Justin Wymer is a poet, scholar, and educator. Born and raised in southwestern West Virginia, he holds degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. Currently, he resides in Denver, where he is pursuing a PhD in creative writing and literary arts with a focus on trauma studies and literature of excess. Wymer’s poems, interviews, translations, and essays have appeared in various journals, including The Adroit Journal, Atlantean Poets, Beecher’s, Boston Review’s Poet Sampler, Columbia: A Journal of Art and Literature, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Kenyon Review, Lana Turner, Manchester Review (UK), The Rumpus, THRUSH Poetry Journal, Verse Daily, and West Branch, among others. He recently curated a folio on queer-trauma-related literature for Denver Quarterly. You can find him at www.justinwymer.com.
Rachel Franklin Wood: There is something cinematic about the poems in Deed. Many in the first section read like set descriptions, invoking some kind of mood, as if they are about to host characters and recede into the background. Yet, often, no figures appear, and those that do feel like apparitions gesturing towards loss. In the end, it’s the images that overwhelm the human figures, as if dialogue is inconsequential, fleeting. Would you object to calling the the natural world a “protagonist” of this collection?
Justin Wymer: Paying intense, and thereby somehow devotional, attention to anything in writing allows that thing to manifest past the level of object. I’m thinking of how Charles Dickens’s myriad descriptions of the stygian London grit and fog made the landscape a character, insidious, corroding, sickening, suffocating. It made it a character because he spent so much time describing it and letting that grime-fog crust the characters even as they spoke to us. Eliot, on the other hand, straight-up makes the fog a pet that rubs its back along the windowpanes, curls around the house, and falls asleep. What both these authors share is a respect for landscape—or at least weather, in the case of fog—as being an agent capable of having motivations, which makes it a character.
When I was writing the poems in Deed, I didn’t intend for the natural world to be a protagonist. So many others have done that far better than I have (have you read Gerald Vizenor’s lyric novel Dead Voices, for instance, told from the perspective of squirrels, a mantis, even rocks?). Ecopoets are giving Mother Nature her righteous anger and resilience, are putting her self-elegy in her mouth. I didn’t intend for the natural world to play so large a part in Deed, but I do think it’s a character. An aura, a surrounding fluttering in the branches that attends to the characters who move through the forest of language, can be a character. The natural world is an aura that is a character that enrobes the wounded consciousness that speaks the poems in Deed, but I don’t think it’s the protagonist. The protagonist, if there is one, is that consciousness, that subjectivity, sometimes shifting but always tied to the body, that roves over the natural world. No one is speaking to this subjectivity. When a figure comes forward to tell it about loss, it is often a statue—a mannequin—a thing with the semblance of living but an inability to communicate. And then it disappears, returns to objecthood. What is a subjectivity left with when no one will answer it when it calls out? Why won’t people talk to sad queers who aren’t necessarily beautiful or famous or rich? Can heartbreak be a character? We’re left with images: the natural world of memory, the fiction we create to link together the images we remember, the unwieldly world of trying to live in a present like a hard-to-catch gnat shaking the web of the past.
RFW: I think often of what vulnerability requires of a body and of a community, how we must place ourselves in a position of potential hurt to exist in a meaningful way. In “Offering, with Frost and Spoiled Fruit,” you speak of a medication made from “stinging nettle,” a plant which quite lives up to its name as potential irritant, but has also a long history of medicinal use. It seems to me that medication, when considered from a purely functional level, exists to alleviate human vulnerability. I’m uncomfortable with the thought that follows, namely that, perhaps there is something lost as result of this reduction of vulnerability. If this is true, what does it look like to open ourselves again? This poem seems to suggest that there is reason to look for life in the lifeless. Is this poem challenging one to open themselves to something? Is this book? To what?
JW: I like that you make vulnerability an agent that requires something of us, rather than the more common reversal: vulnerability needs us to do things, not we need to be vulnerable in order to to X, Y, or Z. To love, understand ourselves, connect with others. To be honest, find peace, heal. Vulnerability exists as a concept, as an action, regardless of whether we engage with it. If we’re vulnerable, we can get stung, but we can also learn how to heal from that sting, etc.
I wrote “Offering, with Frost and Spoiled Fruit” during a weird hinge-like moment in my life when I was very vulnerable without realizing it. I’d completed a post-MFA teaching fellowship, and my friends were leaving town, and suddenly I was going to be living in a basement apartment in a small, affluent Midwestern town—alone, broke, so tired, panicking. I was still reeling from being stalked and psychologically messed up by someone who had been in my program and lived directly below me. People back home in West Virginia were overdosing left and right on heroin; opioids had become too expensive, and dealers were lacing the heroin with things. I’d cancelled classes and come back to the state and had to slap a man awake after he’d injected himself in my hallway bathroom. I was also recently heartbroken, and it was neither of our faults. I share these things not for pity but in the interest of vulnerability, which requires of us discursive truths.
I wrote the discursive truths of “Offering, with Frost and Spoiled Fruit” in the basement of my mother’s house in West Virginia while watching television for the first time in months, ten feet above my body, vulnerable because I didn’t realize I’d derealized, but hell if I didn’t think that male virility advertisement was full of shit. I’d decided to move to Spain and teach English to get the hell out. I wasn’t aware of the years-long fog the trauma would smear over my eyes. I was in that dusty basement, staying there as I tried to get my papers sorted to move abroad.
As a queer person in a very conservative place, being authentic, stripped of any gloss I’d darn to diffract attention, being my glitter-blooded lily-loving self was a vulnerability I couldn’t afford. I spent years sanitizing my personality, drugging it to quiet it down. I shut down my voice and hands and eyes. I closed down the great parts of myself that were just starting to grow. I turned off the part of me that engaged with the world. I turned on the TV. Why are men so intent on proving theirs is a “normal existence,” as the virility pill advertised offered to return them to? I suspect they all just want to be beautiful but think beautiful is “gay.” I’d bet more than one of them has languished, lying in bed, for want of waking up one day and being magical.
So yes, to return to your words about the poem and book after this big diversion. In the poem, I ask what it would be like to lie down, in the frost-sharp grass, into “only yourself again.” To be opened by the natural world when you can’t open yourself. To open yourself again after being closed so long requires a commitment to receptivity, to listening to a vesper turn into a lark and letting the bird fly through you. This poem is challenging the self in it to shake off the dust from its eyes, denude itself and lie down in something searingly cold that will shock it awake. It’s asking its speaker to lie down and be pricked so it can get back up and live. No matter what happens, no matter what they told you, we have to get back up and live.
RFW: My experience of reading this manuscript was a verdant and claustrophobic one, a constant crowding out, growing over. I wonder about the images of our homes, how we carry them with us as poets, and how our homes (especially our childhood ones), live on in our work. As such, I’m curious about the impact that has come from living in Denver and Iowa in climates and among landscapes so unlike your home state. With time, distance, and an exposure to new images, do you find it difficult to write within/from the literary traditions of the south? Or does this relationship evolve as you do?
JW: I don’t think I had much of a relationship to home until I left it. I was always trying to leave. Appalachia is a site of distress for me, largely because of how many of its people treat people like me. But its natural beauty crowds out memories of violence almost to the point that it partly replaces them. Even now, as I’m cleaning out my mother’s house after her sudden death two months ago, the objects she kept were to remind her of the beauty of memories: a rock painted by her children, an angel figurine inscribed by a friend, a poem I wrote her framed on the wall. Love is in the details, in memories.
In thinking about what it might mean to be writing in the Appalachian literary tradition, I can’t help but mention Bruce J’D Pancake and Irene McKinney as forebears and more contemporary authors—such as Mesha Maren, Randal O’Wain, Elizabeth Savage, Ann Pancake, Steven Dunn, and Tim Earley—as inspirations. The West Virginian landscape—emotional, spiritual, and natural—is something that creases the soul into the shape of a mountain, with its dark valleys and sun-licked summits. I think the sensibility that growing up in such a hardscrabble, complicated, sensationalized, and misunderstood place forms is what makes it impossible not to be writing in the Appalachian tradition, regardless of where you are when you pick up the pen. But I can’t say I don’t miss the tulip poplars shedding themselves on a worn path in the woods late spring when freshness is a season itself in West Virginia, though.
Time, distance, and exposure to new objects endemic to new landscapes require that I triangulate images rather than limn them cleanly. Iowa’s flatness was terrifying to me, and I had to figure out a way to reenter the Appalachian landscape when I wasn’t seeing it. In other words, rather than be able to say “vines gripping a rock,” I may first have to look at a snake curling, then liken it to vines, then notice the rock-cool of the forest air, then put the three pieces of sensory data together into a coherent image. As I enter each new landscape that my life takes me to, the sensory data I gather (e.g., look at that squirrel nest on that breaker! Smell that weird waxy bracken lacy red tree thing in the garden! Listen to how beautiful that man sounds, singing to himself, when he thinks no one’s looking!) threatens to crowd out what already exists in my imaginary. That wet forest of my childhood, the rivulets cutting through it like new lines of thought to follow, taught me to pay attention to how elements of the world react to one another.
RFW: I know we’ve both worked with Joanna Klink, a poet who impressed on me a constant concern with the image. I feel that consideration in “Owl Pellet,” a poem thinking about the thingness of loss. The poem begins with near microscopic detailing of an owl pellet and the pellet’s immediate surroundings, then, with the lines “There is no stillness / at the backs / of things,” this piece shifts from descriptions that summon the image of a body (“tongue-shaped and / clipped where / their chalk slips / under a fold / of whipped tarred / fur, skin”), into an experience more markedly embodied. I’m drawn to the final lines of that poem,
[ … ] Wherever
I’ve gone, it’s all
been in hunger for
this: cry hardened over
time into the glintsliver
I can hold
up to the air.
To me, this seems like a rallying cry to the image obsessed, how attention to detail deepens in moments of true hurt, perhaps to a maddening degree, but we’re left sometimes with an image approaching physicality, an artifact. What is your understanding of the function of the image in your poetry (in this collection and beyond)? To that end, are there images you find yourself returning to, for better or worse?
JW: I am so humbled and taken with your reading of the poem—thank you so much for that. The fact that you feel the pressure on the image as indicative of intense emotion is true to the poem’s origin. I was in West Virginia and had just dragged someone who had overdosed into a bathtub; these were the days before Narcan was everywhere. After everything was OK, as OK as it could be, I didn’t know what to do, so I went outside and stared at an owl pellet I’d found and wrote about it. I believe in the power of images, and image progressions, to embody and transmit emotion, and Joanna Klink did impress that on me. But I’ve always believed it. I’ve always been the kid who drew: first, it was Pokémon with a mechanical pencil. Now, it’s bloody leaves and bone-studded pellets on a page in ink.
For me, images function as exegesis, explanation, support. If I make a confession or a claim, I want to support it with images the way you’d support a critical claim with a secondary source. Of course, it’s not quite that cut and dry. Images birth confessions and explanations, and vice versa. I don’t think I could write a very good poem without images. I definitely couldn’t in Deed. My current work is a hybrid book of poetic prose and lineated verse. I’m finding that I think in images first before I know what they mean, and so part of the work is locating what work particular images are doing in a poetic hybrid text. AKA, a headache cured largely by wine and deep YouTube dives into Annie Lennox videos.
There are definitely images I find myself returning to, for better and for worse. I’m worried I’ll never be able to write a poem without something organic in it: leaves, rot, trees, blood, light, skin. Or a poem not tinged with my unshakeable saudade: love, absence, desire, beauty. But at a certain point, you have to stop editing your sensibility. Edit the work, sure, and avoid unnecessary repetition. But if you change your preoccupations just for the hell of it, you’re fracturing the lyric self in a way that may not be productive. Return to your bloody forest or lit skin at dusk if that’s where your heart is.