An Interview with Ruth Dickey, Poet & Author of “Mud Blooms”
September 22, 2020
By Gabriela Denise Frank
Has there been a year when hunger rumbled more prominently in our minds than our bellies?
Months ago, I gave up searching for flour and yeast, items perpetually out of stock, but this week, after hearing my husband long for homemade bagels, I searched for and found a 3-pack of Red Star Active Dry Yeast at the grocery store. Amongst temporarily lost foods and traditions, I’ve hungered for nothing more in these six months of distancing, than gathering, touch and connection. Thankfully, books are still a safe place to meet.
Bookstores, libraries and writers have fed us all summer, from Summer Book Bingo with SAL and the Seattle Public Library to Jami Attenberg’s #1000wordsofsummer, which prompts writers to draft 1,000 words a day for two weeks in June, and Nicole Sealey’s fourth-annual #SealeyChallenge, which encourages participants to read thirty-one poetry books or chapbooks in August. In Seattle, we’re fortunate to have Elliott Bay Books, Open Books, Ada’s Technical Books, Third Place Books and many, many other independent bookshops that remained in operation via the good old USPS and curbside pick-up, nourishing us when we needed poems and stories the most.
This summer was also when Mud Blooms, SAL Executive Director Ruth Dickey’s first full-length book of poems, made its way into my hands. Consider yourself warned before you read: her poems will have you yearning for food, particularly homemade apple cake. Thanks to this tender, visceral collection, you will also reflect on what desire has driven you to do, what you’ve hungered for, perhaps without respite, and people who have passed in and out of your life whose influence remains.
Hunger, longing, and a search for home form the spine of Mud Blooms, which illustrates Ruth’s experiences across three landscapes: leading writing workshops at a soup kitchen in Washington, DC; childhood memories of North Carolina where she returned to care for her dying mother; and Central America where she traveled extensively and lived for a year. Threaded through these geographies is grief, loss, and her work with the homeless community. Though the poems were written over fifteen-some years, Ruth’s words feel timely and prescient—current and necessary.
In her careful hands, each person Ruth introduces us to is rendered with complexity and dignity. She presents herself in unsparing detail as a curious child and a precocious young person learning to navigate the world. From her confession to stealing a handful of sugar in an orphanage or realizing that fresh apples, while more delicious than canned fruit, are inedible by those she serves at Miriam’s Kitchen, most of whom suffer from dental problems, Ruth shows how we are all guided, sometimes erringly, by hunger. She reminds us that hunger is not shameful, and that all humans are connected by hunger. Ruth’s great gift as a poet is her ability to render, in intricate, observed detail, profound compassion for the human condition. Her poems celebrate aliveness in all its forms, inspiring feelings in the reader’s body that echo in her mind and heart.
Our conversation about her book was all kinds of joyful. Amongst writerly topics—rejection, Ruth’s Glitter File, her next two books—we kept returning to food, which is often on my mind these days. This summer, I’ve nurtured a garden that’s fed me tomatoes, radicchio, cucumbers, and herbs. I’ve expanded my raised beds as a mental brace against vegetables that might run low in stores over the fall and winter. One outcome of 2020 is that I now understand why my grandmothers, who survived a pandemic, the Great Depression, and world war, overstocked their pantries the way they did.
If you, too, have unsure moments, I recommend grounding yourself with gardening (window gardens count!) and Sabrina Orah Mark’s Paris Review column, Happily, particularly her essay that pokes at America’s homemade bread obsession, which kept flour and yeast out of stock this spring. I also recommend taking shelter in Mud Blooms with Ruth as your guide. Her navigation of uncertainty, loss, and grief will make you feel less alone; her intimate portraits of people, nature, and food will bring you joy. A calf that tickles corn from your hand; girls in Nicaragua swinging on mango trees; Junior on the corner in DC trading wisecracks; and homemade apple cake whose crisp-edge crumb carries the gold of November sun.
There can never be too many servings of that.
The following conversation has been excerpted from a longer interview. If you’d like to listen to the audio version, click the play button below—or, read a full transcript here.
Gabriela Denise Frank: To set the stage for our conversation, I wanted to begin by noting that Mud Blooms weaves together your experiences feeding people and teaching poetry in a soup kitchen called Miriam’s Kitchen in Washington, DC; memories of your childhood in North Carolina and, later, your mother as she was experiencing illness and decline; and your travels through Latin America where, as a young person, you explored the boundaries of yourself through the lens of another language and culture. What drove the organization of this book? Why these threads coming together?
Ruth Dickey: That’s such a good question. All of the threads are about hunger and a search for home and connection and place. I was lucky to work with folks who were homeless in DC at Miriam’s Kitchen, where I ran a writing workshop. We met after breakfast on Wednesday morning, every Wednesday, and the only rule in the workshop was, everybody writes. When we sat down at that table, we did it together as writers trying to figure out how to put words on the page and what worked and what didn’t. It was amazing.
I was entrusted with incredible stories and I wanted to honor and share some of those stories, but I didn’t want them to be separate from my story. It was important that my story and my search for home was right next to those stories I was sharing, and that they were all talking to one another, that it was not an experience of othering. It was very much like a writing workshop. We were all there together trying to figure out what home means and how to make sense of the world and how we grieve. That’s, for me, why the poems ended up being organized the way they are. An abecedarian poem called “Alphabet Soup Kitchen” arches through the whole book. These teeny vignettes tell the richness of the story of Miriam’s Kitchen and the people who were there.
Gabriela: I loved those and I love how you wove the writing that happened in the workshops into the titles of your poems. Can you talk about that process?
Ruth: The lines that appear as titles in the poems also appeared in anthologies we published at the kitchen. They were all lines from poems people wrote after breakfast. Those poems are persona poems—I wanted those poems to have voices from people at breakfast—and I was thinking, how do I re-enter and find those voices? That’s really where it began.
Gabriela: I’m curious about the book’s title, too, which comes from the last line of the last poem. Can you talk about how you came to that title to pull all of these ideas together?
Ruth: The last poem in the book is really a prayer for the Miriam’s Kitchen poets and for any of us who are searching for home. It is about the ways in which their lives are sacred. Our society depersonalizes and devalues people experiencing homelessness, and I wanted everything in this collection to fight against that.
To me, it’s finding beauty in things that traditionally aren’t seen as beautiful. That’s why the last words are “blooming mud.” At one point, this manuscript was titled Collecting Wurlitzers, which is from a poem in the book about my father collecting Wurlitzers and having visions he would repair them, then never quite doing it, and how we make intentions to create beauty and repair things and find transformation. It didn’t quite work out that way. It ended up with Mud Blooms, trying to celebrate that idea of finding beauty. I love the idea that lotuses bloom in mud—that is where they live and thrive.
Gabriela: What was your relationship to poetry growing up?
Ruth: I’ve always loved poems. I’ve scribbled them on things, copied them into notebooks, wrote them in the sand on beaches. Poetry has always been part of what I thought was the most important way of making sense of the world.
Gabriela: Where did that come from?
Ruth: My parents are both huge readers and love language, love storytelling. They really believe in the importance and value of that. I’m sure that’s where it came from.
Gabriela: Was there a point when you felt you started to take off as a poet?
Ruth: When I was an undergrad, I took a poetry class with Roland Flint, an amazing poet who taught at Georgetown, and that was powerful. Having him respond to my work in a really affirming way, I thought, oh, maybe I am a poet.
After school, I applied to a program called WriterCorps, which was an AmeriCorps program that placed writers in soup kitchens, prisons, psychiatric hospitals, public schools, day care centers, and youth centers to teach poetry workshops. I thought of myself as a poet but I had published literally nothing. I applied and Kenny Carroll said, yes, you can join us in WriterCorps. That was a life changing experience for me. It was a wonderful blend of writers with all different sorts of experience. E. Ethelbert Miller came to talk to us, Ta-Nehisi Coates, DJ Renegade, Jeffery McDaniel—incredible poets who are still publishing today. It was an amazing community to be part of.
Gabriela: Coming back to Mud Blooms, your book is so powerfully observed and visceral. Woven through it is food of all kinds—apples, apple cake, milk, honey, nutmeg, nachos, champagne, eggs, smoked salmon, capers, lemon wedges. We’re also introduced to aspects of hunger and desire linked with shame. How has your relationship with food and hunger changed over the course of these experiences and poems?
Ruth: That’s an interesting question. In some ways, the through-line about hunger is about understanding and navigating privilege and about understanding ways in which I and the speaker “I” in the poems hold privilege. The first poem about stealing sugar at the orphanage, which is such a transgressive thing, and reveals the understanding that, to not fully have known hunger is such a place of privilege. The ways in which that has a real emotional weight is what I was wrestling with. By the end of the book, my hope is there’s a little more integration of holding hunger as not a shameful thing, that it moves to a place where we all have hungers. We all hunger for sustenance and community, connection, home, feeling seen, and feeling loved.
Gabriela: What do the geographies of Washington, DC, North Carolina, and Latin America represent to you?
Ruth: These are super personal, narrative, autobiographical poems, so they’re all places I’ve lived. I grew up in North Carolina. I lived in DC for a long time. I lived in Central America for a year and traveled in that region extensively. I often write poems about things I don’t understand that I keep thinking about. If I can write about it, I can figure out what’s happening. That’s a big piece of why the Latin America poems entered and stayed. They’re containers in which I’m working out things that are related to the other places. In traveling, we feel things so viscerally. A different environment and a different culture allows us new windows into seeing ourselves—and our privilege, our culture, our assumptions, and expectations.
Gabriela: Is there a place you “home” to?
Ruth: I’ve been lucky to live in different places and to feel at home in the world in lots of different spots. DC is where I became an adult. It’s the first place I developed consciousness of myself as a writer and had an artistic intention. In some ways, that will always feel like my artistic home, but Seattle definitely is where my roots are now.
Gabriela: Is that what inspired you to include the poem Ecola State Park in this collection?
Ruth: That poem is about opening yourself to grief and metabolizing it. It ends with this metaphor, a beached seal that’s been picked clean by birds, and that I am the seal—ripped, cleaved open by this experience of grief I’m trying to understand. To me, the poem ends on a hopeful note. I was trying to make the arc of going through pain to a place of transcendence and having metabolized grief in a way that, then, it can come out to the world.
Gabriela: Where is this chapter of Mud Booms on the longer continuum for you?
Ruth: This book had a really strange journey to the world. Back in 2009 or 2010, an earlier version was going to be published, then the small press went out of business. It totally fell apart and I put it in a drawer. I thought, okay, done with that, I’m not doing poetry. Then I came to SAL. Having the privilege of hearing all these writers read their work and hearing young people read their work was super inspiring to me. I thought, I cannot authentically do this work without also struggling with my own writing. Part of authentically showing up in this job is continuing to show up on the page—and succeed and fail and carry on. So I got the manuscript back out. At that point, I had lost my mom, so there was a different depth to the poems. I also thought the book wasn’t succeeding the way it was, so I layered in more things to make it more cohesive. It’s a different book now than it was then.
Gabriela: It’s amazing what distance will do for perspective. Some writing needs more time and the universe conspires to give it to you even though, in the moment, the delay doesn’t feel great.
Ruth: [Laughs] Yes. At SAL, we say about many things that the road to “Yes” is paved with “No.” I think that’s especially true for writers. I’ve been so moved by the incredibly long journeys some writers navigate to finally getting a yes. Ben Fountain and Viet Thanh Nguyen talked about writing for seventeen years before anything got published and I thought, wow, that’s such incredible dedication to craft and belief in your stories and your work and your ideas. For all of us who are writing and struggling and getting rejected, rejected, rejected, it’s good sustenance to know that’s part of the journey.
Gabriela: Speaking of journeys, I believe you’re working on your next project—is that true?
Ruth: Yes—two! I have a manuscript of poems that is about metabolizing grief and a prose project about walking the Camino de Santiago—what happened, why I did it, what I learned, and all the blisters.
Gabriela: That was a month-long journey—or a month-plus?
Ruth: About six weeks and four hundred miles. Now is a nice time to be thinking about and reliving that journey. It feels revolutionary at the moment.
Gabriela: Another thing we can all look forward to is the upcoming season of SAL, which is tremendous.
Ruth: I’m really excited about the coming season. Claudia Rankine, in this moment of her new book, will be so incredible. I’m thrilled we have Toi Derricotte, one of the founders of Cave Canem and an elder in the community. I’m excited about Yaa Gyasi, Madeline Miller, Ibram X. Kendi, Yamiche Alcindor—and it’ll be so interesting and powerful to hear from Ocean Vuong about his writing process, his poetry, and his fiction. One of my brother’s favorite writers is Bill Bryson. He and his wife read Bill Bryson books out loud to one another, so he screamed when I told him that we were bringing Bill Bryson to SAL.
Gabriela: I’m always changed by the writers I see on the SAL stage. Do you go home afterward and write furiously about what you’re doing in this role?
Ruth: I have what I call a Glitter File. I’m madly taking notes as our guests are talking, which I type into this thing I call the Glitter File. I’ll go back and read it and think, I loved it when someone said that. Social media allows us to see what other people scribble in their electronic version of a Glitter File. I love going back and seeing what moments people captured and shared online, and I add those to my collection.
Gabriela: We touched on this a little—how do you bring who you are as a poet to your work at SAL?
Ruth: Mostly through the introductions to the authors that I get to write. I read their work deeply and think deeply about it. I think what I bring is a deep love and admiration for their work and wanting to honor and celebrate that. At the end of the day, I’m a passionate reader like everybody in the SAL audience. I’m bringing my authentic love for their work and, I think, that love for words in their work is probably why I’m a poet.
Gabriela: Before we go, I wanted to thank you and the entire staff at SAL for bringing us cultural programming this spring and summer. The conversations with Carol Anderson, Min Jin Lee, and Luis Alberto Urrea were healing for the heart and soul. I felt so grateful to have them, and I know you all are working really hard to bring these programs to us.
Ruth: It’s an honor, and it’s been so powerful, the ways in which these events are special in new ways and intimate in different ways. I loved the moment when Luis Alberto Urrea was, like, here are the items on my desk and here are the notebooks I’ve kept since I was a kid. I can show you inside. We could never have seen those things if he were on the stage at Benaroya. There’s an immediacy and, really, a specialness to that. So some silver linings of this time. It’s good to remember, alongside everything that’s harder, that we are not able to do, the things that we can do and ways we can come together and learn and listen and make sense of the of the world. It feels more important than ever.
Gabriela Denise Frank is a literary artist whose work has appeared in galleries, storefronts, libraries, anthologies, magazines, podcasts, and online. Her essays and fiction have been published in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, Pembroke, The Normal School, and The Rumpus. A Jack Straw Writer and Artist Trust EDGE alumna, Gabriela’s work is supported by 4Culture, Mineral School, Vermont Studio Center, Jack Straw, Invoking the Pause, and the Civita Institute. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com