Conversations with Contributors: Anna Rose Welch / by Peter LaBerge

BY SAMANTHA SETO

 Anna Rose Welch, contributor to  Issue Twelve  and author of  We, the Almighty Fires  (Alice James Books, 2018).

Anna Rose Welch, contributor to Issue Twelve and author of We, the Almighty Fires (Alice James Books, 2018).

Anna Rose Welch earned her MFA from Bowling Green State University. Her poems can be found in a number of publications, including Best New Poets 2014, The Kenyon Review Online, The Paris-American, Guernica, The Adroit Journal, Crab Orchard Review, and others. Her first book, We, the Almighty Fires, won the 2016 Alice James Award and was published by Alice James Books in April 2018. She currently lives in Erie, PA, where she is the Chief Editor of an online pharmaceutical publication (Biosimilar Development) and a violinist in the Presque Isle Pro Musica chamber orchestra.

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Samantha Seto: Congratulations on your book!

Anna Rose Welch: Thank you so much and thank you even more for reading and taking the time to chat with me about it!

SS: Why were you drawn to the Old Testament stories around which the book is written? How did you come to the decision to arrange the book into its four parts?

ARW: To be honest—and this is going to sound more demented than I would like it to—but I was drawn to the violence of those stories. If we’re looking at the Old Testament stories as works of fiction or myths, they carry so much more emotional heft. I’m also drawn to the notion of a vengeful God because it’s a more interesting concept for my narrator to grapple with and challenge. So much of what my narrator struggles with is how to balance free will in the face of whatever has some kind of power over them—whether it be another person, a deity, lust/love, or even art. I am a spiritual person, and I had a positive experience growing up in the church. I was never taught to fear God, which is probably a big part of why I’m drawn to the darkness of the Old Testament. There are so many silences in these stories—so many instances of being told to do something or face the consequences with the rest of humanity that have lost their way. And though I studied these darker stories in Sunday School, I was never told that I was doomed or that one wrong step would lead me astray and throw me outside of God’s good graces. The Great Flood story, which is the most prominent biblical story explored throughout the book, is just as much a story about rebirth as it is destruction. God didn’t like the world he’d created and destroyed it. What came next He hoped would be a better creation. My narrator, I think, has the same hope.

I wish I could say that the organization of the Bible had something to do with the organization of my book into four parts. But I felt it fit best in four sections because of the two longer poems in the book—Noah’s Wife and Noah’s Woods—which fit so organically as their own sections. The six Noah’s Wife poems—one for each time she’s referred to and never given a name in the Bible—served as an interlude or inflection point for the narrator. I wanted to give voice to some of these silenced old testament voices, and in turn, spur the narrator on towards their own “genesis story” in Noah’s Woods.

SS: There are many references to art in this collection, many of which depict religious or classical imagery: Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy in “Rough Music,” for example, or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in “Noah’s Woods.” In the second part of “Noah’s Woods,” the speaker points to the simple art of the craft, “we glued popsicle sticks into rafts,” reminding your readers that anyone is able to create art. Why did you pick the pieces that you did? Do you have a background in art history? Where did your interest in writing about art come from?

ARW: I had a feeling when I went to college that I’d end up an English major, but I also wanted to explore other subjects on the off-chance that I’d find something I loved just as much, or more. Art history almost seduced me away from pursuing English. My freshman year, I enrolled in an art history survey class, and despite the fact it was at 8 AM, there was something wonderful about being sleep deprived in that dark room watching the slides and hearing my professor talk about art techniques and subject matter—a majority of which was religious. Though, in the end, English/creative writing became my major, I loved art history so much that I ended up getting a minor in Medieval Renaissance studies because it combined history, religious studies, and, most importantly, art history. One course in particular—an upper level seminar on “The Renaissance Woman”—continued to haunt me for years after and was a big influence on my work. So much of the scholarly literature we read in that class circled around the female body and how the body was depicted through art, or how women altered, abused, or subjected their bodies to extreme conditions in an effort to express piety. I was also drawn to the merging of the sacred and the erotic. So much of the artwork in the Renaissance played with this—and there’s no better example than St. Theresa in Ecstasy. I love how this almost in-your-face erotic clashes with The Birth of Venus, which is an image of demure innocence.

SS: Tell me more about the love affair you describe in your book. In “After You Left,” for example, you elaborate on making love: “He whispered: Listen. Something’s devouring the leaves. / Like this, he said, searching my mouth until I tasted salt. / Like this, his palms said, sinking to my hipbones.” The narrative seems to be grounded in the lyrical present. Are you writing about how you experience love, or have you imagined the lover who appears in your poems?

ARW: There are actually very few instances in the book in which the lovers or love affairs described are truly how I have experienced love—and that’s the case in After You Left. A lot of these poems were written during a period of my life in graduate school when I was trying to take more risks and shock myself by what I was writing. I was newly single, spending hours in the same café night after night writing, and I was in love with the thought of being able to create any kind of relationship (or sexy goings-on) I wanted to on the page. After You Left was an exercise in vulnerability; up until that point, I’d never written anything that forwardly sensual and disturbing.    

SS: In these poems, the body illustrates the beauty of movement and seems to be used to express human nature. In “Rough Music,” you’ve used sensory detail to portray the body of the speaker’s lover, “Without clothes / you’re evidence man was created in the Lord’s image.” In “As If Out of Clay,” you write, “I wore pearls like any other bride / and he bit them from my neck like any other man / tears the apple from its core.” And in part VI of “Noah’s Woods,” you describe the beauty of the human body: “I saw two photographs of a dancer: one where her lover lay on the ground before her, his arm pressed to her breastbone.” Why do you find the human body to be the best conduit for these particular stories and/or for your poems?

ARW: I’ve always been fascinated by the body and the different ways it works from person to person. Once, I went with my brother to his appointment at the Cleveland Clinic. I remember looking around at the people walking through the hallways and sitting in waiting rooms filling out forms, thinking about all that can go wrong with the body. And, often, there’s no way to keep whatever is going to happen to it from happening. The body presents us with a fascinating duality. There’s nothing we really understand more than our own bodies—we come to learn what foods will be harmful for us, what medicines we shouldn’t take, what makes us feel good, and when doesn’t. But at the same time, we can’t always control what our body chooses to do to itself; we are at the mercy of our genes, which means we have proclivities for certain chronic diseases or addictions, and for frustrating (yet fascinating) scientific reasons, medicines work differently from person to person.

I also was drawn to the body given my background studying texts about Medieval/Renaissance women and how female saints in particular demonstrated their loyalty to God. So often it involved deprivation and suffering. One of the many non-poetry scholarly books I was reading during my writing spree in grad school was The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 by Caroline Walker Bynum. There was much discussion about the fragmentation of the body, one particularly beautiful passage being, “The body decays only into indestructible bits which God can reassemble or recast as a statue, or as a jeweler, making a mosaic, puts the stones back together again.” I have notebooks full of snippets from texts such as these about the body, and several of the poems in the book—for instance, Redemption, Ravishment, and even pieces of Noah’s Woods—play around with the fragmentation of the body. Depending on who the early Christian writer was, that fragmentation was either something that was a threat to your redemption or a symbol of the spiritual over the physiological.  

SS: Your collection is full of classical Greek and Roman mythology. What is it about antiquity—classical or biblical, or a combination of the two—that allows you to speak to female desire and empowerment?

ARW: When I was first getting into my book, I was fascinated with mining culture: the act of digging into the earth and harvesting the darkest pieces of it that would give the world light. Though I failed miserably at actually writing solely about mining (though my family’s roots are in mining culture), it turned out that my book ended up being an excavation. My poems became obsessed with digging into history and unearthing the stories and voices that haven’t always been heard and finding solidarity with them. I’d like to believe the women that came before me—or the mythmakers—had some of the same questions, frustrations, and identity-shaping experiences as I have had.  

SS: Many of your lines are musical. Eugene Gloria, whose blurb graces your book’s back cover, wrote, “There is a keen attention to music in these poems—a crafting of sound as sturdy as an ark in a biblical flood and as obsessive as the water’s recursive singing.” You’re also a violinist. How do you see music influencing your poetry, and your poetry influencing your music?

ARW: When I was younger, music was a big influence on my writing. The poems I wrote in high school were not completed poems until I had included references to every instrument found in an orchestra. If I learned anything as I became a more advanced writer, it was that, A.) a literal orchestra doesn’t belong in a poem, and B.) that the more time I spent practicing violin, the fewer poems I actually wrote. When I was in grad school, I took private lessons for two years and played in the orchestra for a semester. Given the regular rehearsal schedule and the practice required for the orchestra, on top of private lessons, I was devoting a significant portion of my days to practicing as opposed to writing. So, I ended up leaving the orchestra (though I loved it) and was better able to balance lessons/daily practice and poems.

I’m currently floating about in seemingly unending silence, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I find myself thinking more and more about the Bach d-minor sonata for unaccompanied violin. Playing violin was my first love—I started when I was five—and it was always a critical part of my identity and a huge source of pride (and it still is). It was my second voice—where words failed, my violin was there. Music undoubtedly influenced the sounds and rhythms of each poem. But what I find puzzling is the fact that, while the violin is a lyrical and romantic instrument, known for its soaring melodies in orchestras, so many of my poems—especially today—reject long lines. I’m drawn to stark, brief, end-stopped declarative sentences and double-spaced lines. It’s the absolute opposite of the sound I strive for when playing violin. It’s an interesting dichotomy I don’t quite understand, and I probably never will.

SS: What is your writing process? You’re an editor for Biosimilar Development; is your writing process for poetry different from that of your editorial work? Did you write each poem in Fires to stand alone, individually, or did you write the poems collectively for this book? How long did it take you to put together this collection?

ARW: So much of this collection was written in a quick burst in about a six-month period during my final year of grad school. I could barely keep up with myself at the time. Some of the other poems eventually came out in the year or so after graduation. Overall, during the process of writing the poems, I was aware that I loved writing about water in all forms and many of the poems had to do with God or womanhood. But I wasn’t thinking about them as an overarching conversation or collection outside of putting them together into my thesis. It ended up that, once I put them all together into a thesis, the poems were quite cohesive with each other in a way that leant itself well to a book manuscript. My thesis advisor encouraged me to take a chance and start submitting it.

SS: Along those same lines, how does your work with Biosimilar Development affect your poetry and/or your poetry-writing process?

ARW: My job was a pleasant surprise. When I first started working for my company managing a variety of different pharmaceutical publications, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I felt lucky enough to be an English major and to have ended up in an editorial position at all. But I also expected it would be a step towards something else non-pharmaceutical related eventually. When I first took the helm of Biosimilar Development, I legitimately began to love what I was doing. I’ve always been a curious person. But before taking this job, I don’t think I quite realized what a gift and necessity it is for me to have a job that would regularly challenge me (and pay the bills). Since I don’t have a background in science, business, political science, or regulatory affair, I have to step outside my comfort zone daily and talk to industry experts and do research to learn the ins-and-outs of these more technical aspects of the industry. I’ve actually had to become a “personality” in this space—in fact, I dare say I’m better known today in the pharma industry than I am in the poetry world right now. Another good thing is the fact this process requires me to use the left side of my brain, while poetry stimulates the right side of my brain. So I don’t generally feel “burned out” from my job. But I think it has made me a more analytical writer. I approach each poem from a more narrative, organizational sense. Just like I have to consider organization and pacing of an article, I’ve begun to focus more on the movement of my poem and what the progression of each new image or statement can mean for the poem and what it can ultimately become.

SS: We, Almighty the Fires won the Alice James Award in 2016. What was your experience working with Alice James Books? Your book was also shortlisted for prizes from Tupelo Press, The Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, and The OSU Press. What are your thoughts about literary contest culture?

ARW: Right before my book was picked up, I’d really begun to marvel at a number of Alice James’ books—especially Cecily Parks’ book, O’Nights, and Richie Hoffman’s Second Empire. They’d also signed on to publish my thesis advisor and good friend Jennifer Chang’s second book, Some Say The Lark. So, when I got the call, I remember being stunned because I never thought my book would fit into the caliber of the other writers they published before me. Working with them was wonderful. Though I only interacted with Carey Salerno a few times in the course of editing my book, she was thorough, intelligent, and supportive. The same goes for the other editors when it comes to post-publication awards, review copies, or ordering books/reading promotion.

I’ve personally benefited from the contest culture, given that that’s how my book came into this world. I know it can be depressing and exhausting for many people in the thick of it—and at times I felt the panic of “what if this never happens?”. But what I do like about the contest culture is the fact that you never really know who is on the editorial board or board of readers, and contests with guest judges always change your chances. There’s no way of predicting what anyone is going to like. When I was in the thick of it, I was a finalist for a prize at Tupelo and didn’t win. For the next two submission periods, I wasn’t long or short-listed at all. I submitted to Alice James three times, and the first two times, I was rejected. I went from that to winning. And there’s really no rhyme or reason to it. I often joke that the day the readers discovered my manuscript, they liked it only because they had gotten a lot of great sleep the night before, were well hydrated, and were probably in a happy place eating donuts just coated with rainbow sprinkles.

I think it’s also a good reminder of just how big the writing world is today; I hardly ever know or recognize the names in a list of book prize finalists and semi-finalists. When I was reviewing the list of finalists for the National Poetry Series just this year, I was thrilled to see so many names I didn’t know. I find that so refreshing, given the echo chambers you can run into with social media.      

SS: The cover of your book is really striking. How do you see it being representative of your poetry? How was the image chosen?

ARW: Shortly after I signed my contract, the first thing the editors asked for was a document of 20 different images that I liked. I spent weeks poring over Pinterest and found (too) many images I loved. I found a lot of images by the artist who made my cover—Brooke Shaden—and suggested a few of them, but honestly never would have predicted the folks at AJB would’ve picked the one they did. A few months later the editors sent me several different cover options. I decided to go with the current cover because it felt the most symbolic of the subject matter. It reminded me of the “tongues of fire” from the Pentecost story in the Bible and had a similar drama that I associate with cathedrals and sacred relics. It also implied that the main figure on the cover was looking down on something, like she was an almighty figure, and I thought that complemented the juggling act between free will and faith throughout my book.

SS: It’s hard to find books that interest and resonate with me, but I loved your book. Do you have any recommendations for me, re: further reading?

ARW: So many! I would highly suggest Jennifer Chang, Cecily Park, Sarah Eliza Johnson, Traci Brimhall, and Cynthia Cruz. I recently discovered Susannah Nevison’s Teratology and Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair For Nesting, and I’m stunned I hadn’t found their work until now (but that’s the beauty of poetry books). I’m currently picnicking my way through Diana Khoi Nguyen’s The Ghost Of, Nicole Cooley’s Of Marriage, and Monica Youn’s Blackacre, which have been forcing me to stop and really think my way through the individual poems and collections as wholes. In the past year or so I’ve also enjoyed Lauren Clark’s Music for the Wedding, Ruth Awad’s Set Music To A Wildfire, Jenny Molberg’s Marvels of the Invisible, and anything by Jennifer Militello and Katie Ford. As you can see, I’m a huge proponent of reading other women, though I’m also a sucker for Ocean Vuong, Jack Gilbert, Chris Santiago, Paul Guest, Mark Wagenaar, and Richie Hoffman.  

SS: Is another poetry collection in your future?

ARW: God, I hope so (LOL). It’s likely at least another 10 years out, if I am being realistic. In order to write well, I need to be questioning or rebelling against something. Writing has become much slower going and I’ve become even more critical of what I do manage to write since finishing the poems in my book. At this point, I’m trying to remain open to a new project, whatever that might be, and it’ll come to me when the time is right.

SS: Thanks, Anna Rose. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to talk to me about your book. I really admire your devastatingly beautiful work.

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Samantha Seto graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a B.A. as a Writing Seminars major and History of Art minor in December 2017. Her work is published at The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Cornerstone Magazine, The Harvard Ichthus, The Yale Logos, Scarlet Leaf Review, Chicago Literati, The Penn Review, Global Vantage, Compulsive Reader, North of Oxford, Writing for Peace/DoveTales Journal, The Los Angeles Review, and The Collagist. She wrote a book, Midnight, published in August 2015. She loves comparative literature. Samantha lives in Washington, D.C.