“Say the True Things”: A Conversation with Risa Denenberg and Molly Spencer

Molly Spencer’s poetry has appeared in Blackbird, Copper Nickel, FIELD, Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner. She is a poetry editor at The Rumpus. Her debut collection, If the House, won the 2019 Brittingham Prize, selected by Carl Phillips. Her second collection, Hinge, was a winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. 


Risa Denenberg: Molly, what a pleasure it is to have this conversation with you and to congratulate you on the back-to-back publication of your two prize-winning poetry collections. But first, to reminisce. I love thinking about the day we first met, you in your red coat to signal how to find you, waiting for me so we could drive from the airport to the workshop together. Right away I hoped we would become poetry friends, stay in touch. Your quiet presence made being around a large new group of people much easier. We’ve exchanged hugs at AWP. I was so excited when you invited me to review a book for The Rumpus (Same Sexy Marriage by Julie Marie Wade). With that invitation, and your confidence in my writing, I’ve since written dozens of poetry reviews and poet interviews over the past two years. It’s both surprising and not surprising that even the most introverted poets can form bonds easily with each other.

Molly Spencer:  Oh, Risa, what a lucky life! —to know you from years ago and through poetry. And I’m so glad reviewing has become something you enjoy—when I was the poetry reviews editor at The Rumpus, I always appreciated your genuine grappling with the books you were reviewing.

RD: So, let’s talk about your two still-new, both prize-winning books. If the House (University of Wisconsin Press), which won the Brittingham Prize in Poetry, selected by Carl Philips, was published in October 2019. One year later, in October 2020, Hinge (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, was published. I understand that you wrote the poems in Hinge first and the poems in If the House after. Was there any overlap of time or space between the writing of the two collections?

MS: Only a very little bit. Hinge was mostly finished when I began writing the poems that became If the House, which was my MFA creative thesis. I was still working a bit on the structure of Hinge at that time—it came into its final form just as I began to work on If the House in earnest.

RD: Can you imagine a conversation between the two books? What would they say to each other? What would the poet who wrote If the House like to say to the poet who wrote Hinge?

MS: I’m not sure what the books would say to each other—I don’t think my books would be friends if they went to the same high school (laughs)—but the poet who wrote If the House would say to the poet who wrote Hinge: You can say the true things and you don’t have to make them beautiful.

RD: In If the House, there are several poems with titles that begin, “Conversation with …” which are a series of conversations between spouses that take place in the kitchen or in bed at moments where intimacy is broken. These poems are vulnerable and tender and were emotionally wrought to this reader, but I wonder if writing these lines was liberating for the writer? I’m thinking of lines such as, “She is in the kitchen bent over / In a blue lace thong when he comes / Through the door …”

MS: Well, at first they were terrifying! The conversation poems came tumbling out of me from I knew not where and were the first poems I’d written that engaged explicitly with the erotic. And, although not straight autobiography, they responded to a painful truth of my life. So these poems had me feeling very vulnerable and exposed, and in fact, I almost didn’t send them to my MFA faculty mentor—I did a low-residency MFA, so I had to send a packet of poems each month. But that mentor, David Biespiel (a really fabulous poet, critic, memoirist, and teacher) had been encouraging me to claim the territory of my own mind in my work, and I was trying to honor that. So I sent the first few of these poems off to him, then dreaded his response (laughs). I think I also must’ve said to him that I didn’t understand the poems at all, because I remember part of his response was to say: “You don’t need to understand them right now. Just keep writing them.” Only then did these poems start to feel liberating … and then, it was a thrill—to write these scary poems that broke the rules of language and discretion. 

RD: If “Conversation with Windows and Green” were to have a “Conversation with Glass and Joist,” what would they say to each other? 

MS: One of the things these poems do, other than to explore the vagaries of communication, is to capture moods and stages of understanding—stages of understanding of, for one thing, the fundamental brokenness of my marriage. “Conversation with Windows and Green” knows and understands so much more than “Conversation with Glass and Joist.” “Windows and Green” would say to “Glass and Joist,” “Girl, you’re in for a long haul.”

RD: Your writing is both distant and vulnerable, a rare combination. Your poems speak of life’s difficulties—parenting, marriage, divorce, moving—and of life’s quiet (almost silent) redeemers—nature is the most notable of these features. Can you say how your love of place—both domestic and natural—became overarching characters in your writing? 

MS: Oh, I love the idea of quiet redeemers. Yes, there are so many nearly silent redeemers in this life for me. My love of place may have been knit into me from the beginning—I think these things can be temperamental in nature. But also, it comes from the house I lived in as a girl and the hillside meadow next to that house which gave way to woods, and from the nearby rivers, and the beaches and dunes of Lake Michigan that I grew up wandering. If you know Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space you might remember his declaration: “The house protects the dreamer.” And that was certainly true for me. And I was raised in a time when it was normal for kids to roam the neighborhood and nearby landscapes all day, then come in for dinner. So the house and the landscapes I lived in and near really, I think, helped form my consciousness. And certainly they were, and still are, both (sometimes) threatening and very comforting to me. Now I’m thinking of Wordsworth’s Prelude: “Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up / Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear.” So, to make a long answer longer, it makes sense that both domestic spaces and my formative landscapes are present—and presences, I hope—in my poems.

RD:   I’ve heard you refer to Hinge as the book you “learned on.” Can you describe how your craft changed between the two books? What did you learn?

MS: I started working on Hinge about fourteen years ago. I’d never studied poetry formally; I was just a mom with three little ones trying to have a life and mind of her own by reading and writing poetry at the kitchen table each morning. I learned so much: how to really read a poem; what each element of craft could do; how to write things that went beyond pure testimony; how to revise; how to have the mind of a writer. I learned how to write all kinds of poems, and after a while, series and sequences of poems. Eventually I learned—by doing it badly over and over again for years—how to structure and order a manuscript. During this time, I also learned how to submit my poems for publication; how to be strategic in doing so. I discovered so many resources—books and websites and the like—that taught me new things about poetry. Eventually, I took a couple classes and found a writing group—and that was very helpful, but almost everything I knew as a poet before I started my MFA program in 2014, I learned from working on Hinge. And I should say: for the first several years of writing the poems that would become Hinge, I had no aspiration for them to become a book. That was not within the scope of what I could imagine for my life at the time. 

RD:  I read on your blog that you submitted Hinge under a different title, Relic and the Plum. Can you talk about when and how you knew that Hinge was the right title? Also, did the title for If the House go through similar iterations?

MS: Well, let me begin by saying I am terrible at titles! I cast about for the right title for years and didn’t settle on Hinge until after I’d placed the manuscript. And even then, it was my dear teacher-become-friend, Jennifer Richter, who came up with Hinge during a joint brainstorming session. It works on a few different levels—body as hinge; mother upon whom so much hinges; the threat of coming unhinged—but I’d never have gotten there on my own. The title for If the House came more easily, but still with assistance. When I turned it in as my MFA creative thesis, I titled it “If the House is Built on a Hillside,” which my MFA program director said was a terrible title (laughs). This time, credit goes to Oliver de la Paz, a faculty member at RWW (The Rainier Writing Workshop) where I got my MFA, who said, “Just call it If the House.” Done!

RD: When did you first begin to write about your chronic illness? What difference has the writing made in the various dimensions of your health—spiritual, emotional, physical?

MS: I think I began to write about chronic illness about a year after my youngest was born. By then, I’d been ill for several years, but I became much more debilitated during and after my pregnancy with her. When she was an infant, I was too sick to write—but as soon as my symptoms were treated well enough for my hands to hold a pen again, I was back at my kitchen table in the early mornings. At that point, I had finally accepted that this illness was not going away (as I had unrealistically hoped it would) and that it would—that it had—altered my life and my children’s lives. And at that point, I didn’t even have a diagnosis yet. That wouldn’t come for another five years. So at the beginning, I was writing through a lot of uncertainty and grief that my body kept me from being the kind of mom I wanted to be for my kids: I couldn’t build a snowman with them or take them to the museum; some days I couldn’t even snap their onesies or take them for a walk. But that writing was the beginning of what eventually became Hinge

RD: What sort of bias or obstacles have you encountered because of your chronic illness?

MS: Our cultural view of health is that it’s ours for the taking if we just eat right, if we just exercise enough, and that, if we’re not healthy, it’s because of something we’ve done or failed to do. My guess is that this is traceable to our Puritan roots—the wages of sin are death! But I haven’t done the research to say so for sure.

There’s a funny thing that happens when you’re ill: you lose friends. You even figure out who within your family is able to support you and respect your physical needs and limits, and who isn’t. I think it’s partly because our culture’s obsession with health and youth makes illness scary to people, so that even with non-contagious diseases people get spooked. And another thing: the American narrative of illness is that you have to fight it! And if you’re still sick, you need to fight harder! So many people have told me, “You can’t let it change your life!” Meanwhile, there was a time I couldn’t get myself dressed in the morning, so it, uh, definitely changed my life. 

And many doctors also dislike it when they can’t “fix” you. I had doctors that gave up on me, either declining to treat me any more or writing in veiled language in my chart that I was doing this to myself. Eventually, I found one that believed me and persisted until he could make a diagnosis: lupus. Only then was I able to get the treatment I needed to live a mostly normal life.

So, those are some of the biases the chronically ill and disabled encounter—and I should note that my encounters with bias are likely less frequent and disrespectful than those of people with visible disabilities. In terms of obstacles: For several years, I didn’t have the physical stamina to attend writing classes or conferences, or even to leave my neighborhood. And then there are the age cutoffs: I spent a decade from my late 20s to my late 30s consumed by mothering amid illness, so by the time I could pursue a writing life in earnest, I had aged out of a lot of things. It all turned out fine for me, but the biases and obstacles are real and, at times, discouraging. Anyway, I’m a much better poet now than I was back then.

RD: Your voice is so haunting and eloquent when you speak or write about becoming/being a poet living with chronic illness, while holding down the fort as single mom, professor, editor, and myriad other roles. In a list of “hopes” in one of your blogs, you state, “I was a middle-aged mom of three who was trying to write in small scraps of time (still am, tbh). I wanted to write good poems, but I never imagined that I could be a poet.” How has your imagination changed through the act of writing?

MS: Writing has been crucial to my emotional and spiritual health: it allowed me to have a life and mind of my own while mothering young ones and coping with the pain and fatigue of my illness. Even now, it’s the thing that makes my life feel like my life—even though I love my paid work of teaching writing at a school of public policy. I’m pretty sure I’d be better off physically, though, if I stopped writing and slept from five a.m. to six-thirty instead of getting up to write (laughs).

RD: What would the poet who has two published prize-winning books say to that emerging poet? I ask because this is such a universal experience of poets (do I dare call myself a poet?) and I hope your experience and perseverance is a beacon of light at the times we may feel discouraged.

MS: First I would say: You’re doing it right—just reading and writing, reading and writing. Keep at it. Then I would say: dream bigger. I would say: get free of the people who don’t support your health and your writing. I would say what, later in my life, I was lucky to hear from my teachers: “I imagine you years from now just churning out poems and essays on poetry,” and, “Just be Molly Spencer and think.” 

For me, the fact that my teachers could envision me as a writer helped me envision it for myself. I suppose it would’ve been ideal if I hadn’t needed that external validation, but I didn’t have any fellow writers in my life at the time, and at home I was valued only for what I did to take care of the kids and the house. I didn’t have anyone cheering me on, so it was hard for me to believe in myself. Also, the entire world of poetry was a mystery to me as someone with degrees in economics and public policy. I understood the existence of literary magazines, but I had no idea how to be a poet.

RD: Could I ask you to free-associate? There are words that repeat and rise from the page in your poetry that have such rich and complex meanings. Can you respond to some of these words with a word or a phrase that comes to mind? 

House: second skin

Home: center bone

Kitchen: keel

Interiority: room of my own

Snowfall: the silence, then the light

Vestibule: space between spaces

Windows: “something // is running across the field, can you see it coming, / through the yellow grass, can you see it coming / from the windowpane / are you closing the shutters, do you think it is rain?…” (This is from a poem by Dana Levin. It’s the first thing I thought of!)

Stone: what lasts, until it doesn’t

Constellation: only discernible from a (vast) distance

Self-Portrait: complicity

Flare: inevitable

Lupus: my dear albatross

Relic: girl I was

Hinge: mother


Risa Denenberg

Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Café Online. She has published seven collections of poetry, most recently the full-length collection, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition.

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