The Porous Fabric Between Life and Death: Sarah Ruhl Interviewed by Elizabeth Metzger

The playwright on exchanging letters with the late poet Max Ritvo.

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Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship (Milkweed Editions) is a sublime journey shared by two brilliant minds—poet Max Ritvo, who died of cancer in 2016, and Sarah Ruhl, award-winning playwright and one of Max’s closest friends and mentors. They met in Sarah’s playwriting class at Yale, and their friendship evolved as they wrote each other letters from different cities, even from opposite coasts. Given the urgency and pressurized time of Max’s illness and treatments, it is stunning to see that these letters offer so much peace. They read like guided meditations, lived hymns, the good voices we seek within our own heads. Max and Sarah’s mutual reflectiveness, tenderness, curiosity, and humor create the subtle sense of a sustained meeting—a single encounter of spirits that on some level transcends both place and time. The last section title captures this contradiction, which is at the heart of so much of the best mortal love and friendship: “Then: Everywhere. Time Unimportant.” In the same way that time becomes unimportant and everywhere, throughout Max and Sarah’s relationship the borders between art and life, writer and reader, email and poem, learning and teaching, life and death, blur. The overlaps become more vital than the distinctions.

—Elizabeth Metzger 

Elizabeth MetzgerIt is always an honor to interview a writer but to have this conversation feels twofold holy to me—first because I feel excited to email with one of Max’s dearest as he was one of mine, but also because this is a book in large part composed over email! I remember wondering at some point in my early adolescence, what would happen to letters—would the art of letter writing be lost to us? Letters from Max seems to me one of the first collections of letters I’ve encountered by two great artists via email, not to mention co-written by an artist who grew up in a post-letter age. How did your unique relationship to the medium impact the exchanges?

Sarah RuhlI too have wondered about the death of letters once e-mail arrived, and in the age of twitter and texting, missives seemed to be dwindling even more, foreshortened, flying through the air with likes and dislikes and opinions but not much room for reflection. And I do think part of the joy of physical letters is the time taken for the letter to get there—over the sea, on land, in air—the waiting for the letter, and in the waiting, one’s view of experience shifts. The tincture of time affects the nature of the reflection. Max and I didn’t have that added context for long form meditative writing to a friend. But Max had in his nature and in his bones a reflective searching spirit and sustained attention that wasn’t really part of the digital age. And yet Max was clearly born at a time when immediacy of thought had primacy—and he could text and tweet with the best of them. 

He was unusual in that respect—truly an extroverted poet, I think. He could use social media and reveled in doing readings, but he could also write long 19th century letters that seemed as though written by candlelight on a whaling ship. Sometimes we would wait to answer particular letters about difficult subjects. In fact, I think Max waited a whole year to write me back a letter I’d sent him about my view of the afterlife. So somehow our letters have a hybrid quality—of old fashioned waiting and replying and the immediacy that the digital age necessarily gives us. But like an old fashioned correspondence, we were rarely in the same place. Max was often in DC or LA getting treatment. And when we were both in New York, there was probably a lot of communication that was logistical in nature; or comments on the latest political snafus; but I took all of those out of the book so that only the really reflective letters remained.

I would be so sad if the art of writing letters died! I love the letter form, and it’s such a particular way for one writer to know another writer. In a way, it’s the very first form of written dialogue that we have. The epistolary form gave rise to the invention of the novel, after all. One mind speaks to another mind—and a story gets born. Because you have two sides of an equation. 


EM I met Max in a poetry workshop, as a classmate, and I find that one of the most extraordinarily compelling features of your journey with and toward each other to be Max’s powerful evolution from your student to your teacher—the way you convey and chart this transformation in your arrangement of the letters and your prose reflections among them. There is so much artfulness in both of your correspondences that I wonder about the expansion and transcendence of so many imaginative boundaries: art and life, dying and creating, spirituality and the body. Can you speak to the way these boundaries were blurred, revered, redefined, or otherwise illuminated by your exchanges with Max? 

SRMax was unbounded. He was boundless. He had boundless enthusiasm, and boundless love for people and for language. The boundary between art and life often was elided in Max’s orbit, I think. He made his life into art; he also lived in an artful way. He was always scanning his life to see if a moment was a fit subject for a poem. My day to day existence has, perhaps, more contrast between the life and the art—with three kids, details of domestic life are constantly at my feet. And yet I tried once to write a book of essays where those details were very much in the foreground of the art. So I guess you could say that Max and I shared a kind of porous relationship with the life/art boundary.

You ask about life and death and the boundary between. So many of Max’s poems seem to tear a hole into the world of the living, reach through, and speak to the dead. My father died of cancer when I was twenty. We were very close, and I suppose I hold my dead close. So from a fairly early age I’ve seen the fabric between death and life as a little bit porous—I think dreams and art create a boundary-crossing between the two—little punctures in the fabric that separates us. In terms of spirituality and the body—Max was so embodied; even as his language soared into the heights—it always had to do with being in a body. Sometimes being in sick body, but sometimes being in a really ecstatic body. Maybe it’s that Max didn’t view the world in Manichean terms—good/evil, or dark/light, etc. I guess you could say that he wasn’t dualistic. And it was partly his sense of humor that refused duality, that made a little end-run around it. 

EMWhat do you think made Max go on to choose the genre of poetry or the identity of poet? Do you see yourself primarily as a playwright—or is the beauty of Letters from Max in part to shed light on the arbitrariness of these genre and field dividers?

SRI think when I met Max he was primarily a poet already (that vocation chose him in the cradle, I believe) and he was trying his hand at playwriting, the way a chef might attempt pastries for a short time. Max was never going to go fully into creampuffs or plays, but because he was a writer’s writer, he could do any genre—I love his prose pieces too, like the ones published in Blunderbuss in which he says, “The real reason I chose poetry over prose is that prose is too painfully accurate at preserving memories.” 

One reason I love playwriting is that I think it’s a sneaky way to write in all the genres. You have poetry in the language, you have story in the plot, you have song, you have prose in the stage directions, you have dialogue. I think genres are mystifications to keep us busy following rules while we’re doing our more profound thinking and feeling. In a way I find genre meaningless, it all flows into one big river. On the other hand, maybe that’s how I feel about religion—you know that old saying—that all the world religions are just five fingers pointing at the same moon? It’s as though we sad little humans need genres and rules and tennis courts to keep us contained, but as Janis Joplin once memorably said, “It’s all the same fucking day, man.” (Some days I wish I were Janis Joplin, but she had such a hard life.)

EMIs there a particular poem or feature of Max’s poetry (or letter writing) that you would hope readers might bring to mind when reading his oeuvre, and is there a particular way in which having Max as one of your first readers affected your own works in progress? 

SRYour question about Max as one of my first readers makes me deeply sad, because I miss him as a first reader so much. It really just makes me sigh. Max got it. He got it off the page. And he was so young to get so much. He had such a fine combination of heart and intellect that he brought to his work as a reader. That is so rare. He also had a kind of unconditional love for language as it is being born. I know you must miss Max as a first reader so much as well. I know there are many of us.     

This is one of my favorite poems by Max:


I have spoken to you of heaven—
I simply meant the eyes are suns that see.
Seeing is the faces’ nervous delicious Lord.

Listening to you makes me naked.
When I kiss your ankle I am silencing an oracle.
The oracle speaks from the hill of your ankle.

What I love about the poem is its sublime simplicity—or pseudo-simplicity. Also it’s fierce sense of dedication. “Hi, Melissa.” Max says so casually. Melissa was a painter and dear friend of Max’s who died way too young of Ewing’s. He speaks to her so naturally, so casually, even though she is no longer alive. And look, how embodied—“The oracle speaks from the hill of your ankle.” We have the sublime, the casual, the embodied. And then the gorgeous pentameter: “I simply meant the eyes are suns that see.” The only thing not in this quiet beautiful distillation is perhaps Max’s humor and his sometimes rage, which I also love in his other poems.

EMMetaphorically, at least, I feel his poetry was a poetry of gestation—he began the process of reinventing a thought and devoting himself to a poem long before he wrote it. “Hi, Melissa” is a great example because he wrote a version of it in Mammals, his college thesis, and only later when putting together Four Reincarnations did he realize so adamantly whom the poem was for. 

Speaking of sublime pseudo-simplicity, I want to go back to one of the exchanges we touched on earlier, one that almost feels like you and Max were writing a poem together, about spirituality and afterlife, the ones in which a year passed between your email and his reply. I keep thinking of these lines from Max’s response: “Is it silly to say there’s nothing nobler than having a poem-like afterlife when I don’t have a belief in one? I feel like I get to have all the afterlives, because I don’t have to believe in any one but I try to understand them all.” I feel like so much strife in our world could be helped and maybe healed by the mode of this exchange, how two radically different (both chromatic and open) perspectives on the afterlife seem to expand and make realer the idea itself. The way disbelief becomes wonder and empathy. Who is Max now and how do you correspond with him wherever he is? In hopes that this question will let hope mingle with longing, if you could initiate one more back-and-forth round of letters with Max right now, what would you tell him or ask him? 

SRGood God, where to begin? Max and I loved to dish about politics. I’m wondering if he would have some crazy incisive humor to help us through the present moment of ugliness. I wonder if he would have an opinion on the relevance of poetry and art when it feels our national fabric has all the poetry of a scummy boot to the face. I still want to talk to him about Kafka. I didn’t know he loved Kafka until after he died. I would tell him that when I was twenty, I wept and wept reading Metamorphoses because I read it as an allegory of illness and the body after my father died of cancer; one day like Gregor Samsa, a person wakes up, and his body is inexplicably changed. And it’s absurd, and awful, and ugly and part of life. I would ask him to read my new play. I would ask where he is now. And if there is reincarnation, can individual souls still wander around? And were we right that it’s all about love somehow? And is death really like the quiet car on an Amtrak, after all? And does he like the book we made together? 

“Hi Melissa” is from Four Reincarnations by Max Ritvo (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Max Ritvo. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.

Elizabeth Metzger is the author of The Spirit Papers (University of Massachusetts, 2017) and the poetry editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal. She is Max Ritvo’s literary executor.