10 Questions for h.R. Webster
- By Sarah Lofstrom
and the borrowed breath
of woodland on the verge
is the easiest exit for whatever
afterlife was promised.
Velvet & quiver.
—from “Jersey Bruiser,” Summer 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 2)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
When I was seven, I wrote a book about the end of the world. There were potato-headed people with speech bubbles: “I can’t breathe! No more trees!” I think children of my generation, and every generation since, have been raised with the insistent and inescapable knowledge that the world is ending. That grief was a big part of what drew me to writing. After that I remember writing a little poem about dogwoods: “dogwoods blossom late in spring/spreading awesome/snowy wing.” I was, like most children, a Romantic.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I’ve been reading a lot of Jean Valentine. She’s a poet who is deeply important to me, which is not to say that my work looks anything like hers (That implied claim always feels like a trap door in this question). It’s more to say that I’m drawn to her quiet and incantatory strangenesses. I think about her often.
I was also having a really bad bout of insomnia a few years ago and I was listening to these Québécois murder mystery novels to fall asleep. The problem was that one of the characters in this village (idyllic except for the annual murders) was a poet. And the books had regular excerpts of this fictional poet’s work. It seeped in while I was sleeping.
What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve picked fruit on farms and worked the line at a pickle factory. I’ve taught all over the place: in prisons, elementary schools, high schools, museums, colleges, and outdoors programs. I’ve been a waitress, cleaned hotel rooms, cooked in a restaurant, and worked as a nanny. I’ve often felt pushed to choose between work that engages my body and lets my mind work on poetry, and work that focuses the whole of me on writing and reading. When working a line or backpacking, my mind becomes like a lapidary, turning language over and over in ways that can be productive or can wear too many of the edges off.
What did you want to be when you were young?
The first thing I remember wanting to be was a long haul trucker. It was part of this fantasy life I had: building a secret campsite in a thickly wooded median between interstates. I loved staring out the window of the car, picturing myself as a fox running on top of a sound barrier. I loved listening to music and books on tape—I had a childhood obsession with “A Tale of Two Cities” because I listened to it on tape over and over, and I think part of my desire to be a trucker was the idea that I could listen to stories all day.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I grew up all over the country, but always in rural spaces. I have a habit for finding those landscapes inside poems even when they trying to imagine their way into different kinds of spaces. “Jersey Bruiser” is about New Jersey and about the highways most of us associate with that state. But, it’s also about the scraps of the natural world that persist there, fragmented by developments.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
It’s funny to think about this, but, without realizing it, I’ve created a life for myself that’s pretty devoid of ritual. I like to write in public though. I feel anonymously beholden to other people in coffee shops and libraries.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I exchange work often with an incarcerated poet. She’s a dear friend and often my first reader. I first got to know Missie Alanis’s work when she submitted to the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, and we’ve sent each other poems and letters ever since. I hope the world gets to read her work someday; it’s spectacular.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Mark Doty once said this amazing thing about the “productive jealousy” poets feel towards painters because we can’t produce blue with any immediacy. I think about painting a lot— for me, the relationship between the idea and the execution feels so different then writing a poem. I think painting would change my relationship to time in a productive way, or at least make me aware of the relationship to time I already have inside my work.
What are you working on currently?
I’m working on a manuscript about feral children and how they have shaped the ways we think about language, empathy, and relationships with loneliness. It’s a project that pulls on a lot of threads: my grandfather’s journey to the US as an unaccompanied minor during the Holocaust, my own childhood obsession with wilderness survival and solo hiking, and the stories of figures like Victor of Aveyron, a feral child who only learned to say the words “milk” and “oh god.” I’ve been writing these poems for a long time, but the project has taken on increased urgency given how many children are being abused by ICE today. Stories of feral children are stories of profound harm that arises from isolating and imprisoning children. We expect that wild animals will treat children with love and care, but accept unimaginable abuses from other humans.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve been re-reading Lucie Brock-Broido. Partly in mourning and partly because I’ve been teaching at a program where Emily Dickinson holds a very special place in the curriculum and re-introducing students to the Master Letters gave me a longing for Brock-Broido’s book.
H.R. Webster holds an MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ program. Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, Seattle Review, and Ecotone.