To What Extent Are We Damned?— an Interview with Claire Wahmanholm
Selected by Rick Barot as the winner of the 2018 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, Claire Wahmanholm’s Wilder is a stunning debut from Milkweed Editions. “These poems spring not only from the end,” Maggie Smith says, “but from the imagined after, excavating from the ruins of this world…” At the heart of the collection lies a profound chorus of ambivalence: a loose line through calls for warning, and calls for mourning. We’re honored to have the chance to ask Claire some questions about her writing.
Lost children are introduced in the opening poem, and become a centered gravity around which many of the rest swing—how did these children come to you? Can you explain the process by which you came to devote a book to them?
Claire Wahmanholm: The earliest poem with the children in it is “The Carrion Flower,” which I wrote 2015, but which appears quite late in the book. Children didn’t appear again in any poem until “Descent,” which I wrote almost a year later. And then the children started making their way into the poems with increasing frequency. It was much as you describe here—their pull became exponentially strong, a kind of black hole around which the collection rotates and into which it is devoured. In “The Carrion Flower,” children don’t physically appear—they’re only drawn attention to by their absence. In later poems, they become a more and more solid presence.
The Auden epigraph in “Descent” had been kicking around in my head for a long time, but I could never write the right poem to follow it. The thing that particularly intrigues/troubles me (still) about those lines from “September 1, 1939” is the characterization of the children as having “never been happy or good”—what kind of child, really, has never been happy or good? That is, what kind of damage would you have to do to a child to make that the case? So that’s what I kept coming back to—that might be the question that drives the entire book. Because of course it’s not (just) about literal children (though literal children do appear); the adult inhabitants of the world are also frequently figured as children. You can tell how tell a society/culture/civilization/world is doing based on how well its children are doing—in a grim way, they’re the canaries in the coal mine, the bellwethers. They’re physical representations of the future, of the things that should (ideally) outlast us. But what if they don’t? That is, how much damage do we have to do to ourselves before we not only destroy the present but also the future?
In other words, to what extent are we damned?
Wilder employs the technique of erasure, specifically of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, to join a chorus of voices together—what did it mean to you to use Sagan’s words in that way? Were there other authors you thought of including?
Claire Wahmanholm: This is a really good question, especially since so many (though certainly not all) erasure projects assume a hostile/challenging relationship between the source text and the poet/eraser. In the last couple of years, folks have erased Breitbart articles (Alison Thumel), sexual misconduct non-apologies (Isobel O’Hare), government documents (Jenny Holzer), etc. as a way to critique the cultural/political context that enabled the production of those documents. But I love Cosmos, and I’m so charmed by Sagan’s voice, which is uplifting, poignant, optimistic (for the most part). The way I think about these erasures is that I’ve erased the sweetest, most humanizing parts of the text and left what, to me, seem most realistic. You could think of the original text as a human face and the erasure as skull fragments. If Sagan has given us something lovely, this (the resulting erasure) is what we’ve done with it. We’ve spoiled it. We don’t deserve such exhilaration, such hope. Though obviously I shouldn’t be making sweeping gestures at all of humanity. I, at least, don’t feel like I deserve it. Erasure, in this case, becomes an act of self-denial, a certain kind of punishment.
Other voices do appear in Wilder, though not in the same way—Auden obviously appears in an epigraph, as does Lewis Thomas from The Lives of a Cell (whose voice is actually very similar to Sagan’s, in some ways). Some phrases from Cosmos appear in “The Meadow, the Lake,” and “Aftersky” features descriptions of the colors blue/black pulled from Alice Fulton, Amy Clampitt, Henry King, John Baillie, Whitman, and Borges. But I didn’t include those voices with the same intent/focus as I included Sagan.
The book is both warning and elegy for our planet and our people: how much of each? What do you think is poetry’s role in confronting real-world catastrophe?
Claire Wahmanholm: I appreciate the labeling of the book as simultaneous warning and elegy, because really, warnings and elegies are supposed to do two different things: one gestures to the future, toward something that is in danger of being lost, and one to the past, where the thing has already been lost. But I think that’s exactly what the book is doing. It probably captures my own ambivalence. Even though I would characterize myself as feeling pretty despairing about things overall, I must still harbor a subconscious hope that we can recover from this—that a warning could be useful. That is to say, the poems are saying something I don’t think I really believe, but I must. And maybe that’s poetry’s role, at least for me. What is revealed is something far more hopeful than I feel I can own. And that’s sort of incredible.
You’ve chosen to close the book on a series of prose poems, powerful and exotic and dreamlike. How did all the choices about the structure of the book come together? Did you have an end in mind when you began writing?
Claire Wahmanholm: Oh my god, the ordering of this book was a true nightmare. I tried what felt like a million combinations. In the earliest versions, the book was in three distinct sections: the prose poems, the erasures, and, for lack of a better label, everything else. In every version of the book, “Descent” has come first. I knew when I wrote it that it would be the opening poem, even though I didn’t yet have a clear idea of what, exactly, the book would be doing.
I had started the book with the prose sequence because there was something satisfying about starting the collection with a poem called “Beginning,” but I think that “neatness” ended up being dangerous because it made the order hard to walk away from when it wasn’t really serving the book as a whole. I ultimately decided that I wanted the book to arrive in the world of the prose poems rather than start there. That is, I wanted the catastrophe that triggers the prose sequence to happen on stage rather than off, before the book begins. These catastrophes are mentioned explicitly in the book, but to me, they’re also represented textually by the erasures. Sagan writes that the cosmos (“order, ornament”) “is, in a way, the opposite of Chaos.” “Chaos” comes from the same stem as “to yawn, to gape”—which I rather dramatically decided to extrapolate into explosions. So in my eyes, not only are the first two sections about chaos, but they’re shot through with these typographical representations of chaos as well. And once we’re in the world of the prose poems, I didn’t want us to find our way back out. (At the end of “Night Vision,” the speakers do build “a stairway out,” but they’re also already dead by then.) The final poem of the book, “The Lodestars,” ends with “once upon a time.” I enjoy the way that poem calls back to “Descent,” which isn’t explicitly a fairy tale but which certainly feels like one. Having “once upon a time” be the last sentence of the entire book gives me a weird vertiginous feeling—it should be an ending, but it’s actually another beginning.
Claire Wahmanholm is the author of Wilder, selected by Rick Barot as winner of the Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, and Night Vision, winner of the 2017 New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM chapbook competition. She lives and teaches in the Twin Cities.