Cigarette Butts and Lilacs: Tokens of a Heritage
     —An Interview with Andrew Riutta by Jeanne Emrich

Andrew Riutta, whose life and art reflects his rural origins in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is the author of two collections of tanka,
The Pie in Pieces (2006) and the recently released Cigarette Butts and Lilacs: Tokens of a Heritage (2008) in which “the feel of a culture runs like soil through your fingers,” according to Larry Kimmel, editor of Winfred Press.
Andrew also is the editor of the new online journal, The Rusty Teakettle, at He currently resides in the small town of Suttons Bay near Traverse City, Michigan.

JE: You have said, “Most everyone knows that I lean toward very gritty poems, as they are a direct reflection of my day-to-day life.” Would you share with us a little of your personal history and how it has shaped your poetry? 

AR: Thank you. Yes, I was born and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is the least populated part of the state, as well as the most economically challenged. My grandmother migrated there from Finland when she was seventeen and eventually married my grandfather, who was also Finnish. He worked as a copper miner, until the mines shut down, at which point he became lumberjack. Other livelihoods in my family included tailoring and potato farming. And so, the working-class roots were there from the very beginning. Add to this the extremely small towns---each possessing more taverns than dental offices---and the bleak isolation of the surrounding landscapes, then divorce, and you get the perfect ingredients for a life seemingly lacking access to the upheld dreams of health, wealth and success. Don't get me wrong, there was always food on the table, but, if you'll pardon the clich
é, it was paid for with blood and sweat. This being the case, guts and grit, more than any sort of achievements, became the things growing boys sought, myself among them. It wasn't how good your grades were that left a mark but how hard you could hit. Then, in 1987, my mother married a Native American man---Odawa, to be exact---who was quite heavily involved in the spiritual traditions of his ancestors. His influence provided me with a perspective I'd never previously encountered, one that did not necessarily equate gentleness with being weak. It also introduced me to nature-based mythologies, which put those same bleak landscapes I had known into context. All of these things were tossed into the retort. Of course, the experiment is still in progress.

JE: When and how did you discover the Japanese short forms and, in particular, what attracted you to tanka?

In the early nineties, I was introduced by a friend to the works of poet and novelist, Jim Harrison. On that day, everything changed: I had my first real hero. Harrison, who was also from northern Michigan, managed to balance in his poems that same grit and natural beauty I had encountered in my own life. At that point, I tried to get my hands on all of his poetry books, many of which were out of print. Some time later, Harrison released a book of contemporary Zen poems titled After Ikkyū (Shambala Publications, Inc., 1996)). Naturally, I took it upon myself to investigate the origins of his wonderful poems, which led me to the Chinese Tang poets, and, eventually, to masters such as Bashō, Issa and Santōka. The brevity of these poems appealed to a part of me that believed there was too much emphasis placed upon "epic" notions of truth. For example, the immediacy of being, say, in the middle of a snowstorm, is undeniably "truth." I can attempt to interpret it in a dozen ways that serve my various appetites and desires, but that will not alter the fact that I am in the middle of a snowstorm. Haiku and tanka do not sidestep the truth of a moment so as to offer it more substance. The actual truth is the substance. And yet, this approach, when expanded upon, can lead to something quite sublime. Dan Gerber, another Michigan-born Zen poet, is a master at this expansion of truth and reality. Reading his wonderful poems, one definitely gets the feeling they have one foot bound to this world, the other, stepping freely toward some undefined landscape:


Some Distance (A Primer on Parallel Lives, Copper Canyon Press, 2007, used by permission from author)


I wanted to be a stone in the field,
simply that,
and then I wanted to be the grass around it,
and then the cattle grazing
under the too blue sky,
and then the blue,
which has of itself
no substance,
and yet goes on and on and on.


JE: Your verses appear to be organic in structure as opposed to following a 5/7/5/7/7 or s/l/s/l/l syllabification. Have you always preferred this approach or did you originally write with a greater focus on syllable count?

At no point did I ever follow 5-7-5-7-7, though I did attempt to commit many of my poems to s-l-s-l-l, as well as the traditional expectations of what a tanka should be. Many of these, however, lacked the authenticity I would have preferred. Of course, I continued in that vein, believing the poems would have better potential for publication. Cherry blossoms are a much more elegant subject matter than nicotine-stained fingers. Eventually, though, I began to feel disheartened by this hollow approach. I then realized that sticking to the standards mattered much less than maintaining elements directly related to my own life: poverty, drunkenness, divorce, and so on. And so, at the risk of looking like a rabble rouser, a fool, I simply wrote about what was at hand. There was also the understanding that, no matter how strictly I adhered to the perceived rules of the form, toes would be stepped on and people would walk away disappointed. And so, I guess I just figured, "what the hell?"

JE: You often express a sense of affinity with the haiku master, Kobayashi Issa.  In what ways has this poet influenced your haiku and tanka? 

AR: Yes, I named my only child after him. First of all, of course, I felt an immediate affinity with Issa's poverty. People who are very poor often lack the energy to maintain the usual pretenses. Issa is no exception. With Issa, you get that raw honesty, no matter how humiliating it might have been. Within that, there is enlightenment that doesn't strive to be enlightened, in my opinion, the best kind. Bashō is wonderful, but you feel that constant drive to be "something." With Issa, it's a little different. 

JE: In our correspondence over the years, you have mentioned the collection of short verses, Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser (Copper Canyon Press, 2003: Port Townsend, Washington).  What in this collection has appealed to you and how, if at all, has it influenced your own poetry?

AR: This is a marvelous little book, filled with poems that range from two lines to five---no more than six. The book itself, including the fact that readers are kept in the dark as to whether Harrison or Kooser authored the individual poems, is a statement against the heavy weight poetry champion belts that are held in such high regard in places like New York, London and Paris. It shuns the idea that accolades ought to be more revered than a simple but spirited drive toward raw life and all that it entails. Another bonus is that Kooser and Harrison are quite different, not only in their poetic approaches, but also in the way they experience their individual lives. Harrison's voracious appetites are a beautiful contrast to Kooser's quiet wisdom. Were I to be put in a situation where I could only have ten books, this would most certainly be one of them. 

JE: Apart from the above literary influences on your work, you appear to have evolved your own original voice. In fact, you interweave a sense of place (rural Mid-western America), family, home, work, and ongoing financial hardship so distinctively that your voice has become unmistak-able.  I am thinking of the following poems, just to name three of many, many defining verses:

It has less rust
and fewer dents
than our only vehicle,
that Pabst Blue Ribbon can
you found in the woods

Thirteen hours
of flipping burgers.
At home I find
my lawn chair’s cup holder,
full of snow

due by tomorrow.
all at once,
the wind

Assuming that your verses are largely autobiographical, do you feel your personal history and present circumstances largely define your voice?  Or is it your manner of speaking or your way of looking at life?  Could you tell us which of your poems most clearly represents your voice or is your signature tanka and tell us why?


AR: Certainly, because I now believe so strongly in authenticity, my poems are a direct reflection of my life. However, the poems I've come to be recognized by do not speak for me exclusively---for my totality. But, at some point, I realized that these stories needed to be told first, mostly because they represent my lowest chakras, so to speak, and perhaps there was an urge to poetically build myself from the ground up. Even the notion of "transcendence," in this case, is rooted in the mud. Also, I felt that tanka needed more voices that could find their potential for strength in weakness---that were willing to show their inherent strife and ignorance. This whole premise allowed me to take risks, to obey my own traditions. On the other hand, these days there is an urge to express those other aspects that comprise my being---those that are fortified in the knowledge that I am not wholly defined by my predicaments.


Signature poems can be deceiving because it's often difficult to ascertain if a poem is indeed a sound representation of its author or, rather, the idea readers have developed of who that author is. Such as it is, I feel more inclined to showcase a poem that is not in keeping with the image I've developed over these past few years, but, instead, something representative of some of my other layers:


Virginia Wolfe
put stones in her pockets
and sank into a river.
For months now,
I have kept my hands in mine.


Modern English Tanka, 2008


JE:  Your book, Cigarette Butts and Lilacs, is divided into two sections, “Gravity” and “Grace,” suggesting the gravity of dire hardship and the grace of a transcendent acceptance and moving beyond such circumstances.  Yet, even in your most despairing verses, you seem to find something to lift you.  I am thinking of your surprising twist out of thoughts of suicide in:

I’m sure this old rope’s
still strong enough for a noose . . .
and yet its frayed ends
lift in the wind
like bird plumage

And also your redeeming conjecture in:

Perhaps with some luck
and that angel
made from coat hangers,
we’ll live to tell
of just how we survived

These and so many of your verses suggest that there is grace just in the writing of the verses, whether in stating the bald facts of life or attaching to them a saving lyricism. Do you see your poetry, and tanka in particular, more as a form of personal meditation or as literary expression?

AR: Tanka is absolutely a matter of personal meditation. I think this truly takes shape once one has had even a small amount of success with the form. I seldom submit my tanka poems, mostly because there is so much satisfaction to be had in the act of composition and reflection. Over the years, I've learned that publication does not validate or solidify the poem or the moment the poem was attempting to depict. This approach also puts the brakes on the value of work-shopping. Poetry, unlike painting or sculpture, is not, at least for me, an aesthetic art. Its beauty lies in its rough edges, which are made rough by the realities of our experiences. Preening a poem to optimal symmetry and perfection is not where it's at for me. Poems of this sort, while revealing of craft, often lack honest character. In my opinion, this character is what makes a poem memorable. Thus, I allow myself to free fall into my poems. Maybe I'll die, maybe I won't.   
JE: You presently are exploring many different forms of writing.  How has your experience with the Japanese short forms influenced your working in such Western forms as free verse poetry and short stories?  Can you give us an example in one of your free verse poems?


AR:. What few writing abilities I may possess I owe to the Japanese short forms. These forms taught me the undeniable value of saying more with less. Why should "epic" pieces be such a grand achievement, which so often entail an abundance of excess? In my opinion, poetry is at its best when it doesn't boast its insights page after page after page. Poetry should beam us up into the heights at dangerous speeds, and then wind us back down to our own feet, hopefully sooner than later. This is a humbling adventure, as it should be. I once wrote "I'm the last person I'll ever know." And yet, there is something extraordinary in someone like Issa who, in noting the dirt on his own bare feet, perceives the swaying of grasses beyond that; and the fluttering of birds beyond that; and the drifting of clouds beyond that. In other words, I can only draw on those forces that exist outside myself when they are aligned with my awareness; otherwise, I'm only lunging at arbitrary shapes. All of this plays into my other writings as well. It's a delicate balancing act between meeting moments halfway and having the experience and patience to recognize which moments are worth noting. Both haiku and tanka have been indispensable in learning this. The following poem, titled "Lung Cancer," (Dunes Review, 2008---winner of the William J. Shaw memorial prize for poetry) is perhaps a good example of how the simplicity of what's at hand can be and is substantial enough to hold up the weight of big themes such as life and death:


Lung Cancer


Like always, the janitor sits for his break
with a cup of coffee, and I sit across from him.
I light a cigarette. It's Sunday morning,
and the two street sweepers outside
might as well be racing each other.
They can't keep up.
The janitor pours half and half into his cup
but doesn't stir it. It floats on top,
spiraling like a galaxy. I drink mine black.
He takes a sip and stretches.
He hasn't shaved in days. Neither have I.
He reaches into the pocket of his faded blue t-shirt.
Out of habit, I slide my Bic across the table.
He picks it up and spins the wheel,
making a few sparks but no flame.
He slides it back and then pulls out an inhaler.
I want to apologize, but don't because I know he understands.
We stare out the window for a minute in silence,
and then he tells me the fox got his chickens again.


JE: I understand that you keep a writing notebook, as do many poets.  Please describe this notebook and how you work with it. Do you mix forms in these writings?


AR: These days, my notebook is my laptop, which allows me to store everything in my email . . . just in case. And yet, some of my poems are still initiated on check stubs or envelopes, then worked out at a later time on my personal computer. The amount of information that can be stored on my computer is just too efficient to pass up. I still have boxes and boxes of journals and loose pages from previous years, all of which could easily fit in a single document on the laptop. And because I use a primitive program, devoid of a thesaurus and spell check, I don't feel too removed from the process.


JE: Do you intend to continue writing haiku and tanka?  If so, why?  What can they give you that the other forms cannot? 

AR: Recently, I've told a few close tanka friends that I may have begun my gradual getaway from tanka. I suppose one doesn't feel a full level of success as a writer until they've expanded into other forms, not to mention the more highly-regarded literary journals. But this can all be very deceiving. Artistic success is infinitely difficult to measure, and one should not stunt his or her growth as a writer trying to smoke cigars with the big boys, especially when those big boys have let you into the room only because they think you are only the janitor. I've been known to say that tanka is the perfect poetic form. Indeed: it pounds the nails into place with an efficiency our politicians should come to envy. Because of this, I'm quite certain I'll never stop writing it. But, ultimately, it is just another tool I reach for in my attempts to maintain this peculiar self.

JE: What is your next project?

AR: I have many projects in mind, though it is unlikely I will commit myself to any of them. I'm alright with this. Brainstorming is an essential component in any artist's life. Ideas are simply ideas. Some will come no closer to fruition than a paper airplane to the moon. Others, if I am lucky, might materialize in some small way. But, being a father and having to pay the bills inevitably sets the stage up with props that have little to do with poetry. Or, sometimes, maybe the poetry must be expressed in parenthood and domestic affairs. Self-actualization can and does come in many forms. Resistance to this is terribly "unpoetic."


Visit the Tanka Online Gallery and Bookstore to read Andrew's poetry and learn about his book, Cigarette Butts and Lilacs: Tokens of a Heritage .

Return to the Tanka Online Main Page.