INTERVIEW with RACHEL JAMISON WEBSTER
by AOZORA BROCKMAN
On one of my earlier poems, Rachel Jamison Webster wrote in large, elegant cursive, “I don’t think you’re being honest here.” Shocked, I turned over the words in my head. How could she know? I thought, defensive. But in the pit of my stomach I knew that she was right. Since then, I wrote poems that challenged me, that made my toes curl, some that made me want to hurl. And it was when those who read them saw themselves in my words, and when what I wrote reflected back the deepest parts of my unconscious mind, that I realized the wisdom behind her philosophy of courageous honesty. For it is only when we dig deep within ourselves that we can be true to human nature and change the way we and others think. She taught me again and again that poetry is a spattering of words that we can reach across to connect, and therefore, that poetry is powerful.
Her first book-length collection, September, is also sizzling with strength. I read it in doses before bed while visiting my mother’s family in Japan, and felt again a fullness that I’d somehow lost in the glittering, lonely city of Tokyo. I saw autumn on my family farm—the crackle of leaves that turned soggy after rain, and the electrifying blue of the sky. The poems’ meditations on seeing beauty after losing a loved one reminded me to keep up my sensitivity in an atmosphere of apathy.
Back in the States, I sat down with her in her office to discuss poetry as an avenue for change, complicated mother-daughter relationships in her new work, and navigating the line between intuition and explanation.
Azora Brockman (AB): In your poem, “Lingua,” you write beautifully of the origin of language. What is your first memory of language?
Rachel Jamison Webster (RJB): According to my parents, my first word was really "Look". So that poem came from really trying to remember and imagine where language began. I think that we can get very theoretical and bemoan the disconnections and the misunderstandings inherent in language, but I wanted to remember something that felt more original, which is about connection. Like, “I see this—I want you to see it and share it with me in this moment.” Just that impulse inherent in all language, which is reaching out and wanting to be connected.
AB: What power does poetry have, and do you think it can create change in our world?
RJW: I do think it creates change in the world because it creates change in the poet. The poet herself becomes more conscious and hopefully more sensitive in the act of observing and writing. The good reader will also become more sensitive. Poetry is a unique opportunity for us to become more sensitive to subjective human truth. To me, poetry has this wonderful potential to be very metaphorical and spiritual without being dogmatic and religious. So it can convey a sense of wonder or a sense of the preciousness of life without relying on some external religious or spiritual system. It's just relying on the poet who paid close enough attention to life to make us wake up to it. So that, I think, is the real gift of poetry because it's an individual sharing in an intimate, subjective space. That feels really special to me. We encounter people in our culture most often through persona, especially now, when everyone has a Facebook page that's very much the visible person. To have an opportunity to encounter an interior world, the dream-life of a person, or the feelings of a person through poetry—that can really change things. It relies on everyone being vulnerable and that kind of vulnerability feels increasingly threatened right now, even in poetry. A lot of poetry doesn't go there. But I do believe in it as a practice and I've seen it change people.
AB: Speaking of the power of poetry, you got involved in establishing writing workshops for underprivileged youth in Chicago. What did the students teach you and what did you want to teach them?
RJW: I loved that work. I feel grateful that I got to do it because I saw people change so much. Those programs convinced me—forever—that this was meaningful work, because people would come in in a really different space than they left in. Their entire lives would be different, and this wasn't a vague or metaphorical thing, it was real. Writing helped them to value their own experience—because we can just go through life without reflecting on experience. Even if when you lived an experience you had no control, as soon as you start working with it as an artist, you are getting control over it, and you're using it to become more conscious. And all of a sudden, you have a product from it—you have something you can look at and be proud of, and a changed consciousness around it. I think it's a really powerful way to help people to value themselves—to have more personal power—and then to start really thinking about what they want to make. Then you can just extrapolate from making something on the page to making something of your life.
AB: Do you have a favorite memory from the workshops?
RJW: I have so many. I have memories where I was really humbled by where I was, when I realized that the students were going through things on levels that I had not. I had one student who would refuse to sit by any window. I thought he was just being difficult with me, until he started writing and sharing about his life and I learned that his brother had been shot, his cousin had been shot to death, and so he had very good reason to be traumatized, to be afraid to sit close to the window. It was very humbling for me. I think that was actually the most valuable part about that time, for my first teaching experience to be one in which I was a minority in the room, racially and culturally. I didn't look like my students, I hadn’t grown up the way they had, and so I had to be very respectful, and I had to be open. I remember once I brought in all these photographs and a lot of students chose photographs that they had no familiarity with, these really rural scenes...and then they would start talking about what they hadn't seen. So, one girl—who's actually now a published poet, she just gave a reading at the Poetry Foundation—she wrote about not ever really seeing stars because she lived in the center of the city and had never been out of it. And so she wanted to see really bright stars someday. And then another boy chose a photograph of a rural church—a little chapel in the fields—and wrote a very interesting story about it. I think that activity helped me respect not just writing about experience, but also writing about what you hope your experience will be, writing from imagination or deeper generational memory— memory that you didn't even experience yourself. They were my teachers, definitely, and I was their cheerleader.
AB: Your new work, Leaving Phoebe, delves into the theme of mother-daughter relationships and how feelings are passed on. What are the joys and struggles of motherhood—and this feels weird to say, but what kind of mother do you want your daughter to be?
RJW: She will be her own kind of mother and person. She'll probably be a little more like my mother than I am; they're both really strong people and I guess I'm strong but in a different way. They're kind of grounded and take-charge people in a way that I'm not, and I think they both probably think of me as a little of vague and meditative not always on the planet in the way that they are. So I think the generations switch back or correct in some ways…My new work of prose poems about the women in my family feels like a book I've needed to write my whole life. My grandmother was abandoned by her mother, who was abandoned by her mother. I think before I became a mother I was really haunted by that idea, and there was a lot of anger and insecurity that trickled down through the generations over these abandonings. I felt afraid that I could become one of those mothers—like my great grandmother who left not one but two sets of daughters to travel the world and be an artist, a model, a wife to an English nobleman, a nurse and eccentric. But luckily, when I had my daughter Adèle, it was like, Oh, that couldn't happen. I would not leave her behind. I mean, I'm sure she'll be disappointed in me as a mother in some way and will—on an emotional, metaphorical level—feel abandoned in some way, because I think we want so much from our mothers that it actually really hurts whenever they don't understand the littlest thing about us. I think that's almost inevitable, but I don't think on a literal level that this is what our story is ever going to be. So, Adèle has healed me in some major ways, not to mention my own mother, who is herself healing from some incredibly difficult and even cruel mothering, and who is herself working to be a conscious parent.
AB: I really love "Bleeding Heart;" it's one of my favorites, about the realization of sexuality and the revulsion that comes with it—
RJW: Thank you—you get it!
AB: But do you find it difficult to write in that child's voice? What can this perspective open us up to?
RJW: I guess it's a little difficult because it feels vulnerable and you don't know if people will understand. It relies on a respect and experience of the intuitive, emotional, metaphorical modes. Explaining—the discursive framing voice—feels safer in a way, because you're proving that you're smart while you move down the page. I guess the risk is of not seeming intelligent, or being perceived as too emotional. And I think there are gender judgments all over the place in these ideas! I sometimes think that my publishing career might have been different if I had gone further into a more discursive, researched poem, but even when I extensively research poems I write them in this style of original response, of felt immediacy, because this is what poetry is to me—intensely felt—and I hope to draw the reader in a consciousness that is physical and emotional as well as cerebral. These poems in September were all poems that I needed to write, that felt pressing and urgent, and I guess they capture a childlike wonder that is actually still in me. Life feels really present and intense to me, almost as if I can't contain my feelings, the color of the roses, the sky, and beauty and loss tip me into awareness of the fleeting nature of all things. And that to me feels like the poetic space. I feel lucky as a person that I get to have that heightened sense, although it isn’t always easy to live and write in this raw way.
AB: In "Ocean and Integer," you and your daughter eat an apple "all day", and then you explain what you mean by the phrase was that you "ate it right down to the seeds". So I felt that there was an inner thought and then you were explaining it for an audience. How do you grapple with staying true to your inner thoughts and writing for an audience?
RJW: That's a really great question. It's a great question for you, too, because you have such a developed inner self. You remind me a lot of the way I started writing and the way I am as a writer, essentially. When you have that inner world and privacy, it's very hard to learn what someone else will or will not understand, and I think you kind of have to have a light touch on how worried you get about that. So, for me, I wrote in a really intuitive way as a student and as an undergrad, and a couple years after. Then in grad school, almost all the comments were: you need to guide the reader here, the reader doesn't know what you're talking about, you start in this really confusing place. That was what I got over and over again, so I learned to stabilize the work. I learned how to hold the reader's hand and lead the reader through my thinking. Then when I got to the later stuff, including September, it was like I knew how to integrate just enough of that. There's some part of my brain now, trained by my teachers, that knows that someone may need a little more here. And then there's the more innate part to me, which just wants to be in the sensory experience of the poem.
AB: And who do you imagine your audience to be?
RJW: I guess just a really good reader who wants a certain kind of poem—a feeling-space poem. I think poetry is endlessly interesting because it creates new synapses of connection between writers and readers, and much of this connection depends on the inner work that the reader has been doing. And you just have to hope that those people exist. And they do! Responses like yours, students like you, are tremendously encouraging and heartening—not just for the work but for the world, which, as you note, can feel dulled by apathy. I have had some wonderful surprises with this book—people who really understood it and felt it, and that helps me to trust these spaces of vulnerability and connection.
Aozora Brockman grew up on a small-scale, family-operated organic vegetable farm in Central Illinois, and much of her poetry is birthed from the wanderings of her mind during long, solitary hours of harvesting and weeding. She is currently completing a manuscript of poems centered on the theme of memory under the mentorship of Rachel Webster.