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Last Modified: January 22, 2024
Feature Image with the messaging "A Small Life: with Chelsea Dingman" on the left and a headshot of Chelsea Dingman on the right of it.
A Small Life: with Chelsea Dingman

In Chelsea Dingman’s first book, Thaw (University of Georgia Press in 2017), family, migration, and motherhood are central concerns. In early November 2023, Jide Salawu and Chelsea discussed her new book, I, Divided (Louisiana State University Press). One can say her new work builds on the intimacy with her environment both in the United States and in Canada, a trend already established in her works that regard family, relationships, and mobility as powerful variables that shape life.

Jide: Welcome, Chelsea! Sometime in 2022, I was chatting with my friend Hussein Ahmed, the author of Soliloquy with the Ghosts in Nile. He mentioned your name as a new cohort at the Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta, so I surfed through your archive on the Internet and found your poem, “Notes on Inheritance”—published in Guernica and now in your new book—quite evocative. Glad to have you in YEG! It is exhilarating having you on the bench with me to deliberate on your current and future work. Congratulations on I, Divided! Among the poems in the collection, I really love “A Small Life.” When did you begin writing the collection?

Chelsea: I do indeed know Hussein through email and social media, as we’ve been in contact for several years, and I recently blurbed Hussain’s gorgeous new book, Blue Exodus (which I highly recommend!). The community of writers and poets seems so small some days, but it fills me with gratitude to be surrounded by such amazing people and work, even if it is online much of the time.

Book cover for I, Divided, by Chelsea Dingman
Book cover for I, Divided

And thank you for your welcome and your kind words about my work! I was at the University of Alberta many years ago for my undergraduate degree, but it is wonderful to re-encounter the department and teachers and students today—and to work on a new collection from here, rather than writing these landscapes from afar. It’s an interesting shift for me. I began I, Divided in 2017–18 after finishing my second book. I was teaching as a Visiting Instructor at the University of South Florida, where I’d done my MFA. At the end of that year, we moved back to Edmonton to be closer to family. I wrote half the collection in Florida and half the collection in Canada, finishing it during the pandemic. I wrote “A Small Life” and “Notes on Inheritance” in Florida, thinking through the distances I was living from where I began and why I had created such distances in the first place. Those poems also consider the self in terms of agency: what life can one choose amid unstable climates and markets and economies? What sources of power or powerlessness are a choice?

Jide: I understand the collection’s title might be one of the most challenging parts of a work. In fact, it is the first spirit of the book. Tell me why you have concluded on such a title that celebrates singularity, selfhood on the one hand, and evokes our shared worldliness, entanglement and relationality on the other. To be honest, when I saw the title, I was spirit-wheeled into many temporalities. I started asking myself what may be the speaker’s challenge? Divided with the past? Is this a question of bipolarity? Separation from family? Many questions down the river! But then, the world runs on so many binaries—tell me more about your title.

Chelsea: The title does indeed suggest the divided self or selves: over temporalities, over histories, over lives and deaths and grief cycles. It also suggests the divided lyric: the I has been traditionally invoked in the confessional mode to create intimacy and immediacy between the speaker and the reader, the voice being more private. Yet, it is possible for the I to be “social, unstable, aggrieved,” as noted by Mark Doty, Jane Hirshfield, and Linda Gregerson on a panel about Tracing the Lyric. The I divided over the span of my collection is a combination of different selves that the speaker has been, hasn’t been yet, or will never be. If the self is inflected by all experiences witnessed and moved through over a lifetime; a person might inhabit many different selves over that time. These selves can often not be returned to later (like childhood), or are fantasies of what could be, or describe a self that never was. By combining experiences I’d read about or been told about or were happening to people all around me, I often combined experiences as well. The idea of reinvention kept manifesting itself after writing my second book about miscarriage in which I explored the idea of invention (in terms of the body and its failures)—a reinvention of selves over time and circumstance and inheritances.

Jide: The first part of your poem “I Over What Might Have Been” is grouted with many dark images. It is opening into wounds and episodes of gender-based violence, vulnerabilities, and trauma. Family seems to be a dominant theme in your work, and marriage becomes “a room we can’t leave.” There, we have an image of bondage filled with so much torment. The concept of holiness and purity is put to test. You say, “A life is all that’s holy.” How can we live holy life within the apocalyptic sensibilities that pervade us? Is there a way out of global patriarchal hierarchies and hostage? What are your thoughts about the institution of marriage in future?

Chelsea: This is so difficult to answer—it is perhaps what the first poem is asking and there is little resolution in the poem. I think it is easy to be isolated, even inside a family dynamic, particularly if there is violence that no one wants to acknowledge. The speaker in all three sections of the book is trying to assess where personal agency begins and ends. Isolation enforces powerlessness. Marriage, in terms of economic and social dependence for the speaker, is being compared to the ways that religion might be weaponized against people to create an environment of control and assimilation to certain value systems. In that whole first section, I am critiquing the value systems that lead to these normative concepts that I have been indoctrinated into since a very young age. To say that “a life is all that’s holy” is a concession by the speaker that perhaps the life held inside these systems is more important than the system itself, yet adopts the language of that system because the speaker feels unheard unless speaking in the dominant language. In these poems, marriage feels like an institution set up to fail: bombarded by problems of survival, without any outside support, what life outside or inside the institution can be achieved? Even affording health care was an extravagance where I was living. So the poems contemplate the ability of marriage itself to sustain the speaker or the family members through medical, social, and political emergencies.

Jide: Your language is quite interrogative in form, with so many wh-(s). Then we have the “Not” negatives as well. How does using this syntax help you walk into the menacing room of memory since you refuse to believe “language doesn’t hold all/the meaning”?

Chelsea: The negation is an inventory of what is not, or a refusal of what is. The repetitions are an inventory of what is and a refusal of discontinuity. I actually disagree with my speaker in that statement about meaning, but the refusal is one I understand. The speaker needs to believe that language is a structure that can be depended upon when nothing else can. On the flipside, there is so much misinformation and disinformation in the world and language is constantly manipulated to serve violent ends—even in the misuse of language to mislead people there is this same refusal. The language is interrogative because it is language that must be interrogated oftentimes. A poem is also a place where I like to lean into uncertainty and ask unanswerable questions.

Jide: “A Small Life” is different in the collection. It is because the alternative worldview presented therein is full of life and energy that can sustain beauty. We take a flight from the scene of pain to arrive at a place of “flowers that erupt in spring.” And then we proceed almost immediately into bumps of scarring experiences at home. Where were you when you wrote this poem? Is that poem a deliberate insertion to lower the tempo of documentation of vicissitudes that the poems commit to?

Chelsea: I was sitting in my house in Florida when I wrote that poem. I was exhausted—I’d been teaching a lot, my mentor was on sick leave at that time, the Parkland school shootings had just happened and there were copycat threats in our area, so my kids’ elementary school was in lockdown every day for the rest of that school year; my mother-in-law had just died, and we felt very far from an idea of home. Some of my students were still displaced by a category five hurricane in the fall semester. There were a lot of negative things happening post-election. I’m not very good at writing happy poems. I was reaching for an experience of safety in that poem. My mind went immediately to images of the natural world elsewhere. The speaker is essentially asking if there is another life to reach for that is absent of fear. Even if it is as small as a butterfly’s. Would five days of wonder be better than a lifetime of fear and uncertainty, or this reaching for some sort of survival that only looks like living all one has?

Jide: Your extended family features a lot in your poems from your brother to your grandfather who survived forced migration from Ukraine/Poland. I know family has a strong place in your present work. But do you think there is a place for history? And is poetry a viable genre that takes you to that intersection of family and history?

Chelsea: Family has a strong presence in my work, though it is still a somewhat fictionalized account of family. The places or people who are dead must be imagined in the poems. I can’t possibly know the material conditions of their lives, though stories are passed down through generations. My new work considers the conditions of possible histories for this reason. What if this had happened instead of that? What does that world look like? A “usable past” was a term coined in the US during WWI by literary critic Van Wyck Brooks to mean that one coherent history needed to be written. I think poetry allows multiple histories and temporalities to exist at once. It is unique in that sense. Certain histories that have shame attached to them, whether personal or political, might not be part of any archive, though this historical silence allows for the repetition of violent events. Because each person experiences history differently in the present and in the past, there is a place for history (a history without which one might not understand what one is conditioned to, or the preconditions that our lives are predicated on/the justifications of current systems of oppression or violence).

Jide: How has migration helped your writing process, especially Canada? From Banff to Vancouver, the Canadian aspect of work celebrates the spatiality of memories. But these memories seem to be different from the previous offerings that jigger one with ache and shocks of assault.

Chelsea: We moved from Canada to the US to Europe to the US to Canada over twenty years. We lived all over the US and Canada. Migration has created my sense of dislocation and distance. Travel is not the same as migration. It has always felt as if we’ve been living between worlds but never belong to any of them. Though I was born in Canada, I’d been gone since I was a teenager, so Canada also feels strange now. Exploring these physical landscapes in my writing, without doing it from memory, is a strange experience whereby physical distances to the past are diminished, yet they are greater at the same time. The places you leave are never as you remember them, just as the person who returns is never the same person. I find myself often writing the landscape as it was, not as it is, depending on what is needed for the poem, but also because I think there will always be a gap between what I see and the object(s) of my sight. As I put it in one of the poems,

I refuse to be that passive

willow standing in a field of snow, the blue

horizon surviving below-zero 

temperatures. I refuse the stink of future days

like a wound, open & unclean.

Jide: The general tone of I, Divided is that of defiance. Do you think a poem that is resistant is successful?

Chelsea: I think the degree to which a poem (almost successfully) resists the intellect, as my mentor (quoting Stevens) used to say, is what makes it interesting. In a similar way, I think a poem of resistance can be successful if it is complicated and interesting and evocative. In some ways, I think my poems exist to resist anything I know for certain, or any knowledge or “truth” I take for granted. I’ve also read much work by other writers that I would consider successful and resistant.

Jide: Do you consider Edmonton a literary city?

Chelsea: I do! I have many creative people in my PhD cohort at the University of Alberta, as well as many past and present friends involved in the arts in Edmonton in some way. There are reading series at the university all the time. There are also private readings and many writers outside of academia who are thriving in Edmonton. When I first moved back, I was invited to read at the Edmonton Poetry Festival and met generous, supportive poets there. I also find that there is much more funding for the arts in Canada in general, so perhaps that is why Edmonton has a strong community of writers.

Chelsea Dingman’s work has appeared in major leading literary magazines in North America. Her first book, Thaw, won the National Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press, 2017). Her second book, through a small ghost, won the Georgia Poetry Prize (University of Georgia Press, 2020). Her third collection I, Divided, was published by Louisiana State University Press in 2023. She is also the author of the chapbook, What Bodies Have I Moved (Madhouse Press, 2018). She is pursuing her PhD at the University of Alberta, and her current work draws on research supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada.

Olajide Salawu headshot.

Olajide Salawu is a PhD student at the University of Alberta. He has published his own creative writing in the Literary Review of Canada, CBC, This Magazine, and is the managing editor of Olongo Africa. Along with Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, he edited the Olongo Multilingual Anthology.