Susan Blackwell Ramsey’s work has appeared in journals ranging from Poetry Motel to The Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner and The Southern Review and in such anthologies as The Muse Strikes Back (Storyline Press,) Michigan in Poetry, Poetry in Michigan (New Issues Press) and Saint Peter’s B-List (Ave Maria Press); her book, A Mind Like This, won the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. She got her BA from Kalamazoo College and never really got away again, for years teaching spinning, knitting, and creative writing at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. She eventually got an MFA from and taught at the University of Notre Dame, but she still can’t seem to stop double-spacing after sentences.
Geosi Gyasi: You were the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry for 2011 for her manuscript, A Mind Like This. Could you tell me how you came to write it?
Susan Ramsey: One of my favorite words is ‘accretion,’ a slow accumulation, the way a caddis fly builds a shell from scraps or a pearl layers nacre around a speck of grit. This book wasn’t built on a grand architectural plan; it accreted.
Geosi Gyasi: Does one need any special training to become a writer?
Susan Ramsey: In ‘Blazing Saddles’ Gene Wilder is hanging upside down from an upper bunk; asked if he needs any help he sighs “Oh… all I can get.” Writers are smart to be open to all the help they can get, including the kind that helps you peel away the bad training, to trust your own impulses. Sheer stubbornness helps, too.
Geosi Gyasi: For how long have you been writing?
Susan Ramsey: I’d remember pecking out poems on the family typewriter in 1957 or so.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about the Irving S. Gilmore Emerging Artist Grant you received in 2002 for your poetry?
Susan Ramsey: Irving S. Gilmore was a department store scion interested in the arts; among his gifts to the community was a foundation for Emerging Artist grants. I used mine for a week at a retreat center and for entry fees and postage, an expense that has decreased, blessedly, even as entry fees have risen.
Geosi Gyasi: You teach spinning, knitting, and creative writing at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. I am wondering what entails in teaching spinning and knitting?
Susan Ramsey: Rheumatoid arthritis has forced me to discontinue teaching, though not the spinning and knitting themselves. Oddly, teaching a physical skill requires very great attention to language. I know a contra-dance caller who used to say “Everyone put your partner on your left,” which if observed would result in a whirling room. Saying “Insert the needle in the stitch” or “Draw the wool forward” could have similarly catastrophic results. I’ve always been intrigued, though, that such contemplative activities do not, in my case, at least, lead to creative thinking — they lead to deep breathing and a flat brain scan.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired you to study at Notre Dame’s Creative Writing MFA program?
Susan Ramsey: The independent bookstore I’d work in for years went out of business, and a friend who had just completed her MFA at Notre Dame (which is only a 90 minute drive from Kalamazoo) pointed out that the program is tuition-waived — free. (These days everyone is fully funded as well, either through teaching or helping with publishing.) I had an enormously good time; for a 57-year old Protestant uninterested in football, it was also an interesting anthropological experience. Who would have expected Notre Dame’s specialty to be the avant-garde, though?
Geosi Gyasi: Could you define your voice as a writer?
Susan Ramsey: Not with any enthusiasm — like tightrope walking, I think voice works best when you’re not thinking about it. Colloquial?
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that it is easy to write poems?
Susan Ramsey: Sure. Now ask me if it’s easy to write good poems. Thomas Mann said ” ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family approve of your writing?
Susan Ramsey: As long as I don’t write about them.
Geosi Gyasi: What has been your greatest challenge as a writer?
Susan Ramsey: Sloth. I live in a wonderful town for writers — universities, reading series, critique groups. But you do have to actually sit down and pick up a pen.
Geosi Gyasi: What sort of preparation goes into the writing of a poem?
Susan Ramsey: See, there’s that word accretion again. In my case it’s keeping a notebook with such notions and phrases as you train yourself to notice going by. Then, at sit-down time, I try to play with one for a while before it starts to cool and solidify, noticing, for example, if it shows an inclination to work best in a formal structure. (I love form.)
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific place where you sit down to write?
Susan Ramsey: Back room couch facing the garden, generally, though I do have a 7×15 studio in an old factory turned microbrewry.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you read reviews of your own works?
Susan Ramsey: Such as there have been. Most people don’t bother to write bad reviews of poets who aren’t stratospherically successful — what would be the point?
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?
Susan Ramsey: John Donne, Emily Dickinson, Linda Pastan, Lisel Mueller, Bob Hicok, Sarah Lindsay. I could do this all day. Thomas Lux, Dorianne Laux, Sharon Olds, Gerard Manly Hopkins…
Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as the best part of writing?
Susan Ramsey: Tempting to be flip and say “Having written!” But really it’s watching what I intended to say take the bit in its teeth, head off in an unexpected direction and meet up with other facts or associations that I hadn’t expected.
Geosi Gyasi: What books are often found on your writing table?
Susan Ramsey: Popular biology, biography, current literary journals, history.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you working on any new project?
Susan Ramsey: I’m frustrated by the current admiration of Tesla, whose ideas tended to fizzle out and by the binary with Edison, when no one seems to have heard of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, a four foot three hunchbacked dwarf with a huge cigar who, among other accomplishments, made AC work AND was a great guy. I’m working on a … sequence? Chapbook? … about him, but it’s rough going.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever been rejected for your works?
Susan Ramsey: My works, like everyone else’s, have certainly been rejected. My self, not that I’m aware.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about the people who read your works?
Susan Ramsey: Absolutely. This is communication we’re talking here, not just self-expression. My self isn’t all that interesting, but the world is. That’s generally my subject.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you often do in your spare time when not writing?
Susan Ramsey: During our fifteen minutes of summer, I garden. All year ’round I knit — and read, of course.