Commentary, Features, Interviews

Interview // “Generosity in Vulnerability”: A Conversation with Danika Stegeman

by Karen Rigby | Contributing Writer

Danika and I first met in the autumn of 2002, in Minneapolis. Her writing, from the first, impressed me with its sensitive attunement to language—its sound, form, and infinite malleability. We recently reconnected by e-mail to talk about her second poetry collection.

In Ablation, grief and memory unfold across time and Minnesotan landscapes. Generational pains are reopened and sutured in spare poems that grow into ever intensifying missives and lamentations.

The book’s very design, which employs expansive white space, echoes these ideas. Here, a mother’s death at sixty, and an author’s mothering of her own daughter, are part of a female continuum that is delicate, powerful, and fearsome. From poetic influences to taking risks, this interview delves into the mirror cinquain, collage, and writing about and through grief.

*

Karen Rigby (KR): Ablation builds through accumulation. It begins with almost austere fragments, then turns toward longer sequences, lists, prose poems. There’s also a collage-like sensibility throughout. What inspired this?

Danika Stegeman (DS): The title sequence of the book, “Ablation,” a long series of interlinked mirror cinquains, predates the other material in the book. I learned I was pregnant with my daughter and that my mom may need an ablation procedure to treat her heart defect around the same time in the fall of 2017, and I began composing fragments of what would become “Ablation” on note cards. My intent was to write a text that explored my relationship to my mom and the feminine. I also wanted the text to reckon with and become entangled with ecological destruction. I was bringing a life into a troubled landscape. The body and the environment are one. Pain to one is pain to the other. I had about two-thirds of that sequence finished when my mom died unexpectedly on July 27th, 2020 of a pulmonary embolism.

It sounds strange to say it, but I was grateful for the project I’d started and for all the words I’d already written when my mom died. As philosopher and psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle writes, sometimes we’re in advance of ourselves. After I tumbled out of the initial shock, it became necessary for me to write alongside the grief, to sort through it, to shore it up against my being so I could acknowledge it and, eventually, release it in the form of the book so I could move forward. As I began to make space for my grief I also began to recognize and pull at the threads of learned patterns I’d contorted myself into for decades. I began to understand my mom, past, and environment in more whole, interconnected ways. As I pulled apart my internal patterns, I loosened patterns in my poetry and began to explore new forms. I felt a need for the work to expand outward and sprawl. I began to understand that I needed compression and expansion, that both were allowed in myself and in the poems.

The poem “Center,” which is part-poem, part-lyric essay, and part-collage was the doorway to breaking into other forms. The poem interweaves my experience of grief with that of Karl-Anthony Towns, who is the center for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and who also lost his mom in 2020 to COVID. Collage has always made sense to me as an approach to composition. Peering into another person, into language, into a material. Seeing what’s before me, holding it, considering its potential force and its textures. I take it in and then I pour it back out as something I’m also woven into. Resonance allows me to open worlds. As George Oppen says, “things explain each other, not themselves.” “Center” was like a floodgate. After I finished it, most of the other poems tumbled out in the form of lists and prose. I actually wrote the first “Field,” “Relentless,” and “The Nothing” in one weekend, the 1-year anniversary of my mom’s death, on a trip in a town near where she was born.

KR: Relating to this idea of form, the page itself here is crucial to the work, as a canvas full of potential and constraint. One of your poems notes:

The page 
constitutes a 
present 
and stakes a frame
that you’ll outbrave

DS: When I shared the first draft of the book with my workshop group, my friend the poet Paula Cisewski said, “this is so generous.” I think part of what’s generous about the text is its vulnerability. I’m sharing things that are often hidden: grief, pain, histories that people don’t talk about. There’s a vulnerability and a risk in sharing what’s often hidden. I don’t think our culture offers adequate space for acknowledging these difficult experiences and emotions. Several people have reached out to me to share their own experiences related to grief or complex relationships or difficult pasts. The book opens a kind of space, a space in which I hope others can consider what they’re carrying that can perhaps be acknowledged and then set down.

Many of the blurbs reference a sense of quiet within the book’s pages. The quiet is in what’s intimate, what’s shared. But often what’s intimate is also what’s held back. I think part of what’s generous about the book is what I don’t say. There are many horrors and joys you’re not seeing, things I keep to myself. I hope that the intimacy of what’s offered and of what’s held back leaves room for the reader to consider their own internal spaces. The potential is yours, the constraint/restraint is mine. I hope I’m staking that kind of frame.

The white space in the book holds the intimacy and makes the quiet present. The first poem in the book, “I mouth the word ‘motherless’,” was originally a single-spaced poem that fit on one or two pages. In feedback on an earlier draft of the book my friend the writer Logan Berry suggested splitting that poem across multiple pages. I could see the way that integrating more space on the page made room for silence around the difficult subject matter of the text. I took Logan’s suggestion, and also spread more poems in the book across several pages to open up space: the first and fourth “Field” poems, “I Make Lists,” and “Swallowtail.” That was fortuitous for the images in the book as well; the images could live amidst and alongside the text.

KR: This idea, that “what’s intimate is also what’s held back,” feels wise to me. There is a kind of generosity in having spared the reader everything. Has your process or thinking about giving to the reader evolved with writing Ablation?

DS: In my first book, Pilot, I intentionally displaced my own “I.” With the exception of the poems with “Interlude” in the title, I used only words that were contained in episode transcripts of the TV show Lost to write the poems. Each poem shares its title with the title of the episode from which its words were gleaned. I wanted to inhabit multiple “I’s,”“you’s,” and “we’s.” I was nested inside their movements like wind through water, but I didn’t want to be the water. Richard Siken was my editor at Spork. One of several questions he asked me after reading the first draft, to spark revisions, was: “Do situations outside of the show (but in the speaker’s situation) need to arise and complicate?” The “Interlude” poems in Pilot, which have a speaker that exists outside the show’s construct, arise from Richard’s question. The poem “Interlude: Fate” ends in the lines “The violence / of exposure. Bright lights / are for examining. Now / do you see me?” My relationship to the confessional mode at that time was complicated and at times felt adversarial.

With Ablation, I had to explode my reticence to be seen. Grief broke me open. I let things into the initial drafts in a way I couldn’t have done before without a medium. The process of holding back in Ablation came during the revision process, so it was an opposite process to that of Pilot. I’d write down everything that spilled out and then let the drafts sit. After some time, when I could re-approach the material with more distance, I’d pull things out of the text or alter them, bit by bit. It was a process of recognizing what I’d written that was for me and what was for the reader. It was less protective and adversarial than with Pilot. There was more acceptance to it. This is mine, and that’s OK. This serves the book and will resonate with the reader; it echoes here and here, or it offers a window into the complexity of the relationship, or it’s a new kind of texture, etc. etc.

I’m considering, recently, how it feels easier to inhabit a speaker that is clearly a medium or more distanced from oneself. The artifice announces itself and is less questioned. Even when a text is more confessional and offers more vulnerable material, it’s still simulacra. You can’t call this “I” me because she’s only portions of me and I’m using her to accomplish the text’s poetic vision. This is my mom but it’s not all of her; it’s only my way of looking at her through various lenses. Anyone who’s friends with a non-fiction writer has perhaps had the experience of being rendered into one of their pieces and finding themselves unrecognizable inside it. But often, seeing the text as a thing created with a separate life from the writer and the writer’s world is not how a reader approaches a work that contains confessional elements.

Through writing these two books, I feel I’ve begun to find an equilibrium between offering and holding back. It takes a lot of painstaking work and a delicate looking inward and outward at once, but there’s something deeply fulfilling about finding an intimacy that feels safe. How does an artist have a generous heart and a fearless practice that’s also boundaried? It’s a question I consider continually and that I’ll ask with each book. There needs to be a kind of sacred space between the reader and the poet, for both of their sakes.

KR: Would you speak more about the ephemera that’s included in the book, from notes written on the back of an envelope, to photos, ribbons, buttons and stitches?

DS: I’ve just heard Alice Notley read from Telling the Truth as It Comes Up, Selected Talks & Essays 1991-2018 (The Song Cave, 2023) and talk with Nick Sturm for an online event through The Flow Chart Foundation. Nick and Alice were in the same room, in her home in Paris, because Nick is assisting Alice in going through her papers. In answer to a question, Nick said something about “the archive as embodied experience.” That’s how I think about the materials in Ablation. The ephemera embodies my experience of moving through grief. Each envelope and sewn button passed through my hands. The images give a sense of immediacy, of closeness, of embodiment that words alone can’t quite grasp.

The ephemeral elements are also related to my interest in collage. I find something interrogative and healing about cutting materials apart and pasting or sewing them into new contexts. The cutting is an asking and an exploration, the sewing is a form of re-location and repair. How does this fit? Where am I? It fits along this seam, here. I am here. I’m doing that in my first book, Pilot (Spork Press, 2020) as well, weaving and unweaving language, considering Penelope and forms of making that are often thought of as feminine. But in Ablation it took on a more literal form. The tactility of the book arises from my reckoning with the materials and with my desire to embody an experience that is in many ways illegible. The materials are part of the composition process. They’re a window into that process as much as they’re a window into grief and the placetime of the book. This is the material. This is how to cope with it.

Some of the images interact very intentionally with the text they’re placed alongside. For example, I was very specific about the red thread that looks like sutures facing the title page for “Relentless,” and I needed the black zero to follow “The Nothing,” facing the ending of that poem with its blankness. The intentionality of the pacing and placement of other images belongs to the book designer, Mike Corrao. Many of the dusty looking photographs that appear in the book were the last elements to go in. I’d developed about 7-8 rolls of film we found in my mom’s closet after her death. I sent Mike several of those images to consider when creating the book’s cover image. I realized while gathering them together that their atmosphere needed to be in the book. I altered some of the images in Photoshop and sent them to Mike with suggestions about their potential placement. He altered some of the images further and then placed them precisely where they needed to go. The full page spread of the dark living room with the overhead chandelier that interrupts “Ablation” for example, appears in a moment that requires a pause and an invocation of place.

KR: One of the long sequences examines “The Nothing,” which refers to a family member. I’m intrigued by how this repetition in the negative, this absence throughout the poem, becomes such a strong, electric presence. I’m reminded, too, of a line by poet Danez Smith, which goes, “I want to say something without saying it.”

DS: As a writer, I’m continually thinking about force. I wanted to approach the family member that “The Nothing” refers to as a force. Because aside from being a person who historically existed, she’s also been a force—in my life, in my mom’s life, in the lives of others within her orbit. People are connected in inextricable ways, and the nothing isn’t just this one person, it’s a feeling. It is a presence. Or, sometimes, an absence that is felt as a presence. By addressing the family member in this way, I symbolically take her power. She’s a force without a face. A force whose face I’ve sewn over. In language and in thread.

Do you see how my sentences have begun to break down into fragments? It’s difficult to approach the horizon of a force with The Nothing’s gravity without beginning to come apart. Repeating the phrase “the nothing” again and again through the poem gives me something indestructible to hold onto as I move toward Ablation’s most volatile materials. How we wish we could say things without saying them. Or that they didn’t have to be said. Because love and hurt do sometimes live in the same place. Until they’re gone. And then we have to say the things that they couldn’t bear to speak or even look at. Do you see how I’m coming back apart?

The repetition forms a structure that allows me to go where I need to; it also offers the reader a string to follow through to the poem’s exit. So we don’t have to say there, inside it. That’s the point of speaking it: not becoming trapped inside it, inside the nothing.

KR: The book reverberates with and excavates past harms. When you’re working with material that is intense, even volatile, what do you feel directs you most?

DS: I’ve been reading some of the teachings of Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh recently. He writes “It is by touching suffering that one learns to understand and be compassionate” and then talks about seeing experience as non-binary: those who aren’t afraid of suffering, of the garbage, are those who know how to transform it. Compost is where plants come from. The process of excavating past harms in the book was like touching the suffering. I needed to dig it up to understand it, to see my mom and my life as something whole. Writing as a process has the potential to be transformative. I often consider writing as a gift, and when I say gift, I don’t mean talent; I mean something given to me. I’m trying to use that gift to create understanding and compassion, to unsettle the garbage, to turn it to dirt, to allow it to grow something new, perhaps even something beautiful.

Thich Nhat Hanh also writes, “As we practice looking deeply, we see the presence of our mother in every cell of our body. Our body is also a continuation of our mother’s body.” I think of Ablation like a vessel or a medium; in the title poem I write “I’ve made myself a clearing.” In excavating these harms, I’m clearing them away, for myself and also backward and forward in time. I hope that I’m clearing my mom’s cells as well as my daughter’s. In the first “Field” poem, I describe my mom’s origin point as a “place she wasn’t / allowed to touch most things.” The place my daughter lives refuses to be a place in which she’s not allowed to touch things.

It’s troubling work because it unsettles volatile things. My main concern with that, now that the book is out in the world, is that my version of what happened is only one version, and it touches many people, including some who are still alive. People hold different versions of “truth” and different memories. For example, in “Center” I talk about a story my mom told about my dad being hesitant to cut the umbilical cord when I was born. In my dad’s recollection, he cut the cord and only hesitated because I was his first child and he wasn’t sure what to do. In my mom’s recollection, as I tell it in “Center,” he didn’t cut it, and the reasons for his hesitation are different: “He couldn’t sever the line that tied her life to / mine. He couldn’t bear the weight of it.” Is my dad misremembering or is my mom misremembering? Or am I misremembering what my mom told me? I don’t know. I can’t say I’m directed by a desire to find truth or bear witness when I’m writing about these past experiences, because I’m not sure truth exists or that there’s a single version of it to witness. All I can be is a medium for it to pass through, as we’re all mediums for energy in life.

KR: Are there particular books, films, or music that shaped your thinking about Ablation?

DS: As with most of my projects, a lot of inspiration and material outside myself went into the writing of Ablation, and I try to acknowledge those in the Notes section of the book. The form of the title sequence owes a debt to Harryette Mullen’s book Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary. Originally “Ablation” was written in a looser form: four lines with four words each, regardless of syllable count. After I heard Harryette read from Urban Tumbleweed in Minneapolis in 2019, I began to look for a form that better suited what I wanted “Ablation” to do. I chose the mirror cinquain because the form begins with a point, expands, folds in on itself, expands, and draws back toward a point. The more constrained and compressed portions of the book also owe a debt to George Oppen and Emily Dickinson and to artists like Agnes Martin. I admire the way these artists distill material into its essential parts. There’s an integrity to it. Each piece becomes essential.

The portions of the book that are more based in prose and accumulation are indebted to a different set of influences. When I read Lara Mimosa Montes’ book Thresholes in the summer of 2021, it blew my mind. It’s expansive and fluid, and I was impressed by what it could hold, by what was carried through the book’s currents, by the way it approached grief and difficult material from multiple vantage points at once, “like light, refracted, the part of the waves,” to quote a passage near the end of that book. It showed me what a more expansive structure could offer and what possibilities exist in prose that behaves like poetry. W.G. Sebald also writes in a similar manner, by compiling resonances through sustained attention across the space of a book and is also an influence of mine in the realm of accumulation.

My realization that the book could contain images owes a debt to a class I took online in November 2021 taught by Silvina López Medin through The Flow Chart Foundation called “Images in between Images.” The second “Field” poem, which is written in response to a photograph of my mom, was inspired by a prompt from that class. The class helped me consider what visual elements can contribute to a book, what they’re capable of, and how they can live beside a text. I didn’t read Silvina’s book Poem That Never Ends (Essay Press, 2021) until after I’d finished writing Ablation, but it’s a beautiful book that contains images, hybrid text, and memories of a mother.

I also found inspiration in less expected places. Anything I’m engaging with while I’m writing influences my thinking. The poem “Center” exists in part because I’m a huge fan of the Timberwolves; I encountered a mirror and a conduit for my grief in Towns’ willingness to share his grief in a public way. As I was writing the poem “Relentless,” I was working with Kim Krans’ The Wild Unknown Archetypes Deck, and my thinking processes and the contents of “Relentless” are colored by that experience and Krans’ assertion “accept all, reject none.” Accepting the light means accepting the darkness. Sometimes material and influences come from conversations with my brothers or my friends, or from watching women I admire enacting repair through their artforms, or from a Paul Thomas Anderson film that explores seams and relentlessness, or from a Caravaggio painting that insists on examining the wound, or from my own mishearing of the lyrics in a Talking Heads song.

KR: Amid the otherwise personal elegy, “Heart Rate Cento” near the book’s end seems so fitting, as though these multiple voices are an outro.

DS: Ablation is personal and hermetic, a “grief box,” and “Heart Rate Cento” is my way of bringing the outside world into the book. “Heart Rate Cento” places the book in a wider context—it lets in my concerns in the present in which the book was composed, a present in which Derek Chauvin was being tried for the murder of George Floyd, for example. It also lets in the forces that have transformed me into the writer and person I am, the person who can write this book. It’s by no means a complete list because not everyone writes about hearts and some lines had to be removed because they didn’t quite fit (a line from a Modest Mouse song comes to mind), but “Heart Rate Cento” essentially captures the poetic influences and sensibilities that make me the poet I am.

Some of the lines that I know by heart went into the poem right away—like the second line by Sylvia Plath. Who can forget her bowl of red blooms? Or, for example, “yardsale heart, just like mine” is a Lenguas Largas lyric that’s continually stuck in my head. Others I sought out, either by thumbing through books on my shelves or by doing internet searches. I knew I needed a Blonde Redhead or a George Oppen line, but where to find them? Is Kazu saying “heart” in that lyric? Did Oppen ever even write about hearts directly? The cento is one of my favorite forms, because I love a constraint and I love to gather materials together and then pace them. What I love is the act of placement, the linkages I can create among textures to create an energy and momentum. Having a constraint like the cento and/or repetition allows me to focus on the kinetics, which is what I find most interesting: the interlinked mechanics and reactions among language.

I love that you call “Heart Rate Cento” an outro because I consider it a kind of bridge into my next book, which is about my heart and grapples with the aftermath of Ablation, the shadow it casts into the present and how I move through it. The cento ends with the line “leave my heart down by the water,” where maybe it’ll find some relief. We’ll see when we pick it back up in the next book, which I’m calling The Book of Matthew.

 –

Danika Stegeman’s second book, Ablation, was released by 11:11 Press November 1st, 2023. Her book Pilot (2020) was published by Spork Press. She’s a 2023 recipient of a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and recently spent a 2-week residency in Marathon, TX outside Big Bend National Park. Her video poem, “Then Betelgeuse Reappears” was an official selection for the 2021 Midwest Video Poetry Festival. Stegeman received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University where she was awarded the Heritage Fellowship. She currently lives in St. Paul, MN. Her website is www.danikastegeman.com.  

Karen Rigby is the author of Chinoiserie (Ahsahta Press, 2012), which won the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, and Fabulosa (JackLeg Press, forthcoming 2024). A National Endowment for the Arts literature fellow, she lives in Arizona. www.karenrigby.com