Inverting helplessness

An interview between Christy Davids and Nikki Wallschlaeger

Christy Davids (left) and Nikki Wallschlaeger (right). Photos courtesy of the authors.

Note: Nikki Wallschlaeger is the author of two full-length books of poetry:­ Houses (Horse Less Press, 2015) and Crawlspace (Bloof Books, 2017). Wallschlaeger lives in Wisconsin where she collects and propagates violets. She is a mother; she is a poet; she is at once tender, at once piercing. This interview took place in September 2017 shortly before Wallschlaeger arrived in Philadelphia to read at Philalalia, a small press and book arts festival hosted by Temple University. Over the course of this conversation, Wallschlaeger discusses her writing process, formal poetic traditions and her interest in writing right through them, and the intersection of her own anger with her own poetry. 

This conversation between Davids and Wallschlaeger took place on September 6, 2017. — Christy Davids

Christy Davids: I first encountered your work through your chapbook I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel (Bloof Books, 2016), which is a text made up of haunting memes featuring a despondent black Barbie doll paired with poignant lines that appear in your new book Crawlspace (Bloof Books, 2017). Both the chap and the full-length manuscript are deeply invested in the form/content relationship. I have to say — I absolutely love teaching I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel! Can you tell me a bit about how that chapbook came to be and how you see it in relation to the greater text and project of Crawlspace

Nikki Wallschlaeger: I was frustrated with a lot of different things I was seeing in the poetry world — like sexism and a lack of work being represented and published by POC poets — and I appreciated the urgency that memes use to concentrate these energies into quick, pithy points. I was looking for pictures of black dolls to serve as a medium for this and I found Julia. The first ones I made were just from pics I found on the internet of her. Then Shanna Compton contacted me to express her interest in what I was doing and asked if I was interested in making a graphic chapbook with Bloof. So, I bought a Julia doll for myself and took my own pictures of her with lines from the book, and lines that are not in the book. This project wouldn’t exist without Shanna. I’m really glad she saw the value in what I was doing, and with a gentle nudge I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel was born!

Davids: When you started making these Julia-based memes, was the manuscript for Crawlspace in progress, or had you already completed it?

Wallschlaeger: Yes, I was already finished with Crawlspace at that point, except for final edits. I started writing it when I was finishing my first book Houses, which came out with Horse Less Press in May of 2015.

Davids: Crawlspace is a manuscript of sonnets that intend to challenge the prescriptive institution of the form with every iteration. In your interview with Brian Spears at the Rumpus, you said that you use the sonnet as a kind of container that controls what’s happening in each individual poem. There is a tradition of experimental writers shaping themselves into the sonnet — Berryman, Mayer, Berrigan — but you seem invested in writing into the sonnet so that you can break it. I’m less interested in why you chose the sonnet form itself (mostly because you have discussed that elsewhere), and more interested in what seems to be a devolution or total transformation of the form across the book. At the start of Crawlspace, your poems visually resemble sonnets, but by “Sonnet (23),” the couplet evaporates. By “Sonnet (32)” the poems dare to stretch across pages in what reads like an active disobedience of the form. Can you speak to your vision of Crawlspace as an act of formal defiance? 

Wallschlaeger: Sure. The deeper I got into this project, the more the form of just using fourteen lines was stifling me. So, I decided to use the fourteen-line constraint as a section instead of one fully developed poem. The urgency was there. There was all this energy to deconstruct and push against the traditional form as I kept writing the book. The way it was written, the way the poems are ordered, is also in order of how they were written. So, the first sonnet is the first one I wrote, and the last one is the last one I wrote in the book. I like doing that. I think it shows the process of how the book develops as opposed to the curation of a collection. I did that with Houses, too. But the manuscript I’m working on now — I’m not sure if I’m going to stick with that strategy. This book is demanding something else of me, a different kind of threading that I haven’t quite figured out yet. 

Davids: That approach of standing by and representing the poems as they come offers a really unique transparency as far as process goes. Did you have that in mind, or was it more matter of allowing the poems to develop in the way that they wanted or needed to?

Wallschlaeger: I think both. I wanted to keep things as organic as possible. This approach retains an almost journalistic feel because these poems are not just poems; they are woven into what I’m thinking about, processing, and experiencing in my daily life. I wanted to present them that way so the reader has more of a feel for how important and intimate poetry is to me.

Davids: There is something else that happens as the form in Crawlspace — as it is prescribed anyway — breaks down across the manuscript: suddenly the anger in the poems becomes more legible, tangible, and less coded. The book is framed by an epigraph from Lucille Clifton, “all of us are tired / and some of us are mad,” which prepares readers for the anger that unfolds. As you see it, what is the nature of the relationship between the form you use and the anger it yields?

Wallschlaeger: I think it’s a difficult and scary experience to fully connect with one’s anger, especially when it comes to interlocking systems of oppression you have no control over. As the book developed, I got tired of making my anger so metaphorical, so crafted in order to soften the blow. It felt healthier to be absolutely clear about what I was tired of living with, and I wanted to express that to whoever was reading — that I was taking a leap here and trusting that the reader was ready to try and understand the anger and fatigue that became unveiled in these poems. It’s tiring to hide what you want to name. So, I started to name it. These containers gradually became owned by me — the sonnet form — and I felt safer in these spaces to be more upfront. I felt like I owed it to myself to sometimes say exactly what I mean to say.

Davids: I love that; it’s as if you built safe spaces within the restricted form of the sonnet so that you could be even clearer, more direct, crystalline about the modes of oppression represented by the sonnet itself.

The poetics you assert in Crawlspace seem very interested in the surface of language, particularly early on in the book. Based on what you’ve said so far, maybe it’s more that the surface of language can also represent the ever-shifting thoughts our brains are tearing through at any given moment, under any given conditions. Throughout the manuscript, images spin and are fluid — language is shiny and almost distracted, but never actually distracted. In fact, amid vivid flits, the language almost always settles into cutting axioms: “The most crafted ending of all / is usually the electric fence”;[1] “I’ve accepted that / I’m a black vagina” (15); “It’s easy to love someone incomprehensible / It means you never have to apologize” (37). In “Sonnet (25)” you write, “I like using generalities that feel useful” (28). How central to the text is this notion of useful generalities, what does it mean, and how does it play out in your poetry?

Wallschlaeger: Haha. Yes. Well, I have gathered certain truths about how society is structured based on my own experiences, particularly with men and whiteness. The usefulness of these generalities is based on their commonality. For example, patterns in misogynist and racist behavior that I’ve seen and experienced for most of my life. I know there’s a lot of pushback against marginalized people when they express their observations and experiences publicly, to immediately tender what they’re speaking to with something like “but not all [insert men, white people, etc.] …” and that’s very frustrating because then the conversation is diffused or derailed. This book is not about diffusion or derailment because it’s mine. This line speaks to that. My truths are my truths in this poetic space. They get to play and experiment and be their unique selves without having to worry about offending anyone. 

Davids: This had to be a release, then — a relief — is that true? 

Wallschlaeger: Certainly. But I also have a lot of fun writing my poetry. There’s humor there. I have a very sarcastic sense of humor. It’s how I cope. It’s better than crying. But crying has its place. There’s a sweet spot when I get so fed up with this country where I’m on the verge of tears and despair is near. But not quite, because I still have a sense of humor and because I’m so fed up, the sweet spot is very sharp. I like that. I feel powerful and unstoppable, because sometimes you just get to the point where everything is so ridiculous you want to call it out in all these wonderfully creative ways, like an inversion of helplessness. It all starts to merge into something weird, inspiring, and fresh. You believe in your own righteousness, but it’s also in balance with the ego so it doesn’t get out of hand to where you think you’re a god and can do no wrong. That’s where bad poetry is created. I’m careful with how well I think my work is going because craft still matters. 

Davids: The sweet spot is sharp indeed. A testament to the humor mixed with the sense of unadulterated anger and mourning in “Sonnet (40)”: “Honestly show me a man who isn’t in some / way a pimp, a silted crockpot of philosopher / dung scraped from their excavation sites by / dedicated master troopers” (46). I laughed so hard. But I also laughed hard because I felt seen by the work — un-alone. The laugh meant sharing in something that can otherwise feel incredibly lonely. 

Shifting gears here — I couldn’t help but think of Alice Walker’s renowned essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” which accounts for the creative lives black women have lead — historically — in spite of the oppression they face. Walker’s voice in my head, while [I was] reading Crawlspace,was amplified by the lines, “feminist literature / didn’t start with Virginia Woolf” (63). This sentiment beautifully echoes Walker’s famous rewrite of A Room of One’s Own in which she uses bracketed text to think through Phillis Wheatley’s life and account for the selectively documented experiences of black women in the eighteenth century (and in American history, broadly speaking). How do you view your work in relation to the legacy of black female writers that you either directly or indirectly call upon in your writing? And, because there are so many ways that your poetics gesture to the past while reaching into an unknown future, how would you situate your work within the scene of contemporary poetry?

Wallschlaeger: I still have “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” from a feminist literature class and though that was many years ago now, I remember reading and understanding what Walker was talking about. I remember feeling annoyed that everything seemed to begin with Virginia Woolf, as if women never wrote anything before her and we were just waiting for this wealthy white woman from England to give us permission to do so. So, yes, that line is definitely an indirect reference to Walker’s work. As far as my own work in relation to the legacy of black women writers, that’s a question I struggle with daily. I feel I’m a part of this history now, or at least starting to feel like I deserve to be there. Anyone who knows me also knows how important Wanda Coleman’s work has been. I was in my early twenties when I was introduced to her work, which was when I started to take my writing seriously. She was such a strong figure and continues to be underappreciated. She was also somewhat of an enigma. I’m drawn to writers like that. On the fringe, but also in the fold. They have the best observations because they are usually the most uncompromising. So, I look to her. But legacy can be tricky. People have a tendency to put writers into a linear timeline and then the problem of tradition develops, which can then create institutional boundaries of inclusion and exclusion.

Davids: Legacy is also so often connected to ego. I really respect the air of wariness around the possibility of establishing a coterie that promotes exclusion (at its best) and mimics institutional values (at its worst). 

It’s interesting because, as a reader of your work, I find myself floating in and out of your books — that they feel connected is real, and my practice of moving between them (order aside) also seems to speak to a bigger picture idea about timelines and lineages. 

It’s hard not to think across your book; in fact, it’s incredibly rewarding. In your poem “White House” from your first book Houses (Horse Less Press, 2015), you write, “Everything that ever happened to our people on this continent has been recorded. When I say recorded, I don’t necessarily mean with ledgers & fountain pens & scriptures & all of that pearly shit, although some of it is, except most folks don’t really understand what these stories are trying to say because they are categorized as ‘art’ or ‘literature’ or ‘gospel’ which is part of the deflection process, the process of peeling people apart from themselves.”[2] Do you consider your work as a kind of antidote to the effort of various institutions to “pull people apart from themselves”? 

Wallschlaeger: I wouldn’t go as far as saying my work is an antidote, but I’m flattered by the suggestion! It’s more like a pushback: an against. And then the push sometimes walks right on through, where the possibility of connection can happen. I think with black art the struggle is inherent. When it’s categorized, or institutionalized, the struggle can get obscured. Although I enjoy just talking shop with other poets who come from different traditions than me, I also hope they feel what’s at the core of why I write the way that I do, even if they’re not capable of fully understanding it.

Davids: You mentioned that you’re working on a new manuscript that seems to be unfolding in a way that’s different from Houses and Crawlspace. Is there anything you care to share about your new work? What can we look forward to?

Wallschlaeger: Sure! It’s called Waterbaby and it’s a book based on water and other fluid — bluesy flowing things. The new work I’ve been publishing recently is all from this manuscript. So far, the reception of these poems has been great! It’s very exciting. But what’s different about this book is that all the poems have their own titles. Haha. It’s been awhile since I’ve written poems like this, poems that weren’t so dependent on one another. But it’s going well and I’m enjoying writing these poems. There’s a gravity to them that’s probably a reflection of the fact that I’m turning thirty-five next week. The girl is grown and all that, the maturing writer, etc. I dig it though. 

1. Nikki Wallschlaeger, Crawlspace (Lambertville, NJ: Bloof Books, 2017), 17.

2. Nikki Wallschlaeger, Houses (Providence, RI: Horse Less Press, 2015), 23.