Claire Wahmanholm's poems have appeared in New Poetry from the Midwest 2017, PANK, Bennington Review, DIAGRAM, Best New Poets 2015, Handsome, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Journal, The Kenyon Review Online, BOAAT, 32 Poems, Waxwing, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Night Vision, won the 2017 New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM chapbook contest. Her debut full-length collection, Wilder, won the 2018 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in November 2018. Her second collection is forthcoming from Tinderbox Editions in early 2019. She lives and teaches in the Twin Cities. Claire sat down with Tell Tell Poetry to chat about her work.
Tell Tell Poetry: I’m just going to go ahead and get into the nitty gritty. What are the pieces of art, books, or movies that moved you or influenced you the most in your life?
Claire Wahmanholm: James Turrell’s Milk Run had a very profound effect on me when I first saw it in 2011. I was in my mid-20s and can’t remember ever being struck like that by a piece of art. It became an obsession. I thought about it constantly. We were living in Baltimore at the time and I would drag whoever I could down to D.C. just to see this piece. I must have seen it five or six times that year. For me, the sublime thing about Turrell’s work is that it happens to you in a weird way. It’s all about light and illusion and your brain and you can’t really control the way your eye responds to it. It’s unsettling.
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s installations are also totally astonishing and eerie. They do awesome, really emotionally affecting, stuff with sound. I saw Storm Room, The Killing Machine, and The Forty Part Motet (a solo piece by Cardiff) at the AGO in 2013. I have a pretty visceral reaction to choral music, so The Forty Part Motet was an intense experience. Kind of overwhelming.
The awkward thing about describing art is that it’s sort of ineffable, and words like “sublime” and “unsettling” and “intense” and “overwhelming” are non-descriptors, in a way. They’re simultaneously powerful and generic. Maybe it’s more accurate to say you’re dreaming that you’re doing one of those free-fall rides at an amusement park, and you’re freefalling and waiting for the machine to catch you and pull you back up, but then you look down and realize there is no ground.
Your prose poems are bizarre and beautiful and terrifying. What is it that terrifies? What is it that terrifies you?
I’m not crazy about the fact that at some point, I’m going to be dead forever. I’m given to understand that there are people who aren’t bothered by this. I’d like to have that kind of equanimity, but I think I’m too much of an animal. And my abject terror of death splits off into a bunch of smaller, more cumbersome, terrors: numbers, outer space, history museums, crossing the street at night, etc. It’s an inconvenient thing to be afraid of, because it’s pretty much the only sure thing. Like, great.
Loving things really hard also produces its own special kind of terror. If life is about playing it cool and minimizing the kill zone, love is the thing that comes around and is like, here, hold this unfathomably sublime object, it’s so beautiful it’s like looking directly into the sun, also it’s a bomb and literally anything could set it off, ok good luck byyyyyyyye. And we’re like, sure, this seems like a reasonable exchange, and furthermore, we’re going to go out and collect more of these objects that could explode at any time. Anyway, since having a child, my existence has been boundlessly euphoric and boundlessly terrifying.
Where does it hurt?
I’m often thinking of Warsan Shire’s poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”: “later that night/ i held an atlas in my lap/ ran my fingers across the whole world/ and whispered/ where does it hurt?// it answered/ everywhere/ everywhere/ everywhere.” I feel like that a lot. There’s probably medication for this.
What’s the most confusing image you’ve ever written?
That’s a tricky one! It’s hard for me to tell what is or isn’t confusing, since I know exactly what I was thinking when I wrote the poems, and I’m able to mentally fill in any gaps. I guess I can see how something like the final stanza of “Termination Shock” might be confusing:
“Cooling. Everything we touch./ Our beds are snow, our legs are river water./ A wind is blowing from somewhere across the meadow,/ carrying a new sound, a slowing, a deepening pitch./ Our blood beats with it until there is no blood left./ The shock entered me like it was coming home.”
Finish this sentence. The biggest problem with poetry today is lack of ____________.
I’d like to reframe this question so that it addresses “something I’d like to see changed about poetry today,” which is readership. I don’t think I am remiss in saying that most poetry books are read by poets, which maybe doesn’t seem that unusual until you imagine a world in which most novels are only read by novelists. I get that humans are inherently attracted to narrative in a way that makes it more rewarding to immerse ourselves in a novel than in a book of poems (or even short stories). We like arc, we like a sense of continuity, we like reading about people and relationships, we like plot. And those are all fine things. I’m not suggesting that everyone drop their novels and only read poems. Poetry is, after all, often more demanding: it makes leaps in a way that fiction often doesn’t, it can be harder to untangle, it doesn’t always offer a sustained, cohesive journey. But I want us to be more ok with those things. I want us to find those things rewarding as well. While narrative is one of our oldest impulses, poetry is even older. Spells and charms and religious incantations were all forms of poetry. It speaks to something very primitive in us that is worth paying attention to. And my sense is that poetry readership has been increasing lately—the NEA survey results that we saw in early June certainly show this. And I think it’s true that in times of political strife, people turn to poetry with increasing urgency.
What do you wish there were more of? In poetry or in general.
I wish I could be more hopeful. Or rather, I wish there were reason to be more hopeful. This is not to say that I’m interested in seeing more hopeful poetry—I’m not. To me at least, that’s not necessarily what poetry (or art more generally) is for.
On a less grim note, I love sonically lush poems, and I feel like I don’t encounter them enough. I can (and do) open any number of contemporary poetry books and get beautiful/disturbing/emotionally affecting imagery, but I can’t reliably open a book and get an onslaught of rhyme or assonance or consonance or alliteration. So any day when I can get some Hopkins-level sonics is a good day.
Do your poems lack autobiography or are you in there?
I think all poems necessarily speak about their poets to some extent—you can’t get away from it completely. My poems rarely describe literal experiences I’ve had (thank god), but they do describe feelings I’ve had. So the situations of the poems are generally invented, but the emotion is (I hope) “accurate.”
If you had to describe yourself using a line from your own poem, which line would you use?
I’m cheating and using a small chunk of lines from my poem “Aftersky”: “We wrap our windows in tarp so we are not tempted/ to smash the glass and let the aftersky suck us outward/ like marrow from the bones of our houses.” I’ve noticed that I have a suspicious number of images where a speaker is deliberately avoiding eye contact with self-destruction. It’s clearly a “l’appel du vide” thing (which I’ve always experienced, but which I didn’t know there was a term for until a couple of years ago. Bonus!).
What are you working on now?
This summer I’ll be working on my third collection, which (I think) will be centered around a set of erasures of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” The original poem is itself about visibility and erasure—while Icarus is literally visible, he is functionally erased in that his death provokes absolutely no response from anyone in the painting, even though it must have been “amazing” to witness. I’ve found myself thinking about that poem a lot in the last several years. With the rise of social media, it seems that suffering is so much more visible than it used to be. But how much does that enhanced visibility accomplish? We get reports that awful things are happening, we tell others that awful things are happening, the whole world knows that awful things are happening, and none of this prevents those awful things from happening. And then there are the questions of who gets to be visible? Who gets our sympathy? And who doesn’t?
So the erasures will be the core of the MS, and we’ll see how the rest of the poems happen. I’ve been thinking about children a lot lately, and children appear in a couple different contexts in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” so they’ll probably be one of the vanishing points as well.