M. Randal O’Wain Talks with Poet Justin Wymer
M. Randal O’Wain Talks with Poet Justin Wymer about his debut collection Deed
Justin Wymer is a native of West Virginia and holds degrees from Harvard and Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Deed won the 2018 Antivenom Poetry Award, chosen by Jennifer Franklin, and was published this year by Elixir Press. I find Wymer’s fluid movement between high culture and low diction—as it appears both in his poetry and in this interview—enthralling. He and I spoke via email over the course of the summer and the interview below is an edited version of our correspondence.
MRO: A woodpecker with a red head and black shawl, white lined face, notches at the tin roof of my house in West Virginia every morning. The sound is urban, an impact drill or a trolley track. It is maddening to say the least and I often run outside half naked and throw pinecones after the downy-thing…he really is a beautiful bird. He is also young, or small; half the size of the other pileated woodpeckers around. Always, later in the day, I think of him with a gentler spirit. Perhaps he has intention behind the staccato rhythm, perhaps he feels the need to rattle his skull, perhaps these are too human and he is simply starving and somehow determined that grub lives beneath the seams of my home and not, say, among the tulip poplar and white oak. I appreciate the incongruity of his actions because I am made aware of how random my presence is here in this cabin, among the wild that does not fear me or even see me the way birds and animals do in the cities and towns.
The poems in your collection Deed straddle human introspections and the steady, ever-churning industry of nature. Here: nature threatens to subsume desire, sexual and intellectual, as in the poems “Despite the Body Cannot Be Ungiven” and “Genius Loci.” Here, it seems as if the poet resides within a similar contradiction to my pileated friend as he is both clearly of a particular turned and fecund landscape but seems to anticipate, even enjoy the disruption caused by human contrivances and emotions.
JW: I’d really like to meet that downy-thing one day and ask him what he’s on about. I can only imagine the things he’s seen. I know the sound of a woodpecker on a tin roof well, not unlike hail if it were rhythmic enough to betray an intention, a hunger. I know the poplar it may call home, the oily tulip petals that fall after shrill winds, fermenting a path through the woods, and the nearby dogwood’s bloody spring stigmata-leaves. The moss that chokes the sweet williams by the ferns that shadow the syringes in the woods, a place of privacy and beauty and dangerous solitude.
These images of the natural world and its objects, punctuated by evidence of human presence that has moved through them, populate my imaginary. Growing up, you could never see more than a quarter-mile in front of you because of the slopes of trees. Someone always came to school, happy to begin the day or sad about trouble back home, with a tick plump on their leg regardless. The West Virginian landscape is idyllic where it isn’t polluted by irresponsible disposal of toxic waste and blasted mountaintops, but it isn’t Romantic—no Wordsworthian consolation can come from considering nature. No epiphanies will occur if I look at a damn beautiful mold-mottled log under a dark canopy. Yet the images of the world sloughing off and replenishing itself, rotting and rebudding, are what childhood gave me. As Flannery O’Connor famously said, “If you survive childhood, you have enough to write for a lifetime.” And so I use naturalistic imagery to make sense of the world, regardless of what I’m talking about. Once, when I was reading a heartbreak poem for an audience, I described my aesthetic as “Alanis Morisette if she were more into gardening.” Now it’s more “naked man with torn shoulder walks into a rain-dripping forest at dusk.”
Pretty early on in writing, I learned that it was nearly impossible, and definitely unrewarding, for me to tie up poems with neat, little bows. It’s the ranginess of thought and how poems can be containers for that—or amplifiers—that ensnare me. One way, I think, of grounding discursion—a type of stylistic excess—is by creating a landscape that a reader can return to as a foothold, regardless of where a poem might take them.
If a reader can do “the work” that a poem requires—the inhabiting of sensory details, the actual engaging with images and experiential labor that deep images require—then nothing need be excised from the poem. That’s my opinion. The descriptive act of limning a landscape through an intent attention to detail can seem like an onslaught of sensory data, but if you’re willing to step in, I think that’s where the magic of many poems happens. In such an excessive poetic field, you can feel intensely while following whatever path (syntactic, imagistic, sonic, metaphoric) you choose and still have your peripheries to investigate once you’ve had your fill with that.
MRO: Something I noticed while reading Deed is the fluctuation between high-diction, words that feel as tightly drawn as Victorian corsets, and the language of earth and body, commonly associated with more vulgar demands of the human condition—the cicadas reaching toward light from the subsoil are “cantalating,” and therefore taking on the ritual chanting of human prayer for example. Do you think that all poets carry this duality? Or, rather, tell me about your natural vacillation between “low” and “high” brow?
JW: I’m invariably exhausted by my own vocabulary. My idiolect is not what I’d elect, etc, so I use what I can, which is everything I come in contact with, language-wise. There was a point in my life, early on in my education, when I thought that I needed to use one “interesting” word in every sentence I wrote for school compositions. Part of this compulsion was a discomfort with being a working-class kid in West Virginia, trying to create a protective veneer of intelligence to 1) hide my queer identity by being irreproachable (lol) and 2) move away from what I already suspected was a societal negative opinion of Appalachians. I once cried because my teacher told me I could say “sooty” or “gray” instead of “fuliginous” because I didn’t understand I didn’t have to use high diction in order to be good and safe.
My desire for shiny linguistic surfaces followed me into my early poetry writing, and most of the poets I was first exposed to were Modernists, surrealists, and love poets. I came to believe that sunlight on a broken column was the simplest way of describing feeling and that the image of an arsenic lobster was a cogent way of expressing emotion. I grew to believe that, through image progressions, there is an emotional argument to any poem. The more I wrote, the more I became impatient with the old guard’s established poetic tropes, and so I needed to put condoms and olive pits in with the lilies at dusk, dolls’ heads and tumescence in with provenance. Beauty is most apparent when you contrast it with something grotesque, at least to me, and the best way to check whether beauty’s just a specious surface is to try to crack its façade with—an arsenic lobster falling from the sky? A pockmarked, nude shoulder crashing into it?
I’m not sure whether all poets carry this duality between low and high diction—there is, of course, something to be said about consistency of diction to render a certain landscape in the tone it elicits, as might be found in the brilliant poetry of Jon Anderson’s In Sepia or Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris. I bet they could put “leather daddy” in poems better than I could, but I also don’t think they would, and they don’t have to.
MRO: You are a native West Virginian, a precocious child who read books on English grammar for fun, raised among nature and poverty and labor and folklore. But you also graduated from Harvard where you were an awarded student. Considering your biography and how this translates into poetry, would you share one story that illustrates the emotional landscape of home in West Virginia and one story that illustrates the emotional landscape after you entered the culture of academia. How do these two worlds contrast and compare for you as a poet/in your poetry?
JW: The emotional landscape of my time in West Virginia (I moved away at 18) was both crowded and spare, a minefield surrounded by copses studded with violets. I was hemmed in by small-town gossip; people were blessing hearts everywhere; someone was always dying, and someone was always a week late on decorating a grave for Easter. Peril was everywhere, but I couldn’t stop staring at it because it was beautiful before it was threatening.
One story that represents the contours of my emotional landscape in West Virginia happened when I was in grade school. I remember I’d been making money by going to bonfire parties in the woods that my brother (high-school-aged) attended, waiting for guys to get drunk and then charging them exorbitant amounts of money for red solo cups. The price went up the more flushed they got, dancing round that bonfire like licentious imps in pursuit of the tannest nymphs across the field from them. I made so much money that night! If only I’d maintained some of that peddling skill as I chose a life of poetry.
But the first story involves my brother’s best friend’s untimely death and the years-long commemoration that happened afterward. We’ll call him S. He was supposed to be coming over to our house, or was supposed to be going somewhere. My brother’s girlfriend at the time was someone above our class; she had a balcony, tennis court, and swimming pool in a nice villa-like situation on one of many windy, kiss-your-ass-curve roads that wound through the woods. Wherever S was supposed to be going, he had to pass her house. It was raining horribly; floods are common in West Virginia, veined as it is with rivers and creeks that rise as soon as you piss in your backyard. It was flooding over the bridge by the creek by the girl who kissed my brother, above his class. And S was on a bike, hazy from some drug, maybe from a pharm party, maybe from a personal stash, it doesn’t matter. On his bike, he hazed across the flood and was swept away. Underbrush caught him for a while and netted him in place while he fought to keep his head above water. Story goes that he called out to the girl above him on the balcony and she heard and did nothing to help. That seems a bit too callous to be true, but memory is a fiction, informed by the voices closest to the story, skewed by their subjectivity. She was too above him to help, it’s said, and the current took him. This was a couple of years before another guy, call him J, was shot in the back of the head when he bent down by the river to pick up a dropped blunt, “execution style,” the narrative goes, and his body was chopped up and buried in a shallow grave, uncovered later when a four-wheeler upturned the pieces.
But people choose whom to remember more than others. The way my brother memorialized S was similar to how Victorians kept pinned insects under glass, to observe constantly, weaving daily the fiction of memory through the pieces of the person that are left behind. There were photos of the two of them, my brother and S, in one of those thick frames that allow you to glue objects to a felt back. There were rocks from the shore of the creek where S had died. Trinkets, keychains, anything to cobble together an image of them together. We, as a family, always painted a big rock when someone died and kept it in the garden. We always decorated the graves of everyone we’d lost, every holiday, family and friend, old age and drugs. The proliferation of needless suffering, not knowing entirely how it happens because the story passed through so many mouths, and the compulsion to reenter that suffering as ritual—that’s the emotional landscape of my West Virginia. Love in a briar patch, catching and barbing.
As for Harvard, I can’t clearly remember most of my twenties because I was dissociated, without knowing it, for around ten years. The poems in Deed are the main evidence I have of the life I lived during that time. It’s a terrifying thing to admit to yourself that you can’t remember meeting most of your closest friends, that there are scars you don’t remember being wounded for, that there are people who have never known you as a person truly aware that you have a body. I feel like I was 20 years old yesterday; I’m reminded of Lucie Brock-Broido’s brilliant poem “A Girl Ago,” in which she puts it perfectly:
“I was sixteen for twenty years. By September I will be a ghost
And flickering in unison with all the other fireflies in Appalachia . . .”
At least I was 20 for only ten. I can remember some things, of course. I remember going out to the balcony of a suite I shared with two close friends at around 3 a.m. I was reading Neruda, smoking a clove cigarette, wearing a peacoat (I used to buy the clothes my classmates sold to second-hand stores before going off for the holidays, though Harvard did give me money for a winter coat my first year), drinking gin, and getting utterly pissed off that the moon wouldn’t speak to me the same way it did to Neruda. So I wrote a poem about being pissed off at the little downy-thing, a finch, making a racket in the pine tree just in front of me. I think I said something about it having a “warm little palace-life,” which is likely what I felt about my classmates, who couldn’t understand, one spring break, that I could not afford Sara Lee-brand lunch meat, despite the fact that they loved me. I lived off of my scholarship and $400 a semester. This blur, this trying to hide my class through hipster clothing and getting angry at nature, which I found everywhere in Cambridge, the largest city I’d ever lived in, and writing poems about it—that was college for me. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. People would take trips to Austria for the weekend for birthday parties; others would work 60 hours a week on top of studying just to buy shampoo. I befriended a famous actor’s daughter, not knowing the actor, and made out with royalty at a co-op party, wearing a five-dollar shirt.
MRO: I am fascinated by the concept of home and how we, as humans, can feel the draw toward a place that is not our origin or alternately remain closely tied to our birthplace even if we do not or cannot live or even visit there any longer. For me, I still call Memphis home even though I have not lived there for twenty years and I find it hard to visit because of the grief I carry. I know queer friends who did not find home until they were in their thirties or even later. I felt the presence of “home” throughout Deed, especially in poems like “And Always the Murmur Begins” “and the fetid burbling of hermit thrushes cracks open in the wind—Be at home in them,” but I do not want to sound presumptuous. Would you mind talking about your relationship to “home?” How does this relationship to home influence your poetry, your self-reflection, and intellectual engagement with the world?
JW: This is a very difficult question for me and one that I never really stop thinking about. I don’t think home is a haven. It is, instead, a place where some sliver of the self will always reside, a glowing touchstone you return to, even if to realize your hand is still wounded from the last time you touched that whitehot thing. Home is more a coven where family live in the same house as the ghosts and they have dinner together, call you to tell you the conversations they’ve had. Home is a place where there’s always backtalk from the dead.
For the longest time, and still a bit today, I wonder how different I might have been if I’d been taught to be proud of myself instead of ashamed, that good ole Protestant guilt applied to everything. I wasn’t allowed to wear sandals because they were “fairy slippers.” I was allowed to be smart, but not too smart, and never to be proud of myself because pride is a sin. If I’d lived in city instead of on the side of a mountain. If I’d never gone hungry, or starved myself in penance, or tried so hard to get out of the place where I was from because it hadn’t been oppressive. But if that had been the case, I wouldn’t have the same sensibility that I have, and sensibility is what sustains a lifetime of being in love with language. If I had a different relationship with home, I wouldn’t be as able to point out its faults. I might praise the forest of my imaginary instead of noting how it’s a place for murder as well as birth. That would be too treacle for my taste.
MRO: The music in a lot of the poems from Deed is driving, as if each poem begins mid-crescendo and sustains the motto allegro without breaking—breathless at times, ratcheted and staccato as the woodpecker notching my tin roof. There is heat and anger, for this reader, in the sound of how each line builds. From a craft perspective, I’d love hear about how you consider meter and rhythm in relation to content and language.
JW: For a long time, I was confused by the descriptors “sonically driven,” “lush,” and “baroque,” which were common feedback from peers about my work. I honestly didn’t know what any of it meant because my systems of reference, the clatter and commotion of the thick-breeding natural world, were different. Peer poets I greatly admire found that difficult.
I think the hypermusicality of some of my poems contributes to what might be deemed “difficult” merely because it’s “loud.” I’ve never been able to write something that hushes, except maybe through sibilance like that of an angry grade-school teacher scolding a class. Highly musical poetry does, of course, draw attention to itself as music, and so the reader may feel that they need to listen both to the message of the music and to the “message” of the poet. But are those two things really so different? Can’t music be a message? And isn’t that the kind of work that readers of (lyric) poetry should do?
My poems always begin with a string of words that rattles around in my brain as I’m doing quotidian tasks such as boiling potatoes or washing dishes. I catch language; I’ll find a word and use it until it’s done with me. Language catches me. I once woke up with the phrase “protean doilies” in my head, whatever dream spawned the vision having already faded and left the lacy things for me to deal with. As I write, I listen to what I’m saying, and so sonics drive the poems the same way that a creek-current eddies sediment for miles, patterning.
Another way to think of how a poem can be born, if you listen, after catching language is as follows:
The whistle comes, and it’s lash-soft, yonder-far. It warrants a listen, to find its echo. And when that echo comes, it’s the same-different, less round than before. The semblance of the thing with its edges whittled off. And in that deep listening, between recognizing the beautiful shape of a natural music whishing by you and your attempt, if imperfect, to replicate that beauty—poetry forms. Its rhythm is ratcheted. This reflection the drama of an image mirrored in the rhythm of a poetic line itself is what the Hopkins critic Robert Boyle called “metaphorical rhythm,” and it’s what I always heard referred to as “enactment” in my MFA program. Regardless of what you call it, though, I think paying devotional attention to the world—of the senses, of the mind, of the spirit with its wispy tendrils—is the best starting place for a poem.
Unless I give myself a formal constraint (e.g., stanza shape, inherited form, prose, etc.), most of my writing comes out in a long block, with the lines often falling at four beats each. I guess my ear gets distracted after four and has to start again. I then break lines to maintain integrity of image, surprise the reader when an image transforms across two lines, and to modulate rhythm. If that comes across as anger, it’s because what I’m writing about is often a frustration with self and the body, how the two won’t cohere, how injustice is as rampant as the kudzu, the whole damn world static with love and death and skin and enmity that can’t be disentangled. Everything’s at stake, is cacophonous, is included.