Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
Featured Writer

Mistake House Magazine: Let’s begin by talking about a poem in your book When the Wanderers Come Home (University of Nebraska Press 2017), “What Took Us to War.” This poem, like so much of your poetry, contemplates the trauma of Liberia’s civil war, which you and your young family fled during the first cease fire in 1991. “What Took Us to War” is a poem about return and it is imbued with images of the bits and pieces of a life that remain behind, that show up as mute evidence of the ravages of war. You write, “Every so often, you find/a piece of furniture, an old head wrap/or something like a skirt/held together by a rusty pin.” You also make specific reference to the lived experience of surviving under brutal and totalitarian leaders during those years, Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor.

We are interested in your particular use of one word repeated in the poem, “gracious” (and “graciousness”). The poem refers to “the graciousness of looters,/the graciousness of termites and temporary owners of a home you built during your youth…” and exclaims, “How gracious, the war years/how gracious the warlords.” The word resonates with irony, bitterness, and grief, a pointed doubling in which confronting a sense of loss takes on a fullness that must be accounted for. Will you talk about the idea of “grace” and “graciousness” in “What Took Us to War”?  And perhaps to the way in which the poem’s references to refuge, return, and graciousness relate to the ominousness of the poem’s line, “What took us to war has again begun”?

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley: Yes, I use the words, “gracious,” and “graciousness,” in irony. Yes, it is out of the depth of pain and anger that the poem was written. “What Took Us to War,” was composed, like the entire, “When the Wanderers Come Home,” within less than three months during my sabbatical in the spring semester of 2013. It, like most of the poems in that book, is an autobiographical poem written in that deep realization that all of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Liberians, the massacres, and the wonton devastation of our homeland only brought us more pain and grief. January to May of 2013 was the first time I was able to live in our devastated home (house) that we built in 1988, just two years prior to the beginning of the long series of wars. Even though I had visited Liberia in 2008 for the first time after the war ended in 2003, in 2011, and in 2012, for three different research trips, 2013 was my first time my home was habitable to live in since we fled Liberia. Our son, Mlen-Too Wesley II, had begun extensive restoration of the devastated home, and to save on rent, he decided to move in the home while it was under renovation. I therefore had the opportunity and the pain of reliving the early months of the war in our home that held both sad and happy memories for our family.

All those previous years, I did not have the courage to stay there until that year. The home had been devastated by the war, bombings, and bullet shell marks everywhere on the walls, some of which happened during the early takeover of the city.  Several other poems in When the Wanderers Come Home explore that 2013 experience.

The termites in the poem are both real and metaphoric, and the title, was a wake-up call that nothing had changed after hundreds of thousands of dead, a million in exile, and other thousands, lost to their families, and that the new leaders were not any better than the ones before the war.

The idea of “graciousness,” is ironic, and I intend it to be negative. Yes, it is a bitter reminder that nothing had changed or even has up until now, but just corruption, the eating away of the nation’s resources, its humanity, and our homeland. My use of the word, “graciousness,” juxtaposes how termites eat away the best woodwork around a home when not checked the subtleness of how termites destroy with the passiveness of corruption that destroys a nation as in how termites may destroy an entire structure. All of this imagery was inspired by the condition of our home that we fled, and how the war years allowed termites to take over our home and further destroyed what the war did not destroy. So, the poem is a bit deeper in its focus, looking into the destructiveness of war and the callousness of those who benefit from war.

MH: In “Where Have All the Years Gone: A Memoir,” published in the journal Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire (Spring/Summer 2013), you wrote of returning to Monrovia, Liberia to do research and collect “the stories of Liberian women traumatized by the war.” This beautiful essay manages in a very brief space to include tender and searing observations of many different kinds of people—a young Liberian woman who has entered into a “domestic arrangement” with a much older man for the financial resources he offers to her and to her family, a small boy waiting for scant rain to wash his shirt on the stones of a river bank, the aimless poor on the streets of Liberia who have no jobs or schools to go to, the UN workers whose high salaries were helping to raise the cost of living in Monrovia. In that essay, you write of your anger at seeing the exploitation and “the difference between those who have both power and wealth and those who have nothing.” You also say that “One needed to rebuild her skin and heart to survive the trauma of war, or the trauma of watching the poverty and hopelessness after war.”
Similarly, in the anthology you edited, Breaking the Silence, in your poem “I’m Waiting,” you write that you are “waiting for women to take hold of this broken world with their tenderness of heart” and how you are waiting for women to “walk again, the way we were meant to walk hard, on surfaces where men have refused to walk” (140).

Will you speak to the means of “rebuilding the heart”? What steps are necessary for such restoration to take place? Is the first step sharing the stories, just as you have in this anthology? How can a broken world, a broken country, a broken community, or a broken person heal? And what is it necessary for one to do to participate in this healing?

PJW: I am impressed that you connect the memoir article, originally published in 2008 by African Writing Magazine, and later reprinted twice, to my poem, “I’m Waiting,” because in a way, both are connected as much of what I write. War is devastating, but civil war is far more destructive because there is no outsider one can blame to help a nation heal since it is the nation against itself. The scars of such a traumatizing experience therefore run deep, and are harder to heal as in my observation of the young woman on the plane, the loss of herself, her identity, her people, the loss of home and everything the world was or as in the people on the streets of Monrovia, all of which are the remnants of a nation that has destroyed itself. The poem, “I’m Waiting,” written decades later relates to the memoir piece in many ways. How does one find healing when everything has been lost, that trauma that eats at the core of one’s being? There are many things that I could not speak to without writing an entire book since the healing of a nation is a much larger issue. But to heal the heart, as I said, one must revisit the pain, possibly, relive it, then one must learn to tell the story over and over in every form, give voice to the voiceless that did not survive the annihilation of whole communities. I believe that writing gives one the power to find healing, the very art of writing the dying of one’s people back to life, healing is birthed. I have found my healing after decades of vulnerably exploring my pain, my anger, my grief. There is nothing that is more difficult than revisiting ground zero of one’s pain, and many times, that revisit comes through the recall of memory in writing.

MH: A couple of follow-up questions.  You gave some good advice to the young woman who had sold herself into a financial dependency: become independent by getting an education. And you gave her your card. Did you ever hear from her again?

And how has your project of collecting and telling the stories of Liberian women traumatized by the civil war evolved? What, in your view, has been required of women traumatized by war to come into independence and stability? How possible is this transition in today’s world, where immigration and refugee status in Europe and the United States are more fraught and even more dangerous than ever?

PJW: I have never heard from her. I do not even know if she is alive or not. But this is the way of life or of the refugee life of nationless people. On the collection of Liberian women’s trauma stories from the war, that project was completed more than a decade ago after traveling around the US, to Ghana, and Liberia, recording in 2008, 2011, and 2012. I have video collections of the stories that I need to turn into a larger project, a documentary, and a book. I have so much work to do to get these published. I have so much unpublished work to get out there. There is so much already written; hopefully, I can retire from teaching in a few years. Due to loss of time as a war survivor, I need to work a bit longer for my retirement income.

Your question on the issue of refugees finding independence or finding home in the US or in Europe, that would be a whole new set of interviews.

MH: Liberia is sometimes described as “the only Black state in Africa never subjected to Colonial rule” (Encyclopedia Britannica, Liberia). Yet in your introduction to Breaking the Silence, you tell a more precise story of Liberia’s origins, writing that “Liberia is a small country…founded when freed slaves from the American South landed on the west coast of Africa, fought many battles with Indigenous African peoples who inhabited the region, and declared the country independent in 1847.” Your own family’s Indigenous background, on your father’s side, is Grebo and you speak Grebo, in addition to English. How do your two languages wind through and affect your poetic practice, especially as they relate to the here and there of growing up in Liberia and of immigrating to the United States—both cultures with often unacknowledged diversities or, as you put it with reference to Liberia, countries “with many conflicting realities” (Breaking the Silence)?

PJW: Both of my parents were Grebo, speaking the same dialect of the Grebo language. As a child, my father sent me to a boarding school, The Tugbake Mission Boarding School, a Pentecostal school in his home village of Tugbake, where I lived for three years. That experience helped me learn my language with the fluency of my family and the culture of my people. The  culture I experienced is the foundation of my writing, the oral tradition of my people, the motifs of our African literary tradition. On another note, Liberia is not really much divorced from American culture. American English is our official language and we studied American literature in grade school. I therefore have been influenced by the American literary tradition as well. A close study of my poetry will introduce readers to what I call two cultures conversing, sometimes, on the same page, and yet in some poems, I write entirely from the African singsong, lyric tradition, African repetition as in the Grebo oral tradition of praise songs and music. In other poems about my American experience, I may write differently, having also been influenced by American poetry.

MH: With reference to the way in which Liberian writers have been overlooked in the cultural scene, you said that “I would use my talent to usher my country into the world’s literary scene—to enable African artists to see themselves as belonging to the community.” (  Clearly, when sitting down to write poetry, you think about writing for others and lighting a path for future Liberian poets. But of course, you also write for yourself. And we love the way you describe yourself at the Poetry for Peace blog site: “Family Chauffer, Family Cook, Teacher, author, and whatever comes up on a given day.” What are your thoughts about parsing “whatever comes up on a given day”—the roles of activist, family member, friend, poet, teacher? How do you balance all these roles? How do you see them coming together and also functioning separately?

PJW: This question makes me smile or laugh. We women are the most complex of human beings on earth. We can balance anything that needs to be. But the role of a poet needs all of the things we do to inform a writer, to help them find material, something that makes balancing life easier. As activist, family woman, mother, friend, teacher, I see myself simply on a journey as each role informs the other. As a young mother, I used to write poems while changing a baby’s diaper, burn a meal while writing a poem, even as a thirteen year old, long before my role got more complicated, I wrote on the run. Now as teacher, mother, everything, I see myself in a community of not just students trying to become writers, but also in a community of other writers seeking to give voice to a silent world or to quiet a wailing world. These roles complement one another, each, a small part of a larger whole. I could not be good at what I do if I didn’t have children or a husband or a village of writers around the globe and in the US. If I did not have students to inspire me as I inspire them or if we didn’t have wars and dictators, or people whose deaths make our bellies angry, I would not be the writer I am today. And on the question of who I write for, of course, I write first for myself, and as I tell my students, if my poem does not make me cry or laugh, it cannot make my readers cry or laugh.

MH: On the Poetry for Peace site, you also write that you “mostly write to get [people] thinking about things that bother the world.” Last year, the visual artist Alfredo Jaar visited our campus and gave a public talk. In his talk, he urged us to do two things: not to ignore the many wars taking place all over the world (The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights cites over 110 conflicts at this writing) and to gather as much diverse information as we can (Jaar subscribes to more than 60 periodicals). What is your advice for readers who should be “thinking about things that bother the world”? How should we stay informed and how should we be active? And, we must ask, because the answer may not be obvious to all readers, how do poetry reading and poetry writing fit into being an informed citizen and an activist?

PJW: If I were to advise everyone, not just poets about how to think about things that bother the world, I’d say stay connected to the politics of your country and the world. Let your voice be loud about everything our leaders do. Vote, keep politicians accountable, support nonprofits that seek to help end wars, help refugees, volunteer in your community, be good citizens. Support refugees of war because they are not the reason wars drove them out of their countries, vote, vote. I became a citizen finally after thirty-three years because I realized that writing alone or giving support to help elect great leaders cannot do it. To stay informed, read, read, and read about the things happening around the world, and give to international and national causes that bring healing to those less fortunate.

As a poet or writer, write from your heart about the things that plague the world, not just against wars, genocide, but also about the climatic catastrophe in the making, the devastation by climate change, of the world we depend on. Vote out politicians who deny that our climate is being destroyed by our lifestyle and that we must reverse the track we’re on. The pen is more powerful than the bullet. Write out the bullets too.

MH: As both a poet and a professor of English and Creative Writing, you have a unique perspective on the role of poetry in society. At the keynote speech at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) this past February, where we also met you in person, Jericho Brown talked about totalitarian states and a global rise of fascism stopping people from speaking and stopping writers from writing. Your poem “All the Dirges Have Ceased” deals with the difference between politicians and the lived experiences of people—particularly regarding free speech. Your own life and work speak for themselves about what you think a poet should do when faced with the threat of totalitarianism. But what is the most important thing you think poets should be doing right now, both in the United States and globally? Has your understanding of this purpose changed over the years, or has it remained the same?

PJW: I applaud Jerico Brown and Americans who are now taking a stand against totalitarianism because we are at the very brink of totalitarianism in this country. The belief that we as Americans are immune to the sort of dictatorships seen around the world is no longer a reality. Writers must therefore begin to speak to the new reality we now live in, the loss of our freedom, as seen in the things happening across America today, decisions made by elected leaders, and the unruliness displayed by elected leaders, all of which reflect what some of us have survived in other parts of the world and our original homelands. Poets around the world have for more than a century cried out against war, against human rights abuses by the powerful, against abuse of women, about all of the world’s injustices while American poets mostly wrote about the pleasant things of the world. My poetry is sometimes referred to as “very dark,” “depressing,” “too sad,” by some even in my face because people are too afraid to face the true reality of what a poet’s place is. A poet must explore the sensibility of their people, and that sensibility is not just about the beautiful, but also, the ugly, the struggles of the devastating drug culture of today, of the killings of black men on America’s roads, the lack of justice for the poor, the rural poor, white and black, who have been forgotten, refugees seeking a home at our borders, the plight of our neighbors who are fleeing their homelands, the wars in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the plight of Palestinians, who can never live in peace, the hostages who need to be returned to their families, or the thousands of children, killed in the war in Gaza, in the Sudan and in other parts of the world. We must write our pain into history without fear. I believe that my position has become firmer and am now more committed to giving voice to the voiceless and those who have been silenced by death anywhere.

MH: You are a cancer survivor—or, perhaps as Arthur Frank put it in The Wounded Storyteller, a member of the “Remission Society.” In an interview you had with WPSU, you shared a story about your encounter with cancer and how a student you had at Penn State helped you think differently about the fear you were experiencing. The student said, “‘you’re gonna be great. You’re going to be fine. You’re going to whip that cancer and you’re going to come marching out here’” and you responded by asking how he was so sure. He responded, “Because I know you. You came here walking on the dead to get here, you survive war, you can do anything.” What was it about this interaction that contributed to your strength to overcome fear, and did it change how you think about fear? And what kind of encouragement or reminders from our communities are most helpful or necessary for overcoming fears that have us rooted in their grasp?

PJW: Thanks for the quotation and the reminder of how innocently our students can show strength when we who should be wiser and stronger need such reminders. One other student that year or in another class that day, gave me her Confirmation necklace with Jesus on the cross. She was a Catholic, unlike me, and told me to wear that gift from her grandmother to her, for strength. I still have that necklace today. Those students reminded me of who I am and how the life challenges that I had seen were far greater than cancer. With cancer, you have hope you can find healing, but war is as uncertain as the air we breathe. The encouragement from my students helped me see that I could certainly beat cancer, and yes, their reminders gave me the strength I needed then and stayed with me. During my cancer treatment that lasted a year, mostly in the hospital that year, I was not afraid. The Liberian civil war that my family and I survived had prepared me for cancer. My biggest emotion when I finally came to grips with the reality that I had cancer was anger. I was very angry for a while, upset about the interruption in my traveling plans, that cancer prevented me from traveling to Liberia to be at the bedside of my dying father, and angry that I had to plan his funeral from my cancer bed, that I could not be there to bury him the way the eldest daughter should. Fear never takes away any pain. The way I managed cancer was when I realized that I needed to eat the food I usually eat, my Liberian diet, keep a positive outlook, and laugh, pray, and sing through that ordeal. And I survived.

MH: Let’s get back to some of your poems. “Hair” (Prairie Schooner, Summer 2016) is a meditation on hair loss from chemotherapy. The poem assumes a wry, speculative voice in many places: “So your hair has decided to leave you” and “So, like the silly child that you are.” This droll, self-deprecating voice is twined with a sense of joy and blessedness: “Be calm, this is a sacred moment” and “dance. Dance your way into life/again, into the beauty of the years to come…” We notice the weaving of standpoints in the poem comes in part from the playful inventiveness of images of baldness: “Soon, you will be as bald as a glass wall,/as bare as sidewalk, as a clay pot,/as a jar, as marble, as solid as a globe,/your baldness, balder than bald…” This list accumulates into almost giddiness, giving rise to the means by which the poem can end on the double meaning of the “…pain of your hair/falling at your feet…” and conclude with “dance and make music come to life.” Will you talk about the way in which you, as a poet, intentionally play with images, especially their capacity to make meaning in multiple ways, allowing your poetry to move between ambivalent or conflicting experiences and feelings?

PJW: I love the way you seem to answer your own question better than I could. These are such brilliant, hard questions. Yes, I intentionally play with images, but there, I am really in the moment of awe that cancer inspires in a cancer patient, the mystery of how cancer eats at every core of our existence and how the medication that should heal, also kills what it needs to heal. The mystery of chemotherapy, the chemo fluid, so, clear, like water, but as powerful as poison to kill the good cells as much as the bad cells, killing the very hair follicles, how the palms and skin change color, all of these, inspiring the imagery in the poems. One of the most devastating pains of cancer treatment is the loss of one’s hair, and that final balding of not only the head, but every string of hair on your body is eaten away. The moment of final loss of hair is both laughable and awe-inspiring, something I believe is sacred. I wanted to poke fun at cancer and the power it wants to have, a way of finding strength. One morning while a nurse was changing me and adding preparing me for one of my five day treatments, she exclaimed, calling other nurses to my bed, and she looked at me, and said, “Your hair is as stubborn as you,” bringing a mirror to my face so I would see one long string of hair that had decided to grow. And we laughed at that because in another day, that newly grown long string was gone too.

MH: Two of your poems deal with similar themes in different locations. “There’s Another New Orleans” is about the United States, while “When Monrovia Rises” is about Liberia. Both are about people failed by cities and they both contain a strong sense of empathy. “When Monrovia Rises” is a series of couplets, almost a ghazal, which moves between Monrovia’s precarity (“…Even God/in the Heavens knows how fragile this place is”) and its potential for erupting violence (Here, we’re all afraid that one/of us may light a match and start the fire again”) but ends with a “maybe,” a sense that shared humanity might finally emerge in the city. How do you see this poem’s couplet structure as a conversation, a seesawing between the rough vulnerabilities and the rich potential—the either/or—of Monrovia’s future?

Similarly, the narrative stanzas of “There’s Another New Orleans” describe a city of want and neglect, particularly through the image of a five-year-old out at night alone, playing the harmonica for loose change, who is unnoticed by the self-indulgent party goers who throng the city. You frequently use narrative stanzas and sometimes couplets in your poems, which often move—as these two poems do—between two poles. Can you talk about how you deploy structure in your poetic form to convey the ambiguities that readers need to be able to see and feel to enter into the doubt or uncertainty in the poems?

PJW: I began using couplets in my second book, Becoming Ebony, a book I wrote as a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing and English during my doctoral program at Western Michigan University. We used Marie Howe’s What the Living Do as one of our textbooks and fell in love with how she explores pain and grief through the book. I have since used couplets, sometimes to explore the complexities of love, war, pain, death, or illness, to explore the pain of natural disasters. Couplets allow a painful story to breathe, to have space, and to render room to the trauma I must explore. Or, if the couplets are about love, I use them to explore the complexity of love without being concerned about form, but more with how the rhythm that sings the poem from my heart into being can move into the heart of my reader. I sometimes use enjambment to help a poem move between lines to help a reader grasp the true meaning of the poem.

MH: We notice in your poetry and in your autobiographical writing and statements references to cooking, ceremony, home, and homemaking, tending, ritual. And when we think about your poetry, we feel it as embodying practices and the mixture of customs that honor tradition and create spaces for safety. The many warm references to motherhood and mothering are an example—as are, of course, your praise songs. Are there specific ways in which you intentionally bring ceremony or ritual into your writing process? Or are there specific ways in which the ideas of tradition and cultural practices remain alive in your thought and subject matter as metaphor or icon?

PJW: I do both. I intentionally bring the ceremonies and rituals of my culture into my poems. I have been deeply influenced by my ethnicity of the Grebo tradition, by the nuances of Liberian culture, and the ceremonial culture of West Africa. Even in my everyday speaking, I carry the voice of my Iyeeh, (grandmother (s)), the ways in which we grew up with praise names and praise songs, the dancing culture of our people. Also, as a student of English, meaning, literatures of both my African world, American literary influences as well as British literature, all we must study to obtain our undergraduate and graduate degrees, I saw that the Eurocentric tradition is part of what Eurocentric literature is, and in my own oral traditional literature, that also happens. So, as an African immigrant, now a Diaspora African writer, that tradition which was ingrained in me naturally comes alive. The only difference between me and an American poet who has no roots in another culture is that I have the ability to move between the worlds I live in, the African of my being and the American of my adoption, sometimes conflicting, sometimes, in unity.

MH: You mention in the interview with WPSU how you have discovered that what you say comes back to you. You said that “what you say about where you’ve been to these young people, they take it in and use it for themselves, but it comes back to encourage you and I held on to that.” We also notice that some young poets have written poems in your honor. One of these poets is Tsitsi Jaji who, in “Praise Song for Patricia Jabbeh Wesley” (Prairie Schooner, Winter 2014), wrote, “We thank you for pushing the word no so hard/it fell backward…” Will you talk about being a teacher and a mentor? Why and how are these teacher-student (or, mentor-mentee) relationships so vital? What does your strong and forthright voice bring to this work?

PJW: I believe that we owe much to the world. We must return to the earth what it has given us. I mentor younger poets or anyone who seeks my mentoring because I have been given so much by others, by my own teachers, my own mentors, many who were publishers of my first books. Without these people, I would not be what I am today. Yes, as a college student or earlier, we did not have the resources we have today; therefore, my own mentors could not do what I can do today for my mentees or my students. I therefore have a greater responsibility to the world of young writers. I do not take my role lightly, and some of those I mentor are across the world, most, I have never met, but they are part of our one world. Another thing is that it is important to reproduce ourselves, and to do means nurturing younger, talented, writers. It is an honor to see some write of the finest, like Dr. Tsitsi Jaji, now Associate Professor at Duke, write poems in my honor. I also believe that whether they honor me or not, I owe it to the world to have others follow after my footsteps. I heard once that, “You are not a leader if no one is following you.” This is how I see myself: I am only the farmer who is on a footpath to the farm early in the morning. The dew on the brush along the footpath soils my garment, but I am happy because the younger ones behind me will walk through without wetting their clothing.

MH: Do you ever play hooky? If you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?

PJW: No, I don’t. But I love sports. American football, my favorite game, reminds me of what life really means. There’s nothing certain until the clock strikes 0 on that last play.