As promised, I am sharing my latest interview conducted on behalf of Seattle Arts & Lectures. This one is extra special, as my guest is Ruth Dickey, poet and author of Mud Blooms—and executive director of SAL. Enjoy!
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.
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.
Note: If you would like to read my interview with Ruth, our conversation lives in Q&A and audio formats on the SAL/ON Blog. If you would like to order a copy of Mud Blooms, please visit the Harbor Mountain Press website.