“We hear a lot about finding your own path as an artist, but it’s important to honor yourself in the life you lead as well.”
Migration (Gold Line Press, 2016)
What’s your chapbook about?
The poems in Migration trace a rough narrative arc from a childhood in Texas to early motherhood in Brooklyn. Many of these poems deal with family and home, how we leave home and how we return, either mentally or physically.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
For this collection, Fossil Sky by David Hinton was influential—though it may not technically even be a chapbook. It’s a long poem printed on a piece of 54-square-inch paper folded up like a road map. The words of the poem on the page reconstruct the walks Hinton took in the countryside when he was living in Provence. For many years, I had the poem hanging on the wall in my apartment. During that time, I began to consider more deeply how poetry can embody a landscape. It’s safe to say that many of the poems in this chapbook, especially the ones set in Texas, reflect thinking that began with Hinton’s poem.
After my son was born, I also discovered Anne Waldman’s chapbook First Baby Poems. My library had one of the earlier editions, with a baby’s footprints on it. It felt very handmade. I was struck by the intimacy of the chapbook form and how perfect it was for the subject. About that same time, I was reading chapbooks made by Sarah Lariviere in her Color Treasury series. She doesn’t use a press at all: each individual chapbook is entirely handmade, a true work of art. All of these chapbooks spoke to my nostalgia for paper—for artifacts that show the mark of a human hand—and inspired me to think seriously about a chapbook of my own.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
While I don’t have any talent for visual art, I am very influenced by it. My mother was an art teacher and a dedicated amateur artist, so I grew up going to art museums, watching art being made, and making art myself. Many of my good friends are artists or designers. I love that poetry is a more tactile form than fiction, that you do consider the shape of the words on the page—that you might think about the language of white space. I also appreciate that the chapbook, with its less expensive publishing model, creates an opportunity to think more creatively about design.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook?
“Migration” is one of the older pieces here, and is of course the title poem of the collection. It’s one of a number of poems I wrote in the wake of my mother’s death in 2007. In that time, I was thinking and writing a lot about my childhood and my family history.
How did you decide on the arrangement of your chapbook?
At first I resisted a chronological ordering of the poems—it seemed too obvious. But I became interested in how the poems might tell a story when assembled together. Even the poems that weren’t about me seemed to contribute to an underlying narrative. And there was no compelling reason not to order them chronologically. In some ways it would have seemed false not to go that route.
The Gold Line contest judge, Anna Journey, recommended a small reordering, to end with the poem “Fourth Trimester.” She pointed out that this would allow the book to conclude with a more cosmic, expansive gesture. I liked that, and also the idea of messing with the chronology when there was a good reason to do so.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
The poem “Not Done Yet” concerns my mother’s death and her funeral. Since her death was a catalyst for many of the poems in this collection, it was important to me that at least one elegiac poem appear here. I find the rituals around death in America to be mostly unsatisfying—there’s so much artificiality and often little beauty, with the tent and the Astroturf, the officiant, who may or may not know the bereaved. And yet this imperfect ritual is what brings us together to acknowledge the great void we all spend our lives circling, and all circle together. I took comfort in finding a way, through language, to acknowledge these things, along with all the other complicated feelings that can arise with the death of a parent. It still feels like magic to me that poetry can express so much complication in so few words.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
I love this question! Every time I’ve seen the poem “Salvage” during the publishing process, I think, “Oh, yeah, I forgot—you’re in here, too.” It’s an environmental poem, written in response to the BP oil spill. Though it’s not the only political poem in this collection, it’s the only one that doesn’t relate to my own personal experience in some way. It hasn’t been published in a journal, so I like that it’s getting some exposure here.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
“Instead of Writing While the Child Sleeps” is one of the last poems I revised and the last chronologically. This poem takes place when my son was about a year old, when he’s becoming a boy and leaving babyhood behind. So it was a kind of threshold moment. I didn’t want the book to be primarily about motherhood: I liked the arc that I saw in the collection. So this seemed the appropriate place to stop and begin another project.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Everyone at Gold Line has been so positive and supportive. Their publication model is fairly traditional, which means it’s great training for future books. That said, I had relatively little input on the visual side of things. They paired me with a wonderful designer, SoYun Cho, who did the cover as well as the book design. Her cover went in a direction I never would have considered, and I absolutely love it.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
For my entire life, all I ever wanted was to be some kind of artist. But these days, I find myself wondering what it would be like to be someone completely different. For instance, I had dinner recently with a poet friend and her sister, who is a theoretical physicist. While I was talking to the sister, I noticed that she talked about equations in the same way that I talk about poetry. She mentioned a time when she wasn’t studying this branch of physics and became depressed—she missed her equations the same way I miss writing when I’m not able to do it. Mathematics is her method of experiencing beauty, order, and wonder in the universe. And I suspect, her way of managing the world.
Since that conversation, I’ve tried to imagine what her experience of numbers must be. It’s so far from my reality, where I have to triple check that I’m leaving the correct tip at a restaurant. And while poems always have their own logic, there is something subjective about writing a poem and declaring it done. It would be a relief to find beauty in what is objectively true, rather than in my own subjective truth. To know that a problem is solved because the numbers add up in the most elegant way possible.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
We hear a lot about finding your own path as an artist, but it’s important to honor yourself in the life you lead as well. There’s an idea in our culture that a writer or artist needs to lead a tortured, chaotic existence. This may work for some people, but, having watched a number of careers unfold, stability and discipline seem more important. Chaos is actually pretty exhausting, even if it looks a lot cooler than stability.
What gets you to the page?
I was so lucky that about the time my maternity leave was ending, my friend, the poet Marlys West, suggested that we commit to sending each other 100 words a day via email. I was concerned about getting back into a writing practice after taking some months off, especially after this huge change in my life, so I was glad to have some structure to come back to. For three months we wrote each other almost every day, and for a full year, we probably wrote each five times a week. I still get poetry in my inbox from her a few times a week, and vice versa.
So at this time, my process involves reading some new, interesting thing by Marlys and then some published poetry. By the time I’ve read and absorbed a few poems, I usually have some original verse unspooling in my mind. All of the poems in Migration about motherhood had their first life in an email to Marlys.
Ginny Wiehardt’s poetry has been published in a variety of literary journals including Bellingham Review, Southern Humanities Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Willow Springs. Her work also appears in the anthology Political Punch (Sundress Publications, 2016). She has an MFA in Poetry from the Michener Center for Writers and has been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook and Jentel. Originally from Texas, she now lives in New York, NY with her family.
In the mornings we watched the neighbors
go off to work, coffee steaming in their hands.
Then we perambulated
past sleeping gardens:
fountains banked with snow,
hydrangeas shivering with dried-up petals.
Shopgirls gave me lollipops
as though I had become a child.
But I was carrying one, pressed to my chest,
my hairless joey.
My brain cells were dying in the usual way
but sleep wasn’t coming to sweep them out.
So when grandmothers
checked for his hat,
or spoke of his size, I had no defense.
The train roared on.
What was the name of the station?
And the saint who tore out her eyes?
The one we almost named him for.
All night we made floorboard music
in our three rooms.
The nurse said my uterus was descending,
but she meant deflating
like a wounded basketball.
Baby dreamt of milk,
The doctor said his irises would darken.
Of this planet
all he knew was black and white,
I thought often of Antarctica,
those blue layers
In that long present before the spell breaks,
we can’t know
what waits inside.