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Interview: Doug Ramspeck

Doug Ramspeck's poem "Body Parade" appears in the January 2010 issue of The Collagist. He was awarded the 2007 John Ciardi Prize for Poetry for his collection Black Tupelo Country, which is published by BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City). His chapbook, Where We Come From, is published by March Street Press. Several hundred of his poems have appeared in journals that include EPOCH, Prairie Schooner, and Northwest Review. He is the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for 2009. He directs the Writing Center and teaches creative writing at The Ohio State University at Lima. He lives in Lima with his wife, Beth, and their daughter, Lee.

1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "Body Parade"? What was on your mind while you were writing this poem?

Talking about any specific inspiration or launching point for “Body Parade” will be a challenge since I have no memory of writing the poem. This, to be honest, is often though not always the case with me. With some frequency I have poems come back rejected or accepted from various journals and have no memory of having written them; indeed, often an editor will accept a poem and I will not recognize the title and thus will have to look on my computer to find the work and refresh my memory. Occasionally I have even feared that the editor made a mistake and I didn’t write the poem at all: the title will sound so completely unfamiliar that I will suspect I will have to write back to say that the acceptance letter came my way in error (which, by the way, actually happened to me once).

No doubt this makes me sound like a neglectful parent to my poems, and sometimes I feel guilty over that fact. I tend to write quickly (probably too quickly), revise quickly, and send out work quickly. In addition, I do my best to turn off the conscious part of my brain when I write and to let the poems create themselves. Sometimes I close my eyes and try to listen to a voice inside my head that is not my own, and then I write down what that voice is saying, slap my name on it, and take whatever credit or blame is due. In the past year I have made an effort to slow down in the writing process, to spend more time on individual poems, but I have not made any effort to make the process more conscious. Indeed, I am always on the look out for new ways to make the process less conscious. The other day one of my poetry-writing students told me that when she gets stuck she uses an online automatic word generator to flash words on the screen until one strikes her as interesting to pursue. I think that’s a wonderful idea. The one thing I do know without doubt is that I’m not much of a poet but am capable of jotting down things I hear inside my head . . . and I keep hoping that maybe someday I will overhear something truly brilliant.

The only thing I can say about the inspiration for “Body Parade,” in fact, is that I had written mostly realistic or poems about animism until I read the collection Exceptions and Melancholies by Ralph Angel. The works in that collection impressed me so much that I began wanting to write more “urban” and “surreal” works . . . so I tried listening for that voice inside my head. I made an effort to summon a different voice than my usual visitors, and this poem is one of the results.

2. Something that struck me right away about the poem is how it immediately distances the mind from the body: “There is a deal you strike with your / own body to arrange itself like bones.” The communication between brain and body part is so instantaneous that most of us don't give it a second thought. Why did you choose to present the human body this way, creating a kind of distance between the two, over which they must negotiate?

Again, alas, I have no idea. I didn’t choose to present the human body in any way, didn’t attempt to create a distance between the brain and the body, and didn’t attempt to negotiate anything between the two. Certainly I can go back and do a close reading of the poem, analyzing what certain words seem to imply, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said that any of that was on my mind during the composing or revising stage of the poem. The composing stage, as I said, consists for me of letting some voice other than my own start talking . . . while I serve as amanuensis. The revising process, for me, usually consists of cutting lines I don’t like, moving things around, and, sometimes, throwing the whole thing in the trash can. Back in college (Kenyon, in Ohio), by the way, I did take more philosophy classes than English classes, even though I was an English major, and certainly I find the so-called mind/body split of enduring interest, and I thank you for seeing such themes in the poem.

3. To follow up on that question, the end of the poem reads to me like a celebration of bringing one's body with one through life, being able to move and sense and feel:

Years have passed and yet this band
strikes up, and all of us are marching
down the streets, and our legs
are moving in a dream beneath
the private music of this sunlight

It seems to me that the distance established at the opening of the poem between mind and body is being bridged, that they are being reunited here. Writers have a very intimate relationship with their writing, as a product of one's mind and hard work—is your relationship with your work more like the relationship between body and mind in the opening or the ending of this poem?

Wow. I fear I’m beginning to sound like a wise-ass with my answers, but I’m really just trying to be truthful. I find your interpretation of the poem very interesting and convincing, but none of this was going through my head when I wrote “Body Parade” . . . indeed, I was doing my best to have nothing going through my head. As for the notion of “hard work” and the writing of poetry, it depends what you mean. I try to write every day and I feel terrible if I miss a day (my daughter told me on Christmas I wasn’t allowed to escape to my office at any point and write, but what she didn’t know was that I got up early to work on a poem before she and the rest of the family were out of bed), so certainly I put in many many hours writing. Still, when my writing is going well, I don’t find it work at all . . . I find it enjoyable. Indeed, I often feel in need of my “fix” if I go too long (hours) without writing. Sometimes I do wonder if my poetry would improve if I enjoyed it less, and I have tried techniques like freewriting four or five single-spaced pages and then cutting out lines I don’t like (most of them) and rearranging lines until I’m left with a poem. This is a little more painful than simply listening to the voices in my head, but I still enjoy it more than I should if I have plans to “suffer for my art.” I have also cut apart old poems for spare parts and put them together into new poems, but, again, this isn’t painful because the truth is I enjoy that technique a great deal. To answer your question (sort of), what I like about writing poetry is that I don’t feel I’m there at all (body or mind) and there is something surprisingly enjoyable in giving myself over.

4. You’ve published several hundred poems (according to your bio), which strikes me as a rather large number, even for poets who have been writing for decades. What do you attribute being that prolific to? How often do you see major shifts in your work? Every dozen? Every fifty? Every hundred?

I began writing poems in 2004, and since that time have had 600? 700? poems accepted for publication. Until the past year, I went through the Poet’s Market in alphabetical order, sending out poems indiscriminately as I completed them, and then I would look online to find journals not included in Poet’s Market, adding them to my list. This sounds pretty stupid, surely. Still, you have to understand that this bizarre neglect for common sense came out of decades of horrible writer’s block. I wanted to be a fiction writer when I went for my MFA in the late ‘70s, and I published a few stories right out of graduate school and even had an agent for a time, and then I found I couldn’t complete more than a page of any story or novel. Every time I started to write something, I would reach the end of that first page and say to myself, “That’s pretty crappy, now isn’t it?” Eventually I stopped writing very much at all, until one day (and I mean this literally) I thought to myself, “You know, if I write poetry, I can complete that first page and call it done.” This made all the difference. I wrote a few poems as quickly as I could and had the good fortune of having some of them accepted almost immediately, which was a great boost to my confidence. Of course, I didn’t want that writer’s block to return, so I played by certain rules: I would write poems quickly, revise them quickly, and send them out before the “critic” in my head could tell me how much they sucked. I would also stop trying to think about “technique” the way I did far too often with fiction writing. While I was at it, in fact, I would try not to think about anything at all. Surely my fear of that writer’s block returning explains why I write the way I do, for good or ill.

As for the question about how often I try to shift gears, this issue does trouble me a great deal. I have felt at times that I was producing the same poem over and over, and I am always very excited when I think I have found a new voice or a new approach. Actually, I have a new idea for an approach I intend to try later today or tomorrow, and my hope is that it will result in a new direction. Most of the time, of course, these experiments lead nowhere, but now and then they do open a new vein, which is always exciting.

5. What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I am writing every day and hope to begin putting together a new book next fall. In the meanwhile, I have a book making the rounds in search of a publisher.

6. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

I have been reading and rereading and rereading The Selected Levis from the University of Pittsburgh Press. When the collection by Larry Levis first arrived in my mailbox about a month ago, I began putting note cards in the pages of the poems I liked a great deal, but I soon realized I was going to have note-card bookmarks between every page, and what was the point in that? Levis does everything I wish I could do as a poet, and I wish he were still with us to produce more work I could envy. As for fiction, I can’t imagine any book I have found more powerful over the last couple of years than The Road by Cormac McCarthy. As for new releases, I keep hoping that Brigit Kelly will come out with a new book of poems soon, and I saw that Kevin Prufer has a new collection coming out entitled Little Paper Sacrifice. I will order it as soon as it’s available.

[Interview by Marie Schutt]

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