Angela Voras-Hills grew up in Wisconsin and earned her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Best New Poets, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Memorious, and New Ohio Review, among other journals and anthologies. She has received grants from The Sustainable Arts Foundation and Key West Literary Seminar, as well as a fellowship at Writers’ Room of Boston. She lives with her family in Milwaukee, WI.
Nancy Reddy: One of the things I really love about this book is how the poems all belong to a coherent world—the beautiful and brutal landscape of rural Wisconsin. There are fields and crocuses and barns and roadkill. How does your relationship to rural Wisconsin enter your writing?
Angela Voras-Hills: I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and spent most of my weekends and summers “Up North,” where my paternal grandparents owned a bar and resort on a lake, and my maternal grandparents owned a dairy farm. I’ve spent about one quarter of my life looking out a car window at the landscapes of rural Wisconsin and even more time running through the woods, trying to catch muskrats, playing tag in barns, and riding ATVs through fields. My parents hunted and gutted dear at my grandma’s kitchen table; they fished and skinned Bluegill at the kitchen sink. My weekdays were very suburban, but rural Wisconsin is where I grew up.
There are a few poems that take place in Boston, and one that takes place in Krakow, but they are all from my completely Wisconsin-grown lens. While living in Boston, I met a lot of people who celebrated their cultural heritage, and I felt disappointed to have grown up in such a homogenous place without that. I started thinking a lot about where I came from, and that’s how this book started to take shape—as a study on the idea of home. (Though it took me a while to remember this was the book’s original intention.) And, of course, I realized that once you step away from your home, you see how much a part of you it is.
NR: So many of these poems place the beauty of the natural world alongside the threat of climate change or other apocalyptic disaster, as in the opening poem, “Retrospective,” in which
A girl stands barefoot beside a wheelbarrow,
Shoulders bare, holding a plywood sign that reads:
in red paint. Her hair snarls in the wind
and rain, but she doesn’t notice. Like any sign,
it’s difficult to know how seriously to take it.
What do you think poems can do to help us think more wisely about the natural world, or about the various approaching disasters?
AVH: The best poetry invites people into the world the poem creates. If that world is the natural world, and the reader is able to develop a new sense of their place in that world, a sense of shared responsibility for the planet, then the poem is doing its job really well. It’s my hope that poets, and artists more broadly, can open people up to changing the world in ways that maybe science can’t convince them of. That said, I tend to be wary of poems with objectives, because they are the ideas of the poet, not ideas of the poem, and I think poems with heavy-handed poets often push readers out of the poem’s world.
NR: I’m really interested in how these poems develop. They’re generally not narrative or linear, but instead often operate via surprising leaps or through a revision of earlier observations. (It’s something Traci Brimhall commented on when she selected the book, saying “each poem’s turn was always controlled but unexpected.”)
“At the Periphery, Where Life Hums” is a great example of this technique, where the sentences work through a syntax of elaboration and division. The poem opens with a series of images generated through the negations of not and cannot, so that each image is continually being crossed out at the same time as it’s called up:
A white box is not the house, the house
is not white. The house cannot be separated
from the white barn, which is also not white,
because the wood is rotting, and its silo
“Preserving,” which was selected for Best New Poets 2013, uses a different technique to a similar effect. In that poem, an image or phrase is introduced and then turned and revised:
I can spend a whole winter
in the summer of these lemons
if they’re covered in enough salt.
Trucks are salting the roads
so I can drive. Men
salt the earth so I can walk
without falling. When I fall,
I catch myself with my face.
When I fall, I go
to the hospital, to make sure
the baby is still alive.
There are so many small things
to worry about in a large way.
Could you talk about how this turn and returning of images and phrases happens in your writing?
AVH: As you know, I have some kids, and they rarely let me sit down to write. So, typically my writing comes in snippets, and when I get a minute, I type the snippet up. Then I think about the snippets while I do life-stuff, and when I have a bunch of snippets and more than a minute, I sit down and try to figure out how the images and ideas connect. If I’m not surprised, I’m bored, and I assume any other reader will be, too. This is generally how “Preserving” was written. I had a bunch of thoughts, saw a bunch of things I couldn’t let go of, and I tried to figure out how they were related.
“At the Periphery, Where Life Hums” is a poem I wrote in response to an Ellsworth Kelly painting called “Blue and Red (1951).” I agreed to write a poem in response to his work for a museum event, and when I saw it, I was like, “Hmph.” I’d been trying very unsuccessfully to write about my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s for so long, and I thought maybe I could find a way in through Kelly’s ideas, rather than try to write directly about the painting or the disease.
A few days before the poem was due, I was frustrated and thinking about the idea that (I only vaguely remember this, so apologies to any Ellsworth scholars!) colors are not only the colors (red is not only red), but the colors in relation to the colors around them (red next to blue changes the color red you see), and that got me started on the white house, which is not white. From there, the poem poured out nearly exactly as it’s printed. It was one of those poems that came from some other realm as a gift. So the negation here was partially Kelly’s negation (as I understood it at the time) of color, my negative response to his work, and my refusal to believe in a world where the white house did not exist.
NR: What other books—whether poetry or not—shaped the writing of this book?
AVH: So many! During the years I wrote these poems, I read a lot of non-fiction about taxidermy and natural history. I spent a lot of time looking at art books by John Wilde, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Amy Stein. I read the Aberdeen Bestiary, lots of Victorian and Medieval lit (there’s an allusion to Dracula), and essays by E. B. White. I am always reading poems by Linda Gregg, Lucie Brock Broido, Wislawa Szymborska, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and a lot of lit mags and new poets. I learned a lot about what I wanted my book to do from The Mouths of Grazing Things by Jennifer Boyden and from Joanna Newsom’s album Have One on Me.
NR: This book developed over the course of ten years or so. What did you learn during that time, as you sent the manuscript out to contests and revised and wrote new poems? How is this book different from the manuscript you started with?
AVH: Holy cow, this a very different book than it was in the beginning. The first manuscript was a bestiary. It hinged on the relationships between animals and people—what people can learn from animals about life, etc. And while I think you could still read it that way, it definitely was a format I’d pushed the thing into. I started submitting it in 2013, and it was a finalist for quite a few prizes. I’d tinker with it, swapping poems out and adding new poems, but it was always trying to be a sort of bestiary—to the extent that it had section breaks with quotes from the Aberdeen Bestiary. The title was originally Here Begins the Account of Worms, then The Account of Worms. It was hard to leave this title behind!
When I moved to Milwaukee a few years ago, a new friend (and great poet, Angela Sorby) volunteered to read the manuscript. She suggested a different first poem and said essentially that this is a book about the Midwest/home, and the English section breaks take the reader out of the Midwest. This is how the book found its final form. It felt so natural to me after I’d rearranged it, and I was kind of embarrassed that I hadn’t realized this on my own. It’s especially crazy to me, because I remember thinking constantly about the idea of home when I was living in Boston, so when I got these suggestions, I was like, “DUH. This isn’t a book about bestiaries or animals, it’s a book about home, just like I’d planned….”
NR: You and I were talking recently about the Victoria Chang Commonplace episode, in which Rachel Zucker talks about not writing and says that reading Barbie Chang made her want to write again. What do you do when you’re not writing, but want to feel, as Victoria Chang puts it, called to write?
AVH: I have such anxiety about this lately, because I kind of know what I need to do, but I’m rarely making time to do it. My process involves a lot of walking, listening to podcasts, reading things I love. If I spend a day intentionally awake to the world, then read some great poetry right before bed, I’ll wake up with something to write. I also have a very seasonal practice—I write a ton in the spring, slow down in the summer, pick back up in fall, write almost nothing in winter. Recognizing this pattern has helped me feel okay about not writing at certain times.
The new poems I’m working on deal a lot with how Americans (particularly American women, especially mothers) make themselves busy to avoid thinking and feeling too much. This bothers me about myself, and I’ve been trying to be more mindful of how I’m spending my time. It’s hard to be in the moment when there is so much to distract us—news, social media, cleaning the house, the “emotional labor” of being a mom. I’m hoping that by paying closer attention to which demands on my time are actually worth my time, it’ll be easier for me to tune out the distraction and hear the call to write more regularly.
NR: In addition to your work as a writer, you’ve also done a lot of community poetry teaching, including workshops at Madison Library’s Bubbler and helping to found the Arts and Literature Laboratory in Madison. Why is this kind of work important to you? What kinds of community around writing are you working to create?
AVH: My interest in community began when I was an undergrad. I was taking workshops during the semester, but when the semester ended, I no longer had a group of writers to share drafts with or talk about what we were reading. So during the summer, my writing would stagnate. As an older student with a kid, it was hard to connect with a lot of the writers in my workshops, because our priorities, perspectives, and schedules were vastly different.
When I was in Boston, I saw what the folks at Grub Street were doing and was excited about the prospect of that happening in Wisconsin. It was a resource I wished I’d had as an undergrad and wanted to have after my MFA to keep growing and learning. In addition to being a place where writers can connect and learn from one another, I wanted there to be a space for writers to get paid for teaching outside of academia, a space where people who don’t want to get an MFA could go and learn the same things you’d learn in an MFA program. I also wanted to have a space where artists could cross-pollinate and pick up new skills—essentially. I had a dream to create the space I was looking for as an undergrad.
In general, I’m bothered by the sense (I think this is shifting a bit as more women, LBGTQ, and POC are being published) that quality literature and art is not for the community, but an elite few. I could go on for so long about why arts matter to a community, but I will stop now, because if someone is reading this far into an interview with a poet, they know what a big impact arts have on community.
NR: What are you working on now?
AVH: Thank you for asking! The thing about publishing a book is that by the time it is being published, you are working on something else you’re excited about, and everyone wants to talk about the book, because it’s new to them, but it is hard to shift back and forth about excitement for two different projects!
I’m working on a new book called The House in the Middle, which is the title of a PSA from 1953 sponsored by a paint company. In the video, a man from the Civil Defense Department essentially explains how women can save their families from nuclear attack by keeping their houses clean. So, the book looks at relationships between fear, motherhood, and consumerism under the threat of nuclear attack (1950s-present). It also considers how familial roles have changed overtime (domestic responsibility and the commodification of children) and what it’s like to grow up in a “house in the middle.” There are mannequins, bomb threats, fallout shelters, Facebook mom groups, and roller rinks. I’ve also been doing some visual things I’m excited about, and I’m interested in seeing how that might work itself into the manuscript.