Our National Poetry Month celebration has been raging for nearly two weeks, and it is now time to welcome some very special guests to our poetry party. You see, Evanston is home to some amazingly talented poets, and throughout the rest of April, it is our pleasure to highlight their work right here on Off the Shelf. First up is Rachel Jamison Webster. An Associate Professor of Poetry and Creative Non-Fiction at Northwestern University, Webster is the author of the full-length collection September, the poetry-prose hybrid The Endless Unbegun, and the chapbooks Leaving Phoebe and The Blue Grotto. Her work has also appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, and Blackbird, and her numerous honors include the Poetry Foundation’s Emerging Artist Award and the Academy of American Poets’ Young Poets Prize. We recently spoke with Webster via email about her poetic origins and inspirations, her writing process, and her new poem “Belize.”
Evanston Public Library: Can you tell us a little about your background as a poet? What started you writing poetry? What did you write about when you began, and what do you write about now?
Rachel Jamison Webster: I began writing poetry in the same way that some people begin taking photos. I was a kid and I would see something that was so beautiful or feel something that was so intense that I’d feel like I was going to spill over, or explode, unless I could find a way to describe it—to preserve it, and to share in its being. My family used to take long, boring car trips and I would look out the window and tell myself that I had to somehow think of the words to capture what I saw. This was very difficult, because especially in the natural world, things are simply themselves. A mountain or stream or field does not need us to describe it. And yet I needed my life to be known to me, and I felt like I could only really understand things in terms of something else—not to name or delineate but to understand and feel it more fully. This was the delightful experience of metaphor, in which the world became a mirror of itself.
Anyway, through my childhood, I was storing up all these scattered descriptions, metaphors and similes that helped me to remember the places I had seen, or the things I had experienced, and then when I was first introduced to Walt Whitman in high school, and I read his long descriptive lists, I understood that these images could find their place in poetry. So my first poem was a 16-page list of images.
My poems are still descriptive, but while they used to be really visual, now I tend to follow my poems by ear. My last two manuscripts have taken up the voices of others, so in them, I am not only writing in my own voice but serving as a kind of ventriloquist to imagine, hear and speak in the voice of another.
EPL: Can you give us a window into your writing process? How do you begin, and what are the essential ingredients of a good poem? Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing?
RJW: My writing process begins as something very free. I usually fill notebooks with meditative writings in which I try to follow a certain strain of music, or some subterranean strain of story or metaphor. I may begin with a feeling, or with a dream, or with a description of memory or landscape, but I give myself total permission to allow that to flow anywhere my mind goes. Then somehow during this process, the mind hits a rhythm that makes it strange to itself. It starts to feel almost like the poem—and it is not even a poem yet—is starting to write itself, starting to generate its lines according to some sort of musical logic, or unfolding metaphor, and I just try to ride this edge, of groundedness and strangeness. The groundedness comes in because I want to use the material of my own life—honestly and with detail—and yet to be surprised. I want to discover what the poem is about while I am writing it, and I want to feel like I am inviting a certain instability, allowing unlike insights and images to come into conversation with one another and to open to something beyond me. So this is how I proceed with my “freewrites.” Then I wait a year or two before I open those notebooks. Then, when those writings are sufficiently strange to me—when I am no longer inside their original situations and emotions—I can see them as potential poems, and I can cut away and build them out in a way that has life in them. I know that I am writing a real poem when it becomes something more than I could have expected or planned.
For me, the element most essential to a good poem is that sense of metaphor, that point of view that connects two previously unlike things and somehow opens a new space. A good poem opens a new space in us—emotionally or spiritually or perceptually. I am reluctant to prescribe how that should happen, because the best poems are always widening the field, they are always showing us new ways that this discovery can happen. But I know it when I feel it.
EPL: What poets have inspired you? What are you reading right now?
RJW: So many poets have inspired me! Reading poetry is one way of finding deep friends, of knowing that this sensitized way of being in the world is shared and understood. Early on, I was upset to find that so many images and themes I had written about were already in existence in the poetry I read. But then I began to see this as a comfort, a shared friendship. The poetry I love most, and poetry in general, makes use of the human subconscious, and this is the place where our individual memory connects with species memory, and so of course we share symbols and images! Of course we are all writing the same poem, as the poet Anne Sexton once said. Poets I love and admire most include Walt Whitman, W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jean Toomer, W.S. Merwin, Anne Carson, Randall Jarrell, Sharon Olds, Louise Gluck, Megan O’Rourke, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan—and countless others!
This week, I am reading Space, In Chains and The Infinitesimals by Laura Kasischke—which I really recommend!—and tremendous prose poems by Robert Hass and Killarney Clary. I am also reading a wonderful book of essays called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
EPL: Can you tell us a bit about the poem you chose to share?
RJW: “Belize” is a prose poem that proceeds sonically, musically. It led me through its lines on internal rhyme. It also tells a story of my first travel experience after my late partner passed away. I was a newly single mother and in the middle of the wilderness, I realized that no one in the world knew where my little five-year-old daughter and I were. The person who would have known, who kept us close in that way, had already passed on.
I’m in a canoe, our daughter prostrate before me, paddling upriver between shores thick with mud and shrub. No one in the world knows where we are. And rowing I remember how your breath strained heavy over the breathe of machines, how in low tones I spoke of the soul and continuity as you pulled back and back to squeeze my hand. What could frighten me after that? Not monkeys groaning in the trees and this thick forest watching me. We have crossed the harder river, you from one shore, me the other, and now you’re under, fording us on shoulders no longer shoulders, diving down to sift through sand and the white broken bones of the sea, its corals suffocated in chemicalized leas. And the girl I was and the daughter I’ll be sleeps up ahead, her body at rest under a towel of green. There are lives that stem from dreams, dreams fund and become them like river the sea. These are the hard lives, nothing about them easy, though they can proceed with an insistence like being swept by a stream, and sometimes, even an ecstasy. Hold to the joy, you told me. Under you flows a river of peace.