a weather eye on our shared civic life

Our poetry co-editor Chris LaMay-West recently had this exchange with Wendy Willis, our Issue #18 featured poet. Here’s what she had to say about her poetic guiding lights, her interest in species loneliness and social justice, and her fear of doing too much to do it all well.


One thing I really like about these poems is that they have a density of subject matter, and dizzying, almost surreal, quality of connections between them. Some of your other published poems that I’ve read have a similar quality, but seemingly more conventional narrative structure. Is this a shift that’s gone on with your more recent writing?


Well, I don’t know. If there’s a shift, it’s not one that I am consciously striving for. Before it is on the page, it feels like each poem has its own life force and syntax and world-view. But when I go back and read them, it seems like all my poems sound alike. So it is a tremendous relief to hear that someone thinks there actually might be a shift!


These poems, especially “One Saturday Night at Mary Todd’s,” brought to mind Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg for me. Is that a connection you see? Who are some of the influences (poetic or otherwise) that you think are involved with what you’re currently writing?


What spectacular company you put this poem in. I don’t know if I see “Mary Todd’s” as exactly connected to Whitman, but he is most certainly my all-time-number-one-poetry-boyfriend. There are many others who I return to over and over for inspiration—and even more than that—for solace: Hart Crane, Adrienne Rich, Venus Khoury-Ghata, C.D. Wright, Czeslaw Milosz. And I have read Seamus Heaney’s “From the Republic of Conscience” over and over again. In fact, I just copied it into my notebook again yesterday.


A story about Whitman: Two years ago this month one of my dearest friends, Kitty, was dying of breast cancer. Way too young. Way too vibrant. The mother of four young kids. It was suffering all around. She was in her last hours, and friends and family members were taking turns sitting with her. Sometimes she was asleep, sometimes she was awake, mostly we just held hands and watched the light move across the cherry tree outside the window. But on one of my last visits, she asked me to read to her. I have “Song of Myself” on my Kindle, so I just started reading from the beginning. I wasn’t even sure she was really listening or able to follow. But, when I got to this part,


I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the
     beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.


There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now,


she stopped me. She said: “Read it again.” I did. And she said: “He is so brave. So brave.” And then I read on until her breathing slowed, and she fell asleep. That was really the last conversation we had besides: “I love you” and “I love you too.” And I am so grateful for it. I will carry that moment with me forever. That’s poetry. That’s my North Star.


“Bear Hungry” is an amazing poem linking together militarism, the change of the seasons, and the rise and fall of species, and the form really helps subtly establish connections instead of doing a more overt “this is like that.” I’d be curious to hear about the genesis of this poem, and the decision to do it in this particular poetic form.


I started “Bear Hungry” when I was at a residency at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. A friend of mine—Sherry Simpson—gave a morning talk about her amazing book, Dominion of Bears. She introduced me to what we now call “Bear TV,” a live feed from Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park in Southeast Alaska, where you can watch brown bears loll about and grapple huge salmon from the falls. I love Bear TV, and sometimes I keep a video box open on my desktop so that I can watch bears be bears, but in fact, it makes me miss seeing bears in the flesh. Of course, I’ve seen them now and then out in the wild, and I miss that. I want to see them again! I recently learned of the expression “species loneliness,” which suggests that we poor humans feel wounded and disconnected from all the other creatures that civilization has destroyed or separated us from. As I walk around my neighborhood, I think about the people and creatures who lived here before me. I think about what it must have been like, a wild and abundant flood plain, unpaved and unlogged. I once read that white settlers reported hearing wolves howl in my part of Portland. Right here in my tidy little hipster neighborhood.


And meanwhile, back in Tacoma, while I was learning about Bear TV, huge military transport planes were roaring overhead because Joint Base Lewis-McChord is right down the highway. It’s just part of the backdrop to that beautiful, well-mowed and fertilized campus.  All those things together created a loop in my head, which I guess was replicated in a loop in the poem.


“Stitch” ends with what might be the opening line of a joke, and “One Saturday Night at Mary Todd’s” starts with what looks like an opening line. And both certainly contain humor, while addressing some serious topics in deadly earnest, in the best tradition of socially challenging humor. I wonder if you could talk about the idea of “jokes” as they relate to these poems?


I have to be honest, I am the worst when it comes to actual jokes. I’ve been telling one joke for my entire adult life. My kids tell me that I used to know another one when they were little—something about a goat and a DVD player—but I forgot it. That said, though, I love a poet with a sharp tongue. So sometimes it’s just too tempting to go for the laugh.


What do you hope these poems evoke for the reader?


Oh, jeez, that’s a hard one. One of my central tenets in life is that people get to feel what they want to feel. So I can’t really violate that principle here, but I will say that what I value in poems is when the poet can maintain a deep connection to her inner life while keeping a weather eye on our shared civic life. That combination is as rare as it is devastating, and I treasure it when I find it in poems.


These poems all seem, in various ways, to contain a yearning for social justice, and I know that in your non-literary life you’re the Executive Director of a non-profit, Kitchen Table Democracy. What connections do you see between that life and your writing life?


At this point, I’m just trying to keep all my limbs attached to my body. Between my work life and a devoted and busy family life and an almost desperate need to keep an artistic life alive, I feel as if I am about to go through the shredder at all times. I’ll tell you this—I don’t exercise nearly as much as I would like to, and the laundry is about to start its own U.N. Commission. Every year I say “this is the year that I better integrate my professional, personal, and artistic lives,” and every year it never quite happens. That said, though, we are who we are. So our interests and our preoccupations and our fears and joys and obsessions leak into our poems. And of course that is true for me, too, and I suppose poems also leak into my parenting and my work life, as well.


Apropos of these two worlds, one does not often hear about someone who has gone from Georgetown Law and an impressive legal career to an MFA and an impressive poetic career. Could you talk a little about this life journey?


One word: dilettante. You’ve actually hit a tender spot here. One of my deepest fears about myself is that—in the end—my life will be overflowing with shiny but ill-considered interests but devoid of any actual mastery. Once I start getting half-decent at something, I start looking for something I’ve never done before. With regard to the law and poetry, though, I am very happy to be in the company of Wallace Stevens, and I wonder if you know that there is a great guy at the University of West Virginia—James Elkins—who is valiantly trying to identify all the lawyer-poets in the country. I know quite a few right here in Portland, and the discipline of law school doesn’t do a poet any harm.


You are also married to a poet, David Biespiel. I’m always thinking in my own life about how my creative life influences my relationships, and vice versa. Do you think there are some advantages as a writer to having another writer nearby? And some challenges?


I’ll tell you this, if there were not two poets in this household, the kitchen would have been painted a long time ago. As we always joke, what would it be like if after work we weren’t always trying to create something? But that said, our house is as bountiful as it is ramshackle. Between us we have three kids who are amazing artists in their own rights. So our house is often full of writers and musicians and dancers and photographers, all at various ages and stages of elation and self-loathing and artistic despair.


My oldest and closest friend is a visual artist, so I am well practiced in living in the company of another artist. One of the things that I cherish about my life with David is that we respect a very tender balance between companionship and silence. We can work within a few feet of each other for eight or nine hours at a time and not say much more than, “Do you need another cup of coffee?” or “Would you like me to light the fire?”


What new ventures are you currently working on, poetically, professionally or personally?


In the category of dilettantism, I recently finished (or have finished for now) a new book of poems, and I am currently working on a book of essays. And one of these days, I want to write a cookbook. But right now, I am also spending way too much time flipping through seed catalogues for the summer garden and scanning Twitter for new polls in the presidential primary. Do you think it is too late for me to go to work for Nate Silver?


One of the lines from “Writ of Habeus Corpus” has really stuck with me, and I’d like to turn the question back to you: Is prophecy more conjure or conjecture?


Oh no.  I’m not falling for that one. What do you think?
Wendy Willis

Wendy Willis is a poet and essayist who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her first book of poems, Blood Sisters of the Republic, was released in 2012 by Press 53. She also serves as the executive director of the Kitchen Table Democracy, a national nonprofit organization housed at Portland State University and devoted to improving democratic governance. In addition to publishing poetry and essays in a variety of national and regional journals and serving as an adjunct fellow in poetry at the Attic Institute, Wendy has served as a federal public defender and as the law clerk to Chief Justice Wallace P. Carson Jr. of the Oregon Supreme Court. She graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown Law Center and holds a BA from Willamette University and an MFA in poetry from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.

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