The Poetics of Climate Dystopia

Anna Gasaway talks to Claire Wahmanholm about motherhood, climate anxiety, and the (dis)comfort of writing in form.

WHILE HIKING WITH my son during quarantine, I began seeing more rain, more colorful vegetation and heard different birdcalls than I was used to. Finches that had proliferated across California came back. In the absence of car exhaust and airplane contrails, the busy-ness of daily life, it seemed the earth was healing itself.

I first became acquainted with Claire Wahmanholm’s poetry through Twitter during the time when everyone was poking their masked heads out of quarantine. Meltwater was a revelation.  Reading her first poem, “O” I knew that I had contacted a visionary, gifted painter of language. “O who holds the void inside itself. O who has made/orphans of our hands.” Her devotion to form and syntax puts a cage around all of our anxieties for the future and present social, environmental and political realities of the age. Like Thom Gunn’s The Man With Night Sweats articulated the fear in the AIDs crisis, so too does Wahmanholm with the climate crisis. Through careful, thoughtful study, she leads us through a startling erasure of a glacier, an abecedarian of species’ dying out, the terror of guns in schools and folklore with a mixture of surrealism, feminism and incisive wit.  Wahmanholm never preaches. She only causes the reader to look with inquisitive, curious eyes, on our planet and ourselves.

—Anna Gasaway

Anna Gasaway: From hurricanes, to fires, to tornadoes, it seems like the climate is always in the news. What thoughts did you have in mind when you set out to write this book?

Claire Wahmanholm: I don’t think I deliberately set out to write Meltwater with climate change as the focus!  It just happened to be one of the things I was anxious about in the early months after my second child was born. Of course, climate catastrophe pulls so many other scourges into its orbit—fascism, racism, capitalism, economic inequality, misogyny, Whiteness. Climate change is disruptive, destabilizing, unanchoring. Because of how much is changing over so little time. We’re watching the idea of “seasons” (the four seasons, sure, but also things like “wildfire season” or “hurricane season”) become rapidly less relevant. It’s this rupture with very old natural cycles that is especially terrifying. We have never seen the Earth like this. And I wonder if part of the reason governments and corporations aren’t acting is because it’s simply too hard to contextualize. There’s nothing to compare it to. It’s so surreal to watch simple facts be treated as lies. The lack of response to climate catastrophe is almost unbelievable. It borders on hyperbolic. I think maybe that’s the root of so much of the surrealism in this book.

AG: You write a lot about what Judith Butler calls, “Climate Sorrow,” the animals and plants that are disappearing, the hole in the ozone layer is growing, the global warming that causes the glaciers to melt. In the “Glacier” series, you have a lot of surreal/magical realism events going on. I am thinking in particular of the blue ice cubes, and the flashlights and blowdryers that are aimed at a glacier in a room. What makes surrealism such a good vehicle?

CW: For that particular sequence I was trying to convey a deliberately believable future, rather than one that is more firmly in the realm of speculation/surrealism. I was trying to depict things that were within the realm of possibility. Things had to be off, but just barely. It’s true that the oldest glacial ice—the ice that has the least amount of oxygen in it, the layers of a glacier that have been compressed and compressed over thousands of years—is really a striking topaz/sapphire color. And when I wrote that second “Glacier” poem, I had assumed that using glacial ice for a drink was too crass to be realistic. But as I was preparing these notes, I read about Scalia’s billionaire-funded trips to Alaska and there is literally a picture of him making martinis with chunks of ice from the Hubbard Glacier. I couldn’t believe it. It’s ghoulish. And it makes me wonder what other “impossible” things are around the corner.

And others of the glacier series—particularly the first “Glacier”—were inspired by Ólafur Elíasson’s work (especially his Ice Watch series, which involved him carving out these enormous blocks of ice from the Greenland ice sheet, transporting them to Copenhagen, Paris, and London, and setting them outside in public spaces where people could watch them melt). The situations I’m depicting in most of the glacier poems are more desperate, commercial, and gross than Elíasson’s work, for sure, but if we’re already using glacial ice to make martinis, then what’s to stop us from paying $500 to point a hairdryer at one of the last remaining glaciers?  I think it’s the closeness, the very real possibility of those things, that makes them easy to imagine, and hence more emotionally urgent.

AG:  “Meltwater” as an erasure poem based on Lacy Johnson’s article “How to Mourn a Glacier” is such a good backbone for this book and the title poem. How did you get the idea for this poem?

CW:  I remember reading Johnson’s article for the first time in late 2019 and being just blown away by both the story and her writing. I had written all four of the “Glacier” poems already, and after I read “How to Mourn a Glacier” I imagined a fifth “Glacier” poem that would be a single erasure of the article. But I quickly realized that I couldn’t just produce one erasure—it’s such a lush piece, and there’s so much there. So then I had the idea of doing a series of erasures rather than just one. And the word “meltwater” appears so often in the piece that I decided to name each erasure “Meltwater” and treat it as a series. But because the article is about the disappearance of a glacier, I thought it would be compelling to have that manifest formally somehow. So I made the rule for myself that once I used a word for one of the erasures, I wouldn’t be able to use it for subsequent ones. So the pool of total words to draw from diminishes as the project goes on. I wanted my formal/artistic choices to have stakes (even if they’re not on the level of glacial melt).

AG: What are your influences in writing and of writing this book, in particular?

CW: The alliterative poems (“O,” “M,” “P,” “XYZ” in Meltwater, and “D,” “G,” “B,” and “W” in Wilder) were inspired by children’s books, which I’ve been reading a lot of in the last handful of years. In fact it was Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See? that gave me the idea for “B” (the first of the alliterative poems I wrote). Inger Christensen’s alphabet has also been a foundational text for me. She uses form in such a surprising and urgent way, and her poems are both beautiful and dire.  But fairy tales also appear, Little Red Riding Hood in “Hunger.” The anxieties surrounding parenthood, childhood, and survival are very old; that triad has always been both sweet and dangerous, its dangers perennial as well as mythic. Matthea Harvey has been a big favorite of mine for years, and though I think my work is overall less playful than hers, she still gave me permission to be speculative, to be weird, to fully commit to a dystopian or speculative universe. So the Glacier series owes something to her, as do “The New Horticulture/Fear/Language” series. Aase Berg also gave me permission to be unrelentingly dark and sometimes gross. The dystopian prose sequence in Wilder couldn’t have been written without her. And both of those poets use the prose poem so well.
In terms of non-literary influences, I draw a lot of energy from the natural world and science more generally. My secret career goal was to be a marine biologist, but it never happened, obviously! And poetry and science aren’t so different; they’re two approaches to understanding the world and its sublimity.

AG: There is a big part in this book that deals with motherhood and the climate anxiety that the poet feels because she doesn’t know what world her children will grow up in. How does your experience with motherhood affect you and this book?

CW: When my children were first born, my anxiety was almost intolerable. I would imagine their deaths constantly. I would imagine how I would live (or not) if they died. But it’s changed over the last couple of years. Maybe I’ve just acclimated to it. I started wearing one of my mother’s old rings last week. It’s beautiful but roughly made, and it left painful nicks and scratches all over my finger. I had to take it off regularly to let my skin heal. But now the ring sits very naturally on my finger. Nothing about the ring changed—my skin just calloused over in the most vulnerable places. I know that beneath the surface, I’m still terrified that losing my children would mean my annihilation. I do think that having children brings us to that brink—that abyss—very easily. That’s what I was trying to get at in “The Child Puts Apples into the Mouth of the Tree” and “At the End We Turn into Trees.” And part of me seems to believe, I think, that poems can function as talismans. If I put the worst-case scenarios into poems, they’ll stay there instead of manifesting in the real world.  Every moment of delight needs to have terror in its shadow. Lest it seem like it’s all doom and gloom, having children has also absolutely saved me. It has made me better in every way. I have access to a broader range and depth of emotions. I am smarter, more empathic, more attuned to the world. I am certainly a better poet.

AG: “Deathbed Dream with an Extinction List” takes such wild, intuitive leaps. Could you talk about why form enables us to talk about things that are often not discussed?

CW: Writing in form, specifically in abecedarians, diverts me from my default imaginative routes. In “Deathbed Dream” it felt really important not to let human ideas/values/experiences around time influence how much space the poem took up. I wanted each of the extinct species to have its moment. Adhering to form stopped me from making the turns that felt comfortable; it stopped me from wrapping up the poem before it was ready. When you have to reach for new words, new content follows. It’s a little bit like improv—I’m doing the poem and at regular intervals, someone (me, I guess) is handing me cards.

AG: The “XYZ” poem ends on a hopeful note when it says, “by yes, by you.”  It reminds me of Rilke in the “Archaic Torso of Apollo” when the speaker says, “You must change your life.” Were you thinking about this when you wrote it?

CW: I hadn’t been thinking explicitly about Rilke there, but I certainly see the resonance. I had intended the “you” in this poem to be the speaker’s (my, in this case) child, rather than a broader “you” as it is in Rilke’s poem. I credit my children with removing despair from my life. Before they were born, despair, cynicism, and defeat were like black holes pulling me into their gravity wells. But my children have given me a new gravitational center, and this has changed my orientation to the world. It’s made me more proactive, more imaginative, more open, more attuned to wonder. I am—maybe I’ll even say we are—going to need all those things if we’re going to survive what’s coming.

In terms of “changing our lives,” I’m wary of the “personal responsibility” angle re: climate change (at least as far as it’s used to distract us from the larger actors who cause the most damage). But there are things that individuals can do. There are cultural narratives that are getting in the way of political and corporate accountability. We could stop assuming that billionaires are smart or worthy of respect, for example. We could stop assuming that capitalism is redeeming in any way. We could divest from American exceptionalism, individualism, and Whiteness more generally. Those are all enabling climate catastrophe, and it’s vital that we break their spells.

ANNA ABRAHAM GASAWAY (She/Her) is a stroke-surviving, disabled writer that has been published in Mom Egg Review, the Los Angeles Review, Literary Mama and others. She has performed curated essays for So Say We All and recently received her MFA with an emphasis on Poetry at San Diego State University. She is currently working on her chapbook The Rabbit Burrow. 

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