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'GREAT JUST GREAT ALL IS GREAT BEAUTY IS EVERYWHERE': An interview with Ruth Madievsky

The Sillerman First Book Prize is now open through December 1st. To celebrate, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with emerging writers about the book publication process. This week, an interview with poet and   Prairie Schooner  contributor Ruth Madievsky. Her book "Emergency Brake," was a selection of Tavern Books' 2015 Wrolstad Series. Here, Ruth talks brutal tinkering, genre-hopping, and writing non-fiction in the age of Maggie Nelson.

How many books have you published, and where?

Emergency Brake is my first and only.

Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?

Emergency Brake was always in flux. I cribbed the full-length manuscript from a chapbook I was sending out at the time. The chapbook was like a “best of” from the full-length, so I was constantly trying to replace the shittier filler poems in the full-length with new, better ones. Each time I wrote a new poem that I thought might fit, I’d add it in, and maybe take out an old poem that didn’t belong anymore. I had a less-is-more mentality as I was working on the book and was always fighting to meet the minimum page count.

In terms of sequencing, I used a technique I learned from Matthew Dickman. I printed out all of the poems and laid them across the floor of my bedroom. That gave me a bird’s eye view of the manuscript and made it easier to see how the poems were interacting. At no point in the process did I feel that I had settled on the perfect order or the perfect selection of poems. I kept tinkering with the book after I submitted into Tavern Books, and even after they had accepted it for publication. I say “tinkering” like it was a super casual, wine-filled affair, but honestly it was brutal. I saw how the tone of the book, and of individual poems, dramatically changed when I took a poem out, put a poem in, or altered the sequence. It was fun but also maddening to try to settle on the most effective combination. It wasn’t until I went through the manuscript line-by-line with my editors, Carl Adamshick and Natalie Garyet, and made the changes that we agreed upon, that I felt confident that the manuscript was ready.   

Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? (I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” for instance, once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

Absolutely. I can get deeply carried away with similes. Associative thinking is very generative for me, and early drafts of my poems often feature way too many similes, one right after the other. This was something my editors brought up when we were finalizing the manuscript. Done well, multiple similes in a row can synergize, can create a kind of conceptual rhyme that brings momentum and music to the poem. When overdone though, stacked similes can have a distracting, competitive effect. I think the trick is recognizing when the similes are jiving versus when they’re there as filler because I don’t know what to say next.

I’ve been pushing myself to go metaphor over simile more often. Saying that one thing is like another has always felt safer to me than saying that it is that thing. Playing it safe is a much better strategy for dealing with feral animals/navigating Los Angeles traffic/eating a forest berry of unknown genus than for writing poems.

What does current-you wish you could have told past-you about the whole process?

I wish that I hadn’t worried so much about how people who knew me would respond to the book. It’s an intimate collection, and I wasted a lot of energy wondering what people would be saying about me behind my back (and to my face) after they read it. I’m embarrassed for not giving people more credit. The people with whom I was most nervous about sharing Emergency Brake have in many cases been the book’s biggest supporters.

Current-me wishes I could tell past-me that a) people who love me will not fault me for having feelings; b) the poetic subtext that strikes me as obvious is usually much less obvious than I think; c) people who support me will continue to support me because of, not in spite of, the book.

Your book was a selection of Tavern Books' 2015 Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series--what did you do when you heard it was accepted?

I freaked out publically and somewhat unprofessionally. I was in between patients at the diabetes clinic where I was doing research. When my phone rang and I saw the Portland area code, my first thought was that it was Tavern Books calling to say that they had selected my manuscript, and my second thought was, Yeah right, you megalomaniac, it’s definitely that fake IRS scam again. When the caller said, “This is Natalie from Tavern Books,” I think I started pacing the hallway with a crazed look on my face. Maintaining composure for the rest of the day was near-impossible. Every time a patient asked, “How are you?” I probably responded, “GREAT JUST GREAT ALL IS GREAT BEAUTY IS EVERYWHERE.”

Some of your recent poetry explores a scattered embodiment ("the loose glitter my body is") particularly in relationship to an anxious mind. The poems (I'm thinking of "Apartment" and "Because it's October" specifically) have a frenetic energy (often picking up and discarding metaphor) and a yearning to get beyond what prevents human interaction from being "authentic" (not sure if this is the right word), as if the buzzing of the anxious mind prevents intimacy and connection. How do you think of poetry and its relationship to anxiety? How does bodily intimacy (both poems end in touch) operate in your work?

“A scattered embodiment” is a great way to put it. For me, anxiety feels like being everywhere and nowhere at once. It has a bottlenecking effect that makes me hyperaware of the present moment and my feelings within it, a kind of super-embodiment that can be very uncomfortable. Scattering myself out of that embodiment through sensory experience is helpful, and it’s interesting to hear you suggest that this is also true of my poetry. It’s comforting to think that the machinations of poetry and anxiety could resemble each other, that the latter could be reclaimed as a productive force. 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on manuscripts in a few different genres. I’ve been working on a linked short story collection about urban loneliness for several years now. One of the stories from that collection, “Hamster,” is available online in the Fall 2016 issue of The Iowa Review. I’ve also written the skeleton of a second poetry manuscript, which has been a joy to work on. Some of the (self-imposed) pressure to publish has been taken off now that Emergency Brake is out, and I’ve been having a lot more fun with this new manuscript. The poems are funnier, I think, and I’ve been playing with form more. And I recently wrote an essay about representations of “non-normative” sexuality in mainstream culture, and I’m toying with the idea of a book-length essay collection. It’s hard not to get the nonfiction bug when you’re writing in the time of Maggie Nelson. 


Ruth Madievsky is the author of a poetry collection, “Emergency Brake,” which was named Tavern Books’ 2015 Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series selection and was published in February 2016. Since its publication, “Emergency Brake” has spent four months on Small Press Distribution’s poetry bestsellers list. Ruth’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, ZYZZYVA, Rattle, and elsewhere. She was a 2015 Tin House scholar in poetry and reads chapbook submissions for Gold Line Press. She is originally from Moldova and lives in Los Angeles, where she is a doctoral student at USC’s School of Pharmacy.