How It’s Made: Chelsea Dingman’s Through a Small Ghost
We’re so happy to have had the chance to look under the hood of Chelsea Dingman’s Through a Small Ghost, their second collection, published by University of Georgia Press. With our How It’s Made series, we endeavor to take away some of that ever-present mystery of how a collection comes to being—in this interview, we learn of how Dingman’s anaphora of memory, their management of the balance between intimacy and privacy, and their favorite music albums that helped shape the book’s journey.
What was your new book’s relationship to rejection? How long did it take to find a home for Through a Small Ghost?
Chelsea Dingman: It took about a year and a half to find a home. It was a finalist or semifinalist in several other contests prior to being picked up by The University of Georgia Press. In the first fall season of sending it out, it had a different title. The first title didn’t grab me as I wanted it to. My mentor had told me a story about how his second collection had been rejected a lot until he changed the title. I didn’t want to change the poems. I felt strongly about the structure of the book. I changed the title for the next spring and fall of sending out and that’s when it starting getting traction. At the same time, I was still sending out the poems. Most of them have been published to-date. That also made me feel like they were strong enough to be included, however it made my job harder when trying to weed out poems that I felt attached to initially. Though it was rejected many times, I believed in it enough that I just sent it back out after each rejection. I truly felt like it would find the reader it needed to find.
When did poetry become a professional endeavor for you? How did that begin?
That began in grad school at the University of South Florida. I had taken a year of grad-level classes in 2006, but I became pregnant with my first child and moved overseas at the end of that year, so I didn’t professionalize any further than contemplating what a “poet” was and how one lives as a poet amid our everyday lives. I started grad school again in 2014 and that’s where I learned to professionalize as both a poet and teacher. Both of those vocations seemed very reliant on each other at that time, though. One reason for that is because we were being paid to teach and write and we are often conditioned to think that a profession is an action that is monetized. But, as a mother, I also know that a lack of financial compensation does not mean one is not a professional at many things. After graduating, I continued to set aside real time for writing. I demand that of myself because we both deserve it.
What was the most surprising thing about getting Through a Small Ghost, your upcoming collection, published?
Honestly, it was something that happened in my personal life. My book is about miscarriage and fertility struggles, particularly surrounding the loss of a daughter. The week that UGA announced that I’d won the prize, I found out that I was pregnant with a baby girl. I sat in my car in astonishment. I wanted to risk sentiment in these poems because that is what they demanded, but I had no idea that I was writing past mourning (an idea, a daughter I’d never have, failures of body and biology) into a future that I hadn’t imagined while I was inside the experience of those poems. For a few minutes in my car, poetry seemed like some kind of magic conjured by my own hand. Perhaps, the truth is simply that I was distracted for a long time and that led me to relax about the future. But I prefer to think that my poems always know more than I do, which they do.
How has your writing process shifted or solidified, if in any discernible way, with this most recent collection?
The last two collections I wrote were largely centered around an idea. They both felt more like project books after awhile. My first collection, THAW, was not written this way. It has its obsessions, but it was written haphazardly, without any intention as to turning those poems into a collection. I had to find the threads after I held all of the poems next to each other. It was one of my dear friends, the poet John Nieves, who pointed out that disappearance was the structure that each section needed: proof of, proof in. Anyway, I want to more organically write poems in the wake of Through a Small Ghost, though I still enjoy research. The new poems I’ve been writing stem from reading I’ve been doing about chaos theory. The theory itself gives me room to do exactly what I want—to write anything. The world feels chaotic right now, and has for awhile. The experiences I’m writing allow me to go wherever I want with the poems. With craft. With form. It’s freeing at the same time as it’s scary as hell.
What do you do to re-energize your creativity?
I read. Anything and everything. I can’t write if I’m not reading. I would prefer to be able to discuss the work as much as I did when I had a larger writing group around me. That helps too. But reading is my ultimate resource. The other thing I do is work out: my brain functions so much better and faster and with more clarity when I work out. I am typing this from a cross trainer right now. I’m multi-tasking, which I have to do because I’m so busy, but I also think differently when I’m pushing my body, when my heart rate is up, when the endorphin rush is highest. I think differently when I type than when I write by hand. I write all poems by hand first. I write a lot of poems while I’m working out, even if I have to drop what I’m doing to research something. I block out my daily life with headphones and try to enter books or poems with absolute concentration. I have a new baby, so that is hard right now, but I’m trying.
What is the part of being a poet that would most surprise your family and friends?
That I am not writing puzzles or some archaic language that only scholars can translate. I know they don’t really understand what I do. They don’t care about poetry in the way that other poets do. But they care about me, so my husband and kids make it possible for me to write. My kids are usually surprised that anyone wants to hear me read things to a group. They used to visit my classes at USF and sit in on workshop with my students. My boys were surprised that they understood the discussions and could partake in writing prompts to a degree, even at 8 and 10. I saw myself differently through their eyes, which is a cliché, but it’s true. I think the rest of the people in my life don’t think about it much. Perhaps, the most surprising part is that I do have this whole other life that no one quite understands.
Since this is ‘In the Mirror,’ what advice would you give your younger self about her writing journey?
Words matter. Use them with intention. Use them generously. Use them with kindness. Use them as reckoning. Use them as weight and counterbalance. Use them sporadically. Use them obsessively. Use them as weather. Use them to right yourself in times of chaos. Use them as signal fire. Use them as elegy. But use them.
What has been your brightest moment as a poet?
When my first book was sent to my house and my kids held it. I still have that photo. They were excited and I realized that the time I had taken away from them to go to grad school and to write and to read and to do something for myself wasn’t something that I had sacrificed, but something that I had given myself, that they had gifted to me. I felt such urgency in grad school every moment that I spent away from them to make the minutes count, to learn all that I could, to write and write and write. To make my absence worthwhile. When I held that book, I realized that it really was possible to have balance in my life. To take risks. I was no longer afraid that I was doing something for myself at their expense. Or that I wasn’t smart enough or strong enough after transitioning to that new stage of my life. My kids came to see me get my degree a year later and they were still proud and it was important to me because I want them to pursue everything that makes them happy and fulfilled, regardless of what anyone says.
Chelsea Dingman’s first book, Thaw, was chosen by Allison Joseph to win the National Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press, 2017). Her second poetry collection, Through a Small Ghost, won The Georgia Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press (February, 2020). She is also the author of the chapbook, What Bodies Have I Moved (Madhouse Press, 2018). Her work is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review and The American Poetry Review, among others. Visit her website: www.chelseadingman.com.