Ruth Madievsky’s first poetry collection, Emergency Brake, has just been released from Tavern Books as the 2015 Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series selection. Her poetry and fiction has been published by or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, Rattle, Blackbird, The Iowa Review, and others. She is a doctoral student at The University of Southern California School of Pharmacy and a research assistant at an HIV clinic specializing in maternal care in Downtown Los Angeles.
Emergency Brake has quickly become one of my favorite books (seriously, do yourself or a loved one a favor and order it). Through strings of surprising and accurate metaphors, Ruth lyrically weaves a complex web of human interaction and shows the profound effect the speaker’s actions can have on other people and vice versa. I know it’s going to be a collection that I keep on my desk to revisit when I need inspiration, and I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview Ruth for the My Tribe Series.
Can you tell me about the intersection between your two interests, writing and science? Does your Pharmacy studies and practice influence your writing and vice versa?
I used to see writing and pharmacy as antagonists. I’m very protective of my time and was sure that spending four years in pharmacy school would inevitably hurt my writing. I’ve actually found the opposite to be true. Pharmacy and poetry share a core value—empathy—and I now believe that my time spent counseling patients as a clinician has made me a better writer and vice versa.
Also, not being in a Creative Writing MFA or PhD program gave me the drive to write nearly every day, if only to keep up with my peers who were in those programs. I was convinced that they were writing more than I was and were being exposed to opportunities (mentors, agents, etc.) that I couldn’t compete with. Feeling like an outsider motivated me to push myself as a writer more intensely than I probably would have if I was writing from within the academy. Put another way, if I wasn’t in pharmacy school, I don’t think Emergency Brake would exist.
What struggles did you encounter while writing and revising Emergency Brake? How did you overcome these struggles?
Sequencing the book was my most persistent struggle. I had no idea what to do with section breaks, whether it’d be better to open with a long poem vs. a short poem, to end the book on a note of hopefulness vs. semi-despair. I worried that readers would find it revolting if I followed up a poem about sexual violence with a poem about desire, or that they’d lose interest if I placed similar poems close together. Things like that.
In the months between when my book was selected for the Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series and when we began the editing process, I questioned nearly every decision I’d made and pitched a drastically different version of the book to my editors. In the end, we stuck very close to the original. They believed in the work and didn’t think it needed the fifteen new poems and extra (highly arbitrary) section break I had suggested. We barely touched the sequence and focused instead on things like cutting or revising unnecessary similes (which my book was overflowing with) and images that I fell back on as a crutch in too many poems. It was fascinating to find that the things I was most insecure about were basically non-issues, and that the poems that needed the most work were the ones I had assumed were done.
I feel like many of your poems that I’ve read contain or circle around a mystery, which is part of what I find so compelling about them. A clear example is “On Memory,” published by Blackbird. Can you comment on the role mystery takes while crafting your work?
I’m not someone who experiences sudden bouts of inspiration and rushes to get it all down. For me, the urge to write has always been nonspecific. I keep a notebook full of images and phrases I’m drawn to, and I usually pull from that when I sit down to write. My revision process involves finding what belongs and what’s bullshit masquerading as depth. I tend to use a lot of bullshit phrases as stand-ins when I haven’t figured out what it is I’m trying to say. So maybe that sense of mystery comes back to me not plotting my poems and just sort of experiencing them as they form.
What sort of writing support system do you have or have you had in the past? How has community helped shape you as a writer?
I’m lucky to have a core group of writers that I trade work back and forth with. I rarely send work out for publication until at least one of them has given me feedback. I’ve been doing that the longest with the poets Jackson Burgess and August Lührs, ever since we were undergraduates at USC. It’s grounded in our loving many of the same poets—Terrance Hayes, Marie Howe, Nick Flynn, to name a few—and in understanding how to read and critique each other’s work.
I’ve also had the privilege of studying with several poets whose work deeply moves me. Natalie Diaz shared her process for building emotional images and helped me pare back the chattiness of my poems. Matthew Dickman was Emergency Brake’s first reader, back when it was a therapy session pretending to be a book of poems. He was the first person to point out that I was the hero in nearly every poem, that I had sanitized the book of all traces of my capacity for cruelty. Cecilia Woloch led a month-long poetry workshop in Paris—the first time in my life that I spent every day living and breathing poetry. Matthew Zapruder introduced me to the idea of poems as mood-making devices rather than content machines. And my editors at Tavern Books, Carl Adamshick and Natalie Garyet, were the most generous readers I’ve ever had. Line-editing the book with them gave me incredible insight into how I write poems, and I’m sure part of that comes from their being stellar poets themselves.
So I’ve found community mostly through writing workshops, literary conferences like the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop, and through the process of publishing my first book. My poems are covered with the fingerprints of my mentors and friends.
Can you tell me about your current projects?
I’m working on a collection of linked stories, many of which take place at a fictional Los Angeles dive bar called Salvation. To quote the title story, “Salvation was the kind of place where you could expect to see a teenage Ukrainian immigrant reciting Dostoevsky to a soccer mom drinking a flask of Scope mouthwash.” I’ve written five stories so far, one of which, “Hamster,” will be published in an upcoming issue of The Iowa Review.
I’ve also been tinkering with the idea of writing a book-length lyric essay. I was totally electrified by Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts and Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, to name a few. I have this document on my computer with pages and pages of theory on gender, illness, sex, trauma, anxiety, the body, you name it. The project hasn’t found its shape yet, but I’ve been enjoying exploring the possibilities.
Ready for a sample of her work? Hear Ruth Madievsky read two poems originally published by Springhouse Journal: