Barbara Claire Freeman interviews Andrew Wessels

Andrew Wessels has lived in Houston, Cambridge, and Las Vegas, where he held the John Cobain Fellowship from Black Mountain Institute. Currently, he splits his time between Istanbul and Los Angeles. His poems, translations, and collaborations can recently be found in or are forthcoming from VOLT, Colorado Review, Fence, Witness, The Journal, Washington Square Review, Grist, Handsome, Fact-Simile, and 580 Split. He edits The Offending Adam.

Barbara Claire Freeman is a literary critic and professor of literature who has recently turned her full attention to writing poetry. Formerly an Associate Professor of English at Harvard, she teaches creative writing in the Rhetoric Department at U.C. Berkeley. Incivilities, her first collection of poems, was published by Counterpath Press in November, 2009; a chapbook, St. Ursula’s Silence, was published by Instance Press in 2010. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in A Public Space, Agriculture Reader, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Forklift, Ohio, Jacket, Seattle Review, and Volt, among others.

A poem by Andrew Wessels follows the interview.

Barbara Claire Freeman: You are the Editor-in-Chief of The Offending Adam, an online journal notable for its weekly Monday publication and editorial introductions. How did the magazine begin and how did you decide upon its name?

Andrew Wessels: About three years ago, my now-managing editor Cody Todd came to me with the desire to start a literary journal, a plan that both of us had batted around off and on since we met a few years before. After a couple months of researching literary journals both contemporary and historical and brainstorming our own journal’s concept, Cody offered the idea of our name, The Offending Adam, which he had found in Henry V: “Consideration, like an angel, came/and whipped the offending Adam out of him.” This quote and title immediately struck us as being a good guide to create the type of journal we were seeking. We wanted the form and function of the journal to encourage active consideration.

BCF: All well and good, but I’m really interested in the whipping and the angels.

AW: I am, too. I think that the act of both writing and reading, or at least doing so with attention or consideration, is an aggressive act, a whipping. To name something or to claim an understanding of something is antagonistic, violent. The Offending Adam is both that thing we want to expel (lack of consideration, or not paying attention) and also that wonderful thing that is the poem, that comes out of writer and reader being together in the space of the poem. Another way I think of this angel/whipping duality (and/or complicity) is in Emerson’s lines: “Forging, through swart arms of Offence/The silver seat of Innocence.” “Whipping” reminds us that the process of writing/reading poetry isn’t necessarily easy or (at first) pleasurable, but is nonetheless worthwhile. And then there’s all the provocative, pent-up religious hang ups one could get into but chooses not to…

BCF: You’re preaching to a choir we will not visit here. Who are the other editors of TOA and how does your editorial process work?

AW: Shortly after Cody and I settled on the name, I reached out to two other friends who I had discussed starting a journal with before, Nik De Dominic and Ryan Winet. The four of us launched the journal about eight months later in February 2010. Earlier this year, we added a fifth editor, S. Whitney Holmes. We also have contributing and guest editors, including Jessica Piazza, Matthew Siegel, and Craig Santos Perez.

Because each issue is centered around single authors and our introductions, our editorial process is what we like to call single-level. Instead of having readers who then bump up contributions to editors who then bump up contributions to the head editor, we look for a single editor to fall in love with a set of poems. The primary criterion is: “Do you feel compelled enough about the work to write an introduction?” We feel that this single-level process works both to allow for more daring and unique voices as well as for us to explore a wide range of poetics while also retaining a strong editorial voice.

BCF: A unique aspect of your submissions process is that you ask submitters to include an aesthetic statement. This must yield some fascinating texts. Any details you’d like to share about what tends to come in? Do they play any role in your selection process?

AW: We get some really interesting and creative responses to this request. In fact, we’ve ended up accepting and publishing some as poems. We receive everything from serious, critical prose to fantastical stories to humorous, rhyming poems. These texts are very helpful for our process, giving us an expanded understanding of what each poet is doing with their writing. I feel like reading just a handful of poems doesn’t quite give enough information about how to enter into a writer’s poetic. The statements also assist us when we write the introductions, allowing us to pass along information to the readers about otherwise unknowable but important information such as how the selected works fit within a larger book-length project or the formal constraints that the pieces were written under. We think that all of this contributes to that idea of consideration I mentioned earlier–consideration from writer and editor that helps effect a greater ability for the reader to offer attention and consideration to the final product.

BCF: You also have a wonderful chapbook project, the Chapvelope series. Please tell us more about this and related projects.

AW: The Chapvelope series is our response to making a physical object, as opposed to the digital object that is the journal. We wanted to make something that could only exist as a physical object, and while brainstorming we came upon some old journals of collaborative-object-collections like Semina, Aspen, and the tradition of postal art. Each edition of the Chapvelope is an envelope that we stuff with various poetic objects, some combination of chapbooks and various broadside projects. We’ve included chapbooks by Dan Beachy-Quick and Srikanth Reddy, Gillian Conoley, Emily Motzkus, and translations of Lan Lan and Yi Lu; and also broadsides by Melissa Kwasny, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Jennifer Sweeney, and Heather Christle. Our goal is both to present exciting work to our readership as well as to offer a unique experience of the objects themselves, poetry as a physical entity.

BCF: How has editing the magazine and Chapvelope series contributed to or effected your own poetry?

AW: First and foremost, it’s been a crash course in contemporary poetry. The process of researching for the journal’s launch and the continuous in-flow of submissions has opened my eyes to so much wonderful and exciting writing that I didn’t know existed before. The journal has also become something of a community for me, and I can now count many of our contributors as friends who I share my own work with and receive feedback that’s really been invaluable. I’ve also learned a lot about the business/careerist end of being a poet–that dirty underbelly we like to pretend isn’t there but is also, unfortunately, necessary to understand. I’ve developed a greater awareness of the literary journal landscape and learned the differences between a good and a bad cover letter. Lastly, I think it’s helping me transition successfully into that post-MFA period that’s really difficult, that purgatorial time when you no longer have the camaraderie of a program and also don’t have the CV yet to get a non-adjunct teaching position. This will ensure my continued engagement with the world of poetry through this transitional stage.

BCF: A fascinating aspect of your poems is your work/play with other languages, specifically Turkish. Why Turkish? And: are you keen on getting foreign sounds into your poetry?

AW: The past few years I’ve been living part-time in Istanbul, where my wife’s family lives. I’ve been translating the Turkish poet Nurduran Duman. I read a translation of one of her poems a couple years ago on the old Omnidawn blog and was blown away. I got into contact with her and asked her to send me some more poems. I just had to translate them and share her wonderful poetic vision with the English speaking world.

The Turkish language is fascinating, both for its grammatical structure and more generally the sounds it produces. It’s an agglutinative language, so you build these elaborately elongated words, adding morpheme upon morpheme to express what in English is done by adding new words or phrases. I’m also fascinated by an aspect of the language called vowel harmony, whereby the vowels of suffixes are not fixed; rather, they are determined by the preceding vowels in the word. The language, to my ear at least, develops musically, the agglutination building chords and the vowel harmony offering, well, a harmonic element. I’ve used Turkish words in some poems, but I think the effects of my study of the language and translations have bled over into all my writing, even the poems that don’t address the Turkish language or Istanbul directly. The sounds and the rhythms of the language have affected my views on prosody, the structure of the line, and meter.

BCF: Speaking of “prosody,” broadly defined: I wonder about its role and importance in your own work? For example, do you choose particular formal restraints before you begin a poem or series of poems? Does your notion of “prosody” include such aspects of poetry as rhythm and/or sound-play? Do you scan your poems during the process of writing them or while revising them?

AW: I think of prosody descriptively rather than prescriptively, which I guess means that I pay attention to it when composing but without applying predetermined rules or restraints. Or maybe I could say that the process is holistic rather than precisely mathematical. That said, I find myself very often writing some form of the sonnet, though they tend to be loose or broken sonnets. I do scan my poems at some point in the composition process in order to focus on the trajectory of the rhythms and how that interplays with the meaning, content, and sound of the poem. My goal is to find a balance of all the various elements without allowing one to overdetermine or undermine the others. That scanning is not to measure feet or apply rules about scansion; I’m trying to gain a better understanding of the speed and rhythm of the lines to ensure that they meld with everything else. I find myself returning often to Hopkins’ sprung rhythm and Williams’ variable foot as ways of approaching or understanding prosody with flexibility. Part of me thinks that I might be doing something semi-systematically, but I’m not ready to try to understand or explain in any concrete way what that is, trusting that either I’ll figure it out down the line or that explaining it fully doesn’t really matter anyway.

BCF: How, or in what ways, do these thoughts about prosody apply to “Barbara Guest on the Way to the Bellagio Gardens,” the poem you’re contributing to this issue of OmniVerse?

AW: For this poem, I was interested in the stanza as a single rhythmic unit. There is no enjambment between stanzas, which are further differentiated with an asterisk. I wanted each stanza to have its own, unique trajectory and speed, which pairs with each stanza’s individual moment or image in the poem. This concept led me to focus to a great degree on the first beat of each stanza. I think the first syllable functions in similar fashion to the first note in a musical piece’s movement, indicating themes, speed, strength, and purpose. In the poem, the first three stanzas begin with an unaccented syllable (“The first time rains…,” “An hour later…,” and “We walk separately…”), then the next three with an accented syllable (“Inside the unplasticked water…,” “Later the boy will march…,” and “Light held gently…”), then the final returns to an unaccented syllable (“The water is blue…”). I was interested in seeing how that first syllable would play out rhythmically, lyrically, and contextually through first the unit of the stanza and then into the poem as an accumulation of these stanzaic moments.


Barbara Guest on the Way to the Bellagio Gardens

The first time rains on the boulevard. Yellow
shorts ride up this afternoon and feet
dust soles against the odds of winning.
The wheel spins musical fountains lights church bells.


An hour later I will cannon blue water
into a thousand smartphones. Triumphal music
repatriates me behind the double-bolted hotel door
our cheeks pressed firmly to the warming glass
the ceiling unfurling into night’s carpet.


We walk separately in a group down the boulevard
past Caesar’s gardens. The mower
rests his shears to gather empty plastic cups
singing tra-la-la save those who carry their own drinks.
Four people are love. This hottest world generates youth
who counts water droplets with gold-leaf lettering.
Somewhere, virtue.


Inside the unplasticked water spout
crowns my head among planes of butterflies. [my head crowns among planes of butterflies]
A boy clings to his parents
on the faux-stone passageway. This is where [The sound/light and signs spurting into blue]
the sound, light, and signs stop, spurting into blue.


Later the boy will march around the hotel room as a butterfly
alights on the night-flower, arms pumping back and forth
to Disney songs. The bedsheet pulled to the floor
where he will emerge a fallen bundle of sticks
the last pizza crust on his chest. The carpet odor. Light arrested
on the window border. This his pyre this his flame.


Light held gently in the hand rises up the escalator
making friends spontaneous and conversational. Conveyed
on the moving walkway once in profile only this multiplied.
Happiness is a mirror age twenty-one far from who we can be.
Happiness waves ahead in profile multiplied in one direction.


The water is blue and blue, the seat cozy, radishes
in the salad, the city an inlet encompassed in palace. The door feels
like a door, a cloud rotating overhead. That I bring myself good luck.
The water floats on the pool surface before the show begins:
birdfeathers, flyers, scattered wind-up toys.