Ashley Mace Havird On Her Latest Poetry Collection, “Wild Juice,” and Being a Southern Writer

Ashley Mace Havird explores themes of aging, loss, climate change, and the natural world in her fourth poetry collection, Wild Juice: Poems, by placing the magnificent and the terrible side by side. Caged owls and hawks unleash their revenge on humanity and molting butterflies are holy. Great Aunt Millie has “secrets pushing to sprout from her tight-lipped smile” and “machines with blinking lights chart the journey” of her father’s decline and death.

“I think poets are looking for the truth and the truth is both the hard and good things. Growing up on a tobacco farm in South Carolina, I saw that from an early age. You are just aware of death — you see the buzzards circling, but you also see beauty in the life all around you. I think that forms the basis for me as a creative writer.”

I had the pleasure of talking to Ashley about her new book and her writing path and process. I also got a Zoom look at her writing space and “notes fort,” and she was even kind enough to endure my reciting some of her melodic and finely crafted lines back to her.

We began with Ashley addressing the idea behind the “wild juice” in the poem “Strays,” which is also the book’s title. This haunting poem comes in a section of the book titled “This Unhealing,” with the theme of her father’s decline and death.

I think of the “wild juice” in my book as the thread of hope, community, and communal life that joins us with other humans in this bizarre life we have, where we know there is an end to it and we’re alone as a species. We know we’re going to die, but as far as we know the other species don’t know that. We’re set apart in that respect, and it’s lonely, and I write about that, too.

This is your fourth collection. Can you talk a little about your evolution as a writer? I know you published a novel, Lightningstruck, before your three previous poetry collections.

I trained as a fiction writer and as an undergrad at the University of South Carolina I took a class with James Dickey. I learned a tremendous amount from him, and because my husband is a poet, we got to know him and other poets personally. I had wanted to write short stories and thought that was the form I was best suited for. They were the basis of my master’s thesis at the University of Florida and I had some success with it, but then the form just sort of left me. We moved to Louisiana and my daughter was young, and it seemed I would spend years on a story and then get rejected. One story I spent forever on received a really long rejection letter from the Virginia Quarterly, where I’d once worked. One of the things a reader complained about was that there were “lyrical passages that clogged up the plot.” So, I decided to pull those out and try them as a poem, which I did, and it was published! I then began working worker harder with intention and studying the craft (this was 30 years ago), and that’s where it started.

My writing has changed from the same “seeds” of basic subject matter, and has grown up and out with age, awareness, and increased loss. I wasn’t thinking about environmental issues 30 years ago!

I’m curious about your writing practice. Do you have any particular practice or rituals that bring you into the right “mindset” to get to work? Do you schedule your writing?

The pandemic introduced me to power walking, and I have found that to do remarkable things, like freeing my mind to solve writing problems, and I get to things that would have taken me longer had I not been walking. Then, I eat breakfast and go sit in the chair. I have enough writer friends that say “butt in the chair” is the most important thing. I am a morning person, so I eat and then go sit in the chair and hope I write. Sometimes it’s a mess or just a sentence, and sometimes it’s 10 pages. I go until my stomach is growling so much it’s a distraction and then if I’m lucky I come back in the afternoon. I do write notes on little pieces of paper and put them down to rediscover later. They’re around me like a little fort. Do you want to see them? (“Yes!” and the camera shifts to a half-circle fort of paper piles behind her chair.)

Do you have favorite poets, past or present?

When I was in college, I did a semester in England, so my first favorites were Wordsworth, Yeats, and T.S. Eliot, because we walked in their footsteps and read them. I didn’t understand them completely, but I was enthralled with the work anyway. I wasn’t afraid of it. I think a lot of people become afraid of poetry. I understood enough of it that it didn’t bother me that I didn’t “get” everything. Also, Wordsworth being from a farm, I just connected to his nature writing.

Those were my first poetry loves, then I had the class with James Dickey. Also, Elizabeth Bishop and Theodore Roethke. I read a lot now, but never deeply enough.

How about you’re the process of writing itself. What does yours look like?

Writing is revision. Very few of us are the Mozarts of poetry. It can take a week to 20 years. A poem is never done. There is always a word that can be better somewhere, but you do your best. In revision, poems articulate problems or issues, but don’t answer. So, I ask myself if I have phrased this in a way that others can hopefully connect. My aim is to bring a reader into the world of the poem, even if it is a very little world, to make some connection through the specific details. I ask myself if the images are as sharp and sensory as they can be. I also ask how it sounds. I use my ear, because I use a lot of assonance and internal rhyme. (This is where I had to interrupt to read back her lines to her, just to feel and hear them again.) The sounds are a cultivated, conscious decision. That’s another part of revision, reading aloud, to hear the sour notes or where the piano needs to be tuned. The poem should be surprising in some way as well, so I ask if an image is too stale or uninteresting.

As a part of LSU’s “Southern Messenger Series” of Poetry Books, how would you define yourself as a Southern poet? What does that mean?

That’s a tricky question because you wonder what makes this [writing] Southern that would mean you can’t move it to the Midwest, or could it be just as effective as this other setting, say Alaska?

I can’t say any absolutes, but Southern writers typically are concerned with family, landscape (particularly rural), place, and race. My own sense of place is very deep and broad, and the landscape can be like a character itself. That kind of swampy, kudzu, Spanish moss, tobacco markets landscape with their sensory aspects are so overwhelming. For me, as a Southern writer, it’s not just describing the landscape, but an awareness of the history, and the complexity of the depth and breadth of the place itself, with its people and its past. It is a sort of mindset, having been brought up in the South during the Civil Rights movement on a tobacco farm, surrounded by people obsessed with anything antebellum, where I found arrowheads walking down the dirt roads, where Francis Marion had his men in the woods of our farmland, and where we had a confederate statue in the closest town. All of this is deeply Southern landscape material, but more than that, it is the people in it.

You already mentioned your pandemic-inspired power walking. Has this last year changed you in other ways?

I did a poem as an artistic response to the pandemic commissioned by the local arts council (as Poet Laureate of Caddo Parish, LA), so of course I wrote about nature in my neighborhood. Despite my habit of looking at the small things anyway, I found that I’m looking harder at immediate things I might have not seen otherwise. It’s kind of a refocusing. It’s also been good for my current work. It forced me to get to work, since I didn’t have any excuses.

Which leads right into the question, what are you working on now? Do you ever want to go back, say, to novel-writing?

I’m writing a novel right now! I feel guilty not writing poems, but I’ve got a whole stack of notes.

I’ve written a novel before, so I know how to do it and hope I’ve learned from my mistakes. That one was a historical civil rights era story. It was really autobiographical, and was going to be a memoir, but it was too boring, so I turned it into a novel.

The new one takes place in the future. It is also very place oriented because it’s in a world where there’s been an environmental disaster in an imagined place. It is a story of disaster, survival, and hope, in the end. I thought, I’m not going to live forever, so I’m going to try it again.

Finally, do you have any advice for the writer starting out? Is there anything in particular to pay attention to?

Be careful in submitting work. The market has changed so much, and it is both easier and harder to be published. It’s not that hard to be taken somewhere, but to be taken somewhere good is very difficult. And what one editor thinks is good is not the same as another editor. If possible, don’t take that to heart so much. Focus, instead, on the reading and writing and not sending out. I know that’s a hard thing to do, but I find when I’m in the sending-out mode, I stop writing. Starting out, if you can, just focus on writing. In the end, there’s always going to be someone who publishes more than you, who’s younger, or does it better than you do.

I think it’s helpful to think of yourself as part of the fabric of the writing community, going back to the Wild Juice idea, that you are a part of a community of writers that went before you and who will go after you. You are one thread in this tapestry that will be there because you did this. You devoted your time and abilities to a little pattern that’s part of a whole. Ideally, that’s enough, but the world is with us and we want to succeed, or have a name, or think we do. There will always be something else, so it’s best just to do the work as well as you are able to. Never stop reading and learning. That’s the good thing about this kind of work, it’s always an adventure and a challenge.

I really needed to hear that. Thank you. And thank you so much for sharing your time with me today.

Wild Juice: Poems
By Ashley Mace Havird
LSU Press
Published March 03, 2021