Author Q&A with Pell Williams

Pell Williams earned her MFA in Poetry at the College of Charleston, received her BA in Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University, and served as the 2019 Artist in Residence for the Dry Tortugas National Park. She is the Creative Writing Editor for Surge: The Lowcountry Climate Magazine. Her work has been published by the Birmingham Poetry Review, Grim & Gilded, The Ekphrastic Review, and Free Verse Press among others. Read the full Q&A to learn what she shared with us about her poem, the healing process, and her creative life…

Author Q&A with Pell Williams

by Christine Nessler

October 12, 2023

Pell Williams earned her MFA in Poetry at the College of Charleston, received her BA in Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University, and served as the 2019 Artist in Residence for the Dry Tortugas National Park. She is the Creative Writing Editor for Surge: The Lowcountry Climate Magazine. Her work has been published by the Birmingham Poetry Review, Grim & Gilded, The Ekphrastic Review, and Free Verse Press among others.

Her poem, To Brother-Ghost on Halloween, is featured in Issue #12.

Tell us about yourself. 

I come from a line of artists, world-travelers, homesteaders, ex-cons, and hillbillies. None of my family wrote down their stories, so I hope to take up that task starting with my own. Towards that goal I have earned two degrees in writing and have worked every entry-level media or publishing gig in the business (under the guidance of incredible mentors from the Johns Hopkins University Press, the former Crazyhorse Literary Journal, and the American Archive of Public Broadcasting). I remain endlessly astonished and honored to find homes for my work in journals such as this one.

How has your poetry, including To Brother-Ghost on Halloween, helped you to work through the tragic death of your brother Aaron?

Aaron was the first to encourage me to be a writer. He was guiding me through applications to an arts-focused magnet high school where I could major in creative writing, but he died before I turned in my portfolio. I rewrote everything in that portfolio the month that followed, which to this day comes to me in flashes of intense clarity: my family wracked with grief, me trying everything to excise the pain into something I could understand — a pattern, rows of words. It was inadequate for my grief, but it got me into the magnet school where my writing instructors gave me the tools to write through my problems. By now, I’ve written a bit of everything — fiction, creative nonfiction, screen & stage, multi-genre, journalism — sometimes hiding from my own history, sometimes engaging with it. I would always hit a wall. Poetry demands that I breach that wall. It is also very forgiving; I can use any form or style of language, break with correct grammar or punctuation, lean on metaphors when I struggle with the direct approach. It gets me a first draft, and there is relief in having an artifact of my grief externalized on a page, even with its imperfections.

Do you think you’ll ever read the note left to you by your brother? Why or why not? If you could leave your brother a note today, what would it say?

At the time I wrote “To Brother-Ghost on Halloween,” I didn’t know if I would ever have the strength to read Aaron’s note. My mother, father, and sister have all told me that reading it felt like Aaron was already gone, a different voice altogether. It is hard to describe the possessiveness that came with the perceptions I had of Aaron right after his immolation. He was so much more than his death, but I feared that would be all that would live on. It has been almost thirteen years since his death, the same amount of my life as I spent with him. I now plan to read his note before I get married and start a new chapter of my life this October. I write to him every day, in one form or another. I write to the version of him that I remember, the sincere young man so full of questions. Aaron, I still don’t have the answers, but I’ll keep asking those questions for you.

How does To Brother-Ghost on Halloween fit into your MFA thesis? Tell us about the theme of that thesis and what it means to you.

I returned to my hometown and started my MFA in Poetry in part to face down my hang-ups about Aaron’s death and the bell jar that became my community during my formative years. Just as before, my MFA professors recognized my writing process as one of healing. On day one I was asked to give myself “permission to be messy.” And I think I have. I wrote “To Brother-Ghost on Halloween” in my first semester of my MFA for a dear friend’s writer-themed Halloween party, where everyone was encouraged to read their work. I had a back-up poem in case I wasn’t brave enough. “To Brother-Ghost on Halloween” was better, and I knew it. I just had to do it justice. After the reading, I felt better in my own skin. My peers understood me a little more. I used “To Brother-Ghost on Halloween” as the cornerstone of my thesis, which became a series of letters to Aaron and mental excursions into fire, depictions of immolation, the ecology of the deep South, mythology, and my navigations with healing. My fiancé and I called it self-imposed immersion therapy. Now that it is completed, I feel like a new person. Aaron’s voice will always be part of my work, but it feels at last like that voice has been heard.

What would you like readers of To Brother-Ghost on Halloween to take away from the piece?

I’m not sure I have the right to say what readers should take away from this poem. Everything I’ve read has given me some parcel or oddity whether I wanted it or not, whether the writer intended it or not. It is a privilege to have this read at all, rather than carrying it like a knot in my spine for the rest of my life. My readers may have a similar knot. Reader, if you made it this far, I see you. 

Your talents extend past poetry to filmmaking and editing. What is your favorite form of creative expression and why?

As an audience or patron, I will always have a mad amount of respect for film, especially on the independent scale. By virtue of being inherently multi-media, the possibilities are endless and can incorporate the full spectrum of human technology, artistry, and skill. For viewing, horror films are my low-key obsession. I love picking them apart, finding out why and how a directorial choice worked. As a creator, well, I’m a dabbler. That’s what I tell myself every time I pick up a new medium or genre. I’ve always felt most natural with language and storytelling as my primary means of expression, but my mother is a professional painter, and my fiancé is an aspiring material scientist. Thus, our project room is full of art supplies, wood carving and building tools, AV equipment, bookbinding materials, fabric and sewing implements, and so on. All I know is that every medium has the potential to be my favorite, including the ones I have yet to try or discover.

How do you incorporate writing into your everyday life?

As frustratingly simple as it sounds to others wanting to build a writing life — I write. When I’m not strong enough to write, I read. When my eyes ache, I listen. When I fail to listen, I force myself into the world to change my perspective. When I’m too stubborn or self-absorbed to change, I turn to my family (living or dead) and ask for help. If I can’t write for myself, I always seem to be able to write for them.

What are you most proud of as a poet, a filmmaker or as a person?

I’ve exceeded my own expectations as a poet: I’ve fallen head over heels for a medium I feared would always be inscrutable and have learned to simply “say it” despite my instinct to overwrite each poem. I’m pleased with what I learned in film, particularly documentary and lost-and-found film. I have the privilege of learning something concrete about the human experience even as I piece together a narrative with the medium. I’m no longer able to view a film or read anything absentmindedly. I’m always searching for the “puncta” — or points of interest — which show the creator’s hand or provide insight into the world. There are endless applications of this to daily life, particularly in my interactions with new people or landscapes. My curiosity has only grown, and I’m proud of being someone who cultivates that even if what I find isn’t always joyful.

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the phrase, “The Good Life?”

I think of people — moments of togetherness, wherever they occurred. I even think of the darkest times, when the people I loved reached a breaking point, when I didn’t know how to help them. The way we reached through the pain and rediscovered one another, built each other up, made the hard choices and changes. Of course, I think of Aaron. I also think of my infant niece and nephew, my parents forgiving each other as they became grandparents, my own upcoming wedding and the person who seems to see me better than I can see myself. I think of how loss broke me, how life reforged me. I think of what people create, how they weave themselves into the details of every art and science. “The Good Life” is all about accepting imperfections and presenting them as pieces of an odd, beautiful, challenging whole. 

Pell’s poem “To Brother Ghost on Halloween” was a finalist for this year’s HoneyBee Prize in Poetry and is available in issue #12.

Thank you, Pell, for trusting us with your poem and for taking the time to answer our questions. Congratulations on your wedding and cheers to a long and fulfilling life. We wish you the best!

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