CONVERSATION WITH ANNA ROSE WELCH
SMALL ORANGE (ORANGE): There’s a variety of nonfiction texts referenced throughout the book. How does research fit into your drafting and revision processes? Is the research being used as a prompt or are you writing into your subjects already and the research comes in to compliment it? For example, how would you say the research about gender and sex and the body inform the book?
ANNA ROSE WELCH (ARW): One of my favorite activities as an undergraduate and grad student was to get lost in the university library. (I like to blame—and praise—my liberal arts schooling for making me endlessly curious.) During the drafting process for the poems in my first book, I would aimlessly wander through the stacks—regardless of what the subject matter was—and grab books that I thought had interesting titles. Books that were inspirational or that appeared in some subtle fashion in We, the Almighty Fireswere from the mathematics, psychology, biology, geology, alchemy, art history, and political science sections, of all places. I also found myself drawn to several scholarly texts discussing, for instance, the Medieval “Book of the Heart,” Medieval artistic renderings of resurrection and redemption, the role of fasting and feasting in the lives of female saints, and books on modern day relationships. My brain works in such a way that, when reading a number of these texts, I’d find myself synthesizing the book’s information with experiences from my own life. In my poems, I’d be engaging in a discussion or argument with these different texts. Though I wouldn’t say my book is particularly biographical, my narrators are engaging emotionally and intellectually with concepts I stumbled over in certain texts that have fascinated me over the past few years.
ORANGE: At what point did religion make its way into your poems and what relationship do you feel spirituality has with your poems and the book at large?
ARW: It’s hard for me to pinpoint when religion and spirituality truly entered into my poems. Growing up, I was raised Christian in the Lutheran church—and I still occasionally attend church. But, for me, religion does not have to be a communal or routine practice that occurs once a week. I think spirituality became a more prominent theme in my work when I was in my second year of graduate school. I had a workshop mate who often told me that my poems weren’t taking big enough emotional risks. Though a comment like this can be more destructive than helpful, it actually benefited me greatly. I found the topics that felt the riskiest to me were those that gave a voice to those who had been silenced—like Noah’s Wife, who remained nameless and who had no role beyond her six mentions as “Noah’s wife” within the biblical flood story. (In my mind, she thought the whole ark situation was absolutely bonkers.) Similarly, I’ve always been interested in the space where the basic tenets of humanism and religion are in conflict. Human will, leadership, and forging one’s own identity and values rebels against the notion we were created by an omniscient being which is in control of our lives and has dictated our principles and values. In my book, I think my narrators are embodiments of the different tensions between independence and subservience to the “Almighty,” whatever that almighty might be—God, another person, a long-endeared myth, or an abstract concept (i.e., desire).
ORANGE: In the poem, “The Book of the Heart,” one might get the sense that land is a dangerous place for women, whereas water and air are redemptive spaces for the female body. How does the dialogic format of this poem allowing for more physical options to conceptualize the female body (i.e., the anecdote of the bride flinging herself out of the window)?
ARW: This was one of the last poems I wrote for my thesis during my grad program, and it primarily stemmed from a challenge I received from my professor, Larissa Szporluk. She challenged us to try something we’d never done before while writing about a topic outside of the main themes of our thesis. (I definitely failed the latter part of that assignment). At the time, I was reading Traci Brimhall’s first book, Rookery,and was fascinated by her use of the Q&A format in some of her poems. To me, Q&A poems are a great way of portraying conflict. For one, visually on the page, they destroy the typical format of a poem because you’re either inserted an outside narrator within the sacred, private space of the poem. There’s also the chance that there isn’t actually an outside narrator—it’s simply the narrator herself that has been torn in two. I’m also intrigued by the Q&A format’s ability to call into question the narrator’s reliability. For instance, in these types of poems she can be both unreliable and then pushed to be more vulnerable. Finally, a supposedly objective interviewer is greatfor revealing parts of the narrator that the narrator themselves tried to avoid. The poem’s title, and indeed, the form itself was engaging with a book that I had been reading at the time called The Book of the Heart: Reading and Writing the Medieval Subjectby Eric Jager.I loved the thought that our hearts could be inscribed both in a religious context with our “good works” in line with God’s will (to be opened and read as we processed to heaven), as well as in a romantic way (i.e., the patriarchal act of a man carving their name or affections into a lover’s heart. To think of that literally being done to a woman’s heart is both terrifying and intriguing at the same time). So this form was the closest I could get to mirroring the religious and physical act (and risks) of confession (even though as a good Lutheran girl, confession was a Catholic ritual and one in which I did not have to partake. Interpret that as you will…)
ORANGE: So much poetry today seems to be grounded in particular places and temporal moments. Your poems also feel very grounded and urgent to the current moment, but without being dependent on a specific time or place, which is a major strength of the book and the mythical world it builds. The events and occasions in the poems are eternally happening. They aren’t happening in the past or the present, but a lyric present. Could you tell us a little bit about the construction of the book’s world?
ARW: This world was constructed pretty quickly, all things considered—a majority of the poems written in the book were written in about 9 months. But getting the world “right” was something that took quite a bit of refocusing because my initial fascinations didn’t quite end up being the central focus in the book as I’d originally intended. A particular fascination for me starting out was—oddly enough— my family’s history in coal-mining towns. My maternal grandmother and grandfather lived in an old coal-mining company house on a property with an orchard, an algae-infested lake, and river that ran red-orange with clay, sulfur, and other pollutants from the strip mining still occurring on the property when I was growing up. In the early days of crafting my book, I was obsessed with portraying the coal mining town culture, replete with these mythical imaginings of trains cutting though Appalachia, polluted rivers, women like my grandmother carrying out the work of the home, and the men who woke and subjected their lives (and bodies) to entering the earth and, in the worst case, being taken by it in the end. But when I tried to write specifically at length about this world, it was missing something. Larissa Szporluk told me that, sometimes, these fascinations and fixations on certain topics we have are simply symbolic of some other deeper, less obvious struggle we’re encountering. She challenged me to write about other forms of “mining” outside of the literal act of digging coal from the earth. What resulted was a series of poems that “dug” into the past and uncovering silences that have existed in history and religious texts. I also saw mining as a sense of duty that had religious and mythical connotations. In the literal sense, mining is going into the darkness of the earth to reappear with coal, which was formed from biological elements that have long been subsumed and reshaped into something new. And this is what we use to make light and heat. So, once I went beyond the literal act of just trying to “retell” history and explored it as a process of myth-making and questioning, then this world fell into place.
ORANGE: A lot of poets adjunct at various colleges and teach first-year writing composition or work in writing centers after graduating with the MFA. However, working in academia is, of course, independent from being a poet and it’s an important distinction. I’m interested in your choice to work full-time in the pharma industry. What are some of the reasons for this decision to work outside of academia and what are some of the challenges of working a 9-5 position as a poet?
ARW: When I started as an undergraduate student, my goals were to go straight through to get my MFA and then a PhD. Shortly after I moved to Bowling Green State for my MFA, I taught my first composition class and, almost overnight, that dream changed. Though there is a world in which I could see myself enjoying and succeeding at teaching (especially creative writing), I did not want to spend a number of years of my life adjuncting multiple composition classes (with no benefits) and struggling financially. Writing about pharmaceuticals was in no way part of my life goals or long-term dreams. In fact, when I accepted my job four years ago, I figured it would serve as a transition into some other future move towards a more creative outlet. Little did I know I would end up loving it the way that I do—nor did I truly understand just how sexy it is to have a 401K so early in life. As I mentioned earlier, I am endlessly curious and I love a good challenge—especially if it offers me the chance to become more well-rounded and knowledgeable in areas outside of my normal stomping grounds. (I always joke with my parents that they gifted me with the genes that never make money: poetry, violin, and visual art.) Delving into the business, regulatory, policy, reimbursement, and scientific realms of pharmaceutical development gives the left-side of my brain a pretty great workout. But even though I love my job for the financial security and the intellectual challenges it provides me, I’ve struggled with juggling my multiple identities—especially now that my book is coming into the world. When I first started out, I anticipated that my working life would be the support for my writing career. Today, I’m better known as a writer and expert in the pharmaceutical world than in the poetry world—a fact I consider to be a bittersweet source of pride. The poetry world is on fire right now and the “debut” or “professional poet” (and poetry) in general is being celebrated in a way that it never has been before. As a poet working a day job outside of the poetry field, I’ve found it very easy to convince myself that I’m positioned somewhere outside of the writing community, because new work, publication, and book promotion comes much more slowly than it did pre-employment (or than it would had I pursued a different lifestyle). This isn’t to say I would pursue a different path. In fact, I highly encourage poets to pursue 9 to 5 jobs outside of the arts if they don’t feel passionate about teaching. Not all poets need to enter academia and teach. But, personally, I would love to hear more from and about poets who are also juggling jobs outside of academia and crafting their artistic identities at the same time.
Anna Rose Welch holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2014, Kenyon Review Online, Guernica, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Barrow Street, The Paris-American, Tupelo Quarterly, The Adroit Journal, and other publications. She lives in Erie, PA where she is the chief editor of a pharmaceutical publication and a violinist in the Erie Chamber Orchestra. She is the author of We, the Almighty Fires, winner of the Alice James Award.