Senior Fellow John Rufo Engages with Contemporary Poets
It was a twist for John Rufo ’16 to find himself giving an interview rather than conducting one. The Senior Fellow is spending the year interviewing contemporary political poets through the lenses of race, gender, sexuality and disability. With a focus on younger poets, he hopes to open up a space for them to talk about their practice. Rufo, a creative writing major, took his project as an opportunity to merge his concentration with race and gender studies, sociology and history.
Major: Creative Writing
Hometown: Fayetteville, N.Y.
High School: Manlius Pebble Hill School
“Instead of reading poets and writing criticism about them, my project is invested in interviewing poets. Ideally my thesis will look like, by the end of the year, a collection of interviews and conversations with poets that are interspersed with critical essays, headnotes, stuff by me to contextualize it,” Rufo said.
Viewing the interviews as creative spaces, Rufo works to edit and shape the interviews so the book will flow like a novel. One impetus for the project was that Rufo himself has never encountered a book of thematically linked interviews with poets. “The interviews have to make sense next to each other. You’re making a work of art in some sense. It might be collaging or curatorial, but those decisions are important.”
Treating it as not only a documentary but as an artwork with aesthetic decisions and goals brings out the political elements into sharper focus, he explained. “You don’t notice that this is a thing you’re holding that is constructed but instead feels lived and real in the same way you can lose yourself in a novel.”
His interest in the topics (race, gender, sexuality and disability) developed both personally and through work presented to him in English classes. A high school teacher from Haiti introduced his class to a lot of writings by people of color, particularly works which focused on gender. Rufo quoted a line from poet Kamau Braithwaite who said, “The hurricane does not roar in pentameter.” “One of the big things [Braithwaite] talks about is how do you break, go away from or work through traditional poetic forms used mostly by white men of European descent if those are the very people who have enslaved you or oppressed you or suppressed your voice,” Rufo remarked.
In his own practice, Rufo has always been concerned with his chosen topics. “I’ve always been drawn to poetry that is maybe more difficult or experimental,” he said. “Something I learned in my reading over the past year is that a lot of either writers of color or queer writers or writers who identify as having some kind of disability will use more experimental forms to get to things that more traditional avenues of language don’t allow them to talk about.”
Over the summer, Rufo researched contemporary poetry in New York City where “you can’t trip 10 feet without running into a poet.” He got the chance to begin interviewing poets even earlier than he had planned. Rufo sees poetry as a dialogue, a conversation between the reader and the writer. “I’m not just studying poets, I’m talking to them,” he said.
“One of the poets I talked to this summer, Douglas Kearney, said explicitly to me that one of the reasons he writes a lot about race is because he wants to talk about race and the poem has the ability to open up a conversation,” Rufo recalled. “It announces to the reader that the writer is someone who wants to engage in talking about this.”“It’s very challenging too, just in the way that these can obviously be difficult topics to talk about, I would say that disability especially is something that does not get talked about,” Rufo noted.
He will be conducting interviews, something he says he loves to do, until December or January. After he determines that a poet deals significantly with themes of race, gender, sexuality or disability, Rufo reads their work deeply. “There’s a wide variety: there are poets who explicitly announce ‘I am talking about identity’ and there are poets who wouldn’t say that at all and yet it’s very important for them to talk about that,” he said. Instead of planning questions, he makes an effort to keep the interviews like natural conversations. “It’s their space, it’s their words, I’m just kind of the curator of it.”
With no classes, Rufo’s schedule is determined by his thesis and his many roles around campus: co-editor-in-chief of Red Weather as well as jobs at Opus, the Writing Center and as a teaching assistant. “If I’m going to interview someone that week, that week is completely devoted to getting into their head,” Rufo explained. Other weeks are more focused on transcription and formatting.
Rufo works with two advisors. His primary advisor, Associate Professor of Literature and Creative Writing Jane Springer, is an award-winning poet herself. His secondary advisor is Visiting Professor of Art History Scott MacDonald, whose own critical work is in the style of interviews. Rufo remarked that the Senior Fellowship affords him the opportunity to develop his thesis more deeply than he might be able to at bnother school. He said while he has loved the classes he took at Hamilton, focusing on his thesis has made for his most enjoyable academic year on the Hill so far.
“Something doesn’t feel like work if something you’re doing is entirely what you’ve created and are invested in. It takes a lot of time to do that and make sure everything is running smoothly -- if something goes wrong you can’t say ‘oh the syllabus was wrong,’ it’s your fault.”
He joked that he’s getting sick of hearing his own voice when he transcribes interviews, but his investment in the project makes it worth it. “I asked the questions so obviously I wanted to know the answers. The topics are difficult to talk about sometimes but it’s also very pleasurable to be able to hear people talk eloquently about what they care deeply about.”