Contributor Spotlight: Interview with July Westhale
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “A thing that is bigger than 140 characters,” we’re drawn to the way the poem evokes a broken landscape. Can you tell us a little bit about how you developed the images and their juxtapositions?
July Westhale: Thank you! As a writer, I think imagistically. Image has always been my biggest strength, and also my toughest curse (in the worst of times, my prose borders on purple). One of my mentors in grad school once called me a “metaphor-making machine”—It’s quite possibly the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.
Much of my work in both poetry and prose deal with class, landscape, and broke-ness/brokenness, so the images felt intuitive to the kinds of writing I do by rote—meaning the repeated lived experience of broken places. I was adopted. I grew up many places; my family moved a good deal. We lived in trailers and campgrounds and guest rooms and cul-de-sacs. We spent entire summers driving in an old rust-red Buick, kind of smashed up together, following my adoptive dad’s softball team on tour, the wildly varied and wildly wild landscape of California out the windows. I grew up understanding the resiliency of people and places, and with not only a deep tenderness for craggy wilderness but also a kind of… internalized identification with it. The fact that Yosemite was meticulously sculpted by glaciers, for example, is something I’ll never get over. The idea that people are built the exact same way is just too perfect not to write about.
RR: Enjambment creates interesting and effective tension in this piece. Did you develop that technique specifically or was it more organic?
JW: It was intentional, here. I wanted to show perspectives at odds with themselves. How do we credit someone who comes right out and says they’re on mood-stabilizers? Just stating that fact right off de-stabilizes. So in order to regain control, to show reliability (whatever that means), the lines and voice have to be stable as hell. Any chance the speaker gets, she admits her position. What she knows and what she doesn’t know. She admits bitterness and reveling in bitterness. The enjambment used to create that effect (hopefully) enacts the experience of that voice, the stability of it in a world that threatens to discredit it.
Let’s look at this couplet:
to walk untethered? I’m not
trying to be insolent, or strange
The line breaks here show the tension I’m talking about above—the speaker wants to know what it’s like to walk untethered, acknowledges that she’s as tethered as the rest of us and that she’s not trying to be difficult or extraordinary in those facts.
RR: More generally, how do you develop the formal structure of a poem along with its voice?
JW: Since I believe, like Jean Valentine once said, that writing happens 98% unconsciously, it’s really rare that poems just come out fully formed (though I’ve been lucky enough to have that happen once or twice, and it feels divine!). My own process involves a lot of structuring and restructuring. Form, for me, has to enact the experience of the content. I think a lot about Syzmborska’s poem “Identification” (which I use in workshops and seminars to illustrate this point about form vs content). The poem is about a woman finding out that her husband has died, and the form begins in a very constructed, precise way—then begins to fall apart, as the woman realizes what’s happening. The falling apart in form, the scrambled sentences… that enacts the experience of trauma, of receiving dreadful news.
I’m no Szymborska, but I’m a good student. For a poem like “A thing that is bigger than 140 characters”, I wanted to enact the content by establishing the tension I talked about above (with enjambment). Having the stanzas in couplets felt like an obvious choice, as a way to formally stabilize the voice.
RR: We’re interested in the references to mental health issues and the hints that getting help is a sign of weakness. Is that a criticism of society and the way there is still so much stigma?
JW: I wrote this poem as a response to Internet trolling (Twitter, specifically!)—I am also an essayist and write personal journalism. I notice that whenever I express a political opinion (and actually, as a woman, whenever I express any strong opinion publically, political or otherwise), there is an immediate impulse by the tide of the Internet to discredit me. Poke holes in my logic, with whatever blunt instrument happens to be around.
Definitely, getting my caught taking mood-stabilizers would be a boon to Internet trolls. I don’t personally think taking medication is a sign of weakness—in fact, there’s a strength to being the first one to provide information. If I tell them about my pills then they can’t use that information against me. I’ve already brandished it, which shows a certain level of confidence or dexterity. There is stigma still. We have a long way to go to dismantle it. But I believe in creative response. I believe in social change through art, even if that means the slow, steady work of humanizing people through poetry.
This analysis/creative response isn’t new—I would argue that this is what marginalized people write about, covertly or overtly. We are taught during out MFA programs to work hard to make sure readers ask smart questions (philosophical ones, or big-picture ones), that you give readers no reason at all to dismiss your voice (keep your grammar excellent and your thoughts concise).
RR: We understand you just released your poetry collection Trailer Trash. Any new projects on the horizon? What have you been working on most recently?
JW: Oh, Trailer Trash! I’m on tour for it now, so it’s still new and I’m still basking in the afterglow—it’s a collection of poems about growing up in a trailer park in 1980s/90s Southern California. I’m always working on multiple things at once, but rarely do I know exactly what shape they’ll take until they’re half done. So here are a few things, roughly summarized:
○ A collection about the betrayals of the body, which I suspect stems from being socialized as female/having a sexualized corpus in the Trump age/being a queer person with a dead mom while unwrapping ideas of family
○ Translations of Sor Juana’s lamentations
○ Another kid’s book on how to cope in times of political duress (my first one, Occasionally Accurate Science, comes out this summer!)
○ A collection of nonfiction essays
I just got chosen by Ocean Vuong to be the 2018 University of Arizona Poetry Center Fellow, so I’ll be working steadily on new work this summer, under the shadows of the beautiful saguaros of my birth land. I’m looking forward to seeing how some of these projects manifest!
July Westhale’s work appears in Issue 5.3 here.