Today we are pleased to feature author Chelsea Dingman as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Chelsea discusses her creative process and how it “almost always stems from reading and discussion.” She also reveals that she loves “that poetry lives in uncomfortable, uncertain circumstances…There’s no resolution required in a poem.”
Chelsea then discusses the background and inspiration behind each of her poems in Issue 18, as well as her forthcoming collection Thaw. After discussing her other projects, like her thesis on her grandfather’s immigration experience and her current manuscript centered on the female body, Chelsea ends her podcast by repeating her earlier sentiment: “I am interested in the uncertainty of those moments and asking questions, every question. I still have so many.”
Today we are pleased to feature author Aaron Reeder as our Authors Talk series contributor. In his podcast, Aaron provides insights into his poems, “Untangling” and “Failed Poem for My Mother,” both published in Issue 18. He reveals that, when he was writing these poems, he was interested in the systems people fall back on to deal with trauma and grief, specifically the system of family.
Aaron also discusses his poems in the context of communication and conversation; both of his poems involve issues in communication, specifically with the speakers’ parents. For example, in “Failed Poem for My Mother,” Aaron shares, “ultimately what I think the speaker wants is that…these two individuals, the mother and the son, would be on the same plane.”
These words open our work, even if they’re not explicitly stated. Our fiction holds characters that come from all types of homes. We conjure blended families, multi-generational households, ones that contain fostered and adopted children; we’ve got queer families, racially diverse backgrounds, and created homes with loved ones of our character’s own choosing. There’s no limit to what we might come up with. Our characters are defined by these families. Their backgrounds tell us how they overcome crisis and trauma, or how they ultimately succumb to it. Even if we’re not writing about a character’s family, it’s always there, lurking in the background like a horrible upcoming family reunion. Characters come with domestic baggage.
Here’s where things get tricky. The intimate backgrounds of these characters can often extend from our own. Sometimes this is on accident – perhaps a family legend falls into the narrative; the time your father angrily emailed KFC because he hated their new commercials – but it can also be done with malice. Conjuring stories gives us a wild kind of freedom, and how nice would it be to get that thing on paper that’s been bothering you for years?
At a recent Tin House workshop, Dorothy Allison talked about writing truth in fiction. She discussed its hardness and its necessity; told us all to “write like a hammer.” These realities struck the audience silent – we’re all attempting to create something greater than ourselves in our work, something that will stand as testament that we were here and took up space. Dorothy expounded on this concept, shouting that it didn’t matter if something honest was hard to hear, because “it’s true, therefore I have the right to scare the shit out of you with it.” Everyone nodded in agreement; after all, the scary stuff is where we find the real meat of our work. After saying this, however, her tone softened. She stared out at the audience, made eye contact with nearly everyone, and said, “but truth is not a defense against destroying people.”
I went home from Tin House and thought about this a lot. I write fiction and essays, and I admit that sometimes the line between those two gets a little smudged. So much of what I am is because of who I was; the people who raised me and what my home was like. I write about Florida, I write about my queerness, and I write about the church. I write to know who I am now, and I keep writing because I am never the same person as I was the day before. My family is part of that process because I am incapable of maintaining an identity separate from them. It would be tantamount to carving up my body and saying, well, I am mostly just this thigh meat and the neck part. It can’t be done.
Fiction isn’t truth, but it contains elements of it. How we write is informed by our environment. I look to my parents and their traditions, and sometimes I say, there’s fodder here for something that once hurt me. Writing about it helps me look at all the sides of these issues – I can look at how they informed me, but I can also better see my own role in them: how I dealt with them at the time, what I took away from those experiences. Coming back from the work shop, I look at these instances in my writing and ask: what’s the ultimate cost of disclosing them?
Dorothy closed out her work shop panel by telling us that “you are trying to put something on the page worth what it cost you to put it on the page.” For myself, I took this to mean that my writing is not a way to exorcise demons. It is a way to confront established ideas and reassess them. In my quest for honesty in my work, I am saying that I require honesty from myself before I expect it from anyone else. I am saying that in order to write, I must look at the world I inhabit and understand that I am not the god of it. I live here, but so does everyone else. What I must do in my writing is take a hard look at how I write about family and decide if it rings true; not insert harmful narrative because I want to push it away from me. That’s the most truthful way for me to write fiction.
And yes, my father did email KFC – but he won’t mind that I told you about it. Just try not to bring up the Colonel; he’s still a little touchy about it.
Christmas was filled with a different light that didn’t filter through the rest of the year, sent electric shivers through the complacent houses up and down the block. Anything was possible. We made the pilgrimage to pick out the exquisite tree as soon as December hit. My siblings and I argued over which tree was the tree until Dad said ‘This is it.’ Then the guy who worked there, cut off the bottom while Mom collected boughs to place on the mantel and around a candle on the dining room table. The tree was strapped to the top of the station wagon and everyone was smiling, even Dad. We spent that night decorating, with Mom leading the way. The pulsating large, multi-colored lights blasted around the picture window and the tree until nothing was stagnant in our house. Our faces flickered on and off in flaming reds, blues, greens and yellows. Mom was somebody else during the holidays, a treasure chest filled with some kind of happiness and brilliance that blazed out of her being. She would put on the Dylan Thomas scratchy album “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” and we’d all hover close by with the throbbing neon bulbs illuminating our faces as we listened to that lilting waver of a voice that sounded like crashing waves against rocks from a distant planet.
Our neighbors and my older brother and sister went to the midnight mass, smoked cigarettes and drank whatever they could steal from their parent’s stash that night, while the rest of us sat in the living room, stared into a space that believed everything could change like the glistening snow and the charged air and rainbows that rearranged the tragic misery of that room. Mom chugged her glass of wine and laughed, sat back in her recliner as the deceptive varnish of fresh snow and glittering lights through the night air wedded all of us to a holiday season packed with expectation.
The brutal realm of day-to-day existence had multitudes dissociated, walking back and forth through malls with bags full of ridiculous crap they would never think of buying at any other time of year, unless they were under the gun, which ‘twas the season. Thank god for wrapping paper. Even a package of Hanes underwear looked much better in a box under a bow.
It was a state of siege that had me engulfed in that anticipatory surge of life that came with sledding, snowball fights, transient lights and music. Tearing open presents always rocked more than what was beneath the ribbon and paper. It was this belief that inside one of those presents was the promise of another life. The reality was that a week later, snow was gray and yellow, gifts were forgotten, and parents, school, neighborhood and myself were still there.
And so what about the special delectables? I’d always assumed Christmas snacks would come through with what they promised and why wouldn’t I? They had never let me down. Yes, I sat in the lunchroom when I was eight, psyched that instead of a few Fig Newtons glued to each other, my mom had packed an exquisite Twinkie for the holiday. Now that was golden! The outside was peachy and euphoric in the phallic shape of dessert ecstasy, but when I took that first bite of a third of the submarine, I realized something was wrong. It was grainy like when you get smacked by a wave in the lake and come up with sand in your mouth. The thing about a Twinkie was that when you bit into it your eyes close automatically. It was only for one sense to absorb. The sad part was that when I opened my eyes to look at the two-thirds left of my spongy delicacy, I was face to face with the color green puffing out of the center. Not a pastel green or an olive green, but the Christmas evergreen that had no pretense of hiding its ornamental beauty from anyone. I was positive I turned a green that gave away the Irish half-breed of me as I imagined what the rest of the tasty treat was doing now to my stomach and my brain. I was sweating and nauseated when Maggie Felsteder asked if she could finish the remnants of the Twinkie I was stuffing into my brown paper bag. I never liked Felsteder. I started to feel a little bit better at that point. Yeah, sure, I said, as I launched the torpedo at her from the unbitten end. Merry Christmas.
To what extent is digital technology an alienating influence?
A Google search for “Gabriela Nudelman Hamden Connecticut” yields nothing pertinent but a webpage from Mylife.com, where another Gabriela Nudelman had set up a profile.
This is not my grandmother. My grandmother does not exist, according to the internet. She is null.
This is what society has to say about Gabriela Nudelman: She was a civil engineer. She was a Russian immigrant. She was Jewish. She was the wife of David Nudelman and the mother of my father and my aunt. She was buried in a Jewish cemetery in New Haven and her gravestone is in the shape of the Hebrew symbol “Chai.”
It means “living.”
This is what I have to say about a woman who grew stranger after her death: She was adopted. She wore a Chai on a golden chain around her neck until she died. She used to take me to work with her. She worked in a cubicle. I had my first experience with computers at her work. Her screensaver was “Deep Space.” It showed thousands of white dots blurring out from the center of the screen, which were meant to represent stars and the movement of a spaceship. Now that I think of it, “Deep Space” is emblematic of our extreme isolation in this digital age. I played my first computer game on her office-computer. It was pin-ball, the sci-fi deep-space pin-ball that has always been a facet of a Windows operating system.
She was killed by ovarian cancer, discovered too late to prevent.
This is what Google has to say about ovarian cancer: “Ovarian cancer is cancer that starts in the ovaries. The ovaries are the female reproductive organs that produce eggs.”
This description is difficult to read. Why? It is painfully disconnected. Like my own reaction to my grandmother’s death.
I was tough. I never cried, not once. I don’t remember the burial. Was I even there? My father cried in front of her grave one year later. It was wonderful and frightening.
I hated her after she died. I always thought that she was disappointed in me. My father kept her picture on his computer desk next to the living room. It was a black and white, candid setting, but she smiled as if posing, nervous and warm, as if caught in mid-twitch. I saw her in my dreams, but I didn’t want to. She was manifested in my poems. Truly, inextricable from my life story. Here are two of my many poems about my grandmother:
Stuck in the blue other house,
my grandmother, croaking like floor,
said what a big boy.
Night my parents left
us in the house on the lake,
the air terribly.
Hands pressed dark for nothing.
My father’s face the next
morning and I knew
Blue the end of sound.
He said she didn’t open her eyes.
I said the entire body when that happens.
The head has an empty room.
In my father’s first house we are having dinner.
The dead grandmother
suddenly beside me.
She reaches over plates to touch faces.
When she touches my cheek
When she left I was too young.
To be touched in a dream
The only way I can be “real” is through my writing. Who wants to be real? Raise your hand. The truth is, we were born into this digital age. And it sucks.
In ten years, I have not cried over my grandmother, except in dreams. Tears are a rare commodity. The last time I cried was one month ago. One of my favorite websites is Wouldhavesaid.com. Anonymous users upload letters of regret or thanks, addressed to entities who will never read them.
This is what the website has to say about itself: “Whether the person has passed away, contact was lost, or the strength needed at the time was lacking, this is a chance to say what you have always wanted them to know.” It is a good example of how the internet can be used for good, for storytelling, to evoke reality.
There is one letter on this site that I repeatedly read for catharsis, late at night, because it makes me cry. It is titled “Mr. Biggs.”
In it, Vincent, age 19, writes an apologetic but resolutely thankful letter to his first dog, the twelve-inch-tall and unappreciated friend who always loved him.
It is somewhat similar to my story. Ten years have passed. The writer gains a fulfilling understanding of the relationship through the catharsis of story-telling. He must have told the story ten times in his mind before it cleared enough for the page.
I’m telling this story: Baba Gala died of ovarian cancer. She lives again in this telling, but only so long as I am speaking.
I’m repeating this story, so you don’t forget it. So I don’t forget it.
Baba Gala lives. She dies. I change. I remain.
When revising a poem, I must distance myself from the emotion, to better understand the poem’s technical weaknesses.
This is well and good for the writer. Going over and over this story in my head for ten years, I have come to understand it better. But for my audience, or for any audience, once is simply not enough.
Gabriela Nudelman was my Yin; digital technology, my Yang—dualities in equilibrium; without the one, chaos. This is the difference between digital technology and story-telling. Digital technology seeks to inform. Facts cannot bring back my grandmother. Stories make her seem to live. Information is not evocation.
Computers are just another facet of a cancer which has been killing us since the beginning of recorded history. This cancer is the cancer of the once-told story, the story that is forgotten almost before it is read, and the story that entertains us only as long as it informs us.
Our lives are changing. I’m still telling this story. Our story. This story. Of a life, of the death of a loved one, and its emotional yield.
Breathe. Everyone. In, out.
Our lives are changing. I’m still telling this story.
When I was in grad school, as a creative nonfiction writer, I was plagued by one topic in particular: the ethical requirements—as well as the possible practical fallout—of writing about real people. I devoured every article or piece of advice I could find on the subject. I attended panels and read books. I asked my professors how they handled this tricky matter. The answers were fuzzier than I wanted them to be. A simple “Do this, but not this” formula would have suited me just fine.
At times, my various sources recommended changing the name or characteristics of someone. But this proved more difficult when the person was a family member. A close relative’s relationship to me was often so central to whatever I might write that it seemed nearly impossible to recast identity. It simply wouldn’t work.
So I forged ahead, trying to get the story—as I understood it—on the page. Truly, my fears seemed to belong to some distant future that involved actually sending my work out. And once I began to submit my writing to journals, these worries were still relegated to some faraway time in which those pieces were actually accepted and, eventually, even further down the line, published. The now was just about the work.
And then it happened. Superstition Review published a short essay I’d written about my father. It was an unflattering portrait to be sure, but reflected something very real and life altering that had happened during my senior semester abroad. I was nervous, but hopeful he’d never see it. Of course, you should expect that no matter whom you’re writing about, that person will one day read what you have written. No matter if the journal is print-only, distributed to 50 people who live on the opposite side of the country. But especially you should expect this when the readership is much wider and the journal is web-based.
Sure enough, my father read the essay. He was very upset. According to my uncle, my father said, “What she wrote isn’t true. And even if it is true, she shouldn’t have written it.” I struggled with this notion. Whether or not I should have written the essay. I struggle with it every time I write. But what I always come back to is how writing is the process by which I come to know and make sense of myself and the world around me. It’s important for me to shape and share the things that make me laugh and that break my heart. This is how I communicate my humanness. It was never my intention to hurt my father.
This isn’t to say I won’t continue to write about people I know. In fact, I’m working on a memoir about my siblings, my parents, and myself. What it does mean is that maybe now I’m more aware of the awesome power writing gives me. And as an ethical person, I have to approach writing with humility and to recognize my own shortcomings and constantly consider whether I am offering my perspective in a balanced way. I want to be gentle. I don’t want to make anyone into a villain or a hero.
I should write without fear, perhaps. But I must remember that I act as editor and director of the truth when I write. I choose the moments to share and there are always moments that are left unwritten. I pick up human beings and treat them as characters, forcing them into a two-dimensional construct that attempts to mirror reality. And I have to remind myself again and again that it’s impossible to distill an entire human life down to 700 words. Or even 7,000. No matter how true I believe them to be, my words are always an approximation, a limited view of a full, three-dimensional person.
In 2009 I finished my first memoir. I’d worked on it for a few years, performing copious amounts of research on international garden design, horticulture, psychology, landscape theory, as well as interviewing a few family members. Well, I actually only interviewed my mom, and that was a two hour heart-wrenching session where for the first time in my life I got to know her as a person more terrifyingly real than I ever imagined.
During a visit home I was anxious. I didn’t want to broach the interview we both knew I wanted to do (and that would be the key to my memoir), but as the visit was ending she finally asked when I was going to get around to it. She often asked this of me as kid when I had the stomach flu – I held in my vomit until the very last minute, resulting in a big mess nowhere near the bathroom. Sorry. Too much info. I am a memoirist you know.
I felt awkward during our interview. I shook. I felt sweaty and cold. It was strange. I wasn’t ready for this kind of memoir – the one where you speak the deep truth by having confronted it in your lived life. A few weeks later my mom emailed me the deeper, deeper truth, saying she’d never speak it in person to me. It was the story of her siblings being beaten and molested, of her stepfather spiking her vanilla malt and trying, unsuccessfully, to molest her, too. I learned that for my family the garden was an escape, a place to center and come to grips with life.
I edited that memoir, Morning Glory, in 2010 because I knew it lacked structure, and a big part of the reason it lacked structure was because I was afraid to dig as far I needed to. It still lacks structure, and has sat idly in an external hard drive ever since. But my new memoir, which I began working on in 2009, is risking more. It’s bolder. It’s asking big questions. It’s taking a stand. All because I’m putting more of myself on the page.
I’ve taken four trips to Oklahoma to interview family and experts about state history, about homesteading stories from 1894 to the 1940s, about prairie ecology, about Mennonites and Cheyenne beliefs. Exploring my love / hate relationship with my birth state has helped me find the pain that Oklahoma represents for many cultures, human and plant and animal. As an accelerated microcosm of manifest destiny, my family helped destroy the prairie — I want to right that wrong I’ve felt in my bones longer than I’ve known how to name it.
But I’m terribly afraid that in saying the above, I’ll alienate the older members of my family who see the Plains in rose colored glasses, or that I’ll be accused of not honoring the sacrifice of my immigrant family who spoke only German. But the more I read, the more I travel, the more I remember my childhood in the hot, red dirt, I know what my truth is and that I have to speak it loudly – so loudly it hurts people’s ears and hearts. If I can’t risk my life here, on the page, alone in my office, how can I ever risk it out there? How can I live with myself if my inner and outer selves don’t merge? These questions have become my second memoir’s structure. Through a failed first book and much more active research than I ever did in nine years of grad school combined, I’ve come to gain confidence and faith in my writing and my life. At 37, it’s taken me many failures to write boldly, to write and trust my truth – and if Turkey Red is ever read by family, I will surely fail again. But I will have profoundly succeeded, too.
In the midst of things, at the between of things, I wonder why I ever believe in completeness. Again, my plans for a project, my idea that I can predict how I will approach something, my faith that these things are manageable – all slide away.
Without meaning to, with other things to do and books to read piled around me, I began reading Ernesto Pujol’s new book Sited Body, Public Visions: silence, stillness & walking as Performance Practice. On that rainy gray morning I read it until I had to stop on page 49. I stopped because every page calls me to write and write in response, in collaboration, in imitation. I have fallen into the trance of a voice, a mind, a generosity. Pujol’s writing is doing that thing to me that is the reason I go to art: he is writing things I have guessed, have intimated, have intuited, have maybe even known, but never articulated. So reading feels like coming to myself even while I am reading the inner and outer life of someone quite unlike me.
I want to write and write. I want to quote and quote. I want to ask and ask: Must I “finish” in order to respond? Must I get all the way to the end – of the book, the day, the job, the semester, the life – in order to be moved, to know something? Here is Ernesto on his work as a visual and performance artist: “It takes a passage of time, sometimes a lifetime, for an art practice to mature, to know itself, to reveal its secret depths and complexities. . .” So Ernesto answers me, perhaps. The ends of things, or maybe the pauses between things, bring maturity, knowing, revelation. Every page is a revelation. Every page ends and then goes on as my hands turn and turn, my eyes leap and shift, wet orbs of light and reading.
I have known Ernesto for a little more than 10 years. We have collaborated on two projects – an exhibition and a work of performance – in that time. His Field School Project published my first chapbook in 2010. He commissioned the work as a script for Farmers Dream, an all-night performance in a warehouse in central Kansas. My long poem is a partial, unfinished and unfinishable memoir of a span of difficult months in my life when I turned to the work that Ernesto envisioned. I hoped the project might save me. I used the assignment as an opportunity for reading and re-reading my grandfather’s farming journal. He wrote his daily activities, the weather, his goings out and comings back in the same big book each day from 1907 when he was a bachelor at 19, until he was a married 30-year-old father of two in 1918. My mother would be born in 1925, by which year he no longer wrote every day. On March 9, 1912, he wrote “Cut wood in morning. Shoveled sand out of river in afternoon. Went after milk. Spotted heifer (Star) was fresh about 4 p.m. Milked cows. Clipped my hair at night.” He recorded the middles of things – chores that need doing and then redoing because of the fecundity of nature.
I did not meet this grandfather who worked with his hands and back, who supported the people I grew up knowing best – my mother and her sisters. He died when my mother was 13. I have a photograph of her, freckles over her nose, sitting with her mother on the still-humped grave on his birthday in August 1938. In 2001, she would die on the same date, long past knowing the calendar in her illness, living the last weeks of her life entirely in the bed her parents had bought and used a lifetime earlier. When I visit my sister, I sleep in that bed. I am not finished sleeping yet. It is not only the photograph or the smooth wood of the headboard and footboard that know.
Ernesto writes, “You are dead. You are reading this, but you are dead. You died long ago, but you are being remembered. A child is remembering you.” In those sentences I become the girl at her father’s grave, I become her father I know only through his handwriting, I become my 75-year-old mother at her death; I become myself.
The grave is so new that only a temporary marker, a round metal sign with letters pushed into slots, leans a bit in the foreground. Toward me. I can almost make out his name and the single date, but I am imagining into the picture, doing what I do best: reading through a lens of what reading suggests I understand. Already, stopped only at page 49, I flip back through Ernesto’s book looking for what I think is there. Are the words printed or are they the ones I put there as a reader, as a writer?
When Ernesto was small, he writes in the first paragraph of Chapter One, he was able to make it rain, his favorite weather, “a child of the shade, moist moss and wet ferns.” How often have I written about that shade? Mine was Midwestern, shaggy elm tree and shrub shade of back yards. His was tropical island shade, fronds and leaves. In our separate and still lived lives, we share greengray timelessness, when morning and afternoon almost all the way to night cast the same light. Under the rough spreading bushes of the back yard, I planted my first seeds – black grenade shapes of four-o-clocks also called mirabilis (amazing, wondrous), which opened in late afternoon shadows when the temperature dropped and the soil went cool against bare feet.
I will go on reading this gentle book past the page, each page where I stop. I will go on writing it as a reader writes, incompletely and through the half-illuminating, half-blinding lenses of my experience. I write from a dim room where I am comforted by the scents of moss and milk. Writing and reading as a writer are the ways I know to re-enter that room and when I find a book like Ernesto’s, that miracle in my hands, it helps me through the doorway and I am t/here.
My name is Arjun Chopra, and this summer I’m moving to India for two months to be a T.A. at New Era Public School, a K-through-12 institution in New Delhi.
Why, you ask? There are so many reasons.
1. It’s going to be an incredible work experience. I’ll be working 8-hour days, 5 days a week, grading papers, assisting teachers in putting together lesson plans, and maybe I’ll even get to teach a class or two myself. For a kid like me who has spent his whole life as a nose-to-the-books student, this kind of rigorous workload will be a stark change and a welcome reprieve.
2. My entire family lives there. And when I say entire, I mean entire. My great-grandparents, my grandparents, their children, their children’s children, my first cousins, my second cousins, my second cousins once removed. It’s an extensive list of people, people I feel privileged to spend quality time with. I will learn how to cook quality Punjabi food at my grandmother’s house. Take a crash course in martial arts at the studio by my cousin’s place. And hopefully take a road trip to somewhere awesome in a different region with the family members who are ready to go.
3. But most importantly, I’m going because as a student and a poet, I know I can’t grow without exposure to new stimuli. If I want to learn different things, I have to be exposed to different things. The same goes for if I want to write something new.
I’m going because I want a change, but not the kind of change where I shrug off who I am and become someone else. I need a change in perspective, a shift in paradigm, a break from what has become my everyday so I can expand as a worker, a writer, and a person.
That’s also why I’ll be chronicling my exploration in this “Dispatches” series for Superstition Review, to document my journey not only for personal fulfillment, but in the hope that maybe others can learn something, even a kernel of something, from the things I write about.
So, cheers. I have a feeling it’s going to be a great summer.