Interview with Jack Ridl
The following interview was conducted by VWS interns Joannie Colner and Matt Oosterhouse with Jack Ridl on October 22, 2007.
Why did you start VWS here at Hope College?
The primary reasons for starting VWS were three-fold. One, for students to meet established writers and find out they were people and to demystify the sense that a prominent author is intimidating. I didn’t want Hope students leaving with a confining sense of awe of somebody. So, part of it was to break down that barrier.
The second reason for starting VWS was that Julie and I wanted to add something to the community after being given so much, especially by students, and we wanted to see how we could give to students what wasn’t already here. A lot of things were [here already], and you could give money and keep something going, but we wanted to add something.
The third reason was that the [creative writing] students were getting so good that they were becoming interested in MFA programs. Our concern was that this is such a fine school, but that it didn’t publicize itself or toot its own horn.
So, how did you do that?
My thought was to bring in writers, especially those connected with MFA programs, who were pretty well connected in the writing community — that they would come here and be blown away. Then, when the students sent off their portfolios, they could add that they’d met and spent time with so and so. They wouldn’t have to fight against the students from U of M or Oberlin or Berkeley or Harvard or any place else. In bringing those writers here, [graduate schools] saw that our students knew their stuff, and they saw what the program was and that it was a thoughtful, sensible program.
Hope is now known as a writing community. And our students, simply by applying, can get a good read. We can never guarantee they’ll get accepted, but we can guarantee that when that grad schools look at the application, they know [Hope] by reputation.
Since that beginning we have had nearly 60 students get into MFA programs. They do well, and that establishes a door for the students who follow. I don’t even know how you would measure the importance of that. You can only imagine that if you came here and the writing world didn’t know anything about Hope, but you were really good at [writing], and then you’d think, “How in the world am I going to do this? They don’t even know about Hope or who I am.”
What was the involvement of the community like in the beginning?
Over the early years especially, we wanted to add something for the community at large. There was nothing around. [When we started] writers from all around the area came to the readings. Now, places like Western, Grand Valley and Aquinas all have their own readings. We were actually the first to have a reading series. And so those people would come and meet with the students. After the readings, Julie and I would have a party out at our house. And there were all sorts of people around the house, and they were all together. This created a real writing community, where the established writers from the surrounding local areas like Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo would look forward to being together three or four times a semester. The students were also seeing that and entering into the conversations too. They really got a good look at what it would be like if they stayed with writing.
What were some challenges that you faced when the series first began?
If I’d have known what it was going to take, I probably wouldn’t have done it. In the early years we didn’t even have anything blocked out for the year. It was usually, “Can I get enough money to call somebody for next month?”
And, it used to be just me and the Opus [campus literary magazine] editor. We did everything. There was no staff. Nothing.
Talk about financial support of the series, then and now.
When you start something out, you have to prove your way. Julie and I contributed out of our own pockets, I found an anonymous donor who helped me a lot. Then, beg borrow and steal. Keep in mind, 20–25 years ago when we started, the reading tour business was not what it is now. William Stafford would come here for $300. And now it is thousands or more for someone of Stafford’s stature. That whole world has changed.
Gradually the college funded it and now there’s this endowment. Had there been the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series when we started with an endowment like they put in last year, whatever that big number was, that would have been pretty easy. I often had to talk writers down, say, “I know you usually come for this much, would you come for this? We’ll give you a good time, we’ll take you to the lake, you’ll stay with us. You can eat good food.” You know, I tried to make it a party.
What’s one significant change that has occurred over the years?
One thing that the series has lost is the other writers [from the area] being here to be with the students. But that’s because they’ve all started their own series, and don’t want to take the hour or so trip because they have their series. That element of the students being around the local writer community is no longer a part of VWS.
Have there been any changes in venue for the readings?
[VWS] has had three venues. We started in the (Depree Center) Art Gallery. William Stafford was the reader when we went over 100 people in attendance. That meant that we couldn’t have any more than that in there. So then we moved on to the Maas Auditorium, and then Maas filled up. That was 400 people, I think. We kept having standing room there. Then we moved over to the Knickerbocker Theatre.
How did you involve students in the series?
I always included the students. The idea was for students to be with the writers, have a student introduce the writer. That always impressed the writers, they were so used to an administration or faculty member getting up there and reciting where the author went to grad school and what awards the writer had received. The carefulness of what you students do is so meaningful. It blows them away.
What kinds of writers have visited?
We’ve had writers who everybody knows, like Chaim Potok and Joyce Carol Oates. Early on, I had all kinds of requests for these kinds of writers. I sort of drew the line — this is an educational place. We needed to bring in people who are terrific, but not household names. It was really important to bring writers that people would enjoy and that many people wouldn’t have known about other than for the series. Billy Collins came here to read, and six months later, he’s the poet laureate. So we were bringing in the really strong writers; it was sort of as if we knew it before a lot of the country knew it.
Let’s switch gears for a minute. Last fall you gave the first annual Tom Andrew’s reading, where VWS was renamed in your honor. What was that like? That seemed like a really powerful moment.
What was that like? That’s one of those things that I’ll probably never be able to register. It still feels like it never happened. I look at those signs that say, Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series; that doesn’t look that that’s my name. That’s the kind of stuff that’s supposed to happen to a Fried-Hemenway auditorium.
The reading part, that was just a joy. You have to be kind of careful how you say this, but to have that many people who wanted to hear you read… I think it’s ok to say that makes you really happy. I think that’s ok. Then the other thing about that that was so nice, it felt like a small gig. It just felt like, I’m getting to hang out with the people I want to hang out with; it didn’t seem anonymous, and I liked that.
You read in Dimnent Chapel that night, instead of the Knickerbocker Theatre. Why was that?
Carla (Vissers) had called me all day, saying we’re moving to the chapel. I said, “No you’re not. I won’t do that, I want to read in the Knick — that’s where I’ve always had a chance to read.” She said, “No, there’s going to be too many people there.” I said, “No, you’ll fill the Knick, that would be amazing to me.” But she put her foot down and never told me. She said, “He’s not going to budge so we’re going to move it.”
You’ve been retired for a couple of years now, but you’re still teaching! What’s part-time teaching like for you?
I tell people, it’s like what I thought it was going to be like when I started. You walk in and your whole day is about the poets that you’re with in class and poetry. You’re not caught up in distractions at all caused by culture, the college, meetings. In one sense, I’m working just as much as ever, which I would assume the students can tell, but it’s certainly with full attention and without any of the distractions.
What do you see as your job as a teacher? What do you try to do in the classroom?
The thing about me is I’m not too big on education so I’ve always felt like, “Well I’m working with students on poetry here. I could also be working with students on poetry in my garage, in the church basement or out in the field.” The education part is irrelevant. I’m not here to educate anyone. I’m here to give people poems, that’s what I want them to have for the rest of their lives. I’m not about educating anybody. I didn’t even like school. So, maybe that’s ultra subversive, to be in an educational institution and not be terribly affirming of education.
I always thought if you [students] got into something, your own inner selves would master it. The mastery comes from within. I can’t make you, well I could, but then you’d just be an ox pulling a cart and I’d be there cracking the whip. I want the ox to want to pull the cart. And if not, then just munch some grass. It doesn’t bother me any! I really don’t want to be the person who makes you “master” something. I like students to discover what they want to master and that they can. If they discover it, then I can help them do that. Then I can say, here’s how to use a line break. But to make you, I’m not interested.
You have your spirit and I don’t want to violate it, but I’m here to help you be with it, find it, go with it, develop it — that’s my job. Make you? No. I like this teaching thing.