2/30: Ten Questions With Rachel Wiley

Rachel Wiley

Rachel and I have an interesting relationship. We’re no doubt friends, by any measure of the word. But, much like Scott, and a handful of other poets who will be featured here this month, my initial interactions with Rachel came from a place of fan. By the time I had stumbled on the scene, she was just coming off of two finals stages, and I had no idea what I was doing. I still find it hard to separate that sometimes. Because she is so incredibly honest, I often find myself glancing at her when I’m on stage reading something new, trying to figure out her reactions. Now that Rachel has actual, real life, hard earned fans from all corners of the world, I find myself proud of her and excited for her. But, I often find myself looking at Rachel much like I did two years ago. Often in awe, wondering how someone can hit all of the right notes so frequently. 

 

 First of all, I think you’re hilarious. Granted, I know you more personally than the average outsider, but I gotta lead off by talking about the humor that you work into your poems. Not as a crutch, either. Not as one of those “well, if this poem ain’t good, at least I’ll make ‘em laugh!” escape doors. I find that you use humor as a true device. One of my favorite poems of yours, for example, is “Glass Half Full”, where you take us on this occasionally hilarious journey through a trip to the grocery store, dropping in some really heavy, beautiful things every now and then to remind us that we’re actually listening to a very real breakup poem. I think what I like the most about your use of humor is that it feels so natural and it connects with an audience. People laugh at a line like “Dear Cosmo…fuck you”, not because it’s laugh out loud hysterical, but because it’s like, “Yeah…fuck them, why not?” Considering that you write about some really tough topics, how does humor play into your process? Do you find it necessary to soften some of the blows you deliver in other parts of your work?  

 

 I typically have 2 initial reactions to most anything; the first is finding a funny detail to latch onto to point and laugh at and the other is to just say, “oh. Fuck that.” (which some people also find amusing). These two reactions though are really just smoke bombs I throw down so I  can run away and really figure out how I feel (which also tends to be why I write).  Most of the amusing stuff that fits into my work does so because its honestly some part of how I processed whatever I am writing. There is something funny in nearly every situation-it might not be belly laugh funny but a wry smile in the back of the room-its always present.

 

I must pick your brain about the forthcoming Fat Girl Finishing School, because I’m one of many, many people excited for that to be released. I want to not only ask about the title, but the thought process behind creating the book. And when can we expect it to be given to the world?

      The book is just about to go into editing with the team at Timber Mouse Press. I have no idea when the release date is yet. I am aiming for before the end of the year. The title, like a lot of my chapbook titles, was an idea for a poem I never wrote. I really like playing with the sort of multiple meaning of the word Finishing.In context of Finishing Schools as a place to learn to be “proper” and I like the idea of there being a fancy school to eat cupcakes and properly be something that gets such push back..in this case being fat . I like finishing in terms of cleaning a plate. I like finishing in terms of an ending to something and in context of the book title for me it is an end to the shame around being fat.

 

We’ve talked about this a lot individually, but there are some pretty clear similarities in the way that we both came up in the Columbus scene, and even the national scene. Still, what were those early days like for you? I think you maybe spent more time heckling at open mics than I did, which is something I missed out on and can never get back. Also, at the risk of sounding mad corny, did you ever see yourself in the place you are currently?

Poetry started out as a side hobby for me to burn off extra creativity while I pursued acting and hid from a roommate situation I was super unhappy in. I definitely spent more time heckling but I think I also spent more times than you being too scared to slam.I was resistant to it because I kind of knew it would take over for me because I am by nature kind of competitive and I wanted desperately to be good at it.

 

I had hoped I might eventually make some small contribution to the slam community at large but I assumed if it happened it would take way more years-which is also to say  that I am not done but I definitely keep waiting for someone to realize some kind of clerical error and find out I am not supposed to be here at all.

 

What you do in the message you deliver, fiercely and consistently, has always been something I’ve watched with a lot of joy. When you sat down to write “Ten Honest Thoughts”, I imagine you didn’t foresee the impact it would have, but what are your feelings on it, as a piece? I often consider the moving parts in that poem, the fact that it is also dealing with a romantic relationship in a very real way. Also, SUBQUESTION: Hey, remember that time I wrote that “Ten Honest Thoughts On Loving A White Woman” parody poem and then read it in a room full of black women who did not take kindly to my joke about Ebony magazine? Yikes.

I legitimately wrote 10 Honest Thoughts after a conversation with a friend where I admitted to some insecurities I was having in what was at the time a fairly new relationship wth a boy I felt was “out of my league”( which is such a silly sentiment now). I realized that I had never had a thin partner because I was societally more comfortable with other fat people and I had never questioned why. Incidentally, I was getting on a bus to Chicago that next day and had the 8 hr bus ride to unpack those thoughts and a 30/30 poem due so I wrote out all the feelings and the result was that poem. I thought it was  throw away for sure but people started connecting with it.

 

On the back of that, we’ve all watched that poem spread and reach everyone. Body acceptance is a theme that you visit often and get right so completely. I’ve watched people have very clear and emotional reactions to not just “10 Honest Thoughts”, but almost all of your work. In what way do you feel a responsibility to shining a light on something like body acceptance, in a culture that often tells us what bodies are appealing and what bodies are “less than”?

I sort of feel like I got lost in an old theater and stumbled onstage while looking for a bathroom to have a good cry in and rather than running off stage I decided to do something with the platform I found myself on. I feel less responsible and  more lucky and excited that people listen and even more so when something I say connects with anyone.

 

I’m really curious about the crafting of your work. I feel like you produce more than you tend to let on, but even though you still are producing real, new gems, you’ve talked about your output slowing down a bit. How important is the crafting of what you produce now? And has that importance grown over the years?

I write a lot of small notes and ideas and eventually some line or idea gets so embedded in    my head that I have to sit down and explore it. I have a lot of what I call “quilt squares”-alone they are cute and kind of useless but eventually they get stitched into something bigger.

 When I started out I had a new poem nearly every week…a lot of them SUCKED but I was just excited to have a new poem to read because the Columbus scene is kind of low tolerance on repeating poems. With the relative success I have experienced in the past few years the importance of new work has grown and so has the pressure for that new work not to suck. I think a lot of my slowing down has to do with being more private about the work I do that sucks. I have gotten more protective and much more critical of my work. It’s not really a good thing. I am sort of stunting my own growth a bit so I am trying to get back into free writing and trying to get a writing group together. Basically I have gone too deep into my own head and need some help getting out. {insert awkward perhaps-I’ve-said-too-much laugh here}

 

Since we share a scene/community, at least for the next few months, I feel like we all have our own movements and ways that we dedicate ourselves to it. What responsibility do you feel like you have to the growth of Columbus’ scene, and to put you on the spot since we cool like that…is there a part of you that wants to put roots down somewhere else?

 

Oh. I am going to stay on this trend of possibly being way  too honest and say that I am a little lost on my role in our local community at the moment. I try to be supportive and encouraging to other poets, , newer poets, youth poets  and especially to other female poets, but I sort of fell down a personal life rabbit hole this winter and have not been around as much as I would have liked to be. Now I am re emerging and feel a bit out of touch.

 

I definitely feel the pull to leave Ohio. I have lived here my whole life and I would love to know what its like to live elsewhere. I would love to be near the ocean. I would love to not have to deal with winter. The Bay Area is at the top of my wishlist at the moment though Austin, TX did show me some nice things while I was there recently.

 

 

I get to leave first. The work of yours that I have really just fallen in love with lately is the work that picks apart your identity. Stuff like “Americana” and “My Privilege” do a lot of really heavy lifting when we consider that the author is bi-racial which is an entire universe to navigate. How did you find your voice, when it comes to writing work that centers on race, and your relationship with it?

 That question is exactly what I am struggling with right now. I dont think I have fully found my voice in navigating my relationship with race. When I write anything I am ultimately always asking myself, “but so what?” and my narrative as a bi-racial person  who is aesthetically rather caucasian feels somewhat trivial in the wake of the current climate surrounding race and thats a whole lot of stuff I really need to unpack for myself. I sort of started with “Blood Tongue” (formerly My Privilege) and “Americana” and even with “Tragedy” but I am sort of stalled out now I feel a privilege to even have a voice in the discussion but I have put a lot of pressure on myself to not fuck up.

 

 

We went to the same college, at roughly the same time, and had no idea. I would say it was probably largely due to the jock/creative dichotomy that is an easier line to straddle now than it was when we were in our late teens (EVEN THOUGH I WAS IN HAIRSPRAY ONCE). I bring this up because your roots are in theater, and I’m gonna cheat and ask a broad question as opposed to a bunch of small ones. That transition, from theater to poetry, ESPECIALLY poetry that calls on performance…how smooth was that for you? Did it make finding your legs a bit easier?

It took me longer than it should have to connect my poetry and performance background. I was so scared and not confident in the beginning but I think I had considered myself an actress for so long that I had to warm to the idea of considering myself a writer. I still sort of struggle with that because to me being a writer implies something so smart and I struggle with feeling smart enough for that title. Its not that performance is a dumb person’s game but it is something that comes somewhat naturally to me so I don’t have to think as hard about it as I do about writing. At the same time that is one of the bigger reasons that I decided to pursue poetry over theater in the long run. The challenge of writing and growing as a writer will always be huge and seems much more rewarding to me personally. Writing produces something tangible where the best performances I may have ever given as an actress only existed in the moment and the outlets for women, especially fat women, in theater are pretty limited.

 

Finally, ending on a generic, yet important note. What are you most proud of? What have you given to the craft that you feel the absolute best about?

I am most proud of not just finding my own voice as a body positive activist, which has helped me break so many of my own bad habits, but also putting out work that women find some validation or some stepping stone in on their way to body love and acceptance and their own empowerment. That is something I never could have dreamed of being privy to.

 

Thanks for doing this, Rachel. And thanks for being always one of the best encouraging spirits I’ve known.

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RACHEL WILEY is a native of Columbus, OH. She graduated from Capital University in 2006 with a degree in Theatre Studies.
Rachel was the 2010 Writers’ Block Co-Grand Slam Champ with Ethan Rivera and a member of the 2010 Writers’ Block Rust Belt and National Poetry Slam Teams. She was a 2010 Rust belt Individual Finalist. Rachel represented Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam in the Women of the World Poetry Slam 2011 where she was the 4th place finalist. She is the 2011 Grand Slam champ for the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam and a member of the Writing Wrongs NPS team that placed 4th in the 2011 National Poetry Slam. Her first full collection of poems, Fat Girl Finishing School, is forthcoming from Timber Mouse.

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