Monday, March 13, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Kerri Webster

Kerri Webster is the author of four books of poetry: Lapis (Wesleyan University Press, 2022), The Trailhead (Wesleyan, 2018), Grand & Arsenal (winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, University of Iowa, 2012), and We Do Not Eat Our Hearts Alone (University of Georgia, 2005). From 2006-2010 she was a Visiting Writer in Residence at Washington University in St. Louis, and taught at Boise State University from 2013 to 2022. The recipient of a Whiting Award and the Lucille Medwick Award from the Poetry Society of America, she lives and writes in Idaho. 

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

In grad school, a professor warned that there’d be a few years of “flailing” (fun verb!) post-, and that we’d need to lean into it or fall into despair. The transition from immersion in community to solitary writing life can be jarring, and it was (although also generative—I moved back to Idaho and wrote We Do Not Eat Our Hearts Alone). Having the book accepted was a beacon of connection in that solitary time, saying: There’s a writing world out there and you’re a part of it. That was the main thing. 

The concrete aspect was that first book publication led to what I think of as the best visiting gig in academia: a three-year Writer in Residence position (which turned into four years: long story) at Washington University in St. Louis.  Mary Jo Bang had read my poems in the Boston Review and Carl Phillips had chosen one for Ploughshares, and had the book not been out that April, I wouldn’t have been eligible to start the following September. I owe them eternal gratitude; along with six years as a Writer in the Schools teaching kids leaving the carceral system, it’s the best CW gig I’ve ever had. 

As for then and now: We Do Not Eat Our Hearts Alone was about desire. Lapis, my new book, is about loss. I wrote about “the wages of dying,” then, before I knew what the hell I was talking about. I suppose many of us do. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or nonfiction?

Fiction was there too, back in grade school, but fell away, partly because I suck at linear time and thus narrativity, also because I was fascinated by the sounds of words, their materiality in the mouth and in the ear, and poetry offered more of that, even though the only early examples I had were my lavender-covered Best Loved Poems of the American People, the Bible, and before that, Goodnight Moon, which (the latter) was also where I first connected words to emotions, which is to say that as a lifelong insomniac, Goodnight Moon was a horror story: wtf an old rabbit lady whispering hush

I do remember a top-of-the-head-blown-off moment in grade school from a line in The Best Loved Poems, though. There’s a volta in John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” (which I still have memorized and can recite when intoxicated) that stopped me in my tracks—it’s after the first stanza when the collective first person shifts to the simple, devastating declarative—

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,

    That mark our place; and in the sky

    The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

        In Flanders fields.

I didn’t know what WWI was, really, that nine million soldiers died, didn’t know that at 51yo I’d be sitting here in Boise worried about my brother in Tbilisi being reached by potential nuclear fallout over the Black Sea because failed and incalculably traumatized empires die hard—none of that; I just realized that in a poem, dead people can say “We are the dead.” How astonishing. How terrifying. How magical. 

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

Some poems come quickly and nearly fully formed, while others take months (they used to take years, but I disciplined myself away from that, preferring to work on Whatever’s Next.) And in the mix is a process I think of as poems-become-other-poems—sometimes I write something before it’s ready to be written and don’t understand it, then large portions migrate into newer work where, it turns out, those words belonged all along.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

The first two books were written one poem at a time. The third (The Trailhead, 2018) coalesced as I was writing around notions of failed/faux masculinity in the American West, and of women’s spirituality and community as alternatives to that, ideas that felt pressing during the years (2014-2017) during which the book was written. Lapis, though, was written with intention—it deals with the deaths of multiple women, and I knew I was embarking on an act of love and remembrance. The sole purpose of Lapis was to honor the dead. 

For a while in the poetry world it seemed like the book-length project was the marketable unit of poetry. Now social media has returned the single lyric poem to the forefront. My advice is to write how you write, at whatever pace, and trust that there’s a place for it. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

As an introvert, I dread giving readings before they begin, then enjoy them once they start and a connection with the audience is made. But social performance of self has never come easy to me. 

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Oh boy. Lately, I think of Rukeyser’s famous “I lived in the first century of world wars. Most days I was more or less insane” and my question is: How’d she pull off those other days? I want to learn that. So not theoretical but actual. And always in the back of my mind: how to atone for this country’s sins, how to cultivate wonder and joy amidst horror, are those things antithetical.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Poetry has so many functions, and some of them, as I tell students, are abominable: poetry can be an erasure, a silencing, a means of perpetuating power structures that harm human beings and the earth, can be a violence that’s somatized and changes us and goes on harming long after the words are encountered.  

By contrast, among poetry’s salvific roles, the one most exercised by young writers is the formulation and articulation of a self/selves: poetry as writing the self into being. This is what being young is for. Beyond articulating selfhood, poetry serves, can serve, other vital private functions: pleasure and the cultivation of pleasurable practices (imagination, curiosity, wonder, intellectual rigor, Gladwell-esque “flow,” excellence); a form of radical presence; a grounding technique; a means of facilitating healing and transformation after grief, loss, trauma (flashback to professors who said “poetry isn’t therapy” and the now-realization that this was largely said by dudes needing therapy); survival mechanism; communication with the divine (as prayer, as plea, as conversation, as portal through which immanence might manifest); as elegy/memorial/monument; as talisman or amulet; as seduction, amen.  

As I get older, I find myself less interested in these private functions and more invested in public purposes, and think of poetry as a vehicle to formulate and articulate not just a self but an ethical worldview we take with us into the world to guide our actions—the articulated imagining of a different world we go forward into waking day to build—“Redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future,” Lorde said. Vitally, poetry can be an act of protest, dissidence, samizdat, dissent. As a nearby school district bans twenty-two books “forever”—childlike word—this role feels so very relevant. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I’m blessed to have an extraordinary editor, Suzanna Tamminem at Wesleyan. She’s wise and hands-on and patient and both The Trailhead and Lapis are better for her savvy.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)? 

I’m going to turn to poems and offer a few: 

  • There’s a moment in Brenda Hillman’s Loose Sugar where the speaker asks, “What will I do while I’m waiting?” and the answer comes back: “Wait harder.” “Wait” as active verb.
  • Mark Doty’s “Any small thing can save you” has proven true over and over in my life.
  • And from maybe my favorite passage in all of poetry, from the Ninth Duino Elegy: 

      For when the traveler returns from the mountain-slopes into the valley,
      he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead
      some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue
      gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
      bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window –
      at most: column, tower… 

Jack Gilbert in “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” gives his own famous noun-list as he ends with “What we feel most has/ no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds,” but he’s talking about metaphorizing, he’s listing vehicles. Rilke’s making a case for tenors in and of themselves, and I love that. As a woman transfixed by the alchemical nature of reality, its constant shape-shifting and transfigurations, this testament to the ecstatic nature of thing-ness heartens me.

  • And finally, as we barrel towards 2024: C. D. Wright, from “69 Hidebound Opinions”: “What matters a poetry of indifference? To whom?”

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

My writing life is about to undergo a huge shift: twenty-five years after I first stepped into the classroom as a T.A. at Indiana University, I’m leaving academia at the end of this semester, taking up copyediting and working remotely. It’s a chance to recenter my work life around my writing life, vs. the opposite, and to labor not for the mythic luxury of exhausted “summers off” but for the actual luxury of a year-round writing practice. In the immortal words of Kelly Kapoor, “I’m too excited to sleep.” 

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I’m a visual learner—I write this in October as the veil thins and I keep looking online at Twombly’s Treatise on the Veil and his color studies for it. And I spent summer by the Payette River gathering river stones, knolling them in misc. trays. And I go for a lot of walks. 

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?


13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Wilderness (not “nature”). And visual art. The greatest gift of grad school, actually, wasn’t poetry but going to art museums for the first time in my life. 

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Rich, Oswald, Lorde, Dickinson, Notley, Melville, Morrison, Hawthorne, Woolf

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?


16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer? 

I’d like to have been a sculptor, or a goldsmith. I stopped gathering river stones after I found a granite and quartz stone that made me think: Noguchi would have been proud to have made this. 

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

My father owned a bookstore growing up, a Little Professor franchise in a strip mall. He had to decide on how best to feed his family, and because there was a Payless in the strip mall, he went with books. That’s simplifying it a little. But my shoes came from Payless and my books were borrowed from the store. And every day I saw my parents read, which had a huge impact. Reading to kids doesn’t matter that much if they don’t see their parents reading, too. 

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Book: Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob.  

Film: Into Great Silence, which I recently rewatched to start decompressing from 25 years on academic time. 

19 - What are you currently working on?

I wanted to write pleasant poems about Idaho’s rivers, but to get there I had to pass MAGA Ranch Road and election signs for white supremacists, and once I got there I had to listen often to gunfire from across the river, and there was toxic algae in the water, so we’ll see. 

I also want to explore solitude, silence, and stillness as I step back from the community and community- building academia entails. I’ve always loved being alone, and get discombobulated if I spend too many hours in other conditions. Hearing often of late Arendt’s quote about loneliness as necessary predecessor for totalitarianism, as lonely men (or boys) enter the agoras, the schoolrooms, the polling places in terrifying ways, I’m struck by how different loneliness is, or can be, for women—how luxurious, how transformative, how generative. I’m ready for that. 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm so thankful to have read these important words.