Virtual Salon #10 with Ruth Dickey

I mark up most of my poetry books–prepare to be shocked–IN PEN. I probably started in grad school, before sticky notes came in all those colors and sizes, and inked notes are more legible when you return to a text to teach or write about it. I recently went back to an old edition of Dickinson’s poems, for example, as I prepare to lead discussions from a newer and better book, Cristanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems as She Preserved Them, and I’m so relieved to see all the glosses and discussion questions I’d inscribed there.

One of the first phrases I underlined in Ruth Dickey’s debut collection, Mud Blooms, occurs on page 5 in “Four-twenty-one,” a poem about a beloved calf Dickey’s parents wouldn’t let her name. It’s the last line: “my brother and me leaning on the fence, stretching our hands through.” The first poem, “Somoto, Nicaragua, #3,” tells you Mud Blooms will be about hunger, but by page 5 you see the book also concerns a longing for connection with the human and more-than-human world, past all the barriers thrown up by difference. Dickey expresses humility about these efforts, especially in her deeply moving poems about working at Miriam’s Kitchen in DC. She orders apples people can’t eat before she knows that “almost everyone who is homeless has dental problems”; “my stupidity galls me,” she adds in an intermittent, abecedarian prose poem sequence called “Alphabet Soup Kitchen.” Sometimes, too, Dickey doubts the worth of her own efforts, because homelessness and hunger are such huge, seemingly intractable problems. There’s so much loss and suffering here, but what impresses you most about the book is its big-heartedness and radical openness. I love this collection and the spirit that shines through it.

I’ve only met Ruth in person once or twice, as I exited and she entered intense work on the AWP Board, but I can also tell from her answers below that she’s a skilled party host, perhaps through her current service as Executive Director of Seattle Arts & Lectures. I’m so glad to introduce you to Ruth and her work, in the 10th gathering of this pandemic-inspired virtual salon!

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

The beloved foods that appear in the book – fresh apple cake, strong coffee, and sandwiches (both peanut butter and pimento cheese) – feel not totally sufficient for a celebration. So there would definitely be rosé, and I’d also order us foods I love from places in the poems – gallo pinto with plantains and fresh tortillas, toast with honey and sea salt from Sea Level Bakery in Cannon Beach, and dosas with extra spicy mango pickle from the woman who used to have a shop on R Street NW just off Connecticut Avenue in DC. And as a finale, thick slices of southern layer cakes from Maxie B’s in Greensboro, NC.

  1. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

These days I’m stunned and scared and outraged and grateful in equal measures. I’ve been journaling and writing poems that are largely terrible, but it feels helpful to have that space where I’m trying to metabolize and make sense of the world, even if I’m doing it incredibly poorly.  

  1. How can your virtual audience find out more?

More about my book and some poems are on my website – www.ruthdickey.com– and I am frequently posting about books I love and my dog on Instagram at @ruthdickey206. If you are interested in Mud Blooms, you can order a copy at https://bookshop.org/books/mud-blooms/9780988275577– thanks so much for reading!

Virtual Salon #4 with Elizabeth Hazen

We've been called so many things that we are not,  
we startle at the sound of our own names.  
          -Elizabeth Hazen, from "Devices" 

I’ll be teaching a virtual Whitman and Dickinson course in our May term, and because it may be pass/ fail only, it’s especially urgent to come up with assignments my undergraduates will genuinely want to do. Here’s one, although I forget where I picked up this idea because I’ve been doing SO MUCH READING about virtual education: create a virtual meal based on the reading, including a menu and place settings. Dickinson has so many poems about the lack of food (“It would have starved a Gnat–,” etc.) that this idea is weirdly perfect for her poems.

There’s a similar concern with binge and privation in Elizabeth Hazen’s Girls Like Us, as she describes in the interview below. Sometimes zooming in on pain, sometimes regarding it from a wry distance, Hazen focuses on intense material: gender-based violence, addiction and recovery, and, not least, the damage even language itself can do. In style, she’s what Marilyn Taylor has called a “semi-formalist,” sometimes writing in slim columns of free verse but elsewhere deploying meter and rhyme; these shapes work the way Adrienne Rich said her own formalism did, as a way of approaching a conflagration with “asbestos gloves.” The heat in Hazen’s second collection is fierce, but so is the beauty. See, for example, the last poem in the book, which makes my heart ache: “Monarch,” among the earliest poems Beth and I chose for the new Shenandoah.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

This is a tough one . . . many poems in the book explore alcoholism and its fallout; others allude to disordered eating and anorexia – so the question of appropriate refreshments to go with this book is fraught . . . If one wanted to emulate the women in many of the poems, straight liquor – any kind – would be a fitting refreshment; another version of the party’s menu could be the austere black coffee and stale donuts or off-brand cookies so often associated with recovery. A wild array of mocktails would be better suited to a celebration, though, and I do love kombucha. Powerbars would be an suitable snack – not for their substance, so much as for their names; this collection looks closely at power dynamics, particularly those related to gender, and I’m a sucker for puns.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

So far, I would say, I am physically healthy. My mental state is stable. I have adopted a “one day at a time” approach to moving through these weeks and months. I am trying to actively practice gratitude each day, lest I fall into the trap of bemoaning all the canceled events and missed opportunities. I am getting used to my own face staring at me as I record videos for my students. I realize that I miss them, and this is bittersweet; I will be very happy to be back in my classroom again.

When I’m not busy with school-related work, I putter. I completed a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and my crossword game is growing fiercer; I have been considering cross-stitching. Writing comes in sharp little bursts, then eludes me for days. I am trying to be patient, to find a voice that’s louder than the one telling me all the things I “should” be doing. I am finding a new rhythm, as we all are, and trying to remember that this, like everything, is temporary.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

You can find me at elizabethhazen.com, but the best way to learn more is to check out my publisher’s website, https://alansquirepublishing.com/book-authors/elizabeth-hazen/