By Eileen Moon
SHREWSBURY – “It was a wonderful, strange place when I lived there,” the poet Ed Ryterband said, musing on the year he lived in Athens, Greece, as a newly-minted Ph.D. teaching psychology at a private school for girls at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
It is a place he finds himself revisiting from time to time, in his memory, as he casts the reflections of his long life on to the blank page, making a poem.
It’s a statement that could apply to his view of life itself, both beautiful and strange, whether he is writing about his boyhood in a garden apartment in Queens, his years doing standup comedy in New York City, the loves, losses and friendships of a lifetime, or the enduring unknowns that accompany us all on the journey.
Ryterband and his wife Madelyne live in Shrewsbury now, in a calm and tidy retirement community seemingly far removed from the exoticisms of Athens, the spotlight that once shined on his adventures as a standup comic, or the challenges of a long career as a consulting psychologist for executives and corporations.
During the years they lived in New York’s West Village in the 1980s, Ryterband crafted his standup routines while Madelyne worked as a SAG-credentialed actress and “girl singer,” Ryterband said. “I always wanted to marry a girl singer. As luck would have it, I found one. We found each other about 37 years ago, after each of us had had a ‘practice’ marriage. We were having the time of our lives in the early 80s, living in the West Village.”
Ryterband, who will turn 78 Feb. 28, published his first book of poetry, “Life on Cloud Eight,” in 2018. It was not self-published, but acquired by a traditional publisher on its first submission round. “I was surprised and pleased,” he said. “My agent was, too. I told her, ‘Don’t sound so surprised.’ ”
His son Michael, a graphic designer, created the cover for “Life on Cloud Eight.”
The first poem he every published appeared in The Two River Times, a poem capturing the poignancy of his son’s departure for college.
Although he’d been writing poetry since he’d abandoned standup comedy for a more stable career, he describes his early work as more “advanced Hallmark cards,” that he’d write for friends and family on various occasions.
“You know the expression ‘cloud nine’? That’s supposed to be the achievement of some heavenly or highest level of accomplishment. So, life on cloud eight is my wink at that, saying ‘My life has been very fortunate and blessed but I don’t have a private jet, so cloud eight will have to do.’ ”
It was his wife who suggested he step up his game, inviting him to hear two female poets, Sondra Gash and Diane Lockward, who were speaking at Monmouth Reform Temple.
After the reading he approached Gash, author of the book “Silk Elegy.” Gash agreed to coach Ryterband and the two began to work together, eventually becoming fast friends.
As he became more serious about his poetry, Ryterband joined the U.S. 1 Poets Collective in Princeton, a group that has been meeting once a week for decades to critique each other’s work.
“Everybody brings a poem they want to share. Rules are, you don’t argue with the feedback. Once you hand out the poem it’s not yours anymore. It helped me get a thicker skin and also learn from some very good poets.”
Gradually, his publishing credits grew, with poems appearing in the Paterson Literary Review, a second in The Two River Times and several more in U.S. 1 Worksheets.
“I learned there was a kind of melancholia (in my poems). Part of it is just getting older. I can’t even say ‘old.’ I have to say ‘older.’ ’’
Nevertheless, he added, “Poems can be an occasion for celebration and gratitude.”
And he has much to celebrate – his comfortable home, the love of his family, the bonds of friendship, the contrasting pleasures of life in a small town and the energy of the city, where the couple still keeps a studio apartment.
“We lived in New York City where there are lots of interesting people. (But) here is a place where you can sit down and sort of dig into friendships. They are a source of real comfort and happiness.”
Their son Jason, a composer who lives in Santa Monica, California, would love to have his parents move close to him, Ryterband said, but the “web of relationships” they’ve woven over a lifetime keep them deeply connected and content.
Writing continues to offer him a means to explore the deep questions and answers hidden in the everyday.
It isn’t work he does for profit; in fact, all of the money he earns with the sale of his books goes to a charity of the buyer’s choice.
“There’s a joy in self-expression,” he said. “That idea started a long time ago, before everyone had a Twitter account. It’s different than just spouting off whatever is at the top of my head. There’s a joy in digging in and discovering and sharing. It’s just a very, very deeply rewarding exercise.”
“I guess that the real payoff is not just getting it published, but by being again in the world the poem creates,” Ryterband said. “It’s not just a reflection. It’s an embrace of the world, celebrating it.”
To purchase a copy of “Life on Cloud 8,” visit the writer’s website at edryterband.com.
This article was first published in the Feb. 21-Feb. 27, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.
Correction: The print version of this story misspelled Ryterband’s last name in the headline, photo caption and also his website EdRyterband.com. It appears here corrected. We regret the error.
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