I met Kristen Renee Miller at a meeting of Third Coast Translators Collective. There Chicago-based translators gathered and exchanged their works through their discussions. I was invited to a corroboration workshop with the TCTC and RHINO Poetry.
After the translation workshop, she showed me her art and I was stunned. All her works were original and yet relatable to current our society - - like the animated review from RHINO Poetry Review (Graphic Issue Vol.2). She used her creative technique to show her review message, "...A...B...C...of...How...we...were...wrong...wrong...wrong..." with erasure of poetry from the book, Wilder.
Along with publishing her debut translation collection, SPAWN (Book*hug, 2020) by Ilnu Nation poet Marie-Andrée Gill, she writes poems, creates visual & animated art, & works as a managing editor at Sarabande Books. She is one of the most amazing and respected poets I have met.
Reading Claire Wahmanholm’s Wilder in the Apocalypse
By Kristen Renee Miller
I first read Claire Wahmanholm’s book of apocalypse poems, Wilder, unforgettably, on March 11th, 2020, the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. I was somewhere in the airspace between San Antonio and Louisville at the time—flying home from the conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), which controversially kept its annual event on the books despite an increasingly grim outlook, a public outcry, and vast dropouts from members, exhibitors, and attendees.
For those of us who did attend, the conference maintained a furtive, conspiratorial feel in the hollowed-out convention center. Even at the height of conference hustle, it was impossible to shake the feeling of sneaking around someplace after hours, someplace abandoned, a modern ruin. The initial giddiness from superficial perks (room upgrades! no coffee lines! no wait for anything!) had long since dissolved into a heady sense of unease.
In the previous days and weeks, we’d been conditioned to doubt the evidence of our own senses concerning the virus (are we in danger? are we imagining things?), an ambivalence for which AWP was a tidy play-within-the-play. Did exchanges in book fair aisles feel hushed because of some shared sense of transgression, or only because we weren’t shouting over fifteen-thousand other people? Was the lighting in the exhibitor hall dimmer this year, or were we imagining it? At night we gathered at hotel bars and toasted the event ironically, hubristically, as co-conspirators: Uncanny Valley AWP. Last-Chance Saloon AWP. Zombie Apocalypse AWP.
Enter Wilder, which I borrowed on the plane from my seatmate and colleague Joanna and inhaled in a single leg of the flight. Wilder finds humankind mid-apocalypse in an imagined near future. In dreamy, gorgeous abecedarians, fabulist prose poems, and erasures of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Wahmanholm describes a frighteningly plausible apocalypse. Yes, there is the environmental blight, the wildfires, the extinctions; yes, there is the ruin left by wars; there, the plagues ravaging those left. What leaves the strongest impression is the complete bewilderment of those who remain to witness it all, the chorus, the book’s collective “we.”
“Which of our wrong things had been wrong enough?” asks the collective voice in Wilder—the same question we conference goers and non-goers were asking ourselves and each other (mostly on Twitter) in early March: Which of our individual choices are responsible for this? Which of our collective choices? And what of the visible and invisible move-makers completely outside our control? Embedded in every exchange was the same shared sense of doom, the inevitability of The Worst. Already we had become Wilder’s chorus.
My animated review, which can be viewed in RHINO Reviews issue 3.3, is my attempt to encapsulate in just a few lines Wilder’s dreamy dread and Wahmanholm’s inventiveness and exquisite craft.
Starting with Wahmanholm’s abecedarian “Beginning” as a source text, I created a seven-part erasure poem* that unravels and rewrites itself as it careens (a little too fast) toward an inevitable “vanishing.” My previous visual poems have been individual images or image series, meant to allow the eye to linger, to wander. In this animated piece, however, I wanted to hurry the eye ahead at a pace a little faster than is comfortable to recreate my experience reading Wilder in the apocalypse: that slippery sense of the bottom dropping out, that hypervigilance that makes you afraid to blink.
*For those interested in the technical stuff, I made the animation using the Markup editor on my iPhone. I recorded the video with the iOS Screen Recorder and edited it with the mobile app Vixer. I’m sure there are far more professional tools for this sort of project, but I liked the slight imperfections of my method and the tactility of swiping the lines out one-by-one with my finger.
Kristen Renee Miller’s work appears in POETRY, The Kenyon Review, Guernica, The Offing, and Best New Poets 2018. She is the translator of SPAWN (2020), by Ilnu Nation poet Marie-Andrée Gill. A recipient of fellowships and awards from The Kennedy Center, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the American Literary Translators Association, she lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where she is the managing editor for Sarabande.