The Shore Interview #1: Chelsea Dingman

Questions by Ellery Beck, Interview Editor

EB "For a Thousand and One Nights" and "The Columbia River Taught Me How to Run," your two poems in this issue of The Shore, both skillfully address not only the hardships and complexity of womanhood but also contemporary concerns such as war and crime. How do you handle addressing topics that may be seen as controversial, and what advice do you have for poets trying to do the same?

CD Awhile ago, I read this wonderful essay by Solmaz Sharif in The Volta, which begins:

            “Every poem is an action
Every action is political.
Every poem is political.

                        **

A lover, once: You can’t say every action is political. Then the word political loses all meaning.
What is political about this moment?

I was washing his dishes. I had left the water running.”

By quoting this, I mean to say that I write like everything we do is political (though I might not realize it when I’m in that moment) and the contemporary concerns of women or war or crime are an extension of this. When I write about controversial topics for women, I want to let myself go wherever I need to go, though I might be uncomfortable. I want to hold nothing about those experiences back. How else achieve honesty in a poem? I think I have also felt an inability to say what I mean at various times in my life, depending on my circumstances: whether a man or social expectation controlled my job or my future hopes or my home life or my fertility. Whether other people have declared war on each other when I wished only for peace. Whether mass crimes are swept under the rug so that we will focus on celebrity or vanity or a false dream of country and home. Whether I am confronting social issues or diseases that affect us all. I am often too polite. I am often sorry. In my poems, I have a space where I can spit and scream and wonder and laugh without shame.

My advice is: take risks. If it scares you, it’s probably worth writing down.

Also: be honest. Whether you are writing persona poems or complete fiction, the experience of the poem must be honest, and truth and honesty are two totally different things.

EB Let’s talk craft for a second: what strategies do you use when determining your line breaks and stanzas?

CD Line breaks are my favourite way to exert control over the poem. They control pacing and surprise. I want each line to have weight. To be its own entity, containing its own information. The images are then separated and different layers are created. Surprise comes when the line turns after each break to change the experience entirely. I just love the complexity that can create.

As for stanzas, I regularly write by hand in a notebook and many poems start as one stanza. When I revise into a word doc., I make more formal decisions about what the content of the poem dictates as to its form. I believe in the relationship between form and content. The stanzas give me the opportunity to reflect how the speaker feels and use the page to demonstrate that. I find the line useful for this also—disruption, chaos, contentment, stability. Stanzas and line breaks are tools that help create tone throughout the poem, along with diction and sound.

EB In your book, Thaw, and your chapbook, What Bodies Have I Moved, you frequently handle complex historical subjects. What advice do you have for poets trying to effectively integrate research into their writing process?

CD Research is such a great tool, but difficult to use well. I found when writing my chapbook, which is a historical journey of a man from eastern Europe in 1924, that I had trouble divorcing myself from the research when inside the poems. The literal truth was killing my poems. I could not get at the speaker’s experience when feeling so tied to history books and the “truth” that was not necessarily my speaker’s truth. My speaker was based on my grandfather, who is not alive to dispute history. Though I’ve been told what he disagreed with, I couldn’t give myself permission to write his political experience in the same way that I could sit inside his personal experiences. With both of my full-lengths, I was much more able to sit inside an experience and let the research guide me without taking over.

I’d say that there has to be a balance. The research is so interesting that it can take over my senses, but they need to be present also. I loved Lynda Barry in grad school and often used her prompts with my students: look up, to each side, below: what do you see, smell, hear, feel? This helps me stay present and in my body when my head wants to lead.

EB Are there any magazines or journals you're currently enjoying?

CD There are so many. An all-inclusive list would be near-impossible, but I’ll try. In no particular order, these journals are supportive and/or regularly publish gorgeous work:

For print:

Pleiades, Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The New England Review, The Southern Review, The Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly, Passages North, Poetry Northwest, POETRY, The Southeast Review, Colorado Review, Raleigh Review, NECK, 32 Poems, Prairie Schooner, Quiddity, Cherry Tree, Copper Nickel, Gigantic Sequins, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mid-American Review, Ecotone, The Sycamore Review, Ninth Letter, Bennington Review, FIELD, Third Coast, Sugar House Review, Southern Humanities Review, jubilat, Tin House, A Public Space.

For online journals:

TriQuarterly, The Shallow Ends, Foundry Journal, Glass Poetry Journal, The Rumpus, Waxwing, Baltimore Review, Redivider, The Journal, Frontier Poetry, Diode Poetry Review, EcoTheo Review, Bear Review, Guernica, Four Way Review, Diagram, Wildness, Radar Poetry, Phoebe, Puerto Del Sol, Superstition Review, American Literary Review, American Poetry Journal, The Adroit Journal, Story South, The Collapsar, LA Review, Nashville Review, AGNI, Thrush Poetry Journal.

EB Thank you! That is an exciting list. Let’s turn back to our issue for the last question. Could you please speak to how two poems in The Shore (not including your own) are in conversation with each other in meaningful ways.

CD In Ella Flores’ “Subject, Impermanence,” the fluid states of being are explored in terms of how constant change manifests itself as impermanence. Similarly, Daniel Lassell’s poem, “Attic,” describes change as it affects the things one gathers in an attic. These things, though static, cannot remain the same over time. In this constant evolution, through seasons and human contact, the states of these belongings are changed and thus rendered impermanent. That sense of impermanency also applies to their disuse: “the putaways, / the eternal offseasons.” Flores also suggests that memory, or the inability to participate in the change of another entity, leads to this sense of impermanence.

Whereas Lassell’s poem is one stanza, constant in its delivery and image-laden, full of short lines to separate images, and difficult questions (“who among the beams / wills light away from light”), Flores draws the reader into the tide. Each line ebbs at the margins. The stanzas are an unsettling, uneven number of longer and shorter lines. The constant is the sea’s inconstancy.  Despite those differences, both poems speak to what lasts only a moment when given our full attention. Both poems ask us to look and not look away.

EB Thank you, Chelsea, for being and inspiration and such an amazing literary citizen. It is our honor to highlight your stunning work.

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Chelsea Dingman’s first book, Thaw, was chosen by Allison Joseph to win the National Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press, 2017). Her second poetry collection, Through a Small Ghost, won The Georgia Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press (February, 2020). She is also the author of the chapbook, What Bodies Have I Moved (Madhouse Press, 2018). Her work is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, and Triquarterly, among others. Visit her website: chelseadingman.com.

Chelsea Dingman

Chelsea Dingman