Death is Actually Very Funny: A Last Conversation with Max Ritvo
The Late Poet in Correspondence with Justin Boening
Max Ritvo and I first met at the 92Y, in May 2014. He generously approached me after the Discovery Prize reading I’d given to share how much he appreciated my poems. I remember him proclaiming something to the tune of, “Most poetry readings are just awful, but not yours! I’d pay good money to hear you read those poems.” I smiled and shook his hand, bashful about the compliments, assuming the praise was overstated. Not even a year later, Ritvo and I again found ourselves in a similar situation. This time, I was sitting in an overcrowded theatre at the Poetry Society of America’s Chapbook Fellowship reading, and Ritvo, who Jean Valentine had selected for a fellowship that year, was casting the spell on me. Since that reading, we’ve stayed in touch, but have never had a prolonged and in-depth conversation until now.
Ritvo was born in Los Angeles on December 19th, 1990, in St. John’s Hospital. In October of 2007, at 16, he was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare, often lethal stem cell cancer. Ritvo spent the following year enduring a brutal round of therapy—chemo, radio, and surgical—until, in May 2008, he was declared No Evidence of Disease. Then, in his senior year of college, the cancer returned. Recurrent Ewing’s sarcoma has a five-year survival rate of less than ten percent. The cancer was considered terminal when we corresponded, and Ritvo has since succumbed to the disease. He died in the morning on Tuesday, August 23rd.
Ritvo’s debut collection, Four Reincarnations, which is slated for publication in September with Milkweed Editions, is whimsical but never frivolous, wise but never overly proud of that fact. It heroically replaces grief with ecstasy, anger with humor, patience with the profane. And the effect is a kind of delirious, comic elegy for the self that is as edifying as it is unforgettable. It’s easily one of the nimblest and most ambitious debuts I’ve read.
What follows is an email correspondence that took place over two weeks, while I was driving from Denver to New York City in a van and Max was moving his treatment from Los Angeles to New York. Many of our volleys were drafted on-the-go, on our phones. Since we didn’t have enough time, we made what time we had count.
Justin Boening: Dying is hilarious, but why?
Max Ritvo: Well, first of all there’s the physical comedy aspect. When you die, first you go floppier than you’ve ever been, and then you rigor mortize into an inhumanly rigid little capsule. Your mouth flaps open and your eyes roll up in a very goofy way. You turn blue like Violet Beauregarde in the Willy Wonka movie.
Then your loved ones put you in a box with no TV, no snacks—just you in a box like you’re a packaged-up Buzz Lightyear toy. Then worms eat you. You’re a human, the biggest baddest apex predator and then you get eaten by worms, which you use as bait to catch the animals you actually want to murder. (Unless you’re a vegetarian, in which case, good job, but still, worms eat you, which is ironic.) Then you’re a skeleton, and skeletons are funny looking. They always smile and their eyes, or eye-holes as it were, are huge like anime eyes. Unless you’re cremated, and then you’re literally turned into protein powder. Which I’d argue is even funnier.
Death is also hilarious because uncomfortably long silences are hilarious. Andy Kaufman, Tim Heidecker, there are genius comedians whose entire careers are built on uncomfortable silences that resolve in underwhelming utterances. And death is the longest and most uncomfortable silence in existence. And it resolves in the most underwhelming utterance—even more silence. And the dying person imposes it on every single person they’ve ever known. Your loved ones think about dead you even when you’re not around—they think about you for decades, for their whole lives if you loved them enough. Death gives you an audience for your uncomfortable silence that has no geographic or temporal constraint. It gives you a forever stage (at least until your audience goes extinct.)
Finally, there’s the simple fact of how silly death makes life look. You have all these aspirations, and dreams, and desires, but ultimately they’re completely illusory, because all success is impermanent because you die. You’re like Don Quixote, in a way, fantasizing that you’ll be happy or that you’ll find love. Because even when you temporarily realize those fantasies, death takes them away. Would you buy a watch if you knew ten minutes later it was going to crack in half? Everything you own, everything you feel, takes place over a ridiculously tiny time span. Trump and a vagrant spend maybe fifty to a hundred years living drastically different lives, and then they spend an eternity being silly looking skeletons after bloating blue and getting eaten by tiny, really dumb worms. I mean, what’s funnier than realizing poetry, love, language, power, are all just windmills you’re tilting at? It’s like Death turns Life into the ultimate Prank played on you by your body.
JB: There are few things that throw me into uproarious existential crisis like waiting for an anxious Jew to sing the chorus to the Mighty Mouse theme song. And poetry, of course, is filled with so many opportunities for such silences. There are the pauses predetermined by natural syntax, line endings, poem endings; in a book like yours, Four Reincarnations, there are section endings; and as always there’s the ending of the book itself. I wonder what relationship you see, if any, between humor and fear or humor and sadness?
MR: Ah yes! Is humor The Shield? The Defense? The sugar that helps the medicine go down? NO NO NO! My wife bursts out laughing a lot in therapy when she discloses the abjectly horrible medical stuff I endure and equally horrifying psychological stuff she endures. Her therapist once asked her Why do you laugh when you speak of such horrible things? I told my wife her therapist is a goy.
Humor makes sadness more vivid, more memorable, and deepens our understanding of the sadness. The same with fear. Anything that inspires fear or sadness has a dimension of humor built into it. I don’t think you can ever introduce humor into fear, or introduce humor into sadness. All you do is illuminate what was always there. Sometimes chemotherapy does such a number on my GI tract that I poo and vomit into the toilet at once, my head between my knees. This is intrinsically very funny—it takes no mental gymnastics on my part to make it so.
Anything that moves you to tears or screams is so impossibly big and so impossibly small. Which is funny. We’re all gonna die but our whole world, for the moment we are scared or sad, is that silly fear, or silly sorrow. Worrying about death is the silliest sorrow of all—you’re taking away time from life and lavishing it upon the enemy!
The physical appearance and psychological and philosophical immaturity of the panicked or grieving person is also hilarious. When I have a panic attack I look like a grouper pulled out of water. And I believe that, no doubt about it, I’m going to be stuck like this forever. This is my new mental state. My new look. Forever. Which is so dumb and so funny. It’s like when parents tell kids that their faces will freeze in a grimace when they make a funny face. And kids believe them. But I’m doing this to myself.
And you don’t make jokes because they distract you from the more negative aspects of your fear or sadness. Making a sad thing funny makes it a little pleasurable. Which means you’re more likely to think about that sad thing again. People love calling pleasurable thoughts to mind, and we so very often try to forget unpleasurable things. (Jewish ruminants—such as the writer—excepted.) Humor isn’t a shield, a repellant, it’s almost a mnemonic device. It makes our sadness rhyme with joy, and that makes it a catchy jingle. Which’ll pop into our minds much more often.
If I may be briefly High Falutin’, I think we seek out humor because we like completeness. Truth, even. Sadness is completed by humor, not diffused or obscured by it. Humor is skeptical. And skepticism is not cynicism. The skeptic, in the tradition going back to the Sophists, does not seek to take down the argument of the other, but to flesh it out with questions. He or she seeks to love on an idea with problems and “what-ifs” until the idea germinates and flowers into all it can possibly be. It might take the thought and make it a reductio ad absurdum. But it might take the thought and make it into a complete and thriving philosophical ecosystem. Chips fall where they may, the skeptic wonders. Humor wonders about the light underbelly of the dark dark monster. And it lets the light that’s there shine.
JB: When I lived in western Montana, I spent as much time as I could in the mountains—sleeping on exposed rock ledges, shivering in bad weather, testing my technical and psychological limits—basically in one form or another suffering. My climbing partner and I recited a mantra when things turned particularly grim: It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun, we’d laugh to one another. I never saw myself, even in hindsight, as uniquely masochistic. People are, to varying degrees, drawn to challenge, to difficulty. And, in fact, I suspect many of the parts of me that were drawn toward the kind of “pleasure” I sought in the mountains were the same parts that value art. I mean, poetry is a world that continues to use the word accessible as a barb. How would you characterize the relationship between entertainment and art?
MR: You know Justin, the short answer is I’ve had a very hard life, and I think everyone, me included, deserves a break. I want my writing to heal people. And not like chemotherapy, but like a good veggie soup. Poetry must entertain if it is to heal.
Before I got sick I was a martial artist, and I really loved feeling the burn and working my body to a point of near exhaustion. And there’s no doubt that when you push yourself to be uncomfortable, you end up seeing things you wouldn’t otherwise see, feeling things you wouldn’t otherwise feel, thinking things you wouldn’t otherwise think. And I’m really glad I’ve acquired some of the tastes I’ve acquired. That required me to push through discomfort. I am glad I built up a spicy food tolerance. I can now taste things I couldn’t before. Experience new ecstasies. And in order to get there I had to subject myself to some pain.
But there’s a difference between subjecting yourself to this kind of experience—martial arts, mountain climbing, spicy food, good poetry, and another kind of experience where a reward only becomes manifest after the fact. My first bite of Vindaloo made me feel like my head was going to explode, but I could sense some fascinating and delicious things happening through that pain. I was, in a sense, entertained. The Vindaloo was, in a sense, accessible—it gave me access to new vistas so bright I couldn’t yet look at them head on.
I think a lot of writers have lost track of the fact that without pleasure, there is no reason to read on. They imagine an art that is brutal, unforgiving, and pious. They imagine that at first you will hate their art and be confused by it. But that one day, after you’ve torn through a thousand Google searches of the obscure people, places, and treatises they reference, and spent hours rereading the poem to decode messages hidden in the prosody, you will go Aha! Now I can appreciate this!
I say to these writers, you really want, at the end of the day, to be appreciated? You’ve turned poetry into the worst kind of classroom exercise. You treat readers like students who must plug away at your work with no sense of joy. Just with a sense of duty. A sense of duty to the political messages in your work (which, by the way, are much more convincingly elucidated by brilliant critics.) A sense of duty to your big fancy pants smart poet brain that is just so smart we have to devote ourselves to understanding you. The best your reader can hope for is, that after much struggle, he or she becomes part of an elite that appreciates your obscurantist poetry.
You (I’m now addressing you reading, not the silly mean old obscurantist poet) owe me nothing as a reader. I owe you everything. If I want to teach you what I have to teach you, it is my duty to make you feel the respect that one human being affords another. I have to treat you like a person. To do this, I have to put myself in your shoes. And if I were in your shoes, I’d want to be entertained. We turn to art and to people because they make us happy. The miracle is that even when they make us sad, they make us happy.
These convictions are compatible with any political persuasion, and encompass any message an artist wishes to promote. And it is an artist’s right to promote any message they wish. I’d remind the most difficult and inaccessible poet that they have friends. I’m sure of that. And they are able to discuss what they need to discuss with their friends in language that is inviting and clear and even loving. And they make new friends outside of their circles, whom they introduce to their intellectual points of reference in a manner that is clear and compassionate. That recognizes the humanity of their new friend. They might even, as they speak, tell a joke. Which might even make them understand their own opinions in a new light.Poetry is a game of compassion, and if you give people fun, their hearts will open to you.
I don’t think there is anything more artful than making complicated things easy to understand. My father is a genius at taking Freudian arcana and complicated microbiological concepts and turning them into metaphors about crankshafts and gearboxes, or pizzas and ovens. He makes these difficult things simple without ever compromising them. The effect is massively entertaining.
But at the end of the day, the message you pick as an artist is only your secondary responsibility. Philosophy takes better care of pure thoughts than poetry ever can. So does criticism. What poets do that philosophers cannot is let our readers experience manners of thinking that they would not have access to on their own. The way leaps and transfusions and associations lead a mind from thought to thought. And then, once a reader has experienced a poem’s manner of thinking, the reader can use that manner of thinking in their own head, with their own thoughts, whenever they want. When I read your poems in Not on the Last Day, But on the Very Last, Justin, I get the sensation that I’m making eye contact with someone else a thousand feet away, and we’re both using x-ray sniper scopes that let us see one another’s optic nerves. I hope that I can one day produce that sensation in language myself. Our primary job as poets is to make people more creative, to make them better thinkers, much more than give them any specific set of thoughts.
And good luck convincing anyone, obscurantist poet, to try out your brain if it seems like a hostile place. Poetry is a game of compassion, and if you give people fun, their hearts will open to you.
But maybe it’s a whole lot simpler than all of this. I like making people smile. So shoot me.
My mother often justifies many of my excesses by saying, “But Max, you are a poet!” This somehow comforts me, every time.
Why poetry, and no other art?
JB: For a while, I believed that maybe I became a poet because I was never meant to be one, that becoming a poet was some courageous (and foolish) act of defiance against my fate—or at least my predispositions. I was always a terrible speller (still am); in fact, my youngest brother, six years younger than I was, could often spell words I couldn’t, like ambulance and chocolate, (and my mother loved rubbing my nose in that fact). Frankly, after memorizing Go, Dog. Go!, I didn’t even like to read. My sophomore year of high school—I was so bored by the literature that I stopped going altogether and failed the class (thank god).
All that changed though the following year, when I read Lyrical Ballads, which seemed at the time to be so strange, ambitious, challenging, and uncertain. Sure, we were asked to read the poems in the context of political unrest, their reaction to the Enlightenment, but the poems to me so clearly spoke (or attempted to speak) to something beyond that moment, beyond even themselves—I’d not felt that kind of desperate reaching since whispering to God at night with my hands clasped and my elbows digging into my smurf pillow.
Karen Volkman wrote somewhere in her first book, Crash’s Law, (and I could be misquoting this), “Believing in distance, one learns to dance.” Now, there’s no way I’m learning to dance: I’m built like a bison—97 percent of my mass is on top. It’s a miracle I don’t topple over going from place to place. But I do believe in distance. And a belief in distance requires, for me at least, an attempt to span that distance, no matter how futile I understand those attempts to be. I often wonder, though, if it’s not language itself, or at least language as we use it—being a system that generates categories, highlights differences, creates so-called meaning—that forces us to feel that distance (from this place, from each other, from one red berry to another red berry, from ourselves). And if that’s true, wouldn’t it be the ultimate artistic act, the most essential measure of subversion and resistance, to take that material, the material that we build and use together, and employ it towards other, opposing ends?
In his A Defense of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley says, “Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitude of things.” Maybe, if it’s language, as we use it every day, that fills us with that sense of distance, maybe too it can be poetic language, or more precisely metaphorical language, that might allow us to feel closeness, intimacy, love.
There’s also something to be said for poetry’s inbuilt wisdom when it comes to matters of mortality. I mean, as I mentioned before, no art ends as much as poetry does—line endings, clause, phrase, and sentence endings, stanza endings, section endings, page endings, poem endings, book endings… And for so long, poetry has sought to limn those endings with sonic devices such as rhyme. Plus, poems, like life, are often shockingly short. I guess there’s just nothing more quintessentially human to me than the confrontation with one’s own comically impending doom. Of course, poetry’s preoccupation with finality isn’t wholly separate from its relationship to distance…
MR: Too true about endings in poetry. All these closures are made a bit silly by the way everything is opened up again a page later. It’s kind of art living at a microbe’s pace, or at most a shrew’s, but not ever a person’s, like a novel, or a crocodile’s, like a sculpture.
I’d like to ask you to connect the dots between endings and distance. But I first must ask—when we say language is a distancing act, (and we say it all the time) what do we mean? When we made language to communicate? To help us understand the other, and feel confident that this hunt I’m bringing the torch and you’re bringing the rocks, and that yes, indeed, our love-making is definitely consensual?
And if this language distance is about what goes on inside our own heads—do you, Justin, have access to thoughts with no language in them at all? Like sustained thoughts longer than a flash? I’m not sure I do. If you do, may I ask of you the impossible—would you describe such thoughts in language?
JB: Well, as to what we mean when we call language a distancing act, I can’t say for sure. I can only assume that we’re referring to those aspects of language that “respect the differences,” that silo off one table from the floor it stands on, one stem of lupine from a second stem in a field of lupine; any being, for that matter, from another. And although I sense language sifting, separating in this way, when I say there’s an inherent distance in language, I mean more a distance from its own fountain, own origin, own source.
Bear with me.
To some extent there’s a Heraclitus effect going on here: “You can’t put your foot in the same river twice.” The idea being, as I’m sure you know, that everything, even those objects that feel immutable to us—like a river or a word—is in a state of constant flux. In the case of language, though, a word doesn’t merely change with use; it diminishes, it loses its force. In fact, when a word gets applied so often it’s been sapped of nearly all its power to mean, we poets have a dirty name for that condition—we call it cliché.
Emerson said, “every word was once a poem,” and I believe him. Because poetic language, which isn’t outside of language but a necessary and most vital part of it, tethers the plentiful doodads of this world together by imagining “the similitude of things.” After all, words, when you trace their histories, originate not in distinctions but out of likenesses. So, yes, language is invented (not was) to bring us together, and it does (at first). But it requires poetry, too, to resuscitate tired language before it expires. I guess the connection then between finality and distance is that whether you’re approaching the end of a line, stanza, or poem, or you’re forced to employ fatigued language at a time when you need the fresh stuff, you’re left with an overwhelming sense of belatedness, inadequacy, failure—or at least I am.
When Milkweed asked me why I wrote poems, my answer was: “distance from god.” I suppose, at the time, that I meant it a little tongue in cheek (ok, maybe a lot). But in hindsight, it’s probably the best answer I could have given. I don’t have any prolonged thoughts that avoid the use of language. Does anyone?
Sure, I imagine, I dream. Does that count? But I think your ultimate question names well (doesn’t it?) what this whole business of writing poems is: to use language, deficient as it is, to transcend language, to reach in earnest for something you know is beyond your reach. So how does one use language to evoke the ineffable? That’s what poetry is for, right? Or at least one of its uses. (Though it’s never fully up to the task).
In the end, Max, to respond to your first point, I think you’re absolutely right: part of poetry’s relationship to finality must certainly include its many plots against finality. The line ends and another begins right after it, no tears shed (most of the time). And yet, even as we’re delighted by poetry’s knack for revitalizing itself, no line continues indefinitely, there is no unending poem. That poems begin and cease and then again begin, however, feels to me to be a record of, maybe even a celebration of, our will—the living—to continue even in the face of discontinuity.
Justin Boening is the author of Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last, which won the 2015 National Poetry Series, and is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions (September 2016), and a chapbook, Self-Portrait as Missing Person, which was awarded a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. He’s a co-founding editor of Horsethief Books.
Max Ritvo (1990-2016) wrote Four Reincarnations in New York and Los Angeles at the end of a long battle with cancer. He is also the author of AEONS, selected for a 2014 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. His poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, and Los Angeles Review of Books.