by Zinta Aistars
Susan Blackwell Ramsey '72 has likened her mind to a junk drawer—or a lint collector. She's wrong. Her mind is, well, A Mind Like This. That is, sheer poetry.
Indeed, it requires a quick ear to listen to Ramsey and follow her line of thought. Her line zigs, then zags, then squiggles and circles back again. Tangents are the rule. Trivia fascinates.
A Mind Like This, Ramsey's new poetry collection, sizzled hot off the University of Nebraska Press in September 2012. Ramsey's poetry, like her mind, draws its own lines, surprises, wanders along tangents, and always thrills. Topics range from popular culture and literary history, to oddities of nature, environmental to human. Ramsey writes about needlework, and she writes about her hometown of Kalamazoo, and she writes about pickled heads and gardening and seducing Henry David Thoreau and too-small bladders and creating lace and Jimmy Stewart and Eric Clapton and Brahms.
Are we there yet? That's the joy of Ramsey's poetry: it is a bottomless treasure trove, and one never knows what treasure will come up. In her title poem, Ramsey writes:
A Mind Like This
is like looking through that drawer
for Scotch tape and coming up instead
with the instructions for the digital watch
you threw away three years ago, a maze
made of cheap pink plastic and three ball bearings,
the scissors you warned them were only for fabric, a roll
of the paper tape they gave you to close your eye
for sleep that spring you had Bell's Palsy, and half
a pack of basil seeds.
"Larry Barrett's class saved Emily for me."
Ramsey's poetic ties to Kalamazoo College start early and have no end. Those ties root back to Susan at age 7 and thread into today, with her attending twice-monthly writers' groups at Humphrey House with, mostly, other writers from Kalamazoo College. It's lifelong learning at its best.
"I decided to be a writer when I was 7," Ramsey said. "My great aunt died, and the family had an estate sale. My aunt brought home an anthology of poetry." And the young Ramsey was hooked. Except for Emily Dickinson. Dickinson's poetry missed the mark for her, until (fast forward to college years) …
"Larry Barrett's class saved Emily for me. And Conrad Hilberry, the first class I took from him—I owe him for John Donne. I never recovered from Donne."
Ramsey's choice of attending Kalamazoo College was accidental. "I lived in Livonia. Wait. My sister's best friend's older brother was going to K. Maybe the choice wasn't accidental."
Happy accident, if it was. Not only did Ramsey learn about poetry and recover lost and misunderstood poets at Kalamazoo College, she also learned how to knit. Read A Mind Like This, and the importance of hands busy with needlework begins to make sense.
"I learned how to knit from a neighbor when I was 12," she recalls with her usual precision, "but it was at K that my roommate Carolynne [Dawson Gieryn '72] made me good. Knitting became my fuzzy Valium. I could read and knit at the same time. Which isn't to say you should."
It should be noted that Ramsey is knitting a fuzzy blue sock while saying this.
"I have a motor memory," she says. "I just have to remember to swallow now and then."
It could be that Ramsey doesn't knit while writing poetry (maybe), or while gardening (possibly), but both topics weave deeply throughout the fabric of her poems. All interests have literary roots, she says. The cover of her poetry collection is something like the detail of colorful lace, and this pleases her greatly.
"I used to work in a bookstore—Athena in downtown Kalamazoo—and covers are important to me. When I saw the cover University of Nebraska Press had designed, it was better than what I would have chosen."
The input of others has never lost its value to Ramsey, and that is why she maintains such close ties to Kalamazoo College, other alumni, and professors, even today. Every other Sunday, she joins a faithful writers' group, gathering for many years, the last seven years with unchanging membership.
"Di Seuss founded the group," she says, giving credit to poet and Kalamazoo College Writer-in-Residence Diane Seuss ’78. "Every time we've met, what I didn't get from Di, I got from Con [Hilberry]. Di is the fastest good editor I've seen. She won't criticize, just gives you a ping on how to fix what's wrong."
Over the years, Ramsey would bring her carefully knit poems to the group for feedback. She loves form, and her poems usually fit one—sestinas, pantoums, sonnets, villanelles, iambic pentameter. She calls forms "skeletons, not corsets," fleshing out each one to fit and enjoying the challenge. If a particular sestina takes two years to write and get right, that's just fine. All's up for grabs until the group approves it.
Best friend and Kalamazoo College alumna, fellow poet and two-doors-down neighbor Gail Martin '74, attends the same writers' group. "My first eyes," Ramsey nods. "If Gail ever dies, I have to stop writing. Every writer needs someone to say NO to you. Groups help keep the balance. You have to cultivate your own weirdnesses, but you also need someone to smack you upside the head and say: ‘Yeah. No.’"
Although Ramsey admits such groups can over-discuss and analyze a poem to its death, in general, "when your group tells you something is wrong with your poem, there is almost always something wrong. If they start to tell you how to fix it," a twinkle of rebellion sparks in Ramsey's eye, "they are almost always wrong."
Enter Con Hilberry, and Ramsey lights up with admiration for her former professor and now partner-in-poetry. She still appreciates the good grade.
"Susan's work gets more and more sophisticated," Hilberry says, smiling at her. As for a mind like hers, he says, "She's really connected to the world. The scraps of information that show up in her writing, amazing."
The two sit on a sofa, huddled together and soon chortling with laughter, professor and former student, now equals sharing their work, clearly enjoying each other's company immensely.
"You cherish these people," Ramsey says of her professor, of her group, of her lifelong connections to Kalamazoo College, and that's that. Some things are meant to last.
BOOK REVIEW by Zinta Aistars
A Mind Like This, poetry by Susan Blackwell Ramsey
Paperback: 112 pages
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press (September 1, 2012)
Susan Blackwell Ramsey's first poetry collection, A Mind Like This, is rich with humor. Read it and weep, probably with laughter, sometimes with a wince, but never because she missed the mark. It is humor knit with wit, laced with the outrageous, intertwined with the meticulous and wonderful detail that makes up life. Because we all know life is in the details.
First collection, sure, but Ramsey is already well known (and well loved) in her community, and in the literary community far beyond the geographical one, for her poetic skill. This collection, after all, has been some 20 years in the making, revised so many times, the poet says, that she's not sure anymore what's in it and what's not.
I bet she knows. Ramsey's mind is crammed with detail, dates, places, odd but fascinating tangents, one branching off into another, and another, and another. She likens her mind to a junk drawer, but don't be fooled. These aren't the scraps; these are the poems that matter. Between the lines of seducing Jimmy Stewart, and pickling heads because we want to make things last, third wedding receptions and scarlet bird houses and useless beads that indicate an equally useless civilization, thawing turkeys and picking apart names like Kalamazoo, children in church and Pablo Neruda at Water Street Coffee Joint, Ramsey weaves pure and complex ideas, the deeper understandings of, yes, life. She gets it.
Her mind is like that. It's like this poetry. Witty, clever, sharp, precise. The poets among her readers will recognize the forms she uses as skeletons to build upon, layering muscle, flesh, skin. Sestinas, pantoums, sonnets, villanelles, iambic pentameter, yet nowhere does the poetry bog down with form. The flow is easy, even between giggles.
And honest. She writes about Bell's Palsy, her own coping with it, and bladders that are forever too small to bear the hour-long wait. It's the honesty that makes the humor work. Yet for all the grins, this lacing of words is never without beauty. "Joy, daughter of the difficult," Ramsey writes in a poem called "Washing My Husband's Kilt Hose: A 32-Bar Reel." Light requires dark, and such keen humor requires a knowledge of suffering.
Ramsey's mind, never missing a thing, is just as likely to make a quiet observation that haunts long after the reading (from "Why I Hate Storytellers"):
Good stories sneak up, they're glimpsed, overheard
from the booth behind you at the diner,
from the back seat, six hours into the trip,
on the radio, half over when you tune in.
Real storytellers are quiet, even reluctant.
Casual is their camouflage. After a long
march, supper cooked, night coming down,
the conversation passed around like a pipe,
one voice starts ambling down a path that forks
in unexpected directions and you feel
the great beast purring next to you in the dark,
its bristly chin on your shoulder, its breath in your ear.
Ramsey's voice of poetry is the one with its chin on your shoulder, its breath in your ear, and it is a voice you will want to listen to, again and again.
Susan Blackwell Ramsey is the winner of the Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry for 2011. Ramsey earned her bachelor of arts at Kalamazoo College, and her M.F.A. at the University of Notre Dame's Creative Writing Program, where she received the department's Mitchell Award. She has taught high school, gardened for hire, worked as a horticultural transparencies librarian, and for many years as a bookseller. She is now an instructor of spinning, knitting, and creative writing at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Ramsey lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband, Wayne (with whom she raised three children), her knitting, her garden, and her Kalamazoo College writers' group closely circled in around her.
Photo 1 - Susan Ramsey shares poems from her new book during a radio interview.
Photo 2 - Ramsey and her mentor and friend, Professor Emeritus of English Con Hilberry, enjoy A Mind Like This.
Photo 3 - A Mind Like This book cover.