Hammer, Bite, and Blessing

Back to Issue 11

In March, Managing Editor Josiah A.R. Cox began an email exchange with poet Danielle Chapman about her first collection Delinquent Palaces and her more recent work. They discuss, among other things, the poet’s vocation, the strangeness of grace, and the contemporary draw toward fragmented prose. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Danielle Chapman’s collection of poems, Delinquent Palaces, was published by Northwestern University Press in 2015. Recent poems appear in Poetry, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. Her essays can be found in The Oxford American and Commonweal. She teaches literature and creative writing at Yale and lives in Hamden, CT with her husband, Christian Wiman, and their twin daughters.

 JC: Ilya Kaminsky commended your debut poetry collection as “one of those rare things, a first book by an already developed, master poet.” When did that development begin for you? What writers were most influential to the process of maturing your own work? 

DC: That was a very kind thing for Ilya to say. My first book came out when I was in my late 30s, so I think I managed to pack a couple books (and a couple of lifetimes) in there. The poems are the result of me hammering out a sound against many poetic obsessions over the years. At the very beginning, in college at NYU, I was infatuated with the poets of the Nuyorican Poetry Café. I loved the boldness and immediacy of those voices, and I ransacked my required reading for parallels, which I found in Shakespeare and Yeats. A bit later, when religious consciousness began to fuse with my poems, Dickinson blazed her way through me (and still does). Gwendolyn Brooks and Lorine Neidecker have been my guides when it comes to form and to sound. And, though I’ve always handled them gingerly (and without a Ouija board), Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes still stun me with their metaphorical power. Also James Schuyler, for his painterly touch, and Zbigniew Herbert for his irony. I could go on!

JC: Hammering seems like an apt metaphor to use because I’ve thought that your poems do sound forged or smithed. You are so careful to avoid a weak word.

Could you say more about that fusion between religious consciousness and your poetry? You mention Dickinson, from whom you draw the title of your collection, but you are definitely drawing on Dante and other metaphysical/religious poets at points in the collection. When or why did those two things begin to meld, and what is your religious background?

DC: Yes, Dante is an awesome, or awful (in the spiritual sense of the word) influence. I love how Mandelstam describes the terza rima of the Commedia, as a huge beehive, “a thirteen-thousand-faceted form.” I wish I knew Italian, so I could hear the formal virtuosity of the original, but, in translation, it’s the mystical sensibility, and particularly the movement of the light, in Dante that rivets me.

I experienced a conversion when I was 21 years old, at the same time that my first real lines of poetry came to me—by real, I mean they came from outside, rather than me trying to gin something up. The central poem in my book, “A Shape Within,” attempts to dramatize the rapture and the dismay that transpired, which I interpret as one soul’s vision of the radical love of God, being felt (and seen and heard), vividly and in many aspects, then disappearing. As Dante laments so many times throughout the Commedia, an experience like that remains indelible in memory, though it is wildly untranslatable. While poetry may be better at getting at it than other art forms, every poem remains only a try or an approximation.

JC: The distinction you just made about poetic inspiration resonates with the tension in that poem around whether the speaker’s experiences are chimeric or real—yes? 

DC: Yes, I hope that the poem is suffused both with the undeniable reality of the experience and the demand of the rational mind (which is ultimately baffled) to comprehend it. Though I think my use of the word chimera may have been more confusing than it needed to be. The chimerical figure in that poem is a real person, a love interest, though the opposite of a Beatrice—in that he reveals the love of God as a foil to a more daemonic form of human love. Some of the anxiety over the “unreal” is the realization a passion of this sort is not “real love” and yet illuminates the possibility of it somehow. The figure of Law in Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” is one parallel, or maybe Ganymede in As You Like It, who Marjorie Garner says is “the extra something, or something missing, that is the ‘overestimation of the object’ associated with falling in love.” 

JC: I find the poem very moving in that respect. Back to the work of an artist—do you mean to equate “real” with “effortless”? Can you say more about what difference real inspiration, as you’ve described it, makes for you as an artist? Do you think it makes a difference in the art itself? 

DC: Hm. Well it seems I may have made a bit of a false distinction there. Because only a very small number of poems or lines have come to me whole, in a way where the poem feels received rather than hammered out. (And I have already admitted to doing a lot of hammering.) I don’t think the measure of inspiration is whether the poem emerges effortlessly or not, but rather whether it manages to capture the urgency of the utterance that brought it on. Often a lot of tinkering with phrase, sound, and line is required to make it do that.

JC: One of my favorite poems in Delinquent Palaces capitalizes on another definition of “chimera.” “Rituxan Spring” is a poem about a “miracle drug” that’s chimeric in the sense of combining two kinds of genetic tissue—in its case, that of mice and humans…Your work is keen to grace or glory in strange or terrible places. My sense is that these perceptions come from your own experience. But I’m curious whether they are mostly discovered in the process of writing or occur to you in the course of life?

DC: That’s a great question. And I think I am realizing only in answering it that often it is the writing of the poem (or the intense need to write a poem) that makes me conscious of the paradoxes in my own experience. I am by temperament a pretty optimistic person, and I come from a Marine Corps family, so it’s my habit to kind of “soldier through” difficult circumstances. The problem with doing that is that it can keep you from feeling your life. Poems erupt in a way that force me to see both the glorious and the terrible, both of which I might miss otherwise. 

JC: You told me once that writing poetry can be a painful or arduous religious endeavor. What you’re saying now about poetry countering the tendency to avoid difficulty seems related to that.

DC: When it comes to the spiritual arduousness of being a poet, I think what I must’ve meant is that it doesn’t necessarily get easier in the way that one assumes it will at the beginning. I think there’s a parallel to religious calling in that way, because the rewards can feel meager, even invisible. A poetic vocation requires faith, because inner triumphs don’t always match up with outer recognition. Often the only reward for this kind of faith is another poem—which, in the moment of writing it, validates the whole enterprise. Emily Dickinson is of course the poster girl for this kind of faith. But she’s also a cautionary tale because she illustrates how masochistic poetry can become. The need to throw yourself on the altar of intensity every single day and demand a poem from the encounter is a kind of religious fanaticism. It reminds a person that it’s good to have some hobbies, and to get out of the house.

JC: You’ve just finished a new manuscript of poems. How would you describe it as a whole?

DC: In terms of what the book is “about,” I think your question earlier gets at it well: it’s a book of poems that dramatize those paradoxical moments when the grace/glory of life encounters the terror/strangeness of life and makes a sound (through language.) Though I think that might just be my definition of what a poem is. The book came together for me at the beginning of quarantine, when all social obligations had abruptly disappeared and life was suffused with this terrible, yet lucid, quiet. (The hours between 4 and 7 A.M., that is, because we have twin daughters and were also suddenly running a home school.) Those early, eerie mornings I was reading Alice Oswald and, through her, finding my way back to that elemental substance at the bottom of poetry, that clarity stripped of learning but foundational to language—what’s underneath King Lear, but which also undermines or transfigures King Lear, making it new for every generation. That water “at the bottom of all things/utterly worn out utterly clear,” in Ted Hughes’s imagining. I think I would call it Soul, or maybe even the Holy Spirit, yet it is a source fundamentally mysterious and resistant to labels. All I know is that, when I sense its existence (in this case in Oswald’s poems), I love poetry again. Believing in it makes the prospect of writing a poem joyous, rather than harrowing, and it helped me finish the manuscript.

JC: Is your poem “Dog Bite” in the new manuscript? It has that juxtaposition we’ve been talking about. It also draws on the book of Job, particularly at the end, where “the savage/and the good/so intermingled” evokes God’s whirlwind tour of creation. 

DC: Yes, it is. Job is a primary text for that intersection between grace and suffering—which, in theological terms, is (as I know you know) theodicy, or the attempt to explain how God can allow so much evil and suffering to exist if God is both omnipotent and good. Though I can’t say Job offers an airtight explanation. If there is one, it’s just that the ecstatic experience of meeting God obliterates everything else, including all past pain. Belief is its own justification. At the time I wrote that poem I was reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation, The Book of Job, which I love. My favorite innovation is the names he gives to Job’s three daughters, the daughters he has after everything is taken away and then restored in this unbelievable surfeit of newness. Mitchell calls them “Dove,” “Cinnamon,” and “Lipstick.” That just captures the somewhat absurdist joy of the ending perfectly. 

JC: Oh, I love that! Where did you come across Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of “epektasis,” and how important is it to you?

DC: It’s very important to me, though I will confess that I just had to look it up again! It’s one of those things that you might experience deeply before you know there’s a name for it. I can’t remember where I first encountered Gregory of Nyssa’s word, but when I did I couldn’t resist it, for the way that “epektasis” phonetically enacts the movement it describes—that hard “p” and “k” (the difficulty of living, of engaging, of working, of surviving) being hauled up and transfigured into the dynamism of a life in faith by that determined “t,” then sailing off (into possibility) on those “s”s. Another way to think of it is that, for an artist, faith must be incarnational, worked out through the things of this world, like, for instance, the insult of a dog bite to a spring evening in the park.

JC: Or a peach pit being gleaned by ants—as in your 2019 Commonweal essay “Anyway in Spring.” I appreciate many things about that essay, which reflects on Christian faith as you reckon with your husband’s battle with illness alongside becoming a mother to twin girls. I’m glad that it appears in the middle of your new manuscript. Why did you choose to write it in the third person? 

DC: Thank you. Though I’m afraid I can’t answer that question very authoritatively. The truth is that was just the only way it would come out. I find it painstaking to write about such intense experiences of joy and pain, partly because the emotions aren’t all that accessible to my conscious mind. I wanted to let the images from those moments of extremity emerge and, hopefully, take on their own shape and meaning. The distance of third person seemed to make that possible, whereas first person’s demand for intimacy felt like it overwhelmed the material.

JC: I called it an “essay,” but prose seamlessly transitions to poetry at moments. It is also poetic in its use of a fragmented or episodic form, which I’ve noticed many writers using these days. Why do you think that form is attractive to contemporary writers? What unique advantages does offer?

DC: I also initially thought of it as an essay, though then the poetic impulse (or in this case, specifically the impulse to praise or exclaim) kept disrupting the essayistic movement toward explanation and resolution. I think, in general, that’s what the fragmentary form allows—a narrative that includes disruption, or is, in fact, defined by disruption. My guess is that it’s popular these days because it’s hard, and sometimes dishonest, to make a linear, “authoritative” argument or narrative (or even lyric) in a world that is as plural and multifaceted as ours. In some ways the form speaks to the old hatred of that which has a “palpable a design on us,” which has long been the poet’s resentment. But it has a new urgency to it now, in the post-postmodern age, when chaos is the norm, and we’re skeptical of forms that are too neat. Also, fragmentary forms privilege perception and the idiosyncrasies of a singular consciousness in the same way that poems do, so I think poets are particularly given to them.

JC: One more question. You have a line in “Leaving Boston” that says, “there is a discipline, a sport to hope.” Is there a discipline to praise?

DC: I think there’s a discipline to making one’s poetry available to the totality of human experience—not to praise above all else. If you do that, your poems can take on the automatic bell-chime of cheerfulness, which will cause a feeling reader to despair. But a poet should be aware of their tendency toward the moribund, the self-centered, and the sentimental; and of the need to train one’s eye and ear to look and hear further, to perceive more, to take in the whole picture of creation. The experience of existing in this world gives us plenty of cause for lamentation, but also, often when we least expect it, it bowls us over with happiness at simply being alive. So we need to learn how to sing those blessings, without sounding like saps. 

I’ll sign off with this little poem by Alicia Ostriker, which I think does that brilliantly—and with many thanks to you for inviting me into this conversation:

The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog

To be blessed
said the old woman
is to live and work
so hard
God’s love
washes right through you
like milk through a cow

To be blessed
said the dark red tulip
is to knock their eyes out
with the slug of lust
implied by
your up-ended skirt

To be blessed
said the dog
is to have a pinch
of God
inside you
and all the other
dogs can smell it