Balance and Disquietude: An Interview with Wendy S. Walters – Michigan Quarterly Review
Author photo of Wendy S. Walters over the cover of her book, Multiply/Divide, laid over a background image that features a banner which reads "Zell Visiting Writers Series Interviews" as well as the University of Michigan, LSA, and Helen Zell Writers Program logos.

Balance and Disquietude: An Interview with Wendy S. Walters

Wendy S. Walters is a Creative Capital Awardee in literary nonfiction and the author of a book of prose, Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal (Sarabande Books, 2015), named a best book of the year by Buzzfeed, Flavorwire, Literary Hub, The Root, Huffington Post, and others. She is also the author of two books of poems, Troy, Michigan (Futurepoem, 2014) and Longer I Wait, More You Love Me. Her work has been published in BOMB, The Yale Review, The Iowa Review, Lapham’s Quarterly, Full Bleed, and Harper’s among many others. A recipient of fellowships from NYFA, the Ford Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institute, she has a broad history of engagements with writing in and about performative contexts. She was artist-in-residence at BRIClab in Brooklyn, and her lyrical work has been performed widely, including at Carnegie Hall, Joe’s Pub, Louisiana Museum for Moderne Kunst in Denmark, The Institute for Advanced Study, and the Pittsburgh Symphony. 

Her current projects address intersections between writing and design, climate change and its reverberations, class and racial disquietude in the industrial Midwest, and organic forms in the essay. She is Associate Professor of Nonfiction in the Writing Program of the School of the Arts at Columbia University. 

Diepreye: The first question I have for you this morning is, I think, a simple question. Or not? Why do you write, and if you weren’t a writer, what would you be instead?

Wendy S. Walters: Interesting. I think I really have to write. It is part of the way that I make sense of what I think. It is part of my process of understanding things. So I think I will always write. If I were to do other things—anything sounds exciting. I mean, I guess I would love to work with plants.

D: Plants! A gardener?

WSW: Gardening or forestry—where I would be responsible for the stewardship of plants.

D: Did you always think you were going to be a writer, or did it come later in life for you?

WSW: I think I just knew I would always write. But you know, I don’t know that I had in mind a particular kind of life as a writer. I’m probably still trying to figure out what kind of life of a writer I want to pursue. But yeah, I don’t know that that was ever a question.

D: The next question I have for you here is: What is the pull towards sonnets? Your first book, Birds of Los Angeles, was a book of sonnets, Keatsian sonnets to be precise, which is a different metrical pattern and rhyme scheme than Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnets. And then your second book, Longer I Wait, More You Love Me—that one is mostly narrative: longer poems, sequence poems, dialogue, interviews… And then in your third poetry book, Troy, Michigan, you went back to sonnets. So were you always a sonneteer? Was your second book a way of resisting the pull towards sonnets? Why did you go back to sonnets?

WSW: That’s a good question. With Birds of Los Angeles, I think I was just playing around, you know. I thought the Keatsian sonnets were really interesting because they use rhyme but not in a predictable way. I found the rhyme surprising. And so technically, it was a challenge to play with them.

For the second book, I had other work at that time, and I ended up putting a second book together with just 13 poems. So it is a hundred-something pages, but it’s only 13 poems. And that book for me was more about the grand gesture in a poem. I wanted to have space to work through longer, more complicated ideas. I really like working in longer forms. But at the time I found out it was really difficult to publish those forms. You know, some of it was very practical—I could publish sonnets, but things that I had spent months working on, I couldn’t find anybody who would publish them.

The Troy, Michigan book, I ended up writing as a parent, a new parent, and I was also teaching full-time at the time, so I would put my son to bed at seven or eight o’clock, and I would work in the evenings from about nine to two in the morning. I did that over the course of several months. And so the sonnet was a good way for me to kind of mark my accomplishment as I was navigating parenthood and a full-time job.

D: I have another question about sonnets. They’re very hard to write, I know that. It is very impressive how you’re able to write multiple sonnets—and write very good ones too, phenomenal ones. To me, it is very interesting how you balance a story into a sonnet. How do you get everything in that sonnet? And then I think even with Troy, Michigan, there was no rhyme scheme really, but it is all ten syllables per line—pentameter. So like, syllable count and fourteen lines and big deep stories—how do you balance all that in a sonnet?

WSW: That’s very kind of you to say. I think, you know, you just keep writing them. And I think the one advantage I had in writing those is once I started the form I would just keep trying it. And that’s not all the poems I wrote. Probably I wrote about twice as many poems as the ones that actually ended up in the books. So there’s a bunch that weren’t any good at all. And I think when you’re writing in meter or even in syllabics, you start to hear differently; you start to predict the sound or at least the rhythm of the cadence. That’s something that just comes with doing it multiple times. In terms of working with a larger set of stories, I think that’s something that I envisioned at the beginning of the book [Troy, Michigan] and kind of had a map (on the page before the title page)—and if you see the map itself, it is little squares. I felt like the one-mile-by-one-mile squares were almost like little sonnets themselves. Like the geography of the city itself was planned city squares. I tried to envision each one of them represented by a sonnet. That’s not exactly how the narrative turned out, but that was my first conceptual map.

D: That’s a really great idea! I really like this book. My next question, which is the second part of the previous question, is how do you balance—you work a lot with history, this book is about the history of Troy and the child killer—how do you balance facts and history with the language of poetry? Poetry demands a sort of sweetness, musicality. How do you manage balancing those demands of poetry with facts, prose? I am going to read some of your lines for you from Woods [a poem in Troy, Michigan]. The first two sentences of that poem are: “Leaves on tall boughs make the sound of applause / in the distance. When rain bends trees, here comes / Longing.” Those are very beautiful words at surface level, but then, when you get to read the poem more, you get to see more of the disquietude in your work—that’s something we will talk more about later. So how do you balance all of those things in a poem? 

WSW: Thank you for saying that I balance them. That’s very generous.

D: You do! I think you do balance them very well, in fact.

WSW: I think that I’m fascinated by the details, but one of the things I’m trying to do when I’m telling a story is to look for moments of friction, or look for moments of conflict. And so those are the moments where something feels not quite right to me that I might be inspired to tell as opposed to just a detail about this wonderful, luxurious thing. I had to make a decision with this book, not to just focus on the beautiful things that are in nature or in the landscape of this particular town. It’s a pleasant place, and in some ways, I was trying to write against the obviousness of its pleasantness. So I was looking for tension. And I think when I’m researching a place, and certainly when I’m teaching students to research a place, I want them to be looking for, you know, a sense of complexity or friction or conflict, not just in the people—it’s very easy to find conflict among people, you can find that anywhere—but you can also find tension, friction, and conflict in the way the space is laid out, in the way that people have access to it or don’t have access to it, right? You can go in the store, but you can’t go in the store, right? You can drink the water, but you have to boil it first. All those little bits of tension tell us a huge story about who’s valuable in the community, and who’s not, and what the shared values of the community are.

D: Thank you for that answer. Earlier, you mentioned publishing and long poems. As a poet myself, I struggle with that—thinking about writing long poems versus short poems, and trying to publish. Do you think the publishing world is antagonistic to long poems? Should one write with publishing in mind? I mean, that’s not a good way to think about writing but I also think it’s very practical to think about publishing because that’s how you get your name out there.

WSW: Yeah.

D: So how do you think someone could balance trying to write what they want to write and then thinking about publishing at the same time?

WSW: I don’t know. I feel like the market for literature is so whimsical; it’s really hard to predict what someone wants next. It’s very easy to predict what somebody just wanted, and what has been published or what has been sold. And, in some ways, I think that’s why it’s important not to focus too much on the market when you’re trying to create something. Most things find their time even though it’s hard to know when they will find their time. But I do think for me, personally, I really found the migration towards essay writing satisfying in part because I was able to work on longer things. And I don’t know if that was my particular experience as a poet or that was poetry in general. But we are in a time right now where there are a lot of literary magazines closing. And maybe four or five years ago, we were in a period where a lot of literary magazines were opening. So there’s also that tension in the background: there’s publications opening and closing and sometimes when they’re opening, they really, really open themselves to different kinds of forms, and then when the resources become less available, they become less receptive. I will say this about the sonnets: one of the things that I love about them is that they feel to me like little pieces of technology. I can start a poem in the sonnet form and expect that I know where it’s gonna go for about the first seven or eight lines and then when it reaches the volta, something happens and the form changes; it becomes more abstract. And so I like that unpredictability about that form. And many forms really, because of their constraints, they cultivate an unexpected landing, and I think that’s super cool. I hope that publishing becomes more receptive to what people are writing. In fact, it’s not something that I have thought a lot about, because it just seems too hard to get a grasp on the larger landscape of what it [publishing] is.

D: Yeah… that is the life of a writer (laughs). So I noticed, for example, in the first book, there is Los Angeles in the title and then in the third book of poetry there is Michigan. It seems like you engage a lot with poetics of place.

WSW: Yes.

D: So how do you approach that? How do you choose a place to write about? I know that with Troy, Michigan, you are from there, and I think you lived in Los Angeles for a little bit? So how do you engage with places to the point of writing a collection of poems about them? How do you approach the poetics of place? What’s your point of view?

WSW: So I was living in Los Angeles when I wrote Birds of Los Angeles. I loved it. It was an unexpected delight for me. I moved there kind of on a whim. I had just finished grad school at Cornell and was ready for a change and I landed in Los Angeles, and had never really spent that much time there, so everything felt new to me. And I was excited by the history and landscape and the birds and the plants that grew there and the smells, and the very distinctive culture that is Los Angeles. I think I am always moved by places. Wherever I go is interesting. And that could be from down to the soil, you know, just getting a sense of the rocks, to what grows there, to what the air feels like. One of the most fortunate things I have been able to do in my life is travel a little bit. And I find that there are stories everywhere. I wrote the Troy, Michigan book because I’m from there, but I really wanted to explore the kind of anxiety that I felt was very particular to the suburban experience. So it wasn’t just about place: at that point I was thinking about the intersections between racial anxiety and the shape of geography. There are lines that demarcate borders—neighborhoods, towns, cities, etc. These lines are invisible, but they are effective in shaping people’s sense of access and opportunity. They also inform people’s understanding of safety.

D: You write both essays and poetry. How do you decide whether a particular story you want to tell belongs in poetry or belongs in prose? I ask this question particularly because the essay Chicago Radio appears in Longer I Wait, More You Love Me as a prose poem, I would say, and then it also appears in Multiply/Divide, your book of essays, as an essay. How does that work? How do you decide whether a story should be prose or poetry?

WSW: I try not to decide. Usually, I know when I start telling it that it’s going to be one form or the other. It’s almost like not even a decision. Primarily, I’m working in essayistic forms now. Chicago Radio was a transitional piece for me because it was an accumulation… it started out as a poem, and I kept accumulating bits. I think I wrote it over the course of a month.

D: That’s impressive.

WSW: A lot of things were making themselves apparent in that month, so I just started to accumulate them and started to write down everything that might be a part of that poem. And I think that’s one way for me that the lyric essay or the longer poems get composed—I start feeling a desire to collect things. And sometimes I just set a duration for how long I’m going to collect. But I didn’t have an intention with that piece. I just was writing down what I thought was important and I wanted it to hold together. I published that piece in the Seneca Review and that was very fortunate for me, but I don’t think I even quite knew what a lyric essay was at the time. It was just: this is a long poem that has some prose components. It’s very performative. It’s a poem that I like to read, that I like to perform. But I wasn’t so much thinking about the conventions around it. I guess maybe that’s the point I’m trying to make is that a lot of the work that I do comes more from the impulse than the desire to place it—for better or for worse, that’s the choice I’ve made. I’ve been much more interested in trying to make work that is interesting to me than what I know would fit into a certain slot. I don’t even really trust that, you know. You might make it to fit somebody else’s idea and then that person is just no longer interested in that idea by the time you finish it.

D: So I guess Chicago Radio would be then a case for arguing for blurred lines between genres? Poetry can be fiction and/or nonfiction… Chicago Radio is both a poem and an essay…

WSW: Yeah… There was a French naturalist and zoologist named Cuvier… so 18th/19th century. He did a lot of work on creating categories of species. And we use that now; we use his way of thinking as the classification of species, called taxonomies. So we’re trained to separate things into categories. This is this kind of animal. This is this kind of person. This is this kind of plant. And the categories themselves separate everything. But that kind of thinking was also really foundational to colonial projects and projects of empire. And so, in some ways—and this is maybe a big leap—I think that the questions of discrete categories of genre have been very much related to that way of thinking about people and species, you know, as being separate from each other. The taxonomy of creative writing—this idea that it’s fiction, poetry, nonfiction, those clear categories—is really about controlling the way that expression is seen. So I’m very much interested in this moment, in particular, in thinking about not even cross-genre, but what if there was no genre?

DA: Now that would be very interesting.

WSW: It would be messy, right? And probably uncomfortable, but I wonder if there’s other ways we could be talking about what we’re writing and what we’re reading if we weren’t so fixated on genre.

D: Yes. I agree with that. During the Q&A portion of your Zell Visiting Writers Series reading, when asked what your process of writing was, you said you do a lot of research, that your process is very research-intensive. You comb through historical records and undertake very rigorous reporting. Especially in nonfiction, you believe in very strict facts. So do you engage with the same level of rigor for your poetry? Because you also said, “I am not a historian and when I invoke history, I am not trying to eliminate my own imagination.” Do you allow for imagination in your poetry more than in your essays? For you, is there a different approach to poetry versus essay writing?

WSW: I think one of the things I left out at the reading was I am doing all of this research and I’m trying to get to a point where I feel confident enough in the things that I’ve studied that I’m not reliant on these sources anymore. So it’s like I’m studying and researching so that I can have the luxury of private recall with these facts and details and know that I get them right. So I’m gonna cross check them after I’ve written, but I don’t want to be writing, looking at text and citing things. I want it in my head. And then I want to write the piece and then sometimes after I write the piece I want to forget what I’ve learned. I want to make space for something else. So with poetry, it’s very much about really embodying the knowledge and really knowing it, so that I can kind of feel language in a different way. So that I’m working from a more intuitive space of language than I am from consultation with these outside documents. But that’s also true with essays too. The best case scenario is I’ve studied it enough that it’s in my head.

DA: I guess then there is a little bit of difference in your approach to writing poetry versus writing essays, or would you say they require a similar approach?  

WSW: I think it’s similar approaches for both. And with poetry, there is a different initial attention to language, more than there is for me with an essay, which is maybe more about a particular question or paradox than it is about language at the onset, at the beginning point.

D: A theme that I noticed throughout your books is this theme of “disquietude.” It is in your poetry; it is in your prose. What does “disquietude” mean to you? What are you trying to say with “disquietude?” What is the, I guess, the message, with “disquietude?”

WSW: Yeah, it is, I think, something I feel constantly. There is something in this country… and you know, I write a lot about conditions in the United States. There has been, in my lifetime, a bit of unease about the inability of the country to reconcile with its history, especially the most violent aspects of its history, which linger to me as kind of persistent shadows that make it difficult for us—make it difficult for me—to feel totally at peace sometimes. So I think I’m writing about that. But I see the manifestations of that anxiety in the way things are built, in the way communities decide who they are going to let in and let be a part of their community and who they are not going to let be a part of their community, in the way that people talk about protecting their rights or protecting their children. All of that seems to me to come from a legacy of fear that is part of this history of violence. There’s a lot of fear underneath people’s hesitation to be welcoming. Sometimes it’s just cruelty and sometimes it’s fear. And both are true. But the disquietude… I think I’m interested in the fear side of it.

D: The fear side of disquietude.

WSW: Yeah. Sometimes fear comes from misperception. Other times it comes from genuine threats. In both cases, it can provoke the disclosure of one’s character. And I am interested in that process.

D: Who would you say your primary audience is? Who are you writing to and for? You write a lot about African American experiences and Black people. So who would you say your audience is?

WSW: I don’t know. I’ll be honest with that. I know that I am trying to do work that is honest to my point of view, that is a truthful representation of my point of view. Of course, I want people who will connect with the themes I offer to read it. Of course, I want Black people to read it, but not everyone is going to agree with my point of view just by the fact of their identity. So I don’t think I am thinking so much about who my reader is by category of identity. I am writing for the reader who is seeking work like this, and maybe they are not born yet. This is something I tell my students all the time: it is quite likely that the people who are going to read your work the most aren’t yet in the university… maybe they’re not born yet, you know. Certainly, if you’re trying to write a best-selling novel, you hope they are born…

D and WSW: (laugh)

WSW: …but that’s not really the space I am writing in. If I had a summer page-turner in me, I might be writing to a different audience, but I write weird stuff; I write for readers who want to read complex lyrical work. I am always surprised with what pieces people connect with. I would never be able to predict.

D: I like how you described your writing at the reading. You said you use “complex-winding storytelling.” Can you speak more about that?

WSW: Well, clearly, you’re interviewing me and you can see that I go all over the place when I’m talking.

D: That’s pretty normal for everybody, I think. I do that too. (laughs)

WSW: I do like the winding story. I like to gather context for the outcome of a story. And so I do like to take the reader into different ideas or different thoughts that are compelling to me with the hope that it will make them see my final point of view in a strong way. I also write in very compressed forms even in an essay, so my essays aren’t super long.

D: They are very beautiful essays.

WSW: Thank you. They’re not super long. I like the compressed little turns and I want you just to kind of feel like you’ve seen a lot. I don’t engage in a very discursive form; it is not a very conversational mode of telling that I do. Maybe at some point I’ll do a different kind of work but there’s a bit of the poetry still in my mind when I am thinking about an essay. My work tends to shrink more than grow when I am editing it.

D: Troy, Michigan is part memoir, and it’s poetry, it’s history. The Oakland County Child killer—from what I gathered in your reading—you weren’t born when it happened, but your entire school experience as a child was shaped by those events. So I think with that, I would say perhaps, you are writing from a place of empathy—you talked about empathy at the reading, too. How did empathy direct your work about the Oakland County Child killer? Were you writing simply from a place of your experience of the aftermath of it? What is, I guess, the message with this book—for Michigan, for the people, for yourself, for the families of the victims? What are you trying to communicate to people with the book, Troy, Michigan?

WSW: I think I’m just trying, even if it’s not fully empathy, I’m trying to write with the sensitivity of feeling to the way that those very horrific losses for the individual families who lost children were also shared by a larger community. I think that even in some of my other essays I do write about violence and loss in an individuated way. And one of the things that I am interested in is the—I don’t want to say honor because that seems too grandiose—but I want to acknowledge that these things are also happening around us as we are dealing with our day-to-day experiences of going to work, going to school, being in community, being out of community. I have a sensitivity to those kinds of things, and they shape my experience of understanding where I am in present tense. So I try to include those details which are—for some people, they just prefer not to include them at all—but they’re always a part of what I’m writing. Even Birds of Los Angeles was written at the beginning of the Gulf War, the war in Iraq. There’s just very slight mentions of war, but you know, that was a time when a lot of people were writing poetry, but they didn’t mention the war at all. There’s some questions about the way the arts have become increasingly depoliticized in this country. Because the arts are so vulnerable, people don’t want to be political. I try not to overstate my politics, but they are definitely a part of what I’m trying to do, which is to at least note where we are.

D: Yeah, I mean, art should reflect life. And politics is part of life too.

WSW: Yeah.

D: My next question is just an easy one. Who are you reading right now? Who would you recommend or what book would you recommend right now?

WSW: I’m reading Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X right now, which is great. Robin Coste Lewis’s new book poetry, To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness. Helen Cammock, who is a visual artist from the UK—she has a new book out called I Will Weep My Soul, and it engages New Orleans’ multi-layered histories of race and art and politics. And I just finished—I thought it was great—Kate Beaton’s book, Ducks: Two Years In the Oil Sands, which is a graphic novel about a young woman going to work in the oil sands of Western Canada to make enough money to go to art school.

D: What’s your advice for students, writers, young people everywhere? Do you have a mantra that you wouldn’t mind sharing with everybody? One that you use for yourself personally that you would want to share?

WSW: For students who are really committed to developing their craft, I would say, to write to the most ambitious version of the work they can do.

D: I love that.

WSW: They should challenge themselves to do the thing that they really wish they could do and move in that direction as opposed to the thing that is easier or will appease the room first, because I think ultimately they’ll be much more satisfied if they do the harder thing than the thing that makes everybody else happy.

D: What is one question that I didn’t ask that you would have liked me to ask or love to answer? A question that people don’t ask you often but you would love to answer.

WSW: Oh, that’s a good question. I guess, you know, this is a very tricky time for literature and for speech in this country and I think the stakes are very high right now. So, in this moment, one of the things that I think is super important is that people—like I said with students—challenge themselves to read things that are harder for them to read. People should continue to—whether they are in school or not—challenge themselves as readers because there is so much that is useful to be gleaned from the experience of reading things that are hard for us. And it’s really important in this moment to just practice that.

D: Practice fearlessness.

WSW: Yes, sitting with discomfort and sitting with confusion and watching it pass or turn into something else instructive.

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