Love, Loss, Chaos, and Weather: A Conversation Between Poetry Editors Heidi Seaborn and Wayne Johns

Wayne Johns’ first collection, Antipsalm, received the Editor’s Choice award from Unicorn Press (2018). He is also the author of two chapbooks, The Exclusion Zone, which received the Rane Arroyo chapbook prize from Seven Kitchens Press, and An Invisible Veil Between Us, selected by David Trinidad for the Frank O’Hara Chapbook award. His poems have appeared in New England ReviewPloughsharesImagePrairie Schooner, and Best New Poets, among others. A former Lambda Literary Fellow in fiction, and Kingsbury Fellow at Florida State, he is currently a poetry editor at The Adroit Journal.

Heidi Seaborn is the author the award-winning debut book of poetry Give a Girl Chaos {see what she can do} (C&R Press/Mastodon Books, March 2019), Poetry Editor for The Adroit Journal and a New York University MFA candidate. Since Heidi started writing in 2016, she’s won or been shortlisted for nearly two dozen awards including the International Rita Dove Award in Poetry and published in numerous journals and anthologies including The Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Penn Review and Nimrod, a chapbook and a political pamphlet. She graduated from Stanford University and is on the board of Tupelo Press.


Poetry Editors Heidi Seaborn and Wayne Johns talk about their first books, Antipsalm and Give a Girl Chaos {see what she can do}.

Heidi Seaborn: Wayne, loss and love are intertwined throughout Antipsalm in a way that becomes indistinguishable, as is often the case. But was that how the poems came into being, or were they more segmented emotionally?

Wayne Johns: The short, easy answer would be that they are always inextricable; that one gives meaning to the other (like life and death). But the personal answer is more complicated, as some were written while my former partner (the amazing poet, Rodney Jack) was here, and some were written after he committed suicide.

Interestingly, I’ve realized that even those written while he was still alive had a different resonance, or hue, after he was gone. I’ve also realized that I have this tendency towards ’future nostalgia’ or missing the present before it’s gone. (I’m convinced there’s a single word for this in another language and even feel like I’ve seen it in one of those lists of untranslatable words and expressions). But maybe all artists experience some variation of that. I feel some of that same sense of love and loss intertwined in Give a Girl Chaos.

HS: It’s so true that they are intertwined. The other night I was at a poetry salon and the topic was love, but half the poems read were really about loss. Either we have lost someone we love, or we anticipate loss in the act of loving. The poems in Give a Girl Chaos express the spectrum of loss—directly in those that reflect the death of my father or loss of innocence after being raped as a child—but even the joyful poems about my children have that undertone of impending loss that a parent feels knowing they will grow up. And they have, so those poems have nostalgia threaded throughout. Yet, love, that gushy over the top sloppy love is also present in the final poems in my book. I do think that we need a little unbridled love in our lives these days. I don’t mean just romantic love, but the ability to find love in the daily world around us. Maybe that’s where we need to be, lodged between the spiritual, extraordinary, and the quotidian. I see that in your poems. In “Happiness,” a mood ring tilts into the speaker’s relationship with his mother, into the loss of his lover. Or the glow-in-the-dark stars in “Vespers” that morph into illness.

I think Antipsalm is this amazing, beautiful, sustained elegy, and yet the second poem is “Last Testament,” which, to me, is fairly ironic because the speaker isn’t even invited to give a eulogy or really welcome at his partner’s funeral. I was wondering, would this book have even been written if that event had gone differently?

WJ: That’s a fascinating question. I can say that particular poem wouldn’t have been written. To be fair, one of the brothers was saying, “Just ignore them” (the rest of the family) and offering to hold my hand. On the other hand, I was essentially (literally) incapacitated.

HS: Did you start to write… Did these poems come… It’s more like, where did these poems come from, and how did they arrive?

WJ: For me, this book has been so long… fifteen, eighteen years ago, even, some version of it was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. Of course, I’ve added to it, and it’s changed a lot. To your point about the sustained elegy, I think that’s really interesting, because it’s had a lot of different titles over the years. In the very final version, it was Antipsalms, plural. And it’s one of the only substantive changes that the editor [Andrew Saulters] suggested. When he did, he said he’d given it a lot of thought and then explained his reasoning to take the “s” away. I trusted him and it makes a lot of sense, because it says the whole thing is one thing.

HS: To me it is. The poems, they have some distinction, but there’s a clear thread that runs through. It’s really interesting to hear that this was written over so many years.

WJ: So often it seems like we may not really get to see a poet’s development because they arrive fully-formed. Maybe even more so now. I don’t know if that’s really true in this case, but I know it didn’t feel like my first book anymore by the time it finally found its shape. What’s the history of Give a Girl Chaos? Obviously, not such a long process since I read that you only started writing in 2016. I’m just astonished how quickly you’ve developed.

HS: Well, I wrote as a teenager, in college, and then life got busy, and I literally didn’t write. I read a little. Then in 2016, I took a class at the Hugo House here in Seattle, and it was as if it all just had been sitting there, waiting to come out. I haven’t stopped writing since.

In terms of putting together a book, everything’s been this rush. A rush of poems to the page, and then a rush of learning. I had a chapbook published last year, and then realized, no, I’ve got something more here, because I just had things I wanted to write about. The second section of Give a Girl Chaos is poems that I call “postcards from the aftermath” that were all written during the summer of 2017. I was thinking about my personal experience in places where there’d been terror, or war, or natural disaster, how resilient the places are, and how resilient the people are. I probably wrote 40 of those, and I thought, “This is another chapbook.”

WJ: But after the postcard poems, when did you think, “Okay, probably I have a manuscript here,” or… What was your process? I’m just really curious because I’ve seen writers take pictures of their whole manuscript spread out on the floor. Did you go through and put them into sections?

HS: Yeah. I did. I initially had it in two sections. Then last April, I wrote the chaos poem. All of a sudden, I saw the organization for the book— around the various different forms of chaos, and that sense of empowerment that can come out of having survived and thrived through chaos.

Then it became kind of easy, actually, to figure out, “There’s this chunk about divorce,” and then, “There’s this chunk that’s the chaos of the world,” and then, “There’s this chunk that is childhood,” and another chunk that’s parenting, and another chunk that is coming home, which, for me, was coming home to my family and to finding love, but also losing my father. But, all of that. That became really… It just all flowed in to a natural narrative arc where the poems and ending and beginning sections talk to each other, and there are words that thread through the entire manuscript, creating continuity.

But now I realize I’ve got to abandon some of those words. I need to leave them behind. They were very much a part of that manuscript, but now it’s time to move on.

WJ: I think I read, or saw somewhere, you talking about writing a poem-a-day, right? I tried that for the first time, too, this past April. A friend on Facebook, Steve Bellin-Oka, created a private Facebook group for participants to post every day. I didn’t even know anyone else in the group, so there was no pressure. But it was super liberating. I went in saying, “If I could do 15 days, I’d be happy.” And I probably got about 12 drafts, which was more than I had written in the past three or four years. Oh, and I drafted (what I hope will be) the title poem of my second collection, “Vivarium.”

HS: Yeah. It’s amazing, right? I did it last April with Matty (Matty Layne Glasgow). We’d met through Adroit, and we decided to do it. He’s such an amazing poet, and it forced me to up my game… I didn’t want to send crap. It freed me up, because I had to write about something every day, and I wrote a lot. Then I went back, and I revised until I had a bunch of good poems that ended up in Give a Girl Chaos. I also once did a Tupelo Press 30/30 which is the same thing but with a small group. Do you write every day?

WJ: No, I definitely don’t. I say that like I’m bragging! I tend to find that I need larger blocks of uninterrupted time, which are hard to come by during semesters. But I’d love to find a way to get to that point. There’s something to be said for forcing it. Some days trying to do the poem-a-day thing felt super forced, and then other days… You know, there’s something to be said for showing up.

HS: Yeah. I know there are so many poets who are in the school of writing every day, and that discipline of writing every day. But I can’t do that in a sustained way.

WJ: To be honest, I’m not sure I have that much to say. I do remember hearing Carolyn Forché say something like, “If you write every day you’ll make it, and if you don’t, you won’t.” Then someone pressed, and she said, “I don’t mean composing every day. If you work every day, you have to work every day.” It could be revision, it could be submissions. It could be answering letters or even editing or reading for a journal, like we do for Adroit.

HS: Right. Exactly. I think balancing all of that is part of the challenge. For me, the generative time comes in a rush. Sometimes it’s a series of days, and sometimes it’s just a few hours, and that’s that. Then I spend most of my time in revision. I don’t know about you, but your poems feel like they’re so well-crafted that I assume you’re spending a lot of time in revision.

WJ: Definitely. I’ve heard people say that Louise Glück doesn’t write every day, but has fallow periods of silence followed by intense periods of creativity and supposedly, even, all of Wild Iris came in like a month. For better or worse, that’s more how I’m accustomed to working. In a rush, and then letting it sit, and seeing what’s there and working with that. I do feel like maybe a lot of us feel pushed. I get it. That’s the market, and you have to try to get your name out there, or secure a teaching position, or whatever the goal is. But I think because of that, I don’t know, maybe things could sit longer.

HS: Or in our roles as editors at Adroit, where so much of the writing is coming from these super young talents. And you, as a teacher. You’re surrounded by young people. There’s so much pressure on these 20-year-olds to be that hot, young poet.

WJ: Yeah. I think I saw a post by someone turning either 29 or 30 and they were saying, “Oh, my God, it hasn’t happened yet.” But that’s okay.

HS: In the past year+ that I’ve been reading and now editing for Adroit, it’s given me exposure to what’s being written by the very young, as well as the very talented. And in some cases they’re one and the same, and it’s really impressive. It’s really helped me become a better reader and a better writer. You up your game because you have to. You realize what people are doing, and you’re like, “That is really good.”

WJ: You also get more comfortable reading outside of what you might just normally be drawn to.

HS: Be slightly discomforted. It’s interesting. In Antipsalm, there is this sense of discomfort. By discomfort, I mean you’re wrestling with this enormous loss, but there’s also the spiritual aspect of it. You’re wrestling with that, as well.

WJ: Some, for sure. I don’t know if I consider myself a religious poet as much as I just consider poetry a kind of religious project. Not in any denominational sense, but… I would just say, yes, I grew up in the church, and definitely felt the loss of that at 14 or 15 when it hit me that, “I really can’t be a part of this.”

HS: I think that comes out in this collection, that loss occurs on a couple different levels. The loss of your partner, but then the loss of the spiritual partnership you had, too. Both of us draw on the natural world in image and metaphor, but for me, it felt like there’s that connection between the earthly and the otherworldly that, by pulling on nature into your writing, into your poems, it supplanted the spiritual, religious place that you had come… Am I making sense here?

WJ: I could see that. There’s a poem based on the time that we went to Muir Woods. It sounds corny, but I do think there’s a way in which untouched places, or places where you can go that are still protected or where you feel isolated—there is still a feeling, to me, anyway, of spirituality, or something else there. Ironically, of course, those aren’t always safe places for an interracial gay couple… Maybe especially in the deep South, in rural areas. But we never thought of it that way, I guess.

There is so much of the natural world in your book as well—weather, the environment, and natural disasters. Ironically, I didn’t choose my book’s cover of that little stenograph with the two figures looking at the aftermath of the earthquake in San Francisco in 1906. But even though there may not necessarily be any natural disasters in my book, I could see how all of it is its own viewing, or writing, of disaster. I remember one time in graduate school someone said, “I like how you do that.” I asked, “What is that?” And they said, “Use the weather to comment on things that are happening.” I wasn’t aware I was doing that, but that conversation came back to me when I read your, “When We Write About the Weather” poem.

HS: That poem is for Matty. And it was in the throes of that April poem-a-day thing. At the time, he was living in Ames, Iowa, and, God, the weather was awful, and here in Seattle it was awful. We’re sending little notes back and forth every day, and we’re lamenting our weather. Attached to his notes are these magnificent poems about Houston, and Hurricane Harvey. I wrote that poem in response, but suddenly as I’m writing it, my dad’s death shows up. We talk about the weather, we write about the weather. It becomes a window into something that is harder.

WJ: I think we’re talking about something at a much deeper level, but it’s also just, in some ways, human instinct. When you don’t have anything to really talk about with someone, what do you talk about? My father and I actually do that, but really intensely. Maybe I was a weatherman in a former life. Maybe it has to do with growing up in the South, and the snow being, when it comes, like an epiphany, or something, it’s so rare. And maybe also we’re just finding a way to connect while avoiding talking about something else.

Like you were saying, you’re looking at and writing about something else, and yet there’s your dad. Of course, I totally relate. I felt like there was a way in which even the poems that were written when Rodney was still here, even the poems that maybe have nothing at all, seemingly, to do with him or us—once he was gone, they took a different hue. They looked different. They read different, in the context of the others. His presence is what haunts the whole thing. And his book (Machine of Love & Grace) is sort of this ghost book behind Antipsalm.

In the center of Give a Girl Chaos, you have what I would call an inverted creation story. Is it too personal to talk about?

HS: You mean the longer poems, “Tuesday” and “Afterward”? They are based on an incident that happened to me when I was 12. An awful situation where I was kidnapped and raped. When I was a teenager, I wrote about it. Then all these years later, I came back to it, and then I thought it was done. I showed it to the poet Veronica Golos, who said, “It’s not done.” I kept writing, and kept writing, and got “Tuesday.” Then suddenly there was “Wednesday,” and then “Thursday.” Then “Saturday” happened. Those I saw as separate poems, and then I realized, no, they’re all part of what happened after, and that that was almost as important as what happened on Tuesday. This sequence is about the loss of innocence, fundamentally, and suddenly growing up overnight because my childhood was taken from me right then and there. But, for me, to go back to chaos, and the intrinsic power of chaos: I survived, and I walked out of that and I said, “Oh, my gosh. I survived that. I can do anything.” Literally, at age 12, that’s how I felt.

WJ: Wow. Yeah just this morning, I came across something that Sandra Cisneros said. (She’s currently collecting undocumented stories here in North Carolina). “Sometimes when we don’t tell the story, it lodges in our heart like a grain of sand. You know the oyster puts layers of pearl on top of that grain in order to survive, and stories are like that. They lodge inside our hearts, and if we aren’t able to talk about them, they get infected and can kill us. I found that people tell stories, and each time they tell them, they tell them in a different way, to understand the event, to understand themselves, and to survive the event.” She said, “One of the participants said, ‘I feel so much better, telling you my story. I feel as if… I am un-drowned.’” She related that to this notion that we carry the sea inside of our bodies, and sometimes, as we tell the story, if it’s too powerful, it comes out of our eyes. It’s beautiful, right? So when you talked about, “There was Tuesday,” then came Wednesday, and then came Saturday, right? I think it’s not just looking at an event from a different angle, or telling it from a different point of view, it’s also part of the same process.

HS:  Right. It’s really beautiful. That’s really beautiful.

WJ: We write our poems in solitude, and we type them up, and we go to submit a poem, send them out in hopes that someone will like them enough to want to print them. The goal, it’s really, ultimately, just the human connection.

HS: That seems like the perfect end to this wonderful conversation.


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