Photo by Jamil Vallis-Walker
Anne F. Walker completed an MFA at Mills College and a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. She taught at the University of California, Merced, for six years and has been directing the graduate writing program at Holy Names University since 2014. Her full-length published poetry books include Six Months Rent, Pregnant Poems, Into the Peculiar Dark, and The Exit Show. when the light of any action ceases is her recent poetry chapbook.
Why do you write? What pulls you into the page, and who inspires you?
I have written since I was little. When I was six my family moved from Berkeley to Toronto, Canada. We crossed the continent and national border in the old Ford van that had the engine between the driver and passenger seat. The beige van where the beige vinyl back seats left imprints like train tracks on bared skin. I drew pictures of places we passed, the lakes and farms and the Great Canadian Shield. My mom put the pictures into a book and wrote brief narratives I dictated for each. She created the blue-purple lined stencil reproductions. We folded them and sent them to family members. Something about the break from one life, from one country, to another, propelled me to writing. It became a safe space for me, a way of connecting to my more inner self.
After that I know I wrote poetry. When my oldest sister, Juanita, passed to cancer in 1994 she had a poem of mine on the cork board in her room. My mom sent it to me. I had written it at about seven to nine years old and it was about wolves. It end-rhymed. The only time I have not been writing was when I failed out of high school at 15 and hitchhiked around North America for about a year and a half. I was so disconnected from myself I had no words, or perhaps no way inside, no safe space. I found my way into York University just before turning 18, and I started writing again, taking classes with bpNichol, Frank Davey, Eli Mandel and Susan Swan. Often poems come to me when I am in motion, biking, walking. Sometimes I need to move around to jog an idea or word sequence into place.
bpNichol was my first poetry teacher, and he inspired me. I studied with him at York University 1982-86, and he continued to mentor my work before his passing. He had already been winning national and international awards with his concrete poetry. Once I asked him what a concrete poem on his office door meant. It had the words “frog,” “pond,” and “glop” interacting, and it really didn’t seem to be what I understood poetry to be. He said that when one writes in perfect syntax, with correct punctuation, one is working with the established power norms. He said “fucking with language is fucking with power.” I understood this. His teaching remains impressive to me. Even though he was a rock star in the poetry world he never tried to form replicas of himself. Rather, he had a capacity to deepen individuals’ understanding of their own works and capabilities. He reached into a student’s capability for understanding, in my case knowing that the idea of fucking with power through language would speak to this 17-year-old girl. He was a rock star.
If you were the last person on earth, and you pulled the last book from a pile of ash and cinders, what do you hope it would be?
It would be the book by Pablo Neruda that has “Naked You Are As Simple As One Of Your Hands.”
What space does/should writing occupy in today’s climate?
In answering this I pull words from W.S. Merwin and from Audre Lorde. I pull from them because they have started to articulate something I feel and barely know how to say.
I interviewed W.S. Merwin in March of this year, asking: “if you were speaking to poets coming up now, poets emerging right now, what would you say? In this world, in this crazy, crazy place that we’re in.” He answered, “Well, don’t think of poetry as being something else from what, from what you’re doing. What you’re reading about is just this [thumps chest] all the time, it’s just exactly this. It’s about the real world. The real world actually isn’t what we’re looking at. Do you think having that guy in the White House is the real world? It’s a lot of mistakes tumbled together, you know?”
In “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” Audre Lorde writes: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless—about to be birthed, but already felt.”
Especially now, it seems to me essential to write, to encourage others to write, to recognize that writing is not “something else,” that it is not only about the real world but part of creating how to understand this world. It gets to something inside, something that is the world and is part of its song. Creative works are crucial in today’s climate. And it is crucial that we support each other in writing, narrating, singing, that which we are going through.
What was the first piece you ever had published? Are you the same person who wrote it, and if not, how have you changed?
Again, this story leads back to bpNichol. He had suggested that I start sending my work out saying it was as good as anything out there being published. I appreciated that he gave me that worker among workers, poet among poets, vision. I decided to send work to Contemporary Verse 2, put together some poems, a cover letter, and put it in a Toronto red post box. This was back when everything was snail mail. I remember the rush of putting it in that box. Shortly afterward I remember seeing bpNichol walking from the Fine Arts building over toward the Ross building, the central campus structure at that time. I hid behind a small tree and jumped out as he came by. I’m not sure why I did that, but I remember him laughing and we walked together. I remember telling him about the adrenaline rush of sending off that package. He said, “And someday there will be the rush of acceptance, and then of people asking you for your work.” I loved that man. Contemporary Verse 2 published “Mother Love” and “Knife Dance” in Summer 1985 (Volume 9, Number 1).
I seldom jump out at professors from behind shrubs these days, and I am a much happier person generally. My work is more open in terms of voice. Then I was still intent on a poem being something of small animal prints left on the page. Imagistic, symbolic, or minimalist poetry felt perhaps more secure to that me who was used to feeling unsafe. I believe it was a way to get a lot on the page and still feel protected. I found that when I moved back to California my voice changed. When I heard a colleague at Mills College, Andrea Adolph, read her poetry I could hear the central valley in it. In her words and intonations. I started to let a longer line emerge, a longer thought, longer sounds…the only way I can describe it is like a metal brush being played over a taut drum. There was a slide and a let-out to the language that started a new direction of growth. I still love to experiment with form, to learn new models and new integrations of poetic shape.
Do you find poetry more challenging to write or prose? What inspired the shift from poetry to prose for your manuscript if a book is a map: grief, recovery and hurtling forward, and what was your writing process like?
if a book is a map: grief, recovery and hurtling forward was the hardest writing experience I have had. Where my job as a writer is usually to stay open to the muse and stop to record when she sings, if a book is a map: grief, recovery and hurtling forward involved so much staying with pain. I did not have the anesthetic quality a lyric creates for me. Instead I had to pull myself to the page day after day, to make it discernible to readers.
if a book is a map started as a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) project. At the end of October a friend told me she was going to write into NaNoWriMo and I stepped into it too. The first day was two days after my fiftieth birthday. I fished around for where it might go, pulling images from around me and from imagination, writing seventeen hundred words. The second writing day I did the same in the morning. Then I got the news that my dad died. Like the film technique where sound goes down to nothing in an explosion, his death hijacked the writing into memories of him, recovery and hurtling forward, while articulating my process of grief. Seventeen hundred words a day came in through the first twenty-eight days of grieving. I used to turn to my dad when something big was up. His death was something big, and I kept wanting to turn to him, and he was gone. It was a kind of human animal loss that really went deeper than what I had felt before.
My dad had been writing short memoir vignettes for a few years. He took a class at Ryerson in Toronto, enjoying the writing and the camaraderie of it. It occurred to me that woven in and out of if a book is a map I wanted to see if I could use some of my dad’s recollections from his memoir class.
I had been in collaboration with my father’s stories, as a way of understanding the world, since I was little. When my oldest sister, Juanita, had been dying in Toronto twenty years before, my mother had taken care of her. My father was support for my mother and I listened to my father in long distance phone calls. I was getting an MFA in creative writing at Mills College, and my son was only two.
My father would tell me things, like the doctors were: irradiating the top of the brain pan to alleviate horrible headaches from the tumors. But radiation makes the brain swell, she’s had one of five — she’s in hospital through emergency from not eating and barely drinking five days.
He would say: Between Sunday and Tuesday she lost cognitive ability. Ione’s in tears because Nita can’t remember. Talking to her. She wants to die at home. Not caught in the fucking machine. And I would write it down. I couldn’t hold what he was saying, but I could write it down. I would integrate it with my poetry. The poems became a book. They integrated into Into the Peculiar Dark.
May 24, almost six months after he passed, twenty five years after my son was conceived, my brother-in-law emails me that he is sending me some of the ashes and all documents, photos, writings from all computers. May 28 the box arrived. I rearranged the house around it. Cleaned dust from under every piece of furniture I moved, but could not open the box.
At first I thought that I would be telling Papa’s story, or perhaps a story of my family, but as I edited, it quickly became clear that I was telling my own story of mourning. I was telling my story of skimming over surfaces of life, of some of the deep pockets I fell into, telling some part of the story of my recovery, telling a story of myself as an artist and of myself as a becoming being. I hope it reaches out and is of service and hope to someone who reads it.
I found I had an insecurity writing the book that I had never had before in writing. Maybe all the insecurities I have about me came up. I would be workshopping it and barely want to read the words, they kept curling back, wanting to curl back, but I did push forward. I got it through to the fifth draft before I felt like I could send it out. Now I’m looking for a publisher, which is a whole different animal of fear of rejection, and actual rejection, that I have to pass through.
What books do you have on your shelf right now? Who are you reading? Anything or anyone you’re excited about?
On the digital shelf I have Carl Philips and David Tomas Martinez. I love the lyric evocative qualities in Philips’ work. Martinez grabs my attention with his use of space on the page and varied pockets of micro narratives. Lorna Cervantes “Freeway 280,” always a favorite. Her freeway as “a raised scar” knocks me out every time. Gwendolyn Brooks’ “the mother” from A Street in Bronzeville was published in 1945. It begins “Abortions will not let you forget” and goes on “I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children. / I have contracted. I have eased…” It seems to me an incredibly brave moment in women’s writing. She just stared it all straight in the face and didn’t blink while writing. She is my hero. Incarnadine by Mary Szybist and Garden Time by W.S. Merwin are on my nightstand.
What advice do or would you give to a writer just starting out?
Write. Keep writing. Let the process of publishing be a whole different animal. Let all the weight of rejection be on the rejecter, none on you. Learn and push forward. Keep writing. It is resistance. It is staying to the core of who you are. It can be truth and beauty; however ugly it is. And however ugly it is, it can still be beauty. Keep writing.
You can read Anne F. Walker’s work in the second issue of Night Music Journal, which will be released May 15.