Molly Spencer covers chronic illness, domestic life, and nature in her second poetry book, "Hinge"


Molly Spencer and her book Hinge

Hinge by Molly Spencer shows a world in which the poet seeks to find footing in a constantly shifting landscape and body. Views, possessions, relationships, and physical capacity change and merge and vanish at various points. The multipart poem “Objects of Faith” reveals these different angles by looking at things like a window or a berry and distilling them to what they do: “To hold in place / once piece of the world” or “To be that ache / in someone’s mouth,” respectively. This instability and the feeling of being on the cusp of something appears through the changing seasons, motherhood, and domestic life. 

This collection of poetry particularly examines chronic illness, its progression, and its effects. At times, the poet’s observations are stark: 

In this family 
of illness,
the doctor says, 
the body
attacks itself.

The poet seems to consequently no longer trust the world to stay how it’s meant or desired to be. It’s as if everything has become more fragile and uncertain—the poem “Patient Years” tells us “safe is the shell of an egg.” The poet also asks the question “if the one you love / most will follow you down.” 

Despite dark winter days, even darker dreams, and physical limitations in these poems, persistence is visible. The poem “Vernal” suggests hopefully that: 

It may be inside you. It may

be the stuck hinge
of your body
at last.

Near the end of the collection, “Love Poem for Lupus” offers these grounding lines that indicate the poet’s effort to inhabit their life and carry on:

Here is the only place. I wake 
every day in this story, call in the children, open wide
this breakable body, this hard-won room, this house
of luck and bone that made us. 

Hinge captures a hard spell of life and one that is not going away, yet there’s vibrant life that goes on in "the body you’ve learned / to live in.”

Spencer lives in Michigan and teaches at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. I interviewed her for Pulp last fall when her first book If the House debuted. I recently caught up with her again to talk about her newest book, Hinge

Q: Your first book came out last fall, and we featured you on Pulp. Now it is a year later, and much has changed, plus we’re in a pandemic. What has been going on for you in the last year?
A: I started the year plans for several events with If the House, but most were canceled or moved online once the pandemic began. I was a little bummed to miss the AWP conference—it would’ve been my first AWP with a book, and I was really looking forward to the readings and events I had planned there. 

It’s a little hard to remember now anything before March 13, the day I went into “lockdown mode.” My classes and student appointments at the University of Michigan’s Ford School shifted online, and my kids’ schools also shifted to remote instruction. We’re all still all-remote at this point, and it looks like we will be for the foreseeable future. I feel very lucky that we’ve stayed healthy up to now.

Aside from figuring out the logistics of online teaching, curbside grocery pick-up, and the like, and not being able to gather with family and friends, of course, my life has continued pretty much as it always had [laughs]. I’m kind of a homebody. I can easily spend all day reading, writing, taking long walks, and talking to no one. In some ways, this even-more-at-home life has been a welcome change: I don’t miss running around to kids’ activities in the evenings after work, and I really love having more time to hang out with my kids—especially with my eldest son, who was supposed to leave for college this fall but instead has been doing college from his bedroom. I’m cherishing this “bonus” time with him.

Q: Last year, you knew that your newest collection, Hinge, would be published later, and it won the 2019 Crab Orchard Open Competition. You mentioned that it was your first manuscript but will be published as your second book. When did you write this book? How do you see this collection as different from your first published book, If the House
A: I started writing Hinge when my kids were very young—when my first-year college student was in kindergarten, so my younger ones were 2 and 4 (they’re 15 and 17 now). At the time, I was just reading and writing poems at my kitchen table as a way to cordon off a little corner of existence for myself. I’d never formally studied poetry, but I’d been reading and writing it since I was a girl. I worked on the poems in Hinge and on structuring the manuscript for a long time—it came into its final form about five years ago, and that’s when I started sending it out. It received over 100 rejections before it won the Crab Orchard Open. 

How is Hinge different from If the House? Thinking back, my writing process was very different for each of them. The poems in Hinge tended to come from free-writes that I would then cut down and shape into poems. For If the House, my process was, for lack of a better way to describe it, patience: waiting upon language, listening for the next bit of language, taking it all down. I think Hinge has a more obvious narrative arc than If the House has, and it’s a little more interested in beauty and abundance in terms of aesthetics. If the House is more stripped-down, more telling-it-like-it-is. The voice of If the House scared me a little at first, but is truer to my world view, I’ll say that much.

Q: In what way did the voice in If the House scare you? Does Hinge feel less scary? 
A: I think I was taken aback at first by what it was willing to say. If the House was my MFA creative thesis, and my thesis adviser, David Biespiel, had said a couple of things to me early on in our work together that I was trying to honor. One was: The way to get away with something is to write it down and leave it there. The other: Just be Molly Spencer and think. So having that permission was somehow important to me, somehow freeing. And I was also very clear that I didn’t want to just keep writing the same kind of poems I’d written in Hinge—I wanted to see what else I was capable of as a poet. So part of my discomfort was this attempt to really claim the territory of my own mind, which sometimes went places, as David says in his blurb for If the House, “more inward than is safe to go.” And part of it was that it’s always a little uncomfortable to try to do something new—I would send a batch of poems to David attached to an email that said, “Are these poems?” [laughs] The voice of Hinge did feel less scary, but maybe only because, at the outset, I never expected those poems to become anything, let alone be part of a book. And by the time I did begin arranging them in manuscript form, I’d worked on the poems for many years and understood them quite well.

Q: What is it like to look back on poems written at a different point in your life? I imagine that the ways of writing about relationships, health, and domestic life must feel familiar but distant. I wonder how you connect to these earlier poems in Hinge
A: You’re right that these poems feel both familiar and distant, and it did feel a little uncomfortable to me—having this book come out after If the House. In some ways, it’s like looking at old photos of yourself, and you can’t believe how much younger you look or that you wore your hair that way [laughs]. I did worry that Hinge would seem less sophisticated than If the House and wondered if it would hold its own in terms of craft. 

But once the book actually arrived and I paged through it preparing for readings, I felt like, Okay, these poems hold up. And it’s been interesting to meet the words a past self put on the page. Although they’re not straight autobiography, the poems in Hinge were born of a very difficult time in my life when I was terribly ill and quite alone in it. At first it was hard to confront those memories, to revisit the bleak interior spaces of those years. But I’m in a new phase of life now, and I can look back on this past self and on the suffering from the safe place of having endured. And the truth is, I feel proud of that past self and the fact that she insisted on a little corner of existence for herself despite everything by writing these poems and keeping at it until, eventually, they became a book.

Q: You mention writing Hinge while ill. Hinge also engages with the topic of chronic illness, from before and after it starts. Has exploring health issues through poetry changed how you think about chronic illness or provided insights about it? If so, how and what? 
A: The only thing that has changed how I think about chronic illness or brought me to insights about it is actually living with chronic illness. And I’m still learning how to do this, despite the fact that it’s been 20 years since the onset of my disease—partly because the nature of lupus is that it “flares” and changes over time, and partly because I’m stubborn and hate admitting, even to myself, that my illness limits what I can do in a given day or week or, sigh, lifetime. What writing about it did for me was allow me to transform my suffering into something more than suffering. In one of the poems, “Flare,” are the lines: “Tell me / this is worth something—that I’ll burn / a blacker trail along the earth.” Hinge is one part of that blacker trail, I hope. To an extent, once I’d developed the confidence and know-how to put these poems in manuscript form, I hoped that, if I could make something of my struggle, someone somewhere might read my work one day amid their own suffering and feel less alone. 

Here’s what I learned about writing from writing about illness: the things that make a poem about the body or illness good are the same things that make any poem good. You have to get beyond testimony, to a place where the poem is interesting because it’s a poem, and not because it’s about a particular thing.

Q: Appreciating a poem for how it’s working as a poem is important. There’s also much value in a reader connecting to the poems, as you mention. Speaking of subject matter, though, last time we talked about day and night in If the House. Here in Hinge, I noticed that light appears in many of the poems, such as “Transverse,” which considers the appearance and behaviors of moths with their attraction to light. Was light something on your mind when writing or arranging Hinge?
A: It’s interesting—light is something that’s very much on my mind now. In fact, I would like to stop thinking about it! But I wasn’t overtly aware of thinking about light while writing the poems in Hinge, other than the fact that many of the poems were written just after we moved from the upper midwest to California. Prior to that, I’d always lived somewhere where there were four distinct seasons, and I pegged my memories to time in large part by remembering what season it was, what the natural world was doing at the moment of the event I remembered. After moving to California, I couldn’t do that anymore, but I did notice that the qualities of light changed over the course of a year—and I began to organize my memories according to the quality of light outside at the time. So it makes sense to me that light enters these poems—but, no, I wasn’t aware of it at the time; I lucked into it, I guess.

Q: That sounds like a big and informative shift from seasons to the quality of light as a means to distinguish time and memories. Let’s talk about another aspect of Hinge. Constellations and mythology also show up in this collection. I wonder if their inclusion in these poems was more deliberate. Orion, Demeter, and Persephone, among others, make appearances. Tell us about their presence.  
A: Well, it was not deliberate in that when I begin drafting a poem I never know what I’m doing or where the poem will go. But it may have been inevitable—in part because I was reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses at the time, and in part because myth often addresses the fundamental problems of existence. I wrote the Demeter and Persephone poems while one of my children was dangerously ill and hospitalized. Although I didn’t realize it at the outset, they engage with what philosophers and theologians call “the problem of suffering” and with the inevitability of change—with things happening for no good reason and outside our control. And then at a certain point, they became deliberate: once I have two or three poems that suggest a possible series, I often task myself with trying to write the series. It doesn’t always work, but it did in this case.

The constellations were suggested both by the language doctors used to describe my illness—a “vague constellation of symptoms”—and by long-held affinities for sky watching and certain constellations. I carried the lines about Cassiopeia—“We never knew her name, / would not have known how to say it”—inside my mind (and notebooks!) for close to 10 years before the poem it belonged in arrived. Watching the sky—and this is nothing novel—has always been a way for me to remind myself of the insignificance of human life. And the way ancient people attached stories to the stars, or the stars to stories, has always interested me: the effort to fasten language to entities that are so vastly beyond our tiny lives is both laughable and endearing. It’s also a deeply human act and reminiscent of what poets do: try to put words to things that are beyond our ability to express them.

Q: What a lovely, apt description of poetry. On that note about other poets and their writing, what’s on your nightstand to read these days? We talked about this last fall, but I always love hearing responses to this question.
A: Sarah Vap’s Winter: Effulgences & Devotions (Noemi Press) is the book I’m reaching for most often—is the book I’m living with is the way I think about it—right now. It’s a wrenching and gorgeous meditation on mothering and making, and on empire and the natural world, in this moment of human and geologic time. It’s the first book I’ve ever read that puts words to my experience of mothering in the world we live in while trying to have a creative life. I’m also reading Carlo Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity because I’m trying to figure out what existence means, what’s actually real [laughs]. It ends up, nothing is! That is, this book explains, things don’t exist, only interactions exist. It’s a lot to take in but fascinating.

In terms of poetry, I’m mostly re-reading. I almost always have some Jorie Graham going. I’m re-reading Alice Oswald’s Nobody after listening to her talk with David Naimon on his podcast. I’m also dipping back into Oswald’s Memorial—her version of Homer’s The Iliad—so I can think more about similes (it’s a book full of similes, as is the Homer).

I’m also spending time with the work of three Michigan debut poets: Tommye Blount’s Fantasia for the Man in Blue, Jihyun Yun’s Some Are Always Hungry, and Sumita Chakraborty’s Arrow. I read these books when they came out, but I’m reading them again now.

Q: It’s so nice to talk with you again. One more question! You’d mentioned working on critical essays and more poetry next when we talked last time, though our world has shifted since then. What are you looking forward to next with your writing? 
A: Well, I always need more time than I have to do everything I want to do, but ... I’m working on side-by-side poetry projects right now … at least, I think they’re probably projects. Very different from one another: one is interested in perception and its flaws, and is full of sprawling, long-lined poems; the other is interested in light and aloneness, I think, and those poems are tight, compact. I’m still getting a grip on both projects, so I might be wrong about everything I’ve just said!

I would still like to do more critical work than I’m doing right now, and I’m hoping to have some time for that next summer. I’d like to update the critical thesis I wrote for my MFA and try to get it—or parts of it—published. It’s a meditative study on form in free-verse poetry. And there are so many books of poetry I’d like to write about! Right now I’d especially like to write on Megan Levad’s What Have I to Say to You and Kathryn Cowle’s Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World. With mothering and teaching, though, so far all I’ve written about these books are love letters in my mind.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.