Sal Ragen

Pine Row Issue No. 6 Winter 2022-23 - Featured Poet

A Self-Contained Plane of Existence

A child was born at the old hospital in Burlington. Her mama’s room window was open and a couple of stories below were the wide rolling waters of the Mississippi River. This child recalls moving water in the night and the smells of mud and milk. There are pictures of mama and a crinkly-pink-faced baby with a styrofoam cup taped to the top of her little head where the nurses kept the IV in place. This child’s father flirted with the nurses and looked like a Sunday man to everyone around. Let me buy you a sandwich he tells somebody just in hopes they could or would love him. All his gifts were in the end too expensive. He would squeeze mama’s hand so tight she cried when he didn’t like what she was saying or doing.

If the child wanted to believe in something more, something chimerical–she was in trouble. It would be like walking past an injured puppy. Hide the light. Hide it away because he is always on the prowl looking for a heart valve to slit.

Birthdays and holidays are when her people don’t tell the truth. The people came in and went out. She had a large scratchy teddy bear named Pinky. He couldn’t help it and she held him anyway. The child’s father hid her away and she tried to hold him too. This is a pattern in the child’s stars. Did she dream about what was to come? She knew this story from before. Now, wherever that before is there’s no map. The river in her muddy cells carried those beings of creation, the little brownie photographs, and family folklore–snagging along the way one word of a child standing out in the black like a single star in the dark. The child moves deadheads with the action of winds sending trash all around so she can slip through currents. Her name day is Mesopotamia a land between rivers. Before and after pleated into a vanishing point. Standing in the bottom land of silt, she could see at water level. If she knew the end it wouldn’t matter much– soon enough she’ll forget and birth the child again.

Interview with Sal Ragen

How did you get started writing poetry?

I remember starting to write around fourth or fifth grade and reading it in class. But maybe it really was before that, in first grade--we had those 10x 8 practice writing workbooks We practiced every day from basic letters and then cursive. I remember how good it felt to hold the pencil and watch the letters form on the soft paper. After learning letters, of course, they are words.

Who has had the biggest impact on you as a poet?

I read Walt Whitman very young and even though I didn't understand much it was the music of it and what it made me feel--a strange giddy highness. I also took him seriously and literally. "From this hour, I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines..." Here was an old man long deceased telling a kid that it was okay to do this and freedom --something he mentions a lot -- sounded pretty damn good to me.

What inspires your poetry?

To be honest, I'm not sure. An idea or image will hang out in my head for way longer than anything else. I try to write that down and it goes from there. Those ideas or images are like crockpot fixings from life. A few times it might be a memory but usually it will be some silly thing I refuse to write down immediately such as what would happen if a woman jumps into the river to be swallowed by a giant catfish? And what the hell does that even mean?

What is next for you?

I'm working on a verse memoir. I think it may be the only way I can write a memoir. I don't know if it will work or not but it's worth giving it a try.

Anything else you'd like to share?

My website is

Sal Ragen is an award-winning poet and writer based out of central Arkansas. She is a southeast Iowa native and proud river rat, boasting every home past, present and future are always by a river. She predicts the purchase of a houseboat in the near future.

Sal is an MFA candidate at the University of Nebraska-Omaha Writer's Workshop. Her work is most noted for poetic imagery, blue-collar narratives, and magical ruralism. Sal is the recipient of the Helen W. Kenefick Academy of American Poets Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose, Allegory Ridge: Aurora, River Heron Review, Pine Row, and elsewhere.

Sal lives in a cabin between the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains with her best friend Ronnie-Pa and their large fur family. She is at work on a novel. You can find her at