Voices of his past: An Interview with Michael Ratcliffe

Michael Ratcliffe

Michael Ratcliffe, 2015.

Mike Ratcliffe is the kind of man one loves to spend the afternoon with, whether biking or hiking the rolling hills of Central Maryland or – as in my case – meeting over coffee, grown cold, as we discussed everything from poetry to how people identify with place. His bottle brush hair, brown, is shot with gray as is his goatee. Smile lines frame both his piecing blue eyes and his wide mouth. It’s easy to feel comfortable in his company, and sink into the depths of weighty conversation.

Born in 1962, Mike grew up keenly interested in people. He graduated from University of Maryland with a degree in geography before heading to Oxford to earn a master’s degree at St. Antony’s College. His day job as an Assistant Division Chief at the Census Bureau may seem at odds with his poetic leanings. But the intersection of people, landscape, and meaning – the backbone of geography – aligns perfectly with Mike’s love of words.

LPR Poetry Editor Laura Shovan introduced me to Mike via email several months ago, saying our shared interests in genealogy and history were two sure-fire conversation starters. Mike sent me a draft of his chapbook, along with links to his previously published works, and I devoured it all. An email correspondence began. We met in person one sunny Sunday in late April at a noisy, crowded coffee shop in Fulton, Maryland to talk about his forthcoming chapbook from Finishing Line Press, Shards of Blue, which is based upon his genealogical and historical research and focuses on two ancestors: John and Mary Ratcliff.

LPR: Which came first for you: interest in writing poetry or genealogy?

MR: Genealogy came first.  History has always been one of my favorite subjects.  One of my father’s uncles was very interested in genealogy and various items that he collected or prepared came into my father’s possession.  I can remember poring over those items as a kid.  But, for me, the interest has always been in connecting people in my family’s past to the eras in which they lived and trying to understand their lives as individuals.  I suppose that’s the social scientist in me.

The progression from genealogy to poetry, though, was not linear.  I wrote some poetry in high school and college; took a couple creative writing courses in college; and then wrote some poetry after college.  Looking back, it was rather mediocre poetry.  Apart from poems written for my wife and a few ditties here and there, I stopped writing poetry for about 15 years.  Poetry and genealogy came together, though, when I decided to write my family’s history in verse.  That idea of combining history and poetry came after reading a few of Rita Dove’s “Thomas and Beulah” poems.

LPR: You’ve said, “Growing up, I always thought of my family as a typical middle class, suburban family.  Nothing exciting.” After your research, you’ve found the opposite is true. What is your message to other poets, writers or researchers?

MR: We tend to focus on big events, important individuals and leaders, and we lose the longer view and all the other people, the “ordinary” individuals who participated in history.  History was not a few great people doing great things and pulling the rest of us along.  Everyone in the past was a participant in the creation of history, just as we are the contemporary participants in the creation of some future’s history.   Once we understand and approach history at that level, we – and people in our pasts – cease being ordinary.  Everyone has some sort of story to tell or be told.

So, what did I find?  My great-great grandmother, Mary Townsend Ratcliff, divorced her husband after 25 years of marriage and the births of seven sons, and took out her own 160-acre homestead in western Kansas.  She and John were part of a Quaker, Abolitionist community that moved to Kansas in 1854 — they didn’t just move west to farm, they moved west for a deliberate, politically and socially motivated reason— to keep slavery out of the Kansas territory.  I have Quaker ancestors in Virginia who lobbied the state legislature for religious freedom; Welsh Mormon ancestors who crossed the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains twice—first on their way to the Salt Lake Valley and then moving east to Kansas after they realized life in Utah was not according to the communalistic vision they had in Wales; and last, I learned recently that my grandmother—my mother’s mother—helped organize the union in the pickle cannery in which she worked—my petite (5-foot tall), soft-spoken, Southern grandmother.  That became the basis for my poem “Of Cobblers and Unions” (Deep South magazine, 2014).

LPR: You’ve said that you intended to chart your family’s history, but the more you learned the more the story took on a life of its own. Tell us more about this. At what point did you decide on whom to focus and that poetry would be your vehicle to tell these stories?

MR: Yes, I started with the idea that I’d cover all the generations, all the eras from at least the 1700s to the present.  Why 1700s?  There are fewer documents with which to work prior to then, so fewer story prompts, but more importantly, there is a complete break at 1739 when my g-g-g-g-g-grandfather, William Ratcliffe, was born.  His story is interesting and provided one of my starting points, both literally and literarily. He showed up in York and James City County records in the 1760s as William Heathan, William Hathan, and William Ratcliffe Hathan, first in a deed in which William Ratcliffe gave land to him out of “affection for him as his son” and then in a deed in which he gave land to the Quakers in Skimino, Virginia, on which to build a meetinghouse.  There was an entry in the Bruton Parish (Williamsburg) records about the birth of a William Haythorn, mother Mary, but no father listed, on the same date as that given for William Ratcliffe in Quaker records.  All of this led me to assume he was illegitimate (DNA testing confirmed that my DNA matches that of other Ratcliffe lines, so I and other researchers are certain he was not adopted).  Anyway, William Hathan/Heathan disappears from county records soon after receiving the land, but William Ratcliffe continued to appear in Quaker records.  All information across various documents led me and other researchers to conclude they refer the same person.

"Shards of Blue" by Michael Ratcliffe

“Shards of Blue” by Michael Ratcliffe

My vision was to cover all the generations in a series of poems called “The Skimino Cycle.”   About five years ago, though, I realized the bulk of the poems were focused on John and Mary, and that their story really was the more compelling story from a broader perspective.  That’s how I came to write Shards of Blue.

LPR: What are you trying to achieve with your chapbook Shards of Blue?

MR: I started off just wanting to tell John and Mary’s story.  Something to record their lives beyond pension, census records and scraps of family stories. When I would read poems from the series in public—especially those from Mary’s perspective—I found they resonated with people.  She was a strong woman—she had to be to divorce her husband and set off on her own at the age of 45, four young sons in tow.  People found things in various poems with which they could connect.  My sister, for instance, keeps a copy of “The Wheat Field” in her desk drawer.  This poem was one of the first that I wrote.  Mary is the speaker; she’s in the field on her farm in Smith County, plowing, and basically is unloading on John, who is not present.  The poem ends with her saying “but don’t come here with your darkness…I plan to turn this prairie green.”  It’s a statement of strength, which my sister, who had just gone through a divorce, found empowering.

LPR: Shards of Blue is a sad story in some ways, but there’s also a sense of strength, especially with Mary. You did such a great job showing us this, particularly in “The Wheat Field.” I think it makes us stop and take a look at our preconceptions about all women in the 19th century not having agency. They did have it in ways that women today may not even be aware of.

MR: There’s some fascinating history of women on the Great Plains on just their ability to take control of their lives. When I was researching, I spoke with colleagues who worked at the Minnesota Population Center, which has made lots of historical census data available. I was talking with them about divorce and also just interpreting historical census data. In the 1880 census records, Mary was listed as widowed —there was a “W” on the form. It was obviously wrong. There were a lot of inaccuracies in that census record for the family and they said it was possible that she was not the one answering the questions. And, as a census employee, I know that sometimes you can’t contact the resident so you get the information by proxy from a neighbor. But because in the past, enumerators interviewed residents and filled in the census form, it’s likely  that the enumerator interpreted her response incorrectly when writing it down. She may have said, “My husband’s not with me,” which could have been interpreted using the morals of the day as she’s widowed rather than divorced. The folks from Minnesota told me that in the 1880s western states and territories had the highest divorce rates, in part because women could take out their own homesteads. They had the ability to be financially independent, whereas in other areas, they didn’t have the same economic opportunities. Yes, farming is tough and extremely risky, but you could obtain your own land. And that’s what Mary did. She took out her own 160-acre homestead.

LPR: And she was successful.

MR: And she was successful. But had she been back east, she might have had to live in an unhappy marriage.

LPR: So they get divorced. Was John able to keep his homestead?

MR: No, they sold the farm in Marshall County as part of the divorce. He moved to Jewell County, Kansas, which is a little further west. I don’t know exactly what he was doing because he couldn’t do physical labor due to his wounds. He wasn’t farming. He eventually moves to Smith County, where Mary and most of their sons were living, and he bought land, which he then rented out. So in some of the Kansas census records, he’s listed as a landlord. In one, later on, he listed himself as a glasscutter, which had been his occupation in Wheeling before moving to Kansas. I don’t know if he went back to making glass or cutting glass. There are a lot of interesting anomalies with how he describes himself later on in life. He gets his age wrong in some of the pension letters. I don’t know exactly what was going on. He wasn’t old enough for Alzheimer’s, well — maybe he was. He was in his fifties or sixties by then, but there were no other indications that his mind was going. So I don’t know. He’s an interesting character. I found it fascinating that he identified himself as a glasscutter after so many years.

LPR: Maybe that’s what he really felt he was.

 MR: That’s why I kept that theme and the glass cutting theme going throughout the poems. Maybe he really saw that artist aspect to himself.

LPR: I think it’s beautiful — the whole imagery of the beveled edges, the sharpness, the rawness and the broken glass.

MR: With “The Glasscutter” (The Copperfield Review, 2015), I felt I needed something positive. I have another similar poem focused on Mary. I felt like I wanted to say something about their personal interests, their occupational interests, neither of which made it into the book due to limits on length. John’s glass cutting and the theme of glass came out in other poems, so I didn’t see the need to include “The Glasscutter.” With Mary, I see her more as a scientist but that doesn’t come through quite as much. Mary’s uncle was a surgeon in Wheeling. In 1850, John and Mary were living with her uncle, Dr. Thomas Townsend. He’s an interesting guy: a self-taught surgeon, well-known and well-respected in the Wheeling area. He was a Quaker, geologist, and botanist who had one of the best botany and geology specimen cabinets in the Wheeling area. He was a bachelor, who was often seen wandering around the mountains collecting things, and putting them in his hat to bring home. He had this reputation as an eccentric, but he was also part of the team that excavated the Grave Creek Mound, which was the first scientific archaeological excavation in the United States. In fact, he wrote the report. Here he is this all-round natural scientist and they’re living with him in 1850, and Mary is listed simply as “housekeeper” in the census records. I decided to go beyond the facts and imagine that she came to live with him to learn medicine and learn science. In the poem, “The Mountains were My Meetinghouse” Mary uses the Latin terms for the plants. I felt like that gave a nice juxtaposition with John, the artist, and Mary, the scientist. Her side I didn’t work up quite as much, but in building up the artistic side for John with the glass cutting helped to bevel his negative edge.

LPR: John coming back terribly wounded was tough. I did notice that you pulled in other voices, and in some cases, you didn’t include date markers. In some places you have dates and locations and sometimes you didn’t. Tell me about structure.

MR: The voices of other individuals add a little variety. In earlier drafts, I had a name, a date, and a location preceding each poem. I felt like that was a little too much structure, and a little unnecessary. So where the date wasn’t important, I removed it. It could be inferred based upon the placement of the poem. The poems are all chronological, except for the first one. Originally, the first poem, “Separated in Death, Even as in Life,” was actually last. As I worked through the drafts and dropped certain poems, I decided to move “Separated at Death” first to give the book a more contemporary viewpoint, looking back. I think that worked better.

LPR: I liked having that poem first. It drew me immediately into your story.

MR: That came from when my dad, my uncle and I were in Smith County in 2005. I had never been out to the homestead. My dad and uncle had been out as boys, because their uncle had farmed it until the 1940s. We went to the graveyard in Gaylord, which is the town nearest the homestead, and were standing at the family plot when we realized that John’s buried at one end and Mary was at the other. During that visit, a cousin, Sandra, who lives in Hill City, Kansas  mentioned that when Mary died in 1882, she was originally buried on the homestead. Sandra said that when John died in 1905, George and his brothers bought the plot in the Gaylord Cemetery. They then moved Mary and re-interred her in the family plot. They made this conscious decision to move her and put her at the opposite end from John. That because the focus of the poem: why? Did the brothers decide to bury John and Mary at opposite ends of the plot so they would eventually “embrace” their sons, or did the sons keep them physically separated to honor her? And there’s absolutely nothing on the tombstones that says that they were related. It doesn’t say “Mary, wife of John.” Or “John, husband of Mary.” There’s nothing. If you didn’t know, you’d look at these two tombstones and you’d see well, here’s John Ratcliff and Mary Townsend Ratcliff and you might infer that they were husband and wife, but you couldn’t be sure. It was also Sandra who had a glass that was said to have been made by John. It was her grandfather, one of the four sons Mary took to Smith County, who took it from John’s house after John died. He kept it in the family. But there’s only one. That became the launching point for some of the other poems. Was there another glass?  I’ve imagined there was, and in “The Glass” Mary lets it slip from her hands and break when she decides to divorce John.  In “She Will Not Thirst Again” John brings the remaining glass to Mary when he visits her prior to her death.

LPR: I love that you take these questions and ponder them and that they then become these stories, these vignettes that you can then piece together to fill in the blanks.

MR: Thank you. That was what I was trying to do. I wanted to fill in the missing pieces of the family history and all those gaps. That became part of this challenge in writing family history because I’m imagining, I’m filling in and all along thinking, “How will the family take this. Am I going too far?” So far, everyone in the family has loved it.

LPR: I think because you’re going back so far there’s just no way to know, and that’s probably part of it. When you’re dealing with memoir, it’s a little different, especially when the subjects are touchy. The fact that you’re using poetry to create and say what it may have been like and you’re not saying it’s a literal truth, but rather a figurative truth. You’re capturing these experiences through the ordinary, yet extraordinary lives, in that they transcend just John and Mary. They speak to others as well. That’s the beauty of it.

MR: I always had the idea in the back of my mind that I’d like to publish this, but it was when I started reading the poems, especially the ones I’d written about Mary that I realized that they were resonating with others. That’s when I knew I had something other than history for my family.

LPR: That must have been a great feeling.

MR: It is a great feeling. Going back to the 2005 trip to Kansas and the challenge in writing this story— I always had the image of Kansas being as flat as a pancake. Originally, the poem “The Wheat Field” started off with Mary saying, “This field, flat and broad as the Ohio” and she’s remembering back to Wheeling. But I got out to the homestead and it’s not flat. They’re up in the uplands! That part of Smith County, just south of the Solomon River, is more of a rolling landscape. It wasn’t flat and broad. There was a stream running through the 160 acres, so the field was flat, but you had to go down a hill to where the house sat. It wasn’t a broad, flat field where you could see for miles. In the hotel that night, I was revising the opening to the poem.

LPR: It’s so interesting that when you have an image of what something is like and then when you get there it’s not what you envisioned. There’s such value in actually walking where your story takes place, even if the landscape is completely different now than what it was. It could be that 200 years has passed, but there’s value in putting your feet where someone else has trod. Being in that space allows you to hear the echoes of the past.

MR: That’s where my training as a historical geographer comes in. I trained with British geographers. They are trained to read the landscape.

LPR: Tell me what you mean by “reading the landscape.”

MR: The British historical geographers are trained at understanding the contemporary landscape and how that translates to or evolved from the past. So the subtle shifts matter. What a stonewall might signify or why it might be in a particular location. Here’s a great example: a slight dip in the land and you’ve got a fence line running on one side and a row of trees on the other. Even though the space is all grassy now, that dip was probably once a road. You put together a variety of clues to figure out the past.

LPR: Traveling with you must be pretty interesting! Everyone else is just looking around, but you’re noticing swales and trees.

MR: Yes. I was on a training course in western Maryland for the Census Bureau and we were looking for a boundary. The map said there should be a road. What I just described was literally what we were seeing. The statisticians are saying, there’s no road here. I’m saying, yes, there is. Or there was and look right there. Once I pointed out the fence on one side and the trees on the other, they could see it. I’m sure some of the people in my writing group get annoyed with my geographical comments. They’ll describe things in their stories and I’ll say that they cannot possibly be true.

LPR: That’s actually a wonderful quality to have: perspective. I was in Paris a couple of years ago. As a history buff, I love taking walking tours. One of the things they pointed out was the street signs. There are three sets. I’d been in Paris before but I’d never noticed this. The signs are at carriage level, car level, and street level. Now when I’m in other cities, I notice the old signs like this.

MR: That Paris landscape that we take for granted was created in the middle of the 19th Century to improve living conditions, but also to control riots. Broad avenues. They tore down the narrow streets with older homes that were easily barricaded and created the broad avenues so they could sweep down the avenues with cannon fire after the riots of 1840s. Baron Haussmann created Paris working for Louis-Napoleon (later Napoleon III).

LPR: I love that you said we teach history the wrong way. If we make it about people and you tell the stories, you make it come alive. History is the least boring thing in the universe.

MR: We’re all connected to it. We didn’t spring from nothing. I think we have to engage kids by drawing them back into their own history. How do they tie into history? I’d already realized this from my work as a geographer: people don’t change much. Many of the things that bother and worry us today are the same things that bothered and worried people in the past. So in imagining John and Mary’s lives, we only have to consider how would we react. Behaviorally and psychologically, people aren’t much different today than they ever have been.

LPR: You had a wealth of original historic materials from which to draw. Share with us your research and cataloging processes.

MR: I had access to John’s Civil War pension file.  I was fortunate to have a neighbor who writes histories about the Civil War.  He photographed the contents of John’s file on one of his trips to the National Archives, so I had jpeg images to refer to.  I did make one trip to the Archives and went through the file myself.  I also obtained a copy of the divorce papers filed by Mary. I was able to access Quaker meeting minutes and other documents in the Library of Virginia.  Hinshaw’s Encyclopedia of Quaker Genealogy also was a great resource.  It provides a wealth of information drawn from Quaker Meeting minutes.  I was fortunate to find various secondary sources posted on-line by the Kansas Historical Society that provided historical context—Cutler’s history of Marshall County as well as a book about Albert Barrett, who was the leader of the Quaker abolitionist community that John and Mary were part of.

Historical accuracy is important to me.  The poem “They Rode on Borrowed Horses” (The Copperfield Review,2012), builds off the adage “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”  When writing the poem, I researched the meaning of the adage.  I learned that brides in the first half of the 19th century wore blue, not white.  When I learned, from census records, that Melissa Hendricks could read, but not write (assuming that was accurate), I researched medical conditions that might have contributed to that. Turns out there is a medical condition that makes it difficult for individuals to form letters, to write.  It was important to me that I get the little details correct in order to make the individuals in the poems more complete.

LPR: What’s next for you?

MR: Good question.  I attended a Geopoetics session at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting last year.  It was fun to sit in a room full of geographers and other social scientists who also had an interest in poetry.  There were two Geopoetics sessions.  Alan Marcus, of Towson University’s Geography Department, and also a poet, attended the other session.  Afterwards, he and I decided to we wanted to organize something around Geography and Poetry.  Alan organized a Geography of Place event at Towson in October 2014.  I spoke about being a geographer and a poet.  Leslie Harrison, Clarinda Harriss, Shirley Brewer, and Barbara Morrison were the featured readers.  It was a big success, bringing together folks from the Geography and English departments.  I’d like to do that again.

I’m sure I’ll find more stories to tell from family history, but I kind of feel I’ve exhausted that line for a while.  I’ve got a number of poems that focus on place, people and place, the landscape—enough for at least another chapbook.   I’ll probably focus in on them, do some editing, organize them into a more orderly series.

~ Deborah Kevin

Online Editor’s Note: Michael’s chapbook, Shards of Blue, is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press, with shipment expected August. 21, 2015.

7 thoughts on “Voices of his past: An Interview with Michael Ratcliffe

  1. djdnmagney

    I met Michael at the LPR launch on Saturday and was immediately drawn-in when he spoke about his upcoming chapbook and his genealogy. His family and his sense of place are compelling. I’m looking forward to reading all the poems and hope to see the others mentioned in this interview in print sometime soon. I’ve added the quote from The Wheat Field into my personal list of favorite quotes. Thank you, Michael and Debby, for such an interesting interview. Desirée Magney


  2. Pingback: Speaking about Shards of Blue… | Michael Ratcliffe's Poetry

  3. mikeratcliffe2012


    Thank you for the nice words. It was a pleasure talking with you at the LPR launch. I am flattered that you’ve added the line from The Wheat Field to your list of favorite quotes. Hope you enjoy the book.

    Mike Ratcliffe

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Voices of his past: An Interview with Michael Ratcliffe – RipCord Communications, LLC

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