The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat with Molly Spencer
The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Molly Spencer about her new collection, Hinge (SIU Press, October 2020), long roads to publication, fairy tales, writing while parenting, and more.
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. Upcoming poets include Kimberly Grey, torrin a. greathouse, Erin Belieu, Adrienne Christian, Threa Almontaser, Kayleb Rae Candrilli, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: You’ve mentioned that though this is your second book, it was the first one you wrote. Can you talk some about how that happened? Did you always think of this as a separate manuscript or was there overlap with your other book?
Emily Francis: To add to Brian’s question, what made you return to it or what made you believe it in for so long?
Annata Tempinski: And, curious title, Hinge. How did that title come about?
Molly Spencer: Yes, I started writing the poems in Hinge when my kids were tiny—preschoolers and a kindergartner. That kindergartner started college this year! I was kind of working blind… I had never formally studied literature or poetry, but had always read and written poetry, and I was writing then as a way of claiming a small corner of existence for myself amid the work (and joy) of mothering.
I didn’t know then that I was writing a book, but I kept at it for a lot of years and eventually put a manuscript together. I spent another several years shaping the manuscript.
And I started sending it out in, I think, 2015. Meanwhile, I started a low-res MFA around the same time. I had just finished Hinge, so I was (as I said at the time) poetry-exhausted! And didn’t write a whole lot other than what I absolutely had to for my program for the first year and half of the program.
Annata Tempinski: Thank you Molly for giving us “wannabe” poetry authors the inspiration to keep at it. I have lots of half-baked poems.
Molly Spencer: Then, at about the halfway point (it was a three-year program), the poems started flowing again and I ended up with a second manuscript that was my creative thesis for my MFA.
I started sending that out, too, and that manuscript, If the House, got picked up first.
At that point, I decided Hinge would be the book I’d learned on but that would never be published. It had already received over one hundred rejections. I had kept sending it out all those years because every now and then I’d get a semi-finalist or finalist designation. And because other poets I trusted said, “Keep sending!”
But when If the House found a home, I was at peace with letting Hinge go.
Emily Francis: As a yet-to-be-published poet, I find this all so encouraging!
Molly Spencer: I withdrew it from all the first book contests it was entered in, but noticed I’d sent it to a couple of open competitions and decided to leave it those two places since I’d paid the fees! A few weeks later, I got the call from Jon Tribble at Crab Orchard Review. So, that’s the long story of how Hinge finally found a home.
And Brian, to answer your question, it was always a separate thing for me. Never any overlap between Hinge and If the House. I was very clear on that from the beginning. If Hinge couldn’t make it on its own, I was not going to cannibalize it for another project.
Brian S: Man, losing Jon Tribble was such a huge thing. He accepted a poem from me not long before he died. He was a straight-up good person, and that’s hard to find.
Did you have a connection to people early on who helped you keep writing? How did you come into contact with them? I’m asking because a lot of people who write today, and I’m one of them, did it through school, whether as an undergraduate or an MFA.
Molly Spencer: Oh yes, losing Jon was and still is terrible. I am so grateful to have worked with him on Hinge.
Early on, I didn’t have any connections. It was literally me at my kitchen table in the very early morning hours before my kids woke up reading and writing. That was it. After a few years, I took a class or two at a local literary center (the Loft in Minneapolis—I lived in St. Paul at the time) and started to find a few writing friends. And I ended up taking private classes from Tom Ruud and Deborah Keenan in St. Paul. They were my first teachers and my first champions. Later, I took an online class through Stanford from Jennifer Richter. My family had moved to California by then.
Brian S: That’s amazing, because I think back to when I was starting out, and without my teachers at Southeastern Louisiana—Jack Bedell and Tim Gautreaux—I wouldn’t have known where to even start with trying to send poems. They’d probably still be handwritten in my notebooks.
Molly Spencer: Jen became a huge supporter, a huge champion of my writing. She is really the one who helped me believe I might be able to be a poet someday!
I waited a very long time to send out my work. I probably wrote quite seriously for ten-to-twelve years before I ever sent a poem out.
Annata Tempinski: Molly, can you tell us about your choice of the quote from Emily Dickinson at the front of Hinge? And, perhaps which other classic poets you admire?
Molly Spencer: Yes, Annata, I’d be happy to. Emily Dickinson was really my very first poetry love. Emily, and Gwendolyn Brooks, and Walt Whitman. But I felt a special kinship with Emily Dickinson and her work; the strangeness and dissonance attracted me, and the fact that she had carved this life out for herself.
I started reading her poems when I was thirteen or fourteen and I’ve never really stopped. That epigraph is #135 in the Johnson edition of Emily’s poems. For me, it really spoke to the things we can learn from suffering, but also to the enduring cold of suffering: “birds by the snow.” I never want to sugarcoat suffering. I don’t want to say “it all turned out okay” without also recognizing the toll it took. And that last line holds that cost for me.
Emily Francis: Can you talk about the use of “Self-Portraits” in each of the sections?
Molly Spencer: Well, those came about probably from a confluence of factors. One, I was just trying to write all kinds of poems… I was learning, experimenting, and I’d read something someone else wrote, and let that poem lead me to my own material. I think I’d just started reading Jorie Graham at that point, her book, The End of Beauty is full of self-portraits. Although, I’ll say I probably wasn’t really “ready” to read that book yet.
But the concept interested me, probably because when you’re seriously ill for a long time you get observed a lot. The doctors observe you, your family members are always watching and trying to gauge how you are. Sometimes they even talk about you as if you’re not sitting right there in the same room as them! [Laughs] So, I became interested in what I would look like to myself if I took a moment to observe myself. And that’s where those self-portraits began. Also, I’ll say this: another book I was reading was Allison Titus’s Sum of Every Lost Ship. She has some stunning self-portraits in that book, and those were an influence, too.
Someone asked about the title, Hinge, I think? Am I remembering right?
Emily Francis: Thanks—really interesting connection to illness. I really appreciated how you were able to include that in different ways throughout the book.
Molly Spencer: I’m glad that resonated for you, Emily.
Annata Tempinski: Yes, I did ask about title, thank you.
Molly Spencer: The title came about after a long, angsty search! [Laughs]
Brian S: As these things often do in poetry
Annata Tempinski: Hey, is “angsty” a word? (lol)
Emily Francis: Oh, titles…
Molly Spencer: I think I’m not really great at titles. And I had a really hard time assigning one to this manuscript, especially because I was mostly working on it on my own. I think it started out as Most Accidents Occur at Home, but then, that poem didn’t really feel like a title poem. Next, I think it was called First House, which I really loved as a title, but again, that poem didn’t feel like a title poem.
For a while, it circulated at Patient Years. Same problem!
And then, for most of its manuscript life, it was Relic and the Plum, which is a mash-up of the end of one sentence and the beginning of another in the poem “Self-Portrait as Something Like a Heart.” I never really loved it, but I was tired of searching for titles!
Emily Francis: I love the use of the word “hinge” in “Vernal” because it was so surprising that it was a stuck hinge. Hinge seems to evoke opening and closing. The stuck hinge was perfect.
Molly Spencer: Then, during the editorial process, Jon and I had a few conversations, and I talked with Jen Richter about it, too. Jen helped me do some more brainstorming, and really, she’s the one who came up with Hinge.
Brian S: It’s also one of those words you can use as a verb or a noun without doing something funky to it, so it’s versatile that way.
Molly Spencer: Exactly. That’s why I think it works, ultimately: because it works in several different ways. It speaks of openings and closings. Of all that hinges upon a mother, upon the body. It conjures thresholds.
Brian S: Was there ever a poem in the collection titled “Hinge”? I just ask because I used to have a title poem in my manuscript before it was accepted for publication, but the title was the only thing that didn’t suck so I dumped the poem and kept the title.
Just as an aside, I love talking about this kind of insider stuff because I think the writing world is really esoteric to most non-writers and those just starting out, and I also think it’s good to demystify some of that stuff.
Molly Spencer: There never was a poem titled “Hinge.” It really came from the poem called “Epithalamium with Trail of Ashes,” which has a line that is, in fact, borrowed from one version of the Grimms’ tale “The Robber Bridegroom”: The quiet song / of the front door hinge caused my heart to break.”
Annata Tempinski: Ah, I see. Great discussion of “hinge” and all its associations.
Molly Spencer: Brian, I agree that it’s good to demystify! I am still often mystified! Not having studied in a typical, academic MFA program, there’s a lot of insider knowledge that I still don’t have.
Brian S: But at least you have connections to people you can ask now!
Molly Spencer: For example, I just learned that there are some fellowships that they only award to people who have recommendations from people who have won the fellowship in the past.
Brian S: I didn’t know that, but I’m also sadly not surprised
Molly Spencer: For many years, I didn’t know how Pushcart nominations worked. So much of the business of writing was a mystery to me, so I mostly focused on reading and writing. I guess it was lucky that that was my instinct, because I think that’s the most important way to be a writer: read and write.
Brian S: Indeed.
Molly Spencer: I do have some connections now, which I’m grateful for. I think the thing is that sometimes I don’t even know what to ask or that I should be asking something. I didn’t know, for example, how post-publication prizes worked. So I didn’t really pursue any for If the House. I’m going to try to do better for Hinge.
Brian S: Also, it’s important to not judge your writing by the seeming levels of success other people are having. You just have to do the work.
Molly Spencer: Exactly. The best revenge is to write good poems!
Brian S: Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns.
Molly Spencer: You had to conjure the Bush years, huh? I mean, Brian, come on—I’m already battling the memories of Bush v. Gore!
Brian S: They scarred me, what can I say?
Emily Francis: Molly, I’ve been ranting about Bush v. Gore for several days now!
Brian S: Election night 2000 was my thirty-second birthday, so….
Annata Tempinski: One of my most adored classes was in children’s literature. Molly, what are some favorite stories did/do your children love?
Molly Spencer: Oh, Annata, I love that question! One thing I’m so grateful to my mom for is that she read and read to my brothers and me. My earliest memories are of sitting on our couch. It was the ultimate 1970s couch: it had this really gaudy upholstery with, like, pheasants and cornucopias all over!
Brian S: The Partridge Family bus! (Oh, I am an old.)
Annata Tempinski: Oh, good. I still to this day, occasionally buy a children’s book. I used to teach preschool and Kindergarten.
Molly Spencer: But every day after lunch, Mom would read to us: fairy tales, nursery rhymes. Some of my other favorites were Swimmy by Leo Lionni and Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola.
My family are devout Catholics (although I am not anymore), and so the psalms and the scriptures were also some of my first, foundational stories.
Annata Tempinski: Both are great! Tomie dePaola recently passed.
Molly Spencer: And at the time I was writing Hinge, I was reading all those stories to my own young children, along with Greek and Norse myths. So, all of the oldest literatures have lived in me since childhood, and I think they really helped me write the poems in Hinge. All these same stories, I mean, that my mom had read to my brothers and me when we were young.
For many of those years, I was quite ill, and reading to my children was one thing I could actually do for and with them. Those were cherished moments. Still are.
Annata, I also still buy children’s literature and what they now call YA… I love rereading the books I read as a girl.
Annata Tempinski: I wrote my (undergrad) thesis on the psychological significance of fairy tales. Really loved doing the research and did a reading of a fairy tale to a kindergarten class and asked them to draw picture of the story to include what they drew.
Molly Spencer: The thing I love about fairy tales is that they are not comforting at all. I think this was really important to me when I was so sick because everyone kept trying to find some happy ending about my illness. And I couldn’t.
Actually, I still reject the “happy ending” approach to suffering. My illness, by the way, is lupus, which is a chronic autoimmune condition that affects all kinds of things, but mostly joints, skin, organs. And I always say that the hardest thing about chronic illness is that it’s chronic. It doesn’t go away. And frankly, it sucks. Which doesn’t mean I don’t have a good life. But I’m not going to turn lupus into a silver lining.
Brian S: If you’re looking for a book for a younger kid, I recommend We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, which is a delightful story about a young T Rex going to school for the first time. My daughters love it, and I may love it more.
No, fairy tales are pretty fucked up.Even once the Grimms, and then later Disney, got hold of them, they’re dark as hell.
Emily Francis: I recently encountered After the Fall, which blew my mind. It’s all about how Humpty Dumpty didn’t crack because he fell but because he was hatching
Annata Tempinski: That is great, Brian! I will definitely look up that book. Molly, do any of your children write?
Molly Spencer: Ha! They (very performatively) do not write or value poetry!
Emily Francis: I have MS, so I could feel both the restrictions of the body and the restrictions of motherhood so much throughout this book.
Brian S: Didn’t Barbara Ehrenreich write a book about that? Taking apart the whole “you can beat disease with a positive attitude” thing?
Annata Tempinski: Wow, Molly. That is tough to deal with.
Molly Spencer: But they’re all teenagers right now… so they kind of have to reject all things Mom. They wrote when they were younger. I mean, all kids are artists before the world beats it out of them, I think.
Brian S: Someday you’ll find their secret Google doc with all their deepest secrets in it, I’m sure.
Molly Spencer: I actually don’t mind. I know they’re just searching for who they are right now, and I want to give them all the permission in the world to do that. In fact, I get a little worried when I see kids going into “the family business” regardless of what that business is. I really want my kids to find their own thing.
Brian S: What’s the oldest poem in this book, and how old is it?
Molly Spencer: Let me think for a minute… I have to look at the ToC!
I think “Picture of the Sun” might be the very oldest poem, and I probably wrote that around 2008. That and “Most Accidents Occur at Home,” and “After Reading the Story of Assumption Chapel in Cold Spring, Minnesota” are probably the oldest poems in the book, all written about the same time.
Brian S: Ah, I love that. That’s forever in poem years.
Molly Spencer: Yes, especially now, I think. I feel like poetry has sped up in the last several years, or maybe I’m just getting old. But I know for myself that poetry is a slow art. Very slow.
Shelly Stewart Cato: I loved “Most Accidents Occur at Home.”
Molly Spencer: Hi Shelly, thanks for letting me know. That one was a little hard to write. At the time, it felt risky and uncomfortable to admit in writing that motherhood was not all joy and roses for me. But I also knew that I had to write it. I think it’s important to say what’s real. I think it helps us to be more human, and I hope it helps other people feel less alone.
I remember thinking very clearly as I worked on that poem that I wanted to say something real and unlovely about motherhood and not take it back.
Shelly Stewart Cato: “In this story / you are tired / you haven’t slept / in years.”
Molly Spencer: Yes. That was very true for me at that point, and is also the condition of motherhood… and parenthood, to an extent. I don’t want to exclude fathers entirely. In my own experience, though, the vast majority of the parenting and care and feeding of the children fell to me.
Emily Francis: Did they all reach “done poem” status, or did you continue to revise them?
Molly Spencer: Did the poems reach “done” status…? Well, here’s the way it has always worked for me: It’s not so much that I was sure the poem was “done”; it was more that the poem was done with me, or that I became uninterested in it.
Brian S: The thing about being a father is that the bar is on the ground for us. If we do anything, we’re praised to the skies by the world around us, which has the effect of making us think we’re doing more than we are, if we’re aware in the first place
Emily Francis: Your Lit Hub article was a manifesto for all writing mothers. It was a work of art in and of itself so thank you for that as well!
Emily Francis: Brian, that’s what my husband says too. He calls it “the man scale.”
Molly Spencer: For every poem in the book—and this is true for If the House as well—there are probably ten or more that I worked on, and I mean really worked on, but that I either lost interest in or was never satisfied with. And then, also some that just didn’t fit with the books.
Over the years, I’ve developed an intuition for when a poem is both done enough and I feel like I can stand by it enough to send it out to journals and see what happens! That’s as “done” as I’ll ever say a poem is.
Brian S: We’ve run past the hour, so I want to let you go, Molly, and thank you for joining us and providing such wonderful answers to our questions. This has been a lot of fun. Thanks to all of you for your terrific questions and comments on this book as well.
Emily Francis: Thanks Brian and thanks Molly. This was great.
Molly Spencer: Yes, thank you everyone! This has been really interesting and fun. And you’ve brought me back to these poems that I began so long ago and yet here they are still with me and in the world. I’m grateful for this conversation.
Photograph of Molly Spencer by Michelle Massey Barnes.