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Laboratory of Language: An Interview with Chelsea Wagenaar

by Amie Whittemore

Amie Whittemore: Your collection, The Spinning Place, won the 2018 Michael Waters Poetry Prize. In addition to its lyrical dexterity, which is balanced by narrative texture, as the poems explore birth, marriage, pain, and loss—more on these later—I feel like many of these poems master the art of statement. Statement can be such a powerful tool in poetry, but one that can be hard to pull off. Yet, your collection shines with statements that feel earned, that feel like they rewarded the writer as much as they do the reader . For instance, in the opening poem, “The Spinning Place (I),” I love “Perhaps there is no word / that is not longing.” And later, in “Solstice,” “Some stories are too true to finish.” Can you talk about how you arrive at statement in your poems—do they serve as leads or are they discoveries that occur through your writing process? 

Chelsea Wagenaar: They’re absolutely discoveries. It’s not until now that I’ve thought of them as “statements,” as you put it, but I can see that as a helpful way of thinking about how those kinds of lines and moments do different rhetorical work than description—the tone of a short, declarative statement like the ones you mention is, to me, stark and emotionally vulnerable.

In graduate school I studied with B.H. Fairchild, and once, in an offhand reference to his own writing process, he told me that sometimes at the top of the page he writes, “Pete, what the hell are you trying to say?” The completely unpretentious quality of that confession has stayed with me. Sometimes in a poem I’ll find myself wandering and circling, and Pete’s question comes back to me. Usually a moment like “Some stories are too true to finish” from “Solstice,”—or in “Lines Approaching a Birthday,” the lines “For a long time I believed the right words / could make a thing beautiful”—is an answer to that question. 

AW: I love how the use of statement is a means for you to answer questions that haunt your process; I also admire how your collection explores the limits of language. For instance, the first section, with its emphasis on birth and death, on the blurry divisions between these binaries as well as those of ascent/descent, of naming and namelessness, seems situated in and curious about liminality—the way experience is understood through language, yet often leaves us speechless. I’m thinking particularly about “Prelude to Circulatory System” and “Descent (Sort of an Annunciation),” in which the speaker asks herself, “The first work is to speak. / Why, then, when I saw you / in your shadowclouds / on the screen, webbed and froglike, your one heart a nucleus / of trembling—why could I not?” Can you describe your experience drafting poems that so often inhabit these (often) speechless moments of experience? 

CW: I wish I’d thought of that expression—“the way experience is understood through language and yet often leaves us speechless.” If I had to choose a subtitle for the book, that would be a top candidate! Yes—if experience is understood through language, but often leaves us speechless, isn’t that a way of saying there’s just so much we don’t understand? That’s the primary energy at work when I put pen to paper—there is something I don’t understand. Sometimes it’s something I’m deeply moved by; other times I’m troubled. My poems are not so much a way of trying to stamp out Not-Understanding and replace it with Understanding as they are just trying to make a home of Not-Understanding. So I think that space—dwelling in a lack of understanding—is a liminal one.

In a home, I’ve come to believe, some of the most meaningful exchanges between people happen in silence, or sound that isn’t language (for instance, a baby crying, a child babbling, music). I’m thinking here of the poems “A Story” and “Duet,” for instance. “A Story” is like an ethnography of a particular moment in a home. It’s full of sound (“the baby has learned /to blow raspberries with her lips”), but no one says a word. In “Duet,” there’s the implied noise of the yellow jackets, then the wordless, affectionate work of the speaker to extract the stinger from her beloved’s ear, all while their daughter plinks the keys of the piano. So much great drama unfolds in the near absence of language, and I think my impulse to write about these moments is not so much to understand them as it is to just pause them, stretch them out like an accordion, and look for a little longer. 

AW: The collection is also imbued with allusions to Christian mythology. I’m particularly curious about your choice to have an erasure poem, “Delivery Room (Sacrament Under Erasure),” based on Matthew 26:23-29, as both the first section’s last poem as well as the poem in which a child is born—the child awaited and longed for throughout this first section. Why did you select an erasure?

CW: I suppose the idea of erasure in the last poem brings me back to what’s “unsayable” in the opening poem. A poem of erasure both says and unsays; it speaks and silences.

So perhaps in that way, it inhabits the liminal spaces of the collection, too. When I gave birth to my daughter, I had a hard time thinking and talking about the experience without drawing on tired, cultural abstractions—meeting my daughter was “impossible to describe” and “amazing,” while the post-partum phase was also extremely alienating and confusing, a common experience for which we have less language. Women give birth to children every day, all over the world, and they have forever—it’s about the most mundane, unoriginal thing a person can do, in that sense. But to each individual woman, it’s a shattering, fundamentally life-altering experience that can also feel transcendent—and both can be unspeakable. That question—how do I speak about this?—energizes the whole collection.

“Delivery Room (Sacrament Under Erasure)” uses ancient language, a sacred text, to speak of an ageless experience. I felt a little transgressive writing the poem, but that made me feel even more that the poem needed to be written. I confess I certainly think of that poem as a younger sibling of Mary Szybist’s fantastic “Annunciation under Erasure.” Both erasures—hers and mine—revise a biblical gospel in a way that privileges an otherwise unheard female voice. As a mother, it’s easy to feel “erased” by my children, so I hope the poem captures that darker sentiment, setting up the next section’s themes of psychological and physical exile. Birth unites and exiles mother and child: in order to be together, they have to split from each other in a visceral, violent way. 

AW: As you note, the second section of the collection focuses on “themes of psychological and physical exile:” exile from place (as we see in the opening poem of the section, “Exile (The Spellbound Horses)” and “Batrachomancy”) as well as exiles from connection, from language (as in “Apology” or “Lithomancy”), even life itself (as in “Miscarriage”). How did this through line of “exile” emerge in this section? 

CW: The trajectory of the whole collection emerged, little by little, from the epigraph. As I understand Dylan Thomas’s poem—specifically in the lines that serve as my book’s epigraph—“the first, spinning place” refers to the newly created Earth. He conjures a picture of a brief, shining simplicity, in which everyone—horses, too—is stunned with the newness and astonishment of being. But the idyll quickly devolves into complexity and disorder, which in The Spinning Place, I cast as the idea of exile. I do think that many of our tragedies and wounds can trace their origin to one kind of exile or another, loosely speaking, of course. In the book, this disconnection, or severing, happens first in birth, and repeats throughout our lives in many kinds of literal and figurative ways. 

AW: Despite, or alongside these concepts of exile, section II still contains a sense of connectivity, of sloughing binaries that continues and complicates the themes of section I. I’m thinking of “A Story,” where the woman in the poem lives with a man, “his silence / a language in which the woman is fluent,” pointing to the currents of communication that slip beneath words, such currents being, as you’ve already noted, at the heart of home life. These poems also turn slightly away from the mother-child relationship toward the complications of marriage. At one point the speaker in “Exile with Fox” muses, “that one great love is a thing / to be feared because it makes of all others / a kind of exile.” I’m not convinced the speaker believes that though—or at least she has her own thoughts on it. I’d love to hear more about the great loves that flourish in this collection. How do you keep tenderness at the center of your poems?

CW: I’m actually so happy to hear that you read tenderness and love in the poems, that you see a sense of connectivity. Jack Gilbert has been deeply influential to me in modeling poems that risk tenderness over and over. I think often of his lines, “We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world.” Often I’m trying to write about exile and disconnection, but not in a way that’s completely bleak. I suppose I do think of the second section as poems of exile, but full of people who are not willing to resign themselves to that exile. In “A Story,” as you point out, the woman is fluent in the man’s silence, which I hope suggests the difficulty of living with and understanding another, but also the tenderness implied in the fact that she learns to “speak” his silence. She’s fluent in it: that’s active—she’s not oppressed by it. “Apology” is also a poem of silence, two people on the cusp of speaking, but not. The speaker meditates on their quiet as both “the threatened wasp striking” and “your mother easing // your tender finger into a spoon of milk.” It’s both stinging and healing. 

AW: I’m curious about the two divination poems in the collection, as well as about the influence Christianity/spirituality in general has on your work. How did you come to the divination poems? How does your spirituality infuse your writing (assuming it does)?  

CW: The divination poems were part of a longer series—there were others, but ultimately I cut them because I felt they didn’t fit the collection as well, or just weren’t as good. So that left me with these two odd little poems that don’t fit with the otherwise Judeo-Christian framework of the book’s spirituality, but I decided to keep them—perhaps foolishly!—because they fit in other ways, and because I didn’t want the book’s spirituality to feel too neat. I wrote the book, of course, but I’m not the speaker of every poem! I felt the divination poems allowed another epistemology into the collection. Most Christians don’t believe anyone but God can know the future, but in reality, I think many of us wonder if—and perhaps even believe—our lives can be interpreted as a text that foretells its ending. It’s alluring, if not totally convincing.

It took me years to be able to explicitly engage my faith in my own work, and even so, it’s rarely that explicit (as in “Night Shift,” the speaker assuming an eventual resurrection of the body). I think what ultimately helped me most was studying the way other poets have done so: Christian Wiman, Mary Szybist, and Lisa Russ Spaar are all contemporary writers enshrined in my sacred canon. Tom Andrews, too. Franz Wright. Charles Wright. Poets who see doubt and questioning as a meaningful expression of faith in its own way. For a long time, I thought of Christianity as a series of answers, and I didn’t really know how to bring “answers” to a poem, because as we all know, that makes for bad, boring, or didactic poems. But increasingly I think of it as a way of asking questions in the world, and I’m more attuned to its mystery rather than the tendency of some believers to oversimplify. My favorite moment in the liturgy each Sunday comes after the priest has consecrated the host, quoting from passages about the Last Supper, all of it exact and clear and straightforward enough, but then he says: “Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith.” I love that—the mystery. To quote B.H. Fairchild again, he often said in our workshop, “It’s easy to sound mysterious about things that are actually clear. It’s much harder to be clear about mystery.” That’s what I’m after. 

AW: You’ve mentioned that you’re not, the “speaker of every poem,” and, not to further conflate the speaker and the author too much, but your students get a shout-out in “In Praise of the Names of Things:” “When I told my students monosyllabic words / force us to slow down, they did not / believe me.”  Many poets double as teachers, so I’m curious: how does teaching inform/complicate your writing practice? 

CW: I think teaching informs my process in the same way parenting and marriage and faith do: it’s a huge part of my day to day, taking up lots of brain space, so naturally it ends up in poems. But unlike some poets, most of what I teach is actually not creative writing, so the path between my teaching and writing is not quite so linear. But whether I’m teaching an interdisciplinary Great Books seminar or Narrative Medicine, or an actual creative writing course, I think of everything I teach as a kind of laboratory of language. Words are on the other end of the microscopic lens, so to speak, and since they’re my material for poems...naturally teaching sharpens my sensitivity to them. 

AW: All three sections, and the title of the book, are borrowed from Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” an excerpt of which is also the epigraph, as you’ve noted. And, while you’ve already discussed a bit how this poem served you in titling the collection, I’d love to hear more: was it with you from the start or was it something that came along and shed a light on your intentions for the collection? 

CW: I had a fledgling handful of poems, the seed of the book, though I had no idea what it was going to become. I was working on my dissertation, and I needed to be shaping and writing a full-length manuscript of poems for that, so I was bringing a more intentional shaping process to the collection than I did to my first. My first book fits into the category of many first books—it functions as a “greatest hits” of everything I’d written so far, and I cut things that didn’t seem to fit with the others, but most of the poems were not written consciously toward the idea of that book. (And please don’t get me wrong, I actually love that quirk about first books.) But The Spinning Place was a more focused process. Nonetheless, the way the epigraph/title/Thomas connection happened, was the way many good things happen, which is completely serendipitously. I happened to be rereading some of his work one day, enjoying the musicality of “Fern Hill,” and when I read that stanza, it just popped into my head to use “The Spinning Place” as a title. I liked that in the context of “Fern Hill”, it referred to a place of origin—I knew origin was going to be important to the collection—but that it also could read as a kenning, potentially describing more than one thing. The idea to write multiple title poems was there from the start—I actually had two more, so a total of five poems sharing that title—but after a while decided to cut it to three. 

AW: I recently read Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, and in it she writes:

It is a mesmerizing art, the spindle revolving below the strong thread that the fingers twist out of the mass of fiber held on an arm or a distaff. The gesture turns the cloudy mass of fiber into lines with which the world can be tied together. Likewise the spinning wheel turns, cyclical time revolving to draw out the linear time of a thread. The verb to spin first meant just this act of making, then evolved to mean anything turning rapidly, and then it came to mean telling a tale.

She then goes on to talk about the “spinning” done by various female figures in myth and story: Scheherazade spinning her tales to save her life; Penelope unweaving by night to prevent an unwanted marriage; the fates spinning, measuring, and cutting our lives. In all of these, “by spinning, weaving, and unraveling, these women master time itself, and though master is a masculine word, this mastery is feminine.” How does Solnit’s exploration of “spinning” align (if at all) with your own thinking of your collection, which is not only titled The Spinning Place, but features three poems by that title, as you noted, physically enacting a thread that, though cyclical, is also linear. 

CW: That’s such a beautiful passage from Solnit’s book. It aligns so well with my thinking of The Spinning Place. (In fact, one of the other title poems that didn’t make it into the final book was a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, in which the miller’s daughter must spin gold from straw.) These examples of spinning Solnit offers—spinning as narrative, as fate, as tapestry—all suggest that our lives can be represented as cohesive, a meaningful whole made up of many smaller parts. But the bottom line, to me, is that this “spinning,” whatever it looks like, resists chaos. Resists disorder. One of the ways we resist chaos and disorder is through repetition—by its very definition, repetition defies random chance. So this picture of the spinning of time, of narrative, as cyclical, seems essential—because it’s repetition. This reminds me of a passage in Robert Hass’s essay “One Body: Some Notes on Form,” which reads, “The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself….Though predictable is an ugly little word in daily life, in our first experience of it we are clued to the hope of a shapeliness in things.” 

And in these many iterations, the spinning places of my book and the examples Solnit offers, I see spinning as fundamentally creative. In The Spinning Place, the new life of the child is spun from the mother’s body, yes, but there’s also so much attention to language as a creative act throughout. The opening poem meditates on what we don’t have words for; much of the third section is full of speech acts, or their lack, or a hybrid version (thinking of “Via Negativa”). I think I’m just obsessed with the idea of language as a boundary that keeps us and defines us, but also blinds us to everything just beyond its edge.  

Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press). Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Gettysburg ReviewNashville ReviewSmartish PacePleiades, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.