A Conversation with Laura Walker

This week, THERMOS is running a feature of Laura Walker’s poetry, assembled by Cassie Donish. Today’s installment is an interview, conducted by e-mail in the summer of 2014. Please check back tomorrow for some new poetry.

Cassie Donish: When I met you last November at the Poetry Exchange Project in New Orleans, I had the privilege of hearing you read from some of the same new works that we’re featuring here at THERMOS, including genesis. Could you tell us about genesis?

Laura Walker: I’ve always been haunted by the pulling cadences of the King James Version of the Bible. I think it’s partly because the rhythms are incredibly mesmerizing, and partly because I grew up in the Bible Belt with a proselytizing atheist for a father, which created its own host of contradictions and yearnings and hauntings. I felt simultaneously included and excluded by that language. I think genesis was my attempt to go back in time and explore the somewhat forbidden rhythms that have shaped me deeply.

CD: What are you currently writing? How does your current writing depart from your past projects?

LW: I’m in the last stages (I think) of a manuscript I’ve been working on for about a year. It’s a series of prose blocks circling around ideas of story and its manifestations, weaving characters, fairy tales, family stories, and memories, both “real” and created. Sometimes I say it’s as close to writing a novel as I’ll ever get, which is not very close. But there was something that felt “novelistic” for me as I wrote it, for example the ways in which I needed to erect a structure and simultaneously keep it aloft while turning my attention elsewhere—like putting up a circus tent and drawing something obscure and difficult on the floor at the same time. Destined for failure but exhilarating too.

In my mind it departs quite a bit from what I’ve written previously. And that’s part of what I’ve enjoyed about it—the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing, at all—the unfamiliarity. I’ve always been most comfortable with partial narrative, pieces of stories, multiple and shifting and overlapping—I have a huge distrust of anything that presents itself as complete, of beginnings and endings, of story arcs. So in this project I’ve had to write alongside my discomfort. Even though the stories here are still fragmented and incomplete, they’re central and substantive in a way that’s new for me. I’ve had to fight, hard, against my natural inclination to take things out, to subtract. Narrative here is, in some way, the point—not a hazy aura or shifting backdrop or ghostly presence—even though it’s still all those things, too, at least I hope. Anyway, it’s made me really uncomfortable, in a great way. I can feel myself having to reach toward new ways of holding things.

I was haunted by a lot of things while I wrote it. By my own experience of memory, especially of the way my memory now has gaps and holes since a concussion a few years ago, with new gaps being created all the time— and what that means for identity, “truth,” the communal, for creating something. By listening to my grandmother’s memories turn more and more gauzy over a period of years. By my visceral memories of fairy tales, what I took in and made my own, long ago, what I recreated, and perhaps why. By the idea of story as a character, with her own needs and trajectory. By my reading about recovered memories. By the idea of our body as a story we tell ourselves, and what that means for boundaries, transgression, injury. By narrative shape built through layer or repetition or eddies of water, vs. movement over ground and space—a finger rubbing the same circle repeatedly, eroding the surface.

CD: You mention several things that one might think of as characteristic of your writing: fragmentation, the experience of memory, “distrust of anything that presents itself as complete.” What is the role of absence or silence in your work? Is it a character too?

LW: I love the idea of absence as a character. For years I’ve been enamored with Barbara Guest’s description of a poem’s “little ghost.” I’m mesmerized by what hovers— glimpsed but never seen, unarticulated, unknown, unknowable—but still present. Palpable absence. And perhaps, related to that, it can be interesting to think of a poem as landscape or structure, as a place something else might briefly touch down in, or move through. Not to imply that place or landscape (or poem) is passive, awaiting some Other—but more an idea of movement, invitation, shifting inhabitances. And how to create a poem as a place or a stance—and an invitation to what can’t be written and what can’t be sustained.

CD: Reading your most recent book, Follow-Haswed (Apogee Press, 2012), I felt as though I were on a midnight tour through a mysterious landscape, one that indicated or implicated our world through a kind of echolocation. The book, which could be described as a project of erasure and collage, struck me as a different type of translation—in which the OED volume you used was not an original text, but a translator. What do I mean? How did you come to use this particular OED volume, the sixth? Did you work with a hard copy of the volume? What was it like writing this book?

LW: I really love that: an idea of poetry “that indicated or implicated our world through a kind of echolocation.” If you got that sense from Follow-Haswed, I’m thrilled.

Follow-Haswed began when I bought a single volume of the OED off of eBay ten or so years ago, because it was only 15 dollars, while the whole set was well beyond my means, and my space. It was volume VI, “Follow-Haswed.” I think there were three or four volumes to choose from, and I imagine the word “follow” lured me, as well as not having any idea what “haswed” meant.

I fell in love with it when it arrived. I just loved having it there on the shelf, loved the look of the print, loved the layout, loved the heft: loved it. And had no idea what to do with any of that love, creatively speaking. So I just kept packing and unpacking it as I moved.

And then one day, years later, I picked it up and started to read it. And I became enamored with the weird ways the various entries seemed to speak to one another, in part by virtue of the source texts for the illustrative quotations, and in part rather mysteriously.
Everywhere I looked there seemed to be references to water, and soldiers, and girlhood, and war – in follow and gogibber and gain…. that is, in places I would not expect these themes to crowd in.

And so I became really interested in what a single word might carry, in the word as a world, in a word as a maze. And in the idea that just in the place where we try to pin a word down—in a dictionary—meaning explodes, implodes. I was fascinated by the fact that the smallest units of language are also terribly full, terribly laden. And that words are imprinted, just as they imprint us. Because the themes I was finding everywhere were also, of course, my own obsessions: girlhood, soldiers, water, war. So reading the dictionary started to resemble reading any book—thinking about what we receive and what we project, and the complicated relationship of reader and text. There was something slippery at the core— which I think your text/translator question is getting at—and I’m always mesmerized by slipperiness.

Writing the book was a process of reading an entry, copying out pieces and phrases that struck me as compelling, and then going back to those long lists and collaging. It was hugely enjoyable. It was also something I could do in the small, broken bits of writing time I had as a mother of two young kids. Everything in a poem is taken verbatim from a particular entry, and line breaks reflect where I jumped within the entry—so with all that given, I focused on juxtaposition, on break and link, on rhythm and music, and on echo and repetition—and on, hopefully, having something arise off the page a bit.

CD: What poetic traditions do you see your work as part of, or as emerging from?

LW: I feel very lucky that I went to SF State for my MFA. I went there for all the wrong reasons but it was there that I started to study the work of women who were publishing innovative work in the 1980’s and beyond, many in San Francisco, and many of them brought together in the pages of the journal HOW(ever) in the 80’s. Kathleen Fraser co-founded and edited HOW(ever) and her work became incredibly important to me. I feel lucky that I went to school in a place with such a rich history of women’s experimental writing, where I could stumble across books published by Kelsey Street Press, or take classes from Myung Mi Kim, Norma Cole, and Susan Gevirtz, or hear Cole Swensen or Brenda Hillman or Barbara Guest read frequently. Through these poets I became immersed in ideas of broken or interrupted lyric, in the role of silence or space on the page, in poetic forms shaped in part by women’s lived experiences—motherhood, for example—and in poetry as inquiry or investigation.

CD: What are some advantages and obstacles, in your opinion, of being associated with a community or tradition in poetry that defines itself in part by gender, specifically the identity of ‘woman’? Do you have any reflections you could share with us on the issue of gender and poetics?

LW: I doubt I have anything new to say on that huge and many-branched topic. I identify as a woman and I write poetry, and obviously my ways of seeing and experiencing the world, as a woman, necessarily come to play in what I write, and how I read, and what I’m drawn to read, and how I read the world, and how the world reads me, etc., etc. And this has many implications for what work I end up having access to, and who has access to my work, and how such work is contextualized (VIDA is doing amazing work around these issues.) I feel a deep debt to people like Kathleen Fraser and Patricia Dienstfrey and countless others for making a space for poetry by women when there was very little space for it; and of course that space is still contested and fraught in many ways (see VIDA again), though better, I think, than what it’s been in the past; and of course again gender is just one of the lenses through which we can examine what work is celebrated/ read/ published, and by whom, and how those things are decided. Access and prestige and visibility are huge issues.

At the same time, of course, identity read in a simplistic way is, well, simplistic. It would be ridiculous to read my poetry to find out “what a woman thinks,” or “what women’s poetry is like”—in that weird but weirdly persistent way of reading poetry outside a dominant mode— as if I or anyone can somehow stand in for a group we’re a part of. I guess I believe in constellation rather than essentialism.

So I guess I see such associations as wonderful when they open things up and not so great when they shut things down. “Open things up” by providing space and access and opportunities to share work and explore poetry that moves away from assumptions of the mainstream. “Shut things down” by essentializing one aspect of someone’s very complex identity and making sweeping generalizations based upon it. But that’s more about how these groupings or associations are interpreted or misinterpreted, perhaps?— than about being a part of them.

CD: What’s exciting to you about contemporary poetry? What are you reading right now?

LW: I remember Stacy Doris talking once about how she entered a new book of poetry— from the middle, skipping around as she liked, and hardly ever from beginning to end. And I was so struck by what I took as the freedom of that, the boldness of the recognition that we meet a book where we are, from where we are, because of where we are—her embracing of the subjectivity of reading, as I understood it.

It’s in part why I always find myself on the opposite side of arguments about there being “too much poetry”, about poetry being published “too soon,” whatever that means—that there’s too much chaff vs. wheat, I guess. Bring on the chaff, I say—maybe I like chaff. Maybe chaff is exactly what I need to read at this moment; one woman’s chaff is another woman’s, etc. Which is quite different from saying I like everything, but rather I’m grateful for the proliferation. I’m excited that we can publish each other in affordable ways, that there are so many micro-communities around reading series and blogs and online magazines and installations, as well as books-in-paper. That there’s room. I think there are still plenty of thorny issues around resources and access and prestige, as I said above, but I’m excited for the ways in which we can encounter work outside the land of contests and book publication.

It also means, though, that there’s always more work I want to read than I have time to read. And I read slowly. Recently I’ve been reading Tiff Dressen, Todd Melicker, Martin Camps, Teresa Miller, Joseph Lease, giovanni singleton, John Sakkis, Jenn McCreary, Sarah Vap. And I have a huge stack of books and bookmarked websites waiting for me.

CD: Aside from poetry, what influences your work and your thinking?

LW: Ecosystems, both wild and not—forests, fields, mountains, gardens—all that interplay, the many complex relationships occurring—I find it endlessly thought-provoking, or feeling-provoking, or something. Also, weather—both my direct experience of it and the systems developed to describe it—cloud formations, humidity and temperature, sun and fog and radar maps. Maps in general are amazing to me, both conceptually and physically. Also, I recently wrote a series of poems drawing from the picture books I read repeatedly to my children when they were young and I was extremely sleep-deprived—that combination of sleep deprivation and repetition created an almost mystical space in which I entered those books, lived in those books, in ways I can’t return to, but remember vividly.

CD: Would you mind sharing which children’s books you’re referring to? 

LW: Oh, many more than I can list here—I think I drew from more than fifty books—everything from books from my parents’ generation (Mike Mulligan, Rapunzel, Madeline, The Secret Garden) to books I grew up with (The Lorax, Are you My Mother, Horton Hears a Who, Harold and the Purple Crayon) to books I only discovered alongside my kids (When the Sky is Like Lace, Storm Boy, Mole Music, The Visitor). They all merged in this wonderful hazy space created by my extreme sleep-deprivation and the ritual of reading them aloud again and again.

CD: What’s the biggest challenge for you when it comes to writing? What comes easily?

LW: I love playing with a text. Putting words on paper or a screen, to create something to play with, is not so easy for me. But once I have material, I can break it apart and reform it and recirculate it and try it a hundred different ways, and stay happy. So I’d say I’m happiest when I’m (endlessly) revising something, or re-inventing something, and least happy when I’ve just finished a project and am casting around for something new—something that opens a door to the elusive thing-I-can’t-name which will inspire more messing around.

I’m also terrible at writing “about” something. For example, when my kids were small, people were always suggesting lovely or challenging or poignant things they were doing or I was experiencing that I should write about, that would “make a good poem.” I can’t do that. A lot of times I’ve wished I could, and I try occasionally, but it’s just a mess. I’m sure my daily life enters my writing in other ways, but not directly, or in ways I can easily point to.

CD: What’s something you can easily point to where you are right now?

LW: Just one thing? I can never do just one thing. Quinnehutukqut by Joshua Harmon. A can of Gold Brick Pale Ale. A picture of the sun by one of my sons. And through the window, my new bee hives, swirling.


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