Endlessly Random with Sean Webb
Sean Webb has lived in the Philadelphia region for the past 10 years; prior to that he lived throughout the west in Washington, Arizona, Iowa, New Mexico, and Utah. Along the way he worked countless divergent jobs that often fed his poetry (waterbed maker, headshop salesclerk, zoning enforcer, factory and meatpacking plant worker, and mall Santa, to name a few). He now works as a writer and editor, currently in the medical publishing industry. He received an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and has been recipient of numerous honors for his work including fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Utah Arts Council. His poems have appeared in many publications including, The North American Review, Prairie Schooner, The Seattle Review, and the anthology Frances and Clare in Poetry. In 2005 he served as Poet Laureate of Montgomery County. He was also either the winner or runner-up in the poetry division of the past four Philadelphia Citypaper writing contests.
SVJ: There's frequently a collage effect to your work. Especially in poems like "Ideal Places," where you bring discordant objects or images into a framework while chasing a singular theme. What challenges do you find in writing that way, creating those kinds of worlds?
Webb: I recognize, particularly in long poems I've written, that I tend to think in terms of a mosaic where I'm gathering different elements around a central theme. I have one very long poem, about 26 sections, and the central aspect (or character rather) of the poem is an ethereal, myopic wanderer (in retrospect, I think it was representative of my troubles at the time) wending his way through much of the American west, and it goes off on tangents (forays into Vegas, speculation on naked molerats in San Diego, fossil fields in Iowa, bikers partying in Nebraska . . . ) until the narrator finds an otherworldy peace. I have a tendency to do that. I suppose part of the challenge is finding a unifying theme that tames and in due course centralizes the poem while letting it make wonderful discoveries in its wandering. It's very much a walking discovery. I think very short poems work in the same way though on a much smaller scale—paying greater attention to allusion and mystery and archetypes in the larger sense but the sonic inter-relatedness of the component words in the smaller scale. I recently wrote a short poem about earthstar puffball mushrooms, in which each word is selected and arranged quite deliberately to raise all these effects. Someone might ask what earthstar puffball mushrooms have to do with anything, but in that poem I would argue, in a very cosmic way, they have a little to do with everything. Ultimately I think what it's all grounded in is fascination with sound and inter-relatedness of words—rhythm, nuance, connotation—on and on. I think since I've been a kid I've had a habit of transposing letters in words ("College of Nursing" becomes "knowledge of cursing"!) and repeating phrases in my head—savoring lush lines that might come from anywhere, and a lot of this really lends itself to the attraction and the eventual and ongoing development of tools of poetry that you amass over years of practice, which then just sit behind you while you write, waiting to be called into service.
Fairly early on I discovered that poetry was the best vehicle that suited what I did. When I attempted to write prose I was not very good at it at back then mainly because I would pour over each sentence and word and lose the momentum of the story—I'd be a page in and I don't care about telling a story any more. Then I took my first poetry class at Arizona State and had the good fortune to study with Rita Dove, the year that she won the Pulitzer Prize. I started writing these poems that I could spend 40 hours on, compacting and working around images, and it made sense. I found out it was what I wanted to do, or really rather was meant to do. My mom tells me that I told her when I was six I wanted to be writer. It wasn't until I was about 26 though before I found out what that meant for me. None of it felt right before that. I eventually concluded—after finding out what my writing was to be—that poetry, for me at least, is more akin to sculpture than writing; and that's probably also a big part of why I tend not to write long plot-driven stories.
SVJ: Your less surreal poems involve a grayer or grittier side of life. They're energized by a pessimism or negative view of the past and future. They seem to be their own struggle. A character or a concept struggles through cynical imagery. Is it a goal in the poems to break through that or just to capture it?
Webb: Well I think the poem "Ideal Places" is really an illustration of what I'm trying to do overall. I see that it often looks rather dark. To me what I feel [in the poem] was redemptive and reconciling. I didn't realize that I had a fairly dark world view. In my current world there's a lot of gallows humor—but it's all quite funny to me. I remember a long time ago being fascinated with a Stephen Dobyns's poem, "Under the Green Ceiling," in which there are these two guys walking down a dirt road by crop fields; one of them is rambling on about the beauty of women, and the other is thinking and planning how when they get out past the edge of town he's going to knife the guy talking about women and rob him. And the last line is something like "victim of a world endlessly random and violent" (referring to a rat under the green ceiling). I used to leave that phrase on typewriters in stores back when typewriters used to sit in rows in department stores, usually with a sheet of abused paper in them. I would leave that lovely phrase for the world to find. The poem really is about the inter-relatedness of everything, of each of us, and that it's a shame when we can't see that and see how our conditions are all interdependent. I think I just thought it was a cryptic line that would make people wonder. Though I can see now, that unconsciously was the condition I ascribed to. I've come to reconcile that that is how I viewed my life since some point in my childhood. My world became rather challenged and dark, but I didn't know how to deal with it—or even entirely realize it. Then I found some outside solutions and I thought things were fun and I had a normal life (albeit twisted, slowly suicidal, and rather anti-social), but I had a lot of demons so to speak, and I dealt with them in destructive ways. But it was how I managed; how I managed to live for a long time, so I have no regrets about that—but I sure don't want to go back.
Ultimately what I've been writing for the last 10 or so years I think is redemptive and positive, but I know it doesn't come out that way to most readers. I mean, I have a poem called Pawnshop in which a guy cuts his own head off with a circular saw. On its face that sounds pretty bleak (well, ok, it doesn't get much darker than that) but it starts out, "All failure ends here, and the failures are beautiful, like swan dives and breaching whales . . ." and towards the end it refers to "a perfectly cut diamond of failure"; from my perspective there's something just as celebratory and beautiful in abject and ultimate failure and despair or it would all be unbearable. I guess, at least, that's how I can imagine it being part of the greatness of it all and not be consumed by it.
And I think that poem "Ideal Places" is kind of coming to that place of not finding things to be good or bad, but finding that they are exactly what they are—which is beautiful in spite of challenges. While driving along Route 30 to visit my daughters in Gettysburg during a period that at least one of them was going through some serious, I guess "growing pains," I saw a horse rolling in the mud and pulled over and wrote those first few lines. Then late that night after returning home I wrote the rest of it in a nearly complete draft. It's exactly what it is—an attempt to explain that beautiful, somber, grieving, ecstatic, sensory enjoyment, joy, in the presence of what is going on—neither good nor bad, just present and happening.
SVJ: What would you say are the most hopeful things and the most discouraging things going on in poetry today? Which would be a bigger list?
Webb: Actually I think [poetry today is] hopeful and encouraging. I went to a big poetry event at the Philadelphia Free Library this past spring and all kinds of incredible work was shared by a wide array of people. I remember these teenagers performing: one who won a contest—and she recited that piece, fabulous, and then another two who did an amazing interplay, back and forth with two seemingly disparate figures they were inhabiting (historical or celebrated people—I can't remember, things slip away). It was incredible poetry. I was just blown away, and I loved seeing that because (and I don't mean this in any disparaging way) but I see a lot of poetry today, that is really amazing, but it relies mainly on the political or social world for content and context (and that's a necessary and vital discourse) but what I find discouraging sometimes is people get away from the very simple and universal aspects of life. I mentioned that recent poem I wrote about earthstar puffball mushrooms. I don't think you can find a simpler, more inert and apolitical object—actually there are plenty such things around—but in the poem I wrote, the simple slow actions of those little mushrooms expand to the margins of the universe and it ultimately concludes that they grow from their casings and rise up into the sky (just a little bit) and send their microscopic spores into the world simply to live, and live again. I think the poem concluded itself to say something powerful about how we (in our worldly and perhaps arrogant cognizance) can recognize in other inhabitants, our place in the world. I'm thinking of a book by Michael McFee called Colander. It's all poems about domestic objects, and to me finding the granular drama is a fascinating thing, and I think that gets lost sometimes (where would our lives be without pencils!). What I think, what happens at least for me, is in engaging the simple ideas and objects in the world, it allows me to extend out into the world in a much more observant and useful manner—finding the rhythms that connect me to the world. Makes me think of that jar on the hill in Tennessee that Stevens wrote about.
I've been reading and re-reading some William Stafford essays and I like how he describes how poems are working language—it's the fabric and narrative of our lives distilled into something maybe universal or maybe that can be embraced, or converges in an intensified way with the larger parallel life we all live.