By Leslie Lindsay
IF THE HOUSE…a lyrical and emotive collection of poetry about the most basic structures of creation and recreation.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
Well-known spaces of homes are examined with lush and precise prose in IF THE HOUSE by Molly Spencer (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019), and being a ‘house person,’ I found myself completely absorbed. Here, we navigate the experiences of land and home, person and family, the cycles of nature, as well as ordinary and extravagant things–a kitchen table, a memory, the sky. It’s complex, it’s metaphorical, it’s all things good poetry should be. And like all good poetry, it is best savored and read aloud, and revisited–like an old homestead–often.
Molly Spencer’s poetry has appeared in various well-known and recognized literary journals. She is a poetry editor for Rumpus and this collection won the 2019 Brittingham Prize in Poetry.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Molly Spencer back to the author interview series.
Molly, welcome back. I so loved IF THE HOUSE and HINGE (see last Friday’s Q&A if you missed it). I’m always curious about what inspired a particular collection. Was it a time period you wanted to explore, a feeling, a landscape? Did it start with one and blossom?
I didn’t set out with any intentions for If the House, and I never do when writing. My first act of writing is often resistance: a scrap of language or an image will pester me, and I’ll try to ignore it. If it persists in pestering me long enough—if it really won’t leave me alone—I usually relent and see what happens if I write it down.
Likewise, I don’t purposely set out to write a particular book or a book, period. If the House was the second manuscript I wrote (Hinge was the first despite being published second) and began as my MFA thesis. At first, it was just a bunch of individual poems—I think I had to send ten pages of poetry a month to my faculty mentor. Only several months later did it seem to me like many of the poems were talking to each other and that, taken together, they might coalesce into a unified manuscript. At that point, I became more intentional about noticing themes, recurring images, and places where the manuscript might need some bridging by poems I had yet to write.
”Spencer’s flat-out terrific debut collection of poems embraces the spirit of duende. Houses, meadows, lakes, even memories are places of refuge, but also pain. Through fresh, haunting imagery, Spencer exposes the ‘inevitable cracks’ of the domestic, love’s sorrows and shortfalls.”
—Ellen Bass author of Indigo.
I think that with poetry—a collection especially—there is a tendency to extrapolate themes and motifs, to have them all interconnect. In IF THE HOUSE, I noted a similar cadence, and a collection of images that repeated. Winter. Trees. Snow. But that could just be me, the reader, things I am searching. Because, the impending season? Can you talk about that, please?
Sure. Well, I think writers and probably all artists have images that are kind of in their DNA. If you think about Pierre Bonnard, for example, he painted his wife, Marthe, in the bath over and over again. Louise Bourgeois made countless sculptures of spiders. Richard Diebenkorn painted, what, 140-some “Ocean Parks.” Many of the images in If the House are those “DNA” images for me, mostly rooted in the landscape I grew up in: West Michigan. So, shorelines, birches, dunes, hills, horizons, snow. At the time I was writing If the House I was particularly attuned to images of winter, mostly because for the first time in my life I was living without it: I lived in California at the time. And also, the winter landscape—bare and scraped down, revelatory, cold—was an apt metaphor for the season of life I was in at the time. So yes, those images repeat, for sure.
With any reading, the writer and author are a sort of team. As the author, you give the reader truths, words. And the reader fashions her own experience. Do you see this as a particular partnership?
I do, although I feel most comfortable with a loose partnership model. I want there to be a grand permission for the reader to take from a poem, or a book of poems, what meaning it has for them. And to go back to it later, and maybe find new or different shades of meaning, depending on what’s happened in their lives and how they’ve changed since the last time they read it.
I don’t set out to write a poem that means a particular thing. Eventually—and this can take years—I know what work a poem was doing in me, as a writer and as a person, but I don’t think about what it might mean to a reader. I’m fine with readers taking from a poem what they will. So, yes, there’s a collaboration there, but not one I have in mind while writing and not one that hog-ties the reader to what I think I wrote.
In IF THE HOUSE, I loved the poems entitled, DISCLOSURES. I mean, what’s a house if not full of flaws? Can you talk about, please?
Flaws indeed. Well, on a very practical level, I was selling a house in California as I was writing these poems, and the subtitles of the “Disclosures” series came directly from the seller’s disclosures documents required by the State of California for real estate transactions. As usual, I got snagged on the language of those documents: “If you are aware of any nuisance animals…” “If the house is built on a hillside…”—I mean, who could resist those conditionals?
I’d also moved a lot in my life, and lived in, bought, and sold a number of houses, and each one I loved deeply and hated deeply for its beauties and its flaws. And I have always had a complicated relationship with any house I’ve lived in because of the burdens it places on me as a woman as the site of the care-work—cooking, cleaning, raising children, tending people when they’re sick—that women still do the majority of in this life. I love doing those things to an extent, but care-work can be overwhelming if you’re doing it all yourself.
At the same time, each of my houses—and especially the house I lived in as a girl—has been a protected and protective space for me. Gaston Bachelard says it in his THE POETICS OF SPACE:
“the house protects the dreamer.”
It’s the place where we can tend to our interior lives with the rest of the world held at bay.
So, probably all of this thinking and feeling subconsciously went into the “Disclosures” poems, which are also very much, for me, about what we say and don’t say, what we attempt to say and fail to say, and about the slips and double-crosses of language—how it can almost mean, as Jack Gilbert wrote in “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” but not quite; how astonishing and frightening that is.
Molly, thank you. This has been fabulous. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
I don’t think so. I feel much more comfortable reading and writing poetry than talking about it! But I’m grateful for this chance to think about your questions. I always learn something in the answering.
Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #bookstagrammer #alwayswithabook
For more information, to connect with Molly Spencer via social media, or to purchase a copy of IF THE HOUSE, please visit:
I was reminded, in part, of Laurie Patton’s HOUSE CROSSING, but also the specifics of space as depicted in Gaston Bachelard’s THE POETICS OF SPACE meets classical mythology.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Molly Spencer is a poet, critic, and editor. Her debut collection, If the House (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019) won the 2019 Brittingham Prize judged by Carl Phillips. A second collection, Hinge (SIU Press, 2020) won the 2019 Crab Orchard Open Competition judged by Allison Joseph. Molly’s recent poetry has appeared in Blackbird, Copper Nickel, FIELD, The Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner. Her critical writing and essays have appeared at Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review online, Literary Hub, The Writer’s Chronicle, and The Rumpus, where she is a senior poetry editor. Her poems have won a Lucile Medwick Award from the Poetry Society of America, a Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner, and a Writers@Work Fellowship Award. She holds an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop and an MPA from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Molly teaches writing at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir. Her writing has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and forthcoming in The Family Narrative Project (FNP) and Semicolon. Her photography was featured on the cover of Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal. The 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available this fall. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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~UPDATED, 2nd EDITION OF SPEAKING OF APRAXIA coming soon from WOODBINE HOUSE!~
Represented by Catalyst Literary Management: MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness & Memory
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[Cover and author image courtesy of M. Spencer and used with permission. Author photo cred: Michelle Massey Barnes. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #bookstagrammer #alwayswithabook]