Molly Spencer’s debut collection of poetry, If the House, was chosen by Carl Phillips for the 2019 Brittingham Prize. Her recent poetry has appeared in FIELD, The Georgia Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner. Her critical writing has appeared at Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review online, and The Rumpus, where she is a senior poetry editor. Molly’s second collection, Hinge, won the 2019 Crab Orchard Open Competition judged by Allison Joseph, and is forthcoming from SIU Press in 2020.
We both attended the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program with Molly a few years ago and have had the pleasure and honor of watching the poems in this collection cohere and take shape into what is now an exquisite book of interior and exterior geographies.
The Rumpus: The poem “Grisaille” seems to me to be the initial song of the speaker’s journey in this collection. It does so much important work, introducing landscape features—stone, gulls, lake—that will return throughout the book. I also that it suggests a poetics, that the poems paint in monochromes the grays of dailiness and interior spaces, the various shadows of the rooms. Are there painters or visual artists who were important to you as you wrote these poems?
Molly Spencer: I love the idea of this poem as the initial song for this speaker, and I think you’re right—although I wouldn’t have thought to characterize it that way myself. And yes, there was an artist whose work I held close in mind as I wrote these poems: Vilhelm Hammerschøi, who’s known for his subdued interiors. His work portrays the isolation of women in domestic spaces, and captures the nuances of both the loneliness and comforts of those spaces, the shadows and the light, so accurately—I remember thinking, the first time I encountered his art, “How did he know?” His work is also full of thresholds—and thresholds and crossings are so much a part of how I understand the world and what a poem can do.
Rumpus: Say more about thresholds in poetry. Are these something you experience more often as a writer or a reader?
Spencer: I think I experience them first as a human being, alive on the earth. I’m someone who has always been deeply affected by the spaces of her life—the rooms and meadows and windows, the doorways and hallways and shorelines and horizons—and the crossings from one space into another. Gaston Bachelard, in his The Poetics of Space, writes about how physical spaces can call us into reverie and “protect the dreamer.” He argues, and I agree, that this reverie, this dreaming, is crucial to poetry. And while The Poetics of Space focuses mostly on the house as a protective space, in my life, I’ve found landscapes to be protective spaces, too—spaces that call me into alternate modes of consciousness. And my experience is that poems, and even elements of poems—an image, a line break, a string of rhythms and sounds—can do this, too. So that, through the poem and its motions, its lines and its crossings, the reader can shift her vision of the world, at least for as long as it takes to read the poem.
Rumpus: The book reads like a study of telling and withholding, from the title of the first poem, “If I tell you everything as the day fades,” to the various “Conversation” and “Disclosure” poems. Can you talk about the role of speech—intimate, declarative, withheld?
Spencer: I didn’t realize the book was so much about speech and silence, about saying, or not saying, or attempting to say, until I saw the manuscript as a whole.
I think one thing these poems are interested in is how to close the distance between one person and another. Language is one of the few tools we have for doing that, but, wow, it’s dicey—so often, language fails to bridge that distance. And it’s fascinating to me that there are words in English—contronyms, they’re called—that mean themselves and the opposite of themselves. Cleave is a good example: it means to split or sever, and to bind, cling, or stick fast to. I find this both delightful and unsettling. So, I would say the primary role of speech in these poems is to attempt something. To try.
Rumpus: Were there any other crucial themes you uncovered once the book began taking shape? Anything in particular you wrote into? Anything you wrote away from?
Spencer: Well, I didn’t realize I was such a nature poet! [Laughs] Once the manuscript was finished, though, I saw how landscapes are essential to the poems, both as touchstones for the speaker and as spaces and thresholds for the book to move through. I was telling a friend about this, about realizing the importance of natural settings in my poems, and she said she thinks of many of my poems as “ominous pastorals.” I can live with that. As for writing into or away from something, I was not doing that until the manuscript began to take shape as a thing in the world. Once I could see the manuscript as a whole, I wrote into the complexities and contradictions of language where and when the poems seemed to ask for that.
Rumpus: In “Tentative Theories,” the speaker navigates the shifting waters of hope and hopelessness. She says “All the smooth, untouched waters // of our lives are still ours. / And were never ours. // Sometimes a stone is only a stone.” At the end of the collection, the poem “I Talk Myself Through the Facts of Each Day” returns to this meditation, and it names language as a kind of raft: “and the way I believe / a single word can rescue. // A word like spandrel // A word like thigh.” Do you share the speaker’s belief in the life-saving power of language?
Spencer: Well, I think that, while language can’t save a life that’s in actual, imminent danger, it can save a day. Poetry has saved many days for me, mostly by offering me something rich to think about, or exquisite language, or the knowledge that I’m not alone in whatever human struggle I’m in the middle of. So, language—in the form of poetry—can save lives bit by bit, day by day.
And I do believe a word can rescue, at least for a little while. And sometimes that’s all we need: to be rescued temporarily; to be borne safely across what Emily Dickinson calls “a pain — so utter —.” Or to luxuriate in the beauty and intricacies of language—the joy of that.
Rumpus: You’ve described the ways writing poetry can save a life, has saved yours. Would you say the same thing about reading poetry?
Spencer: Oh, yeah. Definitely. Reading more than writing.
Rumpus: Martín Espada once said if you want to hide anything from your family, put it in a book of poems. This book seems to capture relationships, internal and external, at points of intense dissolution. What was your experience of writing about those closest to you? Did you experience any new urgency or apprehension as you were selecting which poems to include in your book?
Spencer: Yes. I was writing about things I was living through with the people closest to me, but I was also writing about the things we’re all living through with the people closest to us. The struggles and joys of house-holding and families (given or chosen) and intimate relationships are as old as time, and, with a few exceptions, the events of the book don’t correlate one-to-one with events from my life. What they do reflect is the human experience of trying to make a home and a family, trying to make a marriage work, trying to remember a childhood and a self that came before, looking for truth and solace in beloved landscapes, trying to make sense of endless wars, and violence, and a bewildering, beautiful world.
I do worry that a few poems might cause my family members, if not hurt exactly, then discomfort, and that my kids, were they to read the book now, would encounter some painful truths of human existence that I’d rather shield them from a while longer. But in the end, I don’t think we get to choose the poems we write, or the books we write—I think they choose us. In the end, I value poetry that comes from lived experience. And these poems are definitely that.
Rumpus: You have a number of poems titled “Conversation with ____” that marry enjambment with dialogue to convey the pressure and wild leaps of logic often endemic to habitually difficult conversations. What inspired the form of these poems? Did you write into the form? Revise into the form? Both?
Spencer: Well, going back to the earlier question about speech and silence, and the question of whether or not language can bridge the distance between two people, I think the “Conversation” series is an explicit attempt to explore this question, although I only understood that after I’d written the poems, and not during the process of writing. There’s a poem by Allison Seay that I’ve been thinking about for years. It’s called “Town of Unspeakable Things” from her collection To See the Queen. In it, two people are riding bikes and trying to have a conversation, and what the speaker says keeps getting lost in the wind. She has to keep repeating herself. I suppose the fact that I’d been thinking about this poem for so long is something of an inspiration for this series, although formally the “Conversation” poems are very different from Seay’s poem. But the truth is I stumbled into the conversation poems and the formal elements they make use of unwittingly, and then unwillingly. I didn’t understand them, and I resisted writing them until someone I trust implicitly said, “You don’t have to understand them yet. Just keep writing them.” So I did, and at that point, gave in to the form they were taking as a way to enact dissonance and bewilderment.
Rumpus: What is poetry to you? What’s your definition of a poem?
Spencer: Last summer, while camping with my kids in northern Michigan, I was reading Jane Mead’s work. One of the lines of her long poem, “House of Poured Out Waters,” is “I am speaking to you as a last resort,” and I think that’s what a poem is: the last utterance before the void. A last resort.
Photograph of Molly Spencer by Michelle Massey Brown. Photograph of Molly Spencer, Billie Swift, and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha.