Interview: Bill Ratner’s Evolution into Poetry
Bill Ratner’s successful career as a voiceover artist—as Flint on the cartoon G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, as characters on Robot Chicken and Family Guy, and as the narrator of countless movie trailers and commercials—coexists with his varied existence as a performer, author, and storyteller. A graduate of the UCRPD MFA program in nonfiction and a published poet, essayist, and fiction writer, Ratner is a nine-time winner of The Moth StorySLAM and has performed for National Public Radio (NPR), Comedy Central Stage, and storytelling festivals around the country. Ratner’s first book of poetry, To Decorate a Casket, is out this May from Finishing Line Press. In the book, Bill addresses his early childhood loss—his mother died when he was seven, and his brother and father when he was thirteen. The poems employ a narrative, memory-driven style laced with humor, compassion, and a touch of the surreal. TCR talked with Ratner about how his voice and performance work, with their focus on lyricism, sound, and tone, led to his natural evolution into poetry.
TCR: How does writing poetry for performance affect your writing? Do you specifically consider meter, rhyme, or the audience?
BR: I was in New York and a friend of mine asked, “Do you know The Moth,” and I said, “No, what is it?” I got the date wrong and couldn’t go, but there’s one in L.A. And so I went. I was absolutely fascinated. I would go every single month and write these seven hundred fifty-word pieces. It was the first time that I’d been able to really perform in years, and I was intoxicated by it. I would write finished pieces word for word, and I’d memorize them. As an actor, I was able to perform them. I’d behave as though I was simply telling a story. The form of only two and a half pages allowed me to go back over and over and put in a comma, take out a comma, change this word, look up a synonym. I became aware of the American oral tradition of storytelling. I started getting pieces and personal essays published from Moth stories. There’s a popular writing teacher in L.A. named Jack Grapes who has written two very well-used reprinted books called Method Writing, one and two. He came here as an actor in the 60s and had a little success in episodic TV and then ended up earning his living as a poet in schools. I thought, How can I combine what I know as an actor with writing? I wanted to pump up the lyrical quality of my prose. Jack said, “You’ve done all the exercises. You wanna do a poet?” And I said, “What do you mean ‘do a poet’?” And he said, “Well, like Charles Bukowski. I’ll assign you Bukowski. You’ll go read some of his stuff and see what it does to your writing. Just let him work your head.” So I did that. I never had any interest in writing poetry. I didn’t read poets. I did read Bukowski’s prose, and I did buy some of his poetry books because he was sort of a prosy, funny, self-effacing poet.
TCR: A storyteller poet.
BR: Yes. A storyteller poet. A narrative poet. Poetry I found ridiculously challenging. I didn’t know how to do it. When I started getting in front of audiences and doing readings, I realized how much I enjoyed it. Jack directed me a few times to slow down. He said, “You’re not announcing. Get outta the booth; just talk.” I got a poem published. It was a thrill. I couldn’t believe it. I found that I could write in an unreliable narrator’s voice, make stuff up. There is no pact. There is no contract with the reader. There is with memoir, absolutely.
I learned from a friend about something called poetry therapy. The National Association for Poetry Therapy was started in the 80s. I was fascinated. I joined the NAPT. In a workshop, they had us read a Mary Oliver poem and then discuss it, not so much from a craft point of view but is there anything that resonates for you. Take the next fifteen minutes and free write, based on whatever feelings are coming up. I wrote, I think, the most successful poem I’ve had, called “Quarantine Ride.” Almost word for word—boom. I’m best at coming up with fragments. Sometimes I’ll start with an idea. This was a poem about my fantasy of getting a limousine at the height of quarantine last year: “I want a limo for this, a long black stretch limo like the one Sinatra used to ride in. I’m gonna stick my head out the sunroof and sniff kimchee on Sixth Street.” At the end, it says, “Driver, just go around one more time, one more time so I can remember.” There’s some lyricism to it.
TCR: In To Decorate a Casket there’s a nostalgic and mournful yet also celebratory quality to the poems. You depict a specific childhood in terms of time and place, and the loss of your parents and brother weave through a lot of the works. Why do you think poetry is such a well-suited medium for exploring grief and loss?
BR: Writing a poem is more of an escape. It’s less painful. The grief, or a fragment of a memory, will just come out in a poem that I’m writing where I don’t intend it to. Whereas when I’m writing memoir, when I’m writing fact, I’m stuck with it. I’m stuck with what happened. No matter how I start a poem, grief creeps in. The idea of loss creeps in. It’s just much more fun blind. It’s like playing pin the tail on the donkey.
TCR: It’s as if the structural constraints of a poem counterintuitively give you some freedoms that prose doesn’t?
BR: I will usually write in prose form, and then I’ll see if it works in stanza form. Does it work in couplets? Does it work with four lines each? I’m not thinking of structure. I’m just thinking of fragments of language. I consider that at times to be a problem. I got a letter from an editor out in Joshua Tree at a journal called Cholla Needles. He said, “Your stuff is right for us, but your lack of focus isn’t.” He took three of my poems and cut them in half. He said, “Some people get pissed off when I do this.” But I said, “No, hey, thank you.” I love the idea that I could spend the rest of my life getting better at writing poems. Philip Roth said in an interview, “I realized I was for real when it finally occurred to me that every one of my first drafts is shit and that it’s all in the editing and I could make it better.” To accept your own mediocrity, to accept your limits and then roll the dice, and fuck around, and spill coffee.
TCR: You wrote that the poem “What Kind of Boy” was inspired by the poem “Lone Dog” by Irene Rutherford McLeod. The two works share a kinetic energy and a litany style that’s both irreverent and deeply affecting. What other poets have inspired you? How do you create boundaries for yourself that honor influential works while maintaining and developing your own distinct style and voice as a poet?
BR: Do you know the local poet Suzanne Lummis?
TCR: I don’t.
BR: She’s the granddaughter of the great Charles Lummis, who founded the Southwest Museum. She produces a thing called noir poetry. She’s a brilliant poet. I showed her that poem and she said you obviously read Irene McLeod’s poem. I said, “Who’s Irene McLeod?” It was totally by accident.
TCR: Oh, how funny! That’s a great story.
BR: And then the other question is very interesting. I’m a really lazy reader. I will, on a whim, order books and not even read the whole collection, just a few. I’ll read a biography and say, Gee, I’d love to write like that, but I won’t sit down scientifically and try to write a poem like that. I probably should. The poets that I’ve spent the most time with—and I’m not suicidal, nor do I suffer from depression or anxiety—but John Berryman, who threw himself off a bridge when I was in Minneapolis. I could have been walking across the bridge when he threw himself over. And Anne Sexton, who discovered poetry later in life and wrote very confessional poems, and Sylvia Plath. Sylvia Plath’s lyrical skill and her compulsion to deal with emotional issues, and Anne Sexton’s compulsion to deal with emotional issues, and John Berryman’s artistry, humor, irony, love for language. His poetry is very American and peculiar and odd, and a little Shakespearean. So do I try to wall off myself from influence? No, I don’t have that problem because I’m so freaking lazy. I would never consciously do that unless I worked really hard and spent like, you know, hours reading Rilke aloud.
TCR: So, if it happens, it’s by osmosis and not by intent.
BR: Yeah, by osmosis. But I did try with this poem that I’m working so hard on. There’s a Facebook page put out by a poet named Lois P. Jones, who used to do a radio program on KPFK about poetry. It’s called Rainer Maria Rilke. All she puts up are Rilke poems and, occasionally, little mini essays with comments about Rilke, and these photomontages. I thought, I’m gonna read this stuff aloud. There’s so much about love and so much about the energy of the universe, so I wanted to try to get that into my love poem. But in terms of style and copying the style, I’m just too lazy to spend the time to get it in my head.
TCR: The poem “Keep Your Eye on the Ball” has a wistful, outsider quality. You write “Where is my place in this?” and then “I won’t cry. I know how to be a blur, a shadow.” How does writing help you make sense out of the events in your past? Does your work enable you to cultivate a sense of belonging and place you lacked the words for when you were a child?
BR: Yes, absolutely. I will come up with a phrase, like “Where is my place in this?” It just came out of my pen. It was the only way I could say what I felt at the time. There are times when I cry. I’ll just let myself. It feels good. Because I’ve done enough therapy, it’s a cathartic moment, a clarity of emotion. It can intuitively answer old questions. When I’m writing memory poems, and a line occurs to me out of nowhere, I’ll read it aloud. It will bring up a deep emotion and make me feel connected to my father, connected to my brother. They bring the memory to life. I had an unquenchable thirst when I was young, and probably still do, to connect with the past, because that was, in a way, all I had. I still love those moments by myself when I read something aloud, and I’m editing, and it takes me back, and tears come. Time telescopes, and I’m there.
TCR: There’s a strong component of grace and generosity in these poems. Did you have that self-compassion as a kid, or did you arrive at it later? Do you see your work as a dialogue with your younger self? I’m curious how Bill today regards the character of Billy, the boy.
BR: I was very lucky. My mother was trained as a geriatric social worker. She was a very nonhysterical, very gentle, very bright person. When she was dying of cancer, she did a number of things to educate me on the subject of her dying. A month or two before she died, she brought over a Unitarian minister who was her therapist and held, essentially, a grief counseling session with me and my brother and explained why she was seeing a therapist: “I talk about my disease. I talk about how I love you boys. I talk about how I worry about Daddy.” After her first mastectomy, there was a remission of the cancer for about a year and a half. She said, “You and I are gonna take a bath.” That’s one of the first chapters of my memoir. She showed me her scar and said, “I want to show you that I’m getting better, and the doctor cut off the bad part of my breast.” I was amazed. I wasn’t scared. It wasn’t creepy. I remember looking at her naked and thinking she was so gorgeous, this naked woman, and she was very relaxed. That’s the kind of mother I had.
TCR: So that nurtured your own self-compassion? Because you had such a compassionate parent?
BR: I learned to be concerned about my psyche. During this death counseling session [my mother] said, “I see Dr. Storm because when one is in crisis, you seek help.” I was seven and a half years old. Seven years later, my dad’s little sister came and said, “Get this little boy into therapy.” My dad . . . he had anger issues, but he never hit me, he never threatened me, he never scared me. I saw him in pain, which he tried to hide. Pain because of my mother. Pain because of my brother. But he loved me. Had I not had those parents, I would be comforting myself with a syringe full of heroin.
I saw a therapist who said, “Every person who comes to my office brings a child with him.” I never cared about the inner child, but, like when you go to the theater to see a movie, you suspend disbelief. You go, Tell me the story. The poem “Phoebe” ends with my putting my arms around my neck and comforting myself. I thought up the character who would have been my older sister. My mother’s first child died before my brother and I were born. She died at birth. They never talked about her, but my aunts and uncles did. When I was a grown-up, I thought, I’m going to name her, and I’m going to talk to her. She would have been nine years older. She would have been my protector. She would have been my mother substitute. I had exercises where I would speak to her, to little Bill. Do I do that now? I should probably do it more. I write in my journals, “Let Bill write a chapter. Let little Bill write a chapter.” But that bifurcation is a little artificial. It’s a little too neat. The Buddhists say one thing, and the Orthodox Jews say another, and the therapists who believe in the inner child think another thing.
TCR: It feels like they can exist at the same time, right? You have little Bill and big Bill, and they can both inform the same poem.
BR: Yeah, you can let your subconscious do it rather than orchestrate it yourself. It’s like the difference between the novelist who says, Well, it’s just completely outlined now, I’m going to start the writing. And the other novelist says, You do that? What a bore.
TCR: The poems “Mars God of War,” “Place Old Blade into Recess,” and “Jim’s Radio & TV” explore your burgeoning development of an identity as a performer. I’m wondering how much your father was an influence.
BR: Very much so. He was a creative services director at an ad agency and later for General Mills. He had a side business as a public speaker. He was a wonderful performer. Men had their neat, little scripts, and he would reach into his pocket very pointedly and pull out a wrinkled, old utility bill envelope and set it on the dais and speak from it. Obviously, he’d be speaking extemporaneously. He was funny, and he was smart, and so he was a huge influence.
TCR: What kind of public speaking was he doing?
BR: He spoke to advertising clubs, he was on television, he was on local talk shows. He was a very effective speaker about advertising.
TCR: Your aunts appear in the poems “What Kind of Boy,” “The Clinic,” “Mannequin,” “Imaginary Ring,” and “Man Talking.” I wondered if you were alluding to them in the poem “Try My Luck” when you wrote, “An all-knowing coven watched me / through the walls with smirks of bemusement / and grudging respect for the fact I’ve even made it this far.” This group of older women who looked out for you in your childhood looms large. Can you elaborate on what made them so prominent?
BR: After my brother and my father died, I had more aunts than uncles. I would pick their brains: “Tell me about my mom, tell me about my dad. When did they meet?” They had difficult marriages, and so they would spill their problems on me. With my stepmother, we were thrown together suddenly in a very intimate setting, just the two of us, for four years until I left for college. The various personalities were all different but were essential. I was almost vampiric; I mean, they knew that they’d better do something so that I didn’t become the next Dutch Schultz bank robber. My aunts were an essential part of my adolescent upbringing by circumstance.
TCR: So, they were a resource for you that informed you about your family? And then there was a sort of back-and-forth confidante roll, it sounds like?
TCR: Do you feel like they helped preserve or prolong your childhood, since you lost so many people?
BR: Yes. They preserved my sense of family. They were family. They were blood. There were varying degrees of like and love, but they had been around when I was a little boy. They’d known me since birth. They were the direct conduit to mother, father, brother. A great comfort and great company. There’s a line I keep trying to put in this poem: “family is good, family is . . . [something].” It’s a mindless sort of line, trying to communicate the deep sense of this rich soil of family that I lost, that I hunger for. I think it also allowed me to create a second family, my own family, and stay with the woman whom I adore. We forgive each other for our peccadilloes, and the love and the appreciation and gratitude are stronger now than they’ve ever been. I’m very lucky that way.
TCR: My last question for you is about one of the more unsung venues where you’ve performed: classrooms in the Los Angeles Unified School District. What are your thoughts about bringing the art of poetry and storytelling into underserved communities like the public schools?
BR: Last year, right before Covid, I did ten weeks at Sal Castro Middle School in Pico-Union as a grief counselor with six kids. We used curriculum put out by OUR HOUSE Grief. Some was creative, some was poetry, and some was just talking, games and stuff, about grief. These are kids who lost someone within the last year, from gang violence to Grandma dying of cancer. I’m putting together a three-minute edited audiotape that I’ll play in classes of pop music and rap music that’s poetry. I’m looking forward to when I can go back in schools. There’s a school down the hill from me that I’ve been volunteering at for twenty years. I’ve done storytelling exercises with kids in L.A. Unified. I’ve done a lot of reading, and then they make up stories, either about their home life or not. It is really empowering to kids. It’s really fun.
TCR: Do you find that they enjoy being able to use their voices in that way?
BR: Oh god, yeah. I was able to get them talking and yelling and screaming and singing and laughing. I did a thing called “TV Cartoon Scandals: The Effects of Media on Children.” One of the main questions is, “What commercials do you see on TV, and what are they trying to sell you?” They’ll get really excited, and then we make stuff up. We deconstruct the idea of advertising products to children in the first place. They get very enthusiastic, because they can talk about what they see on television, and then they grow on it. What is selling? What is communicating a character? What is telling a story?
TCR: It’s so powerful for kids to feel listened to, to be paid attention to in that way. Thank you so much, Bill.
BR: What a compliment just to be asked these questions.
Melinda Gordon Blum’s essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Kveller, LiveWire, Lunch Ticket, and The Sun magazine’s “Readers Write.” She is a current candidate in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at University of California Riverside – Palm Desert.