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Poet Q&A: Willa Schneberg explores workings of the mind in ‘The Naked Room’

The Portland poet and psychotherapist will discuss her latest collection Monday evening at Broadway Books.

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“It’s important to make poetry accessible to others, not only in the small poetry world,” says Portland poet Willa Schneberg. “It’s also important to be in critique groups … and share your poems with other people you respect, to create a sense of community open to everyone.”
These tiny monuments to the scorned and unknown, 
wear patinas of pink, burnt sienna, ocher, aqua, 
and if you look closely you will find 
moon craters, archipelagos, frozen waterfalls, 
Big Dippers and dunes with lone tracksTiny Monuments, from Willa Schneberg’s The Naked Room, on the room filled with urns of cremated remains at Oregon State Hospital

Willa Schneberg, a poet, sculptor, photographer, and psychotherapist, calls poetry “a wonderful art, because you can say so much in so little.” Her newest poetry collection, The Naked Room, was released Jan. 15 by Broadstone Books. 

“You don’t have a lot of time to paint your picture with words, so poetry feels like a gift to me,” she continued, in an interview over coffee and pastries in Portland’s Pearl District. “When I do poetry, I can also relate it to the essays or the sculpture that I do. I really love it all: I love compiling the book and dealing with the publisher and publicity. I love giving readings and the public aspect of what poetry entails.”

Schneberg, who is originally from Brooklyn and has been practicing in Oregon since 1996, began writing in elementary school. Her teacher encouraged her through thoughtful remarks on her assignments.

“I remember I wrote a poem and he wrote on the top of it, This is great stuff!,” Schneberg said. “So I began to see myself as an artist — visual as well as literary. I wrote for the high school journal and eventually felt like my outsider-ness was given a place to be who I truly was.”

Though she always thought she was going to be a poet – and one of her first poems was published in The Village Voice when she was in her 20s – Schneberg didn’t see herself completely committed to the role. She never figured out how to turn writing into a financially lucrative occupation. “I always thought I’d just be an artist and that somehow, I would do it. But I realized I had to find a way to make a living,” she said.

Since then, Schneberg has gained success as a poet. She hosts the annual Oregon Jewish Voices reading and has released six books, including Reading the Garment, The Book of Esther, Storytelling in Cambodia, and Box of Poems. Her 2002 collection, In the Margins of the World, received the Oregon Book Award’s Hazel Hall Award for Poetry. She has also received numerous residencies, working for the United Nations in Cambodia during the ’90s before becoming poet-in-residence in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2018.

“Living amongst other cultures affects my work greatly,” said Schneberg, who lives in Portland. “I lived in Israel from 1987 through 1988. My book, In the Margins of the World, talks about working with an art therapist there and being able to see and get a sense of the nuances of the different classes and Jewish cultures that exist there. Living in Asia, as well, allowed me to get inside and experience parts of the cultures that I wouldn’t have understood otherwise. Wherever I’ve lived overseas, travel always comes into my work and affects the way I write it.”

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In The Naked Room, Schneberg travels poignant emotional distances. Drawing on her experiences as a psychotherapist, she explores the subtle workings of the mind and considers what happens when the mind is shattered, confused, or in disarray. Each of the book’s six sections is named after psychological practices, therapy session phases, or discoveries, likening them to current world issues while looking at the troubling and once-normalized history of psychological treatment.

At 6 p.m. Monday, Schneberg will be joined by psychologist Robin Bagai for a discussion, book launch, and reading at Broadway Books. I talked with Schneberg about her work; her comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Naked Room by Willa Schneberg
The Naked Room by Willa Schneberg

When did you know you wanted writing to become a significant aspect of your profession alongside your psychotherapy work?

Schneberg: I always thought I was going to be a poet… But I realized I had to find a way to make a living. That’s when I decided to try to become a production potter. When I went to graduate school for ceramics, I realized I wasn’t a production potter and that I was interested in sculpture. Maybe the most practical thing I ever did in my life was going to social-work school. I’ve been practicing in the Pearl since 1996, after graduating in 1983. When people ask what my vocation and avocation are, I say my vocation has always been the arts. My avocation is being a therapist. I love both. I love what I do.

What does your typical creation process look like?

Earlier on, especially for my first two books, my poems just came together. I could see if I had enough and put them all in a collection. Later, it started changing. I very much create a conscious narrative in all my work where I can include history and show my own vulnerability. I began thinking of my work as a whole and thinking of it all as one book. That happened a lot when I was living in Cambodia and greatly drew storytelling inspiration from the history of the Cambodian people.

Tell me a little bit about the catalyst for The Naked Room.

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Every book is a little like giving birth. This feels important to me, to be able to bring together a commitment to the field as well as my issues with ways that people who have struggled with their inner life have been treated. They have not always been treated well by the practitioners who thought they were helping them, and it’s important to me to express these ideas. For example, the poem about Rosemary Kennedy – from the research I did, I believe she was given a lobotomy because she was going to affect her brother’s career. And the person who originally came up with the idea for lobotomies was given a Nobel Prize in 1949. With this particular project, I was poised to write this book and make it larger than me, to talk about the joys of being a therapist and the challenges — my challenges with how I see myself — and to piece together this narrative history and relate it to the present day.

You host a regular literary reading called Oregon Jewish Voices. Can you talk more about being a Jewish poet in Oregon?

That’s always such a huge issue, right? I ask the questions, Do I want to be seen as a poet? Do I want to be seen specifically as a woman poet? And my identity as a Jew is fascinating. I was raised in Brooklyn in a first-generation Jewish household. When I was young, my world was Jewish. I didn’t realize that the world wasn’t Jewish. As a secular Jew who also has a great affinity for Buddhism and a personal experience in Israel, it’s interesting to notice that my identity is in my work, but it’s ineffable to explain Jewish identity as a Jewish writer.

Do you feel you have a large responsibility as a voice in the Oregon Jewish community?

I’ve always considered myself a poet of witness, in the sense that when I write about the killing fields and Pol Pot in Cambodia, I see that as a parallel to the Holocaust. Part of my Jewish awareness is still there, the urge to fight against injustice does come from the legacy of anti-semitism to the extreme and extermination, even though my family was all safely in the United States before World War I. But I still think it’s really part of my chromosomes, so in all my work, there have been what I consider social-justice poems. I also believe you can be a voice to bring attention to something that isn’t your immediate suffering, because we’re all connected and we’re all part of humanity. The personal is universal and is political.

What do you think the state of poetry in Oregon is today, and how can we encourage a flourishing scene?

Things got pretty fractured during the pandemic. Poetry is an oral tradition, so readings are imperative. Different groups across Oregon continue to have readings, which is super important. Unfortunately, there is not as much press as there used to be. Books used to get reviewed by larger newspapers in Oregon and poems came out in the print issue. It’s important to make poetry accessible to others, not only in the small poetry world. It’s also important to be in critique groups — I’m in two — and share your poems with other people you respect, to create a sense of community open to everyone.

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What advice can you give younger poets and those seeking to publish their work?

Persistence, persistence, persistence. It really is about resilience and perseverance. Not only do you have to believe in your work, but you have to decide that you want an audience, and not only want to write for yourself, but decide that you need an audience. Also, think about having a publicist for small-press books. Once you have your book published with a small press, a publicist will help you get readings and interviews, find what contests to apply to, and what rewards you might be eligible for. It’s taking yourself seriously and doing the legwork to get yourself out there, and hiring someone who can help you. When it comes to agents, it’s almost impossible to get an agent as a poet unless you’re already well known. From what I’ve learned, a publicist will likely be the best thing. I do think it can make a difference and help a poet feel hopeful.

Who are your favorite poets that everyone should read?

Right now, I’m reading work by Poet Laureate Ada Limón and Husbandry by Matthew Dickman. The poets that influenced me the most and certainly helped me feel like my life and the lives of women mattered are Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Forché, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Ilya Kaminsky as well … and Edward Hirsch is very important to me. I love his poems about the Jewish experience and his books on how to read poems, as well as his glossary.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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One Response

  1. Attention to mental health is again on the rise and Ms. Schneberg’s book provides the reader with a broad historical arc as well as zeroing in on a wide span of diversity, including fascinating (and dark) individual cases. Thank you!

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