Our friend Max Ritvo passed away August 23, 2016. We learned so much from our conversations with him, and we hope that this interview gives you a sense of the beauty — and humor — he saw in the world.
One of our first guests on the show last fall was the young poet Max Ritvo.
Ritvo, 25, has spent years living with Ewing’s Sarcoma, an incurable cancer. Meanwhile he’s gotten married, taught at Columbia University, and performed in an improv comedy group. His first book of poetry, Four Reincarnations, comes out this fall. One work from that book, “Poem to My Litter,” was just published in the New Yorker.
But Ritvo is more than his accomplishments. He’s someone who reminded us that there are many different ways to look at death, and dying, and some of them make you actually laugh out loud.
He came back to visit us a few weeks ago on what he called his “farewell tour.” Even in his final days, Max says he keeps his sense of humor alive.
“When you laugh at something horrible, you're just illuminating a different side of it that was already there. If you make something sad funny you're much more likely to remember it. It’s a mnemonic device that makes our suffering rhyme with joy.”
We invited an artist, Nate Milton, to animate two of Max’s poems:
Poem to My Litter
Reset (Instrumental)Artist: MamahawkAlbum: Mamahawk
Have You Seen My KeysArtist: Tomo NakayamaAlbum: InstrumentalsLabel: Audiosocket
PetalsArtist: Abstract AprilsAlbum: Upon Endless Roads
Everything You Can Think of is TrueArtist: Tom WaitsAlbum: AliceLabel: ANTI-
Mary Harris: Hey everyone. Quick warning here at the top, there is some cursing this week. You should really stick around for this one though, just not with the kids in the room.
Max Ritvo: Hi.
MH: How are you?
MR: Give me huggies.
MH: I’m Mary Harris, this is Only Human. Today, we’re catching up with an old friend, poet Max Ritvo.
MH: Welcome to New York.
MR: I missed home so much. It’s really good to be back.
MH: Max was one of the very first people I spoke with on this show, just our fourth episode. We named it “Who are You Calling Inspiring?” Because, well, he has this rare and awful cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma and he hates how people talk about cancer survivors like they’re these precious symbols of suffering. So if you haven’t yet, go back and meet Max, and then come back here because a lot’s happened since then and he’s calling this his farewell tour.
MH: I’ve been thinking of this interview as kind of a celebration because the last time we talked you were shopping your manuscript and now.
MR: It happened, yeah
MH: Max just got a book deal. His book of poetry is full of meditations on what he thinks are the final years of his life. One poem just got published in the New Yorker, it’s about this one particularly extreme experiment he’s tried to get better. I asked him to read me a piece of it.
MR: Poem to my Litter. My genes are in mice, and not in the banal way that Man’s old genes are in the Beasts. My doctors split my tumors up and scattered them into the bones of twelve mice. We give the mice poisons I might, in the future, want for myself. We watch each mouse like a crystal ball. I wish it was perfect, but…
MH: So doctors removed a few of Max’s tumors then they implanted them in a litter of mice. They wanted to try out some more experimental drugs to see if they might be worth a try in Max. Doctors call the mice cancer avatars but in the poem, Max names them all after himself.
MR: I want my mice to be just like me. I don’t have any children. I named them all Max. First they were Max 1, Max 2, but now they’re all just Max. No playing favorites.
MH: Do you feel attached to them?
MR: Yeah I do. They, they are the close, they have my genes in them. I don't have any kids you know this is, in a strange really paradoxical way, the closest I've come to having children. You think about them a lot as just these things that are dying for you and that are suffering for you.
MH: Did therapies work in the mouse that didn’t work in you?
MH: There was this one drug that seemed to work really well in the mice but it had never been tried in humans before. So his mom wrote a letter to the FDA and got it approved for Max to use.
MR: Just sent the FDA a cold email. ‘Hi, um, hi so-and-so, um, here’s my son’s story.’
MH: And her note must have been pretty persuasive because she said she got a call back within two or three hours which put Max in this weird position. He was going to be the first human to ever take this drug. I asked him if it was scary.
MR: I’m going to die and this is a drug that’s side effect free in the animal models and it, it offers remission if it works. I want remission.
MH: He got the same grade of drugs that the mice were given, now he was the lab rat.
MR: So you know I was being really useful to science to which science means an immense amount to me, it always has.
MH: Max continues to take this drug today but it doesn’t seem to be working and in the last few weeks things took a turn.
MH: Can you tell me what your day to day life is like right now?
MR: Um yeah.
MH: Do you want to tell me about it?
MR: About wait, how I feel about it all?
MH: No just what
MR: My day to day life?
MH: What’s your day to day life like right?
MR: Sure. Um, I’m in pain. Um, it’s hard for me to breathe. You know, if this therapy doesn’t work, it’s going to be terminal soon.
MH: Max weighs 112 pounds, he’s coughing, stairs are a huge challenge. When I first met him almost a year ago his voice was louder. He was sick but he wasn’t frail. At the time I was a couple years out from my own cancer scare, my hair was actually still growing out from chemo. Max and I could laugh at cancer together. Now he and I are in very different places. My cancer’s gone and he’s pretty sure he’s dying. But the weird thing is, he’s the one more upbeat. He’s determined to convince me that death and dying are actually hilarious.
MR: It’s like death is like a, a prank uh that your body plays on life. You know? (laughs) Uh, it’s, it’s really funny. Um, you know, first of all the physical comedy of it. You go floppier than you've ever been and then you get rigormortis and you become this stiff little capsule. Then your family puts you in a box but there’s no T.V. or snacks like you’re Buzz Lightyear being packaged up and then they put you in a, in a hole in the ground or they cremate you and you turn into protein powder basically. It's really just the physical comedy is amazing. And then the emotional way death is a leveller and pulls the rug out from under all of the permanences you've made. You tell yourself I'm going to find love and even if you do that, which is miraculous and almost never happens, but even if you do that and you die it just goes away. Um and it’s sort of, it makes all of life very quixotic.
MH: Are you able to actually find it funny?
MR: Yeah absolutely. I don't, look I am very sick and tired of people saying humor is a coping mechanism or humor is a defense or humor is a deflection. Um, that is not how it is. There is in any experience of sadness some element of irony or astonishment or puzzling.
MH: What's been the funniest moment?
MR: Oh that’s hard. Um, I um, I was having diarrhea and then I needed to vomit and I wanted to vomit in the toilet. But if I was going to move my butt I was going to shit all over the wall and I ended up like spreading my legs and vomiting between my legs as I pooped.
MH: you figured it out.
MR: Yeah and the fact that my body's mechanics couldn't even permit all the sadness to go into the little technological holes that we make to get rid of. It was really funny, Mary.
MH: Were you actually able to laugh about it?
MR: It was actually really funny. Hell yeah, immediately. I was laughing as it was happening. Are you kidding me. How could I not?
MR: You think comedy is deflection?
MH: Well, so I'm going to go down a rabbit hole now. But when I was sick I spent that whole year laughing like, I remember the day I was diagnosed being like the most buoyant day. It was that New York September where it's very beautiful and it's not really hot anymore. And my husband and I, we got the diagnosis and we had to go get like all the scans and we were laughing uproariously the whole time. We were like we need the scans, we were laughing, laughing, laughing and they kind of looked at us like wha- it was like we were high. Right?
MR: Yeah you were.
MH: We were. And because it was so absurd.
MR: High on death yeah.
MH: Yeah. And um, I feel like I spent the whole year like that.
MH: And I just wouldn't let it in. So for me it was a deflection for a little bit. Um.
MR: But it sounds to me…
MH: But a very, very healthy one.
MR It sounds to me like your biopsy was, it was time of funny for you.
MH: Kind of.
MR: Like that was the reality and if you could go back and make it not of time a funny. Do you think that, that would somehow be realer or truer?
MH: No. I think, I mean, no and my doctors loved me because I was so funny.
MR: That's great you said it was you were healing other people while you had cancer.
MH: Yeah I guess.
MR: You know we imagine in our hysteria that it's disrespectful for the sadness but when you laugh at something horrible, you're just illuminating a different side of it that was already there and it's not a deflection it makes it deeper and makes it realer. We love remembering things that that make us giggle and if you make something sad funny you're much more likely to remember it. It's a mnemonic device that makes our, makes suffering rhyme with joy.
MH: This is the way Max’s mind works. The joy isn’t separated out from the everyday horrors, it’s all sitting there together simmering.
MR: I'm not trying to figure out anything Mary. I'm not. I don't think you get to a point where um you go aha, now I understand what my suffering is and I’m, now I have closure. Like we tell ourselves that but in reality, we suffer and then we don't suffer. There are times where I'm not fine, I'm really not fine, and then there are times where I'm fine. And I'm not going to spend the times that I'm fine going, ‘oh how can I make this last.’ I'm not going to spend the times I'm not fine beating myself up or trying to change it and adding on top of the despair this panic, this abject desire to get out of it and fix it you know. That’s just not how it works.
MH: Do you let yourself be pissed off?
MR: Yeah, sure. You know anger doesn't come very naturally to me but if I just need to grah you know, I let myself grah.
MH: What does that look like?
MR: Um, picking fights on Facebook that I know I can win.
MH: You're going on Facebook and trolling people?
MR: No I, I wouldn't call it trolling. I, I do um brisk remedial education. You know if somebody has an article on the evils of technology, I’ll throw some studies at them in the opposite direction. I don’t, I can't say it's been particularly helpful. I just try to forgive myself when it happens and just try to move into another zone of mind when, when I'm ready when I can.
MH: After the break, Max gets a letter from his hero and he thinks seriously about what the next few weeks look like. Max Ritvo’s first book of poetry comes out in November it’s called, ‘Four Reincarnations’. But right now you can listen to him reading two of his poems at OnlyHuman.org. When we spoke, Max said he always wanted his poems to be animated, like music videos, so we asked an artist who’s a fan of this show to do just that. You can check those out at our website too. If you like them, share them.
MH: When Max and I spoke last fall, he told this one story that stuck with a lot of you. It summed up the awkwardness of being a kid with cancer who suddenly has to think about his future in ways that he never has before. Max was just 16 years old when he was diagnosed. His mom insisted he do one thing before he started chemo, save his sperm. He ended up giving a sample from his hospital bed and when it was done, it was his mom who came to collect it. And this is how he described it when we first spoke back in the fall.
MR: So my mom walks in, takes my sperm, and she sticks it into her little like lipstick pant pocket lIke this really hip little lipstick pocket she has. And she goes, ‘I was the first one to hold my grandchildren. Before even their mother!’
MH: Back when Max told me this story, he had just gotten married to his wife, Victoria. They weren’t talking about the future in concrete ways but they were allowing themselves to dream about starting a family, just a little bit.
MH: So when we talked last time, you talked about the future and you talked about how you liked talking about the future.
MR: Yeah, I don’t.
MH: With your wife.
MR: Yeah, I don't talk about babies much these days.
MR: What are those conversations with her like now?
MR: Um we just, we’re focusing on the present tense as much as we can, you know? I, I, I'm in emergency a minute right now.
MH: What do the next few months look like for you?
MR: Um, work as much as I can through the pain and then when the pain gets to be too much, tranquilize myself with pain killers and um that’ll be it. And I'll keep taking these drugs and you know maybe something will turn around but I can't really bank on that at this point you know. Death is not, it doesn't set up very clear signposts for you. There's no one clear trajectory for it ending. I'm sorry.
MH: Why are you sorry?
MR: You're hurt I can see. It's hard to tell people this you know Mary it's not. I love you and I don't like seeing the pain in your face because you care about me.
MR: You know.
MH: Is that a shitty reaction I'm having?
MH: Like is it shitty for me to be that way
MR: No there's that's no reaction to have, it's fine. There’s just no way to have this information happen that isn't painful. I’d probably be more upset if you're like, ‘don't worry about it Tex. You're going to be fine champ. I'm going to send you autographed picture Shaquille O'Neal put on your wall. You're going to high five Amy Schumer and then you're going to get healthy because we prayed.’ That I don't want you to do that, you know? Um.
MH: I don't want to do that so..
MR: You know the hard thing is everyone I love right now, I'm causing pain to. It's like I'm watching my death play out in the people that I love the most, it's like the opposite of survivor's guilt. As awful of a time as I’m giving them by having to like hobble me around the house and watch me throw up and you know wake, you know Victoria wakes up in my sweat 3 times a night because I sweat through the sheets um. As horrible as that all is for them, it’s going to be way worse when I’m not there bothering them. And that I can’t do anything about. And that that really. That eats me up, you know.
MH: You said don't talk a lot about babies anymore.
MR: Um hmm.
MH: I don’t know you have these little guys on ice like do you tell her.
MR: They'll be around. She’ll figure it out. Whatever happens happens. They'll be around. They're not going to get like disin, zapped or disintegrated the day I die.
MR: You know.
MR: (sings) My sperm will be there for you because you were there for them too.
MH: (laughs) Is that you just make that up right now?
MR Yeah it was the friends theme and I really owe most of the credit to the people who wrote the Friends theme song. Um, I've always wanted to be pregnant. Uh, it never in the cards for me but just the idea of having a life growing, maybe that's why I got the tumors. Their a horrible kind of life that got it all wrong.
MH: Max says the closest he’s gotten to having babies himself isn’t with his tumors or with his lab rats, it’s with his book of poems which is coming out this fall.
MH: And you told me Tom Waits is going to blurb the book.
MR: I can read you the Tom Waits blurb, it's really good.
MH: What is it.
MR: He wrote a poem. Let me get it.
MH: Tom Waits is Max’s childhood hero and he just wrote a review of Max’s poems.
MR: A Max Ritvo poem is a map. I won’t do the whole thing in his voice. A map drawn by hand to show where the body is buried. A card trick with words, don't show me how you did it. Like reading the last sentence in a book first. Dragging words across the page like a bow across a string. A piece of candy covered with ants. That’s my favorite one. Like silverfish ate the words off a page and left you a riddle. All of the above.
MH: Oh I love it. He wrote you a poem for your book of poetry.
MR: Yeah he wrote me. He wrote a poem to my poems.
MH: I asked Max to choose one last poem to read. It’s called, ‘Afternoon.’
MR: Afternoon. When I was about to die my body lit up, like when I leave my house without my wallet. What am I missing? I asked patting my chest pocket. And I'm missing everything living that won't come with me into this sunny afternoon. My body lights up for life like all the wishes being granted in a fountain the same instant all the coins burning the fountain dry. And I give my breath to a small bird-shaped pithe. In the distance behind several voices haggling, I hear a sound like heads clicking together like a game of pool played with people by machines.
MH: When did you write this?
MR: I think this was when the scan news started getting like terminalish. Terminalesque. Summer of last year. I’ve been dying a long time.
MH: Is it hard to read these poems?
MR: Yeah. I mean the poem um poem is a safe space. It’s a, poetry is great at showing how a mind works. The way a bunch of different images will be clattering all around and suddenly braid together into a metaphor at the last minute and that I think I can give you. And if I can loan you the steps that my mind took, the little dance that my mind, did maybe your mind will do it at some point without me for thoughts that matter more to you. Um and that would make my life have meant a lot you know. And if I die but my tricks keep on, all the little sleights of hands that my mind does. That’s what I want in the world, is for people not to think what I think, but to think like me. And I hope that you read my poems and then that you try to do that.
MH: I love that.
MR: Ok. Let’s hug.
MH: Max, let’s totally hug right now.
MR: Let’s totally hug.
MH: Let’s please hug.
MH: Thank you.
MH: Why are you sorry?
MR: I’m depressing.
MH: You’re not depressing. You’re like a beautiful spirit.
MR: You bring out the good words for me.
MH: I hope so.
MR: You have a very natural (inaudible).
MH: I know.
MH: We’re gonna go out on Max’s favorite Tom Waits song, ‘Everything You Can Think Of Is True.’
Only Human is a production of WNYC Studios. This episode was produced by Julia Longoria. Our team includes Amanda Aronczyk, Elaine Chen, Paige Cowett, Kenny Malone, Fred Mogul, Ankita Rao, Lisa Rapaport and Jillian Weinberger. Our technical director is Casey Means. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. Thanks to Danielle Fox and Stephanie Daniel. Jim Schachter is the vice-president for news at WNYC. I’m Mary Harris, talk to you next week.