Interview with Ruth Foley, Author of Dead Man’s Float

Ahead of the publication of Dead Man’s Float, author Ruth Foley talked to Sundress editorial intern Erica Hoffmeister. They discussed the ocean, grieving, and the order of the book, among other things.

Erica Hoffmeister: Did you set out to write poems about the ocean? Is that something inherent in your writer’s identity?

Ruth Foley: If anything, I try to avoid writing poems about the ocean. It doesn’t work. I grew up spending summers at my grandparents’ house on the south coast of Rhode Island, as much time as I could, anyway. My cousin Turquoise was there, and my brother, and the rest of my cousins—every summer, my grandparents would have us all there for a week. That time with my cousins built all sorts of aspects of my personality—from my sense of humor to my relationship with the water. In a long, agonizing process, we lost my grandmother, and the house, and Turquoise, among others, and the ocean stopped being a place of solace for me.

I have tried extremely hard to break up with the ocean, with that particular piece of the Atlantic, and I can’t do it. And with all of the writing I’ve done about the landscape there, I’m still not done, even though I also find myself writing poems about the woods and fresh water. I haven’t yet found a way through it all. Maybe I never will. Part of me thinks—maybe knows—that I could go to Wyoming and write in its vast expanse for the rest of my life and somehow the ocean would still be there.

EH: What is the relationship between this book and your chapbook, Dear Turquoise?

RF: Dear Turquoise tells a less-complete version of the story. I wrote the vast majority of the poems titled “Dear Turquoise” in a rush, during the last two months of her life—she had held off on telling me how serious her condition was, and I don’t know if I could have been prepared for her death anyway. She decided to stop treatment, and my brother and I made plans to see her in California in May, as soon as my classes had ended for the semester. We didn’t know if we’d get there in time, and I spent that April writing poems. I couldn’t stop writing poems for her, to her. In all that, I still haven’t written much about her—they’re all about me, essentially, and the process of me trying to wrap my mind around losing someone who was so entwined in my life that I knew I wouldn’t understand a world without her in it.

As I write this, seven and a half years after her death, I still don’t understand the world without her. I have reached the point where thoughts of her usually make me laugh (there will never be a funnier person on the planet than Turquoise Taylor Grant, I promise you) instead of cry, but something reminds me of her every day, no exaggeration. She lived long enough for my brother and me to spend a few days with her, and she was awake and engaged for most of that visit, but it was clear she had very little time left. She died a couple of weeks after we went home. I am endlessly grateful that we had that time, that Turquoise’s brother was also there, and that my brother went with me. The four of us have a lot of our childhood woven into each other, and it was a gift to have that time to be that quartet again.

The chapbook was really an exploration of my pre-grief, for lack of a better way to put it. It contains a handful of the “Dear Turquoise” poems, and it came out after her death, but it’s very much situated in the days before she died. It ends with “Dear Ocean” while Dead Man’s Float begins there, backs up a little bit, and then moves through. I put the chapbook together fairly soon after her death, when everything was still unmoored and surreal, and it sits in the unknowing a bit more than Dead Man’s Float does—though I couldn’t have put together the full-length collection without the chapbook. Dear Turquoise also taught me about how I wanted to present that larger experience, not just in terms of ordering the poems or creating a narrative line, but in the exploration of grief as a testament to love.

EH: Can you speak to the ordering of these poems, and what each section hopes to accomplish?

RF: There’s a narrative arc, certainly, though it’s very low-slung, I think; it starts in anticipation of grief and ends with only the tiniest lightening of it.

I came to the bulk of the order during a retreat in Connecticut with some of my dearest poet friends, who were all very patient with me both in the aftermath of Turquoise’s death and the following year, when I spread bits of the manuscript all over every surface of my room. I had printed out pretty much every poem I’d ever written and I brought this giant pile of paper with me in the hopes of sorting it all out. I knew I wanted about twenty of the “Dear Turquoise” poems but the rest of the book hadn’t revealed itself yet.

Most of the rooms at the retreat have both a double and a single bed, and I had poems fanned out and stacked up across both of the beds, the dresser, the desk, and parts of the floor. I had to be careful to keep the poems in order when I moved them off my bed every night, and in the morning I’d put them back where they had been. When I got home, my husband and I put one of the leaves into the dining room table and I color-coded the poems I had decided were contenders, making notes of themes and recurring motifs. When I ran out of colors in my pack of markers, I opened up a 64-count box of Crayolas. That’s how I finished the first cut of the work, which changed a bit in subsequent drafts, but not a lot. If I showed you the first cut and you compared it to this final version, you’d absolutely recognize it as the same collection.

All this to say it felt huge to me, the ordering process. It was important to me that I did the poems justice. I wanted them in an arc that would make sense in terms of the impact of her death, because of how important she was to me, but also because I was creating a monument to grief itself. I’ve known people who have given copies of Dear Turquoise to other grieving people—one of my friends gave her copy to a stranger on an airplane—in an attempt to let them know they weren’t alone. Grief is monumental. I wanted a through-line that reflected and honored that.

The poems in the second section have changed and grown by the way they’re included here, in my mind at least. The infidelity poems were originally born of my fascination with the ways in which people can be terrible to each other, but here they are an examination of a different kind of loss and hopelessness than the poems in the other two sections—the speaker in these poems moves fairly quickly from one sort of abandonment to another, finding no real comfort or ease. The speaker in these poems isn’t Turquoise or me, but in order to use them in this way, I had to come to terms with the idea that readers might see her as one of us. I don’t think she would have minded. Section three is the path to the very faint beginnings of hope, of the life we leave when we’re deep in grief, one we might feel like we can never get back to.
 
In the simplest terms, section one is about the anticipation of grief and the early stages. Section two explores a very different kind of betrayal and abandonment and the total emptiness of that sort of false promise. Section three is where we begin to claw our way out.

EH: What is the meaning between the use of first or second person, and why does it change throughout the book? Is there a certain emotion or connection that leads you to this decision with each poem, or was/is it strictly intuitive?

RF: Generally, if I’m using the second person in a poem, it’s because of direct address. The “Dear Turquoise” poems are very much addressed to Turquoise, and so are some of the other poems. Many of the “you”s in the infidelity poems are addressed to the specific male character involved. Other times, the second person is meant to reflect the way we speak to ourselves when we’re giving ourselves a pep talk or maybe if we’re unhappy with our decisions or actions (or maybe that’s just me doing that!). “One More for Your Baby” and “The Rules” are both examples of that kind of voice. I rarely if ever use “you” to mean “people in general,” and while “I” is often literally me, sometimes it’s just the speaker.

As with formal decisions, I try to let the poem tell me what it wants to be. Any choice of person (third person, too) can help create closeness or distance, but the level of distance doesn’t hang exclusively on that one choice. In any poem, success in creating the desired response in a reader is a combination of many of these kinds of decisions—diction, syntax, line breaks, rhythm, verb tense, and any number of other aspects of language.

EH: What is the meaning behind the title, Dead Man’s Float?

RF: Learning the dead man’s float was part of learning to swim when I was a kid. It means lying face down in the water and relaxing, despite the fact that it’s impossible to breathe. The dead man’s float requires loose muscles: if you’re going to try one, you need to let your arms and legs do what they will, which for most people means something halfway between sinking and floating. It’s about giving in and finding stasis—that place which is neither swimming nor drowning nor simply standing up and walking out of the water. It only works for a brief time before the need to breathe takes over.

For me, Turquoise’s death felt a lot like doing the dead man’s float, but it also was about not being able to do it—I wanted a moment to rest, and a moment where I was able to simply let things be, while simultaneously being desperate to come up for air or, really, control anything at all. It was all the terrifying aspects of floating combined with all the helpless aspects of sinking, and I lived in that in-between for a long time.

EH: There are several poems that begin with a salutation. How did you decide what parts of the earth or of experience to address specific poems to?

RF: They’re deliberately epistolary poems, and they started with the “Dear Turquoise” poems. Turquoise and I grew up in the days of long-distance charges, long before the internet, so even though she lived only about 45 minutes from me, we couldn’t usually talk to each other unless we were in the same place (or arranging a visit). We wrote letters, countless letters. They were filled with jokes and stories and drawings and benign lies. Once we had cell phones and the internet, we moved to texts and emails. She told me about her diagnosis over Facebook messenger. We had long since stopped using an epistolary form of address, but when the poems started coming, there was never a question of how I was going to title them. In many ways, I didn’t title them.

The first poem I drafted, the one that opens, “Not with everything I do,” titled itself and the rest followed. What would I tell Turquoise if I weren’t worried about upsetting her, if I didn’t want to impose my grief on her dying process? I wrote those letters. I never showed her.

The other epistolary poems come from those same roots, in that I was desperate to establish connections and understanding in a world that no longer felt like my own. I wrote very few poems in the year or so after Turquoise died, and those I did write felt extruded as if the words were forced through my teeth under immense pressure. And I suppose they were. I did find I was able to revise, sometimes, and when I knew I was putting together a manuscript for her, I revised towards that impulse of seeking connection and communication. I was trying to break up with the ocean, as I say above, but I needed something to take its place, something that would speak to me the way the Atlantic does.

EH: Do you consider these poems elegiac?

RF: I couldn’t go to Turquoise’s funeral for a variety of reasons. Friends and relatives wrote pieces for her—elegies, eulogies, stories of shared love—and I couldn’t. I couldn’t do her justice or do my feelings for her justice, and I couldn’t bear the thought of struggling to do so publicly. Even if all other obstacles had been erased, I don’t know if I would have been able to go. I needed time to come to an understanding of what the rest of my life was going to look like without her. It was selfish of me, but it felt like survival, and at that level everything we do is selfish. The poems aren’t elegies in the sense that they’re much more about me than about her, but she was three years older than I was; not only could I not remember a life before her, there literally was no life for me before her. I suppose they’re elegies to the places in me where she once lived, which are forever changed because of her absence.

EH: Poetry is often felt as a healing tool for both reader and writer – how much was this true for you in this process?

RF: My initial impulse is to say, “Not at all,” but that’s not exactly true. For one thing, I firmly believe grief needs to be experienced. It’s not healthy for me to pretend I don’t have the feelings I do, so I’m not going to just suck it up and push forward. I have to live through it, and I often don’t feel like I’ve processed a major event until I’ve written about it. It’s possible they were healing for me in that way, though it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. The most important thing the poems did for me, though, was allow me to focus on Turquoise when I went to see her shortly before she died. I wasn’t distracted by things I wanted to say, because I had said many of them in the poems. It helped me to focus on my love for her instead of my grief, which freed me to take those last few days with her almost entirely on their own terms, without dwelling on what was soon to come.

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Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her work appears in numerous web and print journals, including Adroit, Sou’wester, Threepenny Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Her poems can also be found in several anthologies, including the Best Indie Lit New England anthology. She is the author of the chapbooks Sink and Drift, Creature Feature, and Dear Turquoise, and the forthcoming full-length Abandon.

Erica Hoffmeister holds an MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry from Chapman University, and teaches college writing across the Denver Metro area. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). She’s obsessed with pop culture, cross country road trips, and her two daughters, Scout and Lux.

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