Gone, Woman, Death, Home: An Interview with Allison Benis White By John Sibley Williams
ISSUE I contributor John Sibley Williams talks to Allison Benis White about her latest book of poetry, The Wendys, published in March 2020.
ALLISON BENIS WHITE is the author of The Wendys (Four Way Books 2020), Please Bury Me in This, winner of the Rilke Prize, and Small Porcelain Head, selected by Claudia Rankine for the Levis Prize in Poetry. Her first book, Self-Portrait with Crayon, received the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Book Prize. Her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, New England Review, 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI: Best of the Small Presses, and elsewhere. She is an associate professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.
JOHN SIBLEY WILLIAMS is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press, 2019), Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A twenty three-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a freelance poetry editor and literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: Yale Review, North American Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, and various anthologies. Visit him at www.johnsibleywilliams.com.
JSW: Congratulations on the publication of The Wendys; it is a beautifully compelling book that’s both deeply personal and highly connective in how it brings real and fictional Wendys into the same orbit. The foundation of the book seems to be your relationship (or lack thereof) with your mother, though this relationship is shown mainly through the lens of other women that share her name. Can you tell me a bit about how your mother’s absence inspired these utterly unique poems?
ABW: Thank you for your very kind words about The Wendys, first of all. Yes, my mother’s absence is the engine of this book, as her disappearance formed the lens through which I experience(d) the world: bewilderment, longing, grief. The name “Wendy,” my mother’s name, has always had an enormous charge for me, as it was the word that meant gone and woman and death and home. And my mother actually chose the name for herself after her father died and she was adopted by her step-father—she was bribed into signing the paperwork for the adoption via the offer of a new birth certificate and the ability to choose a new first name (she hated her given name). So my mother chose the name Wendy, because she was a child and loved Peter Pan’s Wendy.
This story of her name was really the origin of the book, as I began to write about Wendy Darling as an ekphrastic experiment to explore the complexities of this absence, which led to an investigation of other notable Wendys. It was a way into the material, into the obsession—a way to excavate (or excoriate), grieve, and discover.
JSW: I cannot imagine how strongly this must have shaped you as both a person and artist. And your approach here is so unique: exploring incredibly intimate subject matter through a variety of fictional lenses. Somehow, each Wendy becomes not merely a stand-in for but an active part of your mother, or, more accurately, the mother figure you’re molding for us from absence. Can you speak to why you chose each Wendy? Which aspects of each drew you in and felt like an added dimension to your looming, mostly unseen mother figure?
ABW: With each Wendy, I was looking for a window, a feeling of heat and recognition and fascination, a lump in the throat, which often came in the form of a moment (in a text), or a series of moments (in images). Simply put, I was looking for connection. With Wendy O. Williams, it was her suicide note, which I found infinitely tender. With Wendy Torrance, it was one scene from The Shining: her trek up the stairs away from her husband, Jack, after being beaten—the slow-motion nature of the chase, her desperate desire to escape another assault. With Wendy Given, it was the haunting absences in her series of landscape photographs, the porousness of her vision. With Wendy Coffield, it was the feeling of grief and ritual in the photograph of her body pulled from the river and covered in a white sheet. And with Wendy Darling, I was drawn to the scene where Wendy is shot and presumed dead—I had no idea she’d been that vulnerable, that close to death. I suppose these are all moments of stillness, or slowness—as well as moments of compassion or love, a desire to help, to be near—to mold for us, as you say, the mother figure. Or simply the figure of a woman to be near.
JSW: Your portrayal of various forms of vulnerability struck me deeply. Each Wendy felt, in a way, exposed, as if under assault by some element of the outside world. Do you consider this pervading theme, this sense of dread, a reflection of societal gender roles and expectations?
ABW: Yes, I do think this theme is reflective of gender roles/expectations, and each Wendy struggles with her own version of these devastations and vulnerabilities, whether it be from domestic violence, objectification, sexual assault, physical abuse, or suicide. After I was finished with the manuscript, I was surprised to see how all the Wendys work to reflect some layer of gender-oriented violence or terror and how much these themes have impacted my own life and the lives of the women around me, including my mother’s.
JSW: You mention you were surprised that gender-based violence arose as a major theme, yet, as a reader, I found it shaping every poem. In many ways, it actually defines the collection. So did this theme spring organically from your writing process?
ABW: Yes, it absolutely sprung organically from my writing process—I don’t usually write with a particular intention or result in mind. I prefer to proceed with curiosity, with the hope of discovery, of learning something from the work. And one of the things I learned from writing The Wendys was how much gender-based violence has shaped my entire life, my mind. I remember when I was in high school and first writing poems, I decided to collect what I felt were my strongest pieces, and when I read through this group, I was startled to see how much gender-based violence shaped the narrative, the images—so this experience of being startled (by how much violence is in my work) is not new to me. It makes me think of Robert Frost’s tenet, “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” This suggests something organic occurs in the work that is heat-producing—it suggests the mind is in conversation with itself, revealing itself.
JSW: A poem revealing itself through the passionate act of writing, as opposed to starting off with a set goal, is explored in your first Wendy Torrance fragment. In it, you write:
I think writing / is desire / not a form / of it.
Then you break that third wall with the impassioned, desperate:
Please. In this scene, in this scene, she is trying to breathe.
What do you see as the difference between writing as desire itself versus a form of desire? And, as a fan of Kubrick’s film, I’m wondering how you see this ‘scene-building’ line relating to The Shining’s violently literary world, where raw emotions and creative output blur and meld.
ABW: First off, I want to acknowledge the italicized lines I’ve borrowed for this poem are from Eileen Myles—and I think the difference between writing as desire itself vs. a form of it is that the distance between feeling and language has collapsed, and the writing is the pure center, the actual feeling or experience (vs. an animation or an offshoot of feeling or experience). It’s like the difference between writing about something vs. writing something (which I believe is what Pound said about Joyce, to articulate his genius). This idea also marks the difference, for me, between a poem that feels electric vs. one that feels flat, or distant, overly controlled or intellectualized. The poem, like the scene in The Shining, is life or death—the poem (and therefore the speaker) is fighting to live, as Wendy (who is written) is trying to live in this scene by climbing the stairs to flee Jack’s murderous rampage. And yes, the violent literary world of The Shining is certainly another layer of the poem to unpack as the speaker experiences terror and empathy as she reads about Wendy Torrance’s bludgeoning, and the slow-motion chase that ensues.
JSW: Speaking of the electric vs. the flat, or perhaps the organic vs. the forced, your poems all feel wildly controlled. Your structures vary according to the flow and narrative fragment. Your images cascade and build into a half-portrait, which readers must translate for themselves. Your language is sharp, specific, yet equally ambiguous. What role do you feel readers play in a poem’s conversation? And do you have the reader in mind while layering your images?
ABW: Someone wrote in a review of my first book that my work was simultaneously storming and controlled, and that led me to think about the cages or rooms or defined structures the poems exist within, and how that process (of establishing a structure) is an attempt to create a safe place to explore and discover what the poem wants to express (going back to that Frost tenet: like a pat of butter in a hot pan, the poem must ride on its own melting). So, there’s an inherent tension between control and exploration/surrender, and I’ve found, for myself, that creating a structure helps me be free within the poem, however contradictory that may seem. And as far as the reader’s role in a poem’s conversation, I suppose, as in any conversation, once the poem is published, the reader’s experience and response is half of the conversation (though prior to this, the primary conversation is between the poem and its author). And therefore, yes, because this is not journal writing, I have the reader in mind, but again, as in a traditional conversation, I don’t know how a reader will respond. This is why I tell my students that a workshop should be subtitled, “The ecstasy and horror of audience.” Once the poem is out of our hands, we have no control over how someone else will respond, or what they will or won’t bring to the page.
JSW: How has it been introducing The Wendys during a chaotic, terrifying time of social unrest and national quarantine? Have you found its reception quieter given our changing reading habits? Have the “controlled storms” inherent to both your structures and themes perhaps resonated stronger with readers given our communal uncertainty and fear?
ABW: Well, I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone publish a book at the start of a pandemic—the traditional AWP “book launch” was canceled, as were the readings and signings I was scheduled to participate in, so in that sense, among the millions of other losses we’ve all experienced and are experiencing right now, it’s a disaster. Though I’ll admit I have no idea whether the reception is quieter or if the themes are resonating more strongly than they would be sans pandemic. I think it was Don Marquis who said publishing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for an echo. It’s hard to tell what matters or what resonates in literature right now, but I do know that I wrote the book that I needed to write, and that it mattered, and still matters, to me.
JSW: I love that. Yes, we all write what we need to write. And what are you writing these days? Any new projects? Another rose petal for the Canyon’s mouth?
ABW: I may have another rose petal someday! I’ve been working a bit on these postcard poems that are four lines each, but I’m still struggling to understand the speaker and her conflicts, and still trying to figure out what can be accomplished in four lines. Somehow the pressure of the pandemic and its social starvation make these brief poems feel urgent. But it’s challenging to concentrate right now, and we’ve had two deaths in the family in the last two months (not COVID-related) and I’m teaching virtually, so there’s not a lot of room for the imagination right now, but I’m still reaching, still chipping away at the page, for something true.
This interview has been lightly edited to fit our style guide.