In Memoriam: Rochelle Ratner, 1949--2008

10 years ago

One of my oldest and dearest friends died last month, after what seemed like an all-to-brief and unfairly fatal illness; this post is about her, about friendship and about what we shared.

Rochelle was maybe 28 when I met her, and I was 20, just out of college and working in New York. We were both writers, both in love with poetry, and we’d each come to New York City, some years apart, to hone our craft and get away from the suburbs we’d grown up in. I lived in a 5th floor walk up in Soho, in a building that wrapped around a spice market and a bar; she lived at the edge of the East Village, in a shabby, sprawling apartment above an electrical shop. Her world was the (downtown) St. Mark’s Poetry Project, where she’d taken classes, mine was the (uptown)The Academy of American Poets, where I worked as an arts administrator and ran poetry workshops, soon after we met, we became good friends, drawn together, I think, both by our not insignificant ambition and our sincere desires to improve our work.

Resolutely single, Rochelle didn’t want to date; in fact, she saw writing as the act that had saved her from a live of suburban horror in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I, on the other hand, had a long distance boyfriend in update New York (whom I later married); our shared lack of other obligations freed us to go to poetry readings and literary events across the city, driven by a hunger to connect, learn and observe (just like the Web 2.0 world, in a way, eh?)

It is impossible to think about Rochelle and not think of her reading, writing, or talking about poetry. When I look back on the early days of our friendship, I remember endless phone calls about poems we were each working on, books we were reading, reviews we were writing, all against the endless, never-ceasing efforts to publish our work. And then, of course, there was the chatter, the debates in coffee house, pubs, and on street corners about who the best writers were, what the important journals might want, and how to make poetry matter. Besides me, Rochelle’s special buddies were poets Nathan Whiting, Daniela Gioseffi, Liz Marrafino, Maurice Kenny, Paul Pines, Michael Lally, Bob Heman, and Ron Silliman, and she was pretty much always available to talk about writing, help someone out, or get together.

Later, we edited three issues of a National Endowment on the Arts
supported anthology called Hand Book together; like all young writers,
editing a compilation gave us the chance to showcase our taste, our
values, our views. Right before we met, Rochelle had also started
working on American Book Review,
which she edited for many years, and of course she was a tireless
creator—of poems, prose poems, stories, novels, novellas, and later
photographs.

The only thing is, as she kept on writing, I got writer’s block. As she
plunged ahead with a full creative life, I had a child and start to
think about getting the bills paid. Yep, the fork in the road started
to hit.

Eventually, we become cordial, but distant—the deep,
engaged friendship of those early years put aside, the joy of talking
to one another put on the memory palace shelf.

And then it’s 2007, and Rochelle and I start to reconnect more deeply again.

I’ve written to her, reached out, and we’ve started doing calls late at night, talking about life. And then she’s out in the Bay area for a reading, and we spend a day or more together, hanging out, and it’s just great, not so different than old times, except that she’s still a writer and I’m this funny thing called a Product Developer (and at Yahoo! Personals, no less),-- and a blogger, which she’s really not, though she did do this site about Bush.
Have you had that experience of reconnecting with someone from your past, who was very powerful for you, once—and who now is right there for you again? That was the visit Rochelle and I had, and the visit after that, in New York, where we spent time together walking around the city.

Soon after that, in March 2007, Rochelle found out that her renewed headaches were linked to cancer. We talked on the phone every month or so, and then I saw her in the city for the last time. A few months later, after a silence of many years, I started writing poetry again and we started corresponding about writing. After one of our talks, I wrote two poems for her, only one of which I sent (see them here).

And now, all too quickly, she’s gone.

I’m left thinking about my past, about the bright moments of youth and energy we shared, but I’ll also thinking about our present, the time we reconnected across the country, finding things to care about in one another again. Rochelle, the incredible generosity of your attention was something you gave me freely; the lessons of your life were how your curiousity, your love, and your determination kept you vibrant and strong.

Farewell, dear friend, sister.

Related links to check out
Rochelle Ratner’s web site
An important and often-cited essay about her by Karl Young:
A little pinball poem she wrote about me (one of many)
Rochelle writing on friendship and competition
Her 83 books listed on Amazon

Bloggers in her circle

Claudia Carlson, elephant house
Ron Silliman

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