The Ravages Of American Poverty
July Westhale’s new book of poetry, ‘Trailer Trash,’ reminds us never to be ashamed of where we come from, even if it almost kills us.
The thing about poetry is that it’s kaleidoscopic, protean, malleable. It’s an art form often very open to projection; what one wants to see is often what one might see. Unlike prose — which, arguably, is exponentially more interested in conveying a clear idea or image — poetry is delightfully layered and fractured, inviting interpretation like a beautifully wanton stare.
This is not to imply that the poet doesn’t have a crystalline agenda, a maybe-convoluted but meticulously rendered journey that they’ve honed and polished with the maniacally deft precision of a master watchmaker.
This is all to say that one doesn’t typically get to float their interpretations to the poet-wizard behind the curtain; usually us logo-philic peons are left wandering the shoals of a poet’s brilliant wordscapes, never quite knowing just what they meant.
It’s a blissful ignorance, but an ignorance nonetheless.
But 2018 has already granted me a tremendous gift; I’ve been able to read a tremendous collection of poetry — behold the glory that is July Westhale’s Trailer Trash — and converse with the aforementioned poet-wizard about all my quandaries, all my grief, all my admiration.
When pressed to talk about how this book came about, July insists that “art is very clever — it happens unconsciously, writing does.” She says that she was actually writing a very different collection about historical figures — Virginia Woolf primarily — when she received a fellowship in 2015 at the Vermont Studio Center.
She sat herself down on the floor, fanned the pages and pages of poems around her, and began indexing everything.
Suddenly she realized, “this was not a book about Virginia Woolf, it was a book about ’80s and ’90s Southern California chemical warfare and poverty. I had spent three years on this manuscript before that, but once I realized what it was really about, it took me a month to finish. I knew exactly what to do with it.”
Trailer Trash is distinctly July’s story — a harrowing tale of grief, childhood, and loss. But it’s also about America, God, and poverty; the collection nimbly toggles, with the grace of a feral cat, between the “I” and the Universal. “You want your readers to be asking questions,” July told me.
And we are.
What can poetry do for a memory that prose can’t? For me, I have always been obsessed with rendering the truth as beautifully as I can — meaning there are decided boundaries that I have to operate in. I need those boundaries. With poetry, storytelling seems boundary-less in that, to me, when you are Telling a Story or Describing a Memory you can render it exquisitely in so many ways. How on earth do you decide how to tell it…
I would argue that poetry — at least in its inception — was actually the most boundaried art form. The fundamental difference between poetry and prose is the white space.
One of the things about canonical poetry — although it’s primarily old white men — is that it teaches you how to break all the old rules.
This book has a lot of religious existential crisis. I grew up in the southern baptist church tradition. Hymns are written in ballad forms. Rhyme and meter create hypnosis in the body. What I love is understanding rhyme and meter and poetic forms as they traditionally exist…but using radically different content. Write a sonnet about fisting someone — that juxtaposition.
Image has always been my greatest strength and my greatest weakness — my mentor in grad school use to call me a metaphor making machine. It’s poetically useful in that I think a lot about the world in the ways one thing represents something else. But if you just have something that’s made up of images there’s no there there.
The thing about poetry too is that it’s very economical. You have to figure out how to go a long way with very little. Everything is extremely intentional. Words aren’t there by accident.
‘Poets are really amazing liars.’
Are you a dogged 3-hour-a-day writer/thinker or do you dash things off on napkins and notebooks as they come to you? Or are you somewhere in the middle…do particular feelings or stories gnaw gnaw gnaw at you to be told? Is poetry a purging?
I do journal a lot…and I do believe in a pretty well-worn path of getting the junk out of your brain. And I go through periods of hyper-productivity — intense reading and then intense writing. I do write a lot. I am prolific. The vast majority might not be good, but that’s not the point.
I will say, I’m a neurotic person — everything has to be just so. Down to the pencil. Right now I am in a period of intense writing. This last year was amazing in terms of publications, but it was so focused on editorial, marketing, tour planning — it didn’t leave a lot of bandwidth to create new stuff. I don’t know what’s coming next. I guess I’ll just start writing now and then I’ll know in a couple years what it will be about…
I’m always curious when folks write memoir — and indeed “Trailer Trash” feels like a deeply personal and familial collection. How much restraint do we “owe” to those in our life that we write about? When are our stories our own to tell?
This is an issue I will have to sit down with when I write memoir. These poems are autobiographical, but they’re still poetic representations of it…they’re still translations of experiences.
Even though I write a lot about people in my life that are living, like my sister…a lot of people I am writing about are not living. Honestly this is a bigass book about my mom. And she’s not living. A lot of these memories exist through the dishonesty of hindsight. I also experience some privilege in that the people in my family don’t really read. They’re just not readers. So there’s a lot of privacy for me — that is both exciting and a bit heartbreaking.
Richard Hugo says in Triggering Town, “you owe your emotions everything and the truth nothing.” You’re not writing a news report. But don’t be an asshole.
Our stories are always our own to tell. Folks who are marginalized already have enough people telling them not to speak or erasing their words. I don’t want to live in a world where people are telling other people not to tell their stories…
I mean, christ, me either, but I still kind of lose sleep about it.
So…how much time does this collection represent? What was the most difficult and wonderful thing about this book of poems? How do you know when you’re “done”?
The whole collection in total took about three years. The most difficult thing about this book was actually the editorial process with the editor — Ann Dernier — who is an amazing women. When the manuscript was accepted she said, “I’m going to work with you”…and she really pushed me in a couple of poems to expand into broader meanings.
A lot of the poems were more finished than others, which is an arbitrary allocation but…the ones she was pushing me to edit were the ones that were the most emotionally difficult for me, which makes sense right? When you’re close to something you can’t write it in the same surgical way — it’s nothing that’s imagined or distanced.
Because so few publications support high-quality work from marginalized voices — and pay.theestablishment.co
Retelling the story of when I heard my mother had died [in the poem “Dead Mom,” or “How News Travels in a Small Town”] was excruciating for me. I was trying to write a la Szymborska’s poem “Identification.” Ann kept pushing me and pushing me and the result is great, but it’s not a poem I’ll read at readings. I don’t think I’ll ever read it again. It’s the one poem I’ve ever written that feels like too much.
And the best part….?
The best thing about the book for me is that it’s a book about class. Poetry is often considered to be an academic sport. An elitist sport. Something that belongs to people with privilege even though in America we have an amazing canon of poets who write about work. Like Philip Levine. I feel extremely proud and excited that my first full-length collection is all about a very specific kind of wrecked and ravaged agriculture — a kind of poverty that exists in abundance in this country.
What kind of child were you? I know a bit from reading your essays, but did reading play a role in escaping what seems to be a goddamn difficult childhood? I think for myself, escaping, or immersing in books, felt very different than realizing I could write myself. And in truth, writing is the opposite of escaping for me. It’s delving. When did you know you wanted to write? What’s your relationship to words?
I was a strange child. Dreamy and very much in my own head. The white space around me was filled with grief. There was very little I did or could do to alleviate that. I had imaginary horses and I would charge people to ride them. I was six. My [adoptive] mother made me give the money back but…I think there was an aura around orphans which was driven by the media at the time. A lot of the mainstream characters in ’80s and ’90s literature were orphans…which isn’t so anymore.
No one wants to hang out with [orphans]…but they’re also powerful. My mother died in 1991. Time marches forward. I was like one of those plants that grows around the cement instead of smashing through it.
I got my love of reading from my birth mom…I think that because I had a really rough childhood, especially my early childhood, I was expected to be an adult a lot of the time — the adults were not doing a great job of being adults. Reading was absolutely an escape.
Reading became a thing that was mine — it was a hangover from my life with my birth mom that I brought to California with me.
I would love to talk about specific moments and themes in some of the poems themselves…
The opening poem — “Ars Poetica” — is just gut-wrenching…it’s one of my favorites in the collection.
It feels so beautifully loaded, all wrapped up in this gauze of the Fairytale. Love has betrayal baked into its guts I suppose. I also feel as though one self is murdering another self? Which is perhaps something we all do, but maybe without that seemingly cruel level of calm. How much do you think about the first poem setting the tone for the entire book?
Excerpt from “Ars Poetica”
One would like to see oneself walking through the forest as two girls/ along a creek, the golden carp under the ice like blurred poppies.
The tall, hooded girl will extend a basket, offering bread and water, a kindly/ face and a thick cloak…
We can assume systemically — not anecdotally — that all choices in a book are intentional. This is a kind of poetry manifesto. The poem is about two girls walking in the woods. They both share some of the same resources — it’s a beautiful setting, and then…that’s the way the poetry process works. Things work until they don’t.
I guess that writing and brutality go hand in hand in ways that we don’t want to admit. This poem is almost like a legend — it’s not a disclaimer and it’s not apologizing, but it’s a way to read this book.
Excerpt from “Tomato”
… “Once I was a hothouse gone to seed
in a trailer park in Blythe, the sky
vermillion in airlessness, in suffocating
sunsets of dust and pesticides,
our food dead and gone. The dinner table
was the color of a beetle trapped in sap.”
Can you talk a bit about the evolving role of religion and faith in your life…there is a tremendous amount of religious wrestling and imagery in this collection.
Excerpt from “Crop Dusters”
…Our melon fields have been blessed by the Lord.
We and our canals are filth waiting to be turned to loaves.
The role of religion is one that is complicated, but complicated in the same way that it’s complicated for anyone who is raised religiously. I feel grateful to the church for rhyme and meter and reverence and music and sound.
I’m not a religious person myself, but I think the presence of it in this book is actually more about the ways in which religion and poverty go hand in hand. We live in Christian country and many poor agricultural rural parts of this country are extremely religious.
In rurality, everything is amplified.
Violence in these rural plains settings — like the brutality and anguish of the murder of Brandon Teena [the young trans man who inspired the film Boys Don’t Cry] in Nebraska — affect us in a way that it wouldn’t have set against the skyscrapers in New York City. We assume there will be violence in a city. It’s not that we’re desensitized…but. We have a false sense of security.
I am trying to parallel this idea of faith and whatever God is…and say it’s more resonant and more omnipotent in rural places because of the amount of actual space that faith can take up. But also in the fact that rural places mean poverty and poverty comes with an assumed sense of devote-ness. The world isn’t giving you anything…so that must be the lord’s way.
I want to show how religion and poverty inform and touch upon one another in a way that is so starkly American.
This poem feels like a kind of forgiveness, which again, feels like a return to a kind of faith, to a kind of religiosity. This idea of people formally and publicly receiving forgiveness for their sins…
Excerpt from “Saguaros”
Blythe rises in welts.
It pinches California and my mother,
the menstruating horizon between the two….
For truth, I say I remember
this mother, the mother of my nights
bringing home a jackrabbit,
pulling a tooth trap from its pelage to slit
the pregnant belly, knowing
the body to be a stasis and the desert a hell,
and the knife the only bridge between the two.
This entire book takes place in the desert. If we’re talking about the ways that landscape can highlight emotion…the desert is a place where you live or die. You better be prepared to inhabit this entirely uninhabitable place for humans.
And that’s a helluva thing to be brought into. But I still feel at home in the desert.
The desert is really volatile. It can change temperatures radically in just a few hours. It can be completely clear and full of light…and then suddenly pouring. Nobody does thunderstorms like the desert.
When insects sing in the desert it takes up everything. Frogs and crickets and coyote in the desert — just the sheer volume of it. There is so much out there that is able to yell that you haven’t seen! It’s not insignificant that the relationship between the speaker and mother is all about survival.
The odds are against your survival.
This collection is chock full of menses and menstruation. Why/how does all this uteral lining play such a poignant role in this collection? How does it — besides literally — dovetail with motherhood? With your own potentiality as Mother?
Excerpt from “Etiquette”
My granddaddy is a man of God.
He drove a busted truck, the color
of menses, through Death Valley.
As for menstruation…I think that these are visceral things we’re talking about and they deserve something visceral. There is unrealized potential in periods.
My mother was bedridden the entire 9 months and gave birth alone. It’s incredible to me. She wasn’t with my stepdad and my family didn’t even know that she was pregnant. She was very estranged from my maternal family. They were very WASPy and didn’t talk about things and I have the feeling that my mother was someone who DID talk about things…
Men. Holy moly. WHAT DO WE SAY ABOUT THE MEN IN OUR LIFE DEAR JULY. But this poem felt tender to me. It also felt like a kind of forgiveness in the way he was willing to try and make Blythe, California beautiful when you both knew full well it was a lie…
Excerpt from ‘Wake’
The Colorado River is getting big
in the britches, stepping on Blythe
like that. All wild goose and border.
Some country, hey kiddo?
The lie uplifts us. Our cotton
hasn’t been watered all year, and our towns
are blossoms of mosquitos.
I like American literature a good deal because of its spareness. The things we can say about it and the country in the voice of the public…the poems come out kind of plain, but that feels intuitive.
You are driving along…then suddenly the water is up to your door handle. You can’t do anything else. You just wait. You go to this place that is exceptionally dry — in front and behind, you think you see water. A flash flood waiting to wash you out.
We were trying so hard not to talk about it. About her.
So many of these poems tackle poverty and the potent (non)presence of food. I loved this powerful and tangled conflation of momentarily communing with God, accepting one’s fate while also ascending/transcending your being somehow…
Excerpt from “Cootie Catcher”
We ate the carp, carp is poor
folks’ food. We take communion
regularly. This is no different.
Riddle me this world. If God is the main farmer here…and he’s heading up agricultural production, which in turn is the machine that creates food…I guess then we turn that food back into his body and we eat it? But in this idea that the meek/poor inherit the earth…we end up eating ourselves.
My uncle was found dead where we went fishing. I became obsessed with this idea of something that seems harmless, but isn’t. We ate fish from those canals all the time…there is a cyclical nature of depending on God for food. Which may or not may come, but when it does we turn it into communion….
Memory, memory, memory. How deceptive, how haunting, how lovely and terrible it is to hold all of these stories behind our eyelids…
I often look at young beautiful photographs of my parents, and think, why why why couldn’t I have known you then? Look! You’re joyous. You’re light, buoyant — you are yet to be what I know you will become. The photographs just about break my fucking heart.
How much did you talk to family, look at photographs, revisit your old haunts to be haunted in writing this book….?
Excerpt from “Meditation on a Lost Photo Booth Picture”
…Though I am not there, I feel the center/ of there, of theirs. As if they knew,
preemptively, that they would not be able/ to see me in this unfamiliar place, at the desk of
my life,/ and thought to take this picture so that they, too, might participate. I know this/ is
self-indulgent. I know this is arrogant. I know/ these are stories I tell myself as I fall asleep,
fearing death or impermanence./…
In 2012 I gained access to this storage unit that had all of my mom’s belongings in it…when she died in 1999, my grieving stepdad just put all her things in there and locked it up.
I went out there during Thanksgiving 2012 and went through all these belongings and it was a profound experience of agony for me. Having lost her at such a young age there were so many ways in which I didn’t feel like I knew her. And in this way, I got to know — acutely — everything I had lost in losing her. It was devastating, but also an amazing gift. I had baby pictures. My mother was also a writer — she wrote me letters. And photos. And these things of her — I didn’t get too much but what I did get are my most prized possessions.
I had complex PTSD from childhood trauma…this book was written with the research of memory and experience. People in my family don’t know what happened — she was so estranged at the time.
I was looking at a photo when I wrote that poem.
Even though these poems are based in autobiography, they are actually about things much larger than me. My hope is that people who have been othered or don’t have class privilege or find a lot of solace in poetry or songs or hymns…people who have experienced trauma or not…that wide gamut of people will find themselves reflected in the work.
Ultimately it’s a book about triumph. It’s not a book about grief. It’s about the ways in which people triumph in the the things they are asked to do. By God. Or by society. In thinking about it, this isn’t so much my memoir or my story but one way of thinking about these very complex identity questions in relation to the impoverished American landscape.
What’s next on your radar…what are you keen to write or do next?
A book of micro essays, something similar to Ann Carson’s Short Talks.
I think people poo-poo prose poems…not out-loud, but…
Why is that you think?
I think because there’s this erroneous idea that it doesn’t make use of the one thing that poetry has uniquely going for it — i.e. white space. Efficiency. If you’re talking about prose poetry, how are you delineating — literally — between prose and poetry. The answer is, you don’t have to.