Contributor Spotlight: Chelsea Wagenaar

Chelsea Wagenaar’s poem, “Hope,” appears in Vol. 33.1 of The Southeast Review. Purchase the issue here.


Tell us about “Hope.” What inspired it? Where was it written?

Chelsea Wagenaar headshotMy parents went through a long, arduous divorce seven years ago. This is one of those poems that, while not strictly autobiographical, is so personal—in sentiment—that it took me a long time to finally write it. I worried it was too sentimental—I mean, including the title, the poem uses the word “hope” four times. The premise was inspired by notes that my mother left my father in the decline of their relationship, and I think the rawness of her gesture helped me trust the rawness of the poem to be sufficient, even as it took risks. Writing the poem also helped me to articulate something I’d been sensing for a long time, and that is a distinction between two kinds of pain: the one kind is the pain of the mother and daughters, a dull, daily pain that never ebbs or changes, a pain that weaves itself into the fabric of every hour. After a while, that pain becomes so heavy one can hardly move. The other kind, the one the daughters imagine at the end of the poem, is the kind of pain that surprises, the pain of injury or happenstance—and after enduring the slow saga of the first pain, the latter would be almost welcome.


What are you reading right now, or most recently?

Right now I’m reading B.H. Fairchild’s The Blue Buick: New and Selected Poems; Bethany Schultz Hurst’s Miss Lost Nation; an old favorite, Charles Wright’s Country Music; Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, of which I read some part weekly and never tire; and currently, in mourning and deep admiration, anything of Claudia Emerson.


Where do you turn for inspiration? (A writer, another piece of writing, a place?)

See above! But really, for inspiration, I read all my favorites: those listed above, as well as Robert Hass, Lisa Russ Spaar, Jack Gilbert, James Wright, my husband, Mark Wagenaar.


What do you hope readers come away from your work thinking or feeling?

More than a specific feeling, I want readers to come away from my work feeling in general. I very much admire poems that risk vulnerability and honesty, so I hope readers encounter those traits in my poems and feel a kind of freedom in that. I hope my poems, even as many express things that are deeply sad or irresolvable, still convey wonder, compassion, and the possibility for redemption.


Besides writing poems, what is one of your obsessions?

Baking and cooking! In college I survived on cereal and sandwiches, so when I got married I could barely scramble eggs. But over the last three years I’ve challenged myself and tried to cultivate culinary courage, and though I have little natural talent or improvisation in the kitchen, I can follow a recipe like an expert. I suppose another way of answering this question is just to say ‘eating’.


When you were eight years old, what were you obsessed with?

Answer: Tara Lipinski. I read all the biographies and articles about her that I could get my hands on, and I nurtured dreams of becoming a figure skater. But in reality, I can’t even skate backwards on ice.


Chelsea Wagenaar’s first book, Mercy Spurs the Bone, is the 2013 winner of the Philip Levine Prize is available from Anhinga Press. She is a doctoral fellow at the University of North Texas and lives with her husband, poet Mark Wagneaar, in Denton, Texas. You can find Chelsea on Facebook or Instagram.