Writers Chat 34: Grace Wilentz on “The Limit of Light” (Gallery Press Books: Meath, 2020).

Grace, I’m delighted to welcome you to talk about your debut poetry collection The Limit of Light (Gallery Press Books: Meath, 2020). I really enjoyed hearing you read in The Gallery at 50 Celebratory Series (Episode 13 [time 10.59 – 15.30]) This collection holds a beautiful understated sensuality in its exploration of memory, body, desire, death, all without drama.

Cover image of The Limit of Light

SG: Let’s first talk about your journey as a poet, thus far. In that Episode you read the ‘Northern Lights’ by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, a poet who you say has had a huge influence on you making Ireland your home and who, like you, has lived in many countries and cultures. Could you talk about your reading habits and early influences?

GW: Firstly, let me say a huge thank you to you for inviting me to do this interview, and for giving The Limit of Light a platform to reach more people. Thank you, also, for your beautiful close reading of my work. Your questions are so reflective, and it means so much to have the work thoughtfully read by a fellow writer!

[SG: I’m so pleased the questions resonate with you, Grace.]

GW: My early influences were books of poetry for children. My parents read to me every night, and my favourites were illustrated books of poems like The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse and The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. Talking to the Sun edited by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell and illustrated with images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is still a favourite. It was in listening to those poems before going to sleep that I began to know I loved language. It was also when I started learning poems by heart.

Since that time, the poets who have really shaped me include Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsberg, Jorie Graham, Shane McCrae, Mary Oliver, Wisława Szymborska, Norman Dubie, Stanley Plumly, Ocean Vuong, James Merrill and Dorothy Molloy, just to name a few. I had the great fortune to study with Jorie and I still marvel at how I got to be so lucky.

Reading Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill at 18 led me to study the Irish language as an undergraduate. This was what drew me to Ireland, and changed the course of my life. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s poems speak to me as much now as they did then. I love that her writing presents the world as a whole, with all of its sorrows and joys integrated. I respect the work she has done to protect the vitality and diversity of the Irish language. From Nuala I learned that one of the safest ways to ensure the longevity of something you love that is under threat, is to wrap it up with beauty, poetry, tenderness, vulnerability. That way, no one will be able to resist helping you care for it.

SG: I love the notion of wrapping what you love with beauty, poetry, tenderness and vulnerability. And what a varied list of influences! The Limit of Light is a beautiful production with the very arresting imagine ‘The Ties That Bind’ on the front cover. I found this fascinating – and immediately I linked it to the first few poems as I read, how every day objects, a turn of light, and patterns become signifiers for something else. Tell me about the link between the themes in this collection, the wonderful title and the cover image.

GW: I actually can’t take credit for the cover. Jennifer Truton’s beautiful painting was suggested by Peter, my editor. It was the right choice. For all that The Limit of Light is very forthright and honest in its subject matter, I hope that like ‘The Ties that Bind’ the book holds its mystery, and that the more time you give to it, the more depth will emerge. When I look at the painting, I feel as if it is calling me to use my imagination to assemble a narrative. I hope my book does that too, and that there is pleasure in finding the narrative threads that knit the poems together, and that everyone brings their own imagination and interpretation.

As for the title, I’m not sure if I can explain it so well, but The Limit of Light, is partly about reaching the depths of grief. It is about being in a place of extremity. And it’s also, perhaps, about being in that place where the light is disappearing and learning to see in the dark, finding a way forward when there is no path and no one to show you the way. Writing this collection, grief was a strong theme, but resilience equally so.

SG: Yes, I felt that as I read it grief was side-by-side with resilience. You read ‘Belly of the Whale’ so beautifully and evocatively. It strikes me that many of these poems explore the unspoken, the unnoticed and, to borrow a phrase from this poem, how time is “parcelled out”. ‘Belly of the Whale’ opens Part Three of the collection which follows on from the terribly moving sequence of poems about your mother and her cancer in which you offer the reader through a variety of wonderful forms a glimpse into your joint experience of health, care, and helplessness. It strikes me that perhaps this poem opens the door for another strong theme – that of grief. Can you comment on this?

GW: ‘Belly of the Whale’ is a poem about the summer after my mother passed away. She died in my last year of high school and suddenly I found myself alone, without family or the structure of school days. I just felt sort of suspended. I literally went days without speaking and remember not recognising my own voice when one day I ordered a sandwich at a local deli.

I did feel an incredible helplessness then, and all through her illness, like this thing was just barreling towards us and there was no telling how it would all end up. I wanted to write something authentic, that communicates honestly what those experiences were like, without putting a nice veneer on loss or fear, without any need to tie it all up in a bow. Just letting thing be as they are in the poem.

I recently collaborated with a brilliant filmmaker, Gabriela Concha Valcárcel, who made ‘Belly of the Whale’ into a short film. Our collaboration began in early 2020, just before Covid-19 reached Europe and South America, so almost from the start, we were constrained by it. But it forced us to be creative within strict limits. We used a lot of archival footage, reworking it to make something new. Gabriela was incredible to collaborate with, and she worked so intuitively to translate the poem from words to motion picture, that at times I wondered if she wasn’t a mind reader. I am so proud of what we made together and feel very excited to share it with audiences this year.

SG: The authenticity shines through, Grace, and my sympathies at the loss of your mother at such a tender age. The collaboration with Gabriela Concha Valcárcel sounds wonderful and I can’t wait to watch the ‘Belly of the Whale’ as a short film. Staying with your exploration of grief – which is also a contemplation on life – I was really struck by the symmetry between and structure of the poems ‘Hovenweep’, ‘The Limit of Light’ and ‘Last Look’. I found myself whispering the words aloud, and loved how a little further on, the incantation of ‘Alsace Shabbat’ really begs to be read aloud. Considering space, line breaks and stanza formation, do you think there is a link between sound and grief in these poems?

GW: I love that idea! I don’t know if I connected sound and grief in my own mind, but definitely when working with the ‘hot’ material of your own life, form can put some necessary structure and pressure to help shape it into art. I also take great pleasure in poems that are doing something sonically. It’s a powerful tool in terms of resonance, energy and creating an emotional response. Though I draft silently, I complete poems aloud.

SG: A great insight into your process, Grace, thank you – drafting silently, completing aloud. ‘Words on the Body’ is a beautiful exploration of memory, image, meaning and connection. I found the simplicity of story within this poem truly moving and made me consider how threads of time can suddenly become visible. Could you comment on your approach to writing poetry and the power of story?

GW: Yes, there’s definitely something there, as you say, ‘about the threads of time becoming visible’ or even inhabiting the same moment. Not all traditions conceive of time as linear; for some, it is cyclical. I think that poem, for all it seems kind of unassuming, is a hinge between parts of the book. To me, it’s looking backwards and forwards at experiences of love over time—and of being near to, and looking closely at someone you love. It’s about these two moments—being carefree on a beach with my mother in childhood, and then in adulthood, a partner presenting me with a bag of chips and integrating these two moments through these memories of text transferred onto skin. It is also in some ways about connecting the experience of the love within the family you’re born into, and the love you experience in the family you make for yourself. I am so glad the poem moved you, as when I take risks or try to do something more expansive, I’m always afraid it might not land.

SG: Social commentary is woven into your collection, too. ‘Covers: March 3, 1973 and December 19, 1942’ with, for me, a most beautiful end and a mantra in one: “What if everything I ever wanted/is what I have already received?”, ‘Becoming Esther’, ‘Handwriting’ and ‘The Deal’ where we witness your realisation of the existence of other, difference, transformation and privilege, and I include in this question the personal duo of ‘On a Gallery Bench’ and ‘Partridge Wrapping Paper’ which show the complexity and beauty of connection, again with a beautiful ending “YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF MY LIFE”. These have an echo with the final poem in the collection, the very current ‘A Year with Two Springs’. Do you think the personal and social are inextricably entwined in your work?

GW: That is a great question and something I am still coming to understand in my work. To me, the social and political are present, but they are explored through the lens of personal experience, so they don’t always declare themselves overtly. I think all of our lives brush up against the political issues of our time, and also the issues that are of all time—inequality, migration, difference, the challenges of human relationships, etc. and that a poem can encounter these subjects in many ways. I tend to favour, at least at this point in my career, subtler approaches.

SG: The Limit of Light warrants a read through as it is an almost magical experience in how you quietly build a picture of a live lived and living – with places, people and companionship threaded through it – but one can also dip in and out of sections. It seems that you are also searching for the commonality between ritual, tradition and travel – and turning a mirror to it for the reader. Was this a theme that emerged for you as you ordered the poems into sections, named the sections and prepared them for publication?

GW: I had not connected those themes in my own mind, but it’s very possible. I think tradition and change bring an interesting tension. Ritual is definitely there, both as a vehicle for meditative and emotional processes, but also in recognition of the parts of us that are open to believe and aren’t always rational. As for travel, it can be a way to understand the world better, and oneself better. Ultimately what I think holds them all together is the life at the centre of this collection. You’re so right, I am trying to communicate something lived as truthfully as possible. I didn’t always have the courage to do that and I hope I can stick with it.

SG: I love how my curiosity about your process and the meanings I took from your work often brought out new ways of seeing it for you, and in your generous answers, how I have begun to re-view the collection and will return to your poems with expanse and knowledge of some of what lies behind them. So, Grace, to end our chat, I’ve a few lighter questions:

Coffee or Tea? coffee (for now)

Silence or music when writing? silence

What are you reading now? The IChing, Gina Franco’s The Accidental, (re-reading) Jorie Graham’s Erosion and The Dream of the Unified Field, and Sally Rooney’s Mr Salary.

(Great diverse reading list – I haven’t read The IChing since I was a teenager. I must go back!) What are you writing now? I am completing a commission that is looking at new ways of exploring history through poetry. I am also working through my notes and slowly developing new poems for what might turn into my next manuscript, let’s see. I’m just having fun with it at the moment.

Well, I wish you all the very best with your commission (which sounds intriguing) and much fun with your new work. Thank you again, Grace, for your time and generosity with your answers. Readers, purchase The Limit of Light directly from Gallery Press and connect with Grace on her website.

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