Aarik Danielsen|Columbia Daily Tribune
Very little escapes Claire Wahmanholm's attention at least as we encounter her on the page.
The Twin Cities-based poet, whose books include 2018's "Wilder" and 2019's "Redmouth," sees nature's seams, its abundance and scarcity, its combustion points and then writes them into the permanent record in devastatingly beautiful dispatches.
Turning her phrases to gazeat creatures who look and act like her, Wahmanholm avoids elevating humans above the rest of the natural order; rather, she places us in context, mercifully granting a greater understanding ofour place within the wilder world. And, in acts of confession, she identifieswhere we've abdicated our end of the bargain that creates harmony.
Thursday, Wahmanholm will participate in a virtual reading as part of the Unbound Book Festival, which has moved from one in-person weekend to four months of online events in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ahead of the reading, she traded emails with the Tribune to discuss how a heightened sense ofmortality impacts her work, parenthood as an act of attention and poetry and much more.
Tribune: Youll be participating in this reading with peer poets Jenny Xie and Jay Deshpande. How do events like these tend to nourish your own creativityperhaps especially at a time of relative isolation?
Wahmanholm: This event is coming at a really welcome time for me: this past fall was such a rough one. It ended up being the most inhumane semester of my teaching career (I dont think this is an uncommon feeling among educators). No one, teacher or student, was doing their best work, and morale was very low across the board. Preparing for and getting through each individual day became my only focus I could barely look ahead to the end of a week.
Needless to say, I wasnt connecting with my own poetry or anyone elses. Im really grateful to be returned to poetry in this way. And group readings are always so much more fun than solo ones I love hearing how themes or images or even sounds carry and warp from one poet to the next. I love the polyphony.
Tribune: Something that strikes me in your work is the way you unite yourself (or humanity, more generally) to nature. Were used to poets personifying nature; you almost do this in reverse writing of us in elemental, wild terms. What are the particular challenges and joys of recognizing your own smallness (and oneness), then putting that on the page?
Wahmanholm: Personification is sometimes spoken about as an elevating practice that it elevates nature to the level of humanity. Which is a horrible and backwards way to think about it, of course. Acting like were big and special has had devastating consequences, so I see the insistence on our smallness as an ethical orientation.
During my exam year at my Ph.D program, I remember talking to one of my committee members (the ecologist Nalini Nadkarni) about how being human is so deeply painful because we are uniquely cursed with consciousness (or something), and she was like, Oh I would never say that consciousness is unique to humans how could you even claim that?
And I was like … OH. And felt like an idiot, of course, but in a good way. And that idea has since never been far from me.
I have a pretty gripping fear of death, and I spend a lot of time grieving over the fact that Ill be dead someday, which Im perfectly aware is a waste of energy, but which I also cant help. Being dead is a state that is fundamentally incompatible with human experience/perception/schemas, and in that way, maybe shares something with the consciousnesses of the non-human world. So becoming more elemental, as you say, is as close as I can come to imagining death. Its a way of softening it for myself, maybe. Its a kind of exposure therapy. Writing through it and then seeing it reflected back at me fills me with vertigo and dread, but the more I do it the more at peace I hope to be (it hasnt worked yet, but no harm trying!).
Tribune:Its surprisingly easy for us to forget the Earth especially at moments like this, where it feels like were all just trying to get by. How might poems especially yours be uniquely capable of reminding us that our flourishing and natures flourishing are one and the same?
Wahmanholm:Its funny as a parent of two young children, I find it really hard to forget the Earth. Parenthood returned my eye to what we might think of as the more mundane aspects of nature.
When I was out on walks with my children and trying to introduce them to the world, I found myself being like LOOK AT THIS NEAT PIECE OF BARK, KIDS or ISNT THAT A BEAUTIFUL ANT? And then Id be like, huh, that bark is actually pretty neat. Like how they say teaching something is the best way to learn it.
But parenthood also brought the future into very sharp relief. So much of childrens books are about the natural world, introducing children to the dramatis personae of the animal kingdom, etc. Im reading through all these alphabet books, and Im like, are rhinoceros even going to be around when my children grow up? So the Earth has played a central part of my consciousness over the last four years or so.
But the pandemic has elevated it, too. Weve been newly grateful for the parks and outdoors spaces we have near us, urban though they are. Especially since, on balance, its safer to be outside, those spaces have been serious refuges. When we cant get out, weve been doing a lot of nature shows; last year we watched the "Our Planet" series, which, I discovered, is far more pointed in its ethical orientation than your standard BBC nature documentary.
Like, just as you think youre going to have fun watching the animals just vibing in their element, David Attenborough comes on and is like BECAUSE OF HUMAN ACTIVITY, THESE ADORABLE MARMOSETS WILL ALL BE DEAD NEXT WEEK. And I mean, hes not wrong just because something is grim doesnt make it untrue. And I dont necessarily want to shield my children from that information. But its also a lot. So oof, the Earth is always on my mind. I do think that poems are especially well-suited for reminding us of our inextricability from the rest of the natural world, and I guess I see parenthood as one long, wounding, beautiful poem in that way.
Tribune: Apoem likePreservecoaxes beautiful passages of music and silence from a forest. Im curious about the role of attention in a poem like this. Do you feel immediately attuned to these qualities while present in nature, or do they reveal themselves upon further reflection?
Wahmanholm:I'm interested in the directionality there; I actually see it in reverse that the forest is coaxing those things out of me.
And I love the word attune here to bring into right pitch, right relation; but it comes from atone which in turn comes from the phrase at one. My fear of death is really a fear of becoming unattached from the world, and so Im always finding ways to re-anchor myself to it (even while knowing that death is probably as close to at-onement with nature as were likely to have). Anyway I try to be as deeply attuned as I can at all times. Its probably an impossible but hopefully not an unworthy aim.
But in terms of process, I dont usually write while in the middle of experience most of my place-centric poems are constructed from memory. Sometimes I remember things clearly, and sometimes I rely on guesswork. Ill try out various phrases/images/combinations of words to see if they feel authentic to the memory.
Does songbird bindle match? Does a tingling like my lungs are falling asleep return me to the feeling of that particular place? If no, I try out different combinations until one feels familiar.
Tribune:Whether its in your alliterated poems, more formally inventive pieces or even the use of words like re-spool, theres often a playfulness to your use of language. What balance have you negotiated, or are you negotiating, between substance and style in your work? Between keeping language alive and capturing the readers emotions?
Wahmanholm:I find that keeping language alive and capturing the readers emotions actually reinforce/elevate each other, rather than being in tension with each other. For me, the music of a poem functions as a sort of subconscious, a sort of weather. Weather isnt really content, but it affects a moment nevertheless.
The way I think about it, one thing a poems music can do is carry you over a rift in your understanding. Hopkins is one of my all-time favorite poets for just this reason. Like, do I understand 100% of what Hopkins is about? Nope! But his music, his density, his weirdness, supplies enough of the atmosphere or tone that Im still able to be emotionally devastated by his work. The music is the gesture that says "follow me." It is a generosity.
A poem cannot (should not?) promise to be comprehensible to all readers at all times, but the music of a poem helps you inhabit the poem even without complete comprehension, which is a gift.
If I can return to the idea of attunement: using surprising or playful language is a way for me to be more attuned to the world. I am endlessly astonished by my existence, so I try as hard as I can to capture that astonishment and surreality in my language.
Tribune:Whats one line of poetry that youre really captivated by or proud of at the moment?
Wahmanholm:I've been catching up on a lot of books I acquired last fall but wasnt able to dig into until this month. One of these is S. Brook Corfmans "My Daily Actions, or The Meteorites." The penultimate poem in the book ends When I opened the door, I had my phone to my ear, still locked, to show whatever was coming from the other side that I was not alone, which just totally knocked me over, and which Im still haunted by.
Find out more about Thursday's panel at unboundbookfestival.com.
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