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An Interview with Jay Ritchie

Jay Ritchie, a graduate of Concordia’s Creative Writing program, recently released his first poetry book Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie(Coach House Books). Dedicated to confronting our conception of temporal progress, Ritchie suggests we think of time as “not further along a line/ only the sensation/ of moving deeper sideways.” Reading his book, one hears the urgent call to reassess the basic assumptions about reality, and forces readers out of their comforting worldview and into the book’s honest–and at times cold and scientific–perspective. Jay Ritchie’s use of rich, creative images and his articulate yet unpretentious communication of complex concepts make this book a joy to read.

Tyson: The conflict of time as a linear and an everlasting present was such a prevalent theme, what was the process of ordering your poems like? I am curious about how you feel the order embraces or resists progression.

Jay: Putting the poems in order is my favourite part of the project. I care way too much about song order on my playlists, on my favourite albums. It’s kind of like a puzzle, in that I know there is a final way I want the book to be, but I’m not sure what it is until I see it. The order of the poems in this book are definitely not chronological by date of composition. The last poem in the book is one of the first ones I wrote. The final order I settled on was seasonal: the poems start in spring, move into summer, then fall, then winter. I believe in books of poetry as experiences unto themselves, not just a collection of poems the poet happened to write between certain dates. That’s why I don’t like “collected poems,” or, even, worse, “selected poems.” There’s no flavour! I need there to be a sense of movement, a progression. Theme can do that, character can do that, plot can do that. A common tool to make that happen is time, and that’s what I used in this collection.

Throughout the book you referenced different scientific phenomena such as the refraction of light, photosynthesis, geometry, astronomy and the biological cycles of nature. Seeing that scientific study has an impact on your writing, what is the relationship between science and art in your poetry?

Shout out to photosynthesis. I don’t think about science and poetry in any kind of formal way; I think that would take the fun out of poetry for me, to have a “conceit” or something. Like, “this poem is called “cell” and in it I will use the scientific vocabulary of all the constituent parts of a cell.” That’s not for me. I have a general fascination with geometry, biology, physics, music, and all of that settles when I start to write. I will say that the temptation to use scientific metaphors is sometimes hard to resist, concepts like refraction, harmony, fractals, the observer effect (that observation influences outcome), gravity. But these are ready-made metaphors we use to describe the world, which is what poetry can also be used for, so it’s two approaches to the same question.

The poems navigate multiple settings: the natural environment, home, a waiting room; in front of a computer, with other people or being alone, and Montreal. Do you find that certain environments inspire your writing more than others?

I think I’ve learned that part of writing poetry, for me, involves accessing what CAConrad calls the extreme present. I think Time magazine calls it mindfulness. There are many words for it. I use poetry and poetry uses me to access that place, and so often the place I am actually in at the time of writing appears in the poem. Nowhere is more or less “inspirational”—if I had a dependably inspirational place I would be there all the time. Maybe it’s my body? Anyways, I actually try to get at this idea in one of the poems, where it says “I feel numinous at the SAAQ.” It’s a notoriously uninspiring place, where you wait hours to pay a fine or get shamed for running a red light 5 years ago by understandably grouchy government employees. I love it when I have to go there, or like, a waiting room or a laundromat, because I’m trapped by circumstance, and I can write poetry to rocket ship out of the situation. Which, of course, means being extremely present in the situation.

Do you have a favourite poem in the collection?

I think my favourite poem is “With Wild Abandon and Uncommon Hope We Set Out on Our Journey.” I feel like I can still get vibes off that poem, off what the poem does in both form and content. I like reading it at reading.

Interview by Tyson Burger


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