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Interview: Clair Dunlap
Poetry Spotlight: In the Plum Dark Belly
Interview by Gretchen Gales
Image provided by Beard Poetry
Everytime I review a new poetry book, I keep getting more and more astounded by the talent that crosses my desk. Clair Dunlap’s poetry collection In the Plum Dark Belly continues the tradition of high quality indie authors we love having here on Quail Bell. Before I step into the interview, I’d like to give some initial thoughts on the collection (like how it's fantastic).
The themes in Dunlap’s collection aren’t the first topics you’d think of as “poetic.” No, nothing about crippling anxiety, emotional abuse, and loathsome encounters at the bar screams typical “poetry material,” but that’s probably exactly why I love it. Dunlap’s collection is raw and bold enough to sting and soar at once with the tough topic of emotional abuse. The inky horizontal cover alone prepares for an unorthodox experience and “dessert snack poems,” one that briefly laments on tears shed over an ex, who yells at the speaker over a Twinkie (rather, for never trying one before). Another explores paranoia and fear over the same manipulative man, whether the speaker will make it home to their destination without harm, and getting used to being called a liar by people who are supposed to be supportive. And that’s (literally) not even the half of it.
The collection is a mesh of emotional turmoil and the physical consequences that develop as a result. It is the type of introspection that is only shown by the bravest writers. No matter how foolish you feel for staying in a harmful relationship (romantic or otherwise), this is the poetry collection that may allow you to forgive yourself, even after being deceived by the “nice voice” being “on,” no matter who it is. Now, on to the good part:
1) First, congratulations! This is your debut poetry collection. How long have you been writing poetry?
Thank you! I’ve been writing poetry since I was very little – we spent time on Thursday mornings in the first and second grade learning about and writing poetry and I have a very distinct memory of sitting at a table by the window, looking out onto the playground while I thought about what to put down next in a poem about a teddy bear. I’ve been writing in a more serious manner since I was thirteen or fourteen, though.
2) The immediate things I noticed about the poetry collection is that it's in a unique horizontal shape and a beautifully eerie cover. What inspired the artwork and the overall design?
Lewis Mundt, who runs Beard Poetry, suggested Daniel Obzejta very early on as a cover artist – the collection wasn’t even finished yet – and when I looked up his work I loved the delicate nature of it, the thin lines and details, used for rather dark subject matter. Daniel read about a ten-page sample of my work for the book and agreed to do the cover, so when the whole book was written we sent the manuscript over to him and he essentially got to read it and create what he wanted. I saw the piece he’d done for In the Plum Dark Belly about two months before we were going to print and fell instantly in love with how beautiful and creepy it is at the same time; lots of people think the tree on the cover is pretty mundane at first, given the title of the book, until they take a longer look, and I think that’s awesome. Lewis also gets the credit for the horizontal shape – he designs the books he puts out on his press and in the process of putting mine together he suggested that we could potentially use this unique shape to keep some of the poems’ longer lines intact. All together, I think the shape and the cover art make for quite a striking first impression.
3) For those who have never read the collection, what can you tell them about In The Plum Dark Belly? For starters, what inspired the title's name?
This book centers around an emotionally abusive relationship and what that entailed both during and in the aftermath, so I discuss a lot of coping mechanisms, a lot of anxiety, really just how I felt for many years and still sometimes feel about the entire ordeal as it continues to play out. There is a poem in the collection called A stonefruit that would have been the most obvious title – it’s a very angry poem, the first thing I wrote specifically for this collection, all in capital letters in contrast to the majority of my work which is done in lower case. I didn’t want the collection to be defined by anger, though. That didn’t feel right to me. I’m not just angry – I’m often scared, sad, and grateful for things I have learned about myself. I didn’t want the takeaway for this collection to be anger, full stop. But I also wanted a title that could encompass many of the topics in the collection: emotional abuse, anxiety, disordered eating. In the Plum Dark Belly is a line from a poem that serves as a turning point in the collection – it harkens back to many of the darker places and spaces I explore in these poems but also, in its original context, is a place of warmth, excitement, love. I wanted the title of this book to evoke everything inside it, and hope and love are important aspects of my work.
4) The first poem in the collection is called "Fear & loathing," an appropriate title for a collection centered around emotional abuse. Did writing some of these poems cause fear and loathing within yourself to confront these challenging topics? And as overdone as the question is, what is your writing process?
“Fear and loathing” was one of the last poems I wrote for the book and it came out of a need to address the fact that some people don’t understand how serious situations of emotional abuse are. There are people who don’t think I should write about this because they know the other party involved and I don’t know if that’s because they just don’t want to hear it or if they think art should be impersonal or only personal if it makes other people feel good or what, but I don’t agree. For the vast majority of poetry readers, the poet’s personal life is of little consequence, even when reading deeply personal work. I loathe the idea that people think all art should just fall from the sky, or that all art should exist in some vacuum. My art comes out of my own life and it always has, since I was a child. Still, writing this collection was terrifying and throughout the process I went back and forth about what I was doing. Had it really happened this way? Was it fair for me to write this? In the end it came down to not recounting in perfect detail exactly what went on, but recounting in perfect detail how what went on made me feel. How can I convey how this feels to people who have never felt it? That’s what I wanted to do.
I don’t have much of a writing process. I write when I have something to write about, and I think of the periods when I’m not writing a lot as times when I am collecting things. Images, words I’d love to use in something, stories. And then once I have enough, I write again.
5) Your poem "Mantra for my panic attacks" is such a wonderful portrayal of, well, panic attacks. As someone who has suffered from them, I've never been able to quite carve out how they feel into words. I guess I be blunt, how are you able to do that so successfully?
I never knew what I was experiencing was a panic attack – I would get irrationally, in my mind, afraid of something terrible happening and shut down and people who knew the situation I was in on a surface level just thought I was really angry. Well, I was really angry, but I was also incredibly afraid and sometimes still am. So maybe it was all that time spent having them and not having a name for what was going on? I was very familiar with the feeling of it but never knew what I was experiencing was something other people also felt. I wrote “Mantra for my panic attacks” while having the first panic attack that I knew to call panic attack and it was such a freeing thing, having a name for it and knowing I wasn’t imagining how my body physically felt.
6) Another common theme I've noticed throughout the collection is gaslighting. For example, several of the poems cite nausea and hopelessness from being called a liar. In emotional abuse and everyday life, what keeps someone from giving up and caving in when others doubt you?
I remind myself constantly that only I know my reality. It’s hard sometimes because there’s almost a snowball effect: people didn’t and don’t believe me about something really big, so even when people don’t believe me about some insignificant thing, it feels just a big and horrible and anxious. People who really care about you and love you will listen and they will believe you – that is what matters. Some people will never believe you – it hurts and it makes all those wounds open right back up, but those people don’t define you. Just to be telling anyone about emotional abuse you’ve endured is a sign of your strength, and they cannot take that away from you.
7) What writers and other kinds of artists (i.e. visual artists, filmmakers) have inspired your work?
The biggest influencers of my writing have been Frank O’Hara, Anis Mojgani, Richard Brautigan, and Tove Jansson. While writing In the Plum Dark Belly, I also turned to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s The Year of No Mistakes, and Caroline Smith’s album, Half About Being a Woman – if you’ve never listened to this, please do yourself a favor and look it up now! My apartment is filled with pieces by Georgia O’Keeffe and Phoebe Wahl – the amount that their influence shows up in In the Plum Dark Belly is negligible, but their art definitely informs my creative headspace. I’ve also been on tumblr since high school and mine is essentially an aggregate of what I like to look at to inspire me on the daily as well as a place to way over-share with the anonymous internet. And I would be remiss to leave out the fact that while writing this book I listened to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” approximately 429 times.
8) What advice do you have to those who may be going through emotional abuse?
I love that there are so many great articles around now about signs of emotional abuse because it’s hard to know it when it’s happening. You’re being conditioned to think you over exaggerate, that you’re overly emotional, that you’re overreacting when you’re not. Every situation of abuse is different, and so I would point readers who are going through any kind of abuse to resources such as the APA and womenshealth.gov to learn more about emotional abuse and what you can do to safely get out of a situation of domestic violence. Know that you are not alone in this, you are strong, and you are not making this up in your head.
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