The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Nikki Wallschlaeger about her new collection Crawlspace, why she chose to work with the sonnet form, and how segregation in American never ended.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: In the piece I wrote about choosing this book, I mentioned how much I liked your use of the sonnet form. Can you talk some about why you chose this form for the book?
Nikki Wallschlaeger: I chose it because it operates as a restraint I can work with. In the Publishers Weekly review they were spot on about the sonnet being a container for what was going on in each of them—and so were you Brian—to keep them contained.
Brian S: But it’s a restraint you pushed against a lot in the book. Which is the point I guess.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Yes absolutely. I wanted to express how I felt living in the city, beyond what I did with Houses. To explore more of the energy that kept Houses, and its neighborhoods, alive, struggling. The bodies of women especially who keep households alive. So there’s a lot of voices of women in the book—wives, slaves, servants, who are muttering under their breath that became poems of both their interior lives with the exteriors that they labor in.
Brian S: I was really drawn by Sonnet 28, with the references to the 1950s and King Cotton casseroles and basically segregation, I suppose, because I’m seeing that rhetoric so much more in daily life now, more than I did as a much less aware kid in the South.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: That’s one of the strongest poems of the whole book, I think. Growing up, I also remember Bugs Bunny getting knocked out—and birds flying over his head—but what’s been happening with so many cops killing black people for no reason other than being black I felt knocked out
Brian S: That line “I am usually betrayed by teachable moments in the valley” was one I really felt driven by, in part because I’m much more cognizant of my own responsibility to not ignore those moments.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Yes, I don’t want what happens to black lives to just be teachable. I want it to be a part of the same reality as white people, not as just something like a unit in class, because ultimately systemic racism is a human rights issue
Brian S: Right, and white people have to be teaching each other about this. We read The Fire Next Time in a class I taught this last semester and I drove that point home again and again.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Yes absolutely. We live in such psychological and emotional segregation we don’t even realize it.
Brian S: Because more than half the class were well-meaning but naïve white kids, like I was not so very long ago (except the kid part), and we need the hard talk more than anyone.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: And the education needs to become a part of consciousness or else people of color are “betrayed”—that’s the betrayal.
Brian S: I was thinking about that the other night for a project I’m working on. How I’m more connected to people of color now because of social media than I was when I lived in more racially diverse places, and how fucked up that is.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Me, too, and I think that’s true for a lot of people or at least for us to be able to talk more honestly about what is happening.
Brian S: And the ones doing the betraying aren’t the openly racist people—they’re the ones who claim to be allies and are hurt when they don’t get praise.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: America does not want to deal with race or class.
Brian S: And it seems clear that it especially doesn’t want to admit there’s an overlap between the two.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Yes that certainly seems to happen a lot, both online and in real life.
Brian S: I’m thinking about all the post-election news pieces about the working class that focused on “working class voters” without mentioning that people of color make up a huge proportion of that economic group.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Yes! That drives me crazy. I’ve lived in working-class black neighborhoods, which is really a demographic that both white people and the black middle class want to ignore.
Brian S: I grew up in a working-class, mixed-race neighborhood that was next to a working-class black one—I walked to school through it, and hopped a 6-foot chainlink fence every day that the white people had had the city put up to “protect” themselves from the black kids who played in the same park their kids did.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Apparently Obama being president is supposed to have solved all of our black self esteem problems lol.
Yes, I can relate to that. Milwaukee is highly segregated. Holton Avenue was the dividing line.
Brian S: The thing I also remember from that was how in white neighborhoods, people with money didn’t live next to people without it, but that wasn’t the case in the black neighborhoods. It drove home that race was a bigger divider than money was.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Yes, exactly. I volunteered at a black organization called Walnut Way on the north side of Milwaukee that strove to educate and be a community center about how redlining and the decision to build the highway through a black mixed-class neighborhood was a tactic to destroy black community. Now Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the US.
Brian S: I’ve only recently started to learn about that aspect of structural racism, but I’ve seen the ways policing has that same effect, and the two are absolutely connected. And I see it in the way schools are districted here in Des Moines.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Yes. I think its a pattern that sustains all American cities, even in the small town in northern Wisconsin I grew up in (of 30,000 people).
Brian S: Like, Iowa is the sixth whitest state in the US, and while Des Moines is the most diverse city in the state, it’s still hella white. But the school in my neighborhood is like 95% Black and Hispanic. How does that happen by chance? It doesn’t.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Yup. It’s intentional. Segregation has not ended.
Brian S: Because my neighborhood used to be a lot blacker than it is now, and a lot of the white parents here just happen to decide that their kids will get a better education at the Montessori school or at one of the schools of choice even though the neighborhood school was literally just rebuilt and is the newest school in the system.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: What was great about Milwaukee is the Montessori school was public. My eldest kid went there until fourth grade. So it was a school that was more racially mixed than others; we were really lucky.
Brian S: The one here is, too, but it’s a twenty-minute drive away in a suburb, and if you don’t have a car or the means to navigate the school system…
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Didn’t have to pay tuition, either. The one my eldest went to was right in the city but not far from the ‘burbs. There were three of them, though, throughout the metro area.
Brian S: So before we run out of the hour and don’t talk more about your book… 🙂
Sonnet 37 starts with the line “My joy, privately owned. My hair I only let down at home” and it struck me as a line that hits both on race and gender, because the eye is on you from different directions depending on who’s doing the looking, and by extension, the judging.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Yes, I get annoyed at the whole “black girl magic” thing. My hair has been a source of curiosity that I’d rather keep to myself lol. So the poem is also like, Hey I can be myself at home—uncombed, no makeup, by myself.
I get the most joy out of not being seen by others sometimes lol. Just me, myself, and I. Representation is a double edged sword.
Brian S: But there’s this expectation that just being in the world means that you’re on display, which as a guy I really don’t have to deal with. Unless I find myself in a room full of single gay men, which is rare. I can be a slob in public and no one automatically judges me, or if they do, I have the privilege to not care.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Yes, and black people, especially black women, are always on display. I don’t care if Vogue magazine has more black models. It just means more pressure, more beauty standards. I know some women enjoy them, but I don’t. I think fashion magazines are trash.
Brian S: This is more an inside baseball question—are these poems ordered chronologically or did you number them after you had a manuscript together?
Nikki Wallschlaeger: I like to write my books chronologically, so yes. I think its a good way to write so the reader can see the writer’s development throughout the book.
Brian S: Is it my imagination or did the poems start to get longer as the book went on? Groups of sonnets instead of just fourteen lines?
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Yes, they do. My irritation started to grow, I think, with the form. I wanted to get away with saying more so I extended them.
Brian S: Yeah, I’m working on a manuscript (have been for about three years now) which started as sonnets and then I had to expand them, extend them, do groups. Sometimes fourteen lines isn’t enough space even when you use long lines.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Right. Sometimes you just have more to say.
Brian S: But I really liked how Sonnet 55 just ran and ran. It was a good close to the book, given how tight the control had been throughout.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: I love that poem.
Brian S: You have reason to!
Nikki Wallschlaeger: I think I’ve pissed people off with that one.
Brian S: Why is that?
Nikki Wallschlaeger: It’s so anti-capitalist people usually don’t know how to handle it.
Brian S: I mean, capitalism is going to kill us all, right? I can acknowledge that I appreciate the comforts I get from it while also recognizing how shitty it is to most of the world and to the environment.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: It’s meant to be humorous and I do enjoy going to a good restaurant every now and then like anyone but I sincerely meant everything I said in that poem. Most people don’t want to think about where their comforts come from, especially if they think they deserve them.
Brian S: What are your favorite poems to perform?
Nikki Wallschlaeger: That one lol. Sonnet 55, and “Silver House” and “White House” from Houses.
Brian S: Do you say “buy my book” after you finish it?
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Never lol.
Brian S: That would probably undercut the message of the poem, I suppose.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: If someone wants to buy my book, they will. Sometimes they do and I’m asked to sign. I wish I knew more about the strangers that ask me to sign than just saying “enjoy.”
Brian S: I think that’s about all you can do, though. I’ve had books signed by authors who want to chat before they do it, and I’m very conscious of the line behind me when they do.
Who are you reading these days? Anything new on the horizon we should be aware of?
Nikki Wallschlaeger: I’ve dedicated my summer to the classics so the collected Anne Sexton is what I’m going through right now. But as far as fiction, Jacob Wren‘s 2 recent books: Rich and Poor and Polyamorous Love Song.
Brian S: You know, I’ve never read Sexton beyond what’s usually anthologized. I should change that.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: She’s amazing. She had no fear when it came to her most hidden feelings.
Brian S: It’s mostly been her takes on fairy tales, and I know she had way more in her arsenal than just that.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: I’m learning a lot about courage from her because like so many poets I too suffer from the Big D: Depression
Brian S: Funny how she and Plath were kind of dismissed for that and Lowell was praised for being brave for doing the same thing.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Her poetry is so much more than that. Let me see… I read so much I know there’s more.
Brian S: Me, too. And I didn’t recognize it for years. Therapy is everything and we’re lucky we have good insurance that covers it.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: there should be flowers by Jennifer Espinoza is excellent. There are some poets I immediately trust, and she’s one of them.
Sara Woods, or Moss Angel, is writing the most phenomenal trans mythology. She’s ahead of everybody as far as I’m concerned.
Brian S: Oh, I’m going to have to find that when it comes out.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Sea Witch Volume 1 is out—not sure if Volume 2 is?
Jasmine Gibson is a black queer leftist poet that won’t let anyone rest. Try Drapetomania, by Commune Editions. You can get that online for free. Really excited to read more from her when it comes.
Brian S: Thank you for joining us tonight, and for sending me that advance copy when I hit you up on Twitter. I really was blown away by this book.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it and engaged with it. Really, that’s all any serious writer can hope for.