Woodland Pattern Book Center is a non-profit cultural center which houses a bookstore with over 25,000 small press titles and an art gallery which hosts exhibitions, artist talks, poetry readings, experimental films, concerts and writing workshops in the Riverwest neighborhood in Milwaukee.
This Woodland Pattern interview series will document conversations between some of the writers, artists and performers who pass through Woodland Pattern and Milwaukee.
Meg Day and Nikki Wallschlaeger read at Woodland Pattern on October 15, 2014. Below are excerpts from their reading as well as a conversation conducted via e-mail after the reading.
Meg Day, “Aubade Today,” “There’s Snow in the West,” and “Hymn to a Landlocked God”
recorded by Michael Wendt, Woodland Pattern, October 15, 2014.
Nikki Wallschlaeger, “Sonnet 4,” “Sonnet 13,” and “Sonnet 15”
recorded by Michael Wendt, Woodland Pattern, October 15, 2014.
Meg Day: One thing I’m always wondering about is whether or not poets feel a kinship or connectedness with other poets. Do you feel like you’re pretty much on your own when it comes to the poetry and the writing, etc., or do you feel like there is some larger web or safety net or quiet bolstering happening for you as a poet? Or maybe something else entirely?
Nikki Wallschlaeger: I feel connected to other poets for different reasons, but there’s never one poet that meets all of my needs. For instance, I can get down with poets from the region where I live in the Midwest. That’s how my relationship started with Horse Less Press, who are going to publish my first book. They’re really into publishing and connecting with poets who write experimental pastoral poetry, so we recognize each other in a regional way, which can be really fun, considering how poetry can clash and respond with local cultures where a poet might feel like a bit of an outcast. But as a whole, my relationships with poetry communities and poets tend to be compartmentalized as far as organizing and connecting through different poetry styles. As a woman of color, my realities in this country are such a huge part of my work; that goes with me everywhere. I am myself, whatever space I’m in, and since I’m a pretty mutable person when it comes to poetry, more often than not, I choose to be influenced by another poet’s work if it feels right to me.
MD: What you’re saying about geography really resonates with me, both in terms of having read & heard your work, but also within my own poetics. I love that Horse Less Press is a sort of perfect fit in terms of the experimental pastoral.
I think geography and infrastructure and politics and personal safety (especially as a queer person) intersect pretty hard in terms of what’s possible for a community of poets, but also what kinds of poems are available for writing. When I lived in the Bay Area, it was really easy to experiment with forms and find good conversations happening around conceptual poetics and different kinds of textual performativity. After moving to the mountain west, I realized that those conversations were harder to find but that writing into inherited forms became so much easier. The pace of the Bay Area affects that for me, I know–the cost of living made it so that I was spending a lot of time writing while on public transit between jobs, which maybe freed up new options for how the work might come to exist. In Salt Lake City, I very rarely find myself on public transit for more than fifteen minutes at a time and instead have much more desk-sitting built into my day. I’m not holding a notebook against my thigh while trying to stand up on BART; I’m looking at a stationary laptop and thinking in different metres–slower ones.
Do you find that your surroundings are what’s affecting your form, or something else? I’m thinking specifically of I Would Be The Happiest Bird, out from Horse Less Press this year, and the ways that those pieces shift very swiftly, but quietly, from larger blocks or chunks of text into something a little more airy and lineated, and back again. Can you say more about that particular chap?
NW: Well, I wrote that entire chapbook in the middle of winter so I suppose being inside all the time hiding from the weather may have had an influence. A lot of the poems in that collection are in prose form, struggling inside their households. Although some of them make a break for it. Maybe those are the ones I wrote after venturing outside and braving the ice & snow? I Would Be the Happiest Bird is basically about escape–the small town that I was born in, my family history, having to endure being tolerated but not understood by the people who claim to love you. Who wouldn’t fantasize about growing some sort of wings to make a new life for oneself somewhere else? I’ve lived far enough away for sometime now to do that, but as I get older, I’m realizing there’s still so much work to be done, so I just end up writing about it. It helps me keep my sense of humor.
There was a similar theme that I noticed and resonated with in Last Psalm at Sea Level–a fluctuation between the fluidity of living by the ocean and a sensation of feeling landlocked. I remember at the reading you mentioned that living in Utah was the cause of that. Do you find yourself responding conceptually to “landlockedness” as a state of mind, possibly in the vast difference in the political/cultural landscape you live in now, or is it more of a physical response to the natural landscape?
MD: Oh, that’s an interesting distinction. I definitely think about my first year in Utah and the culture shock and the snow and every memory kind of caves into that weight, obliterates itself. I think Last Psalm at Sea Level begins where it does because everything prior to that is just wreckage, is trying to dig its way out. I know, in at least some version, what you mean when you say “hiding from the weather”–I think I hid from that and more in my first year near the Great Salt Lake. What’s underneath, I think, is maybe a combination of both the physical, lived reality within a new natural landscape (snow! ice! how to dress for cold weather! re-learning to drive!) and also the shifty, which-way-are-you-moving two-step dance of trying to fit one political/cultural landscape into a new one that is really differently shaped. I think this relates to part of what’s so exciting about writing residencies or getting to travel and read poems in new places–you find that you’re loaded up with all of these pretty solid understandings of how to be a person in the world, but then you arrive in a place that’s different and people know how to be people in different ways and everything gets thrown out of whack and allows for new work to happen through unexpected and unanticipated avenues. I can see those moments in Last Psalm at Sea Level, can feel the different pace. The difference is that writing residencies are temporary and you expose yourself only long enough to feel the effects and benefit from that time and solitude, but then you go home. It took me a long time to feel like I came home from–or rather, to–Utah.
This is maybe beside the point, but coming from the West Coast, I was brought up with what I now know is this kind of California elitism and an understanding that because of the weather and the politics and the diversity there, everywhere else in the country was not as good and was definitely scarier (because other places were supposedly less liberal? I don’t know), or somehow less-than. As awful and ridiculous as it is, this is not uncommon, I think, for folks who were raised on either coast or moved to and live on a coast–privilege and cost of living aside, there’s some serious cultural capital at work in states and communities with access to the Pacific and the Atlantic. I’ve said this before, but the majority of the responses from my community, when I moved from the Bay Area to Salt Lake City were rooted in disbelief and a sort of flippant anger–like, why would I do a stupid thing like that, you know? I really love baseball–and so even this last week, I’ve been watching my Facebook feed fill up with really disconcerting things about the World Series and a lot of disparaging stereotypes are being thrown around about the Kansas City Royals and #flyoverstates in general, and I mostly just think a lot about what I was taught as a young person about the Midwest (which was, very simply, that there wasn’t anything there), versus the actuality and what ended up being my really rich and sweet understanding of the Midwest and its history and my queer kin who have come from there or moved to live there. I feel pretty cheated out of so many possible lives because of misconceptions and false ideas about particular parts of the country, especially as they relate to the queer community. I think a big part of Last Psalm at Sea Level has to do with coming to that frustrating realization, settling with it, and being really excited about where I might live next.
I love what you’ve said about the little houses in I Would Be The Happiest Bird, and I know your new full-length collection, HOUSES, is on its way into the world soon. Do you still, as you say, “fantasize about growing some sort of wing to make a new life for [yourself] somewhere else?” Does the poetry satisfy that for you, or are you interested in new natural landscapes? And how does your sonnets project fit into this idea of possibility for you?
NW: I will always desire movement, no matter where I go. I think this comes as a direct result of living in such a xenophobic country like the United States of America, and having to experience that from your own family while growing up. It’s ingrained in me and that’s why so much of my poetry is really just escape fantasies. Poetry helps me cope, but it does not satisfy my desire to see the world and get as far away from America as I can, which I know is in itself a fantasy, since America has made itself felt in all corners of the globe, with its hundreds of shiny military bases directing people, cultures, and traffic. But I would like to temper the influence it has on me–my oppression as a black woman–and figure out how to survive before I die from hypertension. James Baldwin was very aware of this when he made the decision to move to France, that if he didn’t, he would end up being another casualty in this absurd war America has been waging physically and psychologically on people of color. I don’t feel that it has come to that (yet) but until then, my poetry is going to reflect both my fantasies of escape and what I have to endure under daily duress. My sonnet project, which is going to be called Crawlspace, is more direct about living under these kinds of surveillances and the voices that are born underneath them.
I enjoy natural landscapes. I am very much a lover of the natural world, and I can find sanctuary in animals, flowers, trees, insects. I enjoy the natural landscapes of the States–we really are lucky to have such a range of climates and environments, from arid to tropical to temperate, oceans to mountains to desert and rich forests–but there’s a limit to that too, of course; they are being destroyed. We have a nice sized backyard in Milwaukee where we have a garden. There are animals, flowers, bees, squirrels. This little area is home to so much life. It’s taught me a lot about not taking what we have left for granted, that there’s no such thing as a common species or a weed, like when people call seagulls “rats with wings,” it’s so ridiculous when people say things like that. Nature is not meant to be exotic, it’s meant to be lived with. That is also another part of my poetry, to try and be with what we have in front of us.
MD: Yes! Baldwin is frequently quoted as having said that “the place in which [he] belong[s] [would] not exist until he made it,” but then, in later interviews, talks about how there is so much to be said for the in-between of that, the half-making, the moving-away-from, the reinvention. It makes me think a lot about what you’re saying in regard to not taking what little there is for granted, but mostly insofar as we sometimes get an opportunity to take what we have and make it work, reinvent how it might suit us. I see this happening all the time in your work and I’m so excited to see your sonnet project taking shape. I loved what I heard at Woodland Pattern and I feel really fortunate to stand witness to the parts of it on the internet–and also through the memes you’re developing and sharing on social media. Do you want to talk about those?
NW: The memes I have been developing on social media are a very new project that happened this week. I say “happened” because that’s how they came into existence–I was just looking for a new profile picture and got the idea for them. They feature Julia, the first African-American Barbie doll that was created in the 60’s. Since this is still so new, I haven’t had time yet to research the Nurse Julia character she was based upon, but I’m definitely planning to, and to also do my own photography of them once I purchase my own Julia doll. So far, I’m exploring how memes can work as a kind of poetry shorthand, as well as a space for direct responses to injustice, and to weave Julia as a black feminist persona figure with lines from my own work. I’ve been using lines from some of my sonnets for this, the lines I felt worked both as poetry and direct political response. It feels deeply satisfying to be working on a project that is both visual and literary, so I’m really excited about this. Memes are fascinating. I think they say a lot about our culture right now–its speed, intensity, and attention spans, and how information platforms and social media converge when it feels like sometimes the only thing we are allowed to do is talk to each other on Facebook.
Meg Day, selected for Best New Poets of 2013, is a 2013 recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry and the author of Last Psalm at Sea Level (Barrow Street 2014, winner of the 2013 Barrow Street First Book Prize in Poetry), When All You Have Is a Hammer (winner of the 2012 Gertrude Press Chapbook Contest), and We Can’t Read This (winner of the 2013 Gazing Grain Chapbook Contest). A 2012 AWP Intro Journals Award Winner, she has also received awards and fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Hedgebrook, Squaw Valley Writers, the Taft-Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities, and the International Queer Arts Festival. Meg is currently a PhD candidate, Steffensen-Cannon Fellow, & Point Foundation Scholar in Poetry & Disability Poetics at the University of Utah.
Nikki Wallschlaeger’s work has been featured in Spork, Horse Less Review, Storyscape Journal, Coconut, The Account, Fanzine, Elective Affinities, & others. She is the author of the chapbook The Frogs at Night (Shirt Pocket Press) and the chapbook I Would Be the Happiest Bird (Horseless Press). Her first full-length book of poems, HOUSES, is forthcoming from Horse Less Press in 2015. She’s also an Assistant Poetry Editor at Coconut Poetry.