By Kwame Opoku-Duku, Guest Interviewer.
It is said of some writers that their work cuts to the bone, that it strips you, leaves you bare and vulnerable, that it marks you. Chelsea Dingman’s work starts at the bone, and by the end of her first collection of poems, Thaw, piles of them have accumulated over the pages. Dingman’s work exists in the places that scare us the most: loss, grief, alienation, the suffering of the body. She writes with images that swirl in the mind for days and lines that imprint themselves upon you immediately. She is a poet whose work has become essential, and I jumped at the chance to have a conversation with her.
Kwame Opoku-Duku: Chelsea, I was reading one of your poems to my lover, and as I was reading it, my hands started shaking. That’s an amazing thing to be able to do to someone, and the word I kept coming back to when describing your work was “fearless.” You take risks that so many writers don’t, and the result is something that is beautiful—even while unsettling the reader, even while filling the reader with a sense of ache. Could you talk a little about what it was like to create a work like this? Was there a point when you had written a few of these poems and realized you have something special on your hands?
Chelsea Dingman: In terms of risk and trying to be fearless and trying to be in service of those poems, I was told my first year of grad school that basically women have a harder time getting published if they write anything that is “women-centric,” you know, that has something to do with women’s issues, so there was a point when I had started writing some of the poems that are in my book before grad school, and I had just decided that I was going to write in service of the poem, no matter if anyone was ever going to read it. Like, you have to be fearless enough to go where the poem needs to go, without worrying about audience, or purpose, or anything else. So, in terms of fearlessness, I’m always striving to where the poem needs to go.
Yes! So, have you always written like this, or is this a style that you’ve worked toward, in terms of the risks you take? Because for me, this is always something I’m trying to cultivate, and it’s scary, because risk is so difficult for people. We use things like irony, or the fantastic to avoid staring at that thing that scares us, as artists and as humans. Especially , considering that people told you—I guess, I don’t really understand what “women-centric” means, but—
CD: Well, you know, anything related to the female body, and things like that, because I was writing about—and the speaker is a woman in the poems—things like child birth and things that are specific to women. And one of my mentors said, “This will be really difficult,” and had me read essays by Rachel Zucker and other people who were talking about this. I think part of that, part of what you’re talking about is risking that—and I hate to use this word—but “sentimentality,” in a way. Risking going to the places where it’s scary to go is risking a level of sentimentality that isn’t always what people want in a poem. I feel like that was the line I had to learn to draw. Like, when you’re younger, and it seems like every undergrad’s poems are super angsty, or whatever. I feel like that’s where I learned the difference between craft and angst and tried to fit it all in a poem. I’ve always kind of written like that, but it was finding the craft elements that were going to be the best vehicle for them.
I think it was Allison Joseph who said that your poems “almost make you want to look away,” and I thought that would be such a great compliment, because it’s work that really leaves a mark on you. In that poem “Testimony of Hinges” you write, “I broke my wrists to give you my hands, // sawed clean through the bone. I dreamt / new hands, pink-tipped fingers / to drag over the knobs of your spine.”
That’s such a beautiful line, and I think that this is more a statement than a question, but one of the things I loved about your work is the way you focus on the body and the way you formed concepts of masculinity and femininity through your imagery. One example is the way men are imagined as trees being felled. I was curious if that’s something you find intuitive, or if it’s something that took time to craft?
CD: I think a lot of what I did in this book was intuitive. I wrote some of the poems in Thaw before grad school, and then the rest in my first year, so it really felt like I was just learning myself while I was writing this book, so a lot of the gestures, and even the images, were intuitive—much more so than the stuff I’m doing now. I think, in terms of the feminine and the masculine, the people who surround the speaker—I needed some other way to describe them other than as human, and I needed some other way to look at the body, kind of to take that one step away, rather than to have them show up as human in my poems. So it kind of gave me a little bit of distance, but I also love, love writing imagery. Images are my thing. I just love them!
The images are beautiful! I’m also curious as to how you approach form. Is that something that’s also intuitive with you? There are so many meaningful line breaks, there are so many points where there’s a little space given, or a little air added into the poem, and it did a lot for me. I was curious how you approach that. Is that something you consider as you write, or is it something you find more in editing?
CD: I think lineation is actually my very favorite thing about poetry, and that is always purposeful. That’s always something I’m working on. I can play with two lines for hours and hours. So all the line breaks, and where I use white space, were very purposeful, in terms of what I thought was in service of the poem, and what I wanted each line to deliver, and how, and the pacing. In terms of form—there’s no formal poetry—but I do that upon revision. I look at the content of the poem, and I try and figure out what box it wants to be in. I think, How am I going to deliver this content? How best can I deliver this content? Even before I decide on stanzas and everything else. But all that is purposeful and upon revision. I tend to just write and write and write in notebooks, and then I decide all that when I’m revising.
So what’s your writing process like? A lot of people say they write every day. Some people just try to write a few times a week. I know you’re super busy, so how does it usually go for you?
CD: In grad school, I did try to write every day. I felt like I had more time. I’m teaching four plus sections right now, so it’s really busy, and I have two kids, and so—I’m really busy. And so I’m trying to write on my off days, when I’m not on campus. But I’m happy if I just write a few poems a week right now because it’s such a busy time. And also, I’m trying to slow myself down. I would like to put in a little more time into different craft things that I haven’t done before: working on form, or other things I haven’t done, instead of just writing just to write.
There are some people who would just love to write! Like, I am amazed at the ways people like you, especially other poets, can manage entire careers, home lives, be on Twitter posting amazing poems for people to read, doing readings, all while the rest of us are struggling just to write a poem every once in a while.
CD: I think for me, there was a long time when I first had my kids when I stopped writing entirely, and I just didn’t have the energy, and it wasn’t until my youngest son was almost going into kindergarten that I was like, How did I miss that? And now I feel this sense of urgency, as though I lost all this time. I think that’s why I’m constantly pushing myself forward, and that’s why I’ve generated so much work in the last few years, because I was like, Oh my God, I missed so much time I have to catch up on. But I also feel like I banked all of the things that I was thinking about for a few years there, and they all just spilled out. I think the reason why I do write every week is because I fear not being able to write again, like I was in that period. And so even if I write a really crappy poem, I’m happy.
Right, and you never know. That poem might end up becoming a good poem in the next month or something like that.
CD: And I read a lot, because it really does help me generate. So, half the time, if I’m on Twitter, it’s because I’m working out and multi-tasking [laughs], or I’m stuck in traffic or something. I’m always doing five things at the same time.
What are the big things you tell your students about writing?
CD: That you need to read a lot to be able to write. Like, you have to read a lot. That is the whole key to the whole thing, I really think, to know what else is out there, whether it was 100 years ago or whether it’s now. But the best thing for my students, I think—the thing that gets them hooked on reading—is giving them contemporary writers to read. To see what’s out there right now. I try and to show them younger people who are writing, too, like Ocean Vuong, who is so young, and they’re really like, Wow, someone my age did that? Let’s go! It’s super inspiring for them. So, just read and read, and get your butt in the chair, because sometimes time management can be a thing that really gets away from them. But otherwise, I’m working with some grad students, and they’re so amazing, and for them, I think the biggest thing right now is just to discover who they are as writers. I mean, that’s what you use grad school for. To figure out what kind of poet you’re going to be. I don’t think we ever really know that, but where do you want your work to go? What are you doing in your work? Sometimes, getting them to articulate what their work is doing is difficult. And that’s the kind of thing we’re working on right now.
That’s great! I also wanted to ask you about migration, because it’s such a big theme of the book. Your [grand]father’s migration to Canada. Your migration to the South. I think of “Autumn Wars,” where you write, “Once, we armed ourselves and drove / over tundra in a twining womb / of white fields and sky / to get out. I saw then that some things can never be / made beautiful.”
Was that a theme you considered before you started writing, or more something that found its way into your work?
CD: I think that was kind of one of the obsessions of the book, if you want to put it that way, and I think that’s one of the obsessions I write about—even the chapbook I’m putting out this spring—I have the same obsessions. It was about my grandfather’s migration to Western Canada. I think that obsession came out of feeling a little bit cut off from home, where I’m living right now, and how you can raise kids so far from where you began, and where your ancestors began, and how they can kind of lose track of their lineage that way. When I was writing Thaw, I had a lot of that. My kids were small, and I felt like they would never know my Ukrainian background, how I grew up, how my parents grew up. Like, it’s just all so foreign to them, they don’t even know my parents that well. That was a real obsession of the poems, I guess. Writing in response to that feeling.
So, do you go back to Canada a lot? I notice in some of your bios, they’ll start with “Chelsea Dingman is a Canadian citizen,” which I always thought was kind of fun. [Laughs]
CD: I know! I feel like I need to fly the Canadian flag or something. Yes, we go home, but I’m from Western Canada, so where I am in Florida, it’s a lot of travel, so we don’t get there as much as I would like. It used to be once a year, and then it became every two or three years. So yeah, I don’t get home enough. I think that’s part of why it became an obsession to write about it. People ask me, Were you writing the snow and everything from memory? And I was, because you just start missing all of the things you’re trying to explain to people.
You mentioned you have the chapbook coming out. Is there anything else on the horizon?
CD: No, so I wrote three manuscripts in grad school. One every year.
Wow, that’s great! You’re going to have work coming out forever!
CD: [Laughs] That’s kind of why I have so much work everywhere right now. Thaw was my first year;, and then my second year, I wrote the work coming out in the chapbook. It was my thesis, and it’s the second section of that manuscript. It’s loosely based on the speaker’s immigration from Ukraine in 1924 and the second wave of immigrants to Western Canada. And then the third manuscript is about infertility and stillbirth, which I wrote last year. Now I’m working on wherever I go after that. New work.
Well, you’ve definitely got some time, since your work will be coming out for the next three years. [Laughs] My last question is kind of a serious one. You have two sons. [Beat] Do they know that their mom is a rock star?
CD: [Laughs] No, I don’t think so. You know how people don’t really understand poetry? I don’t know if you have that, too. But even my mom, trying to explain it to her…
Oh gosh, yeah. I don’t even really try. It’s just nice that people sort of know that you’re a poet, and that you’ve published work somewhere, you won some award, or whatever. People can just take that with them.
CD: Yes! I know. And my mom, she doesn’t understand everything, but she’s super proud. My kids are, too. They like to come to work with me. They think it’s fun to sit in my office and play on my computer. You know what I mean? Like, I want them to value going to college and all that. If they don’t understand poetry, I’m okay with that.
Chelsea Dingman is a Visiting Instructor at the University of South Florida. Her first book, Thaw, was chosen by Allison Joseph to win the National Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press, 2017). Her chapbook, What Bodies Have I Moved, is forthcoming from Madhouse Press (2018). In 2016-17, she also won The Southeast Review’s Gearhart Poetry Prize, The Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, Water-stone Review’s Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize, and The South Atlantic Modern Language Association’s Creative Writing Award for Poetry. Her work can be found in Ninth Letter, The Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Cincinnati Review, and Gulf Coast, among others. Visit her website: chelseadingman.com.
Kwame Opoku-Duku is a poet and fiction writer. His work is featured or forthcoming in the Massachusetts Review, BOMB, Gigantic Sequins, Booth, and Chicago Review of Books' Arcturus, among other publications. Kwame lives in New York City and, along with Karisma Price, is a founding member of the Unbnd Collective. Find him online at kwamethethird.com or tweeting @kwamethethird.