VI KHI NAO: In a few days I will be heading to Las Vegas for a dental appointment, but perhaps it is in its ideal element that I am currently sitting in my bedroom in Iowa City conversing with you – a city – an abode you are quite familiar with. After all, you did your MFA here, yes? Was this collection born from here? Fidelitoria: fixed or fluxed has a very Iowan cover like a deer waiting in the bush, in the dark, glowing in bovine empyrean blue, waiting to be run over by a Subaru or a four runner.
CANDICE WUEHLE: First of all, I hope your dental appointment goes well. I just had my first since the pandemic and it was a surreal experience.
Yes, I did do my MFA at Iowa but I also grew up in Iowa City and I agree that the deer tend to be a bit of an eerie yet beautiful presence. The cover for Fidelitoria went through a few iterations with Mike Corrao (one of 11:11’s designers). We were working on something inspired by grimoires as well as Les Fleurs du Mal–the vines mixing with the city, the sense of flourishing from decay. Mike’s first pass featured snakes entwined with flowers. It was stunning, but a bit too sinister for the collection (although, as you probably know, snakes are also very Iowa). I suggested the deer because that animal appears in a few poems throughout the collection as a sort of messenger–a liminal being, yet also a vulnerable being. The creature who moves between fixity and flux with ease.
You are right that the collection was born in Iowa. Back in 2013-2014 I wrote most of it in a house down the street from Oakland Cemetery, where the black angel hovers. I suppose I think of this as a collection about a time of enormous transformation and change–but it is also uncanny for me because this transformation took place where I grew up. Iowa City became strange to me in the years between when I finished undergrad and when I came back for the MFA, so I had the really unique experience of truly rediscovering my childhood home as an adult. Fidelitoria is certainly filled with moments that take place in this crucible–and the locations are very Iowa City (that hotel on Dodge Street, buying wine at the New Pi Co-Op, or, to finish this question: seeing deer in the Oakland Cemetery, right by the angel.)
VKN: I can see how some of these poems were under the influence/spell of that black angel. I used to walk in that cemetery to pull protagonist names for my novels. With the collection born nearly a decade ago, does it feel emotional, poetically, psychically obsolete from your heart? The mother theme also frequents this collection, one which she is not invited (to be a part of the poem/dream?). Is the collection autobiographical and has your relationship with your mother been different or the same? Iowa City is a birth home for so many famous poets and writers – how do you feel be among the stacks or ruins or layers of talents that pass through this city like a perennial event? Do you feel perennial?
CW: I love that you’ve taken names from the cemetery for your novel–I will look for them! I think I might be doing the inverse recently by pulling names for my antagonists from spam emails sent to my website.
I’ve been thinking about obsolescence and Fidelitoria quite a bit over the last year, actually. I’ll admit that when I first began working on the layout with Mike and rereading the poems (some for the first time in many years), I felt like they were written by a person I did not know anymore. In his blurb for the book, Joshua Marie Wilkinson wrote something that seemed almost clairvoyant to me, “I haven’t been this ecstatically disturbed by a poetry collection since I was somebody else.” I, also, experienced this collection very differently when “I was somebody else.” Many of the questions in this book deal with selfhood and trying to write myself into a place where I could see the “self” of “myself” that other people see. And wondering if it’s even possible to know the self others know. Have you ever had the experience of being told you are a certain way (for me, at that time, my graduating superlative was “most likely to levitate”) and wondering how the person telling you who you are possibly arrived at that assessment? I think because this book was an attempt to see myself from the outside, rereading years later was an especially strange experience. My relationships with the characters and themes that repeat through Fidelitoria have changed tremendously since I wrote it. The collection is somewhat autobiographical, but it is also a cosmology filled with icons–which is to say that I think this book was a place I created and mapped to be a location I could navigate psychospiritually. This navigation was good practice in creating new boundaries that healed some relationships and renegotiated some life themes. So, yes–my relationship with my mother is very different now. Fidelitoria is my only book that I hope she does not read—it would be too much like having my teen diary read!
Being a layer in the palimpsest of Iowa City…what a great question. I myself do not feel perennial, but now that I’m thinking about it I suppose I do feel connected to deep history. I think more than anything, growing up seeing such famous writers at the hair salon or walking down the steps of the library has given me a sense of scope that’s sublime in the way it both makes me feel near something majestic but also very tiny in comparison! How has being in Iowa City been for you?
VKN: Iowa City has been an anachronistic lover I wish to say farewell to each year and each year, she climbs onto a cow and tells me to hop on or else she would run me over – I choose to hop on because having crushed ribs isn’t something I look forward to very much. Do you have a tarot deck with you, Candice? If you were to pull a tarot card for one of your favorite poems from this collection – & interpret it, what would it say?
CW: Anachronistic is an excellent word for Iowa City. Hand in hand with the “majesty” I just mentioned comes some dangerous nostalgia. The pressure that comes from trying to change the shape of history, of trying to write yourself and experience into a book that doesn’t yet even have words for it.
I do have a tarot deck at my desk. I’ve pulled the 7 of pentacles for the poem “SOFT.” This card, as I’m feeling it right now, is very loving. Traditionally I suppose it indicates patience in “manifesting”–the part of life where you have done everything you can do and now you have to wait. “SOFT” was a poem I wrote for myself to get through a difficult moment and the line that most resonates for me as representative of that time is “a cross at a crossing,” so I am reading this card as telling me that moments of uncertainty are actually invitations to be lighter, to trust the questions that can only arrive at the intersections and crossroads.
Would you like me to draw a card for you?
VKN: Yes, please. Also, I love the line after “a cross at a crossing” – “a dryness delivering” – like two chickens being asked to walk an idea home but their feathers have been plucked and tossed into a fryer. A dryness that is so capable of delivering – which I often do not associate with Iowa City.
CW: Yes, exactly. I suppose this is that idea of ex nihilo that I was so obsessed with while writing this book–the wish that something might come from nothing or maybe the belief that something new can only come from nothing.
I’ve drawn a major arcana card for you–Temperance! I almost never draw this card and the last time I remember drawing it, I was actually in Iowa City. As I’m reading this card for you, I’m struck not by the traditional associations of “restraint” or “sobriety” or even “balance and flow” that come with this card, but rather by the golden triangle emblazoned on the chest of the angel’s gown. In fact, the gold is coming out in the erupting volcano in the background, the gladiolas, and the third eye halo. It seems that you are at a particularly alchemical point right now in which you are balancing–no, triangulating, realms. I’m getting an image of complicated cooking performed by a skilled chef. Confidence laced with intense concentration. It’s a time to keep your third eye focused, I think.
VKN: Thank you for this reading. I will remove my eyemask from my third eye so I can see the intensity of my triangulation better. Chefs and beauty pageants seem to be exciting venues for social media-ing. If one of your poems were to be a beauty pageant, Candice, which poem of yours would you choose to be an ideal candidate? In an interview, you wrote, “pageant contestants display personality traits that lend themselves to programming (they’re good at memorization, dealing with authority, conforming to their environment, are physically fit, have a capacity for rapport building, and are overall intelligent). Which poem of yours, do you feel, displays these mentioned attributes well? Especially which poem of yours is physically fit and deals well with an authoritative figure?
CW: Yes, that quote is about my novel coming out next year, MONARCH. I started writing that novel just as I was finishing Death Industrial Complex, so the concerns overlap a bit. Many of the poems in that collection are addressed at the “editrix,” a figure whose authority is founded in curation and “generating the need,” or contributing to the many ways in which we are socially conditioned. I became very interested in the way this social conditioning is internalized, resulting in an interior landscape so pruned and manipulated and over or under grown that we might not even recognize it as our own. The poem “frottuer ii” strikes me as the most “physically fit” because of the way it directly addresses the gaze of the editrix in the line “My tan lines/ are a bardo you can’t cross. Maybe/ you aren’t going to get to die.” But as I write this, I am realizing that voice and especially tone are the conduit for “strength” in my poems, but that the form (I’m fond of the struckline, the mistake, the word as a stain on the page) performs like a pageant contest. I think in my later work, I’m often presenting the strength or anger or brattiness behind the stylish face.
VKN: Speaking of the poetic impulse, a lot of your poems deal with repetition – lexically and textually – for instance, from page 32 of Fideltioria, “I MAKE STUPID WORDS” – it was repeated three times. That mantra was bookended by the first page and third page of your poem “Fire” – how did the structure of the poem “Fire” arrive to you? And, why that mantra? Do you often see the shape (Holy or otherwise) of a poem before it arrives to you or has it been done through typesetting with a designer? Repetition is one of the most popular rhetorical devices for poets – to extend the life of a poem – can a poem live a nutritious life without much longevity if it is devoid of repetition? What is the primary language or what language does repetition speak in your work? Do you practice yoga? Does repetition appear in your novel, MONARCH too? I have heard that novelists are more rigid (formally speaking). Do you think this is true?
CW: I do practice yoga and had just completed my teacher certification when the pandemic began, so the idea of flow, repetition, and moving meditation has been on my mind as a writer for a long time. I can’t help but mention what Alice Notley has to say about repetition, because I heard this very early on as a writer and so it has really directed me. Notley says you can “pause inside a repetition, and without losing the momentum of the poem you could think of what to say next. You get a word from the past…and you pull it into the present in order to go to the future. It has something to do with thinking and not losing the music while you think. Nothing is lost or obscure.” So, repetition has a lot to do with both time and temporality for me. That repetition of “I MAKE STUPID WORDS” is a sort of shocking iteration that gets reiterated, but also there’s a whole lot of power that comes from taking control of time in a moment of vulnerability. Of repeating the thing you as a writer are insecure about and giving yourself the space to overcome it in the magic space of the page.
The structure of “FIRE” was largely directed by this temporal impulse, the desire to stop or repeat the difficult moment. It will not surprise anyone (or maybe it will–people have interpreted this poem in wildly different ways) that this poem was very influenced by my own experiences with psychoanalysis as well as the poems of Frank Bidart (especially “Ellen West” and “Golden State”). There’s a moment in one of Bidart’s poems (I can’t find the moment right now–his poems are very long!) where the speaker draws a golden circle on the stage of their own life from which they can speak. The speaker does this at the suggestion of his analyst. I’ve often gone back to this cognitive trick in my own poems, this gesture of drawing a circle of protection around the poem that suspends time. To use a totally different example–this is like the moment in a movie about witchcraft when the witch stops time and walks around, picking things up and rearranging them in space through this glitch in time. So that’s how the shape of the poem appears to me: I make thought-space where I need or desire it.
VKN: That is a fascinating trick, beautifully limned! How do you transition from being a poet into a novelist? Are you writing long poems dressed like a novel? Or are you writing lots of words and thus, it is impossible for it not to be a novel? For creators who are fluent in more than one discipline, how do you make one’s body of work distinguish from another? Can a pre-existing novelist become a poet? (I heard this chicken becoming an egg thing is harder and that it’s easier to be a poet first and then transition into being a novelist later). What has your experience been like?
CW: MONARCH actually started as a prose poem about a woman who realizes she is invisible, then the voice suddenly changes on me. Suzan-Lori Parks (in the introduction to The America Play, I think, or perhaps in an address I heard her give at The Englert back in 2013) says she hears her characters speaking aloud. I was actually very, very surprised when the prose poem that begins MONARCH started speaking itself into a novel. I had no intention to write in that genre but I went with it and expected to write a very “lyric novel.” I was again surprised when words and characters and various metaphors generated what ended up being a plot-driven thriller.
In terms of how one body of work distinguishes itself from another–this has been somewhat “rhetorical” for me in the sense that I find when I want to “make a point” or “have an argument,” I write in prose. I think I want to direct the reader more in these instances, which is the exact opposite of how I have thought of poetry, which for me is a space that the reader gets invited into and is even expected to participate in as a co-creator. This is a question I’m really still thinking a lot about–I’d be more curious to know your answer to this question than to answer it myself!
VKN: In my eyes, there is no distinction. Everything goes. My essay “Literary Fabric” explains this more properly. In general, I think the rhetorical impulse exists on the ocean floor – how different types of sea literary species live a life soaked in the camouflage of biogenic carbonates. I like to think that we swim linguistically before we walk lexically. To segway into something completely different: I think this collection would be paired wonderfully with dark chocolate Lindor truffles. What do you recommend for readers to consume while reading Fidelitoria? Should cheese or a specific type of ice cream be included?
CW: Oh yes. And thank you! That is an opulent pairing and my primary association with Lindor truffles is related to a friend I grew up with in Iowa City who still lives there. She recommends warming them on top of a running clothes dryer for about ten minutes before consuming. I suppose bleu cheese and my friend Sean Zhuraw’s homemade bourbon cherry ice cream because I ate that a lot while writing Fidelitoria. The food mentioned throughout the book (especially in the poem “WATER”) is there because of Sean.
VKN: What an excellent idea! You and I are both pressmates: our books are being published by 11:11 Press this year. What is your experience like so far with them? How did your work find a home with them? You have worked with numerous presses – based on your prolific publication history – do you have any advice(s) for writers/poets who are seeking ideal homes for their work? And, what is one piece of writing advice for young writers/poets who wish to pursue a life of writing?
CW: My experience with 11:11 has been incredible. It is exactly what I suppose I imagined working with a press would be like back when I only really knew about “working with a press” from biographies of very famous authors. They’ve supported and enhanced my vision for the book–Mike often made suggestions for design that I did not even know were possible! In some ways, I come from a very traditional writing background which means some of the poets who mentored me could simply not conceive of my poems ever being published because of their design. So, working with the presses I’ve worked with has been very anti-gaslighting insofar as what can/can’t be published. I sent a different book to 11:11 originally (my dissertation from my PhD, actually) and they asked if I had anything else they might consider. I actually didn’t realize they were serious because so many rejection letters have that polite “we hope you will submit again” line. 11:11 was serious though–Andrew Wilt followed up with an email about a month later asking if I’d thought about submitting a different book. I sent Fidelitoria, they accepted, and since then Andrew has really become a friend as well as a publisher. He writes the best emails!
Writing advice for poets seeking a home for their work…do your best to figure out how to avoid a scarcity mentality. The woman who taught my yoga teacher training responds to most problems by saying, “Give it ten years.” This is…frustrating, but once I started taking that advice seriously I deepened and slowed my approach to my life (including publishing). It took almost that long for me to meet the right people to publish my work (John Trefry at Inside the Castle, Johannes Görannson and Joyelle McSweeney at Action Books, my editor Sarah Lyn Rogers at Soft Skull). These are people I’ve connected with in a profound way–it takes a long time to find your people, is, I guess, what I’m saying.
VKN: Indeed – so well said. So, don’t expect to get married overnight? I echo your sentiments! I love Andrew’s sincerity and Mike’s design ideas – especially the fonts he chooses! They are very kind folks. What is a scarcity mentality?
CW: I mean a mindset in which you believe there is only so much abundance to go around. This leads to so much competition and envy amongst writers, which alienates us from what is actually the point of being a writer (especially a poet)–the chance to get to talk and listen to people who might understand you.
VKN: If you were a squirrel, would you choose a pinecone or pine nut for your afternoon snack before a long hibernation? If you were a squirrel and a poet, which poetry collection would you consume before hibernating? Something that is fatty and will sustain you during the long months of fasting and starvation?
CW: Pinecone. The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson.
Candice Wuehle is the author of the novel MONARCH (Soft Skull, 2022), the poetry collections Fidelitoria: fixed or fluxed (11:11 Press, 2021), Death Industrial Complex (Action Books, 2020) and BOUND (Inside the Castle Press, 2018) as well as several chapbooks. Her writing has appeared in Best American Experimental Writing 2020, The Iowa Review, Black Warrior Review, Tarpaulin Sky, The Volta, The Bennington Review, and The New Delta Review. She holds an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Kansas.
Vi Khi Nao’s work includes poetry, fiction, film, play, and cross-genre collaboration. She is the author of the novel, Fish in Exile , the story collection A Brief Alphabet of Torture(winner of the 2016 FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize) and of four poetry collections: Human Tetris, Sheep Machine, Umbilical Hospital, and The Old Philosopher (winner of the 2014 Nightboat Prize). Her poetry collection, A Bell Curve Is A Pregnant Straight Line, and her short stories collection, The Vegas Dilemma, are forthcoming from 11:11 Press Summer and Fall 2021 respectively. She was the fall 2019 fellow at the Black Mountain Institute.
*Images courtesy of the authors and 11:11 Press.