Claire Wahmanholm is the author of Night Vision (winner of the 2017 New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM chapbook contest) and Wilder (winner of the 2018 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry). Her second collection, Redmouth, is forthcoming from Tinderbox Editions in 2019. Her poems have most recently appeared in, or are forthcoming from, 32 Poems, West Branch, The Southeast Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Paris-American, anthropoid, Bomb Cyclone, Fairy Tale Review, New Poetry from the Midwest 2017, PANK, Bennington Review, Newfound, and DIAGRAM. She lives and teaches in the Twin Cities. Find her online at clairewahmanholm.com.
Note: Claire is donating all royalties she receives from Wilder to RAICES Texas, the largest immigration legal services non-profit in Texas that focuses on under-served immigrant children, families, and refugees.
Ellie Black: First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Claire! Let’s start by talking about the title. Before I opened the book, I was pronouncing Wilder in my head as in “more wild.” You subvert that instinct immediately in the epigraph, indicating that you’re actually using the verb wilder here instead of the adjective—different meaning, different pronunciation. Obviously, a sense of wildness—violence, turbulence—in nature is integral to these poems, but so is a sense of lostness, wandering. What do you hope that ambiguity brings to a reader’s experience?
Claire Wahmanholm: Thanks for spending time with Wilder! I’m very much looking forward to this.
I’m trying to think about how “wilder” became the title. As you say, the book inhabits two pretty different frequencies, so it was a challenge to find a title that could resonate at both. I think what happened was that I was doing research for another poem (which ultimately didn’t make it into the MS) that had a lot of rabies imagery in it. I remember looking up “wild” in the OED and happening to see “wilder” along the right-hand side of the page and being like, Helllooooo, who might you be? So that was total serendipity, to find a single word that had the connotations I wanted from “wild” as well as this additional layer of lostness + disorientation.
And I found the combination of violence (which seems energetic and (often) directional) and wandering (which seems the opposite) really compelling. Like, what does it mean to be “ferally lost”? to “savagely stray from the path”? It’s a weird fusion, sort of this more aggressive expulsion from Eden (I’m not religious, but I’m very interested in gracelessness and damnation of all sorts). But that landscape also felt very familiar to me, possibly because living in this country lately has felt like being trapped in a room with a snarling, confused animal and you’re not sure when it’s going to lunge. And the fact that it’s confused only makes it more dangerous.
So I liked the territory that the title opened up. The drawback, of course, is this weird moment where I have to say the title aloud for the first time and I’m never sure if people are like, “Oh, wilder, that’s neat!” or “Oh, wilder, that’s pretentious.” I feel like an asshole every time, somehow. But anyway, the fact that the reader’s experience of the book might begin in a place of disorientation isn’t at odds with what the book is trying to do, so I’m fine with it!
EB: I honestly love the title! I’m so excited by works, especially books of poetry, that use double meanings to disorient me right out of the gate. That’s part of the charm of poetry for me: it’s usually at odds with itself.
Speaking of disorientation, it makes sense that you would turn to describing the state of the country as something that gets more dangerous the more confused it becomes. I get the sense that a lot of the tension in Wilder stems from uncertainty about the future, especially the lives of the people who will inhabit the future. In your poem “Advent,” there’s this line I adore: “How did we dare have children we couldn’t save?” I know you have a newborn at home (congrats!)—were these kinds of anxieties present in your writing before you had (or planned to have) a child, or did they pop up once you realized, Oh, I’m going to be responsible for a real little human who has to grow up and live in this world? Have you found that your preoccupations in writing have changed or perhaps intensified in parenthood?
CW: About 1/3 of the poems in Wilder (including most of the prose poems) were written before I was seriously considering having children, so clearly some anxieties were already running through my blood. A lot of the book was written in 2015-2016, so mainly those were related to police brutality and white terrorism. Being pregnant raised the tenor of those anxieties, certainly, but the 2016 election, while it took place one month before my first daughter was born, raised it again tenfold. Some of the poems in the book were written explicitly with the political situation in mind (“Advent,” “The Witch”), while others are steeped in wretchedness in a more general way. The despair felt suffocating (it often still does). No one thinks they’re bringing their children into a perfect world, but some worlds are objectively worse than others. And the fact that my kids will likely move through this world as girls and then women doesn’t help.
But I experience a lot of cognitive dissonance surrounding the decision to have not just one, but two children. That is, if you asked me whether I think we’re fucked, I would say yes. But if I truly believed that the end of human civilization was imminent, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have made that choice. So I must have some faith in human ingenuity—that the best of us will be able to undo some of this damage, even as the worst of us are doing their best to get us all killed. There’s a recurring line in Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief”—“it’s a parent’s duty to hope”—that I’ve been thinking about more and more. Maybe becoming a parent has given me permission to be hopeful in a way I couldn’t otherwise have been? Or maybe I’m using that line to retroactively justify the fact of bringing children into a world that might, in reality, be hopeless. WHEEEEEE!
But I’ve noticed other changes in my work as well. Writing from an “I” that was explicitly mine has not historically felt terribly rewarding or urgent (Wilder, for example, is pretty aggressively non-autobiographical). But the stuff I’m writing for my third collection is much more clearly personal in a way that feels pretty scary to me, and I think it’s related to having children. That is, part of the reason why being a parent is so terrifying is that it’s made me more attached to the world: it’s made me put runners out into it at a time when it would feel much safer to do the opposite. The less I’m invested in the world, the less it can hurt me, the logic goes. But like, fuck it dude, I’ve made a choice. If I’m going to strip away all protections in real life, I’m going to strip them away in my writing as well. One is infinitely scarier than the other.
EB: I’m really interested in your perspective on the “I.” Obviously, as you say, Wilder is “aggressively non-autobiographical.” Some of the most haunting poems in the book are the erasures of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which almost exclusively reference a “we”—this collective speaker musing on loneliness and futility. Could you talk more about the “we,” and how it interacts with the non-autobiographical “I” within the book?
CW: In certain contexts, it’s definitely useful/important to speak from a specific “I,” but it didn’t feel right as the central voice for this particular project. There are only a handful of poems in the book that use the singular first person, and when it does appear it’s almost always in a state of disintegration. I’m not terribly invested in being gentle with it. I’m wary of our fetishization of individuality, and in this book, I feel like a confident, cohesive “I” would have appeared tyrannical. I was interested in breaking “I”s down into more communal “we”s wherever possible, in using the “we” to imagine something more democratic and reparative—a superorganism like coral or termites. I think that’s my ideal “we,” though it’s certainly not reflective of our current reality.
EB: The erasures are also laid out so sparsely on the field of the page; it really feels like floating through space. How did you come to use Cosmos for these erasures, and why did you decide to keep all that empty space on the page instead of, say, condensing into tighter lines?
CW: I’m embarrassed to say that although I grew up with Cosmos sitting on my bookshelf, I had never actually read it until a couple years ago. When I did, I was immediately struck by how poetic Sagan’s language is, how emotional and sweet. I had just read a whole bunch of Einstein’s and Oppenheimer’s essays, which are super dry, so Sagan’s voice was especially compelling in comparison. It was poignant to be reading Cosmos in 2016, because Sagan so relentlessly takes the long view. He offers all sorts of warnings about war and environmental destruction, etc., but he’s still so hopeful about the capital F future in a way that I just found myself unable to relate to, and the death of that hope inside of myself really bummed me out. So I see the erasures as a sort of conversation with Sagan, where I have erased the lovely, hopeful parts and left on the page the parts that seem to me most realistic for our time. That is, if Sagan has given us a model of what humans might achieve, we’ve fucked it up so badly that the erasure is all we’re left with.
Formally, I really enjoy erasures that testify to their own presence—that is, erasures that are obviously erasures. I like the gestural quality of them, the way white space becomes a rhythmic element. But for these erasures in particular, I also wanted to maintain a balance between Sagan’s presence and mine (or lack thereof). I feel very warmly toward Sagan and toward Cosmos overall, and so wanted the erasures to feel more like a collaboration rather than a critique or appropriation (there are many erasure projects where the relationship between source and erasure is a hostile one, and for good reason). I wanted it to be obvious how much of the original page had been carved away in order for this new voice (which is very different from the original) to emerge. Had I compressed the words/phrases into my own new lines, the product would have felt unbalanced in my own direction, I think.
EB: How about the images of the moon present occasionally throughout the collection (exclusively after erasures, I think)? How would you say they’re interacting with the text?
CW: The section breaks were originally very generic ~ marks, but I really fell in love with the cover image that Mary found, and wanted to use it again if I could. I don’t think it’s terribly common to use images as sections breaks like this—I 100% stole the idea from my friend Sara Eliza Johnson’s amazing book Bone Map, which does a similar thing. The moon appears in several places in Wilder, and always in sort of a threatening way (in “How I Dreamed There,” the speaker’s hallucinations are referred to as “rising and setting like moons”; the “bald face of the blank moon” appears in “B”; in “W” “the war-moon waxes and wanes, watchful as a warden or a weapon”; “beneath a red moon every surface// sprouts a chalk outline” in “State of Emergency”; and in “Night Vision,” “when one of us stood against the moon, the others watched her blood rush through her like a river”). I didn’t want the section breaks to feel like places where you could relax—I wanted the moons to function as a visual reminder of the threat level, which is steadily rising.
EB: One more question to wrap things up: Would you mind sharing a little more about your upcoming collection, Redmouth (Tinderbox Editions, 2019)? Do you find that having (very deservedly) received a prestigious prize for your debut collection—Milkweed’s Lundquist and Vennum Prize for Poetry—has put any pressure on you regarding its follow-up?
CW: I think the pressure is always on for the second book, even if the first hadn’t been terribly high-profile/visible. A lot of it is internal pressure—like, do I have the stamina to do another book? Do I have more to say? Is this book different enough from the first book that folks won’t think I’m a one-trick pony? On the other hand, is it similar enough that I won’t lose the audience I built with the first book? It’s fraught, certainly.
My situation is a little unusual, I think, in that Redmouth had originally gotten picked up by Tinderbox in the summer of 2017, but because Tinderbox is a small press and Milkweed is a big one, and because Wilder was a contest winner and hence was put on an accelerated timeline, Wilder will have been out in the world for about a year before Redmouth drops. So I didn’t have to grapple with the question of whether I had a second book in me (or rather, that struggle had already happened by the time Wilder came out). But the issue of audience is something I’m thinking about a lot. Some of the poems in Redmouth date from as early as 2013, so they were written in a very different world from the poems in Wilder. Grief is still the primary emotional tenor, though not in such a political way. The families of imagery are very similar—there’s a lot of space stuff, a lot of disintegration, a lot of landscapes—though I think Redmouth is a little more lush. There’s an erasure sequence and some other formally interesting stuff that Wilder doesn’t have. So I do think the books might play to slightly different crowds, which—I hope!—will be okay.