distinctly presented person. My poems try to overcome the separation between the human and everything else. I don't think it's possible to be separate. Even when one doesn't feel connected, one still is.

Getting inside a character's thoughts as you put it, leads one into a wider world and taps into one's empathic self. Both are important in so many ways.

6. A big part of the books seems to be the small-town experience. Did this arise from your own small-town experience? If so, how did the experience of living in small-town America shape your way of thinking as well as your writing?
Yes, this book did come out from my growing up in a small town. However, this is not my small town. I would never presume to be able to render my town accurately. I would hope the distinct elements presented are found in most small towns and even in many other places be they rural or urban.
Living in a small town most definitely developed my sense of the particular. There is nothing "general" in a small town, nothing generic. There is Shaffer's Barber Shop and Gilliland's Market. No chains. Everyone's actions affect everyone else's. You learn that who you are is known and what you say and do will be known. You never think that the minister of your church is the same as any other minister, that all math teachers are the same. Everyone is individualized and recognized as such. You don't hear things like, "Well, after all she's a nurse." You hear "Mrs. Wilson will take good care of you and she'll tell you the worst jokes." The postmaster in my town was also a fireman and a policeman and was at every ball game. The gas station owner played on the town league baseball team. You knew every street, every house, every place where "something happened." A small town is like living in a memory museum.

7. Many of the poems featuring Coach seem to lament the passing of time. How has the aging process affected the way you write poetry? The way you teach?
I am obsessed with mutability, that everything changes, is passing by, is disappearing even as it appears. Aging is not for me "getting older." It's about things going away. That happens from the day you are born until the moment you say good-bye.
I felt this every minute I taught: all my students were passing before my eyes and heart.

8. Finally, what is the most important thing for the aspiring writer or poet to keep in mind as they work on their craft?
It matters.

Works by Jack Ridl

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.