Alumni Spotlight: Max Ritvo (1990 - 2016)
The Alumni Spotlight is a place to hear from the School of the Arts alumni community about their journeys as artists and creators.
Max Ritvo was awarded a 2014 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for his chapbook, AEONS. His poetry has also appeared or is forthcoming in The Yale Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and as a Poem-a-Day for Poets.org. Ritvo’s eight poem sampler in Boston Review, introduced by Lucie Brock-Broido, was named as one of their top 20 poetry selections published in 2015. He is a poetry editor at Parnassus: Poetry in Review and a teaching fellow at Columbia University.
Max’s prose and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Huffington Post, Boston Review, Blunderbuss, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. His radio appearances include NPR’s "Only Human" and The Dr. Drew Podcast. Max serves on the Board of Directors of Kids Kicking Cancer.
Was there a specific faculty member or peer who especially inspired you while at the School of the Arts? If so, who and how?
I wouldn’t be who I am as a writer today without the trifecta of Lucie Brock-Broido, Tim Donnelly, and Dottie Lasky. I was passed between the three of them for workshops, and what they taught me was completely cumulative.
Dottie came first. When I told her I wasn’t writing frequently enough, she put in her calendar to text me a prompt every day. The prompts were suffused with her mysticism and mindfulness—In one exercise, I had to drink cups of juice laid out in holy, geometric patterns. In another I had to change from a t-shirt and sweatpants into a three piece suit five minutes into writing. I don’t think, before Dottie, I’d really understood how the riches of the present tense can save you in a poem. There’s a moment where your thought has run it course, but there is still plenty of poem to write. It’s a terrifying moment. But Dottie taught me to pick up a little statuette on my desk or just look out the window, and that there would be something beautiful there for me to feed into the poem, with which to breath new life into it.
After Dottie I got the Brock-Broido treatment, which Columbia would do well to patent. Lucie took these fiery, bestial poems that Dottie had catalyzed and taught me to seek out the core. To let nothing survive of them but what was wise and essential. She made me see that thought itself is mystic, that much of the mind is junk and flack, but that it’s given moments of grace. And the role of the poet is to create plinths for those moments of grace, to undress the poem into them. My poems under her gained a sense of purpose, and I grudgingly started to love revision. (I think Lucie didn’t even see the full extent of her impact when I was in workshop with her—I grumbled a lot when she’d call my bullshit, but came around to almost every call.)
Then for my thesis workshop, I was given Timothy Donnelly, who is possessed with music’s articulacy and articulacy’s music. Tim helped me understand who I was as a human being through my poems, which grew them immensely. He called my poems “Goldberg Machines,” which made me think of the energy in my poems, their ambitions, in a way that was more ironic, more passionate, more fun. He made me write odes to collages. He helped me understand my poems were really hopeful. That they were living life for me when I was really sick. He helped me understand that I was actually really spiritual—that my poems grew from the logic of Catholic mystics and Vedic mystics. (Perhaps Dottie had infected me back in Year 1.) I left Tim with a more refined notion of wisdom, with which to pursue my Brock-Broidian poetry purges, and a more refined notion of inspiration, with which to select the rituals, the movies, the tunes, which I now accept are the meat of my mind’s eye.
In the end, I needed just these three poets, in just the order they came to me, in order to write like me.
What was your favorite or most memorable class while at the School of the Arts?
There will never be a class quite like Alan Ziegler’s Short Prose Forms. The class was cross-genre so I got to hear all the work of all these brilliant non-fiction writers and fiction writers. And not just their work—but their minds were so exciting! Watching a journalist hammer away at a surreal snippet of prose and make sense of its mechanics was so enlightening. So too was reading class assignments with carefully crafted characters and psyche’s driving your involvement with the work. This class infected me with a narrative bug I haven’t ever shaken. Most of my poems remain enslaved to an I, but now I want my I to do stuff. For time to pass. And none of this is to mention Alan Ziegler’s quiet, mirthful brilliance. He gave a reading of his own prose poems that is in my marrow. And his campy, genius introductory “play” in which Baudelaire and Edgar Allen Poe discuss short prose was straight out of an episode of The Magic Schoolbus. Too much fun. Too much brilliance. I can’t.