by S. H. Aeschliman
The first thing I notice about Willa Schneberg when I meet her in person at the Oregon Jewish Museum is that she’s wiry, compact and energetic. She gives off an aura of strength, or maybe it’s resilience.
The second thing I notice about her is the accent: East Coast. New Jersey? Later I’ll be reminded that she’s from Brooklyn.
She has invited me to join her and her friends today on a tour of her exhibit, “The Books of Esther.” She is business-like. Certain. She reminds me of a teacher giving instruction to a class. In a way it makes sense: She is the expert here. But I can’t help thinking that her manner is a little at odds with the subject of her exhibit.
“The Books of Esther” is about the life of Schneberg’s mother, who is dead. She had cancer of the larynx, her larynx was removed, and for the last several years of her life she wrote down everything that she would have otherwise said aloud. Esther’s notebooks are here, as are excerpts of her writing that Schneberg has scanned. There’s a photograph of the mechanical voice box Esther refused to use. A video with snippets of Esther speaking in a time before her larynx was removed.
She says she wanted to capture the essence of the things. It is her act of interpretation, her way of drawing the viewer’s attention to what she finds important: the designs on the notebooks, the names on the cap.
She says the exhibit is to help anyone who has ever experienced loss and grief. For anyone who has lost a parent or who will lose a parent. Which is all of us.
I try to imagine how it would feel to refashion my dead mother’s things in clay with my own hands, as Willa has done. My mother is still alive. The word loss haunts me.
When I start to cry, Willa touches my elbow and asks, “What’s coming up for you right now?”
In my head I’m already calling her Willa, though she has not given me permission to do so.
The stories behind the work
A few days later, Willa and I have a Skype date. We talk about her process for her most recently finished work, A Good Time to Die. It’s a collection of linked poems about her father, her mother, and herself: line poems, prose poems and “found poems” – poems she found in transcripts of conversations between her and her parents.
Because the book is a mixture of poetry genres, she’s been having a hard time finding a publisher. But she says, “I’m interested in breaking through traditional genre constraints.” My heart beats a little faster when she says this. I too am interested in defying conventions.
Though she doesn’t say specifically how long she’s been working on A Good Time to Die, I get the impression it’s been a long time. Years. As evidence: the original title of the project, Three-Way Conversation, inspired the name of her website.
Her husband, Robin Bagai, was her first reader. “He’s a great editor,” she says. “He has a wonderful ear [for poetry].” Then John Morrison and Francis Payne Adler – two writers from her monthly peer writing group, The Odds – read her manuscript. She also relied on Barry Sanders, a professor at PNCA, about whom Willa speaks with respect and affection. When he said he thought the manuscript was ready, she started sending it out. “When the rejections start coming in, then you look at it again,” she says. Every time she sends it out, she finds something new to revise.
“Writing is about truth telling”
When I ask Willa why she writes, she tells me the story behind a poem from her third collection, Storytelling in Cambodia. In Cambodia during the genocides, a woman living in a village controlled by the Khmer Rouge was able to get an extra ration of soup – just weak broth with a few grains of rice – because she hid the body of her dead son. “People need to know about stories like hers,” she says.
I ask her why she makes her work public, and she gives “The Books of Esther” as an example. “We all know what it’s like to lose someone,” she says. “Everyone has a mother, and everyone’s mother will die. It’s a metaphor for people who don’t have a voice. I wanted her words to be sung.” She’d wanted to show her mother’s ability as a thinker and a writer. To make people think about their own mothers.
“There is a universality about personal experience,” she says, and I start getting really excited. “That’s what we know is the best writing anyway,” she says. “You use specific descriptions. You paint a picture with words.” This is something I’ve been thinking about and trying to do with my creative non-fiction: connecting with others through the specifics of my experience.
She explains her work as an artist as looking carefully at the world and transcribing what she sees. “Writing is about truth telling,” Willa says. “Emotional truths, not factual truths.” One advantage to writing poetry over memoir, she mentions, is that there is “a seamlessness between emotional and factual truth.”
The company of people who care about creating
But Willa also makes her work public because it’s a way of participating in community. “It’s wonderful to feel there’s some validation coming from the external world,” she says.
Some of the communities she’s involved in include Oregon Book Award winners, Friends of William Stafford, Literary Arts, The Odds (her writing group), VoiceCatcher, the Jewish community, and a Buddhist Sangha in Portland. She’s also on the board of Calyx Press, a feminist press out of Corvallis, Oregon. And she’s participated in communities through winning fellowships and residencies. She appreciates feeling respected by other writers and being in the company of people who care about creating.
Willa encourages other writers to find support through their local writing communities. When I ask her for ideas, she suggests going to open mics like the ones at Stonehenge Studios or Back Fence. Willa also suggests going to readings, joining or forming a peer writing group, and taking classes at The Attic Institute.
Where truth and beauty intersect
Later, after the interview is over, I reflect on what we’ve talked about: social justice, community, process, concrete details. I think about Willa’s poem “Tiny Monuments,” the one that was published in VoiceCatcher6. The image of these rusted metal canisters shining like multi-colored jewels. Whole worlds in themselves. I think about the poems from Storytelling in Cambodia that are on her website and the photo she took of a pile of human skulls. I think about the ceramic sculptures of Esther’s notebooks and about the notebooks themselves.
Willa’s art is where truth and beauty intersect. The subjects she chooses are often painful or horrifying. But she chooses details that bring out the beauty in those subjects. Not in a way that romanticizes them or downplays the sadness. The beauty and the sadness exist side-by-side. She helps us see both. Somehow her art manages to present the horrible truth while offering comfort at the same time.
As such, Willa’s poetry is a form of witnessing. She gives voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. Like the woman in Cambodia. Like her mother, Esther. Like the people at the mental hospital whose cremated remains went unclaimed. And that’s exactly what Willa has set out to do: to archive, to be political, to narrate the emotional realities of those who would otherwise go unheard. Willa Schneberg, too, is a catcher of voices.
More examples of Willa’s ceramics and photography
Poet, ceramic artist and photographer Willa Schneberg moved to Portland in 1993 after spending a year doing social work in Cambodia. Of Portland, Willa says, “It suits me. I love living here.” She has a private psychotherapy practice in the Pearl and teaches poetry workshops. Willa’s poetry has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, and her book In the Margins of the World won the 2002 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. She’s currently shopping for a publisher for her manuscript A Good Time to Die. You can learn more about her work by visiting her website.
S. H. Aeschliman is a native Oregonian living in Portland with her dog, Milton. By day she’s a freelance writer, editor, educator and learning assessment consultant. By night she’s a writer, reader, learner and dreamer. She blogs about culture, travel, food and lifestyle and writes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and cross-genre work. Her prose piece “On Voice” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher, and she’s thrilled to be volunteering for the organization. You can learn more about her work on her website.