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Ramke’s poetry combines imagination, experience

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English professor Bin Ramke always carries a notebook, in which he jots down words, ideas and impressions. Often those scribbles will find their way into one of his poems. PHOTO BY: Wayne Armstrong.

When he presented Bin Ramke with DU’s John Evans Professorship at Convocation in September, Provost Gregg Kvistad described Ramke as “elegantly modest.”

“Bin’s entire being is against fluff and bombast,” Kvistad said.

Indeed, the DU English professor and poet looked like he might rather be anywhere else, and as the audience and awardees mingled after the ceremony, Ramke ducked out a side door.

But the shy yet brilliant author of nine poetry books and 19 anthologies can’t hide in the shadows for long.

Two of his books, The Massacre of the Innocents and Wake, won the prestigious Iowa Poetry Prize, and his work has garnered a number of other awards.

Ramke is a visiting writer at the Chicago Art Institute and holds the Phipps Chair in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at DU, to which he’s added the Evans Professorship — the University’s highest faculty honor. He’s also editor of the Denver Quarterly, a respected literary journal.

Acclaimed American poet John Ashbery has described Ramke’s most recent book — Tendril (Omnidawn, 2007) – as “extraordinary.” Of another book, Ashbery wrote, “Bin Ramke’s Airs, Waters, Places is magisterial. He is our Heraclitus.”

Ramke a philosopher? Most certainly. But he also wears other mantles. Linguistic magician. Mathematician. Mad scientist poet.

Ramke definitely doesn’t fit the traditional poetry mold. He started college as a math major, and his reading stack includes books on number theory and codes.

He describes his work as experimental. Through poetry he explores etymology and language, the shades of meaning in a word or in an arrangement of words, the way certain words or phrases feel in the mouth, the way they look on the page.

“Poetry … doesn’t necessarily use language to contain information,” he explains. “The sort of work I do is concerned with sound, but in a subtle, nuanced way. It’s a combination of personal imagination and experience — experience in an unrecognizable form.”

His poems, he says, usually start with the language rather than the message. He doesn’t set out, say, to write about music or birds or a broken heart. Instead, he dips into one of the battered, black leather notebooks he carries and in which he collects ideas — snippets of things he’s read or heard, impressions, thoughts, questions. He puts things together, moves them around. He types things out just to see how they look structured this way or that.

He likens his process to conception, with a lot of “waiting for something to happen.”

Take, for instance, his poem “Gregg Shorthand Dictionary,” which was inspired by a tome of the same name Ramke found among old books in a downtown shop. He was entranced by the way words were ordered in the dictionary, by the sounds and patterns they produced, by the meanings of the words considered in the context of their neighbors, by the memories of his mother, who took phone messages in shorthand.

“Inviting the accidental into the process is key for me,” Ramke explains. “I like to make things complicated. If you make things complicated enough, accidents happen.”

“There’s no aim or goal,” he adds. “I truly don’t know what I’m doing.”

Casual readers may think so. They’re unlikely to “get” Ramke’s work if they approach it like they would Robert Frost, Billy Collins or other mainstream poets.

But if readers allow themselves to be in the moment with Ramke’s poems, if they discard notions of what poetry should be, then they may find themselves engaged in the mystery.

Ramke is sly in his use of language. Little is what it seems, except when it is. The veiled meanings aren’t there for the reader; they’re there for him. If a reader happens to catch on, all the better.

“This is my little game,” he says. “I don’t expect a reader is going to notice or care.”

You see, Ramke writes first and foremost for himself. It’s a compulsion, he says, noting that he writes, in some fashion, nearly all the time. He’ll interrupt a conversation to jot down a thought in his little notebook, its unlined pages brimming with small, careful script. He simply can’t help himself.

Poetry, he says, “has more to do with making discoveries on my own — finding out what evokes powerful responses in me.”

There’s no “right” reading of his work, Ramke says. But, he adds, “That doesn’t mean there isn’t a core experience to be shared between a writer and a reader.

“I have a kind of faith in the part of the mind that is going to discover relevance.”

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