An Interview with Claire Wahmanholm

By Yahaira Galvez and Lindsey Zawistowski

Claire Wahmanholm is the author of Night Vision (winner of the 2017 New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM chapbook contest), Wilder (winner of the 2018 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, and the 2018 Society of Midland Authors Award for Poetry) and Redmouth (Tinderbox Editions 2019). Her poems have most recently appeared in, or are forthcoming from, New Poetry from the Midwest 2019, Copper Nickel, Beloit Poetry Journal, Image, Grist, RHINO, West Branch, The Los Angeles Review, The Paris-American, PANK, Bennington Review, DIAGRAM, The Journal, and The Kenyon Review Online. She lives and teaches in the Twin Cities.

West Branch: In both Night Vision and Wilder, you base your erasures on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. How did you first become interested in this work?

Claire Wahmanholm: A lot of people have asked about this! I’ve talked elsewhere (here and here) about why Carl Sagan is a total heartthrob, but I’ll rewind further here. When I moved out west to do my PhD, I got really interested in nuclear imagery—maybe from living in relative proximity to nuclear test sites etc.—and was thinking a lot about rupture and violence and time and the scientific sublime. During my obsessing, I stumbled across this quote from J. Robert Oppenheimer about how he came up with the name “Trinity” for the first nuclear test: “Why I chose the name is not clear, but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love. From it a quotation: ‘As West and East / In all flatt Maps—and I am one—are one, / So death doth touch the Resurrection.’ That still does not make a Trinity, but in another, better known devotional poem Donne opens, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God;—.’” Oppenheimer’s yoking of poetry to nuclear destruction was so surreal and problematic to me (especially as a lover of Donne) and I became really invested in a science that interacted with poetry in a more humane way. I knew that Carl Sagan had curated the Voyager Golden Record, and I had had Cosmos sitting on my shelf for years, but I had never read the whole thing (nor had I seen the series, which actually came before the book—for the longest time I assumed it was the other way around!). Sagan seemed to present a more generous model of scientist-hood, and the more I read his work the more enamored I became. Like Oppenheimer, he had a thing for Donne, whose work he recommended in an article called “Space, Time, and the Poet” that he wrote for his high school newspaper. The article itself is pretty charming, as you might expect anything written by teenage Carl Sagan to be, and toward the end of it he suggests that science and poetry are linked in their grappling with “Man’s utter insignificance before the Universe.” Cosmos takes this same notion and swells it into this lush, lyric, hopeful, literally awesome contemplation of the universe and our (possible) future in it. In the “mystery vs mastery” conversation, he comes down on the side of mystery, and that’s what makes Cosmos such a compelling text for me.  

WB: Wilder blends poems looking towards the future of our planet, with poems looking at its past. Was this your original intention for the project? How did the project change while you were working on it?

CW:  I do see the prose poems as being staunchly situated in a hypothetical future. They were also the earliest poems in Wilder (I started writing them in 2015). They were a way of writing myself through the anxiety I was feeling at the time (about several intersecting things, including climate catastrophe, police brutality, gun violence, etc.). Historically, my writing has never explicitly engaged with what you might call “the real world”—that is, I never use proper nouns, dates, specific place names. So I ended up creating this more-or-less mythical world in which these anxieties could play out. But after the election happened and we started feeling the effects of the fallout, it seemed that the lived present and this imagined future were collapsing into each other in sort of a vertiginous way. It was no longer expedient to situate the poems in one space and not the other—the distinction started to feel arbitrary. It didn’t feel ethical to be speaking in sort of this mythic, metaphorical register when the bodies of school children, of black and brown folks, of women, were (are, still) being destroyed in a very literal way. Or at least, that couldn’t be the only register that the book lived in. So the poems of the first two sections engage with the present moment in a more tangible way (though they’re still admittedly somewhat abstract).

In terms of project-ness, I think it’s fair to say that Wilder is about disintegration, though this disintegration mutates across the book. To me, at least, the first section deals mostly with personal disintegration—the dissolution of the individual body in poems like “The Meadow, the River,” “Where I Went Afterward,” and “Breach.” This disintegration expands outward in the second section, often manifesting in aggression between individuals instead of toward the self. In the third section it expands further to include the collapse of the natural world as well as human communities as well as the individual body. And of course the erasures deal in this disintegration fairly tangibly. 

WB: Our next question is in regard to the final paragraph of your last response on “disintegration” : Could you elaborate on how erasures deal with the idea of disintegration? Do you currently have other subject matter that also feels well suited for erasures? 

CW: I didn’t mean anything tricky by that! I just meant that the act of erasure is an act of disintegration in that it dismantles a source text. Depending on how you format the erasure (whether you maintain the gaps in the text vs. re-lineate the leftover words), this disintegration can carry real visual weight. But that’s not a terribly nuanced take, in that erasure isn’t just about disintegration; an ideal erasure is simultaneously generative and degenerative. That is, if it didn’t also construct a new text, it wouldn’t be very compelling as a gesture/project. The point of an erasure is not just to duplicate, in more condensed form, what the original text is doing. For me, that’s been the trickiest part of erasures, and in teaching them, it’s the thing my students struggle with the most. When I do erasures, I have to keep asking myself: what is the point of erasing this text? What am I adding to the conversation? What is my political (with a lower-case p) relationship to the source material? Otherwise it’s too easy to get carried away being like “ooooooh look at this neat/ beautiful/weird sentence I’ve made! But also it means nothing!”

I’m glad you asked about current projects. Since doing the Cosmos erasures I’ve gotten really into erasure as a form (there are a couple sequences in Redmouth as well). Right now I’m working on putting together my third collection, which has a lot of glacier poems in it. I’m playing around with doing some erasures of recent articles on vanishing glaciers (of which there are, devastatingly, many). In some ways, rather than feeling “well suited,” this material feels over-suited for the form. Like, maybe it’s a little on-the-nose? But it’s been really interesting to use erasure to think through issues of empire, agency, futurity, children, the rhetorical act of mourning, etc. We’ll see what happens! 

WB: What is the relationship between Wilder and Redmouth? Do you feel that there are ways in which the two projects overlap? If so, how?

CW: I think there’s definitely overlap! At the core of both of these books is an interest in the relationship of humans to the rest of the natural world. Wilder is about the violences that we have visited upon ourselves as well as the environment; in that way, its orientation is primarily political and environmentalist. The book functions as a warning as well as an elegy—it presents a version of what the earth might look like if we continue to refuse to bring ourselves back into balance with the rest of the world. 

Even though Redmouth was published one year after Wilder, it was written several years earlier. So I see it as laying the groundwork for a lot of stuff that appears more explicitly in Wilder. I think Redmouth is, first and foremost, about living in a hostile world, and how we are un-homed from it in various ways. In both collections, I’m really into exploring the moments of human experience where we are less powerful, where we make less of an impact, where our bodies are allowed to be vulnerable and breakable and, like, compostable? More elegantly, maybe: the moments where we become more animal or vegetable. There are lots of poems in Redmouth where the lines between the natural world and the human body become very thin— where the human body recedes into the body of the earth or into bodies of water, etc. In some places, the erasure of the human is portrayed in a neutral or comforting light, and in other places it’s portrayed fairly sinisterly, just as death can be a comfort or a tragedy depending on the circumstances

WB: How do you see this blurring of the human and natural world playing out in your poem “[grief is not a great river]” (West Branch 90)? 

CW: So the poem is an erasure of Theocritus’s “Idyll 1,” which is often considered the root of the pastoral elegy. One of the hallmarks of the genre, which “Idyll 1” features, is the responsiveness of the natural world to whatever human mourning is going on. There’s a fantasy (sometimes explicit, sometimes not) of the natural world being under human control in this way. So I was trying to work against that model by having the human and the natural world enter into a more collaborative relationship wrt the speaker’s mourning. Instead of grief being an internal, emotional phenomenon, I wanted there to be a meshing between the internal and external landscape—I wanted it to move from something that exists purely inside the character to something represented physically in the natural world (the thorn, eventually). And I didn’t want the natural world to be a metaphor in this poem—that is, it’s possible to read the “long hills” that eventually annihilate the speaker as symbolic, but I meant it literally. 

WB: What do you hope readers walk away with after engaging with Wilder, and most recently, Redmouth?

CW: No one is owed readership, so any engagement is a gift and an act of faith and I’m grateful for both. When you read someone’s book, you’re entering their headspace in a pretty intimate way. This doesn’t mean you’re going to understand or sympathize with everything they’re doing, but you’re bearing witness to it at least. I’d be thrilled if folks read something that resonates with them in these collections, because those moments of shared perception are what I live for when I read poetry. You can’t force those moments, obviously—I have no idea what will or won’t click with someone—so it always feels like a gasp of kismet when it happens.