With Intersection, her monthly column, celebrated poet Chelsea Dingman enters a place of questions left hanging—of lyric understanding, of addiction, and womanhood, and politics, and death.
As We Winter
“& so to tenderness I add my action”—Aracelis Girmay
We wake in a new decade to new threats of war, of Roe V. Wade being overturned, of our past histories rising to rile us against calamity & cruelty. Like any good anthem, the snow has stopped. I am living in Canada right now, but I can’t ignore what is happening in the US, my borrowed home of twenty years. I came home over a year ago to combat the fear I had for my children every morning when I woke in Florida: how to afford our health care that cost more than our house, how to forget the daily phone calls from their school about lockdown drills, how to have a voice without a vote since we only have green cards, how to teach college students what they need to know when what they really need is to feel safe. This list could be much longer, but the central fact is that I have felt this fear since I moved to Denver a few weeks before Columbine, and what followed was very real shootings that took place all over the country, in addition to very real wars waged on women & minorities & foreign shores.
Add to that a climate crisis & I confess that it has been dark for so long, I can’t remember rising to a morning where I see the birds & skies & believe we are doing anything on this earth justice.
In writing this, I am stepping outside of the lyric since communicating information in a straightforward manner holds more urgency for me. I’m not sure if this is an act of tenderness or if I am simply trying to come to some realization through writing this, but it feels necessary at this moment.
But I digress.
I meant to write about my MFA experiences and how they led to my second book, which is being released in a few weeks. I am giving readings in Georgia at the end of the month and all I can think is: my book is about miscarriage & a woman’s body. Will anyone hear me out in a state that questions a woman’s right to choose how to govern her body? Can I read political poems & still feel safe?
News & art & risk & fear are all tangled up in my head like twine.
In the first year of my MFA, I worked with several fantastic poets, including Meg Day and Naomi Shihab Nye. My mentor, Jay Hopler, set up an all-women National Poetry Month series of readings & workshops. I have been thinking about my workshop with Naomi a lot recently. At the end, she told us that we should be generous with our work and the work of others. That, basically, that generosity costs us nothing & is what poetry is about. Before I left, she hugged me & said no one was writing what I was. I had shared a poem about miscarriage: of relationships to the body & each other, of relationships to ideas we have for ourselves & our lives. About the loss of a child. I heard: keep going. That poem became part of my first collection, Thaw, which I sent out three months later. In truth, I didn’t expect much. To have a book published was a dream, but I’ve since learned that publishing isn’t really what poetry is about either. The point is: a celebrated poet of her stature did not need to be as generous as she was. For that, I am still grateful.
I am excited for my second collection for a number of reasons, one of which is that I couldn’t find a ton of books about this subject without digging. Second is that I’d understood writing about a woman’s body & domestic life was taboo & a huge knock against women writers. Third is that women on both sides of my family have suffered through miscarriage & stillbirth, largely behind closed doors. Why is it not important to see all aspects of women’s lives reflected in literature, rather than just what is deemed interesting by certain readers?
I was lucky to work with Jay Hopler in USF’s MFA program. I know some people question the value of the MFA, but for me, it was essential to my growth as a writer. In my third year, I went into every workshop with a question about what poetry could do and Jay would either answer, or he would talk to other poets & his wife (the poet & scholar Kimberly Johnson) & get back to me. It felt safe to discuss anything I wanted, which I continued to do with my students. This openness was everything I needed in order to take risks in my writing & ultimately write to please no one but myself. The poems of my forthcoming collection originated in that classroom in my third year. I spent another year overwriting that manuscript, but I never forgot the voices of all of those poets I’d worked with. Trying not to forget my own voice amid that din in my head became the harder task.
I know that book promotion & social media are the least important aspects of what a poet does, but I would argue that through these things, we come together in community in the face of a sometimes very scary world. I’m scared many times when I wake up to the news. I’m scared many times when I have to read & sound intelligent about my art. To justify taking up space in this way. But I am always pleasantly surprised at the relationships that I gain, at the way others’ work impresses itself upon me at readings, at the way we can live & move in the world & be valued for what we all offer, for what we can learn from each other. At the kindness of other artists. And isn’t kindness what we can all benefit from? Or, at the very least, the ability to listen to perspectives other than our own? Poets’ voices feel so vital to me right now, so I try to remember that my voice is also important. Perhaps, many of us feel more accepted when quiet. Perhaps, we write to avoid this. Perhaps.
But, consider this: wars & silence & suffering are better left to a past that we’ve learned from. Let us try. Let us be more generous in all aspects of our lives.