Adekunle Adewunmi, Contributing Editor

Featured Writer Interview: Rachel Custer

Rachel Custer is an American poet. Her first full-length collection, The Temple She Became, is available from Five Oaks Press. Other work has previously been published or is forthcoming in Rattle, OSU: The Journal, The American Journal of Poetry, B O D Y, [PANK], DIALOGIST, & others.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  We will just start, I think, with whatever you are willing to tell us about the beginning, the awakening of the poet in you, about your early experiences and how they helped to bring you eventually to the notice of the American poetry audience.

Custer:  Over ten years ago, when I was an undergraduate in college, I took a couple of workshop-type poetry courses with a poet named David Dodd Lee at Indiana University, South Bend. Prior to that, I had a beginner poetry class with George Kalamaras at IPFW. My undergraduate degree is in English, but that is the extent of my “formal” education in writing poetry as far as the workshop goes. I often wonder how effective the workshop model is at making writers better, though I did thoroughly enjoy those courses. I would say that my English Literature classes probably taught me as much about writing poetry, and how to learn to write poetry, as the workshops, because they reinforced the amazing breadth of poetry there was to read and how important it is to ground one’s knowledge in what has come before.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  With that understood, can you describe for us your poetry workshop experience and give us an idea of what distinctive contribution, if any, the formal study of the craft made to your emerging capabilities as a poet?

Custer:  I was so blessed to study with so many talented poets in those classes. David himself is so talented and has written so much. Those classes led to at least a basic knowledge of what it even meant to submit a poem to a magazine, or even just the idea that maybe my work could be published in a collection someday. Where I went to school, in a small rural Indiana town, we didn’t have a lot of art programs or much of a local arts community. So though I have been writing since I first learned to write my name, I mostly shared my work only with family and friends. I’m not sure I ever realized until I was in college that contemporary poetry existed to the extent it does. That’s such an odd thing to realize, but it’s true. I read “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” before I ever read a contemporary volume of poetry.

The thing that sticks with me about David, and what he taught me most of all, was to take poetry down off its pedestal a bit. I struggled to write sometimes because my desire was always to write the most earth-shattering thing. You know? I never wanted to write a poem if it wasn’t going to end up canonized. Of course, I had no idea how one went about ending up canonized, I suppose, but it seemed to me that if I could just write a poem that was amazing enough, it would change the world. Surely it would find its way to glory, I guess. It seems so naïve now. But that was what I had. I mostly learned to write by myself, or by reading, and to learn from an actual poet was just amazing to me.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  Was there for you, directly associated with the formal educational setting, some watershed moment, some epiphany that you can point to, that changed your way of thinking about your own poetry and the poetry of others?

Custer:  The best lesson David ever taught me was that my poetry, which at the time was in the confessional mode and very emotionally fraught, was “too precious.” I had mixed feelings about that at the time, of course, but he was right. I was using a jackhammer where a chisel would do. From David, I learned a poem didn’t have to change the world, and I learned the importance and effectiveness of restraint. He also introduced me to so many new contemporary poets, and even some that would probably be “classics” to others. To me, it was all just amazing, that actual people did this thing I had been doing, and that they were real people. Just writers, writing and publishing. I lived for that class.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  When did you realize that you were a poet, a writer? What is the engine that powers your purposes?

Custer:  I feel like it’s a cliché, but I have always written. I have literally always written, since I first learned to write my name. I just always loved it. More than that, I needed it. When I was eight, I began really struggling with intense episodes of panic. I was diagnosed with panic disorder with agoraphobia, which meant it was increasingly difficult for me to leave the house.

I used to sit in class, just horribly scared, counting off the minutes until school was over and I could go home. I have notebooks from the worst times that are filled with tally marks where I marked off the minutes. It was my attempt to break down time into segments that felt manageable. And I read and wrote because it provided me with an escape. If I could lose myself in a book, or in writing a poem, I could sometimes become distracted enough that several minutes would go by at a time. It always felt so good to draw several tally marks at once. And, of course, during the time I escaped, I was not so scared.

Also when I was eight, I witnessed a neighbor boy molest my sister. That may have been the catalyst for the panic attacks; I don’t know. But I mention it because it was the experience upon which a lot of my first book builds, along with other sexually traumatic experiences when I was older. So I wrote, in a sense, to escape the present and my body in the same way I did during those traumas – to dissociate.

I still write to dissociate. My partner always jokes that she can tell when I’m deep into writing a poem because I get a look on my face like I’m not even there. (I suspect it’s a rather stupid one, honestly.) And that is my entire desire when writing. To reach that sweet space where I feel simultaneously alive and entirely outside of my body. It’s almost a transcendent experience, religious in its own way. And, during my terrified childhood, it was necessary just to keep myself sane. A poem is a room where I don’t have to feel afraid.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  That “sweet space” seems to be the perfect place of creation. Where does the awareness of audience or the intent to publish enter your process?

Custer:  This is interesting to recall, because I’m not sure I really made the decision to publish or not to publish. All I’d ever wanted to do was to publish my writing. Right there in anthologies alongside Shakespeare and Donne and Dickinson. I had no idea how to go about it, and no understanding of the “industry,” but I knew I wanted people to read my work.

David Dodd Lee’s class led to a small writing group of amazing artists in South Bend. Naoko Fujmoto is a brilliant poet and artist, and she created the stunning cover of my book. I fully expect her work to win prizes and honors at every turn. She is just so good.

Anyway, we all kind of learned as we went, or at least I did. I learned so much from those writers, so much of value. And I learned a lot about different ideas, too. I sometimes tend to feel like I don’t fit in well with others, especially in academia and the poetry community, for various reasons. But that was a great experience.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  What was you first step out of the safe space of creation into the hard-edged marketplace of poetry?

Custer:  One night, I sent a few poems to journals that were listed on the “25 fastest markets” on Duotrope because I would be too anxious if I had to wait too long for a response. My first poem was accepted after a few rejections, and I think that was a moment of singular joy for me. I had a few poems accepted, and even a feature done on my work, and then everything kind of slowed down while I wrote more. It is crazy to think of how much I didn’t know then about the way to go about things. There was just nobody to tell me until that group of writers. It was such nourishment to feel surrounded by people who loved to write and who moved through life as artists. I had never had that before, just because of where I came from.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  In spite of where you might have come from, you are earning reputation and status as a poet, a fact which no one can doubt. “Your star is rising,” as the saying goes. Can you trace for us briefly that trajectory?

Custer:  In 2015, I believe it was, I applied to the AWP Writer-to-Writer mentorship, which changed my life in so many ways. It is just a fantastic program, and it was affordable enough that I could scratch together enough money to apply. I was accepted and had the chance to work with fantastic poet Kerrin McCadden. From her I learned so many of the “nuts and bolts” of the poetry community, and she gave me a lot of encouragement as far as the poems I was then writing.

She introduced me to a facebook writer’s group as a means of finding community from my home. It turned out to be a pretty horrible experience for me overall, but I met some amazing friends and writers as well.  There were a lot of ways in which I didn’t (and don’t) speak the language of the online poetry community – especially that particular one – and it was not the easiest introduction to the larger contemporary poetry scene.

That being said, I found my publisher, Five Oaks Press, through that group. Lynn Houston read my manuscript during her open reading period and accepted it and published it. Looking back, I realize what a backwards way I handled things, but I just did not have any clue that most people submitted to contests for their first books. When the first press that had accepted my manuscript folded, she offered to read manuscripts, and I sent mine, and she accepted it. I realize now how different it was, in a way, but it worked well for me. She made a beautiful book for me.

Other than my book, which was written over the course of ten years prior to its publication, I don’t really think I have much status in the poetry community. I haven’t earned it, really. I’m still so new to how things work, and still struggling to find a place where I fit. It’s so early in my understanding and living of an artistic life. I know there are people who like to read my poems, and to me, that’s the best status in the poetry community. But as far as being “somebody”? No, I’m not, really. I have a lot of work to do to even begin to make a mark like that.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  Your emergence into the public square as a member of the poetry community has not been entirely without its upsetting incidents though, has it? Would you like to address that?

Custer:  I think most of what people are sure they know about me is untrue, with a few exceptions. Things kind of exploded when Rattle published my poem, “How I Am Like Donald Trump” as part of their “Poets Respond” series. Many people immediately formed ideas about me, who I am, what I believe, etc., after that. It’s been a struggle to move past it, and it’s kind of grown into an amorphous, malignant thing I’m not sure how to address. I want my reputation to be about my work. As far as that goes, I’m still very new, and still learning a great deal. I honestly hope if I ever do gain any sort of larger “status” in the literary world, that I maintain that mindset. Otherwise, I’m sure to become boring. Or bored.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  We can all be glad that no controversy lives forever. We can also be glad that the confrontations with your disparagers seem to have fortified you spiritually and psychologically, even aesthetically. That kind of rejection seems to have little influence on your state of mind or the practice of your art.

Custer:  My first book, I wrote a lot about trauma, specifically sexual. I was obsessively working through severe PTSD in the way I generally dealt with things like that – by writing. Writing and addiction.

When I was 19, a boy I knew sold my virginity to another man without my knowledge. He spoke Spanish to arrange it, so I couldn’t understand, and told this man I was for sale. The man paid him twenty dollars and raped me.

I finally began therapy for this and other traumatic events when I was in my mid-twenties, and I kept writing about it. So much of my writing is influenced by the terror of having a body –in trying to learn how to inhabit it when it feels so unsafe, in trying to learn how to create a narrative of disparate parts, or in trying to escape it.

Church and my Christian beliefs also run beneath my work in ways that I think are fairly palpable. I was raised in the anabaptist tradition and remain a Christian. Church was formative for me in so many ways that have to do with art – ritual, rhythm/music, even the way Scripture is written. I believe there is no reason to write something if it isn’t seeking some kind of Truth. That feeling when you write a line that you know is true, when you learn something from your own writing, is such a revelatory feeling. I see creative expression as an exercise of the God in us; in the Bible, the first thing God does is create. Writing a poem, then, becomes a religious experience, a conversation with or path to God. Even, in a way, maybe the closest thing we can experience to being God. Creating and explaining worlds.

Can there be an influential event that is not personal? Even by the fact of its influence, it would seem to become personal. I suppose the thing I have least to do with as far as influence is any skill I was gifted and my intuition. I write from intuition, which I suspect most writers do a great deal of the time. Writing a poem is like walking across a minefield – even if you have walked it a thousand times, you still know it’s dangerous. Academics may talk about the proper way to walk across a minefield, or even the most artful way to do so, but a person who must cross a minefield just wants to get to the other side intact. Intuition requires full presence before the poem, step by careful step, and the careful spotting of potential danger. Yes, there are things that can be learned, but more than anything, you feel your way.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  To what writers or works do you look in search of models or approaches? or validation?

Custer:  Oh, how do I answer this question? There are so many. Certainly the “canon,” per se – Shakespeare, Donne, Pope, Yeats, etc. When I was a young woman and struggling to deal with severe anxiety/depression and PTSD, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were revelatory. The way they wrote so skillfully and openly about mental illness, their bodies, etc. created an obsession in me to read everything they’d ever written.

Christine Garren’s work has always astounded me, along with Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s. Cynthia Cruz’s “Ruin” stays with me, as does Sharon Olds’ “Satan Says,” which shocked me to life. Franz Wright’s work still slays me. I love Frank Stanford, too, with his mythological sense. Francesca Bell is writing brilliant work. Gregory Pardlo is just genius, I think, and Ilya Kaminsky writes so beautifully. I sometimes can’t help but feel there are gaps in my learning and reading, but I keep getting books as I can and trying to find new writers. I mentioned Naoko Fujimoto, and I think people like Leila Chatti, Naomi Shihab Nye are doing very good work. Rae Armantrout, Louise Gluck, Chase Twichell. How can I answer this? There are just a million. Also, I am noticing this phenomenon of so many amazing Nigerian poets right now: Ojo Taiye, Bola Opaleke, Logan February are a few whose work just sings in me. It makes me know I need to seek out international poets as much as I can. Poets whose work and friendship influences me daily include Michael Schmeltzer, Kate Hanson Foster, Heather Bell, and Laura Orem. I get to see their work close up, and I learn so much from them and their friendship about poetry and life in general.

“Satan Says,” by Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton’s “Collected Poems,” “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard,” by Franz Wright, “Amongst the Monarchs,” by Christine Garren, “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly,” “The Singing Knives” by Frank Stanford, there are just too many to name.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  What can you share with us about your practices or routines, your habits of writing? Do you maintain a casual or a disciplined schedule?

Custer:  I’m not great about this. I tend to procrastinate a lot, and then, suddenly, I will say aloud, “I have to write a poem.” And I do. But one thing the AWP program helped me with was the realization that I don’t have to “wait to be inspired” to write, and Kerrin helped me with practical tools to encourage myself to write regularly.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  What are your sources for material or for inspiration?

Custer:  The people I know and see around me, my own imagination, odd facts, other writing. Religion and myth. I’m obsessed with myth and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what our purpose is, what we’re doing here.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  What are your techniques of invention?

Custer:  Sometimes I do use poetic exercises to force myself into new modes of thinking and writing, but mostly I just write. I’m not sure I’m a very “inventive” writer, per se, and while I envy people who are, I’m just not in that place right now. Maybe it’s not my best skill. I do like to change what I do constantly. If I’ve been obsessively writing in pared-down couplets, I’ll force myself to write a big block of a narrative poem, for example. Or I’ll force myself to rhyme in different ways. I’m still very, very early in figuring out this artistry of living, and I think the best thing I can do is constantly experiment with new things. That being said, I tend to get the best reader response to poems when I just let them flow more naturally from who I am. I see craft as an extension of who we are, and art as a way of life, and of seeing life. So sometimes I have to try new things and sometimes I have to slip on comfy slippers and chill on the couch, poetically speaking.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  What are your habits of revision? Are you of the “nothing-happens-but-in-revision” school?

Custer:  I struggle mightily with revision. I tend to revise as I write, but it is very hard for me to come back to a poem and know how to make it better. Or where to stop if I do. I think I still need to learn to trust myself and my intuition regarding revision. I’m always worried I’ll make the poem worse, or less effective. So sometimes I fear I may send out work prematurely. And there’s not always an easy way to learn how to revise, or when. I suspect it’s a lesson that I’ll always be learning.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  What do you yourself see as your common themes?

Custer:  The search for God/meaning; anxiety/fear; rural life and this culture in which I have been raised; the earth/growing things; questioning; the things we don’t want other people to know; things that are shameful or secret; the stories we tell ourselves and always have.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  Do you ordinarily work in received forms, or are you more of an innovator in that regard?

Custer:  This is where I’ve been trying to branch out. I’m not well-versed in types of forms, though I often look up new ones and try to write them. I think my poetry tends toward free verse, but I’m not great with jargon. For some reason, I tend to write in couplets. I love ekphrasis of all sorts, too.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  For whom are your works intended? What are the characteristics of your intended audience, your ideal reader of these works?

Custer:  I think the ideal reader of my poetry is the person who does not shy away from hard truths, or from the depths of the depravity of which we are all capable. The ideal reader would have to have empathy, I think, and value it. She would want to learn other perspectives and read stories of people who are unlike her. She would want to bear witness to ordinary lives. Most of us live them, after all.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  How do you see the role of the artist/writer/poet in contemporary cultural life?

Custer:  This is simultaneously a huge question and such a small one. There is a feeling about art that it will save us, and while I don’t believe that, I believe it can be a small kind of enacting of heaven here. Creativity is, to me, an expression of God in us. One of those traits that most clearly identify us as “made in the image of God,” who is a Creator first. In that way, can’t our creation be a godly act? Or at least, it can aspire to be.

That leads to some ideas about the role of the artist, then. Creation is the most basic role of the artist – to live a life of creativity, in which we participate in a way of seeing that leads us to make. Art, then, is both the way of seeing and the making, the active use of our self to create worlds from nothing much. Maybe each poem is like the result of a tiny “Big Bang.” A godspark. That reaching in us for something eternal. A search for Truth.

And that brings us to some ideas of what that makes the work itself. Why write a poem? In light of this understanding, what do we create? I would suggest, most importantly, that we create to mimic that initial creation: to make order from chaos, to connect to something, to see “good” in something we made. For beauty’s sake, certainly, but there is also much beauty to be found in fallenness. When we are at our best, when our work is at its best, I think it strikes up against some universal Truth, some root humanity we intuitively know to be right, some connection to God. This is where I think we can find objectivity in art. Art can be made of ugliness, and that can be beautiful. But good art (and yes, there is good art) can only be made of Truth. Good art is what happens when the poem brushes up against God, and we instinctively intuit that.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  Can you offer a critique of contemporary arts (art/writing/poetry) as practiced in the contemporary mainstream?

Custer:  My critique, then, of mainstream contemporary artistic practice is a critique of an ideology that would argue against the existence and/or necessity of objective truth, much less the importance of seeking it. That ideology is rampant in the artistic mainstream of the day, especially in the academy, where the basic idea that there exists objectively good art has been all but disposed of in favor of a radical subjectivity – and this among people who believe they are teaching art!

At its root, it is inconsistent: if art is entirely subjective, entirely rooted in the identity of the artist, then it can’t be taught. Moreover, there’s no reason for it to be taught. There is no improvement of craft if objective excellence does not exist, because there is nothing against which to measure whether we are improving or getting worse. In that way, can MFA programs as they are currently structured and tied to the academy be anything more than the most callous grift?

Worse, art rooted in critical theories that embrace a stance of radical subjectivity becomes nothing more than a mirror for the most popular critical theory, a way to signal that one believes the current thing. In that way, academia and its effect on the arts represents an institutionalization of art, an erecting of a status quo. Worst of all, this status quo has somehow managed to convince itself it is subversion, and its art subversive. I recently got flak for telling several editors of well-read publications that they are the poetry status quo – and I was right. Identity aside, if one is earning enough money to put him at twice the cutoff for the top 1 percent of the world (or more!) by teaching and writing poetry, and if that person has access to daily interaction with poets, and if that person has the ability to influence the publication of others, that person serves the same function in poetry as do the police in society – they keep it safe from the riff raff as an institution.

I have no use for poetry police. I find censorship of art, even at the level of thought, abhorrent, because it hinders another person in her enactment of that part of her that most resembles God. Of course, we all sometimes support the institutions of which we are a part, and sometimes subvert them. But my critique is of the full-on denial that is happening among much of the current “art community” as far as who, exactly, is currently benefitting from the structure of its institutionalization.

We have reached the point where much of the poetry being written and lauded is, above all, firmly rooted in the right beliefs in the right academic theories. If you write a poem that says acceptable things, it will be loved and lauded – even if it’s terrible. To even say that is to risk censure, harassment, and blacklisting. But anybody who speaks the truth knows that a good deal of this poetry is simply not good poetry. It’s little more than propaganda and glad-handing. We tie ourselves in knots to avoid that knowledge, out of some perverted sense of justice, but art has nothing to do with justice. Art has to do with Truth, and the Truth is that the world is not fair.

Not everybody can write well. To the extent that we continue to sacrifice excellence in art to “right thinking,” our art will become more and more degraded. What once was a publication that introduced an artistic genius like T.S. Eliot will begin to publish poop poems and pop nonsense. It’s a larger societal issue, too, of course, because we have stopped seeking Truth as a society as well. If I critique art, I must critique myself, because it is a fearsome thing to speak the Truth in a world full of deceit. But if I seek art, I must seek the Truth, and there is no point in knowing the Truth if one does not speak it.

As a gay woman, I refuse to label myself as “marginalized,” personally – especially when it comes to art. And that is because that is so far away from all that I am, and all that I want my art to be. But mostly, it’s because I want my art to be objectively excellent as often as it is possible for me to make it so. And if I imprison myself inside subjectivity, I fear I will limit my ability to brush up against the Truth. Excellent writers will write excellently from inside any ideology (e.g. Danez Smith, Kaveh Akbar, & Jericho Brown are all poets whose work is firmly rooted in identity theories who write great poems), but as for me, I choose liberty. In my mind, that ideology suggests that I, as a gay woman, am unable to write as objectively well as, for instance, a straight white male. I reject that. If I truly cannot, let me be sifted out and let art thrive. If I can, then why would I make myself anybody’s victim? I’ve been made a victim by force in my life; as far as it falls to me, I choose to label myself a survivor as often as I can.

We must take poetry back for Truth, if our poetry is ever to matter beyond our own follower count. To do that, we must stop lying to ourselves about who is writing good poetry, and about who is currently rewarded in the arts and why. Sometimes, no matter who writes it or publishes it, a poop poem is just a poem about human waste. My critique of artists is that we do not say it.

Finally, and most stringently, anybody who would blacklist another artist I do not consider an artist. That, to me, is thoroughly evil. That being said, the best way to know who is enacting art in truly subversive ways – in this or any environment – is to look at who is being actively silenced. Though I detest blacklisting, I almost want to always be on somebody’s blacklist, or on the verge of being “unpublishable in polite literary magazines.” Otherwise, I am probably speaking more about what is popular than what is true.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  As an NEA Fellow, you are likely to be in  demand for readings and appearances and workshops. Have you any appearances scheduled signings or readings?

Custer:  I am looking to schedule some readings with poet Francesca Bell when she comes to the Midwest for her book tour (Bright Stain from Red Hen Press). I have not done readings to this point, mostly because I struggle with severe agoraphobia and it is very difficult for me to travel too far from home. I would like to engage more with the community in that way but am also still learning how that works. Despite my book being out, I am still very much learning my way around the poetry community and “business” (let’s talk about art as business! That’s a whole other issue, for next time, maybe.)

Adewunmi for O:JA&L:  For those of us interested in following you more closely, can you share with us the projected release dates of your works-in-press or where you have work forthcoming in journals?

Custer:  It worries me to say where I have work forthcoming, as I have struggled with certain people who engage in trying to kill my work/get it censored or de-platformed whenever they hear of it being published. I do have work forthcoming in Rattle, B O D Y, and a few other publications who I know will stand against these efforts, but I don’t like to put editors in the middle of a storm if I don’t have to. It’s a frustrating part of being a poet who believes differently, at least in this current poetic/political environment.


About the interviewer:
Adekunle Adewunmi is  the author of Arise Nigeria, a collection of poetry that examines the peculiarity of the nation. He is a member of Poets in Nigeria (PIN) and was featured as Poet of the Week in Daily Trust Newspaper, Nigeria. A freelance, Adekunle works as a correspondent with Church Times, a specialized newspaper company. During his one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme at Kogi State Broadcasting Corporation, he worked as a Corps On-Air Personality (OAP) while submitting his poems and articles to the State’s newspaper for publication. Adekunle Adewunmi was recognized in 2018 by former President Olusegun Obasanjo as an Outstanding State Youth Ambassador for his efforts towards curbing youth irregular migration in Nigeria. Adekunle Adewunmi is an advocate of youth and good governance in Nigeria.

Image: Portrait photograph courtesy of Rachel Custer.