Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
Chelsea Dingman’s first book, Thaw, was chosen by Allison Joseph to win the National Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press, 2017). She is also the author of the chapbook, What Bodies Have I Moved (Madhouse Press, 2018). She has won prizes such as: 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 recent work can be found in Redivider, New England Review, and The Southern Review, among others. Visit her website: chelseadingman.com.
- When and why did you begin to write poetry?
I wrote my first poems in elementary school. I have always been an avid reader, but I honestly don’t know what drew me to poetry rather than prose. When I was young, it seemed to be the means through which I could best respond to the world around me.
- Who introduced you to poetry?
An elementary school teacher that I had for first and fifth grades. I lived in a very small town in British Columbia. She would take me out of class and let me go to the library by myself and provide me with extra reading. She was also one of the first teachers who encouraged me to write.
- How aware were and are you of the dominating presence of older poets?
I find this question troubling for a few reasons, but I’ll get to that. In my undergrad, I was a literature major, so I spent time with Chaucer and Milton and Shakespeare and the great poets of the literary canon. I was in Canada at the time. I was not introduced to contemporary poets, with the exception of the small section in the Norton Anthology of Literature. By the time I started grad school in the US, I had read relatively few contemporary poets. Having read a broader spectrum of work now, I’m not sure that “dominating presence” is the right term since there are so many contemporary poets doing exciting things, which only adds to the possibility of poetry that our predecessors have laid out. I’m also not sure about the term “older.” I didn’t start publishing until my late 30’s. I don’t like to measure poets or artists of any kind in terms of age. I’ve learned, and continue to learn, from poets across all ages and countries and time periods.
- What is your daily writing routine?
I like to read in the morning when I wake up. And I always have a book with me wherever I go, lest I have a few minutes throughout the day to read. I tend to write either early in the morning before my kids get moving and the house gets crazy, or later at night. Anytime I can find some quiet.
- What motivates you to write?
It can be many different things, big or small. The light snow. The sound of a train passing. The early dark. Petrichor. The smell of wildfires that are hundreds of kilometres away. Events in the world or in my family. Things I’ve witnessed. Past events that arise as obsessions to force me to confront them with some distance now. And, sometimes, it is simply reading a great poem. A great line. An essay. A fiction. Some other creative work that sparks something in my imagination.
- What is your work ethic?
I tend to be very obsessive. I overwrite. I write poems in groups of three, often trying to get at the one poem that I really wanted to get down on the page. I have to force myself to shut my brain off sometimes. But, underneath that, I think some of my doggedness is that I fear going long periods without writing, as I did when my kids were first born. The other part is that I genuinely can’t help it. Sometimes a poem wakes me in the night with a line or a few lines. I wake up needing to write them down.
- How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
It was Plath or Shakespeare in our high school library and she made the bigger impression. Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Leonard Cohen. I remember finding all of them in the library and copying their poems into my notebooks to take home. I genuinely liked how many layers there were in Shakespeare’s work and the difficulty of the language, but we didn’t learn it as poetry. I wasn’t a proficient enough reader then to understand what he was doing with meter and rhyme, nor did I understand why. I think that the biggest influence all of these artists have on my work is that they made me want to read and write. They made me care about language and value its importance.
- Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
There are so many people, for so many reasons. I value poets whose work brings me back in wonderment, time and again, like Larry Levis, Louise Glück, Aracelis Girmay, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Anna Akhmatova, Wislawa Szymborska, Lucille Clifton, Patricia Smith, and Li-Young Lee. They never fail to both amaze and destroy me with their use of language. In addition, other luminaries such as Linda Gregg, Franz Wright, Tomas Tranströmer, Czeslaw Milosz, and Pablo Neruda. Catherine Barnett and Katie Ford have gorgeous new books out and I am a longtime fan of their work. I loved Ilya Kaminsky’s first book and I am eagerly awaiting the next one, along with everyone else. Allison Joseph for her eye and her work ethic. I think she might produce as much work as I do, which makes me feel better about that. I was lucky enough to work with Jay Hopler for three years, who is a gorgeous poet, nominated for the National Book Award last year. I also worked with Traci Brimhall for my thesis year and I can’t say enough about her work or how much I learned from her. There is no one writing poems like hers. In that way, she reminds me of Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Jay’s work is also very distinct, which seems an amazing feat to me when trying to find myself in my work sometimes.
Right now, the poets whose work I get excited to read when I open a magazine or spend time with their books are Tiana Clark, Leila Chatti, sam sax, Ruth Awad, Nicole Sealey, John Nieves, Hala Alyan, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Jenny Molberg, Erin Adair-Hodges, Richard Siken, Roger Reeves, Solmaz Sharif, Jennifer Chang, Emilia Phillips, Devin Kelly, Rachel Mennies, Tarfia Faizullah, Emily Skaja, Ocean Vuong, Eloisa Amezcua. The wonderful Anne Casey who lead me to this interview. There are so many. I could do this all day.
- Why do you write?
I have been driven to respond to the world in writing since I was a child, especially when I don’t understand something. Even when no one reads a word of it. The act of writing something down has been enough. Maybe I like the solitude of it.
- What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
You sit down and write. A writer is a person who engages in the act of writing as a practice. I wasn’t writing poems I would share with anyone before grad school. I still write a lot of work that no one will ever see. But I truly love to sit inside a poem or an essay I’m working on. I like the challenge of it. If poems are supposed to challenge a reader’s intellect, I love that they challenge me in a similar way as a writer also. The poem usually teaches me what it’s doing and how to improve it as I feel my way along.
I would also say you must read a lot and write a lot. Then, read some more and write some more. That is the only way to improve after actually sitting down to the page. I genuinely believe that mentorship is helpful. Find someone to read your work and respond to it in a productive manner. Risk something, craft-related or otherwise.
- Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I finished a manuscript last spring that I started sending out about stillbirth and infertility that affects a couple who eventually have healthy children. I am currently writing poems toward something new that I hesitate to call a collection yet. They are a series of poems that involve research that I’ve been doing about post-concussion syndrome, CTE, and the long-term effects on the individual, such as depression, anxiety, and even suicide or early death.