Worthy of Her Words
The early-20th-century radical poet and feminist Lola Ridge, a popular poet during her lifetime but little known today, was a woman whose adventures might strain credulity in fiction. Born Rose Emily Ridge in Ireland, she came of age in the mining towns of New Zealand and trained as an artist in Australia, married at 21, left her husband several years later, and eventually headed to the United States, where she gave herself a new name, took a decade off her age, and reinvented herself as a poet.
In Anything That Burns You, the first biography of Ridge, Terese Svoboda vividly renders Ridge’s life and seeks to revive her legacy. The author of 14 previous books in a variety of genres, Svoboda moves beyond biography to create a textured portrait of a colorful milieu: the anarchist and intellectual left of the first half of the 20th century, full of hobo poets, high-dollar literary contests, painters and their models, and salons and soirées. Dedicated to the cause of social justice, Ridge crossed paths with a veritable who’s who of political and artistic figures, including Emma Goldman, Mabel Dodge, Margaret Sanger, Eugene O’Neill, Hart Crane, and Marianne Moore. The Poetry Foundation spoke with Svoboda about why, 75 years after her death, Ridge and her work are due for a revival. The following exchange was edited and condensed.
Lola Ridge is something of a lost feminist icon, so how did you happen to “find” her, and how did you end up writing an entire biography?
I was an avid fan of Robert Pinsky's Slate column, and in 2011, he wrote eloquently on Lola Ridge. I'm not exactly sure, however, what excited me so much about the piece—it doesn't include the poems I now consider her most riveting—except that her first book concerned the Lower East Side, where I have lived for the last 25 years. It was inexplicably love at first sight. I remember practically shaking when I left something inane in the comments section. I put all that newfound enthusiasm into a presentation at Poets House and a piece for American Poet about her. Tim Schaffner, my agent 30-odd years ago, read the article and contacted me. As the grandson of H.D., he knew the territory well. He sensed that between my enthusiasm and her amazing work, there could be a book, and as he is now a small publisher, he offered me a contract.
Why, do you think, does Ridge remain relatively obscure today?
Despite the New York Times declaring Ridge one of the leading contemporary American poets at her death in 1941, she was subsequently neglected, and her neglect is partially explained by her stubborn faith in freedom. Ridge's poems exemplified this stance; passionate and open to experiment, she wrote in both avant-garde and traditional forms, which made it hard for critics to classify her.
McCarthyism was on the rise, making her radical past and her work suspect. The New Critics, John Crowe Ransom and his cohorts, were also busy denigrating women poets in general and Edna St. Vincent Millay in particular. The suppression of free verse, the left, and women poets persisted until the mid-sixties. It didn't help that her last two books are as unreadable as a lot of Crane's Collected. Because her work was not unearthed during the seventies, when Muriel Rukeyser and Mina Loy and many other women of her time were reevaluated, Ridge lost a generation of possible supporters, which in turn greatly diminished her chances of revival in a later anthology or reprint.
Luckily, she’s been slowly making her way back into the literary consciousness; Quale Press, for instance, reissued some of her poetry as Light in Hand: Selected Early Poems of Lola Ridge in 2007. Why now, in 2016, should readers (re)discover her?
The Occupy Generation, especially those interested in literary activism, should be particularly excited by Ridge's rediscovery. As Emerson said, “You can no more keep out of politics than you can keep out of the frost,” and politics is definitely part of the poetics at last. In the face of the contemporary crisis in race and immigration—Syrians swimming to Greece or the slaughter of black men this year in nearly every major city in America—Ridge shows that effective writing about such subjects can and has been done. Her emphasis on the life of immigrants in The Ghetto and Other Poems, her first book, celebrates the “otherness” of the teeming ghetto of the Lower East Side, anticipating the multiethnic world of the 21st century. She also found ways to write about America's “Red Summer” of 1919, with its lynchings and race riots in more than 30 cities, and the subsequent closing down of citizens' rights during the first Red Scare, which parallels our experience with domestic unrest and Homeland Security. Her essay about the androgyny of creativity, “Woman and Creative Will,” written ten years before Virginia Woolf's “A Room of One’s Own” is, alas, just as important today as it was in 1919. In addition, her second book, Sun-Up and Other Poems, particularly the title poem, is exquisitely timely, with its “bad girl” pose and bisexual revelations. Her insistence on freedom in all things is also refreshingly contemporary: the freedom to create, not destroy, to reinvent the idea of the individual when corporations have co-opted the entire notion of individuality.
Your portrait of Ridge and her individualism seems markedly affectionate but not uncritical. Did you find yourself struggling to be impartial?
I began the book in a white heat, determined to reveal a woman worthy of her words. Not very far along, I realized that Ridge had constructed a mask, hiding so much about her life that in effect she presented herself as someone else. You don’t drop off your son at an orphanage; change your name, your age, and your nationality; and become a bigamist to be as free as possible and not suffer the effects, at least subconsciously. [Editor’s note: Ridge left her eight-year-old son at a California orphanage in 1908. She never divorced her first husband, a manager of a New Zealand gold mine, and married a fellow radical, David Lawson, in 1919.] Because a myth about her saintliness surrounded her, I began using a working title laden with sarcasm: Saint Lola: The Biography of Lola Ridge. Still, I was extremely disappointed when I discovered that drugs undermined her talent, with crippling hubris as a side effect. But at the end of her life, she wrote a diary that showed her still raging for freedom, the whole point of all that subterfuge, and I came to realize that subterfuge and rage, its flip side, was necessary, given her time and place. The biggest challenge then was to show her less-than-pleasant choices sympathetically, as one of many strategies women artists used to find a way to express themselves against a society that didn't acknowledge that they had anything to say. There are now solutions to many of the obstacles in women's lives that we now take for granted, just as the generation after me takes for granted all that has been resolved for them.
The biography is an engrossing read, but it’s 627 pages long, and the notes start on page 463. That’s 164 pages of notes. How did you handle such a wealth of material without becoming overwhelmed?
What? Not overwhelmed? Of course I was overwhelmed. I am not very organized. After all, I am a poet and novelist. For most writers, academic or otherwise, researching is the most dangerous part of the adventure. It's a passive activity, and every bibliography opens to a long corridor with endless twists and turns that contain more enticing and potentially important material. Because no one had written Lola's life before, I felt it had to be told straightforwardly, so I had chronology to cling to. I tried to keep material sorted by date and then assembled the chapters as they came up. Tried. Along with the not-so-thrilling deciphering of hundreds of letters written in terrible handwriting (and later painstakingly photographed), I have to confess that I frequently used Google books or the Amazon “search this book” button for difficult-to-access material. Finally, after three years of ad hoc footnotes, I spent my tiny advance and more on a brave and brilliant new graduate of Oberlin, Simon Turkel, who tamed my thousands of notes most stylishly.
Much of the work Ridge did seems to have been even more ephemeral than her poetry itself, including her work as an editor on such little magazines as Broom and the salons she held and the parties she threw. Can you speak to the ways in which Ridge’s career as a literary citizen is instructive for contemporary poets and writers?
Ridge figured out that as an unknown poet from abroad, she would have to bang on a can all her life. She didn't have William Rose Benét, the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, as a friend of her brother's, the way Moore did. She didn't meet Pound as a classmate, the way Williams did, or at a Halloween party in Pennsylvania, as did H.D. Even if penniless, Crane, Wylie, and Loy came from wealthy, well-connected families. Only Millay climbed to the first rank of poets with nothing but her talent, but at least she was American. Ridge parlayed her management of the anarchist Ferrer Center into a literary editorship of the Birth Control Review [edited by Margaret Sanger]. She then wrote five reviews in eight months for the New Republic before her first book came out, threw parties regularly for at least seven years, saved two magazines from going under, and, along with writing her next four books, wrote more reviews. Ridge was doing the work of keeping her name and her work in front of her peers; she was extremely well known at the time. She did it for the camaraderie, the prestige, and the control—she was the one who invited the guests, the one to know. She steered the conversation and delivered the critique. Ridge was branding.
I think what Ridge really wanted most was to be immersed in the world of poetry as deeply as possible. She had great ambition and analyzed what would propel her to the center of that world. She loved America, land of freedom, where even such a liberal endeavor as proletariat modernism could blossom and thrive.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...