Corrie Williamson is the author of The River Where You Forgot My Name (2019 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry) and Sweet Husk (2014 Perugia Press). Her poems have appeared in AGNI, The Missouri Review, Boulevard, West Branch, and elsewhere. She lives in Montana and is currently working as an educator in Yellowstone National Park, but will spend six months in 2020 as the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency fellow, in an off-grid cabin on the Rogue River in Oregon. Find her at www.corriewilliamson.space.
Lisa Higgs: The River Where You Forgot My Name, your second collection of poetry, time-travels between your contemporary life in Montana and that of the imagined life of Julia Hancock, the sixteen-year-old bride of William Clark. What, other than having been born in Fincastle, Virginia (also Julia’s home until her marriage), made you curious about Julia’s voice and experiences?
Corrie Williamson: I have nursed a fascination with the idea of exploration since childhood; I read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, about Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, in the 5th grade. I moved to Montana in the summer of 2013, and Lewis and Clark are everywhere out here: we’re steeped in that story. I live in Lewis and Clark County, for goodness sake! The Missouri River rolls out of the mountains from the plains twenty minutes north of where I live. You can’t drive far without seeing a Lewis and Clark historical sign. Giving in to that old childhood obsession, early after coming to Montana I picked up a beautiful old clothbound edition of The Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition at a used bookshop in Missoula. There are 728 pages in this book, in tiny print, and not a single letter was penned by a woman.
I came to Montana for a romantic relationship, which lasted less than a year after the move, and I spent much of that first year feeling lonely, homesick, confused about the rugged, indifferent landscape so vastly unlike the rolling deciduous forests of the east where I grew up. I wanted to explore both loneliness and landscape, and I wanted to think about the west and its histories and characters and wild places, and to recognize that the standard, male-centric “heroic explorations” of the west were a lot more complicated and portentous that my 5th grade mind had grasped.
As I read more about the Expedition, I felt a kinship with Julia. I had traveled from southwestern Virginia to this wild, western frontier landscape—and for a man, and his career dream. I missed home. I lived in a place where the past often feels close, and where change and development present as stark and dramatic. Julia, too, moved to what at the time was the “western frontier,” the edge of the United States’ possessed land through the Louisiana Purchase, and, far from home, watched the world grow and shine and consume. Somewhere along the way, I enlisted her help in exploring these things. What was her life like? What might her story be, in the shadow of Clark, and what can those shadow stories help us see or consider? The poems began as experiments and became a core arc, giving historical weight and perspective (or so I hope) to the book’s themes, and helping me to articulate my own concerns and obsessions.
LH: The structure of the book—alternating sections between present day Montana and the cities Julia Hancock Clark called home—suggests you may have sought for or found parallels between Julia’s experiences and your own, assuming the first-person voice in your three Montana sections hew closely to you as a poet. Was this a structure you had thought about as you were first drafting your poems, or were your sections created more organically as you started to compile your collection? Perhaps my real question is, what did you learn about yourself as you took on “a voice at the margins,” as you say in your end notes?
CW: Regarding structure—yes and no. The more Julia poems I wrote, the more attached I became to the project and the concept, and I soon saw it as two threads that would ultimately have to weave together somehow. Julia has a natural geographic break in her life, but still I went through dozens of different arrangements, before landing on what you see in the book, organizationally.
I want to focus this answer on something I have learned or am still learning—about me, yes, but also about poetic responsibility. I struggled a lot while working on this with the ethics behind persona poems. I love reading and writing them, but they are fraught in some ways, and seem to grow ever more so. There are some persona poems out there I find beautiful or informative that I don’t think could be published today, as we continue to discuss issues like cultural appropriation and who has the right to tell a story or to deal with certain experiences.
As I worked in Julia’s voice, I increasingly felt the weight of putting on that persona and I struggled with it. What I can say in the end is that my motivation was kinship, curiosity, and compassion, and that my work is informed by our shared paths and demographics, and by intensive—though undoubtedly imperfect—research. I do feel I have some earned, as well natural, access to Julia’s story, as I have imagined it, and which I hope helps me in this book’s endeavor to ask valuable questions.
(Also, can I take a moment to tell everyone to read Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruelty Special to Our Species, which I recently finished, for an awe-inspiring and wrenching example of the possibility and power of persona in the voice(s) of women from the past?)
LH: How much research was required for you to feel comfortable adopting the voice of Julia? You mention in your notes several books of the Lewis and Clark expedition—collected letters and journals—from which you gleaned text for your Julia poems. Were you able to read Julia’s own words in these research materials, or were you forced to imagine Julia out of the references of others? I think of your title poem, “The River Where You Forgot My Name,” and Julia’s reaction to Clark’s gift “to the girl only a father / ever summoned as Judith.”
CW: As far as I know, Julia’s own letters are not available anywhere. Perhaps her descendants have preserved some—I hope so—but they are not, to my knowledge, public—meaning that no one saw value in publishing them. Clark references her in his letters, and his biographers mention her, though in very domestic, perfunctory ways. So no, I never had her own words, and I mostly gleaned information, rather than text, with a few exceptions. Every poem in her voice required and was inspired by research. The books mentioned in my notes I used heavily, but there were others. (I want to acknowledge Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes, which didn’t help me imagine Julia, but which was an early book essential in helping me think differently about the Expedition.) For example, I learned that Julia played piano, that Clark had one shipped from back east for her, and that it would have been one of the few grand pianos in St. Louis at the time. I learned that she loved Shakespeare. Clark mentions in one letter to his brother that she hopes the trade wagons are bringing cloth thicker than muslin, which I thought was beautiful and which made it into a poem (so there’s a direct text gleaning). I went down all kinds of rabbit holes for the New Madrid Earthquakes and the Great Comet—real events. I have tried to be true and informed on all those details, and many of the poems sprang from my love of one small historical moment or image or description, but of course, in the end, this is fictionalized poetry.
I tried very hard to keep her voice non-judgmental, for her to be more observer than commentator. What was really important to me was that she not become a tool for retroactive wokeness, you know? In 2001, the Middle School in Fincastle, Virginia (my and Julia’s hometown), changed its name from William Clark Middle to Central Academy—because people in the community raised concerns over the fact that Clark (like Thomas Jefferson, and Julia’s father, and so many well-off men at that time) was a slave owner. (Clark was notoriously awful to his slave, York, who was a part of the Corps of Discovery. If you want some of this perspective in poetry, read Frank X Walker’s Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York, a book that helped me in this project, as well.) I think it’s important that those conversations are happening, and that we are addressing what that means about the legacy of men like Clark and Jefferson.
And yes, I want the book to raise some of those questions about the impacts of our vast greed-need for land, for resources, for other bodies. Julia does lean into some of these larger issues, and “Science Lesson” of course feels like the poem most directly critical of her patriarchal culture. But to have Julia judge certain issues explicitly felt deeply inauthentic and much more like using her. I hoped her voice would be a lyric window on a point in time. There she is—standing at the edge of the “opening” of the American west, with all its violence and cruelty and assumed righteousness—and here am I, on the other end, some 200 years later, looking back at her. I, too, am a young white woman from the south, with all the complications and privileges that entails. I think there are issues I can and should, to the best of my ability, raise, which of course Julia could not have imagined. I live now in a “wild west” where pit mines gape and swallow ethnic communities and migratory birds alike, where the remaining few thousand wild bison, down from their historical numbers of more than 50 million, huddle within the “pleasuring ground” of Yellowstone and are culled every year when they wander out of the park, while meanwhile state law makes it next to impossible to transfer some of them to tribal lands and ownership where they are wanted…. I could go on. With my research and my imagining, I asked Julia to lend me her lens, so I could compare it to mine, so that I might better understand and reckon with both.
LH: I’m interested in the weight you describe in putting on a persona in your poems and in your attempts to not place the weight of today’s consciousness and conscience on Julia. Can you expand a bit more on your understanding of poetic responsibility in a time where there seems to be such upheavals in our country’s understanding of itself and its direction? Is this even a fair question?
CW: It’s fair and important and HARD, and I’m still learning. One reason I felt so much weight with this persona is that Julia, of course, was a real woman. That responsibility struck me as different from writing the 10,000th persona poem from the perspective of mythological Persephone or Eurydice (nothing against that! They are just very popular personas to try on), and it felt to me like a heavy task, one I had to manage with respect and humility and careful attention.
Historians warn us about this idea of presentism—that we should be wary of interpreting or judging past events or individuals by applying our modern ideas and values. I think that’s why it would have been false and inauthentic for Julia to be a voice of judgement—but I think she can help make that time feel present, lived in, full of questions and details that get us to try to imagine that world more vividly, with more knowledge and a willingness to challenge the standard story and to hold ourselves accountable now, to say, if that’s where we were 200 years ago, what could we be doing now? What stories have come down to us—through the victor, as the saying goes, but more accurately through the most powerful, perhaps the most successfully greedy?—that need re-examining or rending?
There is so much I care deeply about that I don’t feel able or ready to tackle at this point in my poetry—even though I may seek to address it or live it in other ways, as a human in the world. I think it’s fine and appropriate for poets to write about whatever obsesses them and feels immediate and urgent in a given time and place—to act as interpreters, so to speak, and to hope that perhaps the audience is moved to think, act, change. But we have to interpret intelligently, compassionately, to seek to add to the conversation where possible but also to make way for and amplify other interpretations and other voices that can tell stories and relay experiences we cannot or, in some cases, should not.
LH: In your Montana sections of The River Where You Forgot My Name, you turn your keen gaze onto the natural world with all of its beauties, its complexities, its shadows and lights. How were your poems influenced by the history your collection covers, as well the settings of the poems themselves?
CW: Montana is so weird, Lisa. My perceptions and feelings for it have changed wildly since I moved here. It is absurdly harsh and beautiful. I’m fascinated by the way its histories and exploitations and contradictions and challenges are so alive and visible here. Bison, grizzly bears, copper mines, the price of lentils, opening weekend elk kill counts, the Colstrip Power Plant, rural access to hi-speed Internet, chronic wasting disease, how the Crow Nation will vote—these issues make Montana’s headlines. Like, right now, while I’m writing this, the Montana Supreme Court is hearing a case about whether dinosaur fossils fall under the category of mineral rights—which is delightful.
Montana is rural, and it’s agricultural. It joined the U.S. in 1889—130 years ago, and its population is still just over a million. In many ways it continues to have a wild west attitude, and 45 of its 56 counties qualify as “frontier counties,” with less than 7 persons per square mile. That doesn’t make it a community of backward cowboys, as we are sometimes portrayed in the media. But it makes it complicated, raw, unique, changeable. It has so much left worth saving and is also sometimes hungry to eat it up. I wrote this collection entirely while living in Montana: this landscape, its people and creatures, its history, rearranged my brain, and since poetry is my thought-processor, the result is this book, which could not have been written anywhere else.
LH: Hulking whales and the mastodon, along with the larger than life figure of Thomas Jefferson, reappear several times in your collection. Likewise, Julia experiences a great comet and a major earthquake in her final section before her cancer diagnosis. These otherworldly figures and events seem touchstones of a sort, holy relics in a book that is not overt in showing a distinct god figure. Could you talk about the book’s spiritual core, which exists along the periphery of much of your work?
CW: Do you know that Isadora Duncan quote, supposedly a response to someone asking her about a performance? “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”
I don’t mean to be evasive. I’m not a religious person, but I do want to show up and tremble for the mystery—for the connections and the patterns and the darknesses that are bigger than us. I want those things to be a reason for repair and for love.
The mammoth became a symbol for me in writing the book—of the destructive powers of unchecked human greed, of colonial capitalistic mindsets, of the speed and seeming ease with which man takes on godlike roles and strength. But that’s the function of relics, right? They are holy synecdoche.
Julia is another matter. She would have been a Christian, because, well, like marrying Clark, it wouldn’t have been much of a choice. It was interesting to try to have that conversation across poems and centuries.
LH: Poems like “The Pleasuring Ground, or This Week in Animal News” and “April & the Iron Eaters” delve into humanity’s exploitation of the natural world, and poems like “Love Song of the Barred Owl” and “Mantis” exploring the ferocity of animal desire. How were you able to reach a reconciliation between our best and worst human impulses, as you seem to do in the book’s closing poem, “A Prayer in Closing”:
give us this day, we say, give it, & don’t stop, opening
our reverent, ravenous eyes, our made-for-greed mouths
from which our echoes fly, unfurling fine spruce wings.
CW: I can only keep probing those impulses, I suppose, and hoping that, when my poems succeed, perhaps a reader will, too. “A Prayer” returns to close with that hunger the whole book is about, and the spruce wings are actually an allusion back to another poem in the book, “Arrow Marks Spot…” about the young dirigible pilot Cromwell Dixon, who crashed his Curtiss Model D plane after a dare-devil first-ever flight over the continental divide. For maximum lightness, those early aircraft were crafted mostly of spruce wood. And we, after all, are crafty and ambitious and also fragile and we crash and wreck things. We want things—which isn’t always so bad. We hunger—and that’s natural. That poem, and others, send up their tiny missives: if we can recognize that greedy part, might we hunger with a little more wisdom and empathy and knowledge?
LH: Formally, most of the Julia poems are narrow lined and fairly contained in experience, whereas your Montana poems have wider lines and far-flung ranges of thought and scope, not to mention more differences in structure and form. Was this an intention on your part, or did you find the consistency of her lines as an entry point into her voice? How might you describe the differences between her voice and concerns and your own?
CW: Julia gave me an opportunity to try something more tightly lyrical. I tend to be rambling narrative poet, and I wanted something more condensed that read like snippets of a diary or like airy thoughts pinned down to the page. The earliest poems I wrote in her voice were “Hawk Moth” and “Completion of the Jackson Ferry Shot Tower,” and they established that mode which felt, as you suggest, like an entry point. As for the differences between our concerns…, I think I wandered down that path in an earlier question!
LH: Your ekphrastic poems in this collection are inspired by paintings and photographs, as well as museum tableau and the uncertain origin of “Still Life with Copper Creek & the Unabomber.” What about ekphrasis interests you as a poet? Does that form allow you to enter new realms of thought that you might otherwise not explore personally and through your writing?
CW: I think poetry and art are wisely jealous—perhaps admiring is a kinder word—of one another. I’d say ekphrasis is a worthy exercise in empathy, for one, and yes, makes my brain do visual things and take connective leaps it otherwise wouldn’t. Two of those poems are about the mammoth/mastodon, of course, and I just desperately wanted to pull them in, to write-think about them. Have you looked at Peale’s “The Artist in His Museum”? Go look at it. It’s so much…. Look at this old white guy surrounded by dead things he owns! Science! Art! Money! Penguins! His face is proud and creepy. His left hand turns out, welcoming you. His right is raising that gold-tasseled crimson velour curtain and there’s a mammoth, half hidden now, behind it. It’s just got it all, and I needed it in the book.
LH: I feel like we’re returned to something you said earlier about your desire to have The River Where You Forgot My Name address “our vast greed-need for land, for resources, for other bodies.” What about these topics is compelling to you as a poet, a woman, a human? Are these issues that you will continue to tackle in your writing?
CW: I mean, Carl Sagan said, “Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water.” That’s pretty simple, but if we want a livable earth, and livable societies, we have to change how we treat our surroundings and each other. Montana helped me see this through the lenses of history, ecology, etc., and the poems helped me work towards understanding and articulating it a little better. I love so much how Maurice Manning summed the book’s core ideas up in his wise and generous blurb: “We have to imagine we belong to a place, a geography whose history includes us. We must also live in the present knowing we are always bound to our human history, as complex as beautiful and as tragic as it may be. Girded with such knowledge, we live with greater purpose in the here and now and may, in fact, begin to imagine our future that we may work to preserve it.” Yes! And you know, saying this, I’m reminded that Maurice’s latest book, Railsplitter, just out this year, is actually poems from the perspective of Abraham Lincoln! I wonder now if that blurb articulates some of his own hopes and intentions in writing historical persona.
I don’t think these things will move too far away from my sphere of writing or concern—and my first book, Sweet Husk, was definitely interested in some of these themes, though I think more gently, more anthropologically. I do find science and history to be essential in spurring my writing, so I believe that act of girding (what a word! Thank you, Maurice!) oneself with knowledge as a way to understand, to preserve, is my way forward.
LH: The River Where You Forgot My Name could be read as a love story with numerous threads. Julia and William Clark. Poet and nature (all those birds!). Poet and history. Poet and lover, as in “This Is Your Love Poem, Al”, where a simple question leads the poet to feel:
[…] as I will come April upon seeing the fox
cubs playing beneath the pine branches sprung from the den
we had wished all season was theirs & how the joy of it is
ours & not […]
What role do you see love having in this collection?
CW: Lisa, your questions have been so thoughtful. Thank you—and yes, let’s end with love! But, of course, that’s complicated…. If Julia truly loved Clark, I do not know; it’s not my place to say and I don’t think the poems try to point either way. Was it love of a thirteen-year-old girl that prompted him to misname the Judith River in Montana after this child bride to be? (Judith was a family nickname, and not her given one, by the way.) I’m skeptical. Of course they formed a bond of some kind over time. Of course we are bonded to so many things, by choice or no, and I think it behooves us to learn and to try to love when we can. Can greed and desire turn into love? I don’t know. I guess that’s what the book is asking, to some extent.
I used to insist that all poems were either about god, sex, or death. I’ve dropped that line in the past couple years as not particularly clever or relevant, but my partner, Alex, challenged me once with, “What about love?” And so I wrote “This is Your Love Poem, Al,” in response to that challenge. The poem is a failure in that regard, rife as it is with death and sex and kind-of-god, but love is there, too. And those tiny, tiny foxes under the mother-tree in the spring. You cannot own such a love.