Max Ritvo began as my student. I met Max when he was a senior at Yale. This is how he began his application to get into my playwriting workshop: Dear Professor Ruhl, Thanks for reading this application. My name is Max Ritvo—I’m a senior English major in the Creative Writing Concentration. All I want to do is write. His application said that he was a poet and a comedian, part of an experimental comedy troupe. A poet and he’s funny? Huh. I reread his application, which had been left to stew in the “no” pile because he’d never written a play before. And because funny poets are a rare and wonderful species of human being, I moved Max to the “yes” pile, despite his lack of experience writing plays. It is hard to imagine now that Max’s application could ever have remained in any other pile—a strange parallel universe in which I never met Max.
This week marks two years since we opened Milkweed Books, our independent bookstore in the Open Book building. Here are this month's recommendations, in which four real people suggest good books we think you might like, too!
Max Ritvo was a prodigiously gifted poet; toward the end of his life, he was also volcanically productive. Nothing he wrote was without flashes of brilliance, but many of these late poems would surely have been revised or jettisoned; it was slow work to sift out the very best. This he asked me to do—it seemed to me an essential labor lest the weaker poems dilute the stronger. What follows, obviously, reflects my judgment. Nothing has been revised; Elizabeth Metzger, Max’s designated literary executor, suggested one minute cut. Cancer was Max’s tragedy; it was also, as he was canny enough to see, his opportunity. Poets who die at twenty-five do not commonly leave bodies of work so urgent, so daring, so supple, so desperately alive.