12 Winters Blog

Interview with Rachel Jamison Webster: The Endless Unbegun

Posted in February 2015 by Ted Morrissey on February 19, 2015

In the fall of 2013 I attended a reading at Edwards Place, an historic home in Springfield, Illinois, and one of the readers that evening was Rachel Webster, who read from her poetry collection, September. I was very taken with her poetry and her presentation of her work. My fiancée (now wife) Melissa and I were anxious to speak with Rachel afterward and to get a copy of her book, which I ended up admiring very much. The following year I was looking for projects for Twelve Winters Press, and I heard via the literary grapevine that Rachel Webster had a manuscript she was interested in publishing — but it was not an ordinary collection, which of course piqued my curiosity even more, since the Press’s main mission is to publish literary work that is especially difficult to place because of its risk-taking nature.

The Endless Unbegun front cover

I contacted Rachel via email, and she graciously sent me the manuscript, under a different title, and I discovered that it was a hybrid collection of both short prose pieces and poems, and that it told an ambitious, multi-layered story that took place over several centuries. In a word it was wonderful, and exactly the sort of project that seemed tailor-made for Twelve Winters Press. Email exchanges began, and we worked out an agreement to bring out the book in print, digital and audio editions. Rachel wanted to revise the manuscript further, which she did over several months. Then late last fall, 2014, she sent the Press a significantly reworked book, including a new title, “The Endless Unbegun” — and the editors at Twelve Winters and I began the very rewarding process of bringing the book to print, working closely with Rachel at every phase.

Publication was delayed a bit when Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program interviewed Rachel for their upcoming issue, 8.1, and Rachel floated the possibility of including the interview with the book. I thought it a terrific idea, so with Quiddity’s editors’ permission, we prepared the interview for inclusion in The Endless Unbegun. The Quiddity interview focuses in large part on the philosophical and theological ideas that are at the heart of the book, so for the below interview, I deliberately turned my attention to other issues.

The print edition of The Endless Unbegun was released February 5, 2015. Editions for Kindle and Nook soon followed, and the audiobook is in the works as well. I emailed Rachel some questions, and here are her unedited responses.

Rachel Webster 2

You’ve said that the book began as a novella and eventually became a hybrid collection of short prose pieces and poems. I’m wondering if, for you, certain subjects lend themselves to prose expression more naturally, and others to poetry? And if not subjects, then perhaps themes . . . moods?

Yes, definitely.  When I write prose I am combining voices — the voice of the artist, as well as the voice of the teacher or friend.  I know that I am talking outward to another, and so my understanding of that audience is invariably woven into the form and content of the prose.  In this sense, I usually write prose in a way that is reflective of some wider societal or temporal situation.  Even if I am writing prose from my own experience, I am connecting it actively with what I suspect is a shared experience.

Poetry also reflects shared experience, but that connection is trusted in a more intuitive, subterranean way.  It happens way beneath the ground.  So the act of writing poetry — for me — feels like talking deeply to myself, tracing my own subconscious or dreams, my own deepest memories or questions.  I don’t write poetry thinking about audience at all — I just follow the rhythm of the words, and I really interrogate my own feelings and questions in the poem.  There is no “other,” because the self is the aperture to the other.  That was especially true of the poems in The Endless Unbegun, which are elemental and very physical in their rhythms and knowing.  When they do talk to a “you,” they are love poems, and meant to share my deepest being with the “you” as beloved, who only late in the game becomes the reader.

I think of this poetic space of connection as pretty unusual and rarified, and so my idea for this book was that a prose novella would sort of walk the reader into a more and more poetic, metaphorical space, and that in this way, it would be like walking deeper and deeper into a relationship.  The fact is, we meet on the level of persona and appearance, and then we move further and further into knowing one another (and ourselves, ideally!) in an elemental and soulful way.  Eventually, we are at the archetype — the repeating pattern, where we realize that all of our deepest, most individual experiences are not original at all!  They are human, and therefore shared.

Is there a piece in the book that was the one that led you to realize you were beginning to write this book — as opposed to simply writing another related piece that would eventually be published as a stand-alone narrative or poem?

This one was always a book, which was why it was tricky to publish many of these poems individually in journals.  The book came on in a torrent, and held me in its sway for months as I wrote and rewrote its first drafts, and the poems in it were always deeply intuitive, somehow merging story and poetry, self and other.  It was like they needed their own space, their own book, to make sense.

I experienced this book as a crossing over into a new wavelength.  I learned to write more from my own intuitive power, and less from some expectation of form or audience.

You made some significant changes to the manuscript after it was taken by the Press for publication. Did thinking of it as a book that was actually going to be out in the world — as opposed to simply an ambitious creative project — influence how you approached revision? And if not that, then what led to the major changes in the manuscript?

Well, because the book was so intuitive I felt that I needed to do some rearranging and clarifying to externalize its themes a bit more, and guide the reader through its movements.

I also put the prose novella back in. I had been taking that out as I sent out the manuscript, because it didn’t fit most contest guidelines.  But when Twelve Winters accepted the manuscript and I thought about what I most wanted to share and explore with this book, I knew that it was important for me to have this strange, layered shape, and these characters who are recognizable to us, and who also have rich universes within — like any of us.

And finally, I took out a couple of love poems and added some new ones — simply to make the emotional experience of the book present to me again.  A book that was important to me for many years is Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes. It is a book about elemental feminism, and the creative process in which Estes retells fairy tales and folktales to track archetypal shapes in a life.  She talks about the woman as creator and says that when a project feels stuck, or stalled, we should just take something out, get rid of something, in order to lighten its energy and renew it again.  I really experienced this phenomena with The Endless Unbegun.  I took out some poems, added three new ones, and then changed the title, and the book was made new again — like, finally, it had found its moment in time.

What’s the manuscript’s history as far as publication? In other words, how long did you work on it as a book-length project? Had you approached other publishers? What made Twelve Winters seem like a good fit for the book and for you as an author?

I worked on this as a book-length project for a decade, and I always believed in it, but I suspect there was too much going on for editors to see it clearly or to trust its voices. The poems themselves seem more performative, archetypal and intense than a lot of what is being published right now.  It was a semi-finalist for the Dorset Prize a long time ago — maybe in 2007.  And its poems inspired the creation of a band in 2008 — called the Very Small Quartet. I read many of these poems and musicians in the quartet set them to original music, and we performed them live around Chicago. Then Dancing Girl Press published some of its poems in a chapbook called “The Blue Grotto” in 2009.

Twelve Winters was wonderful to work with because the relationship was always founded on respect and understanding of the author’s own experience.  I did not feel that I had to fit this book into any one container, or even one genre, but could really present it in its best possible shape and form. That has been a thrilling opportunity for me as an author, and the entire process of finishing this book has been a pleasure. The Twelve Winters readers and editors were respectful and encouraging, but also meticulous in editing, crediting and proofreading, and so I knew that we were releasing a book that we could all be proud of.

You’re working on an audio edition of the book. One can imagine that poets especially are interested in performing their work for an audience, as opposed to offering it in print only. What are your thoughts or hopes regarding producing an audiobook of The Endless Unbegun

I love reading my poems aloud.  They are usually woven together by sound, and I think when I read them, the listener/reader can really enjoy that and get swept into a more physical, subconscious rhythm.

I am seeking a grant to pay for a really strong recording of this book, because I want to be able to share it in an audio form, in my voice.

What are some of the challenges of recording your poetry, besides any technological ones? 

Well, none really.  Just little technical things, like don’t wear bracelets that jangle, and don’t lisp.  Oh, and the technical glitch of the ego, of course.  I never like my voice when I hear it again.  It is embarrassing. It always sounds too slow, sad and deep to me.  But it is my voice, and I am the one to vocalize my poems.

I co-produced a radio series on poetry for WBEZ a couple of years ago and had to listen to so many hours of my own voice during the production process that I learned to detach from it, much like the way you have to detach as a writer from the idea that an experience is yours.  In the end, these are just two more tools — the voice, the experience — that you can use to share with others.

You teach courses in poetry at Northwestern University and you’ve worked with younger writers as well. Teaching is time consuming of course, and it can be energy draining, but how does teaching influence your writing in positive ways?

I feel so fortunate that my day job is to talk with 20-year-olds about poetry!  And what they teach me, more than anything, is that all of this work is relevant, even necessary.  I mean, if you are just out and about reading the billboards in this country and watching the sitcoms, this stuff we are doing seems pretty anachronistic and irrelevant.

But in my classroom, I get to see how deeply we seek meaning, how much we crave the kind of relational intelligence and emotional awakening that poetry creates.  I watch students embark on this experience of creating and evolving consciousness, and they help me to evolve my consciousness, as well.  My students come to poetry classes, because they want to, because poetry provides a space for us to talk about these ideas of relationship, of creation, of trusting the intuition, and acknowledging the deeper self, and we need these conversations — now more than ever.

And the Jon and Marisol sections, especially, are dedicated to my students.  I put them back in because they represent a kind of atrium in life where we may find ourselves, maybe especially in our twenties or early thirties — the sense that we want to drop down deeper, we want to relate to people soulfully, but our coolness and our intelligence somehow prevents us from sharing all we know and sense.  I think my students are weathering those situations quite bravely, and their earnestness and intelligence gives me hope.

What are you writing now?

I am working on two projects.  My prose project is a book of personal essays that circle experiences of birth and death.  They take place during the first years of my daughter’s life, and during the illness and passing of her father from the disease ALS, when I was caregiver to both.  These experiences were simultaneous, which led to many personal challenges, but also to rich reflection on what we consider opposite — birth and death, heaven and hell.  I now experience these states as related, even interdependent.

My poetry project is a collection of poems written in the voices of Native Americans who can verbalize a very earth-centered, relational consciousness.  Some of these voices are not unlike Radegunde’s, who, as a Pagan, had a different relationship to time and to the earth, but they are taken outside of the context of Christianity, and placed in another time in history.

Rachel Jamison Webster is the author of the full-length poetry collection September (Northwestern University Press, 2013) as well as two chapbooks, The Blue Grotto and Leaving Phoebe, both from Dancing Girl Press. Her poems and prose writing have been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry, Narrative, Tin House and The Paris Review. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Northwestern and edits universeofpoetry.org, an international anthology of poetry. (Author photo by Richard Fammerée.)

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One Response

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  1. Melissa Morrissey said, on February 20, 2015 at 8:46 am

    Fabulous soulful interview!


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