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Boredom’s Bitter Pleasures: An Interview with Ruth Williams 

Interview conducted by: Brian Clifton

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