Rachel DeWoskin Tells Us
About Wildness and Politeness
I’m pleased to share another installment of the occasional series I do, in which I invite an author to tell us five things—not only about their most recent book, but about their life too.
I met Rachel DeWoskin in the summer of 2006, when we were both Fellows at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. Rachel had recently published her brilliant memoir, Foreign Babes In Beijing, and I’d recently published my novel, Torch. We’d also both recently become mothers and because in the lit world there is no such thing as childcare, or anything that might help mothers, Rachel and I were at the conference and not at the conference. We were a central part of it, but also cast out—quite literally, since we had to find our own housing off-campus, because our kids were with us. During the various conference activities, Rachel and I often found ourselves at the edge of things—she, chasing after her toddler daughter, Dalin; me, chasing after my toddler son, Carver, with my baby girl, Bobbi, perched on my hip. As frazzled as I was, before long I realized that the edge of things was the best place to be because it was there that I got to know this sensitive, smart, kind, funny, extraordinary woman who would become one of my dearest friends.
She’s also one of my favorite writers. And I’m so pleased to share this interview on the publication day of her wild, beautiful new collection of poems, absolute animal. In this book—as in all of her books, which range from poetry to memoir to both adult and young adult fiction—her tremendous heart and brilliant mind are on breathtaking display. Every time I read her work, it’s like we’re on the edge of a wide grassy lawn together and I fall in love all over again.
Tell us about a time when you took advice that turned out to be really good or really bad.
When I was a teenager, my mom told me to shave my legs only up to the kneecap, and when I asked why, she said, “Men like a little hair.” It was the 1980’s; I adore my mom; feminism looked different back then; and it would take an entire memoir to describe all the intersecting vectors of horror here, so I’ll leave it at that.
Tell us about a personal transformation in your life or a change that you’ve made for the better.
I was never much for resolutions, because I have a rushing-forward quality about me, but I remember when I turned 40, I thought it was appropriate to reflect, and I decided on three paths toward increased joy: 1) to wear something inappropriate every day; 2) to drink more (one glass of wine makes me wild, and I want to be wilder); and 3) to stop apologizing (unless I’d hurt someone) and to stop saying yes all the time (to things I didn’t want to do or take on). The first two have been rollicking successes, and I’m still working on the third. It was useful for me to articulate that final one for myself, because I find it easier to hand out affectionate advice, edits, and love itself to people other than me. I can be merciless about myself. Sometimes, when I’m feeling especially brutal about something I’ve done or failed to do, I imagine I’m one of my own girlfriends, someone I love and who loves me in a way that’s expansive and forgiving. Then I reassess whatever I’m being mean about, through her borrowed POV, or by way of asking – what if she’d done or failed at this thing, how would I think of her? Probably with solidarity and love, rather than viciousness. Reading helps with this goal, and so does writing, because they let me try on other ways of being, and imagine lives, perspectives, and experiences other than my own. That makes my vision more kaleidoscopic, and makes me more generous.
Tell us about a regret you have or a mistake you’ve made.
I wish for less mercilessness in me about me, that I’d learned to be attentive and calm in the in-between moments of my own life, less maniacal about racing from rock to rock across whatever river I was perpetually trying to cross. Transitions, down moments, and rest have never been my strengths. I think if I had been more forgiving and attentive to what’s quietest, I might have been less reckless with myself and others when I was young.
Tell us about absolute animal.
absolute animal is about these exact things, really, about wildness and politeness, racing and slowing to stillness, about human and animal behavior, whether we can articulate a bright boundary between those or not. It’s also about language itself - the poems are formal little containers for irreverent and sometimes chaotic content. I love rhyme, love a soft landing, the natural cadence of iambic pentameter, the cozy worlds of poems that work. There are some Tang translations at the center of the book, tiny, combustible, Chinese poems which, in their originals, thread epic humanity up from centuries ago and make sense in this moment, too. Translating Tang poetry is an Olympic sport, training English words to do and to honor the varied work of Chinese characters. The book is also full of sonnets about our bodies and our lives, what’s fragile in us and what’s tough. Wonder, fear, and curiosity are the engines of these poems (as well as my novels, really) -- I’m always trying to make meaning out of the chaos of myself and the world around me. Those hearts on the cover of absolute animal are jittering, wondering, worrying, a little bit arrhythmic/out of sync. Maybe because the poems explore how we love, betray, forgive, and understand one other and our planet, the book is, at its core, about our vivid, irrational hearts.
Tell us your best advice.
The more grownup I get, the more I wonder about giving advice. I do best when listening to youngsters tell me truths about the world we’ve made for them. It feels sometimes like we all have to talk all the time, in ways at once aphoristic and immediate, so lately I try to be at least as often on receive as on transmit. But I guess if we’re talking about joy, writing, and being a fully rendered person in the world, my main sources of liveliness are so human and obvious they might seem facile: 1) loving the people I love with full throttle abandon – my guy, our kids, my mom and dad, our gaggle of brothers, my army of girlfriends. So that’s advice, maybe: make as many girlfriends as you can, keep them as close as you can for as many decades as you can, snuggle them and your families and loves. Be gentle with your students and colleagues and readers and selves. Be fierce in the old and new fights against tyranny. Imagine as much, as often, as widely, and as empathetically as possible. Oxygenate your life with books, possibility, chance, hope, dash, verve.
So I couldn’t keep quiet after all, go figure. I love you and your beautiful, generous mind, Cheryl Strayed.
Rachel DeWoskin is the author of absolute animal: poems (The University of Chicago Press, 2023); Two Menus: Poems (The University of Chicago Press, 2020); Banshee (Dottir Press, 2019); Someday We Will Fly (Penguin, 2019); Blind (Penguin, 2014); Big Girl Small (FSG, 2011); Repeat After Me (The Overlook Press, 2009); and Foreign Babes in Beijing (WW Norton, 2005). She is on the national steering committee of Writers for Democratic Action (WDA).