Author Q&A: Claire Wahmanholm

Claire Wahmanholm received her BA from UW-Madison, her MFA from the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University, and her PhD from the University of Utah. Her poems have most recently appeared in, or are forthcoming from, Birdfeast, Bennington Review, Winter Tangerine, Memorious, The Collapsar, Newfound, Bateau, Fog Machine, DIAGRAM, New Poetry from the Midwest 2016, Best New Poets 2015, and have been featured on Verse Daily. She lives in the Twin Cities and teaches at the Loft Literary Center. Find her online at clairewahmanholm.com.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Claire Wahmanholm

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

I was first compelled to write poetry in high school after a close friend committed suicide. The impulse to do something “productive” with pain is common enough, and I think I still write my best poems when I’m writing from a place of grief or terror or anxiety. So, that’s what got me started. What kept me going (especially early on, when I wasn’t at all sure I could get away with being a poet) was a mix of stubbornness and fortuitous moments of validation (either in the form of mentors/professors who told me that I was doing something worthwhile, or in the form of acceptances into good programs, or publication in good venues). I think we’d all love to say we don’t need external validation—that our own faith in what we’re doing is all we need to keep moving forward—but I’m pretty sure that would also be a lie.

Your poetry has been widely published in magazines such as The Cincinnati ReviewBest New Poets 2015, and Newfound– what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?

Toward the end of my undergraduate career, my thesis advisor gave me a list of journals to consider submitting to. Instead of going through and carefully selecting the ones that best fit my aesthetic, I remember simply running down the list alphabetically and submitting to all of them (well, not all. I wised up before I reached the bottom of the list, thankfully). I doubt I even read back issues. As you might expect, my placement record wasn’t terribly good. Occasionally a poem would get picked up, but it was more out of chance than anything else. At some point I figured out that it was smarter to send work to journals whose aesthetic actually matched my own, and—surprise surprise!—I started placing poems much more regularly. I still cringe at how much time I wasted (both my own and editors’) by submitting so carelessly. Super juvenile. I still submit pretty aggressively, but I do my homework first and submit to journals that I enjoy reading.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

Speaking broadly, I’d say violence, grief, disintegration, loss, and death have been the themes that I tend to return to. Early on in my poetic career, I wrote a lot of narrative poems about family history. The poems themselves were not terribly good, but they had to be written so I could move beyond them. I’m not super skilled at writing the autobiographical poem, it turns out, and I haven’t written one since. During the MFA years I moved away from narrative and started writing a lot of tightly-controlled, lyric, formal stuff. While I’ve since loosened my grip on form, music is still a priority for me; my current project is a series of apocalyptic-ish prose poems, but even those are pretty sonically lush.

Recently I’ve also been writing more politically than I ever have—it’s hard (impossible?) to write a apocalyptic poem that isn’t political. I used to be afraid of engaging with the political, but the stakes are just too high right now.

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

“Influences” is a tricky word, I think, but there are certainly poets that I go back to over and over again: Hopkins (especially the Terrible Sonnets); Berryman’s Dream Songs; late May Swenson; Matthea Harvey (especially Modern Life). When I was writing more formally, Auden and Gjertrud Schnackenberg (Heavenly Questions is one of my all-time favorite collections). Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Eclogues, for the way they handle the elegy. Even though I’m not religious, I love the language and cadences of The Book of Job, The Book of Lamentations, and Donne. You’ve asked about literary influences, but it may be true that I’m equally, if not more, influenced by art and scientific texts than literary ones. Pascal’s Pensées and Sagan’s Cosmos; the work of Francis Bacon, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Lee Bontecou, and James Turrell; the massive and uncanny installations of Anish Kapoor; any of Yves Klein’s large IKB paintings. I can’t encounter these works without getting a flood of adrenaline.

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a poem, or for discovering a new mode of creativity?

I’m really into form of all kinds, so when I get into a rut, I find that trying out a new form—imposing rules and restrictions on myself—forces me to approach poem-writing in a very different way. A couple of years ago I started to feel like I was writing the same poem over and over and fell into a poetic doldrums. So I invented a form for myself where I had to end each line of a poem with a pair of rhyming words. Suddenly I was producing poems that moved very differently and sat very differently on the page, which was thrilling. I became totally obsessed with this form, and ended up writing in it almost exclusively for about eighteen months. But eventually the surprise wore off, and I had to switch gears again. For the last year I’ve been writing mostly short, nasty prose poems and I’m very much enjoying the honeymoon period while it lasts.

In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses?  Several different presses have published your poetry; I wonder what factors play into choosing and developing relationships with these presses.

The first thing I look for is an aesthetic match, though that’s no guarantee—I’ve often been surprised by what a journal will or won’t take. I tend to gravitate toward journals that have an online presence (because I like my work to be as widely accessible as possible), though I also love the art object-ness of the print journal. There are a lot of journals that are an absolute pleasure to hold and encounter in the flesh. Of course, the dream journals are those that promote their contributors actively and enthusiastically (though I also know from experience that promotion takes a lot of energy and time, and not all journals/presses have extra time/energy to spare. Those things often require financial resources that are becoming harder and harder to come by).

Some poets place their work mostly through solicitations. I’m certainly not that lucky. At any point I probably have work out at 6-8 journals. I do a lot of recon. If I’m reading a journal and I encounter a poet that strikes me or whose work seems similar to my own, I’ll check their bio to see where else their work has been published. I’ve found a lot of fabulous new journals this way, many of whom have also taken my work (bonus).

What can you tell us about your experiences as the managing editor of Quarterly West?

It was exhausting! Interesting and rewarding in various ways, but exhausting. It gave me a profound respect for managing editors everywhere, especially those at the helm of publications that don’t have a steady or robust budget. It’s a lot of administrative work, which certainly isn’t for everyone. I didn’t get to go through submissions on a daily basis (that was the purview of the genre editors), so it was always really exciting to put the issues together and finally see what the editors had selected. QW also hosted an annual novella contest, which—as of 2017—is now a multi-genre chapbook contest. Working with the author and designer to put together the winning chapbook was always a high point.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

Though degree programs aren’t for everyone, getting my MFA and PhD were the best things that could have happened to my writing. The opportunity to spend several years engaging with poetry 24/7, both as a student and as an instructor, was such an incredible gift. Also, both my MFA and PhD cohorts were full of hyper-talented, super-accomplished poets. Though it didn’t always prevent me from turning in weak poems, there was nothing more motivating than the fear of looking stupid in front of people I respected and admired. It certainly kept me from getting too comfortable.

Having 32 Poems (which does such a lovely job of supporting and amplifying its contributors) pick up “Personal Ruin” was also pretty lucky. After it appeared in issue 11.1, it was republished on Verse Daily (twice—the second time as a 2014 favorite), was nominated for Best New Poets, and was featured in MSU-Mankato’s National Poetry Month Video Project. A couple journals also solicited work after reading it. It was the poem that kept on giving!

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?

It’s a cliché at this point, but read as much as you can. Read more than you write, even. It’s good to read poetry from across the historical spectrum, but definitely make room for contemporary stuff. You won’t like everything you encounter, but even reading poems you don’t like is useful in establishing your own voice.

Find a group of honest and talented people (including folks who are better than you) that you can bounce your work off of regularly. If you’re writing in isolation, you’re making your job more difficult than it needs to be.

Also, let go of the reins a little. My least successful poems are ones that are too controlled, that are over-determined. You don’t need to know where a poem is going ahead of time. Let yourself be surprised.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

I’m working on finishing up my second manuscript, which I’m calling Wilder for now. It’s definitely a departure from my earlier work, both in terms of content and form. It’s far more political, for example. Far more grim. It also includes a long sequence of prose poems, which has allowed me to reacquaint myself with writing narratively. My overarching goal is to always be surprising myself—as long as I can continue to do that, I’ll feel like I’m in a pretty good place.

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