At the Kitchen Table: Shoshauna Shy Interviews Douglas Goetsch about "The Ripple in Your Day"
Douglas Goetsch of New York City joined Shoshauna Shy for a conversation about his poem “The Ripple in Your Day.” Grab a cup of coffee, pull up a chair and listen in.
DOUG: I’ve been a writer of poetry for about 25 years. I got the bug as a young public school teacher in New York, while teaching a unit in poetry to 9th graders. Lately I’ve been questioning with more and more rigor how much a poem I’m writing could interest, to use a phrase of Gaston Bachelard’s, minds “foreign to its creation.” I look at my early poems as being of little relevance to anyone besides me and those seeing themselves as like-minded. At the same time poetry is less and less about “self-expression” for me; the poems themselves seem to be coming from deeper, more individuated places.
SHOSHAUNA: Well, I couldn't help but think of Whitney Houston when I reread "...found motionless / in hotel beds or in their bathrooms.” Could you tell us, Doug, what triggered the creation of this poem—was it an image, a piece of music, something you overheard in the cereal aisle?
DOUG: “The Ripple in Your Day” was triggered directly by Hollywood—something rare for me. Heath Ledger had just killed himself with drugs, and Owen Wilson, after a suicide attempt, was making a new comedy. Other than the fact that they are people who have what so many in our society want—fame, money, etc.,—I knew little about them, though I was overcome at the time with a theory: their disasters stemmed from a small moment, a ripple, that happens to all of us. A difficult interlude shows up on our doorstep, daily, and how we navigate that ripple says more about us than just about anything. Some professional person might say there’s a history or pattern to such trouble (the tabloids prefer “demons”), but even so, there’s always a first moment, when the “demon” is just a strange animal on the lawn that might not even mean us any harm.
SHOSHAUNA: Yes, I've puzzled over why so many celebrities self-destruct. I agree with you about some small moment that trips a person up. I also have to believe that for the weaker ones, they are pressured into becoming who their agent and fans want them to be—and they succumb to that till they don't know who they are anymore; they've lost touch with their real selves.
So, what came first for you, was it the image of the half-gallon of ice-cream or perhaps the phrase "wandering nameless in Orange County..."? Or did the final line arrive and you felt compelled to write a poem that ended with it?
DOUG: I think the deeper puzzle is how a celebrity doesn’t self-destruct, residing as celebrities do in the black hole of our nation’s psychosis. Add to that the number of people with serious identity disorders who self-select for the acting profession, and you have Kelsey Grammer—everyone’s favorite TV therapist—found drunk in his flipped over car near his home. The “wandering around nameless in Orange County” could be Anne Heche or Margot Kidder; “found motionless on their made beds or in their bathrooms” could be Elvis or Marilyn or hundreds of others… Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston… I hope not Lindsay Lohan, though it doesn’t look good. But that’s not to say we all don’t have our disasters—which is what the poem is even more about.
Coming to your question of what came first when I composed the poem, this was one of those rare times when the first draft contained everything the final draft would need. I think I just began with that first image—“I’d like to pull back the hair from your face and ask…”—and ran with it. I knew I’d be getting to the self-destructing celebs, but something told me to start with quizzing the reader about how they get through their day. A bunch of things got rearranged later, though the wet dogs, the wandering in Orange County, and the ending all arrived right on time, and stayed in their places—though I did play around a lot with the wordings.
SHOSHAUNA: Yes, I agree we all have our own disasters. No one can make it through that treacherous and bewildering terrain called childhood without acquiring them. Kind of scary to think how what happens to you the first ten years of your life affects you forever, for better or for worse or a combination thereof. (Even scarier yet—I read that if a baby isn't shown compassion its first 3-6 months, it won't develop empathy for others.)
So, this brings me to my next question, and it's more personal, so you definitely don't need to answer it if you'd rather not. But what I'm wondering is where is the "truth" in this poem as far as it relates to your own personal experience? I believe that in every poem we write, there is something in it that actually happened to us, even if it wasn't directly TO us that it happened, know what I'm saying? Like maybe it was your brother who came down to breakfast one morning when he was visiting you, and you realized that he had slept in his clothes, and you thought, "Hmmm, could that be a throwback to when he was seven and our house caught on fire......" or you saw a feral animal on your lawn one evening. Guess what I'm wondering is what's the "ripple in *your* day..." IF you want to answer that.
DOUG: Shoshauna, I agree that all those things we hear about the formative years are scary as shit, and there’s no reason to doubt the research. But I also keep trying to tell myself that every moment is equal, equally powerful, with equal potential. Whitman, as usual, says it better: “There was never more inception than there is now, / Nor anymore youth or age than there is now…” I think that’s what the ripple is: a call from a damaged part of the self, and a chance to heal something, in a moment that is potentially every bit as impactful as the moment the damage happened. But it’s also a chance to recapitulate the damage, or worse: compound it. It’s up to us (which is not to say we don’t have help).
Getting to the personal question, you’re wise to put “truth” in quotes. Part of how we can damage ourselves is solidifying our identities as victims, bad people, whatever. I could run down the list of strategies in the poem and say which ones do and don’t apply to me (i.e., cookie dough ice cream: no; yelling at customer service: check…), or I could tell you certain things happened in my childhood and how they carried through into adulthood. But part of what poetry does is it holds everything up to question, and in that flux of questioning is the chance at arriving at the truth without quotes. A poem is successful when it’s a truer arrangement of details than any other way we could have reported them.
But I don’t mean to be snooty or blame anyone for being interested in the autobiographical specifics of a poem, which I’m often interested in, too. Here’s something: the ending of the poem (the repeated “…holding on. Holding on.”) refers to a story written by Bo Lozoff, a friend of mine. A religious man in a prison cell hangs on to his life year after year because he’s waiting for God to talk to him. Only when he finally gives up and doubts God’s existence does God speak, saying, Who do you think has been helping you hold on all these years? So, I stole the story’s ending—how’s that for a confession?
SHOSHAUNA: I like what you said here: "A poem is successful when it’s a truer arrangement of details than any other way we could have reported them." I've always felt that "what really happened" is subjective, and I'm all for changing my impression of "truth" for the sake of a poem. Let the journalist labor over some version of the facts!
It's interesting to me what feeds into the creation of a poem, and I thank you for sharing that. So, what is it about this particular poem that you are especially fond of, i.e., was there something about it specifically that made you want to give it the limelight right now?
DOUG: What makes me fond of “The Ripple in Your Day” is that it’s somewhat of a singleton for me: a poem that advances a philosophical or psychological theory, but it also has the properties of a sermon; it’s also a catalogue poem, which is how it gets down the page. It’s a fairly public poem—some examples ripped, as they say, from the tabloid headlines—yet it felt strangely personal to write. When I do a reading, it’s the piece that sends the audience into their own lives the most. Once in Oklahoma, when I got to the part about memories of old wounds trudging into the room like wet dogs, a woman in the back let out this exhausted moan. It was more eloquent than anything in the poem.
The Ripple in Your Day
I’d like to pull back the hair from your face
and ask how you get through the ripple in your day,
the one that comes unannounced
like a feral animal sitting on the lawn
facing your windows—you’d think
you’d be used to it by now. It stays
maybe a minute, maybe an hour,
and doesn’t go away until it does.
Do you settle into your favorite chair
with the universal remote, spend an hour
in the shower, bury your head
in crosswords, sleep in your clothes?
Do you buy crap on eBay, Google
people from your old school, picturing
the days they’re having in other towns?
Does coffee deliver you, perhaps
an early cocktail, a spoon and a half-
gallon of cookie dough ice cream?
Maybe you scream at Customer Service,
or research how to make a bomb.
Painkillers would be refreshingly direct.
Are you one of those who can stare at themselves
in the mirror and pronounce affirmations?
Do you pray, or do you put on
a certain song and sway empty-
handed in the darkening room?
What is it that you do, do every day,
that everybody does, even heroes on posters
we hung in our childhood bedrooms—
athletes, rock stars, Hollywood A-listers
who, if they don’t make it past the ripple
in their day, end up in the papers,
drunk in their driveways, wandering nameless
in Orange County, found motionless
on their made beds or in their bathrooms.
Cloistered nuns, Henry Kissinger, people
in the People’s Republic of China—
everybody’s day, even their best day,
has a ripple, when something reverses,
dust motes float slowly upward
and memories of old wounds
trudge into the room like wet dogs.
Have you come to believe the ripple is you?
The ripple isn’t you. How you
get through it—that’s not even you,
it’s just your life, your story, the story
of us all, each inside our own day,
and with you, though feeling so separate
and holding on. Holding on.
—Douglas Goetsch, New York, NY
If you’d like to contact Doug to continue the conversation about his poem, you can reach him here: Doug@janestreet.org