On Max Ritvo’s Final Voicemails: an Interview with Elizabeth Metzger
Milkweed Editions is releasing Max Ritvo posthumous collection, The Final Voicemails today, edited by Louise Glück. The collection stuns—profoundly mature and honest and moving and rending. Max’s work continues to be a gift to our community. We reached out to Elizabeth Metzger—accomplished poet herself and Max’s friend and literary executor—to share her perspective on his work and life. Milkweed has also been so generous as to allow us to reprint one of his poems from the collection at the end of this post.
What does it mean to be someone’s literary executor and how did you find yourself in that position for Max?
Elizabeth Metzger: Literary executor is a pretty open term, but in the best cases, an author may define what it means for them before they die. For Max, it meant that I would look after his literary works and legacy, that I would make all creative decisions regarding his work after his death. He knew he was leaving the world with a lot of unfinished work he had hoped to see published, and in spite of his illness, he wasn’t afraid to dream of future projects such as The Final Voicemails and Letters from Max.
For the three years I knew Max, we were not only best friends, we were also intensely part of each other’s creative processes and at similar emerging stages of our poetry careers. Part of the intensity of those three years was Max’s awareness that he was probably going to die. Given his experimental course of treatment and the loving care of the many brilliant people he surrounded himself with, he was able to write and evolve with the fervor and openness of a young poet, but the fear of death also made him careful to plan ahead, to imagine how he might continue to exist beyond his lifetime. After Columbia, we both ended up in Los Angeles, about five minutes from each other. Max was getting a new treatment and finishing his first manuscript here and I was planning a wedding, working forThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and finishing my first manuscript. We were both in a strange limbo, between nightmare and fantasy, removed from the poetry mania of school yet free to work and talk together every day, often for hours. We became so intrinsic to each other’s creative development that Max knew he would trust my aesthetic and professional decisions. We sort of practiced the role while he was alive, as I went from first reader and editor to helping Max curate and send out submissions and eventually his first book.
The transition to literary executor was a very challenging and also life-saving gift for me—it prevented dying and grieving from distancing us at the end. Max wanted to finish Four Reincarnations urgently, and as a result of Milkweed’s supernatural devotion I did my best to accelerate the process with copywriting and quick responses while Max was alive (but in too much pain or on too many painkillers to reply immediately). His editors and publishers therefore got to know me through Max rather than as some appointed stranger who emerged after his death. I think having me in this role also helped him focus more comfortably on generating new work, work that Max’s master mentor Louise Glück has curated and arranged in The Final Voicemails, out this month (September). Since Max and I were in constant contact in person and by text at all hours, I absorbed much of his vision and directions and something of his minute to minute way of thinking, dreaming, doubting. I knew he trusted me with the choices he couldn’t anticipate, and I knew he would be wildly honored if Louise edited the posthumous collection we imagined together. Max wanted to be a living poet—he wanted to speak to the world he was just getting to know, poets and not poets. In a lucid heart to heart exchange near the end, Max wrote “Soon I will exist only in words…” As long as I live, I see it as an honor to steward Max’s work, to keep Max’s words alive in this world.
How do you think Max viewed poetry at the end? Was it primarily a continuation of himself after death, or something else?
Elizabeth Metzger: Max was first diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma at 16, and while he had a remission of four years, his adolescence and entire approach to life were inevitably altered by the experience of his illness. I think poetry was always for Max both an escape and an intensifier, a kind of self-analysis and practice of mindfulness at once, a chance to combine his interests in philosophy and comedy, a chance to improvise internally, to distill life to its sensory core. When he began to really identify as a poet, working with Louise Glück at Yale, Max was already confronting versions of metaphysical crisis. He had already struggled in body and mind so in some ways poetry at the end of is life was the one constant, the one area that maintained its integrity and purpose when his body and day-to-day life was so compromised. Poetry was a relief, a way to excuse himself from the chaotic burden of cancer while reminding himself that he was the living—in a poem he was his most alive.
In addition to tracking the brain in the process of intelligence, poetry allowed Max to see the grotesque and painful aspects of his experience metaphorically. It became unrealistic for Max to fantasize about the future as most of us do—our future families, careers, etc. I’m not even sure it was really the literary legacy that most satisfied Max, but the fact that poetry gave him a reasonable future to imagine: he could finish a draft in a couple of hours and go to sleep knowing he needed to edit the poem and send it out for publication. Poetry became a sort of currency between life and death. Sure, he knew it would be his way of continuing on Earth, but at the very end, when much of The Final Voicemails was written and conceived, poetry was also the force that literally helped him continue to live. Despite pain or drugs or weakness or staying indoors, he had something to be strong for, somewhere to go.
Though he writes about dying, the creative force itself was an antidote to dying. Poetry was not just the thing that could continue without him, but the thing that couldn’t exist unless he continued. When life and death crossed paths in the realm of the unbearable, poetry was the gaze that got him to the other side. It made it an iota more bearable to live and suffer and an iota more bearable to let go and die. Each poem was a sort of life cycle, a surrogate body to develop, revise, admire, turn against—evidence that a brain was here. It hurt to use his voice at the end. It was hard to breathe. It was hard to see his loved ones pained by losing him. While helping others so often helped him feel better, by the end he needed poetry to focus inwardly, to practice losing himself and come out the other side with something shareable, beautiful, in process, utterly original, good.
The poems in The Final Voicemails are amazing. So mature and consistent and authentic. It’s a really special book—makes me emotional thinking about it! If you could only share one poem from the collection with people, which would it be? Why?
Elizabeth Metzger: Gosh, that’s an incredibly tough question because I always think of Max’s work in accumulation, in arrangement, in arc—even though, of course, these poems were put together by Louise. The poem I find strongest and most original and most finished is “Quiet Romance.” It addresses the sexuality of dying in a fascinating way, where the metaphysical seems to me to replace the physical. It was also the last poem Max wrote that made it into the book and I probably over-privilege the fact that the poem emerged exactly as it is. It was one of those givens. “Cachexia” was another thought because it showcases that meaner (in the raw sense) quality I love in many of these late poems. It has a clarity and a control (without compromising Max’s imaginative wilderness) that hurts me because it is so much about losing control, literally the process of wasting away that happens at a certain stage of terminal illness.
But, the more I think of the book as a whole, if I had only one poem to share of Max’s from this period it wouldn’t be one of the cleanest and most controlled poems—it would be “Name My Time Of Death And See What I Do To You.” It has so many brilliant gestures that gain authority, control, from the process of relinquishing control. The doctors become part of the imaginative choreography of the speaker, and I think this speaks to the genius, and more so maybe the vim, of Max’s perspective. The poem becomes dance, alchemy, sadism. There’s a circus element and a nightmare aspect, and a midnight humor: “The diagnosis comes in underwhelming:/We can’t tell if you’re going to live/ or if the background image/ looks an awful lot like you.” The prognosis of likely death is delivered as casually as noticing a resemblance between the image of the speaker’s interior and the speaker.
I used to tell Max he was the male poet of maternity. The imagery (and fascination) with mammalian gestation haunted many of his poems. He is thinking of the cells of his lung, the feathery image that could be cancer or fluid, newly growing cancer or cancer that is beginning to disintegrate from treatment, but in the poem the speaker seems part mother, part bird: “My milk is running brown, but what they’re calling/ cells in it are more like feathers up close.” Earlier the doctors are “screaming like a baby,” a cliché that Max instantly shatters “like a baby realizing it’s a monkey,” so that the poem captures the conversational entertainment—quintessentially twisted, elevated, hilarious, lightning-shocked into jawdrop: Max. Another example of the subverted colloquialism later in the poem: “I think I’d kill to stay alive,/ at least myself…” That’s comic timing.
The power of the question in the last movement of this poem is one of his finest: “What if I ran out of a body to give you? What would you let me take from you?” The “you” is anyone, and most of all himself, and though the thing “running out” is the body, the end realization is that the body is the precise thing he wants to take with him. The irony of running without a body toward a body, this is the marathon of dying. There’s a cartoonish running race image conjured at the end that collapses into a plainspoken admission of beauty: “A star, a raft, a bloody cloth, a bloody cloud,/ my body, my body, I’m running for you only,/ and my fear is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” Max gives us an intimate understanding of dying while keeping our awe in excess of our pity. There are several finish line images in The Final Voicemails, but in their despair, fear nevertheless becomes beauty. Death is always a stakes-raiser. So of course was Max. In this poem, the case of being human overshadows a scene of cancer diagnosis. These poems hide nothing—they empty their pockets at the ultimate checkpoint. This is a voice that wavers between humiliation and authority, hysteria and astonishment. Max’s speakers run toward intensity, toward an instant, toward the body. As if being alive were a choice, they race toward all moments of living.
NAME MY TIME OF DEATH AND SEE WHAT I DO TO YOU
by Max Ritvo
Time’s up. Break’s over. So I put the doctors on the floor again
and ask them for a diagnosis.
I’ve been keeping the doctors in line
on a little tan balance beam –
Whenever they reach the end I pluck them
up by the collar.
There’s a little sadist in me – or boys
will be boys. I think I just got tired
of bad news, and each time
less air getting into my lungs.
Over time, I’ve corrupted their gaits.
Now it’s their floor time. I command the docs to circle me
and with prognostic spoons plug up the holes
where they used to show me my body.
But their legs can only slam forward, crimped
and insanely looped like mine.
Down they bash into the ground,
screaming like a baby realizing it’s a monkey.
The diagnosis comes in underwhelming:
We can’t tell if you’re going to live
or if the background image
looks an awful lot like you.
My milk is running brown, but what they’re calling
cells in it are more like feathers up close.
I think there’s something in me
more horrible than they’re detecting –
I think I’d kill to stay alive,
at least myself,
and if you can’t accept that
you don’t know the angel in my blood.
What if I ran out of a body to give you?
What would you let me take from you?
A star, a raft, a bloody cloth, a bloody cloud,
my body, my body, I’m running for you only,
and my fear is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
(From The Final Voicemails by Max Ritvo (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Max Ritvo. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org)
Elizabeth Metzger is the Poetry Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal. In 2013, she won the Narrative Poetry Contest and was listed as one of Narrative’s 30 Under 30. Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, Poem-a-Day on Poets.org, Poetry Magazine, and The Nation. Her essays and reviews appear in PN Review, the Southwest Review, and Boston Review. Her debut collection, The Spirit Papers, won the 2016 Juniper Prize and was published by University of Massachusetts Press in 2017. Her chapbook, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, was published by Horsethief Books in 2017. She is an adjunct assistant professor of Writing at Columbia University, where she received her MFA and served as a University Writing Fellow and consultant in the Writing Center.
Max Ritvo (1990-2016) wrote Four Reincarnations in New York and Los Angeles over the course of a long battle with cancer. Ritvo’s poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Boston Review, and as a Poem-a-Day for Poets.org. His prose and interviews have appeared in publications such as Lit Hub, Huffington Post, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Milkweed Editions is releasing his posthumous collection, The Final Voicemails.