Peter Ramos’ new poetry collection Lord Baltimore
Peter Ramos offers courses in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literatures within a cross-cultural context. His research covers early to modern American writing and confronts questions in contemporary criticism, fiction, and poetry. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo, as well as an M.F.A. in creative writing from George Mason University.
Here’s an interview with Ramos on his new collection Lord Baltimore.
Graham Foust and other critics have mentioned a ‘physicality’ in your poems, a sense that readers can feel your turns of phrase in their guts as well as understand the ideas and feelings mentally. Would you agree with that, and how do writers go about creating a sense of that?
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what it means. But I’m grateful that Graham Foust wrote that. Maybe it’s that I try to take up and implement William Carlos Williams’s phrase, “No Ideas but in Things” in my poetry, a reliance on concrete language. I texted Graham (my friend of 20 + years) and he wrote, “It’s maybe closer to [Wallace] Stevens’s [‘The Man with the] Blue Guitar.’ A changing of things in the poems that’s palpable.”
How does your academic work and teaching on the early days of American literature inspire or inform your writing? Do you carry forward the sensibility of early America?
I find that teaching literature and writing academic criticism both require a different part of my mind than the part I use to write poetry. I’ve never been able to successfully articulate why that is. Maybe it’s that teaching and writing criticism force me to try and make a point. And poetry, I believe, doesn’t really make “a point” in that same way. Occasionally I’ll write a poem that takes place in early American history, but I tend to write about the mid- to late-20th century and the present moment.
How do you choose settings for your poems? Do you have certain kinds of settings that tend to attract you?
I try not to choose a setting or a plot or a subject when I write poems. I believe that good poems grow from an image or a phrase or a certain meter. Having said that, I have spent many years obsessing about the American mid-century (modern). I’m a first-generation US citizen on my father’s side, but my mother was born in the US, and I was born in a certain time in history (late 1960s) in this country. So, the world I knew right at the threshold of my language acquisition was the world of the late mid-century — in a second or third generation of suburbia. I think I have spent my adult life trying to make sense of my early impressions, or to quote Rilke:
And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds — wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; — (Letters to a Young Poet)
I ask all writers with other full-time careers this, how do you balance writing with your day-job? Does one pursuit complement the other, and how do you have time to write?
It has not been easy to do that, especially during this pandemic. For the last thirteen years, my family has very kindly allowed me to go to artist colonies for a week or two per visit. I got a good amount of work done in those bursts, but obviously in the Covid era, such spaces are not open. When I teach poetry and (occasionally) creative writing, that complements and stimulates my own creative writing.
What’s the significance of your title, Lord Baltimore?
First, let me express how grateful and thrilled I am that my dear friend, Peter Tully Owen, designed the book and provided the cover and back photos for it (both taken in Baltimore). But to the title, there was an actual Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert (1605–1675), and I like the superimposition of that aristocratic title on the city of my birth, broken and struggling as it is. I grew up around and in Baltimore until I was 30, and then I moved to Buffalo, a city which shares some of Baltimore’s post-industrial status. Both cities were and still are (though to lesser extent) Catholic, with the customs and culture of Irish, Germans, Poles and Italians going back for over a century. Both were gutted and suffered devastating economic and job losses when companies like Bethlehem Steel and/or other industrial plants left in the 1970s. Both cities struggle with high poverty, broken educational systems, drug abuse, alcoholism, etc. I like to think of the title as a loving tribute to and lament for the city that will always be, in many ways and no matter where I live, my home.