When I first read the poems of Chelsea Dingman, a dual efflorescence of strength and poignancy engulfed. In our first interview feature for Parentheses Journal, I had the honor of having an engaging conversation with the author of Thaw (University of Georgia Press, 2017) and What Bodies Have I Moved (Madhouse Press 2018).
In what I reckon to be one of your earlier poems, “Elegy in Bone” from the Superstition review, encompasses subtle pathos and a sense of loss. Especially: “The doctor, on the phone, / saying cancer like it’s a country I’ll be // visiting”. The interiority within these lines are astounding. One of the things I much admire about your work, in writing with reference the body, is there are no binaries. The body becomes the physical and the psychological. I am intrigued— could you speak a little about this?
When writing my third manuscript, I was very concerned with the body: how we inhabit these spaces, how much control we have, what we are governed by (both internal and external to the body), and the personal relationship between a woman and her body, particularly following a macro-level change like childbirth. In “Elegy in Bone,” that loss of control is what is being mourned. The body, in that instance, is not governed by the speaker, but by circumstance. It strikes me often that we can do as much as we can to be healthy and take care of our bodies, but there is still room for uncertainty—much like poetry, I suppose. There were two days last summer when my doctor called after a test for multiple cancers and wouldn’t give me the results over the phone because something had turned up positive. My mother had cancer when I was very young. I wrote that poem by pulling from those moments of powerlessness.
I love the ending of the poem “Immortality” from Thaw: “He isn’t / merely a man, lost / in this human hour, body / weeping in the thaw.” Your poems bring me to a space of reckoning, through the anthropomorphic scale in which the action takes place. There seems to be a juxtaposition of the natural with the physical in your poems. Also, since land and ecologies connect to a country, and in a broader way, to a person, in its own way, is the scope of this paradigm of interest to you as a poet?
Absolutely. Landscapes, interior and exterior, blur many times in my work. The natural world often informs the interior world of the speaker. I’ve always felt very connected to the landscapes that I am writing about. I love to write land and ecologies into image in my poems. Often, before I’m even aware of it, the images show up to teach me how the speaker feels. In some cases, I’ve been very diligent about describing certain countries or territories because they are so connected to the experience of the speaker. There would not be one without the other. In my life, I feel this dependence on the natural world. When any environment is hard to survive, the stakes are raised.
In the same vein, in another poem, “The Last Place” from Thaw, there are two points of reference to God: “Some man / made of clouds and wind, perhaps. Or maybe / it has been you all along”. I’m interested in the sense of urgency for empathy in your poems. Do you consider the craft of writing poetry to be a harness to a spiritual life, to learn from human violence and pain?
I’m not sure that I think it is a harness to spiritual life, but I definitely feel like poetry is a form of prayer for me. I don’t feel that way about prose. When I write prose, it is to communicate in a very concrete way. I think prose allows one to write toward certain epiphanies, but poetry is much more about writing out of the things we already know and toward uncertainties that cannot be easily resolved. In poetry, it’s enough to ask the questions. In this way, it feels like prayer to me because I was taught to pray as a little girl (my maternal grandfather was an Arch-Deacon in the Anglican Church of Canada). Though I never felt that I ever received answers, the act itself was enough. To me, the act of writing poetry isn’t as much about learning about violence or demonstrating empathy as it is about grappling with these uncertainties and what can be learned from that. I think sometimes that “urgency for empathy” exists within us already when we sit down to page and adds to the conflict that is being wrestled with. But we’re already intimately familiar with it.
The ecological aspect of your poems bewilder and produce an array of stimuli, all at once. In your poem “Prayer After Migration & Miscarriage”, there are references to nature and larger ecologies. In speaking of migration, the imagery is inextricably linked as an extension to the body. I would love for you to speak about the experience of migration and give us a few insights about your thoughts surrounding the same.
I have moved a lot in my life, between continents and countries, but also through stages of womanhood. In that poem, I was paralleling the experience of migration and womanhood because they felt like highways that ran parallel to each other. I had a miscarriage right before I moved overseas and then I had some pregnancy difficulties with my youngest son when went from Europe to the US to Canada within a few months time. I felt homeless that whole year. I didn’t feel very connected to anything except for the baby I was trying to successfully carry to term. In my writing, the mother’s body became the child’s first country. There is something devastating about feeling like you belong nowhere and no one would know if anything happened to you or your child. In a way, the body became the only country either of us had. I was very lucky in Sweden to be taken care of by wonderful nurses and doctors, but I had a different experience when we got to Denmark and we were more isolated by the landscape, in a smaller town. Ultimately, I’m lucky and grateful that migration was a rewarding experience, but still I longed for the familiar, the people and places I’d left behind, and I’m not sure that feeling ever goes away because so much is changed when you return. Disconnection is the ruling emotion for my speaker during migration, pregnancy, miscarriage, and childbirth.
The lineation in your poems does the work of employing a pause, allows to cease reading for a minute and think about the previous sentence. This aspect has always held much intrigue to me, as a reader. For instance, during my undergraduate years, I enjoyed the beauty of a text more when I realized it wasn’t just about what was being articulated but also the silences, absences and gaps. I admire that about your poetry. Is lineation more an organic process for you— how do you work with it?
I so love lineation. It gives me so much pleasure. I love to isolate images or control the speed with which a poem is delivered. I guess it would be the one measure of control that I feel like I have over the poem when so much is intuitive. Much like imposing form. Or employing different sound or meter upon revision. It is organic when I’m writing a draft by hand, but when I revise from paper to computer screen, I make much more deliberate decisions, just as I do when I further revise. I love what you’re saying about the poet imposing silences or gaps—for me, a line break can also function much like a section break where the reader is invited to interact make a leap of imagination that isn’t possible if the line break is expected or the image is not delivered whole. I’ve read quotes that describe the line as a poem in itself and I truly strive for that. Each line has to do its own work, even if it hinges on one word and the point is the hinge itself.
These lines from “Snow Fugue”, from What Bodies Have I Moved are compelling: “My mother, in a ragged babushka, / bent over Rohatyn’s fields. How I began in / a place I can’t find // with my hands.” In the words of Traci Brimhall, the book is “full of the wingless ache of resurrection”. There are also myriad references to Eastern Europe. What inspired the process of What Bodies Have I Moved?
I was writing a manuscript of poems based on research I was doing about Ukrainians who had fled Poland for Canada in the second wave of immigration in 1924. My paternal grandfather was one of the people who fled and I wanted to know that experience in a more visceral way. I wanted to feel connected to it, rather than generations removed. He left at 12yrs old with his father. His mother and sister stayed behind. Some of the family narrative that I’ve been told over the years made it into the poems. I found resurrection to be a way of looking at that experience because there was so much hope in leaving a country that didn’t want them and going to a country that was begging for settlers. What many encountered instead was ostracism, distrust of Eastern Europe, fear, and discrimination. There were internment camps in western Canada during WWI and my grandfather arrived just after other Ukrainians had been freed. It was a terrifying time. Immigrants also had no way of knowing whether another country would be kind. I spent a lot of time researching the places that would have actually allowed Eastern Europeans entry on his journey. I researched the landscapes and landmarks. These aspects of their (former) lives that they had to leave behind. I wrote these poems in gratitude to my grandfather who did not have an easy life, but made some gifts in mine possible. In many ways, it feels like history is cyclical and always has something to teach us as well.
What role does poetry play in your day to day life? Many attribute poetry to be a more personal, inward practice. With your role as an academician, I’m certain you engage with teaching the craft on a regular basis. As for spaces outside the classroom, in what ways does poetry work with your daily life?
I wake and read poetry first thing in the morning. It’s how I like to start the day. Most often, I save something I really want to read because my brain is so fresh. That practice allows me some quiet to start the day. I often read at night also, if I am not grading or busy with my kids. It is a thing that I afford myself, the same way that people might meditate or exercise or go for a walk. I also love to be outside in the mornings, in the natural world. I get a similar high from being part of that world around me, particularly when I’m home in western Canada.
What advice would you like to give to those who practice the written word, from a more global standpoint? (Personal note: This could be as general / specific as you wish for it to be—I ask this question only because there are many discussions, both; online as well as offline, about whether having an MFA is a pre-requisite. Also, for those outside of the US, with little access to institutional support, what advice would you offer?)
My advice would be to read and write A LOT. Read generously. Read work by everyone in every country, tradition, and time period. Be open. Commit to the act of writing, even if what you write is not what you would consider “good.” Read criticism on writing poetry. Write more. Read journals. Do research. Join other poets in some sort of community that is local to you and work together. Community is everything—that’s what a MFA gets you. The other thing the MFA gets you, which is priceless for me, is someone who would let me fail, over and over, without judgment. I’m talking about my mentors. Even when we disagreed about my work, I learned something about myself. My other advice is don’t be too hard on yourself, or too precious about your work. What is in service of the poem? I am never thinking about myself when I write or revise. What does the poem want or need? How can I deliver? Sometimes failed poems are simply vehicles to get to the next poem. Mine your poems for the best bits and move on. The MFA was a wonderful experience for me. I recommend it. But it isn’t the only way. Community can found in many places, even online nowadays. When I wrote Thaw, I had just finished my first year of the MFA. Another poet and I used google docs and shared our poems every Friday for the summer break because we lived across the country from one another. Anything is possible.
Chelsea Dingman is a Canadian citizen and 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). In 2016-17, she also won The Southeast Review’s Gearhart Poetry Prize, The Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, and Water-stone Review’s Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize. 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.