(c) Joel Jares

Inaugural Max Ritvo Poetry Series Celebrates Beloved Poet, Alum

BY Corinne Lea Lestch, October 19, 2017

The spirit of Max Ritvo ’16 shined through his words during the Columbia University School of the Arts inaugural poetry series in his name Wednesday night at the Lenfest Center for the Arts.


“Max is present tonight in each of our hearts,” his mother, Riva Ariella Ritvo PhD, told a packed audience.


Addressing her son directly, she added: “Tonight, Max, the room is full for you and with you.”


Family, friends, colleagues and mentors took turns reading Ritvo’s poems and celebrated his life, which was cut short by a rare cancer he battled in more ways than one.


Those close to him said he confronted the disease with grace and courage in both life and art.


“The way to handle it is not to romanticize it, but to look it straight in the eye,” Timothy Donnelly, chair of Writing, said during his remarks.


“Max’s passion for and investment in other people was limited only by the too-short time we had with him,” Donnelly continued. “He conceived of creativity as an almost ethical practice, or at least a philosophical one... I will never stop learning from him.”


Among the readers who embodied his work were Playwright Sarah Ruhl, Assistant Professor of Writing Dorothea Lasky and Poetry Director Lucie Brock-Broido — whose essay, "Losing Max Ritvo" appeared in The New Yorker in February this year.


“When he walked, he left behind him a trail of glitter, both physical and metaphysical,” said Brock-Broido. “I went to him and told him, ‘When I grow up, I want to study with you.’”


Another reader, Herbert Leibowitz, publisher and founding editor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review — where Ritvo served as poetry editor — said Ritvo’s poetry “is the work of an American Keats.”


While the event kicked off the annual series, a generous fellowship was also established in Ritvo’s honor to support aspiring young poets.


The Alan B. Slifka Foundation, Inc. has bestowed $500,000 on the School of the Arts. The majority of the gift will be used to establish the Max Ritvo Fellowship for graduate students in Poetry who demonstrate financial need, while $50,000 will be used to establish the Max Ritvo Poetry Series, a public reading series featuring poets from the Columbia faculty as well as outside visitors. Recipients of this Fellowship will be known as the Max Ritvo Poetry Fellows.


“Max Ritvo was a beloved member of our community,” said Dean Carol Becker. “We are honored to host this new event series and support the next generation of poets in his name.”


Ritvo’s mother, an autism expert and researcher as well as the president and chairwoman of the Alan B. Slifka Foundation, said the gift is a way to keep her son’s selfless nature alive.


“I am thrilled that Timothy Donnelly approached me about creating a ‘Columbia legacy’ for Max,” she said. “The Writing Program at Columbia became Max's second home, a place to write beautiful poems, and connect with extraordinary people — students and teachers.”


“Under my direction, The Alan B. Slifka Foundation is honored to create this opportunity in collaboration with Columbia's Poetry program,” she continued. “To use Max's words: ‘It takes pleases to get the magic,/ and magic to get the love.’ We hope the scholarship and reading series will provide the magic and love Columbia gave Max and Max gave the world.”


She added that, had Ritvo been able to continue his writing and teaching career, he would have strived to give hopeful poets the same opportunities he’d had.


“A named poetry scholarship and reading series at his beloved graduate school is a wonderful way to ensure his spirit lives on in the community he cherished and the place where he wrote so much of his first book, Four Reincarnations,” she said.


Dorothea Lasky, poet and assistant professor in Writing, said she is grateful that Ritvo’s dynamic personality and work will endure through the fellowships in his name.


“From the second I met Max I fell madly in love with his brilliance, his humor, and his generous spirit. Very quickly during the course of his studies, we became peers and I learned as much about poetry and being alive from him, as he could have ever learned from me,” Lasky said. “I miss his voice and his laugh everyday. I am excited that people will continue to learn about his work as many of us hold his memory bright for others to see. I know that he would be ecstatic about the Max Ritvo Poetry Series and I hope that we can hold many happy and important poetry events in his honor in the years to come.”


Ritvo’s poems have appeared in the Boston Review, Field, The Journal, The New Yorker, Poets.org, Poetry Foundation, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. His first full-length collection, Four Reincarnations, was published shortly after his death by Milkweed Editions. And in 2018, Milkweed will also publish Ritvo’s The Final Voicemails, a collection of early and late poems edited by Louise Glück, as well as Letters from Max, co-authored by Sarah Ruhl.


He was 16 when he learned he had a rare pediatric cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma. The cancer went into remission after a year of aggressive treatment, and Ritvo was able to complete high school and went on to obtain an undergraduate degree at Yale even though the disease returned during his senior year.


Then, last year, he received his MFA from Columbia despite being terminally ill.


“Though Ewing's Sarcoma was ravaging his body, he remained openhearted and determined to create,” his mother said. “Columbia offered him a safe haven where he was loved and admired, where he could share his brilliance and generous spirit with like-minded people. His loss is unimaginable, leaving us with the exceptional task of keeping his legacy alive.”


Close friend and writing program alumna Elizabeth Metzger ’15 remembered how Ritvo would come into Dodge Hall and drop everything — literally — to help a fellow classmate.


“Max would always throw his oversized puffy green coat, wool scarf, and fuzzy duck hat on the floors of the Dodge hallway, plopping down on a bench or a step to read a fellow poet's raw work and offer his wisdom — an edit, a hand,” said Metzger.


“The Columbia scholarship and reading series in Max's honor mean that future students will forever have the chance to litter their bundled selves across campus and excavate their most shocking, beautiful, spontaneous, and contradictory brains,” she continued. “Now one day every year, at least, there will be Max's poetry to listen to, Max's poems flashing back to life in the halls of Columbia, flashing us all back to life, in the voices of so many poets.”


The evening ended with a showing of the stunning and transformative animation done to Max Ritvo’s poem, “Poem to my Litter” by Nate Milton, who was in attendance of the night's event, with an audio recording of Max Ritvo himself. The video can be viewed below. Also in attendance was the artist and designer of the cover of Max's book, Four Reincarnations, Autumn Von Plinsky. Von Plinksly adapted her cover art into the Max Ritvo Poetry Series banner used throughout the show.


In addition to last night's event, today Columbia University School of the Arts kicked off a crowdfunding campaign in memoriam to Max Ritvo. The funds raised through this crowdfunding effort will directly support students in poetry. This effort is in addition to the generous gift by The Alan B. Slifka Foundation to establish The Max Ritvo Fellowship Endowment and Max Ritvo Poetry Series Endowment at Columbia University. If you'd like to donate or to learn more about the campaign, click here.