Ruth Williams is the author of Flatlands (Black Lawrence Press, 2018) and the chapbook Conveyance (Dancing Girl Press, 2012). In addition to her creative work (published in Crab Orchard Review, Pleiades, jubilat, and other journals), Williams has published scholarly work in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, College Literature, and The Journal of Popular Culture. Originally from Lincoln, Nebraska, Ruth Williams has toured the Midwest, earning her PhD. in Comparative Literature from the University of Cincinnati and teaching at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri.
As her professional and publishing history indicate, feminism, the Midwest, and the self (as it relates to place and gender) are key aspects of Williams’s work. She interrogates these topics from various points of view and narrative angles throughout her debut collection of poetry, Flatlands. In doing so, she transforms the plains from an endless stretch of grasses to a coordinate system where we can plot who we are when we’re alone and with others. As a Midwesterner myself and as someone who is interested in how one’s first book can change (or not change) our views of ourselves, I was excited to ask Williams about Flatlands and the processes the collection went through, as it moved from individual poems to a bound book.
Brian Clifton: How did Flatlands begin? Did it change dramatically from its beginnings to published book?
Ruth Williams: Oddly enough, Flatlands was born out of a suggestion that I put old MFA-era work alongside new work. I was complaining to my boyfriend Joe (also a poet) that it seemed my MFA era poems, which I’d randomly send out once in a blue moon, would get picked up by journals more readily than my new work, which I—almost a decade on from my MFA—considered far superior. Joe suggested I take the poems from my MFA thesis that’d been published and throw them in with the poems I’d written since I’d moved to Kansas City. I was skeptical, but when I took his advice, I was surprised to see that the Midwestern landscape was the theme that connected old to new.
Once I noticed a preoccupation with place across my work, I began to write into it, thinking further about how the landscape of the plains had shaped my aesthetic sense. I ended up writing around 8-9 new poems around this theme, essentially fleshing out the connective tissue. Flatlands feels like an unexpected surprise that I had actually been writing my way into for a long time.
BC: I think the surprises in Flatlands resonated with me the most—the small ways the day-to-day becomes strange and stranger. In writing these poems, how did you balance the familiar with the Midwest’s own brand of weird? Or how did “boredom become a bitter pleasure”?
RW: When I was young, I always thought Nebraska was the most boring place on earth because it wasn’t any place that anyone in the U.S. ever really thought of or wanted to go. At most, when I’d tell people I was from Nebraska, they’d say “I think I drove through it once” or they’d ask me if I grew up on a farm, unaware that Lincoln is actually a mid-sized city. Comments like these underscored my own sense that I’d grown up in an unremarkable, too familiar place where anyone remotely cool was just waiting to move away. It wasn’t until I returned to this region as an adult that I began to see it was the very “flatness” of landscape/culture that had fostered my imagination, my poetic eye’s attraction to weirdness. It seems to me there’s an invitation in the openness of the Midwest landscape and its disconnection from the cultural hubs of the coasts to turn interior, to get weird, an invitation that might not exist for someone growing up in a place where there’s always something to do. So, while I may still smart at living in “flyover” country, I’ve learned to value this boredom.
BC: I get that—it’s almost as the vastness of unpeopled fields is too much to consider. How do you think your poems enact this invitation for contemplation?
RW: I think the poems in Flatlands invite contemplation because they dwell most often in the lyric mode in which the narrative pull of the poem is psychological or symbolic rather than rooted in chronology or character. Thus, when a reader enters into one of my poems, I hope they’re embedded into my speaker’s fascination with the mysteries these open spaces afford, the way they can help reflect and reveal one’s inner life.
BC: I see that in one of the threads that I followed throughout the book—the push-and-pull dynamic of Midwestern sexuality. How do you see this theme being developed in Flatlands? How does it connect with the larger concern of femininity in the Midwest?
RW: During one of my last major overhauls to the order of Flatlands, I realized that the collection was essentially a coming-of-age narrative. The speaker’s experience of the complicatedness of the adult world increases as the book progresses. This holds true, I think, for the speaker’s experience of sexuality, which is complicated, not just by specific relationships, but also by the gendered expectations she absorbs as she grows up.
I like, though, that you’re asking me first to place this experience within a Midwestern context. I think—to make a gross generalization—Midwestern culture values reticence. We don’t like braggarts, we’re skeptical of people out to “shock” us; instead, we value those who get their work done, don’t make waves. This dovetails nicely with a typical patriarchal vision of a passive, obedient femininity, a “good girl” who follows the rules. Of course, this vision of femininity is also deeply rooted in the abstinence-only ideology that informed much of my childhood sex-ed. All this makes it hard to know where reticence ends and repression begins. And yet, while both my speaker and myself bristle against the expectation that we should be a “good girl,” there’s also an undeniable erotic charge to the “push-and-pull.” To allowing oneself to be, as I say in “How We Came to the Hill,” “led willingly” to the “reckoning” of desire.
BC: For me, a lot of these c
onnections between the body and the landscape occurred through eating, both literal and symbolic. What do you see as the connection between the body and where the body is?
RW: I don’t know if the connection between body and land via the mouth is a conscious one, so thank you for this observation that reveals me to myself! I can say I tend often to invoke the mouth or tongue in my poems both in Flatlands and other work. I’d say that eating is one way that the self takes in other objects, that the border of the self is penetrated, shaped by what it consumes, becoming something new via this connection.
Often, for me, I think mouths and eating come up when I’m exploring desire or connection to a beloved. In this way, the mouth is a portal, not just for consuming the other, but for allowing oneself to be consumed, a sacrifice of the self’s boundary that hopefully leads to interconnection, though there’s always the danger of annihilation.
In Flatlands, in addition to exploring the connection of body-to-body, I wanted to explore how our experience of our bodies are shaped by the land. How does the land become a projection screen for the body’s desires, fears, etc.? I suppose you could say I wanted to eat the land in order to figure out how it changed me.
BC: Do you have a favorite poem in Flatlands? Or one you find yourself reading often?
RW: I don’t know if I have a favorite poem, but one I do re-read with pleasure is the last poem of the collection, “An Entrepreneurial Mindset.” The title is probably a bit of a misdirection as I chose it in a moment of snarkiness, expressing my deep suspicion of the lingo used by the business community (Don’t get me started on how irritating it is to hear business people embrace the term “creativity” as if they invented it); and yet, the poem itself is much more tender. I don’t generally write what I’d call happy poems, but this poem ended up feeling like an act of self-soothing, a reminder that things are going to be ok. Maybe it’s my own self-definition of what it means to be “entrepreneurial”? To be able to recognize, even if you feel uncertain or disoriented, you’re connected to what’s come before you. It’s ok if you can’t recognize where you’re going, the poem tells me, “you’re just newer, / you’re new.”
BC: What has the process been like from submitting the manuscript to your first published book? Were there any things that surprised you along the way?
RW: I was surprised that it was Flatlands, the manuscript of mine that’s the newest, that’s been out the shortest amount of time, ended up being picked up first. I have two other manuscripts I’ve been sending out that have been much “closer” in terms of finalist/semi-finalist spots than Flatlands ever was. This underscores my personal theory that it’s never the work you think will get published that ends up in print. There’s so little one can predict even as we’re always all trying to calculate our odds.
BC: But predict we try. Has the publishing of Flatlands changed how you see yourself in the poetry community or the poetry community in general?
RW: While there’s no doubt having a book under your name is enormously validating for anyone who calls themselves a poet, I’m not sure if it’s changed the way I relate to the poetry community. I still feel like a very little fish, barely making waves in a big pond. (Is this related to my own Midwestern hesitation at claiming the ostentatious title of writer? My own Midwestern allergy to self-promotion? Maybe!) That said, in working to promote the book, I think my awareness of the poetry community as a community has grown. Writing alone, especially outside the context of a writing program or residency or workshop, can make you forget there’s actually a robust community of readings, journals, interviews, book reviews, poetry Twitter, etc. always on-going. Tapping into that more intentionally has felt good.
BC: Do you have any advice for those writers waiting to have their first book picked up?
RW: Don’t let the po-biz side of things dominate your creative life. Be protective of your creativity. This advice may sound obvious, but I found the longer I worked to get a book published, the more I racked up semi-finalists/finalists slots, the more I revised my manuscripts, the more I came to measure all my poems for their use value. Rather than freely exploring and taking risks, I vacillated between total doubt about my talent and a desperate sense that I was missing just one magic thing that’d lead me to success. I ended up feeling creatively stilted and, in my darkest moments, wondered if I’d be better off as a “handmaid” to poetry, supporting other, better poets by publishing reviews and scholarly work. I ended up feeling totally alienated from my own writing—a self-inflicted wound I’m only just now recovering from. The grind of the submitting the book can get to you something fierce. You have to find ways to carve out moments in your writing life that are detached from and maybe even (seemingly) antithetical to publishing.