INTERVIEW: how Ruffian carried me through
by Lyn Lifshin
Interviewer: If you would be so kind as to respond to the questions below. . . I am thinking your responses will generate more questions
Lyn: Actually, I have written books about three horses. Besides Barbaro and Ruffian, I did a small collection about Lost in the Fog.
Each of the books developed so differently and none in any way I could have planned or foreseen. Soon after my Ruffian book, I was asked to do an essay about how writing the Ruffian poems became part of my life. Though the piece was accepted but never used, I thought I would include it here. It tells a lot about my experience writing those poems. That time was so vivid I can easily picture myself at various times going to the library for inter library loans, how I treasured finding some of the rare out of print books on her and carried them home like rare jewels.
How Ruffian Carried Me Through
On April 17, 1972, at ten minutes to ten in the late evening, three days late, the only time she would be, Ruffian was born at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky. She was born with a star on her forehead, a sign of what she would become: the fastest filly, maybe the greatest horse of all time. From her record-breaking maiden race, Ruffian left behind the best fillies and mares in races as she almost effortlessly won stakes and broke records. She was ahead at every point of call.
Ruffian was strikingly beautiful, more like his Black Stallion, the writer Walter Farley said, than any colt he’d seen; she was the image of The Black Beauty. An undefeated winner with lightning-fast speed, Ruffian was Champion Juvenile filly of 1974. She was never headed, flew to breathtaking, stunning victories with a stride like no other horse, almost ghostly. Invincible until just after her Triple Crown win for fillies, it seemed Ruffian didn’t know how to lose. Then, in a tragic, misguided match race with the colt, Foolish Pleasure, winner of the year’s (1974?) Kentucky Derby, Ruffian broke down, even while in the lead by nearly a length. On three legs, thrusting her broken foreleg into the ground over and over, she could not easily be pulled up.
No one who saw Ruffian can forget her. She was rare, perfect, spectacular, miraculous, bright. She is buried where no other horse has been, where she ran her first and last race -- at the Belmont infield under the NYRA ( NEW YORK RACING ASSOCIATION) flag pole, with her nose pointing, as it always did, toward the finish line.
You might wonder how Ruffian, the beautiful, licorice-colored racehorse, helped me through a difficult year, really kept me going. It might seem strange that this gorgeous horse, no longer alive, could be my extraordinary confidante, partner, healer, and closest friend. Maybe you don’t know Ruffian. I didn’t, years ago, when Carol, a young woman with multiple sclerosis, told me she was like Ruffian. Like the gorgeous filly, she couldn’t give up. She told me Ruffian was her role model, that she had been a runner before she got sick. Watching Ruffian refuse to give up, even after being injured, gave Carol the strength to go on. From her wheelchair, she had coached her young daughter to run. Like Ruffian, she wouldn’t let anything stop her. Carol was my student thirty years ago, and I recently heard she is still fighting and will go down the aisle for her daughter’s wedding this summer.
I had to admit I knew little about Ruffian. I had ridden a little, growing up in Vermont where everybody did. But I wasn’t horse crazy, didn’t collect bronze and glass and plastic horses (yet) or want to run off to a racetrack like some kids want to join the circus. In fact, it wasn’t until 2003 that mysteriously, Ruffian took hold of my heart and wouldn’t let go.
Ruffian had fascinated so many, but for me she was a lifesaver. 2003 was a year when everything, that had seemed perfect, predictable, full, suddenly collapsed. Months before my next book was to come out, my dream publisher, the one I had waited for for years and thought I would have for years, suddenly got out of the business. First, I was shocked, then, devastated. Then depression began to grow. It didn’t help (being doctor-phobic) that I was approaching some surgery. Not a big deal in itself but involving test after test, until I was so frustrated, after one visit, I wept in the car. If I had had anything sharper than a credit card (which didn’t do much), I might have sliced deeper, tried to slice out the darkness in me. Depression grew. I had misjudged someone I cared about and that haunted me. Nothing seemed to be happening with my overdue book or any others since I had agreed, in the good years with that publisher, not to publish with anyone else. It was like a death.
For some reason I don’t quite still understand, I thought of my student Carol and Ruffian. I had written one poem about her and the horse that summer thirty years ago. It was published as a broadside. The poem was more about my student, really, but I wanted to re-read it. I had several copies but couldn’t find any of them. That was when my hunt to be with Ruffian, my licorice daughter, began.
Over and over, I searched two houses, drawers I was sure I’d seen the Ruffian poem in. At least I was doing something. I called libraries, archives. It wasn’t a poem I had included in any of my over one hundred poetry books, so looking in them was out. By the time I found it, I was already dreaming of Ruffian, rewriting the lost poem from what I remembered, in version after version. If Ruffian hadn’t given up, if my student hadn’t, either, how could I?
I thought of the beauty of horses in the snow, “huddling,” I had written, in an early dreaming-of-Ruffian poem, “like children or the memory of children.” I thought of their shapes “dark as the space snow angels leave, their hooves’ an angel’s tiara.” I became lost, transported thinking of horses in the Vermont countryside. I remembered going to the Morgan Horse Farm just outside Middlebury almost every night as a child, watching the mares and foals nuzzle each other. Writing this, I remembered how one of the few photographs I have of my father, sister, and me is in front of that horse farm barn. He is holding us both lightly, as if he’s not sure we are real.
The real and the fantastic began to dance together as Ruffian and I headed toward fall. In daydreams and poems that braided us into one, I imagined the warmth of sleeping with this dream mare, nuzzling skin. I was writing again. The poems were like nothing else I had written, and for someone who writes all the time, needs to write all the time, who feels poetry is like breathing, I felt I was beginning to live again.
From then on, in the middle of doctor’s appointments and tests and fear and frustration at the seemingly frozen state of my overdue book, a new ritual began. First, I’d make mango or vanilla or maple tea and then settle into trancelike hours with Ruffian. Reading and writing about her felt like a safe cove, a comfort. Even as the days got darker, September into October and November, mornings and often afternoons with Ruffian pulled sun, a little light, into the house, and I could start to live in a world I was beginning to want to live in again.
Everyday, in stillness, maybe with my Abyssinian cat on the table, with my notebooks and horse photographs and light blazing in some days; gray icy fog, other days; I was lost in thoughts and questions, feelings about this horse. I read every book I could find and then began to hunt on eBay and Amazon for out-of-print books. Began a hunt for old, hard-to-find articles about Ruffian.
My world expanded. Sometimes, I talked two hours on the phone to race experts. This was a world I had never moved in. At times, reading nonstop about not only Ruffian but other racehorses, it seemed I was preparing for a degree; that there was so much to learn. Some race enthusiasts had seen Ruffian race and were still ecstatic about her speed and beauty, her uniqueness. No one didn’t say she was special. Equine librarians Xeroxed articles about her for me. Strangers, who knew Ruffian and her trainer, Frank Whiteley, told me stories, things I never would have known otherwise.
I still hated the doctor visits, though I remember one was muted by knowing that right after the appointment, I’d finally pick up an out-of-print book I had been looking for for a long time. I was in two worlds. I was vibrant in one, in control, free, and in love.
Someone sent me an incredible photograph: a still from the movie Taxi, where the man playing a cabbie, is, if you look closely, wearing a Ruffian button as he sits near Robert DiNero and Peter Boyle. To prepare for the part of a taxi driver, he wrote to me, he drove around in New York City cabs. The driver, that June before Ruffian’s last race, was a fan of hers, and wore the button, as I still do often, for luck. The actor bought it from the cab driver and wore it for the shoot.
Some days began to be fun and heady again. Once I got into writing about Ruffian, I wrote about nothing else for over a year. I loved writing about her birth, a section I called “Small and New in the Lamp of her Mother’s Eye.” I could feel, see Ruffian, suddenly dark and slick with that star on her head and the pale buds outside her stall. As snow piled outside on my deck, I imagined Ruffian with her mother, Shenanigans, under a maple.
Every day I looked forward to the time with her, our time. I began to collect more and more photographs, bid recklessly on some. One that I thought I won, but didn’t, still lures me. The house filled with horse books. Riding on the Metro, I was either joyfully lost in writing about Ruffian or reading a book I couldn’t bear to end. I was with her when she was weaned, felt her sorrow, her fear. She was with me in the hospital waiting room.
My ballet friends almost jealously would say, “Well, at least you have Ruffian.” I saw how, in so many ways, ballet dancers and horses get high and can be torn in similar ways. The separation between filly and mare flung me back to my own fear that I could never live without my mother. Ruffian’s October, jarring and scary as mine, somehow, because it linked us, calmed me.
I think becoming lost in reading and writing about Ruffian was like meditation, something I’ve never been able to do. I could feel my heartbeat slow down, my blood pressure lower, my mind free itself from anxiety, and the litany of too many things to do. Over the holidays, when guests went into the museums on the mall in Washington DC, I stayed home to write. I was with Ruffian from the field of Kentucky foals to her last December months as a weanling, pawing dried leaves, snuffling the cold air; not far, the day of the least light.
Each month of 2004, I thought of what Ruffian had been doing her first year of her life. And then, what the weather was like. How camellias must have opened there as mine failed to. When I flew to California for a series of readings for the book, then overdue by a year and a half and still not out, I wrote about Ruffian while staying in a beautiful house near the ocean. At readings, I talked with so much excitement to people, who knew little about Ruffian, that they began asking questions too.
I was counting down to her birthday and I was counting to the date of her first race, an astonishing maiden race, winning with ease by fifteen lengths. She went from the plump, some thought, lazy filly, Sophie for sofa, easy to sink into, to a supernatural almost eerie speed freak, better, some said, than Secretariat. I thought of her not only as a friend and companion but a daughter. The more I thought of her victories, the less I was dragged down when something didn’t go right. I thought of her jockey, her trainer, her grooms, and all the love they had for her. All this time, I wrote and wrote. It was as if I could write and talk to her about my own feelings, what was going on in my life, things I couldn’t tell anyone. As I brought her back to life in poem after poem, she was bringing me more and more back to aliveness, joy.
Being so connected to her, it was hard to give up Ruffian, to stop what had become so much a part of every day. I was thinking about her in North Carolina, nearing her birthday. Once I thought I could end the poems on that day, April 17th. But then I thought, maybe on the anniversary of her maiden race. By then, I had filled around twenty-six notebooks. It was as hard to stop as it was to write about her last race, but even in that sadness, there is some jubilation: she was becoming myth, unforgettable.
It was no small job to type all those poems: over 1,500, many similar, many very personal, too personal. Too anthropomorphic. And many about another horse that had, at the time I was writing about Ruffian, never lost -- a filly they nicknamed in whispery voices, Ruffian, since she was so like her in looks and spirit.
Ruffian’s gift of different, strong poems was too huge for a book. After weeks of cutting and shaping, arranging and rearranging the poems, I remembered I had painted a black horse very much like Ruffian, probably before she was even born, as if I knew she’d be part of my life. Someday it will surface to be with me like the memory and legacy of Ruffian. The licorice daughter seemed just what she was, and I had truly spent my year with her, so I called the book, The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian.
Next, the challenge of finding a publisher. Are horse lovers poetry lovers? Known more for my poems about people and relationships, I didn’t know how publishers would react. I had never queried a publisher about a poetry collection. This was new.
Would poetry readers even care about horses? Know who Ruffian was? Unlike any other book I’ve done, often made up of poems published primarily in magazines, I had never submitted a single Ruffian poem to any magazine. This was nothing like selecting poems on different subjects from a large number of poems various magazine editors had selected to publish. No one had seen my Ruffian poems.
After submitting the book, I waited, as Ruffian’s owner had waited, for that spirited, dancing filly’s birth. On December 11, three weeks after I submitted the book, I wrote on the handwritten manuscript, “Ruffian crossed the finish line.” I felt like everything that mattered for the moment was riding on her, and Ruffian carried me there: Texas Review Press had taken the book. Christmas came early. And it didn’t end.
In days, almost magically, I met a painter who loved Ruffian too. Days before Christmas, we talked hours on the phone, and he offered to let me use his painting for the cover. The publisher has designed a simply amazingly beautiful cover, been wonderful to work with. A jockey, Sean Clancy, whose book Saratoga Days is one of my favorites, wrote some wonderful comments. Probably my favorite is: “Ruffian would have liked Lifshin."
I read a quote somewhere that went something like this: People look in a horse for something they need or want in themselves. Exactly what that was, still is a mystery, but I think I found it. As Frank Whiteley, Ruffian’s trainer, said, “She was good to be around.” Very good.
I did readings around the country from The Licorice Daughter. One was with the actress Karen Black who is an actress and I was a little intimidated by that but the audience, as all the audiences I read for, was riveted by Ruffian's story. Several newspapers and sports stations interviewed me. Even after the book was done, I couldn't get enough of more stories about her.
I had absolutely no plans to write another horse book. I was in upstate New York unable to watch the Kentucky Derby but had the radio on. I picked the right moment: it was just as Barbaro was into that last exciting stretch. I don't know why but from that first race he dazzled in, Barbeero" as they mispronounced it, had something mysteriously engaging about him that grabbed me from that moment. When I couldn't be there to watch the Preakness, came home to find the terrible news, I yelped "just like Ruffian." Like so many, I was transfixed over the weekend listening for news and updates. As someone else said, when something like this happens, it is like a masterpiece smashed to bits. In trying to find news, I found an excellent blog on Barbaro and until long past his death I continued to check in and listen to shared feelings, experiences and goals not only of those who loved Barbaro but people interested in equine welfare-- But Barbaro's story was like lightning-- all over the country, the world, people who knew little and cared little about horses were suddenly passionate not only about Barbaro but about what they could do for horses, how they could fight animal cruelty etc.
But as interested as I was in Barbaro's recovery, my first thoughts were that, yes, probably I would have to write one poem about his tragic injury and the amazing outpouring of interest. But a book, no. Still I began to read everything, take notes, read more and more. I was obsessed with Barbaro. When I was out of town, I tried impossible internet connections to keep up with his condition. When bad news came in July that he had developed laminitis, I thought of little else and was thrilled and ecstatic when, in August, Dr Richardson took him outside for the first time.
When I wrote about Ruffian, the story had ended it and I was paying tribute to her grace and strength and beauty. With Barbaro, I was writing in real time with no certainty how the story would end. I wrote daily: there were over 20 notebooks and nearly four or five hundred poems when I was done. When the news looked good, around Christmas, several prose books, non fiction books about him were finished and rushed off to the publisher.
I continued to write up to and past his terribly sad death
Interviewer: Both poem collections are research based. Please discuss your research process and maybe why you decided to work with research base for a poem.
I think I've talked a little already but simply, the two were researched in very different ways. I was always starved for more material about Ruffian. Inter-library loans, bids on eBay for rare magazines, out of print books on Amazon— I devoured everything I could.
With Barbaro there was often almost too much information— the blogs constantly updating, the sports columns so wide-ranging. Sometimes it was hard to be sure where something came from there was just so much out there. Wherever I was, I was always jotting things on scraps of paper in odd places. Strangely, this, as when I wrote most of Ruffian, was during a rather scary time,
Several excellent non fiction books came out about Barbaro while I was still writing poems about him. I always have been careful, have worried that I might write something not factual, something "right"-- so since I did not know either Ruffian or Barbaro I had to research the facts but let my imagination create the emotions and feelings and story. But the facts had to be right. At times esp. in Saratoga Springs area some horse person would come trying to trick me about which jockey in which race so I've had to keep going back to the dates and times and people, the facts, the words of others, the news clips, the videos.
Why tragedies? — I think I am attracted to darkness and that eerie sadness of losing anything rare and amazing and starting—which horses are.