Some people are motivated by love; some are motivated by money, others by power. Poet Wendy Ranan is motivated by beauty. More specifically the beauty of nature. And there are generous and evocative doses of nature in her work. Ranan has worked for years at a major psychiatric hospital just outside of Boston that at one time housed such poets as Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. I met with her at her office, a Spartan hole-in –the wall, to interview her in light of her new poetry collection “The Quiet Room.” Ranan, like most writers is no trust fund baby and struggles to find time in her busy day to manage work, raise a family, and keep the creative fires burning.
Her collection “The Quiet Room”( Deerbrook Editions) deals with her experience at the said hospital, as well as other elements of her life. Peter Balakian ( Professor of Humanities—Colgate University) writes of Ranan: “ She is one of the few poets now writing in America who uses her professional understanding of psychology in ways that are inventive and fresh, giving her poetry a unique dimension. ‘The Quiet Room’ is a beautiful and powerful book.”
Ranan’s poetic history dates back to grade school . She told me: “ I have been writing poems my whole life. In the fourth grade I heard Paul Scofield the famous Shakespearian actor read “adult” poems on T.V. The poems did not rhyme, and I felt I could write without the constriction of rhyme and meter for the first time. So I wrote a poem and without me knowing it my teacher sent it to Paul Scofield. Scofield sent me a card back. For the first the experience of writing was not private anymore.
Later Ranan attended Sarah Lawrence College and studied with poets like Jane Cooper, and Galway Kinnell-who turned out to be a major influence on her. After college she took a writing workshop with the feminist writer Erica Jong in New York City. Ranan was also living in NYC at the time and supporting herself with odd jobs. She decided to attend Smith College and get her Social Work degree. This gave her steady work, a focus, and she had a long-time interest in psychotherapy and the Human Services, making it a good fit for her.
Ranan who comes from a family chockfull of writers and artists, decided after working for a awhile to get her Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Boston University. There she studied with former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, and Derek Walcott.
Ranan published in magazines like Crazy Horse, AGNI, The Seattle Review, The Poetry Miscellany and Tendril and in 1982 came out with her chapbook “Inside Out.” (State Street Press).
Nature plays a big role in Ranan’s poetry. Ranan told me she is motivated by beauty. And nature for her is a font of beauty. And indeed in her work nature constantly bumps up against the walls of the institution where she works. Wildlife at times provides comic relief to what goes on behind the walls of a psychiatric hospital. In short metaphors “bloom” in her poetry. In the first stanza of her poem “Greener” she almost makes a mission statement about her relationship as a poet with the natural world:
“I have always admired a landscape
of simple lines; the redundant
blue and brown of sand dunes, sky.
poets of few words
who could articulate
Stars. Condensed fire
made to stay cooling in place,
monument to desire,
I asked Ranan about another one of her poems from her new collection, titled: Anesthesia
“ It was a kind of speeded sleep
I spun through, into
a lack of, blacker
than a moonless lake
and without the lappings of dream.
It was like
intaglio; a zinc plate
unscratched by any shape
and rolled with ink.
It was the epiphany
of unconcern for the body;
whatever they did to me was fine,
for I was away
at time’s beginning
when bones, still feathery, yielded
this way and that
to the will of water
pumping me into existence
layer by layer, not one
I wake to the weight of decades,
deflated, a thing
at the mercy of mortals
who bring me back
with a name.”
I told her that I felt the poem talked of anesthesia as an escape—a way to be outside one’s self, a form of transcendence, a limbo where one sheds the heavy baggage of life—a sort of temporary death. In a way it was like a poet’s need to escape into a special mindset to write—to be outside looking in. Ranan commented: “In this poem I was both relieved and scared.” Ranan said from her own experience with anesthesia she has come up with the “Oh-Well” response to certain clients. She suggests in times of stress they say “Oh-Well”, and accept faith without fear.
Like most writers anything is grist for the mill. In “The Quiet Room” she explores the passage of time, relationships, with her unique gimlet poet’s eye.
Ranan, unlike many of the poets I interviewed over the last decade or so is not a self-promoter. She is not a denizen of social media, and certainly is no computer whiz. This is not to say the poet has no ambitions. But for Ranan the writing comes first—and this purity leaves its imprint on her accomplished body of work.