H.R. Webster has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Vermont Studio Center, and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program. Her work has appeared in the Massachusetts Review, Poetry Magazine, Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, 32Poems, Muzzle, and Ecotone. You can read more poems at hrwebster.com.
What Follows -- (https://blacklawrencepress.com/books/what-follows/)
Alina Pleskova is a poet, editor, and Russian immigrant turned proud Philadelphian. Her work has been featured in American Poetry Review, Thrush, Peach Mag, the Poetry Project, and other places. She co-edits bedfellows magazine and is a 2020 Leeway Foundation Art & Change awardee. Her first full-length collection, Toska, will be published by Deep Vellum in 2023. More poems at alinapleskova.com; more nonsense at @nahhhlina.
I met H.R. Webster at a septuagenarian lesbian wedding in an upstate New York backyard. As summer dusk took its languid time, we smoked on a porch swing and talked about how we hoped for (well, insisted upon) the return of disco. During their vows, the brides unzipped matching tracksuits to reveal matching tiger t-shirts (because they were “still tigers in the bedroom.”) The night felt like a bright-hot lightning jolt through my heart, pandemic be damned.
I looked up H.R.’s work on my bleary train ride home and felt resonance, total absorption, and awe equally. Months later, I was delighted to learn that she had a full-length collection coming out. Reading What Follows, out in June 2022 from Black Lawrence Press and now available for pre-order, gave me a lightning feeling all over again. These are poems, yes, but I also think of this collection as a spellbinding and exquisitely sensory catalog of disclosures.
The word I keep returning to is aliveness. The poems live through and relay hurt, loss, desire, desperation, humor; humanness and nature in all their violence and beauty. There’s no one way that they are, just as there’s no one way to be in the world, which is constantly reminding us of its ever-fluctuating capacities to allure and horrify. This book’s intrepid vulnerability and unguardedness brought me back to my body, which I’ve largely avoided checking in with during these last few life-upending years – exultations, injuries, and all.
It was no surprise to find that H.R.’s reflections on rural life, poetics and process, the notion of sex positivity, and poetry of/about the body are every bit as insightful, witty, and expansive as her poems. Slasher films, dead cows with names, orgasms, and mosh pits are all somehow invoked in the same conversation. Once you get your hands on What Follows, cue the soundtrack offered here and find a sturdy porch swing – you won’t want to get up again until you’ve read every word.
AP: In introducing What Follows to me by email, you said that it’s “intentionally a slasher movie title”. Why did you want the title to invoke slashers?
HRW: The deepest horror in slashers often is not seeing someone killed, but rather seeing someone else encounter the dead body (I’m thinking, for example, of the moment in the original My Bloody Valentine when the body is found in the laundromat.) I think that’s where horror lies in poetry too—in encountering the body. What a poem demands of its audience is similar to what a slasher demands—implication through imagination.
In What Follows I’m interested in pulp at play within the pastoral. So much of horror is about the anxiety of being in the wrong landscape, what happens when you pass over the sometimes-invisible boundary from one landscape into another. I’m thinking about movies like the 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre — the fantasy of the pastoral is part of what creates its horror.
AP: The speaker seems intimately familiar with rural life: poems often take place in or reference a bucolic setting/atmosphere, but it isn’t regarded in any Romantic sense. The book is populated by snakes, horses, mountain lions, all kinds of foliage, fields, barns. But also blood, rot, sick, bodies (animal and human animal) behaving in ways that are disturbing or awry, devourings, death. I’m thinking of the term Joyelle McSweeney coined, necropastoral.
For example, there are two poems called “The Calf” – one describes a stillborn calf, and the other, a calf who barely got to be alive: “She lived a week. Sucked my fingers / to the quick and smelled of sick. Our cemetery was already full / of glass crazed crows, a racoon, shot when he wouldn’t look away…”
Nature is brutal, I thought. But in the same poems, I’m struck by lines like, “Blouse seam split / when the wrist is held but / the shoulders turn away.” A calf’s violent birth calls to mind a human behavior that, depending how one sees it, is violent or hot or both.
I felt this paralleling throughout: the brutality of nature and of sex, of being human. How this can be seen as primal (even necessary) or horrifying. This is a long-winded way of wondering whether you grew up or spent a lot of time in rural settings? And if so, how does that affect one’s responses or relationships to the life-death cycle, “the body”, violence, and sex?
HRW: I love that term, necropastoral. I think that necropastoral poetics and slasher movies both explore what McSweeney calls the “place where the farcical and outrageous horrors of Anthopocenic ‘life’ are made visible as Death.”
I did, indeed, grow up in rural spaces, all over the country (why some western animals like the mountain lion live in the book even though the plant life often locates it in the south—it's not a book about one landscape in particular but about a relationship to landscape more broadly). My parents have a homestead and I was raised with the kind of intimacy with the bucolic that disallows the Romantic. I was in some ways deeply sheltered by the isolation of these spaces, but I also had my first encounter with sex through witnessing and participating in animal insemination, brutal, and the constant drive towards death-oriented reproduction. Those first encounters, and the horror of female animals who were simultaneously valued and violated, shaped my early political and erotic understanding of my own body. I left home and had sex. Promiscuous sex that was anti-reproductive, interested only in pleasure. To plot my escape from the paradigm of the milking barn I didn’t need to turn a blind eye to the brutal possibilities of sex, but I did need to break from the economics of reproductive capitalist thinking in relationship to sex. Sex and death were what put food on the table, but neither sex nor pleasure was ever spoken of.
I think you’re right in identifying pleasure in the human behavior evoked by the brutality of the farm, the heat of some of those moments. My mother likes to tell people the names of the animals they are eating when they come over for dinner. “Are you enjoying your steak? That’s Maybell.” She does this mostly to make people uncomfortable, but also because there’s a deepened pleasure to eating the meat when you’re entered into intimacy with the animal’s life and death. The tenderness (petted, fed apples, named and nicknamed) and the slaughter. That intimacy invites your mortality into the room. I think that knowledge is carried into the way I write about the body in these poems.
AP: “That intimacy invites your mortality into the room.” Damn, I’m saving that. There’s a framing here of intimacy allowing you to see more clearly, rather than just more closely. A clarity that doesn’t let you romanticize (or Romanticize.)
I love your sentiment of not wanting to turn away from “the brutal possibilities of sex.” Even after having seen what one has seen. I wonder if you’d want to talk about that more as it relates to sex in this book. There’s a poem, “Scaphism” — a torturous manner of death that I’ll leave readers to look up or learn about in your book! — that discusses sleeping with two different lovers in one day: “I am both ashamed and not ashamed. I like to tell the truth. I like to make men love me // with my body. But I am always afraid. Afraid / and leaden with power.”
There’s a directness here that I appreciate; a nuance and complicatedness regarding sex that I rarely see in poetry or many other places. I feel like so much poetry that takes sex or the body as a dominant theme sticks to a script: the trauma path, transformative self-discovery, or a liberatory erotic vibe. In What Follows, all sorts of things happen to bodies and there’s no monolithic way to regard the experiences. There’s shame, empowerment, pleasure, humor, disgust, fear, so on. I wonder if you could speak to making space for that in your poems? Or anything you want to say about writing into/about sex and sexuality?
HRW: This is one reason I was so excited to talk to you—I admire the way you write about sex so much (Desire doesn't aspire/to anything other than itself).
Poems are places where, for me, we can welcome simultaneous, opposite truths. I think that is an important space to occupy, radical paradox, for political transformation to be possible. I think a lot of writing about sex works with a carceral-feminist logic: bad people do bad sexual things and good people have beautiful/pleasurable/pure sex. There is no muchness, no abundance of friction, very little possibility in this thinking. We have all caused harm and been harmed—and I also think it is a mistake to position that tension in the past of our lives. The potential for mess and damage and humiliation in sex is not something we grow out of, a problem to be solved or escaped through monogamy. I’m not interested in writing into a sex positivity that doesn’t embrace that sex is funny and gross and dangerous.
When I was young I imagined sex that led to a kind of languagelessness, an erasure and liberation from my own crushing consciousness. I was obsessed with the idea of sex as religious experience, and I was drawn to poetry for the same reason — I believed it was possible to reach into language’s failures with poetry. But I was thinking about these things with the single-mindedness of a lonely child. There was no “other” in that desire for languagelessness. I did not imagine who my partners were, who my readers were. I’m learning my way as I write towards a more expansive version of that desire as part of conversation and community, and therefore wonderfully muddy.
“Scaphism,” and a lot of the poems from that part of the book came from an experiment with my writing. So much of the writing I was coming across was slowly winding towards explosive or revelatory closing lines (which to me feels very straight and male, a singular orgasm closing the whole show out). Or they were filled with revelation, but couched in second-guessing gestures about what was really meant. The experiment for me became saying exactly what I meant to say, and then seeing what followed from there.
AP: Yes! So here for the expansiveness that you describe, especially: “I’m not interested in writing into a sex positivity that doesn’t embrace that sex is funny and gross and dangerous.”
And thank you! I was super excited to talk to you, too. My poetry education happened in an adhoc/informal way and it took until my mid-20s to realize that most established, “feminist” (big air quotes) poets didn’t offer the nuanced ways of approaching these subjects that I sought (not so much for “permission”, as we poets love to say, but affirmation or wanting to see how to do it well.) But my peers and contemporaries? Yes. And here I am with your book, getting just that. I’m very grateful for your work, for this and many other reasons.
Speaking of established ways of doing things, I’m cracking up and nodding at explosive/revelatory closing lines as analogous to a straight dude orgasm. Show’s over, ta-da, be impressed!
The poems in What Follows often display a meta self-awareness about being poems, or the process of writing. And how sometimes we can’t regard things “poetically” – language and poetry have limitations:
“I decided to be a happy girl, / and I was. The conventional lyric: / salt, pony, vena cava.” (from “Hapax Legomenon”)
“It’s exhausting, this fear of being followed. / That’s not a metaphor. I’m not a man. / I have no pretty ways to say it left.” (from “Occlusion”)
“I want this poem to end on the line: the dullest knife is the most dangerous” (“from Love Language”)
As with how you approach writing about sex/sexuality, this strikes me as more honest. The poems feel real, living. We come to poetry for multitudinous reasons, and a big one for me is being in the presence of a human voice and not an omniscient Seer. I don’t mind being reminded that I’m in a poem, or feeling like the speaker is working something out in real time, vs. an ornate sentiment or arc that ends with – going back to the revelation thing – some big epiphany.
Your description of writing “Scaphism” has me curious about your process and writing experiments. How did you arrive at being able to say exactly what you meant to say? I’m wondering if, in a way that almost seems counterintuitive, having a process or formal constraints helped you get there.
HRW: Writing in form has become more a part of my process recently. Often the final poem isn’t in a received form at all, and form is more a process than a product (although there are sonnets in the book and a few nonce forms that exist within invisible constraints).
Working in form as a process has allowed me two things: to sacrifice control of the poem to music and to know when a poem needs to speak directly to its poem-ness, either through its form or through sky-writing/flag waving/bellowing. The loss-of-control aspect of form-as-process can feel a bit like being in a mosh pit. You realize at some point your feet are not touching the ground. It feels always on the brink of getting completely out of control, collapsing. Form is a break from our habits of language and being, and is useful to me as a tool in the moment of initial composition. There needs to be a reason, though, for me to complete a poem in form (like the two sonnets you pointed out). That reason is almost always violence. Maybe why I use the analogy of the mosh pit. Music that moves us to dance is MOVING US, punk is honest about this. Received form is a way to speak more directly to the violence of representation (of the world, of others, of the self). Form moves from process to product in my writing when I know I cannot let myself off the hook for that violence. I’ve been interested in the conversations happening around “mess” and poetry recently but confused by why form is often positioned as anti-mess. I think a well-executed sonnet is the messiest of poems.
AP: That’s a really astute point about form often being positioned as anti-mess. I’ve seen this conversation circulate online, and have been guilty of regarding form that way, too – or at least, regarding forms with intricate rules as too constrained for discursiveness, which doesn’t acknowledge how form can lead to unexpected outcomes. Your way of thinking of form as a way to relinquish control and break from our usual modes of thinking/writing/being makes a lot of sense. (Also, I was a punk before I ever identified as a poet, so extra resonance.)
Now I have to ask: does What Follows have a soundtrack? Your poems are lyrical in their emotiveness and musicality, but there’s a bite – or what Lisa Russ Spaar called “dark, alluring ambages of personal and cultural sexual powerplay” (!) – that makes ‘lyrical’ seem too lulling of a descriptor. These poems could be in the pit and not worry about messing up their hair. If I were to give them a soundtrack, I’d go with PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire? But I want to know what your soundtracks were/are!
HRW: I do have a playlist for What Follows. Songs I played over and over and over again while I was writing. I am a believer in obsession, I both listen obsessively and am drawn to music that obsesses. Some albums I listened to a lot while working on the book: The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, Misfits’ Walk Among Us, Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Sessions. Some songs— Patsy Cline “Crazy,” Tom Waits “Temptation,” Prince “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow,” My Bloody Valentine “Only Shallow,” Leonard Cohen “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Sharon Van Etten “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” Johnny Cash’s cover of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Eartha Kitt’s version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Big Thief “Not,” Brenda Lee “Emotions.”
The music I write to is also the music I cook to, drive to, walk to. This is part of the relationship to the lyric, perhaps. I am less interested in visiting emotion than living within it— with all the exhaustion and ambivalence and risk that comes from swimming too long. Brevity is so much of the tradition of the lyric poem, but I am wary when I find myself writing towards “moments.”