Psychiatry Is An Option: Interview With Poet Russell Ragsdale
It is an honor and a pleasure to introduce Poet Russell Ragsdale. I am so pleased that Russell agreed to participate! Take note folks, he has a lot of wisdom to share!
How old were you when your first piece was published?
I was somewhere in my mid-twenties if my memory serves me well. It was an impassioned piece about my father’s imminent heart surgery. I was a young poet fresh from an undergraduate creative writing program and a particularly poor poet (in my estimation) as I look back. I was alone even though I was married and, because of the isolation inherent in print publishing, I was about to become more lonely.
How has social media helped/hindered the promotion of your work?
The social media is like scribbling a note on a bathroom wall in a busy airport. It rather randomly reaches a lot of people but they generally have little or no interest in anything that concerns you. Most poets are merely swallowed up by it. It can, however, connect you with friends who you would otherwise see rarely. Of course your friends will be interested in your work but they would be interested in it even if you didn’t contact them. My net impression of the social media is that it is of very low consequence for anything other than keeping up with those you love and, sometimes, discovering new friends. For example, I struggled very diligently to promote my first book Book of Aliases and the sales were moderate. With my second book Dragon Scales and Fireflies I missed finding out it had been released and it was off to a hot start even before I knew it had gone on sale. It spent the first three weeks mostly in the #1 spot in its category. I got very little done by way of promotion and whatever I did, after the fact, seemed to have little effect on the sales. Before social media came around I had become a blogger and that literally saved my life. But now we are talking about me personally and this has nothing to do with promotion.
How has your writing style changed over the course of your writing career?
At first I was taught how to write and the result was dreadful. Later in my career (after I started writing poetry again) I learned how to write and the result was much better.
Do you find that your work is semi-autobiographical or based on real events, or is as far from your personal life as possible?
No matter how much you try to distance your writing from your own life, you will never succeed because, even something as casual as a “to do” list tells something about the person who made it up. This was great news for me because it meant I could get to know the poets whose work I studied and we could become kind of “literarily” close. They became as mentors to me as I got to know them. Confessional poets such as Plath make a point of being semi-autobiographical but, if you read under their writing you can also find their biography.
I write what my consciousness tells me I am seeing and experiencing and therefore I have no illusion I can hide from the reader’s eye.
What advice would you give to someone starting in a literary field?
Psychiatry is an option!
Seriously, you have to want to help people get through their lives and that is a very high calling that will take more from you than you could ever believe and give back more than you expect. If you are talking about becoming a poet, you must do that out of love and have another way to earn a living. Love and forgiveness are the two central keys in life and especially for someone with literary aspirations.
How do you feel that your publishing journey (or journeys) has changed your outlook on life?
Publishing is a great way to learn humility. I am just an ordinary guy who worked as a meat cutter in a supermarket. I had to discover a little bit about how I was special so I could publish and learn the humility thing again.
It takes tough skin to be able to handle this business. What is your method of getting past negative or hurtful comments?
I love editors, some of them are very close friends of mine but I have learned the ones who love you are just as wrong as the ones who hate you. Only you will ever be close to knowing what your own special voice and message are. You must believe in that with all your heart and soul.
Who has been the biggest help or inspiration to your writing career?
The editors who have believed in me have been the biggest help but it is the small unknown poets who have struggled and starved with me who are my greatest inspiration. Some of us have gone on to be successful and some have not. I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be successful. We live and love each other and read each other’s work with respect and admiration. Every moment like that fits my definition of success. Thanks to all of you for loving enough to write poetry!
What was your greatest writing ‘success?’
There is a poem in Book of Aliases called “journey” which is about as narrative as any of my poetry ever gets. It is rather long and somewhat complicated. It is also rather autobiographical which is a bit confusing since it is a poem about Odysseus. I’ve read it to lots of audiences and it has been enduringly popular. Another success is probably the poem “Conqueror” which is on the site Famous Poets and Poems (.com and also in Book of Aliases) and was probably the poem that launched me as a contemporary poet some years ago. I have a real difficult time defining success. I think if you read a poem that makes your life better for the moment, then that poem has been a success even if it was only you and only then.
Do you have a daily writing routine? If so, what is it?
I love to write in the early morning while everybody is asleep. I try not to write every day, if I can help it. Sometimes something has to be written and there are no weekends or fun times until that gets done. The toughest thing about writing poetry is that you have to BE a poet which always will mean you are a little different than everybody else and also will need experiences that others do not require.
What are your creative outlets outside of writing, if any?
After I left meat cutting I became a chef. I worked as an executive chef for almost 20 years. Cooking is a wonderful creative outlet and I love doing that. After I left working in restaurants and hotels I taught ESL English at a university for seven years before I retired altogether. I still work with students privately now as it takes a really creative person to help a student transition from needing someone to teach them into being someone who loves to learn and knows how to do that on their own. I also wrote a newspaper column on food for five years and enjoyed that very much. In addition, I have been an actor in movies and stage productions which I still continue to do. I also write lyrics for music that is performed by musician friends. I also was a chef on several television shows here in Kazakhstan and enjoyed doing that very much. Learning new languages is another creative interest and my next new language will be German.
It may be difficult for people to understand why I have done all this stuff but for me it is all part of what makes me a poet, part of what I love doing and my life is all about the activities that bring me and others constructive pleasure.
How do you think that electronic readers have affected global readership? Are you pro e-readers?
My phone is always with me and it is my e-reader also. I love to read and carry a large library on my phone. I believe very much in the freedom of an e-reading world and published both my books as e-readers first. I should have both of them as p-books by AWP in 2014 but it was really important to me that they became immediately available in the electronic form. That makes them so convenient.
If there was one thing you could change about any of your writing journeys, what would it be and why?
I took a MOOC called ModPo this year and met a whole bunch of new people who love poetry but aren’t necessarily poets. What a great experience this has been for me because of the contact with other readers. I’m enrolled again in September. It is a great course and is done in a very functional and enjoyable way. I’m not looking for another degree or even a certification; I just love being in with a bunch of other students as we ultimately enjoy poetry by learning to understand it more.
I wish I could have taken a course like this ten years ago but, of course, it wasn’t available. I’m so glad it has come along and am looking forward to cracking the books again with fellow students. I hope to meet you there!
Russell, thank you for sharing! Be sure to check out Russell’s work on Amazon. You can read my review of Book of Aliases here.