When I arrived in Iowa to start at the Writers’ Workshop, wide-eyed and all of twenty-five, Lisa Wells, a poet and nonfiction writer originally from Portland, had already graduated but still lingered; she was one of the lucky few to receive a coveted third-year teaching position. I saw her frequently at the café in the local bookstore, and occasionally at the local dive. She had the air of a female Rochester—dark, mysterious, intense—and she, unlike many of us poets, was a “real adult”—she had dropped out of tenth grade; she had worked for fifteen years before getting a BFA from Goddard and coming to Iowa; she had gotten divorced. I was too scared to talk to her, but I read her poems and essays avidly online, and got to know her that way, through her work.
Wells, whose debut collection of poetry, The Fix, was selected for the 2017 Iowa Poetry Prize, has a book of nonfiction, Believers, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2019.
Wells has taught poetry and nonfiction writing at several universities. She lives in Seattle, where she and poet Joshua Marie Wilkinson edit The Volta and run a small press called Letter Machine Editions.
Wells and I spoke over Skype about the “false self,” mysticism, confessional poetry, and writing across genres.
The Rumpus: Your book opens with an epigraph from the French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous: “We must kill the false woman who is preventing the live one from breathing.” Why?
Lisa Wells: Well, all killing aside, the false woman can be helpful. Particularly when, for whatever reason, the body has become uninhabitable. But for me, when I was writing that book, the gap between the false self I used to negotiate the world and my inner life became too big; it was untenable. The book wound up being a kind of attempt to integrate those selves. It felt pretty violent at times.
Rumpus: So when you talk about the false self, are you talking about the masks we all wear—the performative self out in the world—or is it not as specific as that?
Wells: Yeah, I think that’s one way of thinking about it. We all have a “false self” to some extent—that’s how Jung defined the term “persona”—but I was doing battle with something a bit more inhibiting. It’s supposed to function as a vehicle to facilitate movement through the world, and it became more like carrying a dead woman—like I was carrying my own corpse, in a sense. I couldn’t make direct contact with the environment anymore because I’d delegated so heavily to this false self. I don’t know how else to put it.
It starts out as a method for navigating anxiety or fear or whatever, but ends up causing numbness. It takes the pleasure out of life—because so much of life’s pleasure is between people, in spontaneous exchange.
But that’s what the poem could offer. When I couldn’t really make direct contact myself, I could at least try to make it through the poem.
Rumpus: What is “the fix”?
Wells: You mean, where does the title come from? Mark Levine. The original title was “The Resurrections,” which was not a great title, but one that made sense to me, because even in the first iteration—which was unwieldy and included a lot of bad poems—I knew there was a desire to die so that a rebirth could be possible. Mark picked up on its themes early on. It’s “the fix” in terms of pain relief through sex, drugs, whatever. But also there’s a kind of relentless testing of the environment, a desire to still the internal stuttering, and find more stable ground. It goes back to the false self. The poems were written during a period when the old way wasn’t going to work anymore, but the new life had failed to materialize. Like living in the cleft of the continent as it’s spreading. Are you going in the drink or are you going to make the leap?
Rumpus: You describe The Fix as a kind of divorce book, one written during “the slow dissolution of [your] first marriage.” I was surprised to see this, because the book felt much wider and rangier to me. Do you still see the book this way?
Wells: Would I say the book is about my divorce? I mean, no. But that unraveling occasioned a lot of the poems. Marriage is an interesting frame, because it’s unfolding in the moment, but it’s also the arena where the past comes back to haunt you—what one’s notion of a family is, and how one gets their needs met in the dyad, and this negotiation of desire, and what parts of self have to be suppressed in order to maintain peace in the unit.
Kristin Dombek has this essay, “Letter from Williamsburg,” where she describes the experience of being immobilized by the question “Is it him or is it me?”—and, of course, it’s neither, or it’s both/and. The proposition is too limiting, and you can tear yourself in half; there’s no answer in the binary. Despair of this-or-that-ness inflected a lot of the poems as I was writing them.
Rumpus: There is a strong thread of religious imagery and language throughout the book (e.g. “Their faces simple / as the hill at Golgotha,” or “You’re the trembling flame that fevered / the flesh of Teresa Avila”) and the speaker is very solitary throughout. This is a book of masturbation—”my own two hands working / deep inside the sheets”—not intercourse (though some of that does, of course, happen), a book of dispossession, and, maybe, possession; of guilt and maybe desire for punishment as well. I’d be curious to know more about your own relationship to religion and/or the spiritual, and how you see either figuring in The Fix.
Wells: Well, first let me say that it’s very masturbatory. Frankly, I was in a dry spell, so it was a real preoccupation for me at the time. And that’s in the Cixous, writing as a way of inhabiting the body: your body is yours, take it!
I’m not sure if there’s an explicit connection between masturbation and religion, but, yeah… I’m interested in mystics, in ecstatic and extreme states, even when they veer into the paranoid/delusional. I wouldn’t call myself a religious person, but it also seems like an arbitrary denial. There’s no system to which I adhere, no particular God I pray to, but I do feel like I’m in conversation with some amorphous force, especially when I’m writing. I mean, what could be more common to say? Most writers have some sort of relationship with the muse or whatever—however you conceptualize it.
Rumpus: Another thread of imagery that moves throughout is that of the beast and the bestial: “I am a beast,” you write. Is this the beast out of the Book of Revelation, the false prophet who opposed Christ?
Wells: I don’t know if I could have said if you didn’t ask. There’s a sort of flailing, homeless grief that has recurred in my own life. It’s almost a sense of possession that has brought me to my knees. But it’s also familiar to me in the people I grew up around—a reactive, childish, self-injuring beast. The poem that’s titled “BEAST” is about someone I was close to and who died by suicide. I guess likening it to possession is the closest I can come. I certainly don’t think of a literal animal.
Rumpus: It’s not the monster in the closet?
Wells: It’s probably in there, too. It might also help to say, though I’d rather not focus too much on what my poems are “about,” that a lot of the people I’ve loved are addicts. When you talk about guilt, I think there’s a certain measure of survivor’s guilt, for sure.
Rumpus: Elsewhere you wrote: “Didn’t motor oil smear that rainbow in me?” I love this idea of beauty (the rainbow) emerging from filth (motor oil) and it reminds me of what you’ve written about Portland, your hometown: ”It’s the Portland I remember best: industrial gray, rain pooling under bridges, big concrete pylons.” How do you think the Portland aesthetic—maybe even the 90s aesthetic—influenced, or lingered in, your writing? I do feel like that quote—with the rainbow and motor oil—captured something of what’s happening the book, maybe a kind of transmutation of the not pretty or dirty into the “beauty” of the lyric.
Wells: I think you’re right to connect the two. Portland, and my milieu in particular, could be pretty gritty, and the people who were charged with my care were sort of, uh, prone to socialize with the world’s fallen. I should probably resist stereotyping my parents and neighbors and stuff. But, later, I found Denis Johnson and others who could write the transcendent and ecstatic within these broken people’s attempts to make their lives go, without resorting to caricature. It reinterpreted my history for me in a way that made it more attractive. It forms a kind of feedback loop: I’m attracted to that in other writers’ work, and naturally I want to create the same tensions in mine.
Rumpus: What books or which poets were you reading a lot while you were working on this?
Wells: I was reading a lot of Denis Johnson and James Wright, another master of the high and low—and Doug Powell, and even some Wyatt and Donne.
For context, when I went to the Workshop, I was so untutored. I’d never taken a proper creative writing class. I had really limited experience with the canon. I’d just been reading my way around the bookstore. I was reading a lot of famous middle-aged poets like Sharon Olds, Carolyn Forché, Li-Young Lee, Joy Harjo, Yusef Komunyakaa—“rockstars” of a certain generation. But few dead people.
So when I was at Iowa I was trying to fill in some of the gaps in my education. I fell in love with Emily Dickinson for the first time at thirty years old, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Rumpus: In The Fix, you write poems in dialogue with many non-poets: Orozco, Klimt, the Talking Heads. Even when you invoke Blake, it is his for work as a visual artist, not as a writer.
Wells: It was probably a device to some extent, or an excuse to think about why those artists moved me. There’s so much of me in the book and “I, I, I”—I just wanted opportunities to explore my obsessions while removing myself as the sole focus. Also, when in doubt of one’s own capacities, it can be heartening to engage someone else’s genius.
Rumpus: Has your work ever been called confessional?
Wells: I don’t know that I’ve heard confessional specifically. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone said that.
In the old days, I wrote these really bad Larry Levis rip-offs with forced epiphanies and in this register that was kind of jokey, and so disconnected from my own experience. People had a lot to say about those poems that I hope doesn’t apply anymore.
Rumpus: I’m curious to hear about what led you to Iowa and the workshop. You had a very unorthodox educational path.
Wells: The short answer is, I’d been working for so long at that point, scrubbing toilets and making coffee—I was sick of it, but I lacked imagination for what else I might be able to do. I made a writer friend who’d gone to MFA school, and was teaching at Portland State. He read some of my poems and was like, “You know, these are promising. You should go to grad school and then get a job teaching.” Because this was the era when that was a conceivable path.
Once I got on the school track, I was pretty devoted. I did undergrad in two-and-a-half years and immediately moved to Iowa City, and I was thrilled—like, wow, I came out of nowhere and these guys are going to pay me to write. It was unthinkable.
Rumpus: As a poet, who, like you, also writes essays, I’m interested to hear what you have to say about the relationship between the genres. How would you say writing the one influences the other?
Wells: I used to do both at the same time. I’d write poems in the morning and then visit a prose draft in the afternoon. It was nice toggling back and forth—I felt like my mind was able to access different vocabularies. But I haven’t written a new poem in two years, basically since I locked into this nonfiction book. It’s proven difficult because, to be honest, I didn’t really know how to write a book when I started.
One thing I will say about prose and poetry: I don’t write lyric essays, but I do think poetry is good preparation for being okay with not really knowing how it’s all going to come together. That’s been helpful. Essayists will say, “The essay is the activity of the mind alive on the page.” They use the same rhetoric.
Rumpus: So is it essays, or is it a single narrative?
Wells: I don’t know yet. I just turned in a draft and that’s a question I asked my editor, if she thinks they’re discrete essays or if they should be stitched into a single narrative. It ended up being more thematically coherent then I proposed originally. And some of the characters wound up returning as I moved through this subcultural network of “rewilding”—people who are anti-civilizationists, people living intentionally in the abandonments of empire in various ways. It’s a small world, as it turns out.
Now I want to write about rock n’ roll, or really anything other than the end of the world.
Rumpus: Do you miss writing poems?
Wells: Yeah. After Iowa, I had a teaching gig in Singapore. I became very sick, and I didn’t yet know with what. I wrote a second book of poems in that period, in a flash. But the second book is also really brutal, because it’s about my deterioration. I hope I’m done with that sort of excavation for a while.
I always feel like I’m starting over. I don’t know how I ever wrote a poem. I really do have that feeling.