NER poet Allison Benis White talks to poetry editor Rick Barot about the grief she reveals in the poems “Waldgeist,” “Sheathe,” and “Ignis Fatuus,” and how the power of language helps her think and feel most profoundly as she turns private grief into public art.
RB: You have three achingly beautiful poems in the current issue of the magazine—“Waldgeist,” “Sheathe,” “Ignis Fatuus”—and they seem to be part of a larger project. Can you talk about the story behind these poems?
ABW: Yes, these poems are part of a larger project called “The Wendys,” which is currently a manuscript with five sections, each devoted to a different Wendy (Wendy Torrance from The Shining; Wendy O. Williams, lead singer of the Plasmatics; Wendy Coffield, the first located victim of the Green River Killer in Kent, Washington; Wendy Darling; and contemporary photographer Wendy Given). The looming, private “Wendy” in this manuscript is my mother, Wendy (who disappeared when I was a baby and returned, suddenly, many years later), originally named Trudy, who renamed herself Wendy as a child after reading Peter Pan. The three poems in NER are from the section that meditates on a series of photographs by Wendy Given—and their titles are the titles of her photographs.
This whole manuscript is an exploration of grief, loss, and violence (against and by women)—and this section helped me articulate the way the living speaker wrestles with a particular death via natural images. Also, these poems represent my first attempts at lineation in a very long time—I’ve been writing prose poems for years and I almost forgot about the incredible flexibility, musicality, and power of line breaks.
RB: You’ve just published your third book of poems, Please Bury Me in This. I’ve just read it, and I found it devastating. It’s clear that the book is one of grief and mourning, but the poems are also quite elliptical. Can you talk about how you handled the poems’ dynamic between the privacy of grief and the public nature of art?
ABW: I struggle, as I’m sure we all do, with this dynamic. Initially, I handled it by not showing anyone (bar one dear reader, periodically) the poems from Please Bury Me in This while I was writing them—this way, I felt the poems were almost wholly mine, wholly sealed. And yet I was careful while I was writing them to avoid certain biographical details—which reveals the consciousness of the eventual public space and my desire to protect myself (and others).
The dedications I added once the book was complete (“for the four women I knew who took their lives within a year,” and “for my father”) work to make public the book’s originating traumas. And the book’s epigraph from the New York Times (“Mental illness is not a communicable disease, but there is a strong body of evidence that suicide is still contagious”) works to further offer a public declaration of the speaker’s conflict: the contagion she witnessed, and suffers from.
I think what I’m trying to say is that I wanted to balance the elliptical nature of the poems by revealing my biographical losses up front. I also want to say that the way I grieve and think and feel most profoundly is through language—and my ability to articulate is often accessed in the tension between the utterly private space of writing and the belief/hope that a stranger, in the future, might experience and commune with these sentences, with this (my/her) life and mind.
RB: Since much of your recent work delves into grief, who are the poets or books of poems that have been models or tutelary spirits for you?
My first loves and teachers (about grief and language) were Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, Killarney Clary’s Who Whispered Near Me, Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony, and God, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I know you asked me about tutelary poets or books of poems, and I realize many of these books are written in prose, but I house them in one category.
RB: In general, who are the writers, artists, musicians on your list of recommendations these days?
Recently, I’ve been evangelical about recommending Peter Orner’s latest book of criticism (that stumbles into a memoir), Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live. It’s extraordinary, and currently a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in criticism. If it doesn’t win, I’m going to riot (i.e., eat an entire package of Nutter Butters).
In the last few months, I’ve also read and highly recommended Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green.
Allison Benis White is the author of Please Bury Me in This (Four Way Books, 2017), Small Porcelain Head (Four Way Books, 2013), selected by Claudia Rankine for the Levis Prize in Poetry, and Self-Portrait with Crayon (CSU Poetry Center, 2009). She teaches in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.