I burned through “Philomath: Poems,” the debut poetry collection from Devon Walker-Figueroa, in one sitting. A narrative coming-of-age poetry collection laced with searing imagery and gut-punch single-line revelations, “Philomath” is about Walker-Figueroa’s childhood in Benton County’s rural community, Kings Valley, and in nearby town Philomath. (You can read the collection’s titular poem, one of its best, here.)
“Philomath,” which came out this week, is a 2020 National Poetry Series winner, and blurbed by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Sally Keith.
“I never wrote with the assumption they would read it,” Walker-Figueroa says in a recent interview with the Portland Mercury. “It’s a wild dream come true, but it also doesn’t feel entirely real to me.”
These days, Walker-Figueroa lives in Brooklyn, and is working on her second Masters of Fine Arts — the first was in poetry, and this one is in fiction.
“It’s interesting to be promoting poetry and working on fiction,” she says. “It feels a little bit like having two gods. Which is fine — I’m definitely pro-pagan, in true Oregon fashion.”
Here’s more of our conversation, which touches on Biblical themes, Oregonians’ paradoxical relationship to nature, and the challenges of writing about people you know.
Mercury: My first question is the most obvious one: What made you want to write about your childhood in rural Oregon?
Walker-Figueroa: For one, these people haunted me, this place. I haven’t lived there for a number of years, but I come back and visit my family — this place really went with me everywhere I’ve gone. I’m not sure I could’ve written this first book about anything else, to be honest. Maybe it’s an inevitability to have a fascination with where one is from, to have a point of origin. But beyond that, there were a lot of people I encountered in that area, that I felt like their stories, what I had of them to tell, were worth sharing.
There’s a sense, living in a rural place sometimes, that no one knows what happens to you or the people there. There’s a sense that your life might pass unseen. Maybe this is just a way to let those lives be seen a little better.
Mercury: Something I noticed while reading “Philomath” is that you write about some really traumatic issues—abuse, addiction, natural disasters—but never seem to cast judgement on your characters. Was that intentional?
Walker-Figueroa: I thought about that quite a bit, actually. One thing I wanted to capture in the book was that coming of age in that setting, being immersed in that culture, upsetting things happen to you, and you don’t have the bandwidth or the vantage or outside perspective to identify the problems as they’re occurring. I trust my readers enough that I think they’ll understand if something troubling or wrong is happening without my editorializing it.
My mother was one of these Good Samaritan types, and she liked to care for those she felt most needed it. It’s a wonderful idea, but also, that can bring issues with it when you’re raising a family and inviting relative strangers into your home.
Mercury: Speaking of a Good Samaritan, this collection also felt very Biblical to me. There are overt references to church and Christianity, but also Biblical themes: male violence, blood and fire, a rotating cast of mysterious characters that appear and disappear just as quickly.
Walker-Figueroa: For me, that connects to the region. There are a lot of small towns in Oregon that are steeped in Christianity. A lot of the social opportunities arise around churches or bars. It’s probably a product of being in a space like that.
Kings Valley doesn’t have a lot of buildings besides houses and barns, but it does have a few churches. Culturally, there’s not a whole lot of activity going on, and yet there’s a vacation Bible school, and a church that’s doing a better job staying alive than a school. These are spaces people can rely on for connection — not everybody, but it’s definitely part of the culture out there.
Mercury: Something I’m always very aware of when writing anything based on real life is that you’ll have to face feedback from the people you’re writing about. You’re brutally honest in these poems; did you worry about loved ones’ reactions?
Walker-Figueroa: I very much thought about that. When I wrote a number of these poems, I never necessarily thought they’d be seen by people. The first poems I wrote, I was an undergrad at Bennington College in Vermont. I was trying to just begin writing poems; I hadn’t set out to write a book yet. So I felt a real sense of freedom in not feeling looked-at or examined.
I protected people’s identities — I changed names, and combined people. When you grow up in a small place like that, people will recognize themselves, but (friends I grew up with) gave positive feedback.
It was very stressful to share the book with people I’m closest to… My dad actually hasn’t read the book yet. He’ll be getting his copy in the mail. I’m nervous about that, actually. There are some people in my extended family who, I kind of hope they don’t read it, because it feels like an exposure to criticism. … I’ve tried to be as honest and fair and transparent with people as possible. Now I just hope for the best. It doesn’t belong to me anymore.
Mercury: Another thing that stood out to me in “Philomath” is the way you write about Pacific Northwest nature. A lot of writing about the natural beauty here can verge on being boring, but you focus more on the dark side of nature: dying cedars, animal carcasses, fires.
Walker-Figueroa: It occurs to me — there are all these premonitions of fires in my book, and now the real fires. It’s very surreal.
Growing up in that area, it’s an area where the logging industry still has a very strong presence. I remember seeing clear-cuts happen. You’d see where they were happening: One little spot on a hillside, and then they’d spread. I remember how upsetting that was — it was like my world was being dismantled when I saw that happening.
I grew up in a relatively conservative household. My parents were pro-logging industry, and yet they also, paradoxically, loved the landscape and took very good care of their own property. My mother interviewed a lot of the last remaining steam-age loggers in Oregon, and collected their tall tales. … The reverence that they had for the landscapes that their work employed them to destroy — those paradoxical relationships to nature in Oregon in particular, that really struck me at a very young age. I can hardly remember a time in my life when I wasn’t aware of that.
It seems incumbent upon us to note the ways we’ve affected our environments, and not to pretend they’re pristine when they’re not. It’s easy to idealize landscapes … it really can be so beautiful. But to be in those landscapes and to feel small and humbled in them, and yet to recognize how fragile they are, really drives home to me how fragile we are. This landscape seems so permanent, so overwhelming and beautiful and secure, but it’s not. What does that mean for us?
“Philomath: Poems” came out on Sept. 14; it can be purchased from Milkweed Editions.