INTERVIEW WITH MARILYN WESTFALL
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “At the Ventnor Botanic Garden,” we admire how the garden evokes the connection between nature and health and the specific history of this place, and the final image suggests there is a wound still healing. Can you tell us more about the history there and about how you developed the poem and its images?
Marilyn Westfall: First, thanks for your interest in my poem. I was fortunate to visit the Isle of Wight a few years ago, where the botanic garden is located, and where, previously, The Royal National Hospital, Ventnor, dedicated to treating tuberculosis patients, operated from 1868-1964. I was drawn to the island because of my longstanding interest in the poet John Keats who had twice sequestered himself there to write, and who died of tuberculosis at age 25 in Italy, a refuge for the stricken since the late 1700s. During his brief lifetime, tuberculosis was a scourge in England; prior to his death, he nursed but lost his beloved brother Tom to the disease. When I wrote the poem, both the hospital and the garden served as symbols of hope and recovery from that centuries-long pandemic that is, unfortunately, still active in some regions of the world. Now, with the new pandemic of COVID-19, it is obvious our battles against global disease are ongoing. We will need to apply “gauze” supplied by nature, medicine, and the arts, in order to heal from outbreaks.
RR: We love the details of the plants and the list of their names. How did you choose the particular selections to include?
MW: I searched through a pharmacology of plant-derived medicines given to patients at the hospital and chose some names for their musicality: “clove,” “gourd,” “aloes.” My poem’s list, I hope, also hints at the reach of the British Empire in accessing plants for research and development.
RR: Do you have a background or special interest in medicine that inspired you to write the poem? And does the Ventnor Botanical Garden have any personal significance to you?
MW: I do not have a background in medicine, but I am a cancer survivor. When I was first diagnosed, I read all I could to understand how best to approach treatments for my disease, which included “watchful waiting.” I decided on that pathway and, by good fortune, it was best for me. Gardens in general delight me, offering solace and inspiration that by following our better instincts we can persevere as a species while preserving the natural world.
RR: The speaker identifies as a Chihuahuan desert native, and we understand that you live in Texas, a very different ecosystem than the Isle of Wight. Do you have a favorite Texas or desert garden?
MW: As I indicate in the poem, I was surprised to find cactus native to West Texas among an English garden’s featured plants. I learned the Isle of Wight’s peculiar geology includes a south-facing undercliff, providing a protective climate that is Mediterranean—mild in temperature. If any reader is interested in the native plants and wilderness of West Texas, I would recommend a visit to Big Bend National Park, which spans over 800,000 acres and offers tremendous variety in geology and unique flora and fauna. As far as regional gardens are concerned, I would recommend the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, between Alpine and Ft. Davis, which includes a greenhouse dedicated to cultivating varieties of cactus and other indigenous plants. You can take a quick hike there. Once, while on that trail, I happened upon an eagle that took off like a flying carpet. Absolutely magical and majestic.
RR: In your bio you mention you head the Ad Hoc Writers group; can you tell us more about that community and what you do?
MW: The Ad Hoc Writers was founded maybe 30 years ago, and its talented membership has varied over time. It has, however, always been a small group of dedicated poets, fiction writers, and memoirists. In recent years, until the COVID-19 pandemic, the group met monthly and performed annual readings. The current members are widely published in magazines, newspapers, and anthologies; some have published books that were nurtured by our process of constructive peer review. The group’s longevity can likely be attributed to the fact that its members respect, support, and celebrate each other.
Marilyn Westfall’s work in Issue 7.2: