What the Body Keeps: An Interview with Nikki Wallschlaeger

Nikki Wallschlaeger talks with Apogee Journal Poetry Co-Editor, Muriel Leung about her poem, “This Body Keeps the Key,” which appears in Issue 07 of the journal.

Muriel Leung: Several Apogee Journal editors have exclaimed their love for the title of your poem, “This Body Keeps the Keys” forthcoming in Issue 07. What inspired the title? Did it come first or following the writing of the poem? What does this title mean to you?

Nikki Wallschlaeger: I think hidden in our bodies are the keys to what we need to whatever we’re going through at the moment. This can be both freeing and oppressive because the human mind seems to need more than the body it is housed in; we are desirous creatures that want everything. But in real-time, American society operates primarily in violence. So extended readings of the body, for me, provide the comfort and nourishment to keep me going, the clues to what I have or what I am lacking. These keys are invitations to explore. Survival depends on self-awareness to some extent. But you don’t have to be politically conscious to survive, although you may find yourself in situations that are literally killing and depleting you.

ML: What is the poem’s origin story? From where did it emerge? Does it have a lineage? And if so, what is that lineage? What gives it its sense of urgency?

NW: It emerged out of exhaustion. I am a mother of two children: a tween and a toddler. It has been 10 years since I have raised a new baby, so I forgot about how tiring it is on the body because I also breastfeed my children until two years of age. The real exhaustion—its bedrock—is trying to do this while being a black woman living under white supremacy. My partner is white and he is also exhausted, but he has the privilege of not being embodied with the legacy of racism like I am. I’m horrified by our world. Everything feels so far from the truth. People reach for material things to make them feel like they’re part of the zeitgeist and to cope. I understand this and I too participate in consumer capitalist therapeutics by purchasing and being influenced by cultural products that I like, adorning and creating identities based on my tastes and pleasures. But sometimes I get bored of that too and how our world places a premium on constantly looking camera-ready—to always be producing something for the audiences. Self-care can be a form of resistance, and when I don’t have enough time to pamper myself, I become very irritable and depressed, especially if I don’t have the money to buy what I want. When some personal time opens up, it often feels like it’s just a bigger cage to study and navigate, a place where having the illusion of freedom means having the money to purchase what makes me feel good. All of that demands the cost of real human lives and natural resources to make these products and lifestyles that make us look amazing and, in the case of black beauty rituals, it’s also dependent in some way on what white supremacy has set as beauty standards. It depresses the hell out of me.

Representation is competitive and expensive. So sometimes I fantasize about having like three changes of durable clothing and shaving my head to reduce anxiety about the labor that 21st century grooming requires. Another fantasy I have is to walk into a mall or shopping center where everything is generic, like a store that sells shirts would just say “Shirts” in the marquee and it would just be different types of shirts in different colors with no marketing whatsoever, and right next to that store would be a “Pants” store and so on. Obviously, I’m just as much of a consumer as anybody else. I’m a 90s child who went to the mall almost every day after school because it was built the year I was born in the middle of the small city in which I grew up. So these fantasies are about how to creatively live with my contempt under global capitalism.

Sometimes I crave a spiritual vacation from the 21st century’s all-encompassing frenzied modernity, but if space travel for regular folks was available, I’d be on board because I’m interested in a futurity that makes sense for the human imagination and for the well-being of the planet.

ML: In the poem, you write, “I am sincerely/ mothered the fuck out, so tired/ this mothering body.” The poem catalogues different types of exhaustion, and the play on the word “mother” tells us that this exhaustion is at once personal as it is political; it is as much about love as it is about labor and struggle. What does it mean to write a poem about exhaustion? Why is it important to talk about this particular weighted feeling?

NW: The exhaustion that caregivers experience, particularly in the case of women, is as old as the white cisheteropatriarchy that demands we do this with gratitude without pay, that black women were happy being slaves who took care of the children of their lazy violent white oppressors. It’s extremely important that the narratives of mothers and caregivers are centered. For centuries, we were silenced. Now it’s time to listen and appreciate what we’ve seen and what we’ve given. Audre Lorde has wrote extensively and advocated for the lives of black and brown women that were taken for granted at every age. Exhaustion is part of that experience because it’s exhausting being a woman of color, whether you’ve had children or not.

In my own work I’ve only just begun understanding the depths of exhaustion as I grow older, as my experiences transform into insights which drive my poems. It’s a serious sobering process but it’s also a relief to feel finally like a grown ass person, that the suffering I’ve experienced is at least generative.

ML: What are some examples of such love, labor, struggle, and exhaustion that you have experienced?

NW: I will list some: giving birth twice, writing books, accepting the responsibility of caring for those who are dependent on you, going to college, moving out to the country to start a small farm this summer from our house in Milwaukee that we own and lived in for 10 years, navigating social anxiety, being the only person of color in a family of mostly racist white people, meeting my black father and half-sister for the first time about five years ago, developing political consciousness, learning how to love and trust myself. The list goes on but these are the bigger ones.

ML: What are three things a reader should do when and after reading this poem?

NW: They can do whatever they like except commit the act of theft of this poem.

ML: What are your hopes for this poem or its future?

NW: It’s going to be a part of the collection of poems I am working on right now for my third full-length book called Waterbaby. All of the poems will relate to water in some way whether it be lakes, tears, amniotic fluid, oceans, alcohol, the Middle Passage, flowage, rivers, clinical depression, tea, blues, storms, urine, etc.

ML: Speaking of the future, we’re so thrilled for your forthcoming collection of sonnets, Crawlspace (Bloof Books 2017). What extended or new conversation would you hope to emerge from this project? What are your hopes for this project?

NW:I’m not quite sure what my hopes are beyond the usual expectations of writing a book: that it gets reviewed, sales are alright, etc. I’m looking forward to how others engage with my work & their individual readings of it. That’s the fun part and where I feel the most useful as a writer. I was just rereading the manuscript the other day and I was like, “Damn, you write the strangest poetry” lol. I’m proud of that. So we’ll see what kind of conversations this book may inspire, because black poets aren’t supposed to be strange. I’d like to change that because I think the black experience can be really strange. I write my best work when I’m comfortable with the unknown. I’m fed up, yet I’ve still managed to keep my sense of humor. All these elements create a strangeness that I find very satisfying to work with: a fine-tuned frequency of freedom to be a functioning artist.

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