I finally met Ms. Ramsey in person at the 2009 BAP Release Bash in NYC this past September. In the weeks leading up to the visit, I began to worry she might not live up to her cyber-self, or even worse, that she’d find me jejune, sophomoric, or—most likely—an insufferable windbag. I am happy to report that the meeting went more than smoothly; Susan turned out to be every bit as passionate, funny, wise, and knowledge-crammed about poetry (and about a whole lot else, it turns out) as she was in her emails (and since she’s still writing me, I’m assuming I didn’t completely disappoint). My only complaint is that we had just three hours to stroll the European Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art together. But since I am still in the process of trying to track down every poem, book, painting, novel, memoir, DVD, and video clip she enthusiastically raved about in those three hours, perhaps it was enough to tide me over till we next meet.
By now it’s pretty obvious that I count myself as one of the lucky to not only know Susan’s work (her poems are put together like freaking DNA strands), but to have Susan as a friend, a first reader, and as someone who promises me if I ever come to Kalamazoo she will teach me how to knit (fat chance, as I cannot thread a needle, but I love her all the more for her willingness to believe she could).
And now, without further ado, the brilliant, funny, and enviably humble Ms. Susan Blackwell Ramsey:
MS: Share the journey from start to finish (or anywhere in between) of your BAP poem, "Pickled Heads: St. Petersburg"--number of drafts, comments/suggestions by others, number of magazines submitted to, major overhaul(s), etc. Was it a poem that came easily, or one that you struggled with?
SBR: I was reading a book on the evolution of natural history museums which mentioned that Peter the Great had the heads of his wife’s reputed lover and his own executed mistress preserved in “spirits of wine.” While morbid curiosity kept me digging for details, I kept remembering other equally peculiar stories of preserved bodies and body parts. Each story seemed bizarre, but there were so many of them that they began to fall into subcategories while I kept asking “Why?”
The story of its quest for publication warms my black little heart. After the usual rejections and revisions I entered it in a small local contest just to swell the ranks. The young man who called began by saying “You won’t believe this, but [the celebrity judge] gave you third place!” Um. I believe it, but apparently you … And in the end they decided not to publish it, though I was left to figure that out for myself when the staff’s congratulations kept arriving with expressions of sympathy. Out of sheer fury I washed its face, brushed its hair, packed it a lunch and sent it off to Prairie Schooner. I thought it made a very nice little morality tale for writers when they printed it – but when David Wagoner chose it for BAP ….
MS: If I'm to infer from "Pickled Heads" and several others I've read of yours ("Mt. Saint Helens, May 19, 1980"; “Gaueamus, Full Band Version,” ) you seem to enjoy making poems that allow you to draw on your ability to read voraciously and remember, to quote from your BAP contributor's note "only inessential information." Am I getting this correctly, or do you sometimes get an idea for a poem and then start in on the research?
SBR: I have a lint-roller for a brain. Only useless information sticks, so much of my writing has been an attempt to find protocols where this is an advantage. Dennis Schmidt talks about “double agenda” poems, David Kirby is more like the Flying Karamazov brothers, juggling a bowling ball, a potted philodendron, a pound of liver and a chain saw. Realizing that I could have fun braiding my enthusiasms through poems probably owes a lot to Kirby’s pinballing productions like “The House of Blue Light.” When what seem fascinating stories and facts start doing their Boolean dance in my head and I try to figure out why they seem connected and how to introduce them to one another. Right now I’ve got one about an art forger, a literary fraud and the man who produced fake spearheads that fooled the experts; I like it, but my best readers remain uncharmed, so it’s still on the drawing board. But research begets research – I’d heard one story about the premier of Brahms’s “Academic Festival Overture,” but the truth was much better, and changed “Gaudeamus” as it was being written.
SBR: Oh, dear. Squirm. No, my early attempts were purely imitative and mighty smug. I inherited a tall, narrow book called something like “Best-Loved Poems,” with an oval portrait next to each poem (still in print, last time I checked, and updated – they’d added Frost.) It was heavy on Eugene Field and James Whitcomb Riley and Longfellow, but it’s in my DNA. I used to get through dental sessions by mentally reciting Emerson’s “The Rhodora.” It also meant I was in college before I realized I didn’t loathe Emily Dickinson – they used the gussied-up drawing with the curls and ruffles to illustrate “If I can keep one heart from breaking I shall not live in vain” and I thought it was representative.
MS: When did you start writing poetry? Who were you reading? Who did you study with? Who read your early drafts, and what did they tell you? Did you listen?
SBR: Second grade? I had a wonderful high school teacher, Janet Dodenhoff, who had the gift of asking three questions in an hour and letting a class of teenagers thrash their way to clarity. And I was blessed among undergraduates by walking into Conrad Hilberry’s Introduction to Poetry class my first day of college – and in being able to hang out and work with him to this day. Thomas Lynch calls him “internationally ignored,” and it’s instructive to watch someone continue to do excellent, subtle work, cheerful and unimbittered, into his eighties. I remember his penciled comment “Complicate it up.” I think he’s lived to regret that.
MS: What was the first poem/poems you decided to submit to a magazine? Do you still like your early poems? Where did you first publish your work?
SBR: I submitted to the New Yorker in high school – it was the only market I knew. There were no creative writing classes and I had no idea what the protocol was. It wasn’t until I took a women's writing workshop with Diane Seuss in 1995 that I buckled down. I do remember getting my first acceptance, though, two poems in Sarabande’s The Muse Strikes Back: Women Responding to the Poems of Men. I was showing the letter to strangers on the street.
MS: I heard Li-Young Lee say that he can feel a poem coming on in his body--it's a physical thing. What triggers your poet brain and how does it feel when it clicks on? Do you immediately begin writing, or do you (like James Tate) write the whole thing in your head before you grab a pen or sit down at the computer? How many drafts does a typical poem go through?
SBR: Oh, no, it’s more like a kitten with a ball of string. I’ve tried to learn to notice when a notion streaks or skulks across my mind, and to write it down. I’m convinced that forgetting is a trap door in the bottom of your brain, and the phrase “I’ll remember that” is the sound the hinges make in opening. From the moment you think that, you have thirty seconds to write it down before it’s gone. If instead you think “I couldn’t forget that” you have ten seconds.
From there it’s kitchen sink time. I start writing and see what suggests itself, what links come around the corner. As I said, I have a brain which retains only inessential information, so a lot of the fun of this kind of poem – if the one under production turns out to be this kind of poem – is seeing the Virginia Reel of facts. My friend and neighbor Gail Martin is my first reader, and she’s pretty immune to whimsy, so my most egregious combinations don’t get far.
MS: I hear you're a knitter. Do you find that there's a certain element of knitting in poetry? Poetry in knitting? I mean, the same kind of satisfaction in getting just the right number of rows? And how about when you have to unravel a bunch of rows? Have you written any poems about knitting?
SBR: Certainly knitting is for formalists, and it can inure you to tearing up/out what you’ve spent time on, help you to recognize that the world does not need one more malformed sweater/lousy poem. I think I’m approaching a chapbook’s worth of fiber poems, what with wool and lace and knitting and spinning. When I got my belated MFA I was able to persuade a professor to let me produce an artist’s book rather than a 35-page paper on some aspect of 20th Century Poetry and Media. I made the paper, knit and starched alternate pages of different lace patterns, printed one stanza of my poem about knitting lace onto each paper page and stitched it all into a Japanese-fold book two by three inches. It took a prize at the local art institute’s Area Show, the only time a college assignment made me money. Right now I’m buffing one which compares an overpriced, lumpy, “designer yarn” I regretted buying to being seduced by Diego Rivera. It may require a kind of peculiar editor.
MS: What are you working on right now?
SBR: Reading, in hot succession, three different, amazing, wonderful poem cycles – Maurice Manning’s A Companion for Owls, Thomas Satterlee’s Burning Wyclif and Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler -- I’ve been working to produce a group of poems based on my fascination with Emerson’s circle of friends. It’s making me hard to live with. I can’t seem to remember that not everyone will be thrilled to discover that when Thoreau’s rotten friend Ellery Channing left his wife – who was Margaret Fuller’s sister – and four children and she had to move in with “Cousin Thomas,” Cousin Thomas turns out to be Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily Dickinson’s editor. I mean, isn’t that stunning? Chewing the information long enough to get a poem out of it, though, is making me feel pretty bovine.
MS: Name three poets you're reading now. Name three of your all-time favorites. Tell us what you appreciate about their work.
SBR: Lee Upton was news to me (the older I get, the wider my fields of ignorance expand) when I heard her read on the Field panel at AWP and since I’m always interested in the use of humor in the service of the serious poem I’m trying to catch up with her. I’ve admired Bob Hicok’s stuff since he was local enough to read at the bookstore I worked in and I thank a merciful God he’s so prolific. I got to read Diane Seuss’s Juniper Prize winning Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open ahead of publication and am bracing myself for the concussion when that depth-charge is released. She does everything I can’t – and just to be even more irritating, she keeps growing.
All-time favorites? Emily Dickinson, that mistress of concision and wit, Gerard Manley Hopkins for being able, just barely, to keep it on the rails and to sing while doing it. And always and forever John Donne, for having both a head and a heart.
MS: What advice do you have for those who aspire to be chosen for a Best American Poetry volume?
SBR: Get lucky. Thousands of wonderful poets live their whole lives without having the conjunction of the poem and the judge take place. Get lucky, and then be grateful.
Louise Erdrich Learning Ojibiwemowin
Tell Me If You’ve Heard This One
Gaudeamus, Full Band Version
The Sow Bear’s Sonnet
Knitting and more knitting.