Lisa Wells is a poet of dark and harrowing lyrical power, whose first book, The Fix, won the 2017 Iowa Poetry Prize and was just released in April 2018. The poems in The Fix drift across the barrier between oblivion and insight, a mutable boundary that is explored as deeply in the poems’ chronicles of punk-scene tragedies, defeated relationships and intoxication as in the tension of their finely wrought forms. Wells shies away neither from the bitterness of bewilderment nor the sorrow of reaching beyond one’s own invulnerability. Rather than positing a static sense of serenity, The Fix thrives on this bone-deep distress.
Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Wells is also an essayist, with a nonfiction book, Believers, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2019. Encountering Wells’ range of poems, essays, interviews, podcast appearances and captivating reading style (documented on YouTube) spurs the conviction that the subtle miracles of the mind and body are enough to sustain faith in a literary life. I spoke to Wells by phone from opposite coasts of the country, using the occasion of her debut poetry collection to address some of the far-reaching impressions her work has made on me.
—Michael Juliani for Guernica
Guernica: How and when did you start putting this book together?
Lisa Wells: I would say, seventy percent of the book was written in grad school, but a few of the poems are as much as ten years old. I have a somewhat unconventional background in that I dropped out of high school and I worked odd jobs for thirteen years before I returned to school—so a couple of the poems were written before I was even an undergrad. Otherwise, my story is pretty typical. I started sending it out, I’d get rejected, I was writing new poems and cycling them in. It started to gain some traction. You know, you’re a semifinalist, then a finalist…same thing everyone tells you: it’s a matter of time. Which can either be comforting to hear, or annoying, depending on your mood.
I had sort of made my peace with the idea that it might not become a book. I’d gained enough distance that I could see what it would be like to read as a judge. It didn’t seem likely that someone would choose it, because it’s so violent and grief-stricken. Whatever revelations it has to offer aren’t exactly soothing.
Guernica: The book reckons with the fact of life that is the loss of transformative elements or of that space where you think nothing will sublimate, transform, or become beautiful.
Lisa Wells: You can talk about it on a couple of levels. You can talk about the struggle of the poet—or the “speaker,” as they say—through the poems. And you can talk about the way the form performs that dialectic, how the poem struggles against its own strictures, and develops but doesn’t necessarily find rest or release. Like life. The cliché is the dark night of the soul, but that’s what many of the poems record, a place that very much resists easy comfort or the facile epiphanies that used to satisfy, and that became impossible.
Guernica: Nick Flynn, I think, said that with his poetry, he brings people into the dark and then leaves them there.
Lisa Wells: That’s refreshing.
I don’t want to come off as Goth, I just think our overvaluation of the light results from a shallow engagement with the spectrum—the categories are ultimately bullshit, but a general refusal to contend with the unseemly aspects of self is one reason the world is so messed up.
Guernica: You’re one in a minority of poets whose reading style I really enjoy. Don’t let me put this on you, but it seems like you actually enjoy reading poems aloud. I hear from a lot of people that their least favorite part of being a poet is having to do readings, and I always think that’s kind of a shame.
Lisa Wells: My first training was in theater, but I developed stage fright in my early twenties and had to give it up. All my favorite plays to perform were more literary and probably terrible to watch. Already, I was more turned on by language than I was by performing, but when you spend a lot of your time thinking about bodies in shared space and how you might use the stage—and look, you’re not going to please everyone, some people prefer a flat delivery—it’s hard to forget that training.
When I was a kid going to wannabe Beat poetry open mics, where everybody’s kind of doing this pantomime, wearing berets and stuff—the work wasn’t all that good, but enthusiasm was high, and people had an interest in entertaining one another. Later, among formally trained poets, I twigged to the shift in expectation. There’s a lot of self-consciousness, not wanting to sound like a blowhard, etcetera—but I don’t think it’s all false humility. There’s a sense that you want to be sufficiently humble because your work is in conversation with the dead, as opposed to the other sixteen-year-olds who also worship Saul Williams. I respect that impulse, but no doubt it makes for a more funereal affair. Obviously, there are a lot of exceptions.
Guernica: It’s interesting to think of “page poets,” I guess you could say—some people call it “academic poetry”—being in conversation with centuries of dead poets and how that comes with some respect and humility. I’ve never actually thought of it that way, but it seems true.
Lisa Wells: Of course, if you wanted to honor the long dead poets you’d take up performance and recite all your poems.
Guernica: I personally really enjoy reading, and going to readings, even if it’s sometimes a trial. The social aspect of poetry is one of the special things about it. You get to have these nighttime communions with whoever decides to show up.
Lisa Wells: So let me ask you, how did you become interested in poetry?
Guernica: I had always thought of myself as a writing-inclined person.
Lisa Wells: I like that. I like “writing-inclined”!
Guernica: In high school, I was having a very rough time, like most people, and I found those good old Beat poets at about sixteen. I also had a friend or love interest at that time who was a writer, and I wrote poems to impress her. It really just came to life overnight, and I was so scared that I would give it up, that it would be like a hobby, because I loved it so much and it was just kind of that thing where you close your eyes and say “don’t give this up, don’t give this up, don’t give this up.” A whole new life was available to me. And I’ve accepted that life every day since then and fought to keep it.
Lisa Wells: That’s beautiful.
Guernica: Were you writing after you dropped out of high school?
Lisa Wells: Like you, I was “writing-inclined.” Those open mic poetry readings were my gateway drug. In the beginning, I would go and case the joint, I wouldn’t read my own work because I was chicken-shit. I wanted to see what everyone else was made of before I popped my head up, which was characteristic of a general defensiveness at the time.
I was always a sort of wannabe intellectual, even though I was also a classic fuck-up. I read a lot and my friends and I talked about the books we were reading. I had a library card, but I could never get them back on time, then I’d be avoidant of the fees. I remember feeling that there were never enough books. I worked at Powell’s for a while, in the coffee shop. That was when I started mainlining poetry. I’d spend my breaks reading in the stacks. I probably read and wrote poems for eleven or twelve years without any kind of formal guidance. It may sound like a boast, but in the end, it just took me longer to improve. Feedback is precious.
Guernica: It took me a while to realize that myself. I planned to go through college without taking creative writing courses. I had that kind of beatnik antagonism towards creative writing industries. When I finally took one it helped me a lot in the long run.
Lisa Wells: I remember this. At that age, if you demonstrate any talent at all, you don’t want to be sullied.
Guernica: It’s a good thing to be, sullied, or contaminated, by well-meaning, thoughtful people.
Lisa Wells: Right. Poor us! Meanwhile, these guys that we idolized as iconoclasts had classical educations.
Guernica: Allen Ginsberg, I always remember, was writing really rigid stuff until his late thirties. He tried really hard to write Columbia University poetry and be a scholar.
Lisa Wells: How do you write “Columbia University poetry”?
Guernica: Well, you know, Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling aren’t around anymore, so it’s a little different.
Lisa Wells: I guess there will always be some beef to be worked out in the name of poetry. Not so many years ago, there was all this anxiety about experimentalism. People wanting to say what is and is not poetry. It was boring. Some adversaries can enliven the conversation and help you grow, but that was just 100 percent stultifying. I write fairly “accessible” poems, but I’ve always felt that pushing an agenda of accessibility smacks of middle class sanctimony. It’s offensive when people are like, “What kind of poem can you write to reach that person digging ditches?” Well, actually, I come from those people, and they have the capacity to be moved by the whole gamut of human endeavor. Fuck off, you know? It’s so condescending.
I’m totally promiscuous, I’ll read anything, and I’ve enjoyed a great many kinds of poetry. I think if you’re making it your business to tell poets what kind of poetry they should be writing, there’s probably some disavowed stuff you need to work through so you can write better poems.
Guernica: How does poetry inform your work as an interviewer?
Lisa Wells: Interviewing comes easy to me. I suspect it’s similar for you. For whatever reason, I’m the sort of person people want to tell their secrets to. One of the reasons, probably, is that I’m actually interested in what they have to say. There’s nothing more pleasurable for me than talking to someone who wants to be seen and appreciates the opportunity to think aloud. I feel more alive in that position. It’s harder for me to answer questions. I don’t know what that is. I might be guarded, to some extent… I think it was also a kind of survival adaptation, to keep the other person talking so that I wouldn’t be looked at too closely.
The nonfiction book I’ve been working on for the past five years has involved interviewing people who’ve sacrificed their comfort in order to live in accordance with a belief system, and each of their belief systems is different, but it was very healing for me to spend so much time in conversation with those people who have suffered painful traumas and have found ways to reconcile with that history, and now devote their lives to bringing reconciliation into the world. There’s no abstraction, there’s nothing really—and I don’t mean for this to sound anti-intellectual—but there’s nothing really academic about it. It’s like, “I survived and therefore I will help others.”
The final thing to say is those conversations impart a sense of scale. While it’s true that poetry is a matter of life and death, so is everything else, so no big deal.
Guernica: I find it as a way to experience things and meet people who would otherwise be overly skeptical of me or who I just can’t face in my shyness. I hear people say, “All I want to do is write poetry. I’m not a writer, I’m a poet.” I think that’s fine, but I just can’t imagine that because my life would be so small if I only read and wrote poems.
Lisa Wells: So you said you’re shy?
Lisa Wells: This interests me, because I don’t know if I would code as a shy person, but I basically am shy and feel quite a bit of anxiety whenever I’m working on a piece. So how do you get over it? Do you have strategies?
Guernica: If I’m so interested in something, I can’t stop myself from submitting to it. I’m scared of just living in my bubble and having that be my life because I’ve seen what that looks like so writing is a way for me to escape it. I’ve always loved reading about method acting and the extremes of it, because sometimes when I’m writing a story about someone, I feel like I’m getting drunk on that person in the way that an actor gets drunk on a character.
Lisa Wells: That’s fascinating. During the period of writing this book, I was in a major life transition, and I was so racked with anxiety—it was totally debilitating, but I still had to do these interviews. The trick that I came up with was that I would pretend that I was their therapist. Not like I would perform a shrink parody, but more like selfless listening. It would pull me out of the equation and anything that I might want from the person, or any kind of anxiety I had about being a fraud. That’s how I survived that year.
I like the notion of getting drunk on someone. Once people lock into self-narration, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s like you’re watching someone recognize their own value, or the context of who they are and why what they’re doing matters.
Guernica: I’m not a small-talk person, necessarily, so the units of measure of small-talk versus self-narration and insight and reflection that go into an interview-length conversation, say, I really require that in some measure. Because I am basically conscientious, in the past I have not been the sort of person who trespasses or wanders as far as I would like. Unless I’m going to write about it, then I’ll do it. It gives me a vocational reason to do things that I might stop myself from doing.
Lisa Wells: So what is this drive to widen the world in reaction to?
Guernica: See, now you’re interviewing me, but that’s fine. I grew up in a pretty contained suburb, and I was raised mostly by my mom and my grandparents. My grandparents are from a Greek immigrant family. There was a big, immigrant-based sense that the world is a dangerous place, and if you step out of the lines, it will swallow you. I think part of loving the Beats was that these were well-educated young people who decided to do the crazy thing of stepping outside the lines and they were doing it as a poetic, intellectual pursuit of drunkenness.
Lisa Wells: It’s interesting that we should have some of these things in common and then have such different origin stories. For me, there was very little oversight and few rules. I had no curfew, for example. There was no messaging about the world being unsafe, which was wonderful, but of course, sometimes the world is unsafe, so you end up learning the hard way. And yet, I also feel the pressure of mortality; to keep pushing out the walls.
Poetry isn’t therapy, but you can stage the same sorts of excavations and inquiries that you do in the context of therapy. The real terror is not what you already know, it’s whatever is magnetizing and constellating your life that you’re not aware of—at least, for me, that’s the fear.
Guernica: I’m sometimes frustrated by the process of attempting entry back into an ecstatic or beautiful state of poem-making, and not being able to enter it with the frequency that a type of chaotic mind requires.
Lisa Wells: It’s my sense that a lot of people have this experience, whether as a result of a personal trauma, or the trauma of industrial civilization—intermittent disassociation from the body. When a person has a problem with numbing or checking out, violence, drunkenness, sex, hallucination, whatever—extremes can be very seductive, as a strategy to feel and to locate a boundary. That’s kind of Trauma 101, but the tapering of extremes can be useful for recalibrating your inner compass toward more subtle sensations. That’s another way to read the thwarted creative process, because of course everyone wants to have their finger in the socket of ecstasy at all times, to be a channel, but there’s real value in riding out the flat states and using them to recalibrate, or as a kind of blank screen on which an everyday miracle can be viewed. The fact that you have food to feed yourself, for example, or the fact that you’re still breathing.