A Mirage in the Desert: Wanda Orme on Her Debut Poetry Collection, “The Becoming Light of Water”

There are places that move through us as we move through them. Places that haunt us like ghost stories, places that crack open fault lines inside of us. We return to these strange and shimmering places over and over because they shift the scaffolding of who we are and change the way we see the world around us. For artist, writer, and multi-faceted muse Wanda Orme, one such place is the Salton Sea, a manmade saline lake that unfolds over three hundred square miles of the desert, about three hours outside of Los Angeles. After years of evaporating in the harsh desert heat, the Sea is “saltier than blood or the ocean,” a white-blanketed graveyard of sun bleached bones and barnacles, a staggering sight that embodies the inextricable link between beauty and vulnerability.

Inspired by the way the area defiantly cycles through life and death, Orme recently published her first book of poems, titled “The Becoming Light of Water,” which addresses states of change, both physical and emotional. Synthesized into a journey through “four seasons of being,” her visceral poems are sparse in form yet evocative and expansive in feeling, cataloguing the shared resonances between human and non-human bodies, moving through you with a quiet intuitiveness that touches the synapses of your subconsciousness, equal parts playful, profound, and provocative.  We sat down with the nomadic visionary to discuss her creative process, the magnetic pull of certain places, and her upcoming installation for the Bombay Beach Biennale, a renegade celebration of art, music, and philosophy that takes place each year on the shores of the Salton Sea in the hopes of preserving it.

Q&A

Live FAST: You’re an artist and writer whose work touches on everything from academia to art to the female form. How does poetry fit into your creative landscape? Have you always written poems?

Wanda Orme: I have written poetry for many years but until recently, it was a form of self expression that was intensely private. It was only through sharing my poetry with my partner that I gained the confidence to share it with others and the book came together. For me, writing and art are the mediums with which I have been able to explore the things I find both hardest to express and feel most strongly. I find I can start to maybe touch those ideas or feelings, in a photograph or a poem.

LF: What was the inspiration behind “The Becoming Light of Water?” 

WO: It’s difficult for me to think in terms of specific inspiration for the content as publishing the book was more a process of coming to trust myself and share its contents with people. The poems are a constellation of many experiences over several years, loosely synthesized into four seasons of being – spring, summer, autumn, and winter. There are many female writers who have been a source of inspiration, confidence and companionship: Patti Smith, Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, Chris Kraus, and Joan Didion, to name just a few.

I published “The Becoming Light of Water” because I needed to, it was time, and I had the support of a kind of love which liberated me from the self-doubt that had previously stopped me. In this way, one of the main sources of inspiration for the book was love.

LF: What themes or ideas do you find yourself exploring or returning to throughout the book? 

WO: My poetry explores the felt and the instinctual, resonance, the power of language, sexuality and experience. I am interested in the moments which change you, the way that one becomes acutely aware of these moments often only after the fact and the way that these moments are felt, even years later, as sensations – feelings that can be returned to, can haunt or liberate. Feelings which become part of who we are.

LF: The book takes the reader “on a journey through seasons and across continents.” Do you feel like the book chronicles your own personal journey and growth?

WO: Very much so. I wouldn’t necessarily use the word growth as I think that, in our contemporary culture, we automatically associate that with a concept of improvement or progress. This journey is one of change, losing bits of oneself, gaining others. There’s no judgement of the relative value of either of these processes. It’s a journey because one is changed, and a landscape because we exist in a world that extends beyond our own bodily boundaries, both physically and metaphysically. We move through feelings and places and they move through us in return.

LF: Many of the poems are focused around the Salton Sea, a part of California that feels textured by change. What is it about that area that speaks to you?

WO: The Salton Sea is a strange, neglected, and defiant place. I am attracted to it like a magnet. Some might say obsessed, the way a person who has walked without water in the desert might be by a mirage. It is magical. It’s also a beautiful parable of human folly and nature’s nature. The Sea is an ancient site of water, but its current incarnation stems from flooding caused by attempts to irrigate the desert valley at the start of the 20th century. Following its heyday in the 60’s as the California Riviera, the mismanagement of water and agricultural lands in the surrounding area means the Sea is now a chemical hodgepodge of concentrated brine, which, though still incredibly beautiful, goes through cycles of stinking so badly that the residents of Los Angeles complain from their homes in the Hollywood Hills. I like this, because it refuses to go away quietly.

There are some very serious ramifications of the Salton Sea drying up. The surrounding areas and communities (many marginalized, migrant farm laborers from border towns to the south) already have high rates of respiratory illness due to dust, and as more of the sea bed is exposed along with the layers of salts and other toxic build up (much of which is thanks to the surrounding industries, which have used it as a dump for years), more of it will enter the air.

Perhaps it is simply that I desperately do not want it to die, and yet it inevitably will, and loving it through this process is to really have a relationship with something, in all its states of change. I feel at home there, seeing the sky at dusk mirrored so perfectly almost as if it were a call and response between water and air.

LF: Your poems are short in form but expansive in feeling. What are you hoping readers will take from them? 

WO: Hope, a sense of strength in vulnerability, a sense of their own power, the power to feel, to intuit, to listen for their own truths and to be able to stand in the waves and embrace being.

LF: Your work often focuses on nature and water. Can you give us any insight into the thought process behind the book’s title?

WO: I had been working with chronically homeless people for many years, studying and writing about the experience of vulnerability. Trying to address what vulnerability felt like, rather than what it looked like. This meant, among many other things, addressing death and change – changes of bodily state. There are deep resonances for me between human and non-human bodies, like bodies of water, for example. The Salton Sea became a place to think in different terms about vulnerability. Like much of my work, the title embodies a paradox. I had the thought, “the becoming light of water,” looking at late evening light catching the tips of waves in the Mediterranean: sublime beauty, far from suffering, yet somehow applicable to death, to pain, to beauty. A way to think of change, of letting go – sunlight on the tip of a wave.

LF: Is there a piece of writing advice that’s always stuck with you?

WO: Yes, neither of which I think I manage to achieve. Perhaps this is why they’ve always stuck with me. Kurt Vonnegut’s “pity the reader” and Hemingway’s “write hard and clear about what hurts.”

LF: Tell us a little about your upcoming Bombay Beach Biennale installation – “As above, so below.” Is there a connection between the installation and your book? 

WO: There is. The Bombay Beach Biennale is a three day art festival held by the Salton Sea with the agenda of saving the sea. I will be creating an immersive on site installation “As above, so below,” which will bring the ocean to the sea. Twelve recycled satellite dishes filled with Pacific Ocean water will be placed along the shore of the Salton Sea. They will reflect the sky and light, mirroring and changing as their surroundings change. The bodies of Pacific Ocean water held within the dishes will be transient, evaporating in the desert heat – a commentary on what once was and what will become. They will leave behind traces, rims of salt, the dishes then carrying echoes of the presence of water. The symbology of satellite dishes is simple – what do we listen to? Where do we turn our attention? These bodies of water speak of the health of the larger ecosystem in which we all exist.

You can find out more about the project and pre-order prints and postcards of the Salton Sea and the installation here. Keep up with Wanda’s work and purchase “The Becoming Light of Water” here.

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