Renée Christine Ehle is a writer and educator in the Bronx. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Common Ground Review, 2 Horatio, Spark: A Creative Anthology, and the Diverse Arts Project Journal. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a teacher-consultant with the New York City Writing Project.
Renée's poems "Backburning" and "Poem for a Young Father" will appear in the Summer 2018 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, July 1, for special savings and discounts.
“Backburning” closes with two declarative statements. How do you perceive poetry’s relationship with (or potential for) declaration?
Some people are a little afraid of—suspicious, maybe—of declarations. As if making a statement without qualification somehow diminishes one’s credibility as an honest intellectual, as if skepticism and uncertainty are the only solid ground (ironically!) that a rational person should stand on. I also know a lot of people who build their lives entirely on “declarations” as if any sort of questioning is a threat to their existence or worldview. I think both extremes miss the mark.
Our society, our experiences, and language itself are full of questions, uncertainties, qualifications, conditions, descriptions, and declarations; if poetry is to be the music for “the human experience” then it needs to have a broad enough range for all expressions of this experience. “Backburning” begins by listing suppositions and paradox—incomprehensible, sometimes curious, sometimes baffling; its final lines are declarations, but they are declarations of paradox.
“Poem for a Young Father” builds its world out of sensory details. What was the impetus of this poem, and how did you build it?
The first spark for “Poem for a Young Father” was literal: I cannot pass by a house under construction without being transported back to when I was quite young and my dad and his friends were building a house for our family out in rural Michigan. Those smells, sounds, and sights—especially the smell of freshly cut lumber—still inundate me with a sense of delight and possibility; those simple images seep inside of me and make me profoundly happy.
The second spark was my changing perception of my dad over the years, which like many father/daughter relationships has so often been uneasy and irksome and difficult. I filled my journal with verbal sketches, images and phrases that might capture this complicated love. Out of all those scribbles, I kept circling around only a few, homing in on the idea of how young my dad and his friends were—in their mid- to late twenties—and my dad already had four kids under the age of seven. He must have felt so overwhelmed and underprepared for fatherhood, and I imagine working with his friends to build the house was a relief, a challenge he knew how to meet.
That was the framework. Then came the usual finishing jobs: what to take out and leave in, how long the lines should be, where to make stanza breaks. I tried out a lot of different forms before settling on this one.
What is the relationship between your work as a teacher-consultant with the New York City Writing Project and your poetry?
The NYCWP, a legacy site of the National Writing Project, is an organization of teachers that for forty years has been working to improve literacy in New York City public schools. Schools are intense and complicated; if you want to pay attention to the breadth of the human experience, to lives other than your own, then being around teenagers and their teachers is the place to be. As a teacher-consultant—working with other teachers both in and out of their classrooms—I’ve been able to take a step back from the intensity of direct classroom teaching and reflect on the nature of learning, language, and living. Directly or indirectly, these reflections find their way into my poetry.
At the same time, working actively as a poet expands the way I can talk about literacy with teachers and students. What’s really at stake in helping kids write better? It’s not about passing exams or getting a diploma or even about gaining the skills for college or career. It’s about using words to claim and proclaim your own life.
Who (or what) are some of your poetic influences? How do you negotiate influence in your writing process?
There are poets that I like (this list keeps changing), but as far as influence goes—poets who made me sit up and take notice of the power and beauty of language, and who still live in the back of my mind—I think of poets I was introduced to long ago, in high school and college. John Donne, George Herbert, Federico García Lorca, Rainer Maria Rilke. All of these did interesting things with both language and subject that feel close to who I am and what I’d like to do in poetry. Because they go so far back in my poetic experience, their influence is part of my literary culture and sensibility, my “ear.”
What is trickier, I think, is negotiating the influence of newer writers (or newer to me, anyway), especially when a particular poem has something—a line, a rhythm, sometimes a structure or part of a structure—that sparks a new idea in me. That’s essentially a good thing, I think, and part of a long tradition of responding to or jumping off of other writers. But knowing when to acknowledge this kind of influence and when to let it just hover in the background isn’t always clear.
What’s a book you’ve read recently that you’d like to recommend?
Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. And the essays she gathered & edited in The Fire This Time. And Salvage the Bones (which can be paired with Patricia Smith’s poetry collection, Blood Dazzler). Jesmyn Ward is not just “the latest thing”—her writing is good, and important, and every American should read her.