Seeking Truth: A Conversation with Ruth Baumann

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Parse, released last month from Black Lawrence Press, is Ruth Baumann’s first full-length poetry collection. The majority of the book features a singular speaker that tells the story of a young woman emerging from trauma and finding a way to land on her feet. The poems may appear short, but they resonate long after reading.

Baumann’s first chapbook, I’ll Love You Forever & Other Temporary Valentines, won the Salt Hill Dead Lake Chapbook Contest in 2014. Her second chapbook, wildcold, won the Slash Pines Chapbook Contest in 2015. Her poetry has also been published in Colorado Review, Sonora Review, Sycamore Review, and others. She is currently a PhD student at Florida State University and a co-editor of Nightjar Review.

Baumann and I spoke on the phone in mid-December just before Parse was released.

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The Rumpus: Animals come up a lot as images and companions in your poems; what draws you to them?

Ruth Baumann: I’ve always loved animals. Probably a cliché answer, but I have a lot of empathy for the underdog in life, someone that might be overlooked or might communicate a little differently or need a little extra help. In some ways, that’s a good empathy and in some ways, it could be codependent, I don’t know. I’ve always gravitated towards people and creatures that are a little bit less able to speak up for themselves. I mean, I don’t think most animals can speak at all, but in terms of people, I don’t know. I also think that my smaller toothless cat is my soulmate, so it makes sense that she’d be in poems.

Rumpus: Yes, I was happy to see her make an appearance.

Bauman: I mean, the whole book is dedicated to a cat.

Rumpus: Can you tell me more about how that happened?

Baumann: I dedicated the book to this kitten. She was the first kitten I bottle fed. I fell in love with her, and she did not make it that long. But it was a really helpful experience for me, because I had gone through this time where I was feeling all this grief that I had suppressed and then I wrote the book. I had been through all that stuff, and it wasn’t super fun, and I shut down in some ways emotionally. Then I got this little baby kitten and I fostered her and it reminded in some ways of how much love and care there is in the world, especially when I’m giving it and not trying to get it. Because I got to raise this tiny little two-day-old kitten, and also, I’m just ridiculous, so I thought I could dedicate a book to a cat. There are many cats are in the acknowledgements, too. Not even just mine.

Rumpus: I’m surprised my cats didn’t make it into the acknowledgements.

Baumann: Okay, well, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, all the other cats are in it now.

Rumpus: Animals play a huge part in your life. Have you always been nurturing and caring for animals? Is that something that came later?

Baumann: I’ve always been obsessed with animals, particularly cats. I had a little stuffed cat named Tire Pressure that was my favorite. I don’t know why it was named Tire Pressure.

When I was at my worst point a while ago, when I was younger and not living right, I didn’t have any animals or care about any animals. I think our ability to care for ourselves and being alive is reflective in our ability to care for others. And so I’ve been doing well in life, and for the last ten years or so, I have always had a little flock around me.

I actually got a stocking in the mail like an hour ago for my boyfriend’s dog for his Christmas present, which I’m really excited about. I know, my book shipped today, but also, I got this dog stocking in the mail.

Rumpus: I’ve read that the poems for the collection were written three years ago. How does it feel to finally have these poems coming out as a collection?

Baumann: It’s strange to have something published from a few years earlier, because ideally, you’re in a different emotional place, you’ve grown. Particularly because some of them are written in anger or a state of grief or disappointment and I don’t really feel those ways anymore. It makes me a little uncomfortable to read them. I tell myself, and hopefully it’s true, that they’ll be useful to someone else going through that.

Rumpus: When you think about the poems, do you dissociate yourself from the speaker because so much time has passed?

Baumann: I haven’t thought of it that way. Yeah. What I’d rather do when I look at it, is look at it less critically. I’m probably oversharing, but to look at the past and be like, “I should have been doing this better or this better,” but we only know as much as we know at the time. It’s the speaker, but in a lot of ways, the emotions are autobiographical. I look at it as a past self who didn’t know any better in some ways and did their best. And hopefully knows a little better in some ways now.

Rumpus: In “Prayers for Fish,” the speaker of the poem talks about her caretaker as the enemy. Is the speaker saying that nurturing can turn into something destructive?

Baumann: The things that we have the most resentments about are often related to the people we care about the most. So, it’s easy for us, and by us, I mean humanity because I’m totally qualified to speak for them, to feel resentment or anger at somebody that we genuinely care about. That’s why a lot of people end up with resentments at mothers and fathers. We nurture to the best of our ability, not just parents but all relationships, and we tend to carry our own wounds and shortcomings into those relationships. Things can be both nurturing in their own way and they can recreate wounds. The critiques on mother/father figures in that book are the issues or ideas that I let go of in order to get rid of that anger and an expectation that there is a certain way that a parent should be or what a nurturing figure should be. In an ideal world, people would be perfect, but I don’t think there is a standard that is universal, or that is deserved by everybody.

Rumpus: Has the process of getting a PhD in Creative Writing changed you as a writer?

Baumann: I don’t know that getting a PhD has changed me as a writer. Getting older has changed me as a writer. I write less than I used to, and I write less experimentally. I like to think that now there’s more depth to it. Getting a PhD has changed me as a teacher a lot, in the sense that it’s helped me grow, but a lot of that is just emotional growth, too. Helping people is the point of everything. That’s how we grow and become less selfish. Anything that makes us grow and be less self-centered make us better writers. The more emotionally mature you are, in a lot of ways, the better writer you are.

Rumpus: What do you wish more people knew about poetry?

Baumann: It doesn’t have to be depressing. A lot of my students come in with the preconception that poetry is something you do in high school when you break up with your first boyfriend, or it’s all misery and depression. There’s a lot of poetry that advocates for a mindfulness and an awareness of what’s around you and little life lessons. Lamenting and depression, there’s a lot of that too, but it doesn’t have to be exclusively that way. Which I know, this book is really not a good advocate for that sentiment, but it’s something to think about. I think the book was seeking truth. Because we have to feel grief. The idea is not to stay there and to find ways to change how we’re looking at what we perceive as loss, and instead we can see it as a teacher in some way.

Rumpus: Even though they’re about traumatic situations or emotions, what is your perception of importance on speaking to these truths through poetry?

Baumann: Seeking the truth is always important because otherwise we are just in a cyclone of denial and we can’t ever find a way to move past things, grow from them, see where maybe our behavior and thoughts can change, or where we just have to kind of accept whatever has happened and find a new way to cope with it. Without it you don’t have anything in relationships with people, or with your own perception of situations. If we’re not being honest with ourselves, then we have no way to be fully present or to grow from whatever is happening.

Rumpus: Do you think a lot of people are not honest with themselves in these ways?

Baumann: I have no idea. I’m only one person. There’s always some level of honesty we need to keep working on. I don’t think we ever get fully perceptive. The nature of being human is that we have our blind spots. I guess some people are more willfully unaware, but most people seem to be interested in growing. I don’t know; I don’t want to make blanket statements. Something I learned about, and it’s helped me in teaching, too, is judging people from where they started to where they ended up at the end of the semester, instead of wanting them all to be at the same place. Because we all just come from such different places, so our abilities to be honest with ourselves and to see things in ourselves, is all at such different points and we all have such different factors that play into where we’re at. There’s not really a universal standard.

Rumpus: What are you reading right now?

Baumann: Actually, weirdly, I took prelims this semester, so I haven’t been enjoying reading for a while, but I just kind of started again. I’ve started reading this novel called, Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. It won a bunch of award;, you’ve probably heard of it.

Rumpus: What keeps you up at night?

Baumann: I actually sleep pretty well. Yeah, I mean I used to worry about all kinds of shit that I have no control over. But I’ve found that it’s more of a thought habit of just worrying versus what the things are that I was worrying about. If that makes sense, like replace the thing you’re worrying about with the next thing to worry about. I try to not do that because someone told me the other day that worrying is like a negative meditation, and I really liked that phrasing. It makes sense. And I just don’t want to waste time, I’m getting older.

I worry if my cats know how much I love them. Just kidding… I’m pretty sure.

Rumpus: How do you feel about Parse being out in the world now?

Baumann: I have some anxiety that book is more negative than I wanted, but if it can help anybody who’s going through any of those stages of grieving to feel less alone and then recognize that there’s a way to get past those feelings, then I think it succeeded even though I wish I had been a little bit less angry.

Rumpus: Do you think that the expression of this trauma or this process was negative as far as the outcome of how the poems relate to each other? And the content of the book?

Baumann: In some ways. I mean, ultimately it tries to go towards hopefulness and it’s more for people who have gone through different sorts of trauma. It’s my understanding that you live in survival mode for a while before you can actually start living. The book is written in that survival-mode place. I guess the part that I would consider too negative is when it blames people, because I don’t think that it’s really that simple in life. I think hurt people are those who hurt other people. There’s no one who’s totally to blame for everything, you know what I mean?

There’s no easy way to explain things, or to place blame and be done with it. People are too complicated for that. But I think a lot of the poems are just trying to work out these emotions, and they don’t have malicious intentions or anything. I don’t know, I feel like being angry a lot of the time is just a mask for fear or hurt. So, I cringe a little when I read poems that stay in that place, but as a whole, the poems don’t try to. They’re just trying to get this stuff out so they can stop staying stuck in it. It’s like a stop on a longer road.

Rumpus: Do you think imposter syndrome, a thing most people experience, gets any better or do you think it just hangs out?

Baumann: I don’t know, I feel like I get imposter syndrome about teaching sometimes, maybe more than I get it about writing. Because with writing, I do feel like I’m less confident in my writing a lot of the time, but that’s because the older I get the less arrogant I feel. When I was younger, I was like, “I have these really important things to say,” and we all have important things to say to some degree, but the older I get the more I’m like, “I just don’t know so much about the world.”

I don’t know if it’s imposter syndrome or more like a right-sized perception, but I feel there is just a lot more about the world that I realized I don’t know. That makes me want to be more careful with what I write, and to make sure that there’s always this undercurrent of curiosity and not any sort of egotistical arrogance. I don’t mean that in a self-defeating way, I don’t think I’m dumber than everyone else or something. Except when I watch Gossip Girl. I think it’s common in your twenties to think you have all the answers in some ways. As you get older, you grow out of that and you realize, “Oh. I’m just a person.” I mean, hopefully I can contribute a lot to the world. We all can, but yeah. I don’t have new brilliant ideas, besides the dog’s stocking—that was a brilliant idea.


Michelle Zamanian is an Iranian-American writer living in Minnesota. She is a reader for the Rumpus and her most recent publication can be found at Feels Blind Literary. She found her love for interviewing and her radio voice co-hosting KMSU’s Weekly Reader, an author interview radio program and podcast. Find her on twitter @mezamanian. More from this author →