In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Ramsey Mathews
Your poem in Volume 24, “Cold Sweet Tea on a Slow Afternoon at the Waffle House” is visceral and poignant due to the terrifying situation you describe. It is written in direct, clear language. What was your reasoning in telling this poem with concise language? Did the content direct the shape of the poem?
In 1998, I was robbed at gunpoint in Sherman Oaks (Los Angeles) California. I eventually published the one page poem “Two Guys with Guns Rob Me.” When someone has a loaded handgun, words seem useless. The world shrinks and becomes quite focused when you’re facing a gun. Nothing outside that space is important.
With the sweet tea poem, I had a similar feeling about being concise.
“Cold Sweet Tea on a Slow Afternoon at the Waffle House” circulated in my head for quite a while after I read it. The specific details make it easy to visualize. At the same time, I found what was unsaid in the piece to be even more telling. I noticed this in both the poem itself as well as the conversation between the two men at the restaurant. Why do you think what is unsaid creates such a powerful message?
My first ever creative writing class was a playwriting elective at Georgia State University. When I see two people talking, I create a backstory and dialogue as if I were part of a theater audience. There can exist great dramatic tension between the lines or through what is not said. I purposely created space for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. The waitress’ confession about cheating sets up the dynamic.
The two guys aren’t enemies. They might talk about relationships, work, families, and life, but too many words would ruin the tension. Once the heat dissipates, I think it’s natural to talk about mundane things, the weather, and sports, to defuse the situation, even with a gun lying in the middle of the table. I left that up to the reader.
The details in this poem are grounded in time and place which makes me think it could be a true story. If you’d care to divulge, is this something you witnessed and if so why did you choose to tell it through poetry?
Yes, this happened. I was working an afternoon shift as the cook trying to figure out how to increase sales. The waitress and I were the only two people in the restaurant. Thank goodness.
All these years, I could never pinpoint the genre for this project. For a long time, I leaned toward writing a one-act play. During the fall of 2021, I read The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton. Something in Anne’s poems inspired me to write this poem and ten others. Sexton became my therapist. Never stop reading.
When this event happened, I was nervous, but I never felt in danger. Maybe that was adrenaline or denial. I grew up in rural south Georgia, so I’m familiar with rifles and shotguns. I knew what a 357 Desert Eagle looked like from pictures. A loaded one looks much bigger in real life, especially when the person carrying the gun intends to use it.
I’ve written several ekphrastic poems. Edward Hopper’s iconic Nighthawks painting stuck with me whenever I thought about making this poem. Although my mental camera lens was always inside the building and never outside looking in through those large glass windows. Maybe this is an ekphrastic poem in which I appear.
I still eat at Waffle House monthly. I crave hashbrowns scattered, smothered, and covered along with eggs scrambled with cheese.
In addition to being a poet, you are also a playwright, and a photographer. Do you find that your photography inspires your writing? Do you have any suggestions for people who are interested in developing their own creative outlets?
I’ve published two short stories, a few photographs, and a ten-minute play. I was commissioned to write four screenplays. I write fiction and drama to entertain myself. Photography is a fun escape, like a favorite movie or music video. Photography is also my attempt at fine art.
Most writing programs tell students to focus on one genre. The proverbial ten thousand hours require a lot of time. I believe you should embrace as many creative outlets as you want. Do it for the fun of it. Do it for yourself. Let all your creative outlets nurture you as an artist. Make reading lists. Read craft books. Take a class. Read outside your comfort zone. If you like literary fiction, read sci-fi and vice versa.
If fiction or playwrighting is your second genre, the Pulitzer site lists the winner and two finalists in each category. That’s 30 works of fiction and 30 stage plays from the last ten years. There’s the National Book Awards, Booker Prize, Nobel Prize, Lambda Literary, and Hugo. Many literary websites post staff favorites.
As for screenwriting, during Oscars season, the production companies post downloadable PDFs of scripts for Academy consideration. Many are available all year and for several years. There are lots of craft books on screenwriting. Be sure to use the formatting software when writing.
Study the history and critical theory behind your secondary (and primary) genre. Search the web for MFA and PhD reading lists. Some University websites archive downloadable lists for potential and current students in Gender Studies, Film Theory, African American Lit, Art History, Poetry, Fiction, Drama, Music Theory, Photography, and others. I find that a little dose of critical theory and history primes my creative pump.
Read every anthology you can get your hands on. Don’t forget to write.
I’ve watched hours of YouTube videos about camera equipment and photo editing. I’m sure there’s lots of videos about ceramics, dance, sculpture, guitar, and other art forms.
What projects are you currently working on, or planning for the future?
I’ve submitted a poetry collection to contests every year for the last four years. Each year, I replace old poems with new ones and change the collection title, which currently is What Was The Question. It includes the Waffle House poem. 10 of 20 contests have said no this year.
Earlier this year, I read tons of contemplative essays and poetry by Rumi, Rilke, Basho, Issa, Buson, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Eknath Easwaran, BKS Iyengar, and Mary Oliver. I wrote six new contemplative poems that I like, which I’ll include in the next iteration of my collection. Next time, I’ll forgo the contest route and submit directly to publishers. It’s a lot less expensive. I also have a short story collection. I mentioned that two stories are published. It’s probably time for me to edit the other stories and write a few new ones.
Read widely. Keep writing. Edit. Edit. Edit. Try to have fun.
RAMSEY MATHEWS was born in rural Georgia where he worked in agriculture and played high school football. He wanted to be an astronaut, but calculus fractured that dream. Moving to Los Angeles for film and TV, he did stand-in and stunt work for Patrick Swayze and Ron Perlman, among others. Always a student, Ramsey earned five University degrees: 1) BS in Industrial Management from Georgia Tech, 2) BA in Advanced Composition & Rhetoric from Georgia State University, 3) MA Lit Degree in Modern Drama from Cal State University Northridge, 4) MFA in Poetry from Cal State University, Long Beach, and 5) a PhD in English and Creative Writing from Florida State University with additional focus on African American Poetry and Drama. Ramsey loves black-and-white photography. Follow him on Instagram @ramseymathews and Twitter @dramapoet.