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A Kind of Faith: An Interview with Doug Ramspeck

by Anthony Rintala

There is no denying the recursive nature of the poetry found in Doug Ramspeck’s Original Bodies, winner of the 2013 Michael Waters Poetry Prize. Even a glance at the table of contents will reveal the repetition of what become key concepts in this collection of poetry. But it goes deeper than that: crows and other blackbirds fly through nearly every poem here, or at least tip a shadow with their wings from just off the page. Nature is a foreboding force in Ramspeck’s poetry, ancient and monolithic, but there is a light touch manipulating this hyperbolic, gothic tone. In poems like “Field Religion,” men are shown to passively brood on the eventuality of “consensual” death while, in an inversion of the pathetic fallacy, the muddy fields, weather, and, yes, scavenging birds, are shown to be churning in a chaotic dance of life and rebirth around them, utterly unconcerned with mortal surrender.

Original Bodies plays with scale. What at first may seem like a collection of poems which each involve birds, when refocused, becomes a single flock, a migratory ribbon in the sky, stitching the individual revelations of each poem into a unique, scarred form.

Anthony Rintala: I lived along the migratory path of grackle in Texas, and experienced them swarming, creaking like swings, on every surface in a Target parking lot, so I read crows in these poems as a wholly physical presence—ubiquitous and oppressive. However, there is such a varied history of poetic blackbirds being used as psychopomps, symbols, omens, and unpacked images that their frequent appearance in Original Bodies places the poems in a liminal space, making everything more concrete and dreamlike at once. What do you intend to be the role of the crows in these poems, and what is it about these birds that keeps drawing poets back to them?

Doug Ramspeck: The question of my “intentions” as a writer is always a tricky one for me, partly because my first impulse is to offer some minor resistance to the concept. My process is to try to turn off my conscious mind while I am writing, to take no ownership of what I am producing, and to simply listen to the voices inside my head. My role, then, is not to coerce the words into a certain shape or meaning, to bend them to my will, but to be an amanuensis. I let whatever words arrive that want to arrive, and I let them mean what they want to mean. Even as I am revising, I make an effort to continue this process of merely “listening.” My job is simple: transcribe what I hear.

Still, I am comfortable with putting on the hat of the literary critic after the poems have been completed. I am skeptical that my insight is any more meaningful than that of an “objective” reader (whatever that might mean), but I am happy to take a crack at it. So what, as the question asks, is the role of crows, blackbirds, and grackles in Original Bodies?

I remember reading once that our human brains have developed like scoops of ice cream in the cones of our skulls. We started with a primitive brain, then developed a slightly more advanced scoop to place atop it. Later we placed another scoop on top of that—until we arrived at the brains we have now. That doesn’t mean that the primitive brain isn’t still there or doesn’t still impact who we are. In fact, a case can be made that the primitive brain is the one that connects all humans in all places and all times. For reasons I’m not sure I can explain, I want to write about that part of the brain, to express its qualities.

This is not because I am myself—at least not in the conscious parts of my brain, that part to which I have easy access—a superstitious person. I don’t count the crows in the distant field to find out if good or back luck is coming my way. I don’t imagine that a lightning strike to a tree in my back yard is an omen or an occultation. Still, like all of us, I have those moments when I catch glimpses of the primitive brain inside my skull. If I hear a sudden flutter of noise behind me while I am walking in the dark, my body seizes with fear and adrenaline. For an instant I recall what it is like to be prey, to worry about the sharp teeth or talons that might be sweeping in to claim me. Dark birds seem to me a symbol for that primitive mind. Crows are highly intelligent birds, but when the shroud of their wings spans out or they land beside a dead raccoon at the roadside, I feel in the presence of something original and ancient. This, I suppose, is my answer both to the question of why I think I return again and again to these birds, and why other writers have been drawn to them as well.

AR: In your 2010 book, Possum Nocturne (University of Akron Press), you create a similar effect through the recurrence of mud, dirt, swampland, and old growth trees. What are you looking for—and what do you hope the reader sees—when you reach back to these ancient, rudimentary symbols in the modern age?

DR: I see that book—along with my chapbook, Where We Come From—as the most purely primitive of my books to date. In these works I attempt to inhabit almost entirely the primitive mindset, to summon that ancient voice, even though the poems are set in contemporary times. The speakers in these poems are likely to see nature in animistic and superstitious ways, to imagine that a discarded snake skin found in the grass is an augury, that the skull of a possum is itself a living manifestation of death. My later books, including Original Bodies, attempt to include all of the scoops of the brain, primitive and advanced. The poems are, thus, often more contemplative and self-conscious. The speakers view the world through both their primitive and sophisticated brains, and these two ways of viewing events bump up against each other and lead to misunderstandings and sometimes woe. In “Crow Epistles,” for example, the speaker says:

My father flew away finally

with the crows. And then it was winter.

At the start of the poem, the boy seems to imagine that his father has transformed magically to a crow (has the man died? did he run off?), and that association is so powerful that he appears to believe that his father is still out there with the other birds. What could be a more primitive understanding of the world than this? His father is gone, the crows are calling, so his father must be a crow. But as the boy begins to describe the events of what followed after his father departed—in past tense, in retrospect—a more sophisticated interpretation begins to emerge.

We heard him calling sometimes

from the woods as snow came down.

It was a kind of faith, the falling snow.

And always the crows seemed harmless

in the trees...

The abstraction of “a kind of faith” seems more the construct of an analytical brain than a primitive one, even though the notion that snow might possess the human quality of “faith” is surely still primitive. In other words, in this poem, as in others in the book, the speakers move back and forth between the parts of their brain that can think in abstractions—and, indeed, use language—and the parts of the brain that view the world the way the first humans, existing in their original bodies, must have viewed it.

AR: Original Bodies is defined by the shifting roles of its crows, but the concepts that the crows link to (absent fathers, religion, survival, etc.) are also spun out into dynamic symbols which serve new roles in subsequent poems. In each of your books, there are similar leitmotifs: The poems in Black Tupelo Country keep returning to images of diseased, inhuman skin, and Mechanical Fireflies connects many of its themes with images of death. Each of your collections is tightly woven to the point that images and phrases overlap and repeat, but each has its own symbolic vocabulary and tone. The poems are so strengthened by the linkages in the book, that it is hard to imagine them separate, though many of them were published so.

Without returning to the question of intent: how did these poems become this book?

DR: My wife likes to claim that I have an obsessive personality, and it is possible she is correct, particularly when it comes to writing. Recently, for example, I have been composing what might be called flash-fiction, prose poems, or some hybrid of the two. Each work consists of a single paragraph that ranges from 900-1,000 words. All of these efforts arise from “distorted” voices, from characters who perceive the world in unusual yet, I hope, consistent ways. I would guess I have completed about thirty of these so far. Indeed, this process of writing in “clusters” is not new for me. Some years ago I wrote a few dozen anachronistic poems, ones that arose from the point of view of historical, mythological, or literary characters flung into present day to fend for themselves. Why did I do that? It’s hard to say. When an approach to a poem or a story comes to me—for whatever reason—I try not to question it. I tell myself to accept any urge to write as a gift (this doesn’t mean that the results are necessarily good, any more than all gifts are good). I tell myself that it is bad form, after all, to turn down a gift.         

The first answer to the question, then, is that obsessiveness of form, content, and imagery seems to be woven into the way I approach writing. I often feel as though I am trying to tap into a certain vein in the earth, trying to mine everything I find there. Once I exhaust a vein, I move on to a new one. Usually the new type of work seems inexhaustible at first, and I write with great energy and enthusiasm, often completing first drafts as rapidly as I can type. Later, of course, I approach the keyboard less and less willingly, and the euphoria I felt in those first days turns to despair. It’s time, then, to move on.         

The richest vein I have found to date as a writer, and the one I return to again and again, is the animistic one. Nature, in these poems, is a kind of human breath, and human breath is one more breeze sweeping out across the tall grass of an open field. The poems make little distinction between the natural and the human—which is why, I suppose, the speakers can’t tell a crow from a father, a father from a crow.         

Another way to make this same point is to say that, over a period of a few weeks or even months, I often feel that I am writing the same poem over and over, coming at it in different ways, approaching it from different directions. There is something there to be discovered, I tell myself, if only I am persistent. These aren’t revisions on a small-scale but a large scale, a re-imagining. And given that this is so, why shouldn’t the same images serve sometimes as symbols for one thing, other times for something else? That’s how the speakers see them, after all, and who am I to question their take on things? The boy, for example, doesn’t imagine that the crow stands for his father. The boy accepts that the crow and his father are identical. I can’t bring myself to doubt him. This obsessiveness of process results, I hope, in what feels to a reader like a complex exploration of interrelated images, themes, metaphors, and symbols—but surely that is more the byproduct of the method than a design.         

This same method, by the way, does lead to one of my fears as a writer. Does the obsessiveness come across as complex, a kind incantation, or as repetitious?

AR: The second section of Original Bodies, “Field Song,” is more engaged with an active first person voice and the sparse, brutal nature of earlier appearing poems (like “Field Religion”) coexist in the latter half with more human concerns. What is the relationship between these two sections, and how would you define the relationship of nature and man in (your) poetry?

DR: About a year ago I had surgery for a detached retina. I was put to sleep to have my eye numbed, but was awakened for the surgery itself. To my surprise, the surgeon—while inserting into my eye various gauge needles—told me stories about his former college roommate who went on to translate Persian poetry. It is a testament both to the power of the drugs I was given and to the power of storytelling that I was distracted from what was taking place, that I focused more on the conversation than on what was happening to my eye. This is not to say that I think stories are simply a “distraction.” On the contrary, I believe the case can be made that storytelling is at the center of who we are as human beings and how we view the world. I suspect that our ability to imagine stories (lies? fantasies? scenarios?) has played a crucial role in our survival. Indeed, much of what draws me to writing is the desire to tell stories. From my very beginning as a writer, I have wanted to combine narrative and lyrical elements in my work, to talk about the lives of the speakers and characters I create.

For reasons I am not certain I know, however, I have very little interest in writing about my own life, and most of the poems I create are not the least bit autobiographical. I suspect that readers of my poetry might imagine I was raised on a farm, had a brother who died at a young age, and had a father who studied Goethe. None of this is true. I was raised in a northern suburb of Chicago, do not have a brother, and my father was a lawyer. The voices I listen to when I write don’t seem particularly interested in my biography, and that’s fine by me. I prefer to write about other people, imagined people, and I am surprised by connections and consistencies that seem to arise in these characters, as though they have had a life outside of me yet express themselves in first person. What I would really like—if such a thing is possible—is for my stories to feel universal, outside of time and the specifics of any one person. And this is my answer to the question of how I define the relationship between humans and nature in the poems. I see them as indistinguishable. When I am writing about the natural landscape, I am also writing about the human landscape, and when I am writing about humans, I hope I am writing about what is natural in their conception of the world. Original Bodies, I believe, focuses on a field as its central image, using that field to represent and to explore the more primitive aspects of the human mind and human emotions. The poems explore the slipperiness of natural elements like crows, mud and moon, water and grass, naming, singing and divining, and dying. The poems show how these elements represent our own ambivalence toward the natural world and its human counterparts. Mud, for example, can be viewed as fertile and life-giving, but it can also be seen as the substance in which we are buried, as all that is stained and imperfect.

AR: For all of the ancient symbols that are so prominent in your poetry, more modern voices also are present: George Santayana, Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Conrad, etc. What other voices do you feel are alive within Original Bodies?

DR: As I have mentioned, I have developed a strong interest over the years in animism, in imbuing the physical world with human traits, with human consciousness. In 1757 David Hume wrote in A Natural History of Religion: “There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds . . . hence the frequency and beauty of the prosopopoeia in poetry, where trees, mountains, and streams are personified.”           

A portion of these words from Hume—“We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds”—serves as an epigraph for Original Bodies, so surely the voices of writers like Hume, Freud, and Jung inhabit the book. Freud, for example, wrote that a member of a primitive culture imagines that “every danger springs from the hostile intention of some being with a soul like himself, and this is as much the case with dangers which threaten him from some natural force as it is from other human beings or animals," and, in much the same way, he or she “is accustomed to project his own internal impulses of hostility on to the external world.” Many of the animistic poems in Original Bodies are dark in nature and certainly reflect the fears and projections of the speakers. What’s more, the poems often exist half in the real world and half in the dream world, which is meant to emphasize the slipperiness we often feel between the corporeal and incorporeal worlds, and which is the source both of our fears and our longings.         

What’s more, I am certainly drawn to poets like W. S. Merwin, Brigit Peegen Kelly, and Robert Wrigley, all of whom write about the natural world and its connections to the human experience. Kelly, in particular, delves at times into the primitive mindset, and I find her poetry both startling and moving. Still, it is next to impossible for me to identify which voices have had the greatest influence on me, in part because I came to the writing of poetry so late in life. For many years I was a failed and frustrated fiction writer, suffering from chronic and debilitating writer’s block. I could write the opening page of a short story or novel, but then, in despair, I would stop. In 2004, when I was nearing fifty, I realized in a single moment that if I wrote poetry I could close up shop after a page or two and call the work done. This has made all the difference for me, but it also means that I have had nearly sixty years of being influenced by voices around me. When I summon them for my poems, I don’t know where they come from, or why they arrive, but I am always happy to welcome them. 

Anthony Rintala is an English instructor at the University of Southern Indiana and the media editor for Southern Indiana Review. His work has most recently been published in New Plains Review, Kudzu Magazine, Muse: A Quarterly Journal, Ishaan Literary Review, Oklahoma Review, Copperfield Review, A Few Lines Magazine, Mad Hatter’s Review, Foundling Review, Muddy River, Penwood Review, St. Ann’s Review, Sakura Review, and the Avatar Review.