Now and Later: H.R. Webster engages in associative thinking to form her poetry in “What Follows”
H.R. Webster’s poems in What Follows scrutinize the space after trauma, in womanhood, around death, and when someone has gone too far.
The poet does not shy away from what is unfolding but rather turns an intent eye on each scene where “There is the calf’s share / blooming in my coffee” or “A killdeer faking it in the parking lot.”
In the poem “Ritual,” we learn that things commonly desired and sought after nevertheless disappoint because “It does not light / the growing dark, does not lift its wings in flight.”
Webster’s collection implicates the discomforting present and its aching aftershocks. The titular poem confronts how “Death came and took from you a virginity you did not know you possessed, but guarded, closely.” The poem goes on to ask, “What fruit rots first.”
This question characterizes many of the poems that start at the moment when the experience begins to decay—sometimes right away: “On first dates men often ask how would you rather die, / I kid you not, drowning or fire.”
The poet does not so much give warnings as detail the consequences, such as “Horses put away wet will tie-up, colic on cold water.” These inevitabilities based on circumstances, facts, and actions—and lack thereof—materialize in Webster’s poems as one of many ways a situation could turn out—and does.
Lines frequently allude to what something is by stating what it is not. “Voicemails” goes even further by showing not just what a person is not but also that the conditions are furthermore unraveling when “He’s undoing / my breath, ripping out my seams.”
Later, in “Apiary”:
That year the mares were sickly
and the summer squash cracked
hollow under the weight of leaves
and beetle-burrowed blooms.
The focus is on what has gone wrong, how “it is easy / to miss the shift / of seasons,” how “silence / is the safest way to signal / fear,” and when “Loss leaves my mouth with a taste for sweetness.”
The vulnerable find themselves in the lesser position, the calf gone before its hooves even meet the ground. Still, others get a leg up:
... No one cares
about this morning’s lesson in the world’s quiet violence.
I turn to release the catch-tongue on the nozzle and the man at pump 3 says
I see the deer tattooed on the back of your thigh. It’s like you, wants to be hunted.
If he can make metaphors, this man drunk on always getting what he wants,
Then anyone can.
Danger and cruelty are intertwined with simply being in the world.
H.R. Webster is a poet, abolitionist, and educator from New England. She earned a BA from Vassar College and an MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. I interviewed her about her poetry collection What Follows, which was published this summer.
Q: You came to Ann Arbor from New England. How was your experience here?
A: I spent a total of 6 years in Southeast Michigan—as long as I have spent in one place. I have deep affection for Ann Arbor, for the beautiful library and the palatial YMCA and amazing bookstores. It also feels, sometimes, like living in a model train town—the students and even faculty who see this as a chapter rather than their lives. I wrote a lot of this book in Ann Arbor and in Ypsilanti, I found writing community and radical community there, I rebuilt my life there when things fell apart.
Q: You are a poet, abolitionist, and educator. Tell us about these roles.
A: People say you are a poet if you are writing poetry—but I disagree—I think you are a poet when you are paying attention, approaching the world with the kind of curiosity that poetry relies upon. I think the same is true of being an educator—I was raised by teachers and very aware that teaching lives beyond the classroom, especially teaching that is democratic and expansive. No matter where I am in my life, I have always found a way to teach poetry and find the crackling space of the classroom.
I have been an abolitionist for more than a decade—I do not mean this metaphorically—I believe that all police and prisons should be abolished. I don’t think it can exist simply as a belief system or a way of seeing the world. “Justice is what love looks like in public” (Dr. Cornel West) requires more of us than belief. Beyond political work and community work, abolitionism informs my writing—it is a politics that requires living in contradiction. That requires us to address harm in real time and create a future where there is less harm. A muchness that can feel overwhelming, but that is generative and hopeful.
Q: Your new book of poetry, What Follows, came out this last summer. How did What Follows go from individual poems to a published collection?
A: I am a connective, associative thinker, and the book came together in that way. Like playing music on a long car ride. You might put on Reba’s “The Night the Lights Went Down in Georgia” and then Gladys Night’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” and then the Carter Family’s “Engine One-Forty-Three” and then Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms.” Eventually your curiosity takes you where you are going. The book was finished when my curiosity was being pulled in new directions.
Q: When do you make a poem a sonnet rather than another form?
A: Sometimes because I wish to be in conversation with the history of the form. Sometimes because I am struggling to find surprise for myself in a poem or an idea. Sometimes because I believe the ratio of a sonnet, the geometry of it, is suited to the subject matter. Often I use form as a tool for writing, rather than a result. There are many poems in the book that I revised into and out of form in order to find surprise or music in them.
Q: How did you shape the two sections in your book? How do you see each section as distinct?
A: The structure of the book was developed out of a belief that your relationship to your audience changes as they read through a volume. They trust your images more, your language. They care to stay for longer moments with your quieter, stranger claims. It is less that they are distinct in tone and subject matter. It is more the halfway mark on the mountain. You have come this far.
Q: Animals figure into many of the poems in this collection, which is something I tend to notice as an animal lover myself. What role do animals have in your poems?
A: I don’t think I recognized how big a role animals played in the book until it was put together. In part they are there because of my love for animals, in part because I developed an enduring intimacy with animals growing up on farms and in agricultural communities, and in part because I believe our relationships to animals hold a lot of important information about how to imagine humanness, death, the interior lives of others. There aren’t a lot of wild animals (although I love wild animals and often the first thing I will tell you about where I have been and what I have been doing is what animals I saw). The book I’m currently working on takes the reader into more wild animal spaces and explores human-wild animal relationships through the figure of the feral child.
Q: The way the lines pair images is so striking, such as “The calendar pages ripping off, the barn-roof tarp, the flock.” These associations are original, and the context of the poem makes them work so well. How do such images come together in lines for you?
A: That string of images began with the old movie trope—showing the passage of time through a sequence of exploding calendar pages (see I am a Fugitive from the Chain Gang or Lady and the Tramp) and I followed the image—not its meaning (time) but associatively through the gesture, to a tarp flying off in the wind, to a flock of birds all lifting off in a wave. As I followed the gesture it transformed into something sensual—this broken open, exposed, simultaneous space that was both about pleasure and pleasure’s relationship to time—the way it collapses and expands time, makes it plastic.
Q: Unkindnesses are peppered throughout these poems. Do you think there is redemption, too?
A: I’ve gotten a lot of versions of this question—but I appreciate the frame as “redemption” rather than “joy” or “happiness.” I think there is redemption in craft. I think there is redemption in the book’s revolt against shame. I am interested in the term “unkindnesses.” I think I want to trouble the idea of kindness as purely a form of personal choice.
Q: What is on your stack to read?
A: The Traces: An Essay by Mairead Small Staid. Concentrate by Courtney Faye Taylor
Q: What are you looking ahead to next?
A: I’m writing some poems that really excite me, poems that feel a bit like juggling chainsaws or weaving a blanket out of live wires. I’m planting daffodil bulbs and looking forward to lighting my first fire of the year. I am watching the news from Iran and holding my breath and pouring my hope at those shatteringly brave young women.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.