“The Natural Next Step”: Dinah Lenney Interviews Wendy Willis

By Dinah LenneyFebruary 8, 2019

“The Natural Next Step”: Dinah Lenney Interviews Wendy Willis
WENDY WILLIS AND I had been emailing back and forth for a while when she mentioned the stack of cooking magazines under her night table. So I had to know, I had to ask — with everything else on her plate, as it were, does she actually cook every night? “Most nights I do,” she said. At that point, I confessed that I also love to read recipes — and that even so, I wind up making the same ones again and again. “How about you?” I asked. “Cooking is one of the places where I let my dispositional restlessness run free,” Wendy answered, “so I rarely make a dish twice. Or maybe I make it twice, but I hardly ever make it a third time. The one big exception: kale salad. As it turns out, kale salad goes with everything. A few years ago, the kids bought me a huge poster that says, ‘Only Kale Can Save Us Now.’ Damn straight. It hangs in a place of honor in the middle of the kitchen.”

“Geez,” I said to my screen. “She can cook, too.”

What you need to know: Wendy practiced law for a decade before publishing her first book of poems, Blood Sisters of the Republic, in 2012. Her most recent volume, A Long Late Pledge, is a finalist for this year’s Oregon Book Award. Meanwhile, the subject of our exchange is her just-published collection of wide-ranging essays, These Are Strange Times, My Dear. However, lest you think she has nothing but time (just sits around writing, reading recipes, cooking), think again: Willis is a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, and a teacher, as well as the founder and director of Oregon’s Kitchen Table, in the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, and the executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, a global network of organizations and leading scholars working in the field of deliberation and public engagement. 

“Dispositional restlessness” — that’s one way of putting it. Another way, though: Wendy Willis isn’t one to repeat herself. As evidenced in life and on the page, she’s indefatigably curious, compassionate, and engaged. So much to talk about, therefore, but the first thing I wanted to ask was how she came to writing.


DINAH LENNEY: You’ve been a lawyer and an activist from the beginning, yes? But were you always also a reader? And a writer?

WENDY WILLIS: I love this question, because it makes it sound like I was a lawyer right from the cradle. Oh that it were so! My relationship to law — like all my relationships — is really, really complicated. I’m a Gemini, so I’m always on the cusp between one thing and another. From the time I was a young person — college at least, maybe earlier — I was torn between literary impulses and the rough and tumble of civic life. Right now, I’m trying to do both. With mixed success.

Makes sense. And makes me think of the last piece in the collection — “The Perfume of Resistance” — it’s everything, isn’t it? Personal essay, literary criticism, a call to art as well as arms. But do you feel obligated to write (and read) in this vein? Should we all? Or — in these “strange times” — is the giving and receiving of art (regardless of the maker’s intentions) in itself an act of resistance? Could we make that argument, do you think?

Yes, yes, yes! I do think the giving and receiving of art is a humanistic and radical act. And you know what? So do tyrants. Eventually, they always come for the writers and artists. One of my very favorite organizations is PEN, which sounds the alarm for writers around the world who have been harassed or arrested or sometimes worse. As I’m sure you noticed in the book, one of my all-time heroes is the Czech playwright, dissident, and eventual president, Václav Havel. Havel argued throughout his life that the best way to undermine tyranny is to “live in truth.” He had faith that if we do the thing we are most deeply called to do — write a poem, throw a pot, organize a protest, cook a fabulous supper, read a novel, make up a silly story for a toddler — we are asserting our own liberty in the world. And damn if the dictators don’t hate that.

As for reading, I have read an awful lot of translations in recent years. Right after Christmas in 2016, my husband David and I made a trip to Italy. The woman who picked us up in Rome took a detour on the way to the apartment. She slowed down at the Piazza Venezia and pointed up to a small — tiny, really — second-floor balcony. “See that?” she asked. “That’s where Mussolini gave his speeches. We’ve seen real fascists here.” Point taken. We Americans are not the first ones to know uncertainty and ugliness and bombast. And there is something very reassuring to be in the company of writers who are struggling through their own strange and frightening times, who are casting about to keep their moral center, who are living their ordinary lives in a sea of ruthlessness and violence. Think Orhan Pamuk and Gabriel García Márquez and Paul Celan. Think Anna Akhmatova and even Elena Ferrante. What great company to be in. It’s a reminder that these times — no matter how hopeless they seem in the moment — will not go on forever. It is up to us, all of us, to imagine our way out of them. And we can find company in our own hometowns. In Portland, I am on the board of a poetry press, Tavern Books, which is dedicated to publishing translations and keeping important, sometimes obscure, books in print. It is small, precise, beautiful work. And it is, in its own way, right at the heart of the resistance.

Along with everything else, are you also still practicing law? 

I’m not, no. In fact, I was about to give up my law license at the beginning of 2017, but then Trump became president. I wasn’t sure who among my friends was going to end up in the hoosegow, so I decided I’d better stay in good standing. Like so many artists, though, I have a patched together vocational life. I work part-time for Oregon’s Kitchen Table in the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, and I am also the director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, a consortium of scholars and institutions working on issues surrounding public deliberation. Plus a bunch of other projects. It’s kind of crazy but really rewarding.

Tell me about your title for the essays. (And what it maybe has to do with the title of your first volume of poetry: Blood Sisters of the Republic.) That word: republic — what does it mean to you?

The title — These Are Strange Times, My Dear — is a line from a poem by the Iranian poet and dissident Ahmad Shamlou. In 2015, I heard a recording of Shamlou reading the poem, “In This Dead-End Street,” at the Ai Weiwei exhibit at Alcatraz. Although I don’t speak Persian, I was completely arrested by the urgency and intimacy of his voice, which was broadcast into a tiny cell with cracked paint and a single light bulb and a shiny metal stool plopped into the middle of it. The line, “These are strange times, my dear,” is a refrain throughout the poem. Shamlou warns of an increasingly repressive “they” who “smell your breath / lest, God forbid, / you’ve said I love you,” and who “fuel their bonfire / with poems and songs.” After I listened to Shamlou declaim his poem, I copied the English translation off the wall outside the cell into my notebook, and I’ve returned to it many times since then. Little did I know how strange the times were about to get.

As for your question about “the republic,” it does seem to be a tic, doesn’t it? Because in addition to the two titles you mentioned, I am also involved in a weekly writing project with a friend and colleague called Two Women & a Republic. I can’t seem to stop myself. But it’s a good word, isn’t it? Three syllables, three different vowel sounds. It has a serious look about it, with its stately R, despite ending with the word “ick.” And most importantly, I think it has an aspirational glamour to it. The alternative, “country,” is what we are mired in now, with our traffic jams and unwashed dishes and graspy Instagram feeds. But a republic is an idea as well as a place, suggesting a kind of nobility of purpose that is easy to forget in the scramble of the day-to-day, when faced with the cravenness of whoever is currently in power. And because it is idealistic, a republic, invoking it is also a kind of reproach, a reminder that we are not living up to the standards we have set for ourselves. A reminder that the Republic — the one to which we have pledged ourselves — is shimmering just over the next hill, just out of sight, just beyond our flawed and mortal reach. I can’t help but think about the end of Gatsby

He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

— a line which the mighty Adrienne Rich borrowed to title one of her fiercest books of poems.

See, this is one of the rewards of the book, your making these kinds of connections (personal, political, literary) for the reader. But as fluent a critic as you are, you're also a poet yourself. Does one mode — poetry or prose — feel more natural? Have you ever started out in one genre, only to wind up in the other? Or, if you know right away — this will be a poem; this will be an essay — how so?

Poetry is the language I speak when I first flicker awake in the morning. The one that is murmuring in the back of my head even before I open my eyes. But it dissipates as I am exposed to the day. It’s almost as if poetry is a language I knew a long time ago that I have forgotten in my waking life but can still remember in my dreams.

Essays, for me, are different. They are more earth-bound and come out of the constant internal chatter I engage in as I listen to the radio, walk the dogs, read the newspaper. It’s as if essays come from the middle world and poems come from some deep underground well. To be honest, since the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, I have written many, many fewer poems. Part of it is because I was pushing to get Strange Times done, but some of it is because my mind has been overrun by the chaos and crisis of every news cycle, all of which leads me out of the magic of metaphor-making and straight into full-frontal argument. It probably doesn’t help that I reach for my glasses and start reading Twitter before I even make a pot of coffee.

What about stories? Does fiction ever beckon?

A year ago, I would have said no way. But since 2016, I have read and listened to more novels than in the previous 10 years combined. How lucky fiction writers are, with their magic wands and limitless options. So I guess I’ll say: I don’t know, Dinah. I don’t know.

Well, I won’t be surprised. I mean, it wasn’t so long ago that you went back to school to get an MFA in poetry, right? Can you say what prompted that decision?

I have no idea why I decided to pursue an MFA. Probably it was because I’m insecure, and I needed the letters to prove something to myself. Or because I know how to be a student. And that seemed easier than just being a writer. But in hindsight, it isn’t the degree I care about — it is the gift of being in a community of ideas, and now it is the friendships that I absolutely cherish.

As well as you’ve managed to integrate your professional and personal passions, I wonder if you could have predicted the shift that seems to have happened for you: did you imagine, ever, that writing would become so important?

It's funny, isn’t it, to look at the bread-crumb trail of decisions that lead to life-as-it-is-now? When I was a child, I didn’t know a single soul who had published a book, though I read like my life depended on it. It seemed as if writers weren’t even real. They were like soap opera stars or CIA agents — glamorous and important and mysterious — but they sure didn’t live in my neighborhood. Then somehow I grew up and I did know people who published books, and it just became the natural next step.

Writers like stars or spies, I love that. Who are you reading at the moment? What’s on the night table?

I’m afraid it might make me sound like a bit of a kook if I tell you, but oh well, here goes … My nightstand is teetering with the huge travelogue and cookbook by Carla Capalbo, Tasting Georgia. (The Republic, not the state. Now, I’m dying to go!) On top of it are three slim volumes by the Guatemalan novelist Eduardo Halfon: The Polish Boxer, Mourning, and Monastery. I’m almost finished with The Polish Boxer, and I plan to immediately binge-read the other two. He’s really terrific. As for poetry, I’m reading a beautiful new edition of The Killing Floor by Ai that Tavern Books put out last fall. Also in the mix are The Temptation of Innocence by French philosopher Pascal Bruckner; Our Declaration by the incredible American political theorist Danielle Allen; and the Lonely Planet guide to the Trans-Siberian Railway. Oh, and on the floor under the nightstand, there are about 75 cooking magazines.

Well, I can’t leave it there. Do you have a favorite cookbook to cook from? And a favorite one to read? Are they one and the same? And will you say what’s for dinner tonight, please?

Some of my favorite cookbooks — for actual cooking — are Richa Hingle’s Vegan Richa’s Indian Cooking and Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day. I also really love Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Soups. My favorite daydreaming cookbooks, though, include anything by Tessa Kiros — Venezia, Falling Cloudberries, Apples for Jam.

As for dinner, I’m on my own tonight, so I think I’ll make a chipotle sweet potato soup. And kale salad.


Dinah Lenney is the author of The Object Parade and an editor-at-large at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Dinah Lenney is the author of The Object Parade (2014) and Bigger than Life: A Murder, a Memoir (2007), and co-editor of Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (co-editor, 2015). She serves as core faculty in the Bennington Writing Seminars, and as an editor-at-large for LARB. Her latest book is Coffee (Bloomsbury, 2020).


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