Ralph Angel is the award-winning author of five books of poetry and a bilingual translation of the Federico García Lorca collection, Poema del cante jondo / Poem of the Deep Song. His most recent work includes entropia, a collection of thirty-one images, Strays, a limited-edition chapbook of poems, and two new manuscripts coming out in the fall of 2023.
Mary Angel is a writer and retiring corporate executive who is excited about the next chapter of her life, which will include completing her new manuscript and volunteering at Arlington Garden.
AJ: This past October, Mary, you organized a poetry reading in the garden for your late husband, the award-winning poet Ralph Angel. Would you mind saying a bit about the poetry reading? Who did the reading? What inspired you to hold the event?
MA: Arlington Garden was one of my husband’s favorite places. He brought me there early on in our relationship with a childlike joy, knowing we were about to enter a magical place. He walked me through the garden, stopping to admire each plant and flower. He also brought friends who were visiting us there to share this hidden gem with them.
Often, if he was stuck on a line while making a poem, he would go to the Garden, find a bench to sit on, listen to the birds, and take in all the sights and smells. It would help him get out of his head and back to the poem.
My husband passed away unexpectedly after a brief illness in March of 2020 at the cusp of the pandemic. I went through much of my grieving process in isolation. When the lockdown finally eased up, I returned to Arlington Garden and found a sense of peace there. Knowing this was such a special place to him, I donated a plaque on a bench in his memory in the pine forest section. Now it is my special place too, because when I go there and sit on the bench, listen to the birds, and take in all the sights and smells, I feel like I’m seeing it all through his eyes.
Last month, I invited some of our dear friends and poets to the Garden to read some of Ralph’s poems and share their stories of him to honor his memory.
On the weekend after the plaque was installed, my brother’s wife was in town, so she came with me when I saw the plaque for the first time. When we walked up to the bench, a young woman was sitting there, with her notebook in hand. She told us that she always sits on that bench when she comes to the Garden. She had just seen the plaque for the first time that day too and was pleasantly surprised to learn the bench was dedicated to a poet because, instinctively, that was the bench she was always drawn to whenever she came to the Garden to write.
AJ: What is the difference, for you, between reading a poem on the page – say, one of Ralph’s – and hearing it or reading out loud?
MA: A poem can mean something entirely different to each person who reads it on the page. When a poem is read aloud, I always love to hear the way each person says the words and which words they enunciate or emphasize.
The most astonishing way to hear any of Ralph’s poems read aloud was to hear him read them. He is a lyric poet, so the beauty of his work is his use of the language. He once said this about his process:
Poetry is the language for which we have no language. Given that I have only two tools – the language in which I compose and the fact of my reality – it’s my job to find the language that enacts the fact of my reality.
AJ: To an outsider such as myself, Ralph is thought of primarily as a poet – I’m sure you think of him as a great many other things. What are some of those other things? And how would you like those reading this interview to think of you – Mary Angel?
MA: My husband was the Edith R. White Distinguished Professor at the University of Redlands for 39 years and was one of the founders of the Creative Writing Department at the University. He was also a member of the MFA in Writing faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts for 22 years. Ralph was an artist. He loved all forms of music – jazz, classical, rock & roll, etc. There was always music playing in the house, especially while he was working – everything from Coltrane to Van Morrison. He also incorporated visual art into some of his lectures, because he felt there was really no difference between a painting and a poem. To him – whether it was music, visual art, or poetry – each was a way of making art.
In the early 80’s, he traveled with his Pentax camera, taking black and white photographs. Years later, he began working with expired Polaroid film, manipulating the film itself, playing with the light and exposure. His final book published before he died is an art book named entropia, a collection of thirty-one full color lithographic images from these Polaroids.
As for myself, I studied Creative Writing in high school in Chicago where I first discovered poetry, then I went on to attend the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. I enrolled to be an illustrator but transitioned to making steel sculptures. After college, I lived in snowshoe country up in Muskoka for many years, on Sparrow Lake, where I did a lot of writing.
When I moved to California in the 1990’s, I frequented the Midnight Special Bookstore on the Third Street Promenade. I was drawn to the poetry readings there and became a part of the L.A. poetry community. It was quite a scene back then, with venues all over the city. We read at poetry readings and attended workshops with some of the most gifted writers in L.A., some of whom participated in the reading last month. That’s how I came to know Ralph Angel. I fell in love with his work before I ever even met him.
AJ: Ralph was apparently a great traveler – would you mind talking a bit about how visiting other places might have impacted his work?
MA: Ralph traveled extensively throughout Europe, South and Central America, Africa, and the United States. He lived in Spain while translating Federico García Lorca’s Poem of the Deep Song (Poema del cante jondo) for his book by the same name. His travels deeply informed his work, because he was such an observer of life, culture, and language. He could sit at a café for hours, just observing the people coming and going, watching their interactions, studying their mannerisms. He once said:
I’m interested in the fact of what it is, minute to minute, second to second, day to day, year to year to be alive. My job is to be attentive.
Ralph and I also enjoyed traveling together. We were married on Hanalei Beach in Kauai where he taught me how to snorkel. I definitely plan to do more traveling again, as soon as the travel experience returns to a sense of normalcy.
AJ: How does the natural world influence Ralph’s poetry?
MA: Ralph loved nature in every form. Since we don’t have a backyard, he planted a terraced garden [photo below] on the hillside behind our house and collaborated with a landscaper to design a larger garden on top of the hill to create an outdoor space.
When he was working on a poem, he would often be out in the garden, weeding or pruning a tree, and then come back inside with a big smile on his face as he went back to work. There are references to nature in nearly every one of his poems.
He especially loved birds. We have a birdbath right outside the back door. He took great delight in watching the birds come to bathe, as I still do now. The trees out back are always alive with the sounds of birds – owls, woodpeckers, mourning doves, parrots, etc.
After he died, a tiny baby bird came and sat on the windowsill right outside my desk while I was working, loudly pecking on the window with his beak. When I gently opened the front door to see the bird, he flew away. He came back another morning, this time pecking on the living room window with his beak. I leaned up to the window and looked closely at this tiny bird, and he looked back at me. Then, just like the last time, he flew away. I never saw him again. Somehow, I knew that Ralph was letting me know he was still nearby.
AJ: Did Ralph favor any other poets – I know he translated Federico García Lorca – and did his translation work impact his poetry?
MA: Ralph was a voracious reader (Dickenson, Reverdy, Brodsky, Sappho, Rilke, Schuyler, etc.). At one point, we put some things into storage because we were planning a remodel of the house. When we boxed up his collection of books on the bookshelves in the garage alone, there were forty boxes of books.
In addition to the Lorca book, he translated other poems by Spanish poets, such as Vicente Aleixandre’s “Para quién escribo?” (“Who I write for”). His family spoke three languages in the household – Ladino, Hebrew, and English – in which he was fluent. His work was definitely influenced by the rhythms and music of all three languages.
AJ: What about you? What other poets are you reading (and we should be reading)?
MA: I consider myself fortunate to have so many books in the house, especially during the lockdown. Initially, I read books about grief, such as A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis and In the Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish. Currently, the book of poems I’m reading is Concerning the Angels by Rafael Alberti, a translation of Sobre Los Angeles.
AJ: What book of poetry do you think is the best introduction to Ralph’s work for those wanting to dig deeper?
MA: The first book of his I read was Twice Removed. I was so blown away that I went on to read his other work. Exceptions and Melancholies is a collection of his work from 1986 – 2006, so that might be a good place to start, because in addition to some new poems, the book is a collection of poems from his three prior books. He left behind two finished manuscripts, a book of poems and a book of essays, both of which will be published by Black Ocean Press in the Fall of 2023.
Ralph was the love of my life. I am deeply grateful to Arlington Garden for giving me the opportunity to honor him and his work at a place that was so dear to his heart.
To learn more about Ralph’s life and work, please visit https://ralphangel.com/