July Westhale (Poetry, June 2013) is an essayist, translator, and the award-winning author of five collections of poetry. Her most recent work, Via Negativa, which earned a starred review at Publishers Weekly, uses a variety of poetic forms, including lyric fragments, single strophes, and prose poems, to convey immense impact of language on the reader.
Sharon Bryan is a core faculty member of the Lesley MFA Creative Writing program who teaches poetry. She spoke with July Westhale about the process of creating Via Negativa.
SHARON BRYAN: Hi, July. It’s a real pleasure to talk to you about your newest book, Via Negativa, which was published earlier this year by Kore Press.
First, I’d like to say congratulations on this beautiful book. I had a chance to hear you read from it during the Lesley low-residency MFA Program residency in June, and I was immediately fascinated and moved by the poems. I think we have to start with the book’s title. Could you say a little about where it comes from, and when and how you first encountered it?
JULY WESTHALE: Thank you, Sharon! That means so much coming from you. As for the title, I had encountered it through practice growing up in the Southern Baptist church as a preacher’s grandkid, even though I didn’t know that it had an actual name—via negativa is the process of describing something by describing what it is not. This is often used to talk about god/divinity (as in we don’t rightly have a sense of what god is, exactly, but here are a good many things god is not). I first encountered the technical term in Ben Lerner’s illuminating book, The Hatred of Poetry, which considers the cyclical love/hate relationship this country has to poetry/poetic duty and how it relates to the poet’s “job” (if you believe poets have a job—if not, that’s in there, too) as a conduit of the divine.
SHARON: I’m also curious about whether you had the concept in mind and then wrote poems that seemed to fit, or were just writing poems and then began to discover what they might have in common? How did that interaction between the concept and individual poems play out as you worked on and eventually finished the manuscript?
JULY: Once I landed on this term, I realized that the poems I’d been writing, which had been grappling with writing itself, the body, and the relationship or role of poetry in any sort of ideological landscape, had really been all about this via negativa. This negative path. Imagine my sheer delight, post-publication, to consider all of the ways that the opposite side of that gamut (via positiva, or describing something by describing it in everything) could interplay with the ecstatic—and what a time, this dark pandemic, this current civil rights crisis, this presidential landscape, to be intentionally choosing to talk about ecstasy!
I felt so free to get cerebral and strange in this manuscript. And I felt like I could utilize repetition (a good number of the poems in the collection are called “Via Negativa,” or “Ars Poetica,” and even a couple with the title “Love Poem” are thrown in there) to show how very thin the line of discourse is between these large, large concepts. The idea is a bit like Gertrude Stein’s “Lifting Belly”—at some point, the meaning of the words themselves, the taxonomy of it, becomes intentionally obfuscated. You realize that these are slippery holds we have, on these capacious and wonderful and spacious concepts. What is the difference between prayer and orgasm and the hot heat of a poem’s volta? I don’t really believe there’s much distinction at all.
In my poem “You Animal,” which almost was the title of the book PBL (pre-Ben Lerner), I apply this methodology and idea to the concept of being born. We don’t remember being born; apparently, it’s extremely traumatizing. But what if there are small animal parts of ourselves, secret and half-known parts, that actually do? I believe those are the same parts that know what god is (or isn’t), that know what a poem is (or isn’t).
How wonderful to think that it’s messier and more connected and more succinct than we could possibly account for. One could write, I think, ars poeticae, viae negativae, and love poems for their entire lives and not even begin.
SHARON: Via negativa is a theological concept, a way to approach the divine. What made you begin to see it as a way to talk about a wide range of concepts, from gender and sexuality to language?
JULY: I really wanted a way to move away from poems that were strictly autobiographical, in part to give my childhood respite from my exhumation of it, but also because I have a background in science. I am a curious person, driven by an inexhaustible joy of what I like to call ‘the unsolvable x’. I have recently found (by writing a chapbook last year called Quantifiable Data, or Eccentricities of High-Context Animals of a Certain Age, which considers gender through an ensemble of swans) that my work really does its best when I’m considering a large scientific/sociopolitical/systemic question and coming at it from all sides. But I was also raised in the tradition of liturgy, and while I’m not a religious person any more, I do love that my brain was formed around the power of language: the hymn as poem, or psalm.
Additionally, someone at Lesley (you? Steven Cramer?) once said that at some point in a poet’s life, everything they write is actually about the process of writing. That resonated with me so much that I tend to push all my content through the sieve of ars poeticae, and nine times out of ten, the poems I’m writing are every bit as much about writing as they are about sex, or grief, or the abstract idea of god, or god-ness.
SHARON: Poets often talk about the arc of a book of poems, how it moves from beginning to end. Would you like to comment on how you see that movement in Via Negativa? How did you decide which poem to begin with and which to end with?
JULY: My editor at Kore, Ann Dernier, is an actual genius, so she is responsible for much of the order of the book (though I knew that the “Ars Poetica” that ends it would end it, because how could I not end a book with the muse taking his leave of me/us?). But we had a lot of conversations about how to arrange the various “Via Negativa” and “Ars Poetica” of the book so that they built on meaning in a kind of crescendo, which climaxes with a very ecstatic poem, “cloud seeding,” about 3/4ths of the way through it. It’s a bit like Syzmborska’s “Identification,” a poem you introduced me to—the form of the book is meant to enact the content. And in this case, it’s the repetition and obfuscation—the real breaking down, and building back up—of these concepts.
SHARON: You’ve published two previous books, The Cavalcade and Trailer Trash. How was the experience of working on this one different from those earlier ones?
JULY: I really hope I never reach a point in my writing life where I feel like I have everything figured out—honestly, I’d be so happy to feel like I’ve forgotten how to write a poem every few months (as is the case now), because every time I feel like I’ve lost the ability to write a poem, it’s usually because I’m actually breaking into a new kind of knowing, a new place of knowledge. I love that. It’s humbling, and it’s exciting, and it’s the very best feeling in the world (isn’t it?). Writing The Cavalcade really came from writing Trailer Trash—I thought Trailer Trash would be a collection that considered our various political, literary, and mythological figureheads through speculation, but then I indexed it and found that it was actually about my childhood growing up in a trailer park in a part of California no one ever talks about, except Erin Brockovich. It was electrifying to make that discovery, like a lucid dream. So I pulled all the figurehead poems and turned them into the chapbook—The Cavalcade—and kept working away at what became Trailer Trash.
As for the difference, experientially, and how it relates to Via Negativa… I’ve spoken to the freedom I felt once I let myself stray from autobiography (and Kevin Prufer had told me that would happen, that expansiveness). But in addition to that, I really allowed myself to get caught in the feedback-loop of my attempts to find logic through emotional experiences. That was really the ride, and the ride was well-worth chronicling. I didn’t answer any questions about sex, god, gender, or poetry in the process—I probably actually created more.
But you know what? All my favorite books do that exact same thing.
It’s helped me write the collection I’m working on now—moon moon—which is a speculative consideration of what would happen if we all tried to go live on the moon (but found it full), using a sort of epic-structure to create this spacey, science-y situation. It’s a total blast (off).
SHARON: You’ve written fiction and essays and are working on translations, all in addition to writing poems. Do you see your poetry as the center pole, with other work peripheral to it, or are they all equally important to you? Can you say a little about what the different genres offer, and what you can and can’t do in each one?
JULY: Gosh, I just really love writing. All of it. I would rather write than do almost anything else in the world (you’re the same way, and I love that about you).
Poetry has always been the thing I’ve been “best” at, meaning, gotten the most attention for. I think it’s because I have an interesting mind (probably formed by childhood trauma and resilience, but that’s okay), and I learned quickly and early-on how to showcase that through form.
But my first love was the novel. And I still eat novels for breakfast (isn’t there a cartoon dragon who does that?). My first publication was actually when I was 17—I won my campus’ literary contest with a sappy short story about a woman who had dementia and loved lilies. I got $25 and a free burrito, and it is still one of the proudest moments of my life.
I would say that poetry is the form I know the most about, and in which I feel the most dexterous. I have reached a point in writing poems where I can try lots of new things, explode my understandings, and be really comfortable, still. By ‘comfortable,’ I guess I mean, still have a sense of what the ‘right’ direction is for the piece.
I’ve been writing a novel for the last two years, and it’s a whole different situation—I frequently have no idea what I’m doing. I often feel like I’m dressed wrong for the party, and just as often a kind stranger helps me with a change of clothes. Writing fiction feels like solving logic problems all the time, even when you aren’t actively thinking about your manuscript. I will sometimes be working through a situation and a problem for months without realizing it, until I alight upon something that just…unlocks. It’s a tremendous amount of fun.
It’s also really humbling, because I’m learning, and I’m so rookie in so many ways. I didn’t even truly understand point of view until about…three weeks ago.
As for translation—god, what an incredible act of love. Honestly. It occurred to me recently while teaching a class on ecstatic poetry that maybe translation renders all poems, regardless of their content, into ars poetica, just by the mere form of moving them through the language machine. I’ve been thrilled about that for weeks.
What I love about translation is that it’s the closest form of reading you can do. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to being inside another person’s lyric mouth. And there’s surrender in it, too—for example, I translated a bunch of sonnets by the 17th century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. You could truly break your brain trying to translate so that the sonnet stays intact (and many have done it!), or you could let the content take the lead, and you could let the form fall away.
I don’t know that there’s anything you can do in one genre that you can’t do in another. Rather, I think my skillsets in each prohibit me (at this time) from having the same amount of breadth in each.
SHARON: I read that you’re translating the poems of the Patagonian poet Rolando Cárdenas. What spoke to you in his work that made you want to carry it over into English?
JULY: I fell in love with Cárdenas’ work when I was going to college in Chile in the aughts—I remember feeling a kind of wonderful homesickness when he talked about his native Punta Arenas, the particular sort of blue it had/has. And then his literary career was just devastated by the coup in 1973 (the coup that the CIA had a large part in)—he was detained in the concentration camps. He survived, but due to censorship, his work didn’t. He died not even having a national audience, much less an international one.
This has been a wonderful project, in part because it’s been an absolute adventure even getting the permissions—I worked with Ramon Diaz, Chile’s foremost noir writer, who is a huge Cárdenas fan, and together we tracked down—with great difficulty!—Cárdenas’ niece, who very generously granted me the rights. It was a novel in and of itself, that experience—and I’ve heard that getting permissions for translations is often a tale of adventure. I love that.
SHARON: You’re also a passionate teacher. Do you feel that teaching competes with writing for your time, or does one feed the other?
JULY: It feeds me! I love teaching. I love really diving into the many, many ideas surrounding an idea, and I love giving platforms for folks to speak, write, or think their truths. I’ve never found it to compete with my writing time, though I have had the same heartbreak as many teachers: it doesn’t pay enough for me to live on, especially in the Bay Area. So it helps that I think about teaching (especially contract work, which I do now) as a lovely addition to my life, rather than a livelihood.
SHARON: Anything else you’d like to add for people who are about to sit down with Via Negativa?
JULY: Thank you so much for reading. I’m still astounded, even a few books in, that people buy and sit down with my work! What a wild world.
Someone expressed, in an early reading on the Via Negativa tour, that they often feel afraid of writing their own ars poetica. That they’d be seen as earnest, or self-conscious, because the form of it centers the writer as the crux of the poem. And I, rather earnestly, said that people often feel really wary of earnestness and self-consciousness in poetry (are we meant to be aloof?), and aren’t some of the best poems in the world just so very earnest? I think of Frank O’Hara, of how much joy we can get from his speaker enjoying things, of placing himself at the conduit through which experience happens.
The seams, the seams! They are beautiful.
My hope is that readers will want to write their own, will maybe even, possibly, show their seams in the process.