It was back in 2011 that I was first introduced to the West Virginian poet Randi Ward, she wrote the lyrics for an album released by Guðrið Hansdóttir titled ‘Beyond the Grey’ (reviewed here). The following year we featured a piece on her project titled ‘Dregs’, you can read about it and watch the video here.
Her latest work, Whipstitches, was published on June 20, 2016, via MadHat Press and is already being taught in a number of high schools and colleges throughout West Virginia. Accompanying this piece is a gallery of images (above) and video. In the videos, Randi works backwards in the landscape from the process of haying to the farm where she grew up. “As I am working backwards in terms of metaphorical landscape, I am working chronologically through my family history in photographs (from the past to present). The last photo in this series features my grandparents with my brother and me. I dedicated the book to these grandparents.”
The collection contains ninety-nine compact poems that stitch together the haunting story of a family and farm in crisis. “Underlying the whole,” author and Beloit Poetry Journal senior editor Lee Sharkey writes of Whipstitches, “is both abiding love for the homeplace and knowledge of the wounds it inflicts.” Ward also points out that the various meanings of the word ‘whipstitch’ are key to understanding other important aspects of the collection.
“Aside from being a stitch for sewing two pieces of material together, a whipstitch can be a moment in time or used as a suturing technique,” Ward says. “So much of this book hinges on the connections and relationships that influence the ways we learn to associate and think about or experience, things. These poems demonstrate how a moment in time, an experience, can become the wound and the stitch— again and again and again. We are all born into – and constantly shape and take shape within – fields of language, culture, and history.”
The cover of Whipstitches, which features original artwork, graphite rubbings of baling twine, and handmade lettering by Wood County, WV artist Chris Sturm, depicts a vivid field filled with baled rolls of hay. A closer look reveals that words and textures are bristling through the landscape, and the foreground imagery is unravelling into grey threads.
“For me, Whipstitches is about how people, words, images, memory, and other things become bound up in one another— even as they are simultaneously becoming something else. I’ve often thought of hay rolls as an interesting metaphor for all of this, and I’m fascinated by the system of relationships, the ecosystem, that haying represents. You can tell a lot about a farm by looking at the condition of its fields. In Whipstitches, the structure of the poems and organisation of the collection harness various forms of intersubjectivity to create a metaphoric ecology through which I can render a narrative about my family, the untold dimensions of generational wounds, and what happened to the farm where I grew up.”
Randi Ward and Chris Sturm collaborated with Ohio University graphic designer Kendall Markley to bring the concept behind Whipstitches to life. Altogether, the collection’s design took six months to complete and involved extensive experimentation with a number of methods and media. Ward and her team gathered all sorts of materials from around the area where she grew up in order to literally work some piece of her home into the design.
“The landscape-orientation of the book was a must for me. I also wanted to integrate graphic elements into the pages to create a visual undercurrent that could reinforce the narrative flow of the poems as well as suggest the larger context they’re a part of. We needed something subtle yet dynamic that could serve as the ‘gray matter’ of the collection. We finally got some hay string from my great neighbours on Pond Creek, and it did the trick.”
Ward chose to dedicate Whipstitches to the memory of her grandparents, Jack and Clara Beach of Belleville, WV. “My grandparents were exceptional people. There’s no telling what would have happened if they hadn’t been there to step up and take care of me when I was a kid. Not an hour goes by that I don’t think of them.”
Randi Ward returned to West Virginia three years ago after spending more than a decade studying and working abroad in Nordic countries. In 2007, when she earned her MA in Cultural Studies, she became the first American student to earn a graduate degree from the University of the Faroe Islands. Her work as a translator has also garnered considerable attention with Ward winning the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s Nadia Christensen Prize for her translation of Nordic Council Literature Prize nominee Tóroddur Poulsen’s poetry collection, Fjalir (Planks, 2013). This marked the first time in the international translation competition’s history that a work of literature translated from the Faroese was awarded the prize. Subsequently, Cornell University established the Randi Ward Collection in its Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections in 2015. Ward has also distinguished herself as a photographer and lyricist. The song lyrics that she has written for Nordic singer-songwriters, most notably Guðrið Hansdóttir, Ásgeir Trausti and Eivør Pálsdóttir, have received more than a quarter-million plays online.
“Each poem in Whipstitches is a world Ward makes us see, or see again, with a child’s clarity melded to metaphor. Underlying the whole is both abiding love for the homeplace and knowledge of the wounds it inflicts.” Lee Sharkey, author of Calendars of Fire and senior co-editor of Beloit Poetry Journal
Whipstitches is available now via Madhat Press here: madhat-press.com/collections/poetry/products/whipstitches-by-randi-ward
Find out more about Randi Ward here: randiward.com
Film stills and videos by Zetetic Studios