Interview with Poet Chelsea Wagenaar

Chelsea Wagenaar is the 2013 winner of the Philip Levine Prize for her debut manuscript, Mercy Spurs the Bone, published through Anhinga Press in November of last year.  She is a doctoral fellow at the University of North Texas, where she also teaches.  Her poems have recently been published in Southeast Review, Plume and TriQuartley, and she has poems forthcoming in Meridian, Crab Orchard Review and Fugue.  She lives in Denton, Texas, with her husband, fellow poet Mark Wagenaar.

I am fortunate to know Chelsea and she was kind enough to let me interview her.  I also had the great privilege of reading through, and giving my thoughts on, Mercy Spurs the Bone as she readied it for publication; you’ll see my name on the acknowledgments page….no big deal.

I highly recommend her collection of poems, Mercy Spurs the Bone

So, can you tell me how you got started in poetry?

There’s the long story and the short story.  The long story is more embarrassing, but perhaps truer: I started writing poems the summer after 5th grade.  My grandmother paid for me to go to a writing day camp at N.C. State for two weeks, and on the first day of camp we had to choose between the fiction and the poetry classes.  I chose poetry, even though I was that child who always had her face in a book of fiction.  What eleven-year-old chooses poetry?  But I was drawn to it, and wrote several poems that summer, all of which rhymed, and many of which were about writing itself (cringe—one was called “The Pen”).  The short story is that my second year at UVA I took an intro to poetry writing class and just wasn’t the same again.  I had to reorient my whole life—including my solemn vow not to go to graduate school—to accommodate a new passion that had quickly become part of my identity, as well.

What challenges did you face compiling Mercy Spurs The Bone?

The main challenge I faced was hating half the poems for the first two years of working on the manuscript.  I started putting it together in 2011, at the prompting of my husband Mark, even though I knew I did not have 48 poems solid enough to comprise a prize-winning collection.  But I’m grateful he still urged me to get in the practice of shaping and thinking about the book, because even though I knew it was too early then, it gave me a deeper sense of what poems spoke to each other, which ones seemed like oddballs and didn’t belong, and which poems still needed to be written.  That awareness of my work helped me write poems that belonged in the manuscript. Working on the book that early also forced me to practice the very difficult work of arranging the poems in a way that bore some arc—not a narrative arc, though I believe threads of narrative are there—but an arc that felt intellectually and emotionally satisfying as I read through the poems.  It’s slippery and elusive to describe, but I would compare it to the experience of hitting a wrong note musically.  You just know a poem is wrong wrong or out of place when you hear it. 

Looking back, how do you feel about your first collection of poems?

I feel proud of it.  Maybe in the future I’ll look back and feel more twinges of embarrassment here or there, but I hope not.  I actually love to read my favorite poets’ first books, because the poems often bear a greater sense of vulnerability, risk, rawness, and experimentation than their later, more polished and mature work does.  But seriously, I’m proud of the book and fond of the poems in it—it helps that I have received a lot of positive feedback from people who have read the book and attended readings.  Knowing that my poems inspire and move others gives me plenty of reason to be happy with the book. 

Can you tell me a bit about your process?  Do you work best at a computer or are you a pen and ink kind of gal? When you sit down to write, what are your writing essentials? 

I almost always write on a computer, so that is a must-have.  Most of the time I have one or two books within reach, as well, because as I write it helps me to have good poems nearby—it inspires me, gives me ideas, stretches my imagination.  Another thing I use constantly is the dictionary and thesaurus.  I look up words all the time, even words I know well, because definitions and etymologies often give me ideas for metaphors or images.  I will say that I have written a few poems by hand recently, and the end result has been good, so I am going to try incorporating that more often into my writing habits. 

I am allowed one…or two selfish questions, right? "Milk" and “Letter to My Girlhood” are a couple of the ones in Mercy Spurs The Bone that I keep going back to. Can you shed some light on these for me or just tell me more about them; where they came from, what you were trying to do with them?

A few years ago, Mark and I visited Madison, Wisconsin, and while we were there, we went to a museum that featured a temporary exhibit on Harry Houdini.  The exhibit was fascinating, with props Houdini had used, pictures, explanations of some of his magic tricks, and snippets of autobiographical information.  I became interested in his wife, Bess, who had originally been part of Houdini’s act, but as he became more famous, she became less involved in the act itself, and merely traveled with him as a spectator.  I did more research about her after we left, and found that it seemed the Houdinis were unable to have children, despite wanting to.  I already wanted to write a few poems from her perspective, and somehow this detail just wound its way inextricably into the poem in which she watches Harry perform his Milk Can Escape.  In this act, Harry was handcuffed and completely submerged in a lifesized milk can, his task to escape before drowning.  The image in my head was a powerful one: a woman, unable to have children, watches her husband be “birthed,” so to speak, over and over again in front of captivated audiences.  In the poem I try to evoke that emotional complexity, and what I would imagine to be her sorrow. 

I wrote “Letter to My Girlhood” the summer I was engaged to Mark.  I lived at home with my mother and siblings for those transitional months before getting married and moving to Texas, and something about moving back home with my family felt appropriate and symbolic before I set out to begin my own home and family.  So it was an emotional and reflective time for me—I think it’s a rare gift in life to be allowed a space of quiet transition before a big change occurs, since so often those life-altering changes catch us off guard.  Anyway, this poem is very image-driven, with almost no discursive moments whatsoever.  I’m trying to create more of an emotional narrative than a chronological one, so the poem is meant to be enigmatic, which is not my usual approach toward writing a poem.  But I hope the images convey glimpses of feeling—the pear trees are “like something wild, corralled,”—a gesture toward freedom and release, while the white tents are “sutured,” “trapped caverns”—an ambivalent image of containment that immediately undermines the promise of the pear trees.

I know you get inspired by articles, current events, your family… Where do you draw, or where do you find yourself drawing, the inspiration for your recent works?

Now that I’m pregnant, I’ve written several poems exploring that experience, or at least thinking tangentially about it in some way.  I expect that will continue to be a rich source of inspiration, and continue after our daughter is born.   Additionally, I still find inspiration in other things I read—articles, poems, non-fiction, the Bible.  Recently I started working on a poem about Hagar and Ishmael, after Abraham sends them away into the desert.  After they empty their water skin, Hagar places the young Ishmael under a bush—for shade, I assume—and moves some distance away so that she does not have to watch the boy die.  The passage in Genesis says she moved “a bowshot” away (Genesis 21).  I was so struck by the precision of that image, as well as her thought process.  What is the appropriate distance from which a mother can bear the death of her son?  If she couldn’t watch him die, did she expect to hear him?  The end of the chapter mentions that when Ishmael grew up, he lived in the desert and became an archer.  An archer—so in Hagar’s impulse to move a bowshot away from what she thought was her son’s impending death is actually a foreshadowing image of his future identity, his life work.   I don’t quite know what to make of it yet, and the poem is hardly even a rough draft yet, but that’s what I’m thinking about. 

When you aren't working as a wordsmith, what are you up to these days?

Teaching my classes at the University of North Texas and preparing for the arrival of our daughter in July.  Until now, I haven’t been able to put much time or energy (read: none) into the latter this semester, because I have been studying for my comprehensive exams, but I took and passed those at the beginning of March, so I am finally free to do the more exciting work of creating a nursery space.  I think if poetry hadn’t found me, I would have been interested in interior design!   

Thank you very much agreeing to this interview, I appreciate you taking the time.

Thanks for reading.

And a big thanks to Chelsea!

Stay alive,
-M.P. Callender