Inspiration in the Stacks: Four Questions for W. J. Herbert


Last fall, the Poetry Center library staff were thrilled to hear that one of our familiar library users was one of five winners of the 2020 National Poetry Series. Selected by Kwame Dawes, W. J. Herbert’s debut full-length poetry collection, Dear Specimen, will be published by Beacon Press in Fall 2021. Herbert served for seven years as coordinator of the bimonthly poetry series and annual poetry competition offered by dA Center for the Arts in Pomona, California. Selected by Natasha Trethewey for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2017, her work has also appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Boulevard, New Ohio Review, Pleiades, Southwest Review, and others. She was born in Cleveland, Ohio and raised in southern California where she earned a bachelor’s in studio art and a master’s in flute performance. She lives in Kingston, New York and Portland, Maine. In this interview, Herbert shares about her forthcoming book, her journey as a writer, and how the Poetry Center’s library collection stimulated her writing.

Poet W. J. Herbert smiles in front of a green background.
W. J. Herbert

Julie Swarstad Johnson: Many congratulations to you on the forthcoming publication of Dear Specimen through the National Poetry Series. Can you tell us more about the process of writing Dear Specimen? How long did you work on this collection, and how did it come together in its final form?

W. J. Herbert: Thanks for your congratulations, Julie, and for your interest in Dear Specimen. I was mesmerized by the collection in the Discovery Room of the North Carolina Museum of Sciences: its feathered dovekies tucked into a drawer, their ankles delicately bound; a tern chick afloat in formalin, skin glittering. Even with its thorax pinned, the water scorpion seemed alive.

I often think about my own mortality and so began to pose, rhetorically, to these specimens my questions about death. The following year, I found myself doing the same thing with fossils at the Zuhl Museum in Las Cruces, New Mexico and the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. After talking with friends, I decided not only to deepen my focus on the climate crisis and species extinction, but also to create new work about the speaker and her daughter. During the third year, the collection gelled.

I would describe it this way: In a series of poems written for the daughter she will leave behind, the dying speaker of Dear Specimen, examines grief, culpability and love, asking: what value can we ascribe to our lives, and do we as a species deserve to survive?

JSJ: Your writing career illustrates how it is possible to be extremely successful without an MFA. How you have shaped your own path as a writer? What has been most helpful to you in your learning and growth as a poet?

WJH: The discipline I developed as a flutist is crucial to me as a writer. When you attempt a new piece of classical music, there’s a steep learning curve: you know it will sound rough at first, so you temper your expectations and keep at it. And you take advice from professionals to master the craft. Once I started writing, I looked for a critique group and generous mentors to guide me.

I had wanted to get an MFA, but young children and a music career precluded it. I took very few workshops at first and didn’t attend summer conferences. But I wish I had read more poetry—it’s the most important thing I did, and still do, not only for pleasure, but to hone my skills.

Years later while writing Dear Specimen, I took a terrific manuscript workshop from Kathleen Ossip at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York City.  I also received a scholarship from upstreet magazine to attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Writers conference. Both were helpful to me in forming the manuscript, and I continue to rely on the wisdom of friends and fellow poets who critique my work.

JSJ: In the past few years, you’ve made extended visits to the Poetry Center library during trips to Tucson. How did you first discover the Poetry Center? How have you made use of the Poetry Center’s library collection during your visits, and how has it supported your work as a writer?

WJH: I discovered the Poetry Center while planning a trip to the Southwest. I had spent time at Poets House in New York and I knew visiting your Center would be fun. What I didn’t realize was that devoting hours each day to your extensive collection would be essential to creating this book.

While there, I scanned new works, noting those I wanted to revisit when I got back home. Others, I couldn’t put down. Absorbing day after day a myriad of poetic voices and visions broadened my sense of the possible.

I also explored the Center’s chapbook archives, attended a reading, and just enjoyed the esthetics of a building whose expansive windows filled the Center with light. It took me a while to realize that those who staff the Center are not only lovers of poetry, but skillful writers eager to share their expertise and knowledge. Thanks, all!

JSJ: The past year has been incredibly challenging, with many disruptions to regular plans and normal routines. As a writer, how have you been navigating this challenging time? Is there anything you would recommend to other poets—online resources, books you’ve recently read, anything else—for encouragement as we begin a new year?

WJH: I finished Dear Specimen at the end of February 2020, just as the first wave of the pandemic hit. At the time, I was eager to get to know presses and, so, reached out to prior contest winners, asking if they’d be willing to tell me about their experience. Since I had the luxury of being able to buy winners’ books, I then had the pleasure of reading work the presses had shepherded. Some of the writers I contacted were acquaintances, some were total strangers. It was scary, but fun.

I listen to a chakra meditation every morning to quell pandemic dread. Then I read from whatever book of poems I’m fixated on at the moment. To generate new work, I might pretend I’m on a writing retreat. I pick a poet (my most recent were Jihyun Yun, Michael Torres, and Charles Kell) then, day after day, read her/his work. Sometimes I feel impelled to scribble something of my own, but that’s an added perk. Without the implicit intention to write, I miraculously find myself writing. It’s a game.

I’m also happy to critique others’ work, when time allows. I recently took a deep dive into a fellow writer’s manuscript, hoping to share insights gained from putting my own together. I hope some of her brilliance rubbed off on me!

Finally, I do activist work. It feels essential and humbling. And, as everyone is, I’m trying to be optimistic, despite catastrophic events. Thanks again, Julie, for hosting this interview!

JSJ: Thank you so much for answering these questions! We truly look forward to having Dear Specimen on the shelves at the Poetry Center.