In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Tara Westmor
The following interview was conducted between contributor Tara Westmor and assistant poetry editor Larissa Larson.
Your poem “Mother, Ankle Deep” in Volume 25 focuses on the cultural and natural definitions of gender and how this perpetuates throughout generations such as mothers to daughters. What was the seed of inception for this poem? How did this idea come to fruition?
Like many poems, this one started as a much worse draft and lived in a folder on my desktop for years. The poem was always about my mother, my sister, and me. My poor mother (of 6 children!) has had to rescue more than one child from drowning. When she revisits the stories of our childhood, she mimes how she held us, rocking back and forth. In the reenactment, she smiles and laughs at herself, acting maybe. But you can see the fear there. The re-awakening of her terror. It wasn’t until later when I became deeply invested in gender theory and feminist critiques of the sciences, knowledge production, and environmentalism that I spun a poem into what it is now. I feel these are not unrelated: theory and experience. There is something about gendered trauma that gets passed down from mother to daughter. In my poem, I attempt to process this.
Let’s talk about this poem’s craft, as it is so thoughtful. The form for “Mother, Ankle Deep” is so unique, especially its fragmentation. The use of slash marks, six sections, the jumps in time, broken language, even the menagerie of images perpetuate this division throughout the piece. Talk me through the creative process of this poem’s form and how you feel as an artist it amplifies the poem’s content?
This is one of those poems that has had a long evolution in form. I don’t remember why I chose to use the slashes, but I do remember the feeling. The “Ah hah!” moment of the pieces falling into place. With the slashes, this poem began to take the shape of a river where the language broke itself under the ripples in the form. Once that piece was in place, images cropped up: “heavy / coins / rubbish / a lure.” Items you could find under the river’s surface. There are some instances, I find, when the form begins to write the finishing touches of a poem. This was one of those instances.
You use a quote from Sherry B. Ortner’s essay “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” As mentioned in the earlier question, your poem really tackles gender roles in culture, specifically a woman’s, and how it is connected to nature. I would love to hear you expand on why you used this particular quote from Ortner’s almost 20-page essay, and how her work is in conversation with yours.
In her essay, written in 1972, Ortner argues that, as women, we see ourselves as “one with nature.” The patriarchal social landscape paints humanity as separate from nature. The patriarchal legacies of the sciences like to imagine the natural world is a resource we can harness. Women’s ability to give birth and nurture our young is often seen as a natural process that parallels our lived experiences with other living, natural, beings. This is not innately problematic; however, by highlighting the metaphors both men and women use to embolden or celebrate women’s bodies, we are ultimately marking ourselves as subordinate to men. According to Ortner, men are “cultural” beings rather than natural ones. They innovate, dictate, govern, conquer, etc. Setting themselves apart from nature sets them higher than nature, or rather, men set nature as subordinate to them. In 1996, Ortner doubles down in a follow-up article called “So, Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” (Although she does suggest her arguments are not always universal).
I don’t disagree with Ortner, but I do think it’s worth noting the fragility of “culture,” or rather, the fragility of male domination. A river can be dammed. A river can maim. But neither is what rivers are meant to do. As women, we can be powerful, but I think it might be more of an imperative to simply say, as women, we can just be. The mother of this poem passed on her fear, of water and of men, as well as her ferocity to upend the status quo to her daughters. This poem attempts to demonstrate how we view ourselves in the wake of inherited legacies of female disempowerment. Here, I attempt to unveil this and wade in.
In “Mother, Ankle Deep” there is a strong metaphor of the mother’s body being a body of water, specifically a river. Her body is comforting and natural to her children, but her body also swallows up man-made items like rubbish, coins, lures, even male bodies. I’m interested in your opinion on gendered bodies and their symbology in culture and nature. If you had to pick a metaphor for your body, what would you be?
Sherry Ortner wasn’t wrong. Women’s bodies are symbols for our environment in literature but also in everyday life. Mother earth. Goddess of hearth and home. Fertility. Domesticity. Innocence. And when we are not these, we are deviant, serpentine, whore. The biblical Eve is a great example of the literary woman. She is innocent and divine, but when she grasps at knowledge, she is punished.
I have attempted to get away from this and make different metaphors of my body. There are a few poems in my collection-in-progress where my body is a building. In others, my body is the Wright Flyer. But this also plays into gendered ideologies. If my body is a cultural artifact, then men have made me. Although this isn’t entirely untrue (we are living in the wake of patriarchal legacies), it certainly isn’t empowering. This poem looks (maybe desperately) for a way to complicate how we think about our bodies.
Inheritance has been on my mind recently. Especially while reading your poem, it makes me question what is naturally passed down from generation to generation and what is derived through culture, man-made constructs, and systemic roles we fall into as a society. I’m curious to hear your take on inheritance, more specifically the relationship from mother to daughter that is described in your poem
I’m thinking now about what we inherit biologically versus culturally: eye color (biological), property (cultural), inevitable climate disaster (cultural), trauma (both biological and cultural). I am also thinking about mental illness, and how depression is often passed down matriarchically (biological and cultural?). I hope this poem tows the line between inherited depression, but also inherited world views. The mother in this poem, and my mother in real life, is so wise, and generous, and hurt, to see what she has passed down to her children.
I know you are currently pursuing your PhD in Anthropology at the University of California; congratulations! Anthropology seems to be such a broad, yet multifaceted field focusing on human behavior, biology, culture, society, and linguistics—past and present. What specific aspects draw you to anthropology, and how do you incorporate those fascinations into your writing?
This is such a lovely and refreshing question. Usually, I am getting asked the very same from anthropologists. That is to say: “Why poetry?” I think we use both genres to answer the same questions. Although poetry has a significantly longer legacy, the institutionalization of both disciplines have deep colonial roots but both have potentials to be liberatory.
In truth, I had wanted to be an anthropologist since I was in third grade. Although I have since stopped wanting to find Atlantis. I began writing poems at around the same time, albeit very poor ones. Anthropology promised answers to the same questions that poetry did. Today, I’m always on a soapbox about pairing ethnographic texts with poetry texts. I feel there is something missing in academic language (trust? the ephemeral? the unknown?) that is abundant in poetry.
I feel more and more social sciences and humanities folks should study creative writing and craft. And I think poets who are interested in research should take a research methods or ethics class. Ultimately, I wonder if the binarisms of university structuring hold us back from radical interdisciplinary practice. Here, I keep turning to the words of the late anthropologist and poet, Miles Richardson who lamented, “So have we returned, in our turning, back to the familiar dichotomy of art versus science? To such a question, let us affirm, ‘Ring out, wild, emphatic no’s, and let the dichotomy die’” (1994, 82-83). Here I am on the soapbox again, but the dramatics are warranted.
Who or what is inspiring you these days? Are there writers or books that have impacted your work or art recently?
I’m coming up to my qualifying exams, and so have not stepped away from anthropology theory in quite some time. Because of this, I have found myself sobbing over the prose of theorists: Theodore Adorno, Anna Tsing, Donna Haraway. I “snuck” Virginia Woolf, and several Documentary Poets into my reading list. My summer reading list is filled with fiction and poetry that I have had to put off. My brilliant poetry colleague, Jill Mceldowney just released her beautiful debut poetry collection, Otherlight. Fellow anthropoet, Nomi Stone along with Luke Hankins, published a beautiful anthology about Eve called Between Paradise and Earth (which contains brilliant work from another poetry colleague, Brooke Sahni). I want to revisit the entire discography of Ada Limón. This summer will be a delight of poetry and the occasional theoretical text on anthropology and the New Materialism movement.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m currently working on two projects, simultaneously. First, my own research is in collaboration with poetry communities and the creative economies in Vietnam. I study the shift in Vietnamese poetics from a national tool for state formation to a Cultural and Creative Industry (CCI) practice. Here, I look at Vietnamese poetry as a lens for how culture gets co-opted into capitalism schemas, where in the cultural and creative sectors, “innovation” has not been used to discuss the arts.
Second, I am also finalizing my own poetry manuscript (which is awaiting submittable responses now!) about inheritance, and history, and my mother, the beloved. Currently titled, Interview Questions for the Beloved, this collection questions the ways in which the early American, industrial Midwest inflicts a patriarchal nostalgia onto the folks who live there and the folks who “make it out.”
I’m always writing poems. And although it’s difficult to do in the midst of reading theory and doing research, I continue writing despite. My good friend, a fiction writer, and I share each other’s work weekly. I shove poems into anthropology writing assignments every chance I get. And I find my students engage with material, on any subject, much better when I have a good poem to guide them through it.
Tara Westmor is an anthropologist poet raised in Dayton, Ohio. She received her MFA in poetry from New Mexico State University and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside. She has work published and forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, Hunger Mountain, Prairie Schooner, Arts & Letters, Sink Review, and elsewhere.