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Prairie Schooner Interview: Susan Blackwell Ramsey

Marianne Kunkel interviews Susan Blackwell Ramsey, winner of the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prize for Poetry.
Susan Blackwell Ramsey

One of the many things I admire about A Mind Like This is its broad historical spectrum. Some poems profile 19th-century authors while others incorporate aspects of contemporary life such as the phrases “I downloaded a favorite song” and “wind / that bitchslapped me.” What is gained by letting cutting-edge, colloquial diction into your poems?

A reader who continues to the next line? English is in a constant thrash, and trying to hang onto its tail can make for a fine ride as long as you have friends who will occasionally look over their glasses at you and say "No. Just ... no."

Knitting and gardening appear in many of your poems. Seemingly delicate objects such as lace and tulips are made sturdy through your exacting, thorough descriptions of them. Are you attracted to these subjects because of their perceived fragility or hardiness?

Of course both gardening and knitting include plenty of time for thought; one of my favorite garden writers observed that the problem with gardening is that it's a metaphor for everything! I've gardened for pay as well as in our own much smaller garden for decades and knitted for longer, and I'm increasingly intrigued by both as process—a good thing, when product is so far from guaranteed.

You’re an expert at writing in forms—sestinas, sonnets, pantoums, etc. In a mind like yours, do poems begin in specific forms or do you typically nudge them into forms as you revise them?

Marilyn Hacker is an expert, Patricia Smith is an expert—I'm just having fun! As a bookish teenager I set out to learn forms; it was only later that I realized that forms are skeletons, not corsets, and that different forms correspond to different emotional states. So while I occasionally set out to play with a particular form (I still don't have a villanelle I'm proud of) or notice that certain words would be fun to try in a sestina to see where they lead, these days I'm more likely to notice that this argument feels like a sonnet, or that obsession is reflected by a pantoum.

A book of poetry is successful not only because the individual poems in it are good but also because its poems are interesting in relation to each other. For example, you bring up lace, subtly and overtly, in three poems in a row; what advice do you have for writers regarding selecting and ordering poems for a full-length manuscript?

Cultivate your obsessions. For a well-ordered life it's a good idea to read Jane Austen and seek balance, but your writing profits from egging on your most extreme quirks. I have a mind like a junk drawer, and discovering I could string apparently disparate subjects together—like the awfulness of Clapton's acoustic Layla and Brahm's "Academic Fesitival Overture"—has given me a lot of pleasure. I just finished a poem where St. Francis and St. Clare double-date with Thoreau and Evita and it just makes me very happy.

Many aspiring writers know little about the details of the publication process. Since finding out that you won Prairie Schooner’s Book Prize Series, what has surprised you most about publishing your book? What parts of the process have you found most exciting?

Most surprising was discovering I have never in my life used "which" correctly—and that my sainted copyeditor would let me keep one incorrect one for the sake of the vowel sound. (She also caught at least one error of fact that would have embarrassed me.) As to excitement—I worked in a bookstore for years and have strong views on covers. Imagine my surprise when I realized the cover the University of Nebraska Press designed for A Mind Like This is better than the lovely but flatfoot-literal one I had in mind. Way better.

In its humor, wordplay, and occasional verbosity, your poetry reminds me of the work of Lucia Perillo, one of my favorite poets. What writers, if any, do you deliberately emulate? Whose poetry do you admire despite it being nothing like your own?

LOVE Perillo, bless you! I'm always grateful to Liesel Mueller and Linda Pastan for rising above the disadvantage of happy childhoods/marriages to write good poems. I aspire to rip off David Kirby's careening trajectory, Heather McHugh's smarts with heart (John Donne's, too, for that matter.) Without writing like them I abjectly admire Bob Hicok, Tony Hoagland, Dorianne Laux. Patricia Smith's ability to do EVERYTHING. And Conrad Hilberry, who Thomas Lynch has called "an internationally underestimated poet" and who is a model for almost everything worth doing—including how to carry on producing good work, acclaim or not.

You make clear in your poems that Kalamazoo, Michigan, your hometown, is dear to your heart. What is the weather like there this time of year? What are the townspeople up to at the moment?
I wasn't born here, so I have all the zeal of the convert. Still, Bob Hicok gets it right in "A Primer" --
February
is thirteen months long in Michigan.
We are a people who by February
want to kill the sky for being so gray
and angry at us. “What did we do?”
is the state motto. "

Right now we're alternating between shoveling snow and being deeply uneasy when we don't need to.

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Susan Blackwell Ramsey won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry for 2011 with her manuscript A Mind Like This. She will receive a $3,000 prize and publication by the University of Nebraska Press. She was born in Detroit, received her BA from Kalamazoo College and has managed to live in Kalamazoo most of her life. She taught high school, gardened for hire, and worked as a horticultural transparencies librarian, but has primarily been a bookseller. While she and her husband, Wayne, raised three children, she worked at Kalamazoo's oldest independent bookstore and began publishing poems, receiving an Irving S. Gilmore Emerging Artist Grant. When the bookshop closed she was admitted into the University of Notre Dame's Creative Writing MFA program, where she was given the department's Mitchell Award. Her work appeared in Wayne State University's New Poems from the Third Coast: Contemporary Michigan Poetry, in 2006 she won the Marjorie J. Wilson Award from Margie: The Journal of American Poetry, and David Wagoner chose her "Pickled Heads, St. Petersburg" for the 2009 edition of Best American Poetry. She currently teaches spinning, knitting, and creative writing at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.

Marianne Kunkel is Managing Editor at Prairie Schooner and a third-year Ph.D. student in poetry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with specialization in women’s and gender studies. Her poems have appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poet Lore, Rattle, and River Styx, and her chapbook, The Laughing Game, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.

The 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize is currently accepting submissions through March 15. More information can be found on our website.