NIKKI WALLSCHLAEGER IS the author of the full-length collections Houses (Horse Less Press, 2015) and Crawlspace (Bloof Books, 2017), the graphic book I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel (Bloof Books, 2019), and the artist book Operation USA. Her work has been featured in the American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, The Nation, Poetry, Brick, and Witness. She is currently a poetry editor for Protean Magazine and a visiting associate professor at Iowa Writers’ Workshop, spring 2021. Described as a timely book “about Blackness, language, and motherhood in America,” Waterbaby (Copper Canyon Press, 2021) is Wallschlaeger’s third collection that takes on personal and political themes such as memory, family, and one’s Black body blending with historical movement. It is directed at our unjust world infused as it is with capitalism and racism. Hers is poetry bypassing the traps of dead lexicons and even deadlier literary tropes to reveal the live history beneath daily and familial routines. Waterbaby pushes through exhaustion and grief to discover what’s possible.
What follows is a conversation with Wallschlaeger about Waterbaby in light of its recent publication, a discussion touching on the main themes of the book, but also on broader topics such as the poet as a political thinker (or not), feminism, the purpose of poetry in activist contexts, and the author’s honesty and accountability.
M. BUNA: How would you describe Waterbaby, and why does it exist?
NIKKI WALLSCHLAEGER: Waterbaby is a reckoning with grief. Personal, historical, familial, and societal. Losing a loved one was the main catalyst for this book. One grief washes another, and then another and another. Is grief clean? A good cry feels good. I started writing this book before she died — preparing to be transformed forever. It’s been a wild four years — inside and out.
You write: “Perhaps it’s best not to trust / the politics of people who / haven’t washed their own / dishes in twenty years.” These lines seem to advance more than a mere pun — could you tell me more about it?
Sure. Don’t trust politicians who have been wealthy their entire lives. Don’t trust people who have never done domestic labor in their own home. It informs the politics of that person to remain that way, six feet deep in their own bed of roses. Not that people can’t change, or decide to be this way on their own. I mean — this was a poem written during the Trump era. The fortunate son, as the song goes. [Laughs.]
What do “violences of daily metaphor” account for in your poetry?
When I wrote “Prayer Sonnet,” I was thinking about the term “getting dragged” and its implications in real life. Urban Dictionary describes it as “being disrespected or humiliated on an internet forum” — which can have an effect on one’s stability since we live in a very public, very online world — but I was thinking about the precursor to that. A “dragging death” is when someone is murdered by being dragged behind a car. Black people have been lynched like this in the US. So, “dragging” is not just a metaphorical act of just talking shit to each other on Twitter. Dragging is part of the history of white supremacist violence, so when I see the term online I’m also reminded of that and wanted to bring attention to it, to offer a prayer for the victims.
When writing about the jamais vu state of mind, you also warn about the danger of repeating a lie: people end up accepting the lie as truth. How could poetry find the necessary forms to (re)think thoughts necessary to survival without succumbing to the automystification of the poet as a political thinker?
Hmm. I suppose the easy answer is to say it depends on the poet. But if you feel pressured to be “political,” don’t do it. Your politics will find their way in even if you’re not conscious of it. Then there’s an element of surprise that has the potential to be — well, delightful. Or worst-case scenario — mortifying. As I’ve said before, sometimes poetry is a little ahead of the poet. Then you have decisions to make about how you feel about the speakers of your poems. They’re not coming out of the void, free from influences. Listen to them.
What do you do when language fails you?
It means I’m in a waiting period. When language fails me, it means there’s more work to do — this can be frustrating of course — but what I’ve learned is you have to trust the failure of words. Being a poet is not a guarantee that you’ll always have the right cosmology of words when you think you need them. There’s a lot of dynamic factors at play in poetic exploration, expansion, and expression. Daydreaming is also writing. I think poets are still writing when they feel the silence — it’s a gestational period. In “Just Because We’re Scared Doesn’t Mean We’re Wrong,” I’m describing when words fail as a reaction to something awful happening in the world and how it affects one’s life. You long for a deeper understanding, rather than turning to polemics or manifestos of action, when you’re paralyzed by powerlessness. It’s the failure of illusion. Showing instead of telling in poetry is when language fails you as you look around. It’s the beginning of trying to tell. A gestural motion after upheaval.
In My Common Heart, Anne Boyer talks about the turning of the poet’s heart inside-out in order to contain the idea of the commune (and her love for it) within its strange emotional space. In your case, what does it mean to “submit to being a committed student of the heart”?
That love is an inevitable force. Learn to love yourself well and then do the same for others you want to love.
In Waterbaby, what are the dimensions of being lost in America?
Patriotism. Believing that voting will solve all our national problems and knowing better. Observing how these illusions of democracy uphold what kills people regardless of its empty promises. Feeling lost among American values that don’t translate into concrete actions that last and the helplessness that comes with it. These dimensions are often existential. You have to find a way to distance yourself from feeling lost.
Within the current unequal distribution of suffering, should a poet be accountable for what they write?
Certainly. Or else reading a practically verbatim coronary report of a Black man murdered by the police will be considered poetry. Doesn’t mean that the poet in question will feel remorse, but you can say something about it and tell it like it is. As far as “unequal distribution of suffering” — this suggests to me that equalizing the distribution of suffering could have a silver lining of encouraging responsibility. I’d like to see no suffering. But that’s not the world we live in — when suffering is increased across the population, some people will rise to the occasion to help others in their unique ways and some simply won’t. It’s a difficult pill to swallow that it takes disasters to compel people to change. Myself included. How this translates to mass cultural change — we might have to try and fulfill our utopian dreams within our own communities.
Waterbaby is poetry refusing to become gentrified by investments of literary conventions — is there anything particular about the way you choose to write?
I’ve been described as a singular poet, which I take as a compliment. I didn’t come up in a particular scene where a style of writing was dominant or paid court, or felt I had to write a certain way to be accepted by elder poets. This has been a mixed blessing at times — but thank you internet for curbing loneliness. Turns out, I’m not the only one who has these ideas. You find your people eventually who will accept your individuality in poetics and then it gets interesting.
In a rush to think of poetry as activism, one may easily blur the boundaries between the two. Does poetry have any place in fighting against the hostility of a world that makes its very existence almost impossible outside consumer choice?
I don’t think it’s impossible because a lot of people write poetry. For me, I look at being a poet as a vocation. Teaching poetry is a career, and I enjoy both. I’ve accepted that everything is a consumer choice, even getting an education. What one can do is try to maintain their integrity in all of this mess. Of course you’ll be tested — and you might have to make some adjustments in order to live. Anyone can start a press, publish themselves, and make chapbooks — that’s what I tell my students. Maybe try to do it differently from the last press, scandal, foundation, or distribution center that left a bad taste in your mouth. Who’s going to stop you?
In this new collection, are there any recurrent concepts the reader might be familiar with from your previous ones, Houses and Crawlspace?
Critiquing the hell out of America and having a sense of wicked humor about it — but Waterbaby is a little more serious because of a death. When things get real, humor takes effort. But I think my readers will understand I haven’t given up on my enjoyment of telling it like it is in my work. I’m still laughing at the absurdities coupled with the vulnerabilities of feeling bad. It’s a blues book. You’re living with despair and you want to tell the world about it so it can get good again.
Any contemporary poets people should know of and read?
S*an D. Henry-Smith’s debut book, Wild Peach (Futurepoem Books). Henry-Smith is also a photographer, and Futurepoem included their full-color photos in the book. (I wish more presses would do this!) I’m also really excited for Natalie Shapero’s next book, Popular Longing (Copper Canyon Press), N. H. Pritchard’s The Matrix: Poems 1960–1970 (Ugly Duckling Presse), and last, but light-years away from least, is Nathaniel Mackey’s Double Trio (New Directions).