TLY: We welcome poet LaWanda Walters, author of Light Is the Odalisque, a beauty of a collection, and one we at the blog enjoyed immeasurably. LaWanda is originally from Mississippi and North Carolina. Her poetry has been widely published, and one of her poems, “Goodness in Mississippi,” was chosen by Sherman Alexie for Best American Poetry 2015. LaWanda is also an accomplished painter.
LaWanda, to what extent does the city inform your poetry? How does it inspire you?
LaWanda: I think that “place” is important in poetry, but I have moved around a lot in my life and was in my 30’s when I came, with my late husband, David Weinberg, to Cincinnati. So my style and interests were pretty much formed when I arrived. Because my children were born in Cincinnati and their dad died, from complications of a brain tumor, in Cincinnati, my greatest joys and most painful days have happened here. I do have a few poems that are set in the city. “Demeter’s Escape” is rooted in local places—Johnny’s Toys, Good Samaritan hospital, the original La Rosa’s restaurant, and a doctor’s office.
TLY: In an interview with Brian Brodeur—when asked about your readers—you responded, “I write for people who, like myself, find both order and honesty in poems in this chaotic world.” Would you share with us a bit more about the importance of order and honesty in poetry?
LaWanda: By “order” and “honesty” I do not mean that a poem should be about expressing an idea straightforwardly. The new dislike of “sincerity” and the interest in “elliptical” poetry seems to be a reaction against much great poetry in the interest of pushing forth just another style. Poetry is made of signifiers, and to avoid all significance is to discard the raw material of the art. Ideas, in poetry, are put to a kind of test—the test of music, of expression, of being a part of what has been called a “machine.” We know when we get to the end of Larkin’s “High Windows” that something has happened in the poem. The speaker of the poem (ostensibly not Larkin, although this is the voice he uses in his poems—cynical, ready to paint the sordid truth) becomes different, transformed in the making of the poem and during the reading of it.
I have trouble with Larkin because of how he was as a person. He was probably pretty racist, and I have half-Jewish children, about whom I am a tiger mother. But I have come around to admitting that how I saw “High Windows” first (while working on the circulation desk at the Emory Library) is how I still experience it now. I read the most amazing essay in The New Yorker by Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia,” explaining how he was able to love certain novels and art regardless of the meanness or sickness or anti-Semitism of the maker of that art.
I believe there’s a harmony that can be achieved in spite of gritty, unfair, Pinball-machine life. I was influenced, early on, by John Donne’s poetry with its metaphysical or “strained” conceit, with the struggle inherent in his poems between doubt and faith, body and soul. I read Suzanne Langer’s “Feeling and Form” and Frank Kermode’s “The Sense of an Ending,” which helped me love Wallace Stevens’s poetry. “The nicer knowledge of / Belief, that what one believes is not true” became a meaning in life for me. Art’s artifice is “the necessary angel” in times of great chaos. For me the only way to talk about my pain and love is often through a traditional form—in the case of “Demeter’s Escape,” the pantoum. Telling the story of how a diagnosis changed our lives into chaos required a music to express not just the misery but also my soul’s journey. The repetitions in the form walked me through it.
What gives a poem its force and its longevity is its own tangling with its ideas, its finding a way to put the ideas in a way that is neither self-conscious nor political—of working until the unconscious “better angel,” perhaps, starts working along with the conscious writer. Writing poems is a mysterious process in which language becomes not simply a statement but a thing made, fired like a pot in a kiln. The political, the significant, and the desired dance with each other. This seems to come from the combination of intent and the practice of art—a practice that makes intent or “sincerity” an element of the poem, not the point of it. Art is a little miracle, a little machine of the mind. Examples of amazing transcendence, for me, include Anthony Hecht’s sestina, “The Book of Yolek,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Philip Larkin’s “High Windows,” and Rita Dove’s “The Great Palaces of Versailles.”
TLY: Music figures widely in your poems. “Mysterious Barricades,” for example, is a tribute to François Couperin’s piece for harpsichord, Les Barricades Mystérieuses. Could you tell us about the poem and how it aligns itself with Couperin?
LaWanda: I love Bach and many classical composers as much as I love any art. Couperin, in that piece, makes you feel so balanced. There is a momentum he achieves in which you can hear the moving from one place to another like a bicycle ride. At the same time there is a counter-melody which is exquisitely part of the forward movement. I got this natural high from listening to it one day, and so I wrote that little poem. And my poem is one of many. There is a website dedicated to works of art inspired by Couperin’s mysterious and transcendent “Mysterious Barricades.” My friend, Simon Evnine, put together a kind of online anthology of works about that piece of music: http://www.as.miami.edu/personal/sevnine/MystBarrPoetry.htm. Magritte has a painting with that title—clearly based on the mystery of why we are drawn to music, to twilight, to what we do not know.
TLY: You write with a lot candor about girls and what becomes of them as they age into women. Readers might be inclined to politicize this aspect of your work. Would you?
LaWanda: In the sense that political comes from the word “polis,” which has to do with people, yes. I often write poems because I have been touched by someone’s act of love or courage, or in which I have been horrified by how people treat each other. My poems are a way to put those subjects in a context which is bearable. Adrienne Rich’s “asbestos gloves” image is not just for using traditional forms. The act of writing a poem which works (which speaks with as little vanity as possible and with as much force as possible) is my aim.
TLY: You have a poem dedicated to Flannery O’Connor called “Piano Legs” and which begins: “Her plots were engineered by God./So naturally she wrote like hell.” The choice of “hell” could be taken in a number of ways. What are your thoughts?
LaWanda: Writing “like hell” means writing brilliantly, as in Gould’s playing of the piano, but it’s also a pun. Because of her absolute belief in the Catholic framework (St. Augustine and Teilhard de Chardin), Flannery O’Connor had her plots pre-designed by that doctrine. She could use her brilliant talent for puncturing detail, for comically drawn characters. But the plot—the inevitable exposure and destruction of those unenlightened, prideful people—is a pre-ordained going to hell. The death of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is, without knowing about her absolute belief that “grace” could befall a person without that person’s inner change of character, nothing but pure violence. In her view the grandmother is changed. In mine she just got confused because the misfit had her son’s shirt on. But this kind of “magic” was how O’Connor was able to describe her characters with such gusto and have them end up dead but comic. Her art is great in a way, but it is dependent on the eternal schema which she believes in. I am not convinced, reading that story, that the grandmother has changed into a good woman. It seems mechanical to me. And I am reminded of the brilliant pianist, Glenn Gould, who could pour his meaning in life into interpreting Bach. Both O’Connor and Gould exhibit an astonishing technique and a sense of life because, for one, there is God, and for the other there is Bach.
TLY: “Goodness in Mississippi,” a poem that has been widely read, is ostensibly about anorexia. There is also the experience of “we white girls,” as you put it in the poem. What is the connection of one to the other?
LaWanda: The word “machine” is helpful in explaining how this poem seems to mean one thing but is about something more tragic, huger than even the death of my friend. I think of it as a two-part invention, helped by the form Terrance Hayes invented after Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “We Real Cool.” By using Brooks’s end-words as a kind of knitting frame, I could tell the story of my friend’s dangerous perfectionism and at the same time, because of the deeper story of racism that is in Brooks’s poem and is expressed through Hayes’s invention of the form in “The Golden Shovel,” I felt able to weave my story of two girls.
The connection, for me, is the overriding tragedy of a place where “goodness” is dangerous. My friend’s “goodness,” while based partly on the norms of being a good girl in our blanked-out, all-white landscape (like the segregated landscape of the film, Steel Magnolias), was also a kind of asceticism, her resistance to that landscape. She really did try to be the best person she could be. She fit the profile (see my interview in The Georgia Review) of the kind of girl who was susceptible to anorexia nervosa at the time. I find the parallels between her life and the life of Karen Carpenter amazing, even down to a beloved brother, in each case, who teased his sister about being “plump.” So she tried to be perfect, just as Karen Carpenter did. It was deadly.
When I was a kid, the license plates said, “Home of the Miss Americas.” The conceit of likening my friend’s position (trying to be good in a place so trite, limited, and callous) to the civil rights hero, Vernon Dahmer, is as stretched, perhaps, as John Donne’s metaphysical conceits. But Vernon Dahmer tried his best to proceed as though the world were fair. So talented and brilliant and hard-working that he owned a lumber business and a general store in the “black” section of Hattiesburg (known as “Ellisville”), he was also a farmer who had a much fancier tractor than my grandfather could have ever have afforded on his little farm.
Vernon Dahmer was in a position to get his clients and friends to vote. If you saw the film Selma, in which Oprah plays the part of a woman who has to face the registrar to be able to vote, it was this scene that Dahmer tried to bypass for his clients by bringing one of the registry books to his store. He spoke on the radio to get people to come to his store and register to vote. The day after that radio show he was dead. He died shooting back at the cars throwing lit bottles of gasoline into his family’s house so that his family could escape through a window in back to the barn.
The equation I came up with was that being good (in Dahmer’s case, a hero—there is now a statue of him in Hattiesburg—and in my friend’s case, by starving herself and also by taking on too much as the oldest sister after her mother was killed by a drunk driver) is more dangerous in some places than in others. Mississippi was lethal if you were a person of color. It was not a great place, though, even for white girls who wanted to be very, very good and not to cause harm.
The poem is really a double elegy for my friend and for Vernon Dahmer.
TLY: The title of your collection, Light is the Odalisque, is striking. It makes one think (at least this reader) of a levitating woman. How did the title come to you?
LaWanda: The title comes from my poem about John Singer Sargent’s painting of his bedroom. Clearly, although Sargent painted people and scenes, his real subject was light. The idea of light—as in enlightenment, which we need more of now, or as in painters like Sargent and Hopper—is a muse of mine. To me, Matisse’s “Pink Nude” and Hockney’s nude men are possible because of light, both in terms of color and northern-facing windows and because of the love of the enlightenment that art can bring.
TLY: LaWanda, this has been a true joy for us. Your poetry is tremendous, and you have all our respect. Thank you so much.
About the Author
LaWanda Walters earned her M.F.A. from Indiana University, where she won the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her first book of poems, Light Is the Odalisque, was published in 2016 by Press 53 in its Silver Concho Poetry Series. Her poems have appeared in Alligator Juniper, Antioch Review, Cincinnati Review, Georgia Review, Laurel Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, Southern Poetry Review, and several anthologies, including Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century and Best American Poetry 2015. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, poet John Philip Drury.
“Goodness in Mississippi”: https://thegeorgiareview.com/winter-2013/goodness-in-mississippi/
“Mississippi Daze,” a backstory about “Goodness in Mississippi,” originally published on The Georgia Review Online (April 4, 2014), downloadable text in DOCX: http://independent.academia.edu/LaWandaWalters
“How a Poem Can Staunch a Wound” and LaWanda’s interview about her poem in Brian Brodeur’s How A Poem Happens: Contemporary Poets Discuss the Making of Poems: (Friday, September 8, 2017): http://howapoemhappens.blogspot.com/2017/09/lawanda-walters.html
for purchase Light is the Odalisque