Jessica Hudgins, an editorial intern for Sundress Publications, asked writer Danielle Sellers about her 2018 poetry collection The Minor Territories. It is available for sale here.
Jessica Hudgins: In the first half of this book especially, we get the sense of something happening that can’t be stopped, even though we wish it could be. Later on, that’s not so much of an issue; it’s done. When, if it’s not too much of ask, were you writing these poems? Did they guide you out of a bad situation as it was happening, or did they help you understand what had happened, afterwards?
Danielle Sellers: I began some of the poems in the first section of the book while still a graduate student at the University of Mississippi over a decade ago. They’ve gone through many revisions over the course of the years. Many are rather new, like “The Germany Poems,” looking back, and trying to make sense of who I was then and why I stayed. That’s the central question women who are abused are asked: Why did you stay so long? The answer is never simple, and I’m not sure it can ever really be answered to anyone’s satisfaction.
JH: “Memorial Day” is an interesting poem because it uses the context of a patriotic holiday to remember the awful things that this veteran has done to the speaker. Then, your next poem, “Civil,” remembers the same person as capable of tenderness. This is done for “our daughter’s sake.” Yet, the poem still ends on the line, “While I was pregnant, he sometimes rubbed my feet,” which of course is ironic, but still, to my ear, has some regret in it. We hear that regret later in the collection, too. As a poet who is not a parent, but who might want to be, I’m curious about the relationship that parenting has to the truth, or at least to honesty, as compared to the relationship that poetry has to it. I think this might be related to my first question.
DS: I’ve heard many people say it’s important to never badmouth a parent. This is very good advice, but is it still advisable when that parent has done unspeakable things? At what point do we stop protecting monsters and call them out? Monsters don’t deserve our protection. They should be rooted out; their crimes should be announced. That being said, people have many different sides to them. They aren’t just one way all the time. This is what women who are abused struggle with. If their partners were always monsters, it would be easy to leave. Monsters can be angels, too. Perhaps it isn’t the monsters of which we should be afraid, it’s the angels.
JH: We both studied at the Writing Seminars. “Late Inventory” reminds me of a prompt that Greg Williamson would assign, to write a portrait using only metaphor. Is this where the poem originated? What was your experience at the Writing Seminars like, and in an MFA program in general? You teach now – can you tell us a prompt you’re especially proud of, and assign as often as you can?
DS: I loved my time at Johns Hopkins, and several of the poems in the second section were inspired by my time there, but none of them were written while I was a graduate student there. “Late Inventory” is inspired by Dorianne Laux’s “Face Poem” which appears in her collection, Facts About the Moon.
Imitation is a tool I sometimes use when I’m stuck, and is an assignment I give to my creative writing students faithfully. I love to see how a form can be changed with new words. It is often one of the most successful poems my students write because they give themselves permission to use syntax and punctuation they might not ordinarily use.
JH: This book has incredible scope. Between poems we might jump decades. How long were you working on The Minor Territories? It comes eight years after your first collection. How did these books take form during the writing of individual poems?
DS: Well, my first collection was largely written pre-baby, as it was my graduate MFA thesis for the University of Mississippi. Being a working single parent takes a toll on your writing life. I worked on the poems in The Minor Territories for about ten years, often submitting it as a collection to contests before it was ready. I really credit the poet Carrie Fountain, with whom I worked as a mentee from a generous scholarship from Gemini Ink, for helping to shape the collection in its current form. Carrie told me to drop twenty poems and write twenty new ones, which I did over the course of about 6 months. It was a tall order, but the collection was much better for it. Sundress accepted it not long after that.
JH: You shift, in the last third of the book, from thinking about your relationship with your ex-husband, to your relationship with your daughter, your daughter’s relationship with her father, and, briefly, your relationship with your mother. What are you interested in writing about now?
DS: For the last few years, I’ve been working on a series of historical poems born out of ancestry research. There are pirates and Cherokee Indians, Bahamian spongers and shell-mongers, West Tennessee farmers, unnamed women who know only hard work and childbirth. It is endlessly fascinating to me. I’m having fun with it.
Danielle Sellers is the author of two poetry collections: Bone Key Elegies (Main Street Rag, 2009) and The Minor Territories (Sundress Publications, 2018). Her work also appears in many journals and anthologies. When not teaching at Trinity Valley School in Texas, she can often be found writing or cooking.
Jessica Hudgins is a writer currently living in Mansfield, Georgia.