On Hunting Ghosts: A Conversation with Devon Walker-Figueroa

February 25, 2022   •   By Sarah Herrington

I MET DEVON Walker-Figueroa in a ghost town. We were both spending part of the summer in Vamvakou — a town with just nine permanent residents in the mountains of Laconia, Greece — on a writing fellowship. While I was sweating away in the 100-degree heat trying to sort sentences, I noticed her immediately befriending locals, a donkey named Bella, and moving with ease through the landscape. She emerged each evening with stories, beautiful photos of stone-capped buildings and streets others might overlook, new poems forming in her hands.

When I opened her debut collection, Philomath, I saw this hunting, empathic eye in the context of her work. Philomath, winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series selected by Sally Keith, was named after her home, another ghost town, in the Oregon Coast Range. Philomath offers work both precise and spanning, poems that skip across the page, making use of white space and breath, or delivered in chunks dense as certain memories. The result is a lyrical testament to where we grew and what will never leave us.

The poet brings to the page not only her training in language, as a graduate of Bennington College, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and current Jill Davis fellow at NYU, but also her background as a harpist and former ballet dancer. This is verse infused with music, movement, sound. Philomath is a song to the Northwest, to self and to family, to those places we so thought we wanted to escape before realizing they’d already shaped us.

“‘Love of learning’ is what / Philomath means,” the book begins. Who gets out, who stays? What, in these spaces, is the “sound of becoming”?

I recently sat down with Walker-Figueroa in a Brooklyn café to recount our summer adventure and lean into the world of her celebrated collection.

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SARAH HERRINGTON: This is the first time I’m seeing you with Brooklyn around you instead of Greece!

DEVON WALKER-FIGUEROA: Seeing your face is taking me right back to Vamvakou.

I’m expecting Bella the donkey to show up with her bell. Thank you for taking the time to talk, and congratulations on Philomath. What inspired you to first write about Philomath? And what is it about ghost towns?

[Laughs.] Well, for one, I feel like ghost towns have a way of finding and subsequently swallowing me. They’re the whale to my Jonah. But also, I grew up in one. Kings Valley is a literal ghost town, and you feel it when you’re out there. It’s also known for being haunted. If you ever go to the Philomath Historic Society, you can read all of the accounts of people who have seen apparitions and wanted it on record. Whether you believe in ghosts or not it makes you think about what we want to record, to then share with others. I suppose I naturally began recording my home, which is something of myself.

Then, my best friend who lives in California took me out to Bodie, California, which is an old ghost town from the boom days of the gold rush, but it was wiped out by fires. Bodie eventually got turned into a state park, so now people pay to walk around peering into houses or remnants of them. I love that. This idea of something being made priceless by disuse.

I remember this story from your poem “Curse of Bodie,” with its great opening:

Bodie is the first ghost town     I’ve met that makes people want
to visit it.

Yes, and you know this already, but I just spent my whole summer in a recovering ghost town in Greece, Vamvakou. I enjoy quiet. I don’t mind too much the feeling of being unseen. And I find the way people in such remote places come together and invent a kind of culture of their own to be infinitely fascinating.

Let’s talk about the shape of your work. What is the meaning of space in your poems? What is your process of finding a poems shape?

First off, I’d say that the spaces have a lot to do with modulating the speed at which the reader is moving through the poem. The eye moving over words and over the silences separating them is a kind of dance, one you can influence through your use of space. As in, you can use space as a unit of movement and of time, accelerating or slowing down the poem, and the reader, as the poem needs.

Can we look at one of your poems as an example? I’m looking at “My Materia”:

   Each day she opened
                               with a blessing      so inherited it was more
Cadence than melody, …

The lines look, somehow, both drawn out and staccato.

Thinking of music notation, you could compare a larger caesura to a whole rest and a shorter one to a quarter rest, for example. And beyond the use of caesurae, there are also certain poems, like in “My Materia,” that use blocks of space, allowing the text to press against invisible boundaries and actually mark out, or frame, absence.

You’re highlighting what’s not there — that’s also sort of ghostly of you.

Yeah, absolutely. And if you want enjambment, let’s say, but you don’t want a full line break, you can use a caesura in that way. You can throw in a little fruitful misdirection (or just, direction) in there by introducing some soft breaks. This absence here (in “My Materia”) connects with the absent mother, but also the geometries formed by the young virginal women in that old religious group, Job’s Daughters. The women would arrange themselves into a cross shape. If you consider that geometrically, you see a cross forms a border among four implied voids, shaped like boxes or triangles, depending upon how you visually take it in.

Thank you for bringing up religion — can we speak about the role of faith in the book?

Sure. The book references the Bible and Christianity a fair amount. The Bible says some weird and wonderfully mystic things about writing itself — talking about the Word being made flesh, or contending that our immortal souls hang in the balance of a verse’s interpretation. Or telling us that “every jot and tittle” we’re reading within its pages is “God-breathed.” The stakes are pretty high when what you’re reading was supposedly authored by God, right? But the pressure and importance that puts on words … even though I’m no longer religious and haven’t been since I was 15, I still carry that sense of the human soul and its fate being bound up in language.

That said, religion and faith are not the same thing, so I’d also say there’s faith in the book, in the broader sense, in the worth of lives that play out largely unseen. There’s faith in the obscure, the unacknowledged, the anonymous, even the scorned or abject. And, on the flip side, there’s a lot of doubt in Philomath, too. I think it’s probably equal parts faith and doubt.

Right, and to my ear, it’s faith and doubt as experienced through the body. Could we talk about the way the body shows up in these poems? I love these lines in particular:

           My body is just the story it tells
In order to be true.

Thank you. I think a lot about embodiment in the book, with all of the sexuality and physicality in there, the dancing. But I’m equally concerned with disembodiment. There’s a series of poems in there titled “Out of Body,” that I started writing as I thought about my mom’s very compelling description of an out-of-body experience she had when she nearly drowned in a canoe accident. This event occurred before I was born, so my future embodiment would never have occurred if things had gone a different way. That event doesn’t figure into the book, but this idea that you could preview your own death or sort of observe the spectacle of your inexistence without occupying it, that fascinated me.

Speaking of bodies, how does gender show up in these poems?

Oh, wow. Okay, let me think about this one. I mean, the truth is, growing up in such a remote place can lead one to feel kind of genderless, at least for a while. If no one is much paying attention to whether you’re alive or dead, they’re certainly not scrutinizing your gender much. If gender is a performance as Judith Butler said, then you just don’t have many people to perform for in a context like that —

Wow. I really relate to that. I also grew up in a rural area and spent a lot of time as a child alone — something I related to in your book. You’re right — as a kid in those moments in nature with no human witness, I didn’t really feel gender.

Right. My sister and I were more pressured to perform femininity when my family went into urban areas. My mom would brush our hair and put us in dresses to commute in for church — but during the week, we were homeschooled most of the time, we lived in hand-me-down overalls from our boy cousin in Louisiana. I remember feeling I was a tomboy, whatever that meant.

I still don’t feel particularly gendered, to be honest, though I guess I track as female or feminine to most people. My point, though, is that such an obscure life can actually be really liberating. It can give you permission to discover what feels honest to you without so much outside pressure. And I think there’s a little bit of that childhood gender amorphousness captured in the book.

So a big question — what is the line between prose and poetry to you?

If you ever find out where that divide is, let me know!

This might seem like a cop-out, but I think you just kind of know, by instinct, when you are reading poetry, whether it’s in prose or lineated. For me, personally, that recognition is often tied to, among other things, the writer’s use of music and image, perhaps with how unapologetic they can be with metaphors and symbols, how liberal with their invitation to the irrational. That said, I don’t know how to answer that question. Not really. I also just think that our sense of where that boundary existed was blown up by the Symbolists, particularly Charles Baudelaire and Aloysius Bertrand, so maybe we could have a séance and ask their ghosts.

What is currently haunting you?

Honestly, and this sounds so obvious, but the pandemic. All the death and dying and suffering and distance around that.

Also, the complication of how the environment thrived most when we were most paralyzed as a species — the canals of Venice going so clear you could see fish swimming in them, the birds in cities altering their calls, smelling the sea from my balcony in Bushwick.

I’ve been remembering the words for death from past studies of Old English, too: wtindordeaÞ, a wondrous death; bealusíþ, death path; deáþbeám, deáþræs, death-rush; deáþwíc, deathmansion. It’s like all of English’s best words for death have already died. It’s like our language wasn’t prepared for this pandemic.

That’s intense.

We actually have so few ways to name what it is we’ve been through. And that haunts me.

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