Rae Armantrout, renowned for her short, lyrical poems, will be at Ducky Waddles May 8 at 7 p.m. for a poetry ruckus. Courtesy photo

Poet has penchant for contradictions

ENCINITAS — Rae Armantrout can’t help but notice the similarity between the jagged, red rocks in nature and the jagged, red teeth on the cover of vampire bestsellers. 

In her newest collection, “Just Saying,” she weaves together not only “Twilight” and the outdoors, but other seemingly dissimilar topics like science and literature in quick stanzas. For Armantrout, who described herself as “a constant observer of the American culture we live in,” it comes naturally.

“Some people have the idea that poets are very inward — or that they write about fantasies or only their personal experiences,” Armantrout said. “My personal experiences come into the poems, but they’re mixed with my interests in science or what I happen to encounter in the news and popular culture.

“I guess it’s a cliché to say, but I don’t think you can separate the personal from the political or your life from your culture,” Armantrout added.

On May 8 at 7 p.m., her talent for mixing the internal and external will be on full display during a poetry ruckus at Ducky Waddles bookstore. Armantrout will read passages from “Just Saying” and other works, including “Versed,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2010.

“When I first heard I was so excited that I said some words that probably aren’t appropriate,” Armantrout said. She added that she’s grateful, because the award gave her the chance to attend more readings and book conferences throughout the country.

Armantrout’s books defy easy categorization; she bounces from topic to topic — often within the same poem. But that’s not to say there aren’t common themes in each of her books. Aramantrout wrote part of “Versed” after being diagnosed with a rare and often fatal form of cancer (she’s been cancer-free for nearly seven years.) And a portion of “Moneyshot,” her previous book, was dedicated to making sense of the imploding economy in 2008.

In “Just Saying,” she said ghosts regularly crop up, because some of her friends recently passed away.

“There’s a sense of haunting or loss that comes from that,” Armantrout said. “When you’re older, you can’t help but see your cohort is vanishing.”

She said the haunting extends to the subjectivity of everyday life.

“You think you can see a connection between things; you think you can see a meaning,” Armantrout said. “But you’re not real sure. And you’re haunted, perhaps, by these suspicions or the uncertainty attached to things.”

But in the same breath — again showing her books can’t be painted with broad strokes — Armantrout said the book is also a celebration of “the different moods and forms that life takes.”

And, in Armantrout fashion, the poems in “Just Saying” contain snippets pulled from everything, from overheard conversations to references to physics journals — all delivered with trademark wit from a variety of perspectives.

“The strange, technical language (in physics journals) for some reason just really stirs my imagination,” Armantrout said.

Indeed, Armantrout, who teaches literature at UC San Diego, is even considering launching a class with a science teacher this fall that explores the intersection of art and physics.

She grew up in San Diego and came of age as a poet in the Bay Area. In the late 1960s, Armantrout was one of the founding “language poets,” though she’s distinguished by her more lyrical style.

Armantrout’s name was familiar in poetry circles several decades ago, but in the past 10 years she’s broken into the mainstream. A self-described “slow starter,” Armantrout said the past decade has been the most prolific of her life.

She attributed this to having more time with her son growing up, and expecting more of herself. And Armantrout said writing was comforting after her bout with cancer.

“Most people ask me, ‘how did you have the presence of mind to write when you were worried it could come back?’” Armantrout said. “But writing really helped me stay sane. It helped to externalize whatever anxiety I had.”

These days, her creative streak is still going strong. In fact, she’s nearing completion of yet another book. It appears her penchant for connecting the dots between contradictions will once again be in full swing.

“Beauty and vanity seem to be reoccurring in this one,” Armantrout said.