On October 4, 2015, I Facetimed with Zarah and her Pomeranian Teddy (named after poet Ted Kooser) to talk about her first book, To Waltz on a Pin.
Hannah Baggott: Before we talk about your book, where are you and what are you doing right now?
Zarah Moeggenberg: I am in Pullman, WA. Pullman is a super-college town. It’s like what you see in TV shows and movies; it was a total culture shock when I moved here. I am still getting used to it, but I would say that I’ve acclimated. There’s a really big Greek life and party scene. Our school’s gotten a lot of press, like unfortunate press for some unfortunate things that have happened here—sexual violence, rape. It’s really horrible, and I am so sorry that’s happened to so many people. It is a good town though. I really love my students. I’m teaching two classes right now, and one of those classes is probably my favorite class I’ve ever taught. They’re amazing—such great energy. So I think that our Greek life and our undergrads get a really bad rap, but they are really smart and I really like working with them.
So, I’m in the middle of nowhere. I’m in the middle of a wheat field—hundreds of miles of wheat field. The closest city is Spokane, and it’s about an hour and a half away. So, you’re kind of just here; you don’t really go anywhere. There’s no water.
I just got a new tattoo yesterday—I do coastlines of where I’ve lived. I have 3 coastlines on my shoulder and arm and back. I was talking to the girl doing my tattoo and I said—“I don’t know what to do here because there’s no water.” You have to drive super far to hike, which is not like Michigan. In Michigan, you can drive 5 minutes and go hiking. So, it’s just different. I’m working on it.
I’m in my second year of my PhD in Rhetoric and Composition. I did my MFA in Poetry, but I fell in love with teaching basic writing. So, I wanted a program that had a Queer Theorist and basic writing, because at many state universities, they move the basic writing to the community colleges. You’d have to establish some kind of a relationship with the community colleges if you want to do research. This school had all of the things.
I’ve been to Seattle twice, but you’re so busy in your PhD that you don’t really have time to do anything outside of what you’re doing.
HB: I’m really interested in the fact that you’re working on your PhD in Rhetoric and Composition as a poet.
ZM: If I wouldn’t have fallen in love with it, I would’ve been done. I had no plans to get a PhD, but things fall into place. I was dating this girl, and we ended up breaking up before my third year of my MFA. I was like: Well, what else am I going to do? I love teaching this, and I want to be better at it, so I just kept going to school. But a few months before that, I had zero plans. I was just going to find some job and hopefully get something tenure-track with in a few years.
HB: So the break-up was good motivation?
ZM: Yeah, it was. I mean, it was a great relationship. I got Teddy.
It has to be the right time for you, and you have to have the energy, because it’s an energy suck. I mean, the MFA is a energy suck, but this… if you want to keep being sucked, you know?
HB: I’m going to quote you on that. I could talk about teaching forever, but I really want to talk about your book, too. How did To Waltz on a Pin come about?
ZM: A lot of it is from my thesis. When I was writing my thesis, I was thinking…Okay, I don’t mean to be incredibly critical of spoken word poets. A lot of what you see on Youtube or in performance is really beautifully poetry, but they publish books and what you see on the page isn’t really a reflection of how it would be performed.
So, some of the poems you’ll notice—especially the longer poems—you’ll be like: Why the hell would you break that line there?
I broke it there because I wanted it to be a script. I wanted people to be able to read it and understand how it is supposed to sound and feel. And I think that’s what’s been missing from what a lot of spoken word artists put into print. That’s a major motivating factor behind what I was trying to do.
I think also that a lot of queer people are so hyper-sexualized in a lot of the texts being produced right now—print text and TV shows. I wanted to complicate what they perceive as love.
Of course, I wrote this before gay marriage was legalized. I just think that it’s so much more than sex. It is. It is so much more than sex.
I really wanted to ensure that what I did produce complicated and humanized what people conceive of as love between women.
I actually finished my book before the third year of my MFA, and I spent my third year revising. But I got trapped—swept away—in looking into PhD programs.
So, when my book was accepted for publication, I was really excited. I was kind of blown away. I felt like I hadn’t touched these poems in a long time. I think that my becoming more intimate with them in the past year has been disjointed.
Tim [of Little Presque Books] and I sent things back and forth a billion times, but each time that I looked at it, I felt more and more removed. Maybe that was a good thing.
Maybe that’s more like you, as a reader. They aren’t something that you’ve created; they’re something you have to get to know.
Maybe it was a good thing that I hadn’t touched the poems in a really long time. I had to go back and revise and go back and forth with Tim—things like line breaks and changing some words and phrases. He made some suggestions that I would’ve never thought of.
I think it’s a good thing to take a break. I’m sure that happens to people, but I don’t really know. I’ve read some interviews and been to readings, but they never talk about that weird time where it’s in the hands of someone else and you just get a little correspondence.
HB: The moment where you let the child go?
ZM: Yeah, I let the child go during a time where I was starting something completely new. In a way, it was kind of easy, but I still really identify with the manuscript.
HB: I think a lot about the intersections of memoir and poetry. How do you feel about that? Is that at work here in this book?
ZM: I think that a lot of me is in the book, and I think that a lot of it is definitely pretty close to true. I think that a lot of it is a wish.
It’s what you wish you would have done—what you wish would have happened.
HB: That reminds me of a line in “Dear Anne” that really struck me: “how to keep everything the same when everything changes.”
ZM: That poem is completely fiction in the sense that I have never been a mother; I’ve never had a child. But I think that it was very much me writing to myself. I think at some point during the MFA, I kind of lost touch with who I was. I think that this is me reflecting a couple of years after I having written it.
That’s probably one of my favorite poems in the whole book; it’s long, but it’s incredibly sad. It’s sad in a wonderful way.
HB: That’s how I felt entirely after finishing your book—almost sick heart-broken, but it was beautiful. I was thinking about this incredible mix of sexuality, sensuality, familial structure, and the normal struggle of trying to get to know someone or have relationships with people. You have a lot of stuff going, rather than one particular narrative structure about one thing. Maybe this has to do with what you mentioned about the hyper-sexualization of queer culture; there’s sex there—there are sensual things happening, but that’s not the core of the book, and it’s not the core of any poem.
ZM: Another thing that I thought about—when you’re queer, you have to let go of your family or renegotiate family. Family becomes something that you’re not necessarily born into, and I think that definitely strings through the book.
There’s definitely a lot of sex in the book. In some ways, society (such a big word, I tell my students not to use that word) hyper-sexualizes queer people, but sex is very tied to identity. That whole taxonomy of hetero, homo, queer—it’s completely socially constructed.
HB: That reminds me of your poem “Things I Haven’t Told My Father,” which speaks to this identity—it brings student identities into the book.
ZM: Some of my students have to take a class if they haven’t declared a major. They have to interview professors. One of them asked me: Why do you come out to your students? (Because I always do.)
In basic writing, my students have to write an auto-ethnography—I mean, I made that assignments. I give them an example paper that I wrote, and mine is about being a gay teacher. I make them base it around a subculture—for me, being a queer professor. So, I think that student’s question probably stemmed from that.
I think that it’s wonderful that gay marriage is legal now, but I think that it has masked the fact, in a really neo-liberal way, that we have a million other issues that don’t get attention otherwise. That was a big part of my book— I didn’t want it to be about classical marriage and sex.
I hope that the book as a whole shows that other people that have been through those things. I think that there are so few texts that have been produced by queer artists. I really hope that mine does something, even if it reaches just one person.
There’s that whole rhetoric of “it gets better,” but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all; sometimes it results in horrible things. I hope that if my text doesn’t say it gets better (because I don’t think it does), maybe it says I’m still here.
HB: The book as a whole makes me think about the small moments that are particular to a queer experience, but are ultimately universal and human, regardless of sexuality.
ZM: I hope it does something. This could be my only book. You don’t know what it’s going to do. You don’t know if it’s going to mean or if it’s going to affect anyone, no matter how many years of energy you put into it.
HB: What kind of effects are you wanting To Waltz on a Pin to have?
ZM: This might sound really cliché, but I hope that it means for people that every person matters, and they have a really real affect on other people. That’s kind of simple, but I don’t think people realize how much they matter.
You have these people in your life that are these little flits of time—like you can have a best friend for a year and think you’re going to be friends forever, but really it was just a blink of an eye in your life. But at the same time, you impact each other. You change each other. I hope people realize that those people you never talk to again—they were meaningful.
The poems “Drawing Her” or “Drag Queen” or “Drag King” and the “Fucking” series—some of those are based off of real people— they really mattered, even though I don’t have contact with them, and probably never will ever again.
There are little moments in your life where it is really meaningful… like in airports. You meet people at bars, you share a drink, maybe they buy it, but you tell each other your whole story, and you never see them again. Maybe you trade business cards, but you never contact them. That’s what the book is like— airports.
HB: What poems in the book do you like most or connect with most right now?
ZM: I still really connect to “Home Haircut” and “Kitchen Table” and “I Always Cover Their Faces.”
HB: I love that “I Always Cover Their Faces” is in this book—it was interesting to see chicken killing within this emotional landscape
ZM: I think that poem challenges you to think about who the speaker is and what assumptions you make about that speaker because of other poems in the book.
HB: Readers are asked to confront their assumptions of the narratology here, just as you mentioned about queer culture. In terms of being open about who you are in terms of your identity, I’ve heard others claim that they don’t want to be boxed in as “this kind” of poet having written “this kind” of book.
ZM: I want people to see me as that—I’m proud of who I am. I want people to be proud of who they are. I think that I would be doing a disservice if I said I don’t want to be known as that queer lesbian poet. I’m proud, and I’m glad that I’m proud, because it could’ve turned out very differently. Not to say that I ever don’t want to be considered that, but I think your poetry changes and your foci change and the way that you write changes as you get older. At this point in my life, I’m happy for people to think of me as a queer/lesbian poet, because there aren’t enough.
Like with teaching, if I were a straight teacher, I wouldn’t have to come out. It would be different if everybody had to come out.
I have the privilege of experiencing the world as passing. When I teach, I have a dress on – heels, my hair and make up is done. I experience the world when people project a straight, cisgender identity on to me, and I don’t have to say anything.
I think that in the classroom and in my poetry – in that world—it is very necessary to say I am here, and don’t project your perceptions on to me.
When you come out, you have to come out over and over again. It never stops. This is never going to stop. I’ll always be perceived as straight, and I’ll always have to come out every semester to every class. If that means that one more student is more comfortable because they have me, that’s worth it. If it means one more student is uncomfortable, that’s worth it.
HB: That’s a brilliant way to put it. I feel like that conversation about passing comes out in your book, too—especially in terms of hair. I feel like there’s a lot of attention to hair.
ZM: I love hair. One day I want to cut my hair, but I have really good hair. I think that hair is the thing that people go to in order to determine your sexuality. Hair did become pretty central to the book. Even I use hair to understand—which is really wrong and heteronormative, but…
As a gay person, hair has been such a big concern of mine because sometimes, you don’t want people to perceive you as straight. There are many things that make me me, but I think being gay is a pretty significant thing. And sometimes, you just want people to see certain parts of you. I keep wanting to cut my hair, because I wish people to see that in me.
HB: I think your book asks us to consider that assumption.
ZM: I definitely try to challenge assumptions, but sometimes, I wish people could see that in me just by looking at me. But then, I’m really glad people can’t see it by just looking at me because it’s safe and it challenges all of their assumptions.
Maybe I can never cut my hair. If I cut my hair, I want it to be for me—not the other reasons. I would like to experience short hair.
HB: What are other poets/books did you read while you were writing this book?
ZM: My biggest influence before I started writing any of these poems was Ted Kooser’s “Delights and Shadows.” I read a bunch of his interviews— his aim is that anyone can pick up his poems and get something out of it. He has the “for the common man” rhetoric that strings throughout his writing, and I think that is very true. He has this one poem “At the Cancer Clinic”—it’s just this really beautiful poem about a women in a floppy hat that’s going through cancer treatment. It just got me. When I read his book, I thought: I want my poems, even if they are about things that sick people out or gross people out because they are gay, I want my poem to be something that everyone can get something out of.
I want them to deliver feelings. It doesn’t have to be something that you’ve experienced exactly, but the feelings would be something you could identify with.
The main spoken world poet that I listened to was Andrea Gibson. I’m a pretty original fan.
HB: You’re a hipster abour Andrea Gibson?
ZM: I’m a hipster about Andrea Gibson. I’ve seen her perform twice, but she has this poem (I think you can get it on iTunes. I’ve only ever heard the sound.) called “Wal-Mart.” I guess what I really like about her poems is that they are all stories. “Wal-Mart” is about your parents processing who you really are. There’s this dialogue between the speaker and the parents—there’s mostly silence from the speaker, and then, all of a sudden, the speaker just goes. In all of her poems, she is really considering her audience—she makes sure it is an experience for the audience in her rhythm.
And Lauren Zuniga—I like that her poems are really political and social justice-y. I think that that’s spoken word poetry at its core, but even her on the page poems are even like POW. She just gets me. She talks about the big issues that really need to be talked about, and I carry that into my teaching. Maybe she affects my teaching more than my poems.
Also, Sierra DeMulder’s “The Bones Below”— I have all of her books, but that book in particular is really intimate. If I could hope that my book was like any other book—if my kid could grow up to be like anyone—I would hope that my book would be or grow up to be like her book.
HB: With these influences and our discussion of spoken word, do you consider yourself a spoken word poet?
ZM: I don’t know—how did I get into this? I got my Bachelor’s at a really tiny catholic college—Aquinas College—in Grand Rapids, Michigan and I had some really awesome liberal faculty. Their creative writing program was really strong.
There was one day where our professor covered contemporary poetry. She showed us one spoken word poem, and I thought: That’s what I want to do. I probably stayed up until 4 in the morning that night listening to spoken word poetry.
I eventually got a series going that went two or three times a semester—an open mic slam with traditional points. We had guest judges and creative writers from the community—they would give feedback. I definitely got better every time, but I’ve only performed in public a few times. I definitely brought that to NMU with Beverly Matherne—she’s a blues poet from Louisiana. I was really lucky to get into Northern the second year I applied to programs; it was really wonderful because that’s her entire background. At the time, performance poetry wasn’t really a part of MFA programs. One thing she did that was really nice—like a gift for me—a performance poetry graduate seminar.
I did some readings in the UP, but I feel like I haven’t been in a place where I could perform… unless you create your own venue. If things would’ve worked out differently, I would have pursued more performance and more opportunities.
So, I am a spoken word poet, but I don’t think that I have a presence right now in not having access to venues and time.
HB: That’s really interesting—how specific this idea of being a spoken word poet has to do with this presence. And there’s so much push back in the academy about “on the page” poems, without attention to the aural art and history of poetry.
ZM: Poetry’s roots are aural. Readers today are more and more interested in picking up something that isn’t a traditional text. I think that poetry will change. There’s so much happening online. Eventually the technology will affect the product and production of the text—it is already changing.
HB: Has technology affected your writing or your approach?
ZM: This is really dorky, but my writing changed when I got my iPhone. There’s the “Voice Memos” app, and I would drive for hours across the UP, and I would just record words and combinations and repeat them over and over.
You may now purchase To Waltz on a Pin HERE.
It was a great experience; it helped me even revise poems. I would recite poems over and over and change up speeds and cut sections. Then, I would get home and edit on my computer based on those recordings. Even now, I’ll record ideas on the voice memos—thoughts on my teaching and research too. That technology has truly affected the way I compose, and it’s integrated into my process.
Hannah Baggott is a poet and Lecturer of English at UNC Pembroke. She holds an MFA from Oregon State University. She is a regular contributor with PDXX Collective and winner of the 2015 Jan and Marcia Vilcek Prize with Bellevue Literary Review and the Joyce Carol Oates Commencement award. Her work can be found or forthcoming in Passages North, [PANK], Ninth Letter, Hobart, and through her website hannahbaggott.com.