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“Rachel’s voice is that of a seer, mystic, and ecstatic lover of existence who knows very clearly the intimacy of destruction and nonexistence. On the other hand, she manages to sound like a close friend simply pointing out the ravishing beauty that surrounds us. Hers is the voice of our inner friend. If this collection is any proof, she is on a path of ever-deepening power, insight, and craft. We’re blessed by these poems and by Rachel Webster’s presence in our time.”

—Li-Young Lee, author of Rose, City in Which I Love You and Behind My Eyes.

About

Rachel Jamison Webster

Rachel Jamison Webster grew up in the small town of Madison, Ohio, on Lake Erie and now lives in Evanston, Illinois, where she teaches at Northwestern University. She is the author of September: Poems, (Northwestern University Press 2013), and a chapbook, The Blue Grotto (Dancing Girl Press 2009). For several years, she designed and taught writing workshops for urban youth, helping to develop Words 37 with Chicago’s First Lady Maggie Daley and co-editing two anthologies of writing by young Chicagoans, Alchemy (2001) and Paper Atrium (2005). Rachel is also the editor and director of the online anthology of international poetry, UniVerse. Her most recent work with UniVerse has involved creating a radio series about poetry for Chicago Public Radio, called “The Gift.”

Rachel began writing when she was in middle school and started publishing poems when she was still in high school. She was first inspired by her family, and by the woods and rhythms of the water. She attended DePaul University, Lewis & Clark College and The Warren Wilson Program for Writers, where she earned her M.F.A. She has taught at the college level since she finished her M.F.A. and has found that teaching and writing provide an exciting, symbiotic climb into consciousness.

Rachel has won Emerging Artist awards from the Academy of American Poets, The American Association of University Women, The Poetry Center of Chicago and The Poetry Foundation. Her poems and essays are published in many anthologies and journals like Poetry, Narrative Magazine, The Southern Review, The Paris Review and others, some of which can be found here.

Books

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“Anyone can take what is simple and make it complex to the point of unintelligibility, but it takes a particular kind of courage to articulate the complexity of a single life so as to make it seem in its simplicity the life that each of us is given to live. It is from the poet’s need to see clearly, to clarify both the light and the shadow, blinded by neither, that Rachel Webster’s work achieves its intensities.”

—Averill Curdy, author of Song & Error: Poems.

Excerpt

Lingua

It started like this.
In delight. How could I

not see the leaves
ringing yellow with light,
taste the berry opening
on my tongue and not want

to tell you. If we
had never separated.
If we had gone on walking
hip to hip, then

just the extension of the arm, wonder
in the eyes, soft

fruit warm in the hand, passed from
my hand to yours, just this

would have been enough.

But I walked further to gather.
You crouched waiting in hunt and what

I saw was petals
opening, a quickened winging!

How could I not pursue it?
How could I not come back

to tell you with my nimble fingers,
then a flutter of music on tongue.

My first word was look,
I met this missing you—meet this—
thus the undercurrent of the word
is love.

Late September

Gulls slide through the sky.

It’s one of those days I’ve tried to get out
into my actual life.

Late September and I don’t even need art
to heighten my seeing.

The low spotlight of the sun does it for me.
Each blade of grass sidling up to its black.

Trees lapped by shadow and the Great
Lake’s frayed unending waterbreath

amid a yellowjacket hum
and the whirring spin of crickets singing
we are all just river
pouring over
the wheel.

From here, I can see them at the park.

They are framed by the green ruffling
and all the times we will not be.

He leans against the slide reading a paperback.

She climbs the red step.

He lifts her into the cup of the swing,
and she throws her head back laughing.

I can’t read their faces, only their forms.

They have the same saturation into body
that turns the grass to stripes of light.

See, I am one of those who can’t forget,
who loves the one burning branch
turning the tree to something various and mortal,
something true.

Who sees the world a long way off
even when it’s close
as this girl I love now running up.

Poetry

“Kauai;” “Dolphins at Seven Weeks;” and “La Porte” in Poetry:
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/rachel-webster

“Pomme” in The Paris Review:
http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/06/14/poem-pomme/

“September You Become Me;” “Hooded Clouds Untranslatable, Once;” “Bleeding Heart;” Cream of the Pour is the Cream of Skin Thickening;” and “Escaping our House Stewing With Life” in M Review:
http://docs.marylhurst.edu/mreview/archive/2009/Poetry/5Poems_Webster.html

“The First Season of Marriage” and “Tank” in Blackbird: http://www.blackbird.vcu.edu/v4n1/poetry/webster_rj/index.htm

Audio

Rachel reading 4 poems from September, “I Know Why I Make the Past a Destination,” “Cheyenne,” “Manzanita,” and “Eurydice.

Rachel giving a reading with pianist Mabel Kwan and poets Reginald Gibbons, Ed Roberson and Christina Pugh, 2011.
http://podbay.fm/show/291975625/e/1334642400?autostart=1

Rachel giving a reading with poets Stuart Dybek and Yusef Komunyaaka, 2009:
http://www.wbez.org/episode-segments/36th-annual-reading-series-poetry-center-chicago

The Gift,” a poetry series produced by Rachel Jamison Webster and Stanzi Vaubel for Chicago Public Radio.

Prose

From “The Broken Eye,” forthcoming in Labor Day: True Birth Stories from Today's Best Women Writers, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2014.

An eye can stare outward as if it knows—and can hardly believe—it is no longer its own eye. The “I” has split, the body has opened into the truth of its own death, the truth of its own birth, and the new person who’s emerged is whole. Is separate. I wanted my daughter to be free of her birth. I wanted this birth—which was her first experience of a death, being death of all she knows in the womb—to be as gentle as possible. I wanted it to proceed wholly in the rhythms and timeframe of our shared body, so that she could begin her life in continuity with the unfolding and connection that she had known before.

But while I was giving birth, I wondered why I was doing it naturally. I was incredulous at the pain and incredulous that women throughout time had done this. Still with every contraction, I became more determined to keep going without medical intervention. The first stages of this experience were triumphant, even ecstatic. I experienced mild contractions for three weeks, and I learned to breathe and stretch through them, to trust the rhythms of my body and marvel at the swells of clarity and emotion that these surges brought forth. I walked a mile or two everyday along Lake Michigan, amid apple trees, lilacs and peonies just beginning to bloom, and the perfumes and the sights were so tender, so miraculously alive, that I would weep. I felt porous, strummed by the nerves of the earth, my body registering the movement of the grass, the stirring of the leaves. . .

——

From “Two Shores: Some Notes on Home,” forthcoming in The Great Lakes Book Project.

I spent last weekend home in Ohio. I haven’t lived there since I left for college, but I still refer to the place as home. Home is the life I’ve made with my partner and daughter, but home is also my wider family and the land where we’re from—the shelved, shale edge of Lake Erie, fed by the mouths of the Grand River and countless little threads and estuaries. “Big Water,” the Indians called the Great Lakes, this sea of linked, individual seas. I loved swimming in the lake as a child and looking every day across edgeless water. In summer, we would get the marine report from my dad as soon as he walked in the door. Three foot swells. Scattered whitecaps. Flat as glass. We took all versions of calm as invitations to go out on the boat, even for a quick ride before sunset—in that flushed light when the water slows to mercury and everything glows as if in a mirror. Or a memory.

On weekends we’d stay on the boat all day, until our skin was so waterlogged and alive it was part of lake, shore, sky. Sometimes we’d anchor off of an abandoned beach and swim in to make a driftwood fire and roast hotdogs while my mom walked searching for fossils and other strange wash-ups. Other times, we’d eat our lunch while trolling up the river. My mom would pack carrot and celery sticks, little sandwiches on soft rolls, and very salty potato chips, and I would sit in the bow munching, going back and back in time.

I knew that my dad had looked out of his uncle’s boat at the same landscape when he was my age. And I could see the fishhouse—still in operation—that my great grandfather had owned. My grandmother and her 10 brothers and sisters had peeled potatoes there and grown up sewing clothes and playing cards in the rooms up above. My grandfather had lived just across the street with his 8 siblings, and I could imagine that gravel road and the spot where he pushed her into a snowdrift—when they were six, I think. “That’s how I first knew that he liked me,” she told us 60 years later. I could see the dock where he’d worked with his brothers, hauling ice cut from the winter lake, packing it in straw. And I could see the small muddy island he’d swum to with his friends one night, their clothes tied into bundles on their heads. When his toes had lost hold of the ground under water, he’d felt uneasy. He spent the whole night sleepless and worried because he knew he’d have to swim back again...

Reviews

Beyond a bookstore it’s a café or quiet bar where readers find themselves, a kind of “office of the mind” away from the house, the apartment, a place where you can hole up as one does in a library but with an Americano or a pint of beer or an martini. Here in Portland, I have found a few great places to read over the years, some of which have sadly fallen into a television-sports-news-frat-dark hole from which I doubt they will return. Luckily, a few others still hold, offering, on some afternoon or evening, a quiet yet public space big enough for a person, a cocktail, and a book. Recently, I have found a new home at which to sip a beer over some poems or a short story, and that place is The Cardinal Club. Open from 5pm till past 1AM, it’s a perfect place for readers and writers, with two amazingly kind owners who know their way around a highball glass and shaker.

Recently, I spent the early evening there drinking a Black IPA, eating some amazing food, and reading Rachel Jamison Webster’s new collection “September” (Tri-quarterly Books, 2013). Of Webster’s poems, Li-Young Lee writes that she “speaks breathlessly in praise, in awe, in pain, and in wonder at the manifold nature of being alive” and that “Here is the voice of our inner friend.” Which, after reading Webster’s poems, I couldn’t agree with more.This book of lyric narratives is aptly titled, for what is September if not the beginning of a season where things die, the air gets chillier, and we naturally think of the past. This is a book of elegy as much as it is a song for life. Elegy for a great love and husband who has died as well as for all of us who are still walking around on earth trying to figure out what love is.

These are poems of the body, poems that come from the body and the wild wind that breaks the body, the soul howling all night in our head and hearts. In the first poem of the book Webster writes:

“Since you went the light is so clear

it has become everything.

Faces peel from the bricks.

And outside the impoverished city hospital

someone has planted an Easter lily.

Its trumpet erupts from green tongues.

White throat that is your life.”

And so we begin a beautiful and energetic book anchored in elegy with the throat of life and all the music that can come from that throat, all the beauty. “September” is an exciting first book that takes the insane and nonsensical experience of grief and gives it a celebratory language that is a joy to read. Buy a copy and head over to The Cardinal Club. There’s a drink, some good food, and a quiet corner for you and Webster’s incredible first book.

—Matthew Dickman is the poetry editor of Tin House and the author of All-American Poem (American Poetry Review/ Copper Canyon Press, 2008) and Mayakovsky’s Revolver (Norton, 2012). He lives and works in Portland, Oregon.



From BOOKLIST

"Webster’s sensuous, memory-haunted collection is a celebration of life wrapped in an elegy. The book begins, “You shawl me like smoke.” This seeds Webster’s fascination with sheltering fog and disorienting mist and prompts poignant inquiry into images of enfolding and surrounding, shrouding and swaddling. Webster’s speaker misses her deceased beloved and marvels over her infant daughter. “My first word was look,” she declares, and hers are delving eyes. She sees nature as an enveloping, penetrating, and vital presence, and its perpetual motion infuses Webster’s darting, whirling, gliding lines. Childhood memories embody a cellular affinity with nature, a sense of awe, while a poem of sickbed vigils, loss, and life’s determined renewal is anchored to the sight of thriving ivy on a brick hospital wall. Webster announces, “This world in its spiked beauty splits me,” and this sense of division, of the divide between sorrow and joy, life and death, subtly shapes her gracefully crafted, ardently observed poems in which vowels chime and consonants clang. Nuanced and caring poems that reach from the immediate and intimate to the timeless and universal."
—Donna Seaman

“Webster’s resonant poems perceive with the astonishing clarity of a visionary remove, even as they inhabit feelingly a solid world honey-combed with interior being: ‘water-carved caves…inner rivers ambered by/lime’s radiant decay,//form maintained by its secret of space…’”
—Eleanor Wilner, author of Tourist in Hell and Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems.

“Rachel Webster is the purveyor of the velvet hammer and the one-two punch.” --Brian Bouldrey, author of The Sorrow of the Elves and Traveling Souls: Contemporary Pilgrimage Stories.

“Rachel Webster’s September is a journey through nature, the body, birth, motherhood and death. Sometimes Webster’s writing is delicate, and sometimes bold, but there is a lushness when she is describing the natural world around her. There is a connection and recurrence of these elements and items throughout the book: bodies of water (ocean, great lakes, rivers, currents), trees/plants (branches, leaves, flowers). It is in the specific details, and her dedication to the small elements that makes nature move and breathe in this book. It becomes a live thing, and she takes her time with these details: “I look out. Black leaves color of dried blood, we are all just river/ pouring over/ the wheel, In the center of my life was fear/a body of it, water.”

There is also a serious focus on the body in September, with poems like: “Bleeding Heart,” “Milk,” and “Kauai,” and there are moments of connecting all things: the body and nature, nature and motherhood/birth, and it is in these combinations that the poems really start to awaken. In “Milk,” she compares nursing to a river and an ocean, and in “Kauai,” it is her opened legs to a tropical flower. There is conversation between the body and where it lives. With poems like “Ocean and Integer,” and “Fired in the Body,” there is a strong juxtaposition between the body and nature:I unhinge from my body/ becoming a stirring in the stars, and a churning current our body/ rowed out and out on/ until it hit the chopping sea. In the middle section of September, these connections start to open up, and the book becomes charged with emotions. These are the poems that are most courageous, and most vulnerable to me as a reader. “How can we not ache with everything/ around us breathing and time/ falling through our bodies like dust/ and these last leaves- squash and mouth-“ I am reminded of my own body, and its constant changing and movement, and the way it careens through the world. There is a fullness that the book builds to, and a serious questioning of life that is exciting to watch unfold.

Webster’s details are vulnerable, specific and push the poems in various directions. This is a manuscript that is not afraid of surprising its reader, and in fact challenges them throughout, with poems like: “Double Vision” and “Wintering.” The reader is not always safe with these poems, and that is an exciting space to be in. Webster oscillates between the beauty of nature and the complexity of birth and death. It often felt like a current of water, and each poem was a buoy that propelled me into new territory.” —Ellen Hagan, author of Crowned

Interviews

The Next Big Thing interview:

1) What is the title of your book?
September

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
The book was inspired by that season of fullness and honeyed light that contains the first chill of the end. Many of the poems were written when my daughter was an infant and a few foresee my partner’s death just a couple of years later from ALS. So the book contains both life and death within many glowing moments from ordinary life. We are playing at the park, walking through the farmer’s market, I am nursing my baby, cooking dinner, etc. There are also many poems in the book written from dreams, because I am a vivid dreamer.

3) What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry

4) Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I seem to be playing myself in the movie that is my life! Fortunately, this feels less and less like a persona and more and more like the externalization of some essential being. And these poems were all written from those spotlit moments when you know you are living a poem even while you are in it. It is that real, unfolding on a spirit beyond you. Of course, this was all only possible because of the book’s other characters—especially my partner and our daughter and my mother, who are also quite vivid and who also play themselves! And yet there is a moment in the book when I note that even the clearest writing (to which I still strive!) cannot come close to the fullness and love of a life truly lived.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
“We aren’t given heaven just to keep it.” This is the first line of the book’s final poem, “It Had to End.”

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It is being published by Northwestern University Press, April 2013.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I wrote many poems—maybe 15 or 20— in a kind of fever from September – November 2008, canceling many social engagements in order to do so. Then I reworked them for a few years, and added and subtracted poems. When my partner was ill and dying from 2009-2011, I did not work on the book. In 2012, a final version came together around many of these original September poems, a few much older poems (some maybe 10 years old) and a couple of new poems.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
That is a tough question, but a friend recently told me that my work reminded her of Mary Oliver’s and Li-Young Lee, who is one of my favorite living writers, suggested my connection to Denise Levertov, and all three of these are poets I admire enormously. I suppose it belongs to the category of women writing about nature, relationship and motherhood.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book? “Ordinary” moments that become glitteringly singular, extraordinary in that they will never again be repeated. In other words—that feeling and frequency of love.

10) What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
Although the poems grow out of my own life, they unfold on their own muscle of music. They are filled with off-rhyme and strummed rhythm— a kind of singing that I hear in the spaces of the body, the breath of the waves, life’s unending motion.

——

Rachel will be the featured poet in The Spoon River Poetry Review next winter 2013. Check back here for a link to that interview with poet Joanne Diaz.

Events

Readings:

Evanston, IL, Northwestern University Library
April 15, 2013, 5:30 p.m.

San Salvador, El Salvador
May 2013

Evanston, IL, Wine Goddess
May 12, 2013, 6-7 p.m.

Evanston, IL, Northwestern University English Department
University Hall
May 29, 2013, 5 p.m.

Madison, OH
July 2013

Boston, MA
August 2013

Chicago, IL
September 2013

New York, NY
October 2013

Portland, OR
January 2014

Contact

Northwestern University Department of English
University Hall 215
1897 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208-2240
Rachel Jamison Webster at gmail.com

For sales inquiries, please contact:
Parneshia Jones
(847) 491.7420
p-jones3@northwestern.edu

For readings and reviews, please contact:
Rudy Faust
(847) 467.0319
r-faust@northwestern.edu

For reprint and permissions, please contact:
Greta Bennion
(847) 491.5315
g-bennion@northwestern.edu

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