This interview focuses on Wendel’s new book No Apocalypse.
Shamar Hill: I am curious about the intention behind the title of your poetry collection, No Apocalypse.
Monica Wendel: Wow, I guess I am curious about the title too! It came to me in a text message and then as soon as I read it I knew that was the name of the book. It was originally called From the Shore, which is also the title of one of the poems, but then as soon as I read “No Apocalypse” I just knew that I wanted it to be the title. I was having dreams of the apocalypse, and people in political movements often evoke the apocalypse. If we don’t do X, Y or Z, everything will break down and be terrible. So, I saw an apocalyptic undercurrent in the work.
SH: Like the undercurrent to apocalypse: No Apocalypse.
MW: Yeah, yeah. I guess I look at it two ways. First off, how long has the apocalypse been promised and not come? And the other way I thought of it, in terms of the speaker’s voice—shitty things are happening to the speaker, so she places herself in some bigger context. She’s telling herself: “This sucks, but it’s no apocalypse. It’s not the end of the world.” Which is something we say to ourselves all the time.
SH: Especially when things are difficult.
MW: Yes, exactly.
SH: You already started to speak about the creative process. Text messages—there are even dreams in texts. You’re letting a lot in; you’re very open to the world around you during the writing of this collection.
MW: There’s the text-message poem that’s composed of texts sent to me. I didn’t write any of those. And there’s also a poem in here that has bits of email. I was reading slogans that are given out during rallies, and those were important to me and influential. I was also reading a lot of zines when I wrote the political poems. I was trying to mimic the language of zines. The earliest iteration of the collection was a zine called Poetry Maps organized by location. There’s something I really like about writing something that you really believe in, photocopying it and handing it out to your friends. And of course, I write on the subway and I write in the morning.
SH: What were some of the zines you read?
MW: One was called Redefining Consent. One of the zines was about how to give yourself an abortion, an herbal abortion. Teas you could drink to have an abortion. The psychology behind that made its way into the work. Another was called We Are Not Chicks, which was a coloring book for kids that have pictures of chicks. The zines, especially the ones about sexual assault, always have a personal story, but then they also have rules for how to act. I like that those were put together in that way, as if this is something that happened to me and here are a series of rules that people should use for how to behave around each other.
SH: This is a natural extension of what you just said. You organized the poems (meaning the table of contents) into political, dream like, money and ghosts, animals and cities. I find that interesting. I’d like you to speak about that. In a way all the poems, no matter what section, are political, feel dream-like; they are about space; they are ghost-like. So, why divide it?
MW: I divided it for my own organization. Also, I noticed a lot of books that were getting published were divided into sections; so I wanted to divide it into sections for that reason. I wanted the sections to break down and be bold. I think the politics section is the most organized by theme. But yeah, you’re right. They pretty much all have politics, money, dreams, cities, ghosts and animals in them.
SH: Which I like.
MW: I’m glad that people notice those divisions break down.
SH: Maybe that’s the interesting part. By creating those divisions…
MW: Then you can break them down. Also I wanted people to know these were the themes. That might sound silly, but I wanted it to be obvious. I teach and I have been teaching for a really long time. I’ve realized students respond really well when you have an overarching concept and then you break it down. Originally they were divided by geographic location in Poetry Maps. Call It A Window was the chapbook I had out before this collection. Both of those were organized by geography.
SH: This collection has real characters: Malcolm, Leela, Seth. It inevitably gives the reader the sense that this is confessional and memoir-like. Is that your intent and why?
MW: I think memoir is a pretty apt description of what it is. I mean a lot of it is autobiographical. Not all of it is autobiographical. I like the word “memoir” because it implies confined characters and changes with timeline. So that’s all there. Sorry [Laughing]. I feel I didn’t answer that question.
SH: No don’t worry. These things will answer themselves as we continue to talk about your work.
Your poems often felt like a quiet protest. Not anger, but a nudging of the reader. On page 29, this incredible moment of vulnerability, you say: “I wonder if someone I’m having sex with is going to kill me.” I’m really intrigued by that and the doubts connected to all these vulnerabilities.
MW: I think a lot about what convinces someone to change their opinion about something. That quiet nudging is important to me. I go to protests and rallies, and I do think they bring a lot of attention to an issue, and provide a support network for people in the rally. But I don’t think of those things as things that convince someone to change their opinion. That’s not how they function. The vulnerability is important. As a woman, being in a crowd of people is not a safe place to be. You might be at an anti-rape rally and not really feel particularly safe. I wanted to get across the vulnerabilities and doubts people in a crowd feel. For the line,”I wonder if someone I’m having sex with is going to kill me,” I was reading about the chances of a woman being killed by someone you’re intimate with—how you’re much more likely to be hurt by someone you’re intimate with than a stranger. That’s where that line comes from.
SH: At the end of the collection you talk about Shannan Gilbert and there’s a profound overlap there—intimacy and whatnot.
MW: After moving to New York, I realized there’s a large underground of people who have sex for money. I was constantly surprised by how many people I knew were working in the sex industry, even people I was close to. I wanted that to be present in these poems. When I first read about Shannan Gilbert I thought about the people I knew. This was a part of New York I didn’t expect to find coming here. But, the more I saw it, then it seemed almost ubiquitous.
SH: That’s definitely true. I know a lot of people who’ve done that work and they don’t fit the image you get from media.
MW: Yeah! I have a poem, “Porn,” about running into someone who’s sitting with this older guy. In real life I thought he was sitting with his dad but it wasn’t his dad, it was a client.
SH: The narrators consistently struggle with what it means to have sex and not necessarily love someone.
MW: That’s interesting.
SH: There’s this beautiful line: “My problem is I used to fuck / like I was in love when I really wasn’t, and now I don’t know how / to fuck at all anymore. I want you to look at me.” I love how it goes to that. I want you to look at me. That’s beautiful.
MW: It’s interesting what you say about sex. I was trying to explore the political implications of sex. But also, having sex with someone you loved, not loving that person anymore but still having sex with them. Also, even having sex with yourself. Intimacy with the self. Entering a relationship with someone and having the relationship be colored by their political views and vice versa. And, of course, you’re bringing your ideas of gender into it. When I wrote these poems the partner I had was a guy, but the partner before that was a woman.
SH: That was clear actually.
MW: Yeah, so that also played into things. What do we consider sex? Does this count, does that other thing count? With all this being said, I am definitely not writing explicitly about sex in my new work. I feel like I don’t have to explore it in that way. Now that I’ve done it, I can write about other things instead.
SH: I’ve noticed that.
MW: Yeah, because you’ve read my newer stuff. Maybe, also, because in my personal life I’ve figured a lot of these things out.
SH: A lot of us haven’t. [Laughing]
MW: Yeah, I’m much happier now. [Laughing]
SH: That’s good—I’m glad to hear that.On page 31, “It’s not enough to say ‘I want’— / you are bigger than wanting. I have never loved / so much and done so little.” This poem and this moment, captures all the themes for me of the collection. It encapsulates the longing, the sex, love and the body. The poem does it with great restraint, and it was one of those rare times when you actually spoke to the reader in the second person, in the “you.” I’m just curious about my reaction, how you feel about my reaction.
MW: This poem is a really difficult one for me to talk about. I wrote this poem when my brother was in the hospital. At the time, when I wrote, I was thinking it was about my brother. Once it was written, it was clear it was about so much more than that. So, the details in here are very specific and autobiographical: “Every day we drag the bench / from one place to another and every day they drag it back.” So when my brother was in the hospital, we would sit on this bench until it was visiting hours. The bench was further down the hall so we would drag it closer to him and wait. Every day we would drag this bench and the next day we would go back to the hospital and the bench was back in the old place. I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s also a much shorter poem.
SH: Yeah, it’s very constrained.
MW: A lot of my poems aren’t constrained. It’s funny too. I write a lot about my dreams, but also sometimes I make stuff up.
SH: You reinvent the dream.
MW: Yeah. Sometimes I can’t remember if it’s something I actually dreamt or something I wrote for a poem. “My teeth have turned into coins.” There’s another poem with coins.
SH: Yeah, I think it’s called “Coins.”
MW: Was I actually dreaming about coins or did I write it for the book? But then after the book came out, I did have a dream that there were coins under my fingers. So it’s funny: I don’t know if I dreamed about it because I was writing about it.
SH: I love that about your process—how open you are to your dreams. Some people feel the need to control their writing a lot. I love how you’re letting the world in. There’s this great charm and it’s very touching. Especially the end of your poems (“I am telling stories in which I save you”). I feel like it’s not just you, but also the narrator being saved. I love that.
MW: Thank you. In grad school what I really learned was not to explain my poems. Dreams are a shortcut for not having to explain things. People don’t expect dreams to be explained.
SH: You have a physical space, protest, wandering. The poems add up to a long mysterious journey of recreating space in the many ways there are space.
MW: That’s a good way of putting it. In my personal life I’m really interested in reclaiming space. Like abandoned buildings. On the cover is a photo of an abandoned building. New York is so crowded and busy, but even within that there are all these empty spaces that people don’t go into. And reclaiming spaces is really important in politics. Whether it’s guerilla gardening or squatting a building, physically claiming a space is so necessary.
SH: For me, it’s also the emotional space, the sexual space. After a while, your language reminded of Calvino. This dream-like quality of your work.
MW: He’s my favorite writer. When I was little, like eleven or twelve, my grandfather told me to read If on a winter’s night a traveler. I re-read that book all the time. I’m currently reading, like I was reading right before you met me, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. I love Calvino. What he does is magic. The way I write about political events is very different from Calvino. But I would say being generous with your reader is what I’ve learned from him. When I read Calvino, I feel like he wants to tell me this story, he wants to let me in.
SH: The other connection I saw with him is this great wondering about space and this reimagining of city.
MW: It’s funny: I never saw my work with Calvino’s in that way. He’s obsessed with cities.
SH: Clearly. He invents it over and over again. You’re doing the same thing.
MW: Well, that’s really good to hear.
SH: After I read “Summer,” two thirds of the collection is already done. The language becomes more intense all of a sudden. So then I feel like the collection has moving parts building towards a crescendo.
MW: “Summer” is my favorite poem in the book. It’s one of the only poems in the book I really don’t think I revised at all. I completely forgot I wrote it. It was more like something I found than something I wrote. The feeling I had when I rediscovered it in my journal, when I read it again—I was surprised that I had written it. “Summer” is one of the defining poems of the collection for me. The speaker really acknowledges her own guilt. I did something that hurt someone a lot and I’m also not honest with that person. So I agree with you, the language is very different in that poem.
SH: “I want to say I’ve already done my part but that’s never true.” That’s startlingly honest. You’re building this relationship with the reader, and then this poem comes and I’m like, Oh shit! So I was wondering how much thought went into the order of the poems. It feels very purposeful. There’s this lulling, then all this story building. Then there’s this “I used to fuck like I was in love.” The language is ratcheting up.
MW: In my chapbook, Call It A Window, this was the last poem. Here I knew it was going to be in the last section because it didn’t fit in the political, dreams or the money and ghosts sections. But you know, when I read poetry books I don’t read them in order. I don’t read them from front to back. It’s more important to me that it is in this section rather than where it fell in the animals and cities section. Thinking about it, I knew I wanted it to be towards the end of the book and not one of the first poems you read. It’s interesting, too, talking about desire. This is also a poem about still feeling a lot of physical desire but not really liking that person anymore.
SH: This is a very feminine, womanly collection.
MW: Yeah. [Laughing]
SH: I don’t mean the themes, necessarily, but in the way they are explored. These ideas of rape, sex, body and love. And ultimately, the pressures, fears and dangers that only a woman could face.
MW: Yeah. I didn’t want to shy away from this having a female voice, whatever that means. I looked at this as someone reading it should know what it’s like to be a woman in this world. This is what it’s like to be a young woman.
SH: “From the Shore” felt like a central poem to me. Can you speak about it?
MW: That was originally the title of the collection. When I wrote this it put a lot of things together for me. The idea that through sex you become other things, and then you return to yourself. It’s kind of a beautiful thing. Also I grew up near the water. I spend a lot of time by the water. A lot of these poems have someone looking at the water. This idea that: I’m standing in one place, looking at something else. That’s a powerful place to stand, politically speaking. I was really happy with the ending because a lot of things came together for me in this poem.
SH: It’s a great metaphor between what a river does and what the narrator is doing at the same time.
MW: I wrote that poem imagining I was standing at the Williamsburg waterfront looking at the Williamsburg Bridge, Manhattan and the East River. To me, it’s a very specific poem but I understand how it can be any river.
SH: For sure. It’s a very grounded New York poem.
Certain images consistently come up in the work: blood, water, rats, cats, actually cats often fighting with rats and the subway. Tell me about this, why these images are a refrain in your work.
MW: So I studied with Sharon Olds and then I had Charles Simic as a professor the next semester. They had completely different taste in what they liked. Simic seemed to really like my poems about animals. He never said to write poems about animals. But then I looked at his poems, and he often wrote about animals and often about rats. The first poem that made me want to write more about animals was the poem “Newtown Creek.” There are the signs “Guards Armed and Unarmed” and “Beware of Dogs.” Simic ended up talking about the first one, because any guard is either going to be armed or unarmed. It’s a funny thing. And I realized people really identify with animals and enjoy reading about them. People are interested in animals in the city, the way that bodegas have cats to keep away the rats. Or the feral cats at JFK and the cab drivers that feed the cats. I love thinking about that. Cab drivers, who don’t have a lot of money, choosing to spend their money on these feral cats who live in JFK. It was so bizarre, but so beautiful. In the city we interact with animals all the time, so I wanted to bring that forward in the poems.
SH: Interesting. Well, water you’ve spoken about and even the subway—when you talk about writing on the train. But the blood. Sometimes it’s a menstrual thing. Sometimes it’s an open cut.
MW: I guess that worked its way in. I have dreams about blood. For the Lee Harvey Oswald poem, and the other one where I say I was up to my forearms in dark blood, with this metaphor I was trying to push limits, push the reader into uncomfortable territory. I wanted the reader to feel weirded out.
SH: I didn’t feel weirded out, but maybe that has to do with my own work. I don’t know which poem you’re talking about, is it “Traditions”?
SH: The vulnerability of that process and having sex for the first time.
MW: Yeah, that process for women. Virgin blood and menstrual blood. Having sex for the first time. I remember my Japanese roommate in college told me geishas would fetch a higher price when they had sex on their period by pretending they were virgins. That story always stuck with me. But it’s funny: After this book came out, one of my friends was like, I can’t believe you have sex when you have your period. I was like, I don’t know—it just happens sometimes. I just thought everyone was like, Yeah, sometimes. But my friend was like, Never. It was a funny and strange conversation.
SH: In “Traditions,” the narrator has sex with her boyfriend for the first time without a condom. So, there’s a more intense vulnerability, a real possibility of getting pregnant that really works here.
MW: The narrator is more vulnerable here than other times. She deals with power struggles in her relationships. Who has the power? Where does it shift and why does it shift? “Summer” and “Traditions” are both poems that I look at to see this dynamic.
SH: The way you construct “Autobiography, 1999” gets us into the experience of the narrator.
MW: It took me years to write this poem. The construct is the dream and the father, and how the father becomes dream-like. The difficult part in constructing this poem was the number of people in the poem. That’s why it is longer.
SH: That felt right to me. I wasn’t thinking about length. It seemed to necessitate a longer poem. So there’s Kyle, the father and the narrator.
MW: And also the therapist. The narrator tells the dream to the therapist.
SH: In one of the Shannan Gilbert poems you say: “(And now, alone, I wish so much that you were alive).” That parenthesis for me felt like it was signaling a shame to admit that truth.
MW: Definitely. When I was writing these Shannan Gilbert poems, I felt really strongly that I didn’t want it to be my interpretation of her. How can I explain it? You know how sometimes you’ll read a war poem written by someone who has never been in a war zone? It’s like I picture the bombs going off, I picture the blood everywhere. It’s just like putting line breaks in a newspaper article and putting “I wish” in front of it. I very much didn’t want that, but at the same time it becomes necessary to say towards the end, to say “I wish.”
SH: In many ways this collection is speaking to a lot of different histories and stories: the history of schools and movements; the history of the narrator herself; the politics and history of sex. All of that is captured in these three Shannan Gilbert poems. Through this death something is born again. Something happens. Some energy and life happens again to the point where the narrator is like, Damn, I wish you were alive!
MW: In looking for her they found other bodies. So much about what happened to her doesn’t make sense to me. None of it makes sense. But in looking for her they found other things. I guess that’s a metaphor for writing in general. You sit down to write a poem about one thing, and in so doing, you discover these other things. And just wanting to humanize her. As a Long Islander, I was naturally interested in the Long Island Serial Killer, although I didn’t think of it in that name—I thought of it as the South Shore murders, or the Shannan Gilbert story.
It always seemed like it was her story. A woman, working as a call girl or, in old parlance, just a “working girl,” runs screaming from a client’s house. She disappears into the night. The police search for her, and turn up four bodies—none of them hers. What’s more, the client is not a suspect, although everyone knows who the client is and that she ran screaming from his house. Police theorize that she disappeared into a salt marsh.
When I heard the story, though, I also remembered the time that I almost drowned in a salt marsh. A lifelong beachgoer, I have had two close calls. One was six years old and getting caught in a riptide off Coney Island. The other was when I was nine, and, I thought, older and wiser. A friend and I decided to play in the salt marsh in Northport, near her house. We waded out. The water wasn’t deep—maybe only a few inches.
But then, suddenly, I couldn’t move. Neither could she. Our feet were caught in the mud. I could not lift my foot. I wasn’t a crier as a kid, especially not at age nine (when I thought of myself as worldly and pioneering), but I cried and cried. I knew how the tide worked; I knew that it would come in and I would be stuck. I also knew that it was cold.
Of course, in that pulling, I realized that I could slip my foot out from the boot. And I did. Without boots, my feet were light enough that I could run over the mud and back to shore, leaving the boots there. Erica, the friend who I was with, realized the same. We held hands and ran.
Later, her father waded out and rescued our boots.
I thought of that day often when I heard about the case, and even more when Gilbert’s body was found in the salt marsh. When I wrote those poems, I remembered the terror I had felt, in broad daylight, and I imagined what it must have been like for someone who wasn’t familiar with a salt marsh. I also thought about how easy it would be to drown or freeze to death if you fell and were unable to free yourself.
What really prompted the actual poems, though, was a New York Times article once her body was found. And, of course, I had ideas bobbing around in my head about how she was always referred to as a “missing prostitute” rather than a “missing woman” or, hey, even a “missing person.” I guess someone stops being a person when they’re a prostitute? I don’t want to re-read the article because I like my memory of it, but her family said something about her death being a way to guide the world towards finding the other missing women. They might have even said that her body was a map.
Finally, in the draft of No Apocalypse that I sent to Georgetown Review, there were four Shannan Gilbert poems. After the manuscript was accepted, I combined two of the poems, so now there are only three.
I wrote all four poems in one spurt, sitting on my bed in the evening (I almost always write in the morning), flipping between the Times article and Microsoft Word. I was afraid of writing them, because I didn’t want to use her, to turn her into something that she wasn’t. So I just wrote before I could convince myself out of writing.
SH: The Trayvon Martin poem made me pause and took me out of the collection, because it’s the only poem where race seemed to matter. That bothered me. Why have this poem if we aren’t exploring race in the whole collection?
MW: I don’t know. I guess you’re right. I probably should have been exploring race in the collection.
SH: I’m not saying that.
MW: I wasn’t really sure how to approach it. It’s interesting, because I guess it was something I didn’t know how to approach and didn’t feel comfortable approaching. In these poems I wasn’t really sure how to go about it. It’s something I wasn’t really thinking about. “Ghosts, Memory, Grief” : I connected this poem with the women out on Long Island and with this idea of memory. Philosophically speaking, someone doesn’t physically exist anymore, but then they’re existing in this completely different way for all these different people.
SH: That makes sense. It’s clear to me that in your process with these poems, events matter—Wikileaks, Shannan Gilbert, events that made the national news.
MW: With Wikileaks I tried reading the leaked documents. Or with Trayvon Martin, I went to the rallies. Trying not to be separated from it, but being separated enough where I could write a poem. Even if you disagree with my political beliefs, that’s not going to make you want to throw the book across the room.
SH: That’s very important. I lived in Hell’s Kitchen when the Republican convention was there. All these rallies with photos of George W. Bush being the devil and that stuff always bothers me.
MW: Yeah, because it’s shutting down conversation and dialogue instead of opening it up.
SH: Poetry can have this unfair rep for being about this small moment, like a flower, but many readers end up feeling like: Why is that important? What I really love about your work is even in the quietest of moments, you know, as a reader, that the implications are much bigger.
MW: I wanted these poems to be genuine and honest. And they are for better or worse. They are.
SH: I don’t think there’s a worse, I think it’s for better. The honesty becomes more and more and more stinging.
MW: The stuff I’m writing now is a smaller body. When I was writing these poems almost nothing was off limits. Now when I write, there are more things I won’t write about.
SH: At least won’t publish.
MW: Well, anything I write, I want to publish.
SH: I see, interesting. Well, besides Calvino, what and who are your influences?
MW: Kerouac and Ginsberg both wrote about place. Love Sharon Olds and Simic. Those are my influences.
SH: A woman loving another woman, sexually—you hint at it. But heterosexual sex is explicitly talked about. Why?
MW: That’s interesting. Probably my life experience. I think it’s that simple. But I guess, also, I identify as straight. I would say I was trying to explore a lot of things about heterosexual relationships in these poems.
SH: As a man reading this, I thought, I want men to read these poems. It brings to the forefront things I think are important for men to think about.
MW: Yeah, in “Newtown Creek,” the lover’s jaw is broken. That’s something I think about as a difference between girls and guys. How guys get into physical altercations and women don’t. How, even if you’re not afraid your boyfriend is going to hit you, it’s also weird thinking about him hitting someone else and being hit back. Getting into physical fights, it’s not something that’s a part of my narrative as a woman.
SH: What are you reading now?
MW: I was reading Bolano, By Night in Chile and Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor. I was also reading like every old New Yorker. And I read The New York Review of Books.
Monica Wendel is the author of No Apocalypse and the chapbooks Call it a Window (Midwest Writing Center, 2012) and Pioneer (Thrush Press, forthcoming). She is assistant professor of composition and creative writing at St. Thomas Aquinas College.