Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with
The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: How did you decide on the form of your poem “For My Father, Who Will Someday Die,” which is a series of couplets followed by a lone line?
P.J. Williams: My former teacher and mentor, Robin Behn, has a wonderful essay in Tuscaloosa Writes This – an anthology from Slash Pine Press that includes poems and craft essays from writers with ties to Alabama – about her poem “Inventory at Dusk.” The poem – set in the room where her father passed away – takes stock of that place and her own grasping at meaning, at making sense of such an event. I read the poem and essay at a time when I found it difficult to be away from my family and suppress feelings of worry – in this case, about my father’s health and his long-standing smoking habit.
In her essay she writes about the origins of the poem and how in the process of taking inventory she discovered a pattern emerging. She writes about how she let that pattern determine the direction for the poem, and I was so inspired by the depth with which she applied the pattern to the poem’s syntax, metrical construction, sounds – everything. Those craft considerations ought to be forefront at all times, but given the occasion for the poem, it made me think of that careful crafting as an elegy itself, as taking a delicate hand to the deceased.
I was determined to do the same when I wrote this poem. Much of the imagery – the dying lungs, the deflated birthday balloon – came immediately, and so arriving at a finished draft of the poem was a matter of taking that careful, process-as-elegy approach to its finer construction. Because of the poem’s concerns with breath and breathlessness, I quickly landed on the couplet as a way to provide the poem with a structure through which it could find a similar rhythm.
Thinking of breathing as a couplet, the inhale and exhale as an endless give-and-take, I knew I wanted to imbue the poem’s metrical construction with something that promoted a reading akin to the act of taking a breath into the body and releasing it back into the air. When I think of the act of breathing metrically, I arrive at the trochee: a two-syllable action in which the inhale receives the emphasis and the exhale becomes the slack, the re-loosening of the word, the lungs, the body.
Considering my inability to fully grasp the occasion the poem is centered on, it would have been too tidy to turn the poem into a chain of trochees. I arrived at the idea to break a trochee in half and place the emphasized syllable at the end of the first line of each couplet, then allowing the last syllable of each couplet to slacken, to exhale into the next. Thus, each couplet became for me the space of one inhale and exhale.
The last line ends with the emphasized “sky” in order to abruptly break that rhythm in an irregular and uncomfortable place. Ending the poem with a slackened syllable felt too on-the-nose, so I chose the emphasized inhale – a holding of the breath, a pause, a waiting, the presence of hope and the inevitable unwritten exhale – to embed a natural tension in the final line.
RR: You are the co-founder as well as the lead editor of Utter, an online journal including writing and visual art. How has your role as editor of this journal affected your writing style?
PW: I’m not sure it has affected my writing style as much as it’s had an influence on how I approach the practice of writing itself. I founded Utter as I was waiting to hear back from MFA programs, at a time when the confidence with which I approached writing as a serious, necessary, ingrained-in-my-skin sort of thing was still fairly new. The practice of building the magazine, reading submissions, rejecting and accepting work, communicating with writers, and publishing all helped establish a deeper sense of professionalism in my approach to my own writing. This has helped reinforce my daily practice as a writer and spurred me to maintain regularity in creating, revising, submitting, and seeking out as many new voices as possible.
RR: Your poem “For My Father, Who Will Someday Die,” evokes a tension between acceptance and grief. Could you elaborate on what drew you to that tension?
PW:It’s honest. This is a poem that has changed little since I first put it on paper. I’ve returned to other work from the same manuscript and made significant revisions multiple times, but this poem has remained the same. I attribute that to the tension you’re asking about, and I think I’ve left it alone because of the honesty in that tension. When I think about death, particularly that of a family member, there is the very raw grief in one hand, and in the other a longing to be able to keep even and accepting when such a thing comes to pass. I’m attracted to writers who are able to make their work – in whatever genre – seem an honest manifestation of themselves, of a fear, a love, a complex longing.
Certainly writers know just as well as anyone the shortcomings of words as merely representational things. While this poem may be the closest thing I can come up with to attempt to communicate the multitudinous tension I feel for death and how I witness it, I’m drawn to that gap, too – that inability to fully communicate, to fully grasp despite the perpetual longing to do so.
RR: We know that you’re completing your MFA at the University of Alabama. What advice would you give to younger writers?
PW: I finished up with my MFA at Alabama in the Spring of 2015. It’s funny – every spring I remember that feeling of having to choose a school and how rationally I approached the decision-making process. This faculty or the other? These course offerings or those? Cost of living in combination with the offer of financial support. It turns out I could not have made a better choice than to move to Tuscaloosa for three years, but all of those things I was considering turned out to be very minor considerations.
It’s about the people you surround yourself with. While I certainly established close mentorships with some of the faculty – truly sacred relationships – I also found good readers of my work, good readers of me, lifelong friends, supportive souls, folks who will gladly talk about writing and art at any time, folks who are just as soon glad to leave those conversations on campus, porch friends, backyard friends, friends for my dog, friends with very diverse interests away from writing. All of this contributed to finding myself immersed in an environment more conducive to making art than anything I could have considered or imagined in the application process.
Of course, in an MFA program a committee selects the members of each cohort, so it was my very good fortune to be alongside that group of people. If you’re applying to programs, it’s very likely that you won’t be able to get a sense of the people who are already enrolled in that program and the folks who will be enrolling with you. Even so, take every chance to exchange emails with people in the program and, if you can find out, who’s coming in with you. Ask writing questions. Don’t ask writing questions. Ask questions about the faculty, yes, but also what people do for fun, for things other than writing, for inspiration, for rest. Surrounding yourself with the right people – in an MFA program or otherwise – is more important than anything. Reading lists, good readers, close mentorships, support: all those things will naturally follow.
Also: Write, dammit. A good friend and mentor of mine from my undergraduate studies, Paul Crenshaw, gave me that kick-in-the-ass at times when I needed it most. Be as prolific as you possibly can. Set a schedule for yourself and stick to it. I wake up early (I mean early) and write before I teach. Even if for 20 minutes, it’s something. The more you do it, especially the days when you have to really force yourself through it, the easier it will become and the quicker it will begin to feel necessary, immediate, beyond sacrifice.
RR: There’s so much literature about grief. Which texts do you find particularly valuable?
PW: Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife is a seminal text for my work. In particular, “The X-Rays” represents for me the sort of thing I try to do when I write a poem, particularly one about grief: an image at the core that reverberates long after the poem ends; a close attention to form and the patience it takes to take care; the natural tension created from a meditation on grief, in that it also brings joy to the surface.
Plath’s Ariel, Carl Phillips’ Double Shadow, Jim Kooser’s and Ted Harrison’s Braided Creek, and The Dream Songs are other texts that first come to mind. I’m sure Whitman has a hand in this, too, with his work that takes in what may be grief at conception but immediately turns to a love for life and the human condition.
A number of musicians have a constant permeating influence on my writing. Jason Isbell’s work, particularly Here We Rest and Southeastern, features the floating from pole to pole of grief and resoluteness that I’m attracted to when I write. Trent Reznor, James Carr, JJ Grey, and many old blues musicians – like RL Burnside, Otis Rush, and Koko Taylor – are others whose influences I can point to.
P.J. Williams’s work in Issue 3.3: