“But when it comes to being in a relationship, you should never feel more like an apology than a person.”
Blue Tarp (Finishing Line Press, 2016)
In the interview you did for Paper Mill, you mentioned that you are “eager to put together a second collection” and that it would have more hope. What changes in your life provoked you to hope?
I’ve never stopped hoping. But it’s been a hard couple years. I’ll admit that my hope appears only as a flicker in some of the poems in “Blue Tarp”—and readers will understand those poems in the context of their own experience with loss and grief. That is important. There is a place for that. But this past year has also been full of healing for me—bright spots where I didn’t expect them. Opportunities to write, teach and go back to school. Care packages coming through the mail at the right times. Friendships that have grown deeper roots. An understanding of God, not just as my Rock, but as my Father and Friend. I’d like to write more in the future about joy, learning bravery, and leaning into God.
What is it like to teach high school students?
It’s a privilege. They have their grumpy days and unkind moments just like the rest of us, but I love the conversations I get to have with them about literature, life, and growing up. They are deep thinkers and that comes out most powerfully through their writing. I feel honored when they let me in. I think one of the main problems with teenagers is the adults who underestimate them.
When are you most inspired to write poetry?
At the most inopportune times. I remember writing so many poems during my college math class. I write poems when I should be studying or sleeping. Poems usually have to push through the busyness, but I’ve learned to stop what I’m doing and write them down when they arrive. I write most often at night, when there is stillness and silence.
What is the oldest poem in Blue Tarp? Did that poem inspire the rest of your chapbook?
The oldest poem is probably “Re-live.” It’s about a close relationship that fizzles out without warning. I wrote it years before experiencing my own sudden loss. Now that I think about it, it seems kind of prophetic. It didn’t inspire this chapbook but I see how it fits in with the rest of the collection.
Do you ever feel confined in your writing because of your religion or worldview?
Though most of the non-fiction I write is about theology, I actually struggle to write poems about God and my faith. When I do write about God, I tend to keep those poems to myself as personal prayers. As far as feeling the freedom to express myself honestly, I don’t feel limited by my love for God. If anything, it excites me to show others that Christians deal with the same emotions, struggles, and triumphs as everyone else. We are human and Jesus became human in order to experience what we experience and to suffer and die in our place, so that those who trust in Him could have eternal life (Heb. 4:15, 1 Jn. 5:13).
I found “A Hard Conversation” to be really interesting. What inspired this poem?
One day during study hall, one of my students approached me, upset. She’d been researching something for a class, or maybe she was reading a novel for fun, I don’t remember. Either way, she was disturbed by what she had read and approached me about it. When she read me the passage that was troubling her, I realized that her book was referring to female genital mutilation. I remember trying to explain it in a way that wouldn’t offend, but there is nothing inoffensive about FGM. I went home that night wishing I had been more honest, because for some reason I down-played the subject and used too many euphemisms. So, the poem was inspired by that conversation and my regrets over it.
When you wrote “That Woman,” did you envision wives and girlfriends who read it to be able to relate to it on a deeper level?
That’s an interesting question. I think many women will relate to it, but I don’t know that I want them to. I kind of cringe when I read it now. There are good things about the woman in this poem—her desire to learn what her partner needs and be a selfless support. As a Christian, I’m called to love others more than myself (Philippians 2:3). But when it comes to being in a relationship, you should never feel more like an apology than a person. There are aspects of this poem and this woman that I still admire and hope to embody. But I don’t think I would write this poem in the exact same way again.
Is Buddy Wakefield someone you look up to?
When it comes to poetry-writing, he’s been extremely influential. Buddy Wakefield writes the kind of poems that stick to your bones. His honesty and artistry have meant a lot to me over the years.
What made you start writing poetry?
I’ve always processed my thoughts and emotions through writing. Even as a kid, I would scribble away with a pencil in my diary, pretending to be Harriet the Spy. The first poem I ever wrote was about Jesus praying with his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he was murdered. I wrote a description, in my own words, of what happened that night and showed it to my parents. Whether or not it was impressive, they told me it was. And so I wrote another and another. In college, I was a part of a poetry club where we informally workshopped each other’s stuff. My poetry buddies told me I had a distinct voice that was simple but poignant. I continued to write. Now, I have a cluster of friends who let me text and email them bits and lines whenever they pop into my head. Whether these friends realize it or not, they are my poetry workshop. They give me the feedback and encouragement I need to keep writing.
Do you keep all of your poems?
No. Sometimes they are so terrible I have to delete them. But I do have hundreds of terrible poems in the “poetry” folder on my computer. Just like we often take fifteen terrible pictures to get one good shot, I think terrible poems are an important part of being a poet.
Is it ever difficult to publish a poem that is especially personal to you?
Yes. But it’s worth it if it causes even one reader to feel less alone.
What advice would you offer to young, aspiring poets?
I would tell them to read good poetry. And to experiment with different styles and topics. There are so many great poetry prompts out there and ways to practice the discipline of writing—Poewar.com has some great prompts and Derrick Brown’s book, Learn Then Burn, has excellent readings and options for response. Be humble and practice. Be willing to write crappy poems. Let others read what you write and listen to their feedback. Be brave.
What does your writing process look like?
It’s nothing romantic. I type up bits of poems on the notepad in my cell phone when I’m on a walk or in a plane or away from my computer. Or I write a word or two, in pen, on my wrist for later. I write most of my poems at night, on my laptop, with just my desk lamp on. Some are complete after one draft. Other poems sit on my computer for days, weeks, even months before I get the chance to edit them and turn them into something I’d be willing to share.
Rachel Joy Watson grew up in northern California and, as a result, will always have an insatiable longing for salty ocean air. She received her B.A. in writing, studied for a summer at Oxford and is currently working on her MLitt. in theology from The University of St. Andrews. She has taught high school English for the past eight years and loves to motivate her students to write and read bravely, always looking for connections between life and literature. She has been published in Cordella Magazine, The Englewood Review, RELEVANT and The Gospel Coalition. She is on Twitter and Facebook.