But I Knew: A Conversation with Charles Rammelkamp about See What I Mean?

Interview by Tiffany Troy

Charles Rammelkamp lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he writes poetry and fiction. Recent works include the poetry collections, The Field of Happiness, A Magician Among the Spirits, and Transcendence. A chapbook of flash fiction titled Presto was also recently published. Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brickhouse Books, the longest continuously publishing literary publisher in Maryland.

See What I Mean? is a collection of persona poems and flash pieces that traverse American history, politics, and society through a matter-of-fact diction characteristic of the poetry of witness by Charles Reznikoff. Like Reznikoff’s poetry, Rammelkamp’s poems look at and document the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of race, gender, and class.

Tiffany Troy: You start See What I Mean with “Public Service Initiative.” How does this poem set up the collection that is to follow?

Charles Rammelkamp: See What I Mean? is in two parts, “The Meat at the End of the Fork” and “And the Rest Is History.” The title of the first part is an allusion to William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and signifies raw, immediate experience. This is what it’s like. This is how it really looks, forget the spin.  “Public Service Initiative” exposes the true dynamics of power, or at least that’s how I intended it.  The racism, the pandemic, the sexism, the onset of politics, terrorism, abuse, personal tragedy – all follow through the first section, with some humor, too, which is just perspective. The ultimate reality of death. 

Part two is historical. I’ve always been fond of history – Houdini, Mata Hari, Rasputin, etc. Here it’s Roget, Beethoven, etc.

Of course, these are loose parameters, not a rigid program, so the distinctions blur.  But that’s the general gestalt. “Public Service Initiative” seems like a particularly “in your face” poem, the good intentions, the power dynamic, the ultimate self-recognition of the protagonist. A strong statement to start the collection.

TT: The allusion to Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is revelatory in that like the novel, the poems within the two parts of See What I Mean? are loosely connected, and really could be read in several different orders, I feel.

What was the process in writing and then later in revising or sequencing the collection?

CR: You’re right about that, the order of the poems is pretty arbitrary, though not as random as a Burroughs cut-up! They weren’t written sequentially, except for some – the Roget poems, for instance – so making some kind of order wasn’t based on logical decision-making. Still, the poem about the Tulsa massacre was a natural to follow “Public Service Initiative.” The sequence from “My Big Sister Gets Vaccinated” through “Coronavirus Cooties” all have to do with the pandemic (except “Punk Rock Warlord,” I admit, except that that is about a deadly neurological disease, not exactly the same thing, but in the ballpark of deadly infections). “Like Romeo and Juliet Only Tragic” – I confess I get a chuckle from the irony in that title – through “Flights of Fancy” all have to do with sexual confusion, the power dynamics of sexual/romantic relationships. The final two poems of the first section, “Recognize This?” and “Slow Gun” deal with the same t-shirt.  Ditto the prose pieces in the second part, “Bird Watching” and “Wise Man.” 

Where to place the various flash pieces was a different decision altogether. While “Bird Watching” is essentially about the same fellow as the one in “Recognize This?” it seemed more akin to “Wise Man,” a flash piece about contemporary society. But then, couldn’t that be more about the meat quivering at the end of the fork as history? My head is starting to hurt, Tiffany!

TT: Haha, you’re right that even if the poems are not sequential, the ordering of the poems is intentional. On a related point, given the breadth and scope of your persona poems, do you have any tips for poets looking at first-person poems from the perspective of historical or fictional characters from the past to the present? And for yourself, what do you draw inspiration from, and what was the research process like in fact-checking the dates, names, etc.?

CR: I think the best persona poems are those in which the poet inhabits the speaker, as if you as the reader can see what the person is thinking and seeing, whether it’s the historical figure him/herself or a fictional or actual character involved in the story.  “Maquiladora Madness,” for instance, is a poem that is based on a story I read in the newspaper about a woman who took justice into her own hands. She became legendary  in Juarez, apparently, taking revenge on the predatory bus drivers who took advantage of the women who depended on them to get to their factory jobs, part reporting of actual events, part exaggerated tales. I thought the story would be more vivid told from the perspective of an anonymous Mexican man.  

The dozen Roget poems necessitated rigorous research, inspired by a story I read by chance about Sylvia Plath.  I read a couple of biographies about him, and then I did internet research to  get certain details – the Pneumatic Institute, for instance, the use of nitrous oxide in 18th century England. I do feel uncomfortable about getting dates and historical details wrong, so I do my best to make sure the facts are accurate. Eight of the twelve Roget poems are in Roget’s voice. The other four are from an omniscient viewpoint, the “storyteller’s.” Both of the pieces about Mary Ware Dennett, the early birth control advocate – one flash nonfiction, the other a dramatic monologue – are in her voice, her point of view.

TT: I find your willingness to allow the tall tales to stand side by side with historical details impressive, as it calls to question the subjectivity of the speaker which like the Mexican man, for instance, has his own set of cultural values and prejudices. You mentioned the distinction between the flash prose versus the poetry in the collection. While writing this collection, do you find that the form shapes the content or vice versa? What are the differences between the two for you within See What I Mean?

CR:   I do tend to write narratives, but prose sometimes seems more appropriate for telling some. Last year we talked about my poetry collection, A Magician Among the Spirits, about Harry Houdini. The whole sequence amounted to a mini-biography of the man, but it did lend itself to verse. In See What I Mean? there’s a flash piece called “The Houdini Séance” that deals with a group of college students, and that just felt more like a short prose narrative, with setting and dialogue.

Similarly, the two pieces involving Mary Ware Dennett, “The Sex Side of Life” and “Rivals,” were both originally written in verse, but “The Sex Side of Life,” which is also the title of the pamphlet Dennett wrote that was behind her prosecution for violating the Comstock Act, seemed to work better as prose.

Paul Valery once likened prose to walking, arriving at a destination, and poetry as dancing. It’s a broad distinction that breaks down in individual circumstances, but it seems like a valid generalization.

TT: I admire how you mirror the pieces involving Mary Ware Dennett with the pamphlet Dennett wrote. 

Do you have any closing thoughts for your readers of the world?

CR: This has been such a delight. Thanks for talking to me about my book. I do want to take this opportunity to mention a forthcoming collection from BlazeVOX Books called The Trapeze of Your Flesh, more persona poems, these involving burlesque stars.  

About the interviewer: Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (forthcoming, BlazeVOX) and the chapbook When Ilium Burns (Bottlecap Press), as well as co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the Women in Translation project at the University of Wisconsin. Her reviews and interviews are published in The Adroit Journal, The Cortland Review, The Los Angeles Review, Matter, The Laurel Review, EcoTheo Review, Rain Taxi, New World Writing, Hong Kong Review of Books and Tupelo Quarterly, where she is Managing Editor.