Nikki Wallschlaeger in Conversation with Sarah Richards Graba

SRG: The sonnets are numbered 1 through 55, but there are actually only 40 sonnets included in the collection. What happened to the sonnets you did not include here?

NW: They were sonnets I decided not to include, and I didn’t want to reorder them. Some things are better left unsaid in spoken languages. Ghosts haunt my manuscripts—ghosts of past selves, ghosts of others. They’re not always clear, these muses, so I let them have their space. It’s a way to support them, because if it wasn’t for the muses, how could a poet keep their secrets?

SRG: I’m interested in the cover art, “I Am Several Versions of Myself” by Dara Cerv. Can you tell me a little about this art? Did you choose it? Were you familiar with Cerv’s work? I’m particularly struck by the hands and the brown rocks, mixed in with silver. There is almost a making of oneself out of the earth. (This thought makes me associate it with how diamonds are made: under extreme pressure and over a long period of time.) How does this art piece speak to the concept of “duress” in your work?

NW: I had been following Dara’s work on Instagram and really enjoying it; I love collage work. I knew she had worked with Lauren Hunter on the cover of her book Human Achievements (Birds, LLC.) so I was interested . Then I saw the collage “I am Several Versions of Myself” and it really resonated with me. Then Dara send me a n unexpected message saying how much she enjoyed Houses and how important it was to her! I took that as a sign that us working together for the cover with Bloof was meant to be. Yes, you’re right—the artwork definitely speaks of duress, doesn’t it? That out of constant pressure new objects are formed, new selves are formed in response to one’s environment. It’s a great piece. I love the color red, red speaks of root connections, transformational and volatile feelings, and earth connection; the hand coming out of the bedrock holding a cup.

SRG: In your talk, you discussed mainly a “poetics of duress,” but you also briefly mentioned, at the end, a “poetics of magic.” To you, how do these poetics intersect and relate to each other in your work?

NW: Magic is the antidote to duress. The collecting of objects and their placement infused with desires. I think art that decides to live exists to influence the world, which is what magic sets out to do. All of my poems are infused with so many things, even stuff I find out later that I didn’t know I was asking for. At some point oppression fades enough so you begin to see what you can do, and that there are opportunities to move beyond it. I don’t mean playing the respectability politics game, I am talking about when an artist decides that the power an oppressor has comes from the same source of power they stole it from, which is you. Poetry may not be able to physically move mountains, but it can assist with changing the concept of what’s getting in your way. It’s a magical practice you can align with yourself and your community. There is potential for change. I think it’s foolish to underestimate the lessons a living art has to teach people.

SRG: Architecturally, the crawlspace is the dark underbelly of a structure—or the unseen space above, like an attic. You said that the crawlspace as a figure here represents the “unconscious, preconscious.” In this way, do you think these poems are more raw, honest, or unassuming? I’m thinking about this in contrast to the figure of the house, which may be more “curated”—if not for visitors, at least for the occupants of the space.

NW: Yes, absolutely. Housing is definitely a curated, classed, racialized, colonized, gendered, and controlled environment. Basements and crawlspaces in psychology have long been symbols for unconscious and preconscious thought. It’s those places where we store our most valued treasures, things we cannot throw away. But sometimes we need to do some cleaning, do a little organizing on our time off, to make space for something new in order to grow. Visitors usually are not invited into these intimate spaces where our more honest selves are laid bare, where mysteries are kept and guard their own worlds so that they may affect what’s above them in the floors above. When people come to our doors for obligatory and (forced entry) visits we make small talk and sometimes invite them in. What do they get to see? Who are the many varieties of contractors and developers that decide what is appropriate subject matter to talk about in a capitalistic culture perpetually closing in on itself?

SRG: What are you working on now? Will you continue to explore the poetic of duress? Do you expect to continue to use architectural metaphor to understand space and thought?

NW: Right now I’m about 1/3 of the way through writing my next book, which is called Waterbaby. Denver Quarterly, Witness, Georgia Review, Bennington Review, Apogee, Spoon River Review, The Journal Petra, The Feminist Wire, American Poetry Review and the podcast from the Poetry Foundation PoetryNow have recently published work from this manuscript. I’m really excited by the reception of these poems. This book is different than my first 2 books—the poems have their own titles. But the overarching theme of this book is water and all the metaphors /realities that come with it—depression, global capitalism’s unforgivable disrespect to water and the human and animal rights to have it, news cycles, Trump era despair, white supremacy, the limits of black representation in popular culture, motherhood, domestic labor, feminism, aging, climate change, autobiographical and historical memory, the blues, and more. So the architecture this time is less rigid, but still contained. Rivers, oceans, lakes and the weather are unpredictable forces of nature that human life tries to control. But you can’t expect this control to last. So it’s also a book about what we can’t control, and what I cannot control in my personal life, like emotions and oppressive social structures that don’t make any sense. But water finds a way. It comes through. Sometimes you drown, sometimes you find out you’re not that bad of a swimmer after all during a 400 year old flood. How does an element that sustains life react to duress? This is what I’m exploring in this book. If we let the water carry us to places we take a chance in trusting where we previously thought were impossible, where might it lead us? “Show Me the River” sang Big Mama Thornton in “That Lucky Old Sun.” Water is ancient, water as a molecule beyond this planet and ourselves older still– and we are all connected for better and unfortunately for worse. There’s nothing we can do about it.

Nikki Wallschlaeger’s second full length book of poetry, Crawlspace (Bloof Books, 2017), deals with fraughtness, duress, and subversion of form. A collection of sonnets that simultaneously rebels against the form of the sonnet, Crawlspace in interested in twisting expectations and revealing the shadows that underpin consciousness and “polite society.”

I first became familar with Wallschlaeger through Twitter; her tweets kept coming up on my newsfeed as friend after poet-friend liked and retweeted them. This was around the time that her graphic chapbook I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel (Bloof Books, 2015) had come out. I read that book online, where photos of a posed black Barbie doll with short, red hair were accompanied by words from Wallschlaeger’s poetry—a book of memes. (My favorite: “Like all good house girls I am growing mandibles under my shift.”) Soon after, I got my hands on a copy of Wallschlaeger’s first book, Houses (Horse Less Press, 2015). These freeverse poems, each titled after a house color (Red House, Blue House, Pine Green House, etc.), were very often tinged with sorrow, anger, and bewilderment, written in sometimes meandering sentences that disrupted syntactical convention. Many poems were concerned with one’s relationship to the past, and how we are using or are used by the past:

…we watch each other before s/he fills herself with old light, which is not nostalgia. We’re using the past instead of letting it use us. -pg. 40, Silver House

We’re starting to look like a people who are only used by the past. I look like a woman that has a future & I’m finally becoming relieved by that -pg. 43, Turquoise House

I want to remember but the past is expensive -pg. 51, Cerulean Blue House

And occasionally, there was a sort of resolve. Some aspect not quite like hope, but a strength that is pulled from a deeper well:

Whether it’s a cop car // or a wooden wagon led by overworked horses. Whether it’s a locked neighborhood in Watts or a detention center for neglected girls. We still paint flowers. We still paint poems. -pg. 50, Bleu de France House

I’m broke and I’m endearing, I’m lazy and joyfully // dangerous, I am doing exactly what I was shaped to do. -pg. 61, Artichoke Green House

In her talk “From House to Crawlspace: Writing Under Duress” at the University of Denver in May 2017, Wallschlaeger explained that her experiences living in Milwaukie greatly influenced her work with both Houses and Crawlspace. There, she witnessed and experienced segregation between white and black neighborhoods (and how city planning and housing condones this); widespread foreclosures and who had means to capitalize on these properties; how poorly slumlords treated their renters simply because they could. Wallschlaeger’s writing is shaped by her life as a woman, a black woman, in America, which includes experiences of sexism and a persistent fear of police brutality. She is also a survivor of domestic abuse, and grew up poor with a single mother in a conservative, mostly white town. Her mostly autobiographical poems reflect these experiences with emotional clarity and intensity; Wallschlaeger doesn’t pull punches (even, as we see in one of Crawlspace’s poem, she might want to). In her talk, she said, “I believe there’s no other honest way to write.” And about the uses of house and crawlspace:

It made sense to me to organize these poems under the constraints of crumbling infrastructure—both my own internal structures and those of the world—of a country that tries to hide its worst secrets behind carefully built facades. I decided to call the poetics of both these books a poetics of duress: the experience of these oppressions acting as one congealed interactive force that changed and affected my mental health, policed my life, and made me afraid to live.

The duress stems from violence: poverty as violence, housing organization as violence, class oppression, sexism, racism, systemic poverty. The duress is clear throughout Wallschlaeger’s work, and perhaps even more pronounced in Crawlspace, where the writer aims for the poem to be “very, very fraught.” But the duress makes the poems even more important. Wallschlaeger cites Wanda Coleman as one of her influences, who herself wrote American sonnets. Wallschlaeger sees Coleman as someone who gave her the freedom to write as angrily as she wanted, to tell the truth, to make art—and the affirmation that resistance is to still create even under duress, and to make art out of systems of oppression.

Houses dealt with this duress in the domestic space, and this is reflected in the space of the poems. By this I don’t mean space on the page, but the space within the sentence. The freeverse allows the sentences to wander from room to room, thought to thought. In Crawlspace, we are simultaneously dealing with a space a little more wild, a place not lived in but auxiliary to lived spaces: the attic, the hole in the basement, the storage spaces. Crawlspace is more cramped, more constrained by the sonnet form, and thus the sentences are required to conform to the tight walls. Wallschlaeger explained in her talk at DU that she was working in a call center while composing these poems, a cubicle space with three walls pressing in, surrounded by hundreds of other people but not allowed to speak to each other—and this is where the form of the sonnet came from. It makes sense, as sonnets are somewhat claustrophobic, secretive, almost riddle-like, with three quartets pressing in and a fourth space (the couplet) that opens at the volta. Wallschlaeger plays off the sonnet form; of course, formally, she does not follow a rhyme scheme, varies the line lengths, and often links together two or three 14-line sections to create longer poems. But the real subversion works more on a content level, by taking a form that we see as European and American and using it to criticize white supremacy, capitalism, and misogyny. Or, as she writes in Sonnet (15): “Writing under the constraints of your oppressors, whoever they are.”

Crawlspace is most interested in subversion, in what is underneath the house, the dark underbelly of the curated structure above. Wallschlaeger said in her talk that the crawlspace is “the unconscious, preconscious…It’s what we save to remain ourselves when we’re under duress.” So what is it that we save in these oft-neglected storage spaces? Some of it is anger and contempt:

That I’ve been refused service at diners / in northern Wisconsin so I’m supposed to be grateful / that you’re liberal enough to serve me in a restaurant. -pg. 68-69, Sonnet (55)

That you can tell a lot about a person by how / they treat the waiter in a restaurant, and that I want / to make a scene when he’s rude to waiters but he’s / feeding me so I’m supposed to be grateful. -pg. 69, Sonnet (55)

Some of it is fear:

If I call a cop on the telephone, I will be the one arranged / on the floor -pg. 43, Sonnet (37)

Some are the memories of violence:

He admires my arm, how / he could snap it like a branch -pg. 45, Sonnet (38)

Every bureaucratic wonk has a stash somewhere, / they place them over the heads of black schoolchildren, / demanding their first breath is one of hyperventilation. -pg. 21, Sonnet (13)

Many are critiques on the inextricable entanglement of racism, classism, and sexism:

I feel sorry for / you little one I really do / your father is an asshole / never around and your / mother is one of them / high falutin socialites… I shouldn’t be sayin such / things but you’re a baby / and I’m going to say em / before you become one / of them -pg. 56, Sonnet (48)

Everywhere brown people / are sad everywhere white / people are good… Only white / wives are good women even / when they’re bad wives but / when good women are sad / good men don’t listen to / them either -pg. 59-60, Sonnet (50)

And while in some ways Crawlspace is, like Houses, still interested in the past and in memory, it seems that the work wants to use the past in such a way that we can become more present:

That you wallow in / excessive luxury. That you are not actually a swine / because pigs like mud, and a pig doesn’t need a dress / from Tom Ford and that you eat the pig at brunch / anyway having no love for the mud that gave you / the pig. -pg. 67-68, Sonnet (55)

Refreshingly, even when there is sharp critique, the poems’ speaker also reflects on the ways she is compliant in these systems—and yet this does not stop her from writing the poems, making the art.

However, it’s not all outrage and exhaustion. In Wallschaleger’s talk, she believes that houses can also be homes: “sites of radical and revolutionary healing” —that even under duress and “fraughtness,” there are structures where “a poetics of magic and visionary love are possible and do exist.”

As with Houses, I found varying emotions in Crawlspace: anger, exhaustion, frustration, sarcasm, sadness…and then these acute moments of strength, power, resolve, and joy. In her talk, Wallschlaeger said the figure of the crawlspace is “what we save to remain ourselves when we’re under duress.” It’s important to save the memory of Michael Brown’s hands in the air, of the hypocrisy of George Washington’s teeth, of the men who exercise ownership over women via abuse. These memories are stored, because they are needed under duress to remember why we fight, why we are outraged, and why we survive. It’s equally important to save the memory of “My joy, privately owned” (pg 43, Sonnet 37). To save the memory of “I keep my blackgirl magic protected” (pg. 48, Sonnet 41). To remember that “By the glow of mycelium lakes who are connecting / the old-growth trees for shelter: We, as marked women transform / ourselves. We are the wood violets & roses stretching in the rain” (pg. 42, Sonnet 36). These moments and beliefs are stored, because they are needed under duress to remember how to cope, that we can survive, and that it is actually possible to create, thrive, and love.