Wendy Willis is a poet and a lawyer. That combination alone made me jump at the opportunity to speak with her about her new essay collection, These Are Strange Times, My Dear, out today from Counterpoint Press. The collection, subtitled “field notes from the Republic,” combines poems, lyricism, and civil analysis in refreshingly short essays.
Her second book of poems, A Long Late Pledge (Bear Star Press, 2017), won the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize. Wendy has published poems and essays in a wide variety of journals, including New England Review, Oregon Humanities, Poetry Northwest, The Rumpus, Zócalo Public Square, and ZYZZYVA. Willis is a faculty member in poetry at the Attic Institute in Portland, Oregon. She is also the Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the founder and director of Oregon’s Kitchen Table. After graduating magna cum laude from Georgetown Law Center, Wendy worked as a federal public defender and as the law clerk to Chief Justice Wallace P. Carson, Jr. of the Oregon Supreme Court. Willis holds a BA from Willamette University and an MFA in poetry from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.
Willis and I spoke at my home, in Portland, Oregon, where she also lives. We discussed the perils of law school and its influence on her creative pursuits, interiority, and her new essay collection.
You can read an exclusive excerpt from These Are Strange Times, My Dear here.
Rumpus: Before going to law school, did you major in poetry or creative writing as an undergraduate?
Willis: No, in political science.
Rumpus: Did you have your eye on law school at that point?
Willis: No, I mean I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. And I actually went through the first year of law school that way. I took no bar subject classes. I only took the ones required by my school. I thought: I don’t know if I’ll ever take the bar. I liked school. So I just approached it like school. So actually I had a good experience in law school because of that.
Rumpus: Yeah, I loved law school. That was not the traumatic part for me, although I will say looking back, I do think that legal writing really changed my writing—I remember having a breakdown and being like, you really want me to write the same sentence over and over again? I didn’t understand. It was so formulaic.
Willis: It was weird. And I actually taught legal writing one for a year as well to make extra money when I was a clerk, and that was really weird. Teaching it. It was worse to teach it than to take it. It’s funny, it’s sort of like, I can’t believe I’m telling someone to do this.
Rumpus: Moving on to your essay collection, These Are Strange Times, My Dear. In one of the essays, you describe your poetry process like a curation of different things that maybe go together. You keep lists and research?
Willis: It’s associational more than it is formal research. More like, that shiny object is interesting. This one is interesting. And these things have some emotional connection, but not a logical one. So it’s research but it’s not in an intellectual way.
Rumpus: There is a core, in this collection, of questions about transparency versus secrets. You touched on a lot of different versions of information versus the sphere of privacy.
Willis: Yes. When I looked at these essays, I thought: oh, I only think about three things. Four, maybe.
Rumpus: Well, we all have obsessions…
Willis: Oftentimes short term, right?
Rumpus: Yes. I mean there’s certain stories that will never leave and I’ve probably written the same story maybe sixteen times. But then there are themes. Like, I took a class about liminality. After that, oh! Everything was liminal. The whole door blew open. And then it was as if the word liminal was everywhere, too.
Willis: It is like that, definitely, when something surfaces.
Rumpus: So, you saw your collection in terms of these three or four obsessions. Was one of them related to softness? I loved when you mentioned going to law school because you’d thought it was going to make you less soft, and how that didn’t really play out.
Willis: That question of how our internal world approaches the external world. I’m always questioning that relationship and I’m sort of suspicious of my own reactions. So it’s never been resolved for me. It’s always, am I responding to this out of some self-protection or out of some sense of a moral compulsion? I often feel like that is just my big question that I’ll always be negotiating: the internal versus external. And I chose one really expensive route as a twenty-three-year-old because I didn’t know that the question would still be there after law school. I thought, oh, I can answer this question, come down on one side, and be done with it. And the good thing about being middle-aged is that I’ve realized I’m not done. I feel much more settled with the unsettledness than I did. I think it’s sort of similar to what you were saying, right? Like you think when I’m thirty, I’ll just know.
Rumpus: Now I’ve pushed that to sixty. I’m going to be kickass, and everything’s going to come together then, right?
Willis: Yes. We’re in a constant state of projection. We’re so committed to having to know and to be certain about everything. I’m really trying to just recognize this is now, this is my life. I mean, I don’t know if it’s true for everyone, but my negotiation of the internal and the external is really my ongoing question.
Rumpus: You talk about loving secrets and confronting this idea of keeping things quiet and close and internal versus the ideal of transparency and honesty and all of these things that we say we want to know. What are some reasons you were drawn to this topic?
Willis: I love the time between being awake and asleep…
Rumpus: The liminal space!
Willis: Yes, in the liminal space. Either at night, you know, even in the middle of the night. Lately I’ve been coughing, which means I’m awake, a lot. But I don’t mind it because that space feels like a really secret space. It feels like all these thoughts and fragments and intrusions, these images are at play there. And I remember that as my childhood space, that sort of dream state. That was my most secret place. I didn’t have the kind of secrets like stealing stuff. But interiority had this magnetism that I really was protective of.
I come from a very practical people, you know, it’s about getting stuff done. And I can get stuff done and I like getting stuff done but I still need that little grasp of the of the divine inside. This was something I really valued but never talked about. So I think that’s the core of a kind of interiority that I really appreciate. And when we as a society ask people, when we explicitly elevate transparency as one of our really high values, I question what that means. What is required of humans to be entirely transparent? I fear what that does is value externality and that imbalance creates a kind of shallowness and lack of knowledge of the inner self. And some people never have a relationship with themselves.
Rumpus: All this talk about interiority reminds me of your essay on the S-Town podcast, and how the deeply personal information of its subject, John B. McLemore, became external. Do you think that your appreciation for interiority was why that revelation was so upsetting?
Willis: I could argue that question either way. Because on one hand I felt like, wow, I would never have released that tape. Especially after John B. McLemore died, like that was touchy decision-making to release the information about “church” when they were, they were doing these pain rituals. But I also felt like I sort of understood them so much differently because I got a glimpse into their humanity. It wasn’t just a funny, eccentric Southern Gothic view of the world. Now it was so violently human. This is where nonfiction writers and fiction writers have this ongoing conversation about truthiness. But I think that’s what fiction gives us: a picture of someone’s inner life that is not our own, without the ethical questions of whether it’s okay to share it. And the ethical questions are in S-Town; I think on one hand, absolutely, it was a gray area. And on the other hand, I felt so much intimacy with the people in a way that I wouldn’t have if they had stuck with the traditional way of telling a story.
Rumpus: It’s interesting because I only listen to podcasts to hear real people talk about their stuff. Lately, I’ve heard a couple of times that something is a fictional podcast and I don’t care about listening. It’s just boring to me.
Willis: Me too! I’ve tried those mystery ones. I should like them. I feel like I should. But I wander away from them.
Rumpus: But there’s something about the podcast format. I’m not interested in hearing fictionalized one. If they’d called S-Town a novel, which you noted in your essay, it kind of is in many ways, I never would have listened. But because we get this view of McLemore’s interiority that may or may not have been the ethically right thing to share, we end up having some empathy or feeling for him as a human being which is profound and important. It seems every week the New York Times or the Washington Post runs a story about this or that sad Trump supporter. You know, their wife got deported, they didn’t realize that would happen. I mean, it’s hard because I’m just full of fury. I don’t feel empathy. But is that what they’re trying to do? Is that also an attempt to humanize?
Willis: I think I have a lack of imagination for Trump supporters. Like what makes them so angry? What would make you so angry that you would decide to get involved with Trump? With a movement that’s based on xenophobia and fear and hate? I have a profound failure of imagination. I try to think about why.
Rumpus: But you worked in the federal public defender’s office, and you didn’t have a hard time imagining your clients’ circumstances, did you? A lot of people say, oh, I could never be a defense attorney because those people are horrible or whatever, but you were genuinely able to find empathy.
Willis: But I didn’t have to imagine. They were real, my clients were real. It was real people with super complex lives. When I left the federal defenders office, there was a little gathering and a judge said to me, “I can really understand why you’re leaving. Your clients. They tell the same story.” And I was shocked. It’s not because their stories are the same. It’s because the sentencing guidelines say these three factors are relevant, and so it sounds the same to the judge because it’s put through the system, not because they’re all the same.
But I think the comparison you draw between criminal defendants—many of whom have done violent or at least transgressive things— and dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporters is really interesting. It is easier—much easier, actually—for me to have empathy for criminal defendants than for people who I see as xenophobic or racist or otherwise motivated by anger and animus. I have had much more intimate contact with the criminally accused than I have had with the MAGA crowd. Of course, I know some Trump supporters, but many of them have real reservations about the president, his policies, and his moral standards. I don’t really know very many people who continue to support him regardless of his callousness. So it takes a lot less imagination for me to be able to understand the criminally accused than the committed Trump voter. That’s something, isn’t it? The moral, I suppose, is that I need to work a little harder in order to prime the pump of my empathetic imagination.
Rumpus: That’s interesting what the judge said to you, about defendants having the same story, and of course, because they’re hearing it back in the form that they have essentially asked for. Write a five paragraph essay; what did you want me to do with that?
Willis: We’re back to legal writing.
Rumpus: Exactly. A formula.
Another theme from your collection that was interesting to me was your grappling with the corporeal—the body of the person, versus the corporate and the non-person, and this absurd idea of corporate citizenship. How do we as human beings interact with corporate bodies, if we’re going to call them that?
Willis: Actually, in writing that essay, I never put together the corporate and corporeal as related. I didn’t put the words together until I started thinking about corporate personhood. And of course I had the same reaction to corporate personhood that most people do. It’s stupid and outrageous and it elevates corporations in a way that gives them additional power. But then just in sitting with it over years, I began to think it’s also just so metaphorically poisonous. Both poisonous to the culture but also poisonous to our sense of self, like the idea that the human struggles. Like, you know, you think about illness and racism and all the things associated with bodies? None of that is the struggle for a corporation. A corporation has three programmed thoughts, one of which is make money. And so to go through this charade that there’s human struggle inside a corporation is just not true. As a metaphor corporate personhood has a kind of corrosiveness that I find really wrong.
Rumpus: Plus, corporations are a kind of vampiric immortals. We’re all going to get sick and die, and yet corporations that have gotten sick and died, basically bankrupted, they just come back in another form.
Willis: Well especially in these First Amendment cases, you know. As I think about the First Amendment, I think about it as protecting one’s ability to think and struggle and pray and do all of the things that make us vulnerable. Complex. And the idea that personhood is the hill the corporations have decided to climb is grotesque. They don’t pray, or speak, or have vulnerability.
Rumpus: I liked how you claimed the Bill of Rights and reordered them in the one essay “A Gnostic Bill of Rights.” How did that idea come to you?
Willis: Oh, I don’t know exactly. I mean, I was thinking about the Bill of Rights. I’m still thinking about it. That was the last piece I wrote for this book. I’m not really done with that set of thoughts. I felt like my relationship to the Bill of Rights… everybody has an idiosyncratic relationship to the Bill of Rights and everyone should. And that if it’s going to be a document with a real relationship to humans, I think we need to, to relate to it in a human way.
Rumpus: I’m assuming that the Kavanaugh stuff happened too late for you to write about it in your book?
Rumpus: I feel that objective education is one of the weird violences of law school. But one of the great parts of the education is the way you learn civics, the Supreme Court, etc. I don’t know, I’ve lost my ability to think of it as some sort of moral body.
Willis: The Kavanaugh hearings are probably the low point of the Trump administration to date for me personally. Maybe that and the child separation. But in some ways separation—we don’t have television, so I didn’t see it. I was reading about it. There was something. But there was one step removed, like I can imagine it, but I wasn’t seeing it except for the photographs in the Times. And there was something about the “play” of the Kavanaugh hearings in my house that was a real low point. Part of it is because of my relationship to the Supreme Court. Part of it is because of being a victim of sexual violence, and seeing that play out and seeing how it played out for Dr. Blasey Ford and I mean, it just felt, it just felt like the entire country was re-traumatized by it.
Rumpus: I had such a hard time putting my response to that hearing into context. It made no sense to me that I was re-traumatized, and yet I was. The way her story was taken away from her and turned into something that served much bigger machinery than this one person in her life, her small interior pain, you know? Which is really what happened and we had to watch a committee tell her, “no, this isn’t what happened to you. What happened to you was something else with some other guy.” I just don’t know if I will ever be able to believe in the Court, give it the same esteem, because it feels so tainted.
Willis: I felt horrendous about him obviously, but after his testimony I actually felt really frightened of him. I actually was afraid of him.
Rumpus: He behaved exactly the way that people who feel entitled to have sex with whoever they want behave. Clearly nobody had ever said no to him in his life in a way that he’d had to respect. But this makes me wonder about law school and your sensitive, creative heart… you know how law school trains you to sort of be an objective thinker? Almost a trained disassociation?
Rumpus:. Did you grapple with the violence of that? Like, we ask attorneys and judges to be disconnected from their emotions within a system that perpetuates such horrible violence—doesn’t some of that perpetuated violence stem from the forced objectivity?
Willis: I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that. It’s an imperfect system. And I understand the critiques of a system that sort of elevates neutrality, this kind of false neutrality, while imposing power structures on people. And our system creates tremendous injustices. But I also know that a system that is entirely subjective also has injustices built into it. And how do we make things more whole, how do we make systems and our culture more whole? We have to be in relationship with both intellectual rigor and a sense of mercy and justice and mystery and confusion, and that’s required of all of us. And recognizing that we want to take each step to be more just. But the critique alone isn’t enough. We have to do something. And so how do we both deconstruct and construct at the same time?
There are so many ways in which the legal system in general, and the criminal justice system in particular, is dehumanizing and unjust. And the classic neutrality-from-on-high stance is central to some of that injustice. But while we are clear in our critiques, we are far less clear in our aspirations for what a just system would look and feel like. In some ways, the culture has become so expert at criticism that our generative muscles are weakening. I want us to be able to both critique and build at the same time. I want us to hold both the consciousness of injustice and high aspirations for a more equitable world simultaneously. I love it when Congressman John Lewis encourages us to act as if the beloved community already exists. Then he asks: What does it look like? Feel like? There’s something in that way of looking at it, I think. And as citizens, that’s also our calling: to stay in aspiration while we’re also trying to fix it.
Photograph of Wendy Willis by Kitta Bodmer Photography.