Madness, Rack, and Drew Barrymore
“For there is so little time to waste during a life, what little there is being so precious, that we must waste it, in whatever way we come to waste it, with all our heart.”
–Mary Ruefle, “Madness, Rack, and Honey”
Upon receiving the task of tracking down Mary Ruefle, the reclusive poet extraordinaire and part-time denizen of Bennington, Vermont, the first thing I did, naturally, was call my mother. “Don’t you remember how weird you thought the movie My Date with Drew was?” she reminded me. “You were so young and you still complained about it.” She wasn’t wrong. I hated My Date with Drew. A man nurses a crush on Drew Barrymore for twenty-plus years and then documents his borderline stalker-ish attempts to bring his crush to fruition? Isn’t this just a way to guilt-trip a celebrity into accepting a date with someone they’ve never heard of?
“It’s just gross,” I told my mother.
One of the reasons I hated that movie so much was that, even though I knew it had to end with a date, I was frustrated by my own limits as an audience member and an obscure college student who grew up in a small town in California. Why didthis guy get to hang out with Drew Barrymore and not me? How did he know she even wanted to hang out? My naivete about male entitlement aside, I also knew that, even if I’d wanted to, I had no chance of getting into contact with Drew Barrymore. So when I received my assignment to try and find Mary Ruefle for my Literary Bennington class, I was, to be honest, a little offended.
How was I supposed to Mary Ruefle? Go door to door, one friend said. I wasn’t entirely thrilled. Have you looked online? a not-friend advised me. As a preliminary step, I went to Mary Ruefle’s website, looking for an email address to which I could send an endearing yet pointed request asking her to maybe pass a few minute’s time with me over the phone or, God forbid, at a coffee shop in our charming Vermont town. However, when I made my way to the contact page, I was immediately accosted by the glow of golden text on a stark black background.
Surprise! I do not actually own a computer. The only way to contact me is by contacting my press, Wave Books, or by running into someone I know personally on the street.
Next to this is a charming and yet ultimately oppressive graphic of an empty birdbath, decorated with a sign that reads The Unknown. Classic poet move.
A moment for some background. This assignment was given to me for several reasons. First, I thoroughly respect and admire Mary Ruefle as a poet and a writer of the sentimental beauties of life in both small and large-scale forms through the lens of poetry. So it made sense for me to try and schedule an interview with her. Second, she’s a local. She graduated from Bennington in 1974 and was on the faculty from 1979 to 1986 (she also taught again for a semester in 1988), and she still has a house in town. Third, and arguably the most substantial, one of my friends met a girl over the summer who told my friend that she had tried to contact Mary Ruefle via email upon moving to Vermont (she had emailed all the Vermont-based poets she could), but Ruefle had responded coldly with a message saying that she had no interest in fostering a relationship.
Could I be the exception? Would Mary Ruefle find my appeal more charming than all the others and invite me in to sit and talk Sappho for a while?
The eccentric-slap that is her website was not the end of the search. My next step was not to follow the advice of my friend and go door-to-door with one of her collections nestled under my arm, maybe Trances of the Blast, and ask Ruefle to talk about her poem regarding tadpoles. I’ll freely admit that I already harbor anxious notions of how to interact with revered artists – a fear of how to somehow make conversation with a writer who I feel I know intimately without ever having met. Celebrities are just people, you know, a coworker said to me over the summer as we supervised a local storytelling festival, his reflective security vest flapping in the wind, not realizing how completely absurd he sounded. Just tell them you think that they’re awesome.
Just a few days later, I was in a meeting with a professor who happened to have eaten dinner with Mary Ruefle “just the other night.” She forwarded me Ruefle’s contact information, along with a general warning that Ruefle rarely uses email and hates using it, so I was better off trying a phone call or snail mail. The home address was attached. There was also a phone number with an area code I had literally never seen before. Afterwards I realized that I had driven by Ruefle’s house numerous times without realizing it. Scene: Mary Ruefle sitting casually in the living room of a limp-lit colonial home, no computer or blinking wifi modem anywhere, studying a monograph about birds. No music is playing and the room is perfectly silent until her phone rings. She lifts her head up from a passage about lyrebirds, listens to the phone ringing again, then resumes her reading.
I couldn’t bring myself to call her like that. It was clear that if I wanted my non-date with Mary, I would have to write her a letter.
Later, as I was preparing the letter in my head, I mentioned my search to another student in passing. She laughed, and told me that her Intro to Video class had been given an assignment to write Mary Ruefle a letter. The whole class. And Mary Ruefle hadn’t responded to a single one. I felt like my situation was an alternate reality of My Date with Drew, one in which Drew Barrymore, off-camera, tells director Brian Herzlinger that he’s being oppressive and weird and that he should no longer continue to film his attempts at winning her heart, i.e. You’re wasting your time.
This offense – wasting one’s own or somebody else’s time – suddenly struck a chord. I thought of Ruefle’s own words in one of her lectures, “Madness, Rack, and Honey.” She writes that “we must waste [time], in whatever way we come to waste it, with all our heart.” If poetry is the beautiful subject of her wasted time, shouldn’t I be granted that same level of respect for my assignment? If nobody’s been able to get into contact with Mary Ruefle, isn’t this blog post and any future attempts at winning her attention just a waste of my time?
If so, I’ll follow the advice of the lecture and waste my time with the same level of heart that Ruefle argues should be applied to poetry, the ultimate (and also a personal favorite) way of wasting it. The strange euphoria I felt at the moment was a lot like inspiration – I really did want to talk with Mary Ruefle and interview her for this blog.
I am writing Ruefle a letter. Once I’m finished, I’ll send it to her address in Bennington and wait. I can only hope that she’ll return it. Scene: me, in my room, Ruby Red Grapefruit Polar seltzer in hand, staring expressionless at the envelope with “Return to Sender” scrawled in her reclusive poet’s hand. If she has no interest in being interviewed or fostering a relationship between us, I would have no choice but to accept that.
by Kevin Costello ‘17