Chelsea Dingman is a Canadian citizen and Visiting Instructor at the University of South Florida. Her first book, Thaw, was chosen by Allison Joseph to win the National Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press, 2017). In 2016-17, she also won The Southeast Review’s Gearhart Poetry Prize, The Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, and Water-stone Review’s Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize. Her work can be found in Ninth Letter, The Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Cincinnati Review, and Gulf Coast, among others. Visit her website: chelseadingman.com.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book allowed me to discover my voice as a poet. I don’t think we ever know what kind of poet we are since that is always changing, but it allowed poetry to be something more concrete for me. Having a book only feels different because people are able to access my work without me being present, if that makes sense. I still read and write everyday as though I hadn’t finished a book. I am always working toward whatever poem is currently in my head.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry by accident. I thought that I would be a prose writer. I was forced to take a poetry grad class several years ago. Part way through the semester, I realized that I would much rather play with a line in a poem for hours than sustain a narrative over pages and pages. It seems to be the way my brain is wired: I love language. To play with language all day is pure joy.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I write very quickly and generate a lot of work. I tend to overwrite: for every poem that I’m confident about, I generally wrote three poems to get there. I think that’s because I’m not usually satisfied with the first thing I’ve written and I obsess on one occasion until it comes out the way I want it to. I don’t set out to write project books: I just write and gather the threads from my poems later. I have written one project manuscript, but it was the most difficult thing I’ve done because I had to map it out and it felt forced until I figured out how to structure it and make it move like a book of poetry moves.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A poem begins with an occasion that demands to be written in most cases. Sometimes, it begins with a great line that I can’t get out of my head. I usually hear the music last and try to follow the sounds while I’m writing. I think this is because I’m a visual learner. I’ve talked to several auditory learners who do the opposite. I write whatever I want to write or research and then I look for ways that the work fits together later. Usually, after writing thirty poems or so, the larger threads start to emerge.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings that I attend have been part of my process. I had not given many readings before my book came out. I enjoy the poetry community at readings: I love the questions about the work, talking about poetry and teaching, and working with other writers. I love the way that builds community faster than anything else I’ve been part of and poets are a really generous and supportive group, for the most part.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’m not sure that I’m trying to answer any questions in my work. I tend to believe that writing to those realizations is better fitted for creative non-fiction. In poetry, we are writing out of the realizations that we already have. But, if you are referring to the uncertainty in poetry, then I do write out of uncertainty constantly. Unanswerable questions tend to be the ones that I obsess over. In my work, these uncertainties cover so many things: life, death, faith, love. Ordinary everyday questions, such as where the socks from the dryer go. Political uncertainties, as have arisen in so many powerful poems in the last year or two.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I often go back to Anais Nin’s quote: the role of the writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say. I believe that it is even more important for writers to say anything in the current cultural climate and for a massive range of voices to be heard. We need to hear an array of experiences to encourage empathy, but also to force people to take action and accountability. A writer is a great tool. The written word is powerful and lasting.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I haven’t worked with an outside editor. I have only worked with trusted readers. Trusted readers are a staple for poets and an essential part of the process. I don’t trade poems anymore, necessarily, but I definitely need someone who cares about my work to read it when I think I have a manuscript near completion.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Writers write. It’s not about awards and books. Shut out the noise and do the work.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I begin by reading. I love that part of the day. I read a lot in the mornings. I like to write afterward. If I’m teaching early, I read and write when I get home. I try to write everyday, though it’s not always work I polish. Just as an exercise.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read. Essays. Poems. Interviews by other writers that might trigger something. Some writers give such wonderfully lyric answers to questions that it makes me want to write. I also turn to my life: occasions I have shelved in my brain for later that I wanted to write. It might be something that I experienced, but often it’s something that I witnessed. Sometimes, it’s even a movie or documentary.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Pine trees. I grew up in the B.C interior. They were ever-present.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I love history, nature, and science. I love to incorporate all of those things in my poems, depending on what I am writing. The various landscapes that my speakers move through are so important in terms of informing their inner landscapes, so nature is prevalent. I’ve written a whole manuscript concerned with history: the emigration of Ukrainian citizens to Canada in the second wave (1924). Landscapes play a large role in those poems also. I just finished a manuscript about infertility and stillbirth, in which I used science-based research.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Writers I’ve worked with who are essential to my work are John A. Nieves (my most trusted reader) and Jay Hopler (all-round genius human). Traci Brimhall is another writer that I worked with on my thesis and she taught me quite a few things in a very short time. Heather Sellers has been a wonderful resource for both writing and teaching. Outside of my work, my cohort at the University of South Florida is amazing: I learn so much from simple discussions of writing.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write the poem that I want to write. That sounds strange, but I feel like I will forever be writing toward that elusive poem that I feel is successful, but is not possible because there is no ceiling in writing. Writers spend our lives writing to get better at writing. Or to write something different than we’ve already written, while acquiring new skills.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I think I still would have been a teacher. I love it. It is really rewarding to work with the students that I have had the opportunity to work with.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I tried doing other things for a long time. I changed my undergrad major many times. I kept coming back to writing because it’s what I love. I want to spend my life this way. I can’t imagine not reading and writing anymore, even if it is just for myself.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: I just finished Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle and I was stunned by it.
Film: I have young kids, so my husband and I don’t usually get to watch films anymore. We watched Gifted as a family recently and everyone enjoyed that.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I am currently doing research on traumatic brain injury and writing poems that are concerned with memory: what we can live with remembering, what we can’t live with remembering, what we cannot remember & how to live with that. Brain injury is something that hasn’t been written about enough and it affects many people in my husband’s former profession, so I feel a sense of urgency about it. I’m just writing to see where that takes me right now.