Meet Avery Yoder-Wells!
Interviewed by Laila Azhar
L: I absolutely loved “starfish learns to code,” wow, so just talk to me about the piece a little bit! What was the inspiration? What do you hope people feel when they read it?
A: I’ve been learning to code myself this year, I had to take a computer science class for my credits, and I ended up really liking it which I did not expect! I always wanted to make some kind of code-themed poem because I think coding is this really interesting language, and it’s often used for science and technology, but I think that there’s a lot of untapped potential with including code and including the way the internet is set up into poetry. Because I love coding, especially in Basic HTML, because you’re really creating something from scratch, and I think that’s something that happens in poetry too. I found it interesting experimenting how a poem could work both created with code and with code sprinkled within it, and how the interactions of controlling every single line break every single font, the way you control from the ground up with code is really interesting to me, and I think creating poetry that deep, from the ground up, is a really interesting medium. I don’t think I went as far with it as I could have, and I know there’s people who are doing really incredible interactive poetry stuff, and really digging into that. And that would be something really cool to try in the future! I think that there’s a lot of area there that hasn’t been covered yet.
L: For sure! So the imagery of starfish and coral reefs is really “nature-y,” and super different from that of coding, which is more technological. So how did you think to find the similarities, or connect the two of them?
A: I usually just start with a little joke of mine, and when you’re doing code, you open the head first and you get in all of the style and how the page is going to look, and then you put all the text and the meat of it in the body. You have to open the body, and then you have to close it again at the end. And it was just a little joke with myself! I’m just imagining: Alright, if you just kept making them, would you just make more? And I thought about starfish because of that, because starfish are known for, you know, they can regrow a limb, and I think if there’s enough there they can regrow their entire body? I wouldn’t be able to be sure if that’s actually true or just what you hear– I’m not a biologist unfortunately. I should research that– but I love starting with two things that don’t really connect and then seeing how they connect. I think a lot of interesting poems do that. Starting with “how is a raven like a writing desk” and figuring it out along the way.
L: Yeah, definitely. So what does your writing process usually look like?
A: It’s very scattered. Usually it starts with a deadline that I have to do, and that gets me to actually write things, which is great. I write a lot of first drafts that I return to far later, like on my notes app or something. And usually I’ll just write for 5-10 minutes and it’ll be entirely stream of consciousness, and almost all of it will be garbage, and that’s okay, because I come back, and usually I make a new document so I don’t feel too bad about mauling my little sweetheart– and then I maul them a lot. And I usually cut it down to the five lines that are really integral to the point I’m trying to get across. And then I add lines back in from the first draft, and new ones, one at a time. The longer you make a poem, the more each line has to really add to the poem, and I don’t feel confident enough that I’m writing good enough lines for that, so I do try to keep it generally short.
L: That actually leads us perfectly into my next question which is that one of the guidelines for this contest was that the piece had to be no more than ten lines, so what was your experience writing a piece so short, or is that what you normally tend to gravitate towards?
A: I tend to gravitate towards under a page, I certainly haven’t explored so much with that small. I’ve had a couple other prompts where it was very short and so I’ve tried things like that. I think it was interesting because I couldn’t really expand on very much, it had to be extremely simple, and it was really a case where the idea had to grab people, because there’s really nothing else. There’s no place to go with it, it has to be the pure thing. And I think I’m a person that tends to put too much into poems, especially on the first couple go arounds. I try to make it about five things when that could be five different poems, I have enough material for different things. So I had to tone down the jumping from idea to idea, I had to tone down the associations, and just focus on this one thing. And it was difficult! The draft that I pulled up was already very short because it was just a concept but it was still too long, and I had to really reckon with myself about what the best lines were, and that was a sad process, but it was a really great exercise, and it reminded me how cool it can be to make something extremely concise.
L: Yeah, for sure. You tend to write a lot of poetry, so what’s your favorite thing about poetry, as opposed to other forms of writing? What really draws you to the genre?
A: That’s interesting. The non-fancy answer would be that poetry is short and holds my attention span. The longer answer is that I never considered myself as good at poetry as I did short stories and fiction for a long time, and poetry was really just a “for me” thing. And I got some encouragement and that helped me. This year I’ve been working on expanding my understanding of poetry and trying more with it. I think there’s so few rules to poetry, and that’s both freeing and extremely terrifying. It’s very easy to write something that is a poem. It’s not very easy to write a good poem, and it’s not very easy to know what that is. It’s a genre where there are no rules, it’s just, can you communicate something to someone else, and can you get across what you’re trying to say. I think poetry is really the more elaborate form of talking to oneself, and I have always been very talkative. I can never stop talking about exactly how I feel and what I think about everything. And I think that’s an important step of poetry.
L: That’s super interesting! Your poems often touch on serious topics, such as ADHD or book bans. How have you found the experience of writing pieces with more serious subject matter, or that are more politically charged?
A: Of course, the poems that I have published are a very small slice of everything that I write, it’s lucky when something gets in! I think sometimes I can come off as very serious, certainly I’ve gone through my phases of angsty, sed, mellow poetry, and I think those poems that have those kinds of political or identity based focus have a really important place in the public conversation, and it’s a really interesting way to advocate for yourself. I think lately I have also been trying to connect with humor and lightness as well. I do think in the current poetry landscape– the little that I know about it– there is both place for sadness and for anger, and there should also be place for joy and connection. When I write a poem that is angry or upset I am always anchoring it in something that I love and something that is important to me. When I am angry about someone that has done wrong to me, I am anchoring it in the belief that I am worth doing right by and that my community is worth doing right by. And I think finding the love, finding what is motivating you, can be the way to avoid endless anger and despair at the world, when you’re not really sure where you’re aiming it. I think it becomes immediately more concise when you’re thinking about why you feel this way, and the good things that make the bad things so much more of a contrast.
L: Wow, yeah. So in the same vein of love and motivation, who are some of your “writing inspirations”, I guess you could say?
A: I have so many and so few. I always mean to read far more poetry than I do. This past year we had a couple of assignments where we had to annotate a page of poems– I learned afterwards that when our teacher said “a page” she didn’t mean literally a page, but I did literally a page– and one of the poems I read then was “Litany” by Billy Collins and I adored it. And from what I’ve read of him, and I really need to read more, I really enjoy that style of starting with something very broad and something funny and lighthearted and accessible, and then coming all the way down to the point. I really admire a lot of poets that use simple language in order to convey very complex meanings. I adore gorgeous, gorgeous words and turns of phrase, but I’m also a fan of using a few very well placed words. But there’s so much out there! Really anything that you want you can find in poetry and I think that’s really cool.
L: Definitely. So I just have one more question left! Where do you hope to see yourself as a writer in the future? Are there any new forms you’d like to experiment with, any accomplishments or goals you’d like to achieve?
A: There’s no form of writing so far that I’ve tried and not liked in some way. As long as I can find myself writing in the future I think I’ll be pretty happy. It might not be my main career, I do want food and money, and that might be important, but I think I would love to grow in my poetry for the next few years, and I’d also like to continue seeing about fiction again, and exploring with that. But, you know, nothing that I can’t try! One of the really fun things about being a young writer is that you’ve got so much time left to try out so many different things.
Avery Yoder-Wells (they/them) is a trans, queer poet approaching another year of high school. They've snuck words into Mausoleum Press, VIBE, Polyphony Lit., and elsewhere. When they're not writing, they might be singing, drawing, missing a deadline, or trying to get better at crossword puzzles.