The first book of yours that I read was The David Museum -- your second chapbook, I believe. I read it straight through, like a story, and it spoke to my feelings and experience in a way that made me weep and feel better at the same time. I promptly ordered Survivable World and Beneficence -- and Lisa and I are tremendously pleased, now, to welcome you to speak with us here at Sunspinner. Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, Ron Mohring? Where are you from?

First of all, thanks so much for this opportunity. Many people seem to find my work through word-of-mouth, and I find that very gratifying. About me, hmm: I was born and raised near Cincinnati, in a small rural town. I moved to Houston in 1986 and stayed for 13 years -- that's where the poems in Amateur Grief and The David Museum, as well as a good part of Survivable World, were written. I have lived in Lewisburg, PA for four years now, and I love it here. I'm very tied to this central Pennsylvania landscape, this weather -- four distinct seasons again! -- and in some ways it's similar to the landscape of my childhood. Plus, if I need to tap into the energy and variety of the city, it's an easy trip into Baltimore, Philly, and especially New York.

One of the things I like about your poems is their solidity. Realness. I feel, when I'm reading them, like I can reach in and pick up those gryphon candlesticks or open a drawer to find baby mice abandoned in my sweater. Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing a poem?

It's very important to me to write poems that a reader, any reader, can move into, regardless of whether the particular experience is one she might share. I absolutely think of the poem as a place, so initial details are often essential: sketching a scene, populating that scene with "real things." I want the reader to feel invited into the poem, as into a comfortable room, even if some elements are uncomfortable, or even unnerving! This tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar, what's safe vs. what's unknown or unsafe -- dangerous -- hopefully enables the willing reader to inhabit the poem, spend some time there (again, as in a room). I think this applies to a large portion of my work, and even more so to my new manuscript, which I'm hoping to complete this year: it's called "The Boy Who Reads in the Trees."

When do you write, and where? What (and/or who) supports you in your creativity?

I'm terribly undisciplined: no set writing schedule, no self-imposed deadlines. As a result, I can go weeks or sometimes months without writing, until a poem clobbers me on the head and I run to my computer or journal and try to hang onto it long enough to get it down, get it out. Back in Houston, I met weekly with three or four other poets for several years, and turned out a poem a week. So those structures can be good for me. My problem is that so many things call to my attention: for instance, I'm a quilter, and currently I'm trying to put in a couple hours every evening on a quilt, with two or three more in my head that I urgently want to piece and get to work on. I also garden -- I could not live without dirt and seeds and a place to grow things -- and I'm eager to get outside and see what's waking, make plans for this year's herb garden.

To me, it's all intertwined, all part of the same dialogue: when quilting, I'm deeply connected to my mother, to my grandparents and aunts who quilted. And this connection finds its way into the poems, for example, "Windows." Gardens and plants are everywhere in my poems. I tell my students that every thing around us, living or not so obviously living, is telling its story, and that we have to train ourselves to open up, learn to see and hear, this ongoing narrative. Teaching creative writing, as I sometimes do, is a more obvious source: I do all the prompts and exercises with my students, and these often lead me to poems. So the short answer (to which I always take the long path) is that everything supports me in my writing, everything feeds that awareness and process.

Have you ever tried to write fiction or plays? What is it about poetry, specifically, that makes it the way you tell stories?

I do have a couple of unfinished plays, which I started back in Houston as an undergraduate in Edward Albee's playwriting workshops. It's a medium I'd love to explore further. And I dabble in fiction and nonfiction. My dear friend Dan Jaffe, who's a great fiction writer, has encouraged me to write more essays, so I just pretend that I'm writing to Dan: it helps me stay "in voice." I love fiction, love reading it, and I'm happy to serve now as fiction editor of West Branch.

I would argue that poetry can do just about anything that fiction can do. Elements of scene, of narrative, of voice and dialogue, patterns of movement and character engagement -- all can be achieved in poems. A poem needn't have narrative to feel inviting to the reader, but, for me, it ought to provide a space in which the reader is both welcomed and challenged. There are probably many worthy exceptions to this rule, but I think that it pretty much covers the way I write poems, and the way I read them.

When I read your poems, I connected with them immediately -- recognized the truth in them, even though I hadn't experienced all the worlds you take your readers to. Would you talk about the challenge (and importance) of writing about difficult subjects -- loss, sexuality, and AIDS, for example? What kinds of responses have you had to your work?

I wrote many of the poems in Survivable World while my partner, David Wright, was dying. At first, I tried to write somehow against that inevitability, to imagine facets of how it would be: it was almost as if, by writing the event, I could "jinx" it from occurring, or somehow prepare myself. The poems felt so personal, so real, that I didn't know what to do with them: were they too solipsistic, too much mine, to be of any value to a reader? It was on the freeway in Houston one evening (the setting of the poem "Amateur Grief") that I finally realized: Loss is loss. We all carry it, and at any given moment, on the freeway, in the office, all around us, people are barely holding together: working the copy machine, driving the bus, welding steel, simultaneously here in the physical world and out of their minds with grief. My experiences as a gay man, as a caregiver and surviving partner to someone with AIDS, may be "different" from someone else's "world," but only in the most arbitrarily specific details. How does mourning a child killed by a sniper in Baghdad (or Arlington) really differ from the loss of a beloved partner? Human love, human grief: we all share these, and the difficult subjects must be written about.

I've been truly moved by responses to these poems: teachers have adopted The David Museum to teach in the classroom, and others have recommended it to friends who have experienced the loss of a loved one. My partner, Randy, mentioned to one of the tellers at our bank that I was a poet, and told her about Survivable World; it turns out she had lost her brother, and she bought a copy, and then all the bank tellers wanted copies! Here in this small town, where we were nervous about even applying for a joint checking account, we found overwhelming acceptance and connection. It's wonderful.

How did you find a publisher for your poetry? Did you submit individual poems and have them accepted, then put together a chapbook, and then later move to putting together a book? Or was it that orderly a process?

That's pretty much it. Whenever I end up with five or six new poems that I feel good about, I send them out to journals. It's just automatic now, and so separate from the making of the work that I do it with hope, but with no expectations. Once or twice a year I spend a week with all the poems: lay them out on a conference table and move them around, think about how they are connecting in terms of theme or image or narrative. These get grouped into possible books or chapbooks. For example, my third chapbook, Beneficence, is in two sections: all the poems in section one were written here in Lewisburg in June of 1994, when I was a fellow in the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets. And the section two poems were written during the fall of 2000, again at Bucknell, when I was a writer-in-residence. As I started thinking about these two batches of poems, I realized they were linked thematically as well, and the chapbook came together very quickly.

What is the difference, in your mind, between a chapbook and a book of poetry? How do you approach the two when you're putting your poems together for publication?

A chapbook is a book of poetry. It's like a one-act play, as opposed to a play in three acts: you get the voice, the situation, and a tight arc of narrative or juxtaposition, elements linking or playing off one another. The best chapbooks are complete, but leave you wanting to read more. I think the arc is important: there has to be some linking mechanism, some clear connection from one poem to the next. My least favorite chapbooks are the sort of "best of" collections that abandon that arc. (I'll probably get in trouble for that remark, but oh well.)

I don't really think of my chapbooks as "baby books" in the sense that they feel incomplete in any way. I have a lot of poems, published in journals and unpublished, that resonate with the themes in Beneficence, for instance, and it's possible that a full-length manuscript will come from that, but I won't necessarily feel compelled to include that chapbook in the larger work. The chapbook is a wonderful form, and I'm happy to see larger presses publishing them -- Tupelo and Sarabande, for instance. Parallel Press has a very nice series. I have three or four new chapbooks currently underway, and two full-length manuscripts: "The Boy Who Reads in the Trees" is nearly finished, but from that manuscript, there's a tight group of poems that felt like a chapbook, so I have been circulating that around. I love chapbooks, and last semester taught six of them in the poetry unit of my intro creative writing class: several from Maggie Anderson's terrific Wick Poetry Series, plus Betsy Sholl's wonderful Coastal Bop.

Mary Oliver and T.S. Eliot are particular influences on my poetry. Ms. Oliver because she loves the outdoors, and Mr. Eliot...well, I'm not sure I can explain what I like about his work. But when I'm in doubt, I re-read Four Quartets. What are some of your literary influences? What are you reading right now?

I continue to be very excited about contemporary poetry, though sometimes I read it like popcorn. For re-reading, I go back to Lowell, Bishop, Yeats most often. Neruda. If I could only save five or six books of contemporary poetry -- and I have a couple thousand in my apartment -- I'd grab Jack Gilbert's Monolithos, Mark Doty's My Alexandria, Larry Levis's Elegy, and hmm, all of Mary Ruefle, Louise Gluck, something by Gerald Stern -- oh hell, I'd die in the fire with my arms loaded down. There are some wonderful first books out there: I'm thinking of Deirdre O'Connor, Eliot Wilson, Paul Guest. On (and under) my bedside table right now: new books by Mark Wunderlich, Kevin Young, Ben Lerner, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Kimiko Hahn, Patrick Phillips, Peter Streckfus, Jason Schneiderman, Moira Egan.

What was a breakthrough moment that you've had as a writer?

Attending the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets in 1994. I was a "nontraditional" undergraduate, having returned to school in my early thirties to finish my B.A., and had been taking CW classes a couple of years in Houston with wonderful poets: Garret Hongo, Jill Rosser, Linda Gregg, Cynthia Macdonald. Working full-time and chipping away at my English degree. David was ill and, as it turned out, would only live one more year. I applied for the Seminar and got accepted, and then had to leave David alone for the whole month of June. But the June Seminar was an incredibly pivotal experience: I came back knowing that I could write, that it was worth nurturing and protecting.

How do you balance a life of writing, teaching and being an editor of a literary journal?

I don't. I careen, pretty much joyfully, from one to the other. When I'm not writing, I'm reading. I love teaching, hate grading: who doesn't? When I'm watching television or a movie, I'm also quilting. When none of it works, and if it's warm enough, I'm digging in the garden. It all feels part of the same big yummy pie. I generally go around feeling very lucky.

What are you working on now?

Coddling seedlings under lights in the attic: four o'clocks, violas, basils, and daylilies and miniature roses (!); midway through quilting a four-patch quilt and piecing a baby quilt for a friend; writing on three or four longer poems that will hopefully pull together "The Boy Who Reads in the Trees"; writing also some short personal essays that complement that manuscript -- I'm not sure yet what those are going to grow into; reading lots of fiction and poems for West Branch.

Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?

Don't confuse "being a poet" with the pure joy of patterning language into poetry. Keep writing about whatever moves you.

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Ron Mohring lives in central Pennsylvania, where he serves as Fiction Editor of West Branch. His poetry collection, Survivable World, won the 2003 Washington Prize and is available from The Word Works Press. Mohring's poems have appeared or will soon appear in The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Hanging Loose, Indiana Review, Florida Review, and many other journals and anthologies. His work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and he received the 2003 Oscar Wilde Award from Gival Press. Mohring has also published three prize-winning chapbooks of poetry.

You can keep up with Ron's latest news and musings at his blog site, "Supple Amounts."


Six poems online at Lodestar Quarterly (2004),

Between Them (2002) featured in Verse Daily.

Suddenly (2003) featured in Verse Daily.

Brief review of Survivable World (2005)

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