We live in an era that abounds with strong, memorable essays, and with her new book Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal, Wendy S. Walters has made an important contribution to this field. That said, simply calling Multiply/Divide an essay collection doesn’t quite reflect the entire scope of the book, which encompasses numerous approaches to the essay, as well as fictionalized takes on certain themes and settings. The pieces collected in Walters’s book memorably showcase a number of perspectives on history, culture, and place. I talked with her over the phone to learn more about the book and the work contained between its covers; an edited version of our conversation follows.
Have you always balanced doing work in poetry and prose, or did one begin before the other?
I definitely started out as a poet. I’ve been doing poetry for a pretty long time. One of the challenges that I came up against is that my poems were often really long, and I had difficulty publishing them, because literary magazines wouldn’t publish a 20-page poem. I started doing chapbooks and books, and I was able to put longer works into those. Eight years ago, I felt that I should explore prose, because it seemed like having a longer word count wasn’t a problem when working in prose. I has always written for theater. I’ve had a partner, a composer, Derek Bermel, who I’ve worked with for the past twenty-odd years, writing lyrics for concert music. I’ve written oratorios; we’ve written a musical, which has been in various stages of production. I have a lot of experience with different genres.
I wanted to talk about your introduction to Multiply/Divide. When I first saw it, I initially talked about it as an essay collection, but then I saw that you divided the pieces into essays, lyric essays, and fiction. Do you generally know, when you sit down to write a piece, what approach you’re going to take?
The thing for me is, the paradox is where the piece starts. You’ll come across something, and you’ll go, “Hmm. Why are these red berries growing on this bush that always produces blueberries?” I think that’s interesting–is it the soil, is it the season, is it pollution? What’s the trigger? The inciting incident often tells me a lot about the form. I tend to think of written works in kind of an architectural way. That comes from writing songs or writing plays. There’s certainly a visual cue from the subject that’s going to suggest to me how I might put a piece together. I’m usually pretty clear on how long the piece is going to be before I start it. I used to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design; I taught there for many years. I think the art students I worked with definitely influenced my process; I’ve also worked with musicians for many years. I had a sculpture student who told me one thing that I thought was brilliant, about carving in stone. He said that his approach to carving in stone was, he picked the piece of stone, and he asked it what was inside of it. His job was to cut away the parts of the stone that were not essential to reveal what was always inside of it. I think of my composition process as pretty similar to that.
How long does it generally take for you to write a particular piece?
It varies greatly. Some pieces, I like to draft them, and then I work on them for a long time. Some of the essays in that book took a year and a half. I don’t think I’m a fast writer, though I can have periods of being very productive; I can use a lot of small, incremental gains in the pieces. But they take a long time, usually because I’m wrestling with the logic of the paradox, or trying to understand why I’m drawn to it or why it might be significant for other people.
When did you realize that a prose collection would make sense?
That was serendipity, and my good fortune to have had the opportunity to do a book with Sarabande. I can’t say that I was thinking, “Oh, I need to do a book of essays.” Although I think that, in the back of my mind, it was something I aspired to do. It was an opportunity that cane from Sarah Gorham at Sarabande. I was bewildered by her idea that it could be a book, at first. We took a couple of weeks to talk about it. She seemed open to the idea that a book could include works that were across genres, that some would be completely essayistic, some would be personal essays, some reported essays, some researched fiction, and some lyric essays. The fact that she was open to that, and that Sarabande has been so open to writers who don’t fit in a category so discreetly, it really is what made this work able to come forward.
Were there pieces that you liked but realized wouldn’t fit in this particular book?
Yes. I’d say that there are probably six pieces that didn’t make it into the collection for one reason or another. Maybe they were too close and didn’t help the forward progression of the book, or they weren’t quite ready in time.
What was the process like of coming up with the sequence?
I think that’s a challenge, and it’s going to be interesting to see how people read the book, and to have discussions with people about the book. Certainly, I think the last couple of pieces in the book are forward-looking pieces. I think they might be more speculative pieces. But I think they also address issues which are very immediate for us right now, climate change and racial violence in the United States. In some ways, the problems that we’re dealing with are not new. The solutions we have come up with haven’t been as successful as most people would like at this point, for obvious reasons. There’s still too much peril and too much pain. For me, those last two essays were attempts to look forward to a period where we had succeeded in addressing some of the problems that we face right now.
In terms of how people will react to the book, you spoke earlier about your work in theater, and there, because of the audience, you can see how people will react to a piece. Is there anything that your theater work has had an influence on in terms of your prose?
I have such deep affection for theater. Reading plays is one of my favorite pastimes, in part because the play gets stripped down. It’s a structural text. It changes each time I read it. If you see a work of theater performed, you share that experience with other people in the audience, and every performance is unique because of that. When you publish a book, you don’t have that intimacy with your readers. As the book rolls out, I’m hopeful that conversations that I have with people at readings and other events will give me a sense of how people are reading the work. Some of it is new for me; the prose audience is a much wider audience. I’m just interested to see how this whole thing unfurls.
In two pieces in the book, you delve very deeply into the history and feel of a particular place. One of them is “Manhattanville.” Since you wrote that, has it changed how you view that particular neighborhood?
I feel that writing about Manhattanville gave me a deeper appreciation for the difficulty of the changes that people in many New York neighborhoods are going through right now. One of the things that I’ve seen myself become more interested in since writing about Manhattanville is public housing, and the state of public housing in many of our cities. I don’t have a particular take on that right now, but I feel that close observation of Manhattanville, or any neighborhood… I do a lot of writing about places. My last book of poetry is about Troy, Michigan. It came out last year, and that was the town in which I grew up. I think places are always going to be a source of inspiration; they give me a sense of deep feeling. I feel very deeply about the places that I study. I feel like what I’m recording is the moment of my experience with that place more so than making a historical record or document of it for all time.
In “Lonely in America,” you talk about certain aspects of the history of Portsmouth, New Hampshire than aren’t widely known. Was there any kind of reaction to the piece when it was first out in the world?
The reaction to that piece was very strong. I actually got letters from people in many other parts of the country who knew of African burial grounds or slave burial grounds in their towns, some of which are situated under expressway underpasses. There’s one under a prison, I believe, in Baltimore, Maryland. There are many sites throughout the country of segregated cemeteries, and cemeteries that have been constructed over. I think Portsmouth continues to be a really interesting city for how it’s dealt with the challenges of facing history. I recently went up there to write about what has happened to that site since I was last there. They have had a memorial park built on the streets that I was reporting about in “Lonely in America,” and a re-dedication ceremony, and a re-internment ceremony that took place in late May of this year. I went up over the Fourth of July weekend to see what they had done, and have been able to speak with some people in the town who’ve been instrumental in getting this memorial park built. I think the conversation now in the region is just beginning to recognize how deeply affecting the slave trade was on the shape of New England. There’s some momentum coming out of that, which I think is really admirable, and still interesting.
One other piece that I found very striking was “Chicago Radio,” where you have these transcripts of conversations interspersed throughout. Where did you get the idea from–and, given that it’s one of the pieces listed as technically fiction, when did you decide that a fictional approach would be the best one for it?
I grew up outside of Detroit, and the title “Chicago Radio” came to me as a way of acknowledging cities that had multiple black radio stations. When I was growing up, there was WJLB, with the Electrifying Mojo, and black talk radio stations, black pop stations, black jazz and avant-garde music stations… One of the ideas about that piece for me was the idea of someone being able to switch radio stations, and to tune in to different radio stations. That was the origin of the piece. That’s what I tried to do, to tune into different kinds of conversations that people were having, different kinds of questions that were present for me at that time.
What do you generally read when you’re not writing?
I love reading nonfiction. I’m reading Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City right now. I love hearing people’s voices. I love swagger, so any writers with swagger, I love. For plays, I tend to return to Chekhov and Ibsen when I need to repair my brain in some ways from thinking about too many things. I’m reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book right now, and I just finished Mat Johnson’s Loving Day. I did not want that book to end.
Photo: Dan Charnas