Nikki Wallschlaeger is the author of Houses (Horse Less, 2015), and the chapbooks I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel (Bloof Books, 2015) and I Would Be the Happiest Bird (OOP, Horse Less, 2014). She is currently at work on a book of sonnets called Crawlspace, some of which can be found in the Brooklyn Rail, Fanzine, Elective Affinities, the Account, the Inquisitive Eater, and elsewhere. www.nikkiwallschlaeger.com
How did you first find out about the Julia doll? Have you seen any episodes of the show/character on which the doll is based, and if so, how did that inform your project?
I was really frustrated one day about various things I was seeing in the literary world: misogyny, people reading mostly white writers and how specific and politically built canons of literature encourage these racist habits by disguising them as taste, painful relationships both past and present, and how all these things kind of worked together to create a reality where most people would feel better if I didn’t talk at all about my life because my honesty would made them feel uncomfortable for a few minutes. I was feeling the effects of race, class, and identifying as a woman. In these moments I turn to poetry for strength, but sometimes it’s not as immediate as a form I need. Memes, on the other hand, need very little editing and are capable of distilling all that needs to be said in a few pithy sentences. I find this form very satisfying and most importantly of all, hilarious. I need to keep laughing. I wonder sometimes if my own poetry is just a self-care strategy of keeping myself entertained in a country I find profoundly disgusting. When I can make myself laugh I’m practicing the lost art of being my own best friend. It’s great.
Anyway, so I was looking for a background for these memes, and I started looking for dolls. Growing up I played with a lot of dolls and my mother and grandmother collected and made them, so there were always lots of dolls in my house. The movie Tales from the Hood is always in the back of my mind- especially the story about the elder slave woman who was also an experienced witch. She made dolls of all the slaves that had lived on this plantation that a modern day white supremacist politician had moved into, and there is a painting of her surrounded by them. The legend in the film goes that she transferred the souls of these slaves into the dolls. When the white racist politician moves in, they hunt and kill him in an act of revenge. I love that- usually all the stories or movies I’ve read and seen as a girl where dolls gain their own consciousness are about abjection and personal histories and vendettas rather than tying it to a national history with centuries of injustice so the Tales From the Hood dolls become contextualized in their vengeance for justice. When I first saw pictures of the Julia doll I thought this is perfect. Look at her expression: a mix of exhaustion, rage, and grief, that’s the most honest looking black Barbie doll I have ever seen. So I went on Ebay and found her and we’ve been collaborators ever since. She’s been my muse for IHTHIRF but also for Crawlspace–since most of those poems are about the lives of WOC in America as workers, slaves, fugitives, observers, caregivers, priestesses, ancestors, teachers, ghosts, and escape artists. As far as the television show goes, I unfortunately have not seen it which I find shameful. Nurse Julia reruns were not on TV when I was a child even though I was born in 1982 and every afternoon you could still count on channelsurfing past Andy Griffith reruns well into the 90’s. “Different Strokes”, “The Jeffersons”, yes. We’re familiar. But a show that debuts Diahann Carroll as the first TV show that stars a black woman I never saw any reruns, and there’s only clips of her show on YouTube. If anyone knows where I can find full-length episodes of Nurse Julia, please feel free to contact me.
Your new manuscript– in which I understand IHTYHIRF is to be included– is called Crawl Space– does this title/manuscript correspond directly with Houses and if so, in what way(s)?
Some of the memes IHTYHIRF are using lines from sonnets that are part of Crawlspace, but IHTHIRF is not an excerpt from it, just an accompanying project born from some of the poems. I wasn’t concretely planning at that point on making a longer project from the memes until Shanna Compton reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in putting something together, so I have her to thank for catalyzing this project.
When you were taking your portraits of Julia, what were your concerns in terms of composition/color? How did you choose which texts would correspond to each photo, and did you write the text before or after the photos were taken?
I took these photos inside and outside my house. Every room in my home is painted a bright color because I am very sensitive when it comes to color. I want to absorb what their vibrations have to offer in my perception of the world, it helps open things up. Neutral colors are not meant to be neutral when it comes to the spaces that people move in, especially in the workplace and in the home. So I took advantage of these walls where Julia lives, her life as a fight against organized homogenized monotony. She pushes back against the forces that are pushing her against structures that are supposed to shelter her and keep her safe . Her home is a sanctuary where she can say what she needs to say, wearing what she needs to wear. A dynamic shelter is something you build with yourself ,the people you love that you share a life with, both familial and as part of a IRL community and online. When you leave the house in the morning to work in an ugly drab cube like I do the protective spell of color, of a vibrant home life, stays with me until I return. Color is therapeutic for me. So I wrap my frustrations, rage, pain, despair, grief, and sadness in them. The way I use the color palette helps me process my feelings: both what I’m consciously aware of and what is coming or not coming to the surface.
The first part of the chapbook uses the refrain “I shared my pain with you”/”We share our pain with you”; I’m wondering about the use of the past tense in the first case and present tense in the second version of the sentence. How do you envision individual vs. collective pain/emotional labor working in your chapbook, and/or in the world?
In the collective sharing of black grief, if you participate in the national processing, your personal life will undoubtedly be a part of that process since it is about black human lives. That’s what I’m referring to in this chapbook, and specifically about the lives of women of color because that’s what I am. Most of my work is very personal, this chapbook in particular—it’s the culmination of my frustrations of relationships I’ve had recently, in the past, and ongoing with people who are invested in whiteness. When you are my friend if I am in pain because of the brutal legacy of racism and misogyny in this country, and I dare to be honest with you about how I feel when you ASK me HOW I AM AND YOU DISREGARD MY ANSWER BECAUSE I TRUSTED YOU ENOUGH TO FEEL COMFORTABLE BEING HONEST: that is a problem. Obviously this plays out differently when one is trying to dismantle and deconstruct oppressive institutions, but nevertheless your friends should know better, if they really were your friends in the first place. This is a lot of labor that people of color do for free both in their personal lives and in the world. My ideal vision is that you will listen to me the first time so I don’t have to repeat myself. Same goes for the government & its assorted institutions and the corporate distraction factories of white supremacist hollywood entertainment. Shut the fuck up and listen for a moment. Divest. It’s a start. Or don’t and get the hell away from me.
What have you been reading/seeing/hearing lately that feels generative or productive (emotionally, creatively) for you? Who are some of your favorite living artists, and what is it that you love about their work?
What is generative to me as a poet: trees, birds, flowers, all of that typical poet shit, which I don’t feel we can joke about anymore as a cliché considering we are in the middle of a massive extinction and catastrophic environmental devastation. I’d rather look at a flower or a squirrel over a skyline, the rats and birds and stray cats scurrying in the alleys and streets. I think animals that live with and among humans have a lot to teach us about survival and bondage. I was in a conversation with the poet Lucas de Lima recently and he brought up how animals have also been colonized so I’ve been thinking a lot about how colonialism has shaped our relationship to animals. Also learning about slave uprisings, the struggles of oppressed peoples past and present, Wanda Coleman’s recorded poetry albums, James Baldwin’s interviews, the poetry of Lucille Clifton, The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, the poetry of my friends, my relationship to water, my children, and thinking about the human body and its mysterious physiological communities are all generative but not limited to topics I’m interested in. For some of my favorite living studio artists I’ve recently been enjoying the work of the black artist Vanessa German who creates these extraordinary doll sculptures full of unapologetic, potent, magical loving blackness. Her work, for me, combats the racist dolls made by white people I used to see in antique stores as a child when I would go shopping with my mother. Her work destroys these caricatures and replaces them instead with power and hope. I need all the kinds of dolls I guess, lol. Some for revenge, for shade, and for love.
If you could pick five songs to soundtrack IHTYHIRF, what would they be?
Well, I’m not really the type of person who makes a playlist out of their lives and I’ve always felt a little perplexed by people who do that, it reminds me of teachers I’ve had who wanted their lectures and classroom discussions appear seamless and use the word “segue” a lot- but I feel slightly elderly saying this, lol. I’ve been a mother since I was 23 so having the time to make playlists feels like a luxury. I’d rather read or write. Being a parent means accepting interruptions which is what a playlist is the opposite of.
But I am partial to listening to Charles Mingus while I’m writing or doing something in the kitchen, so IHTYHIRF was definitely created while listening to his work. I have a special place in my heart for him. He was a writer too! He wrote the autobiography Beneath the Underdog. Charles Mingus was black, but he was also mixed race, like I am. So the title speaks about his experience reconciling and living with the complexity of having a multiracial identity as a black man. I can relate to that, since I am also a black mixed race person. I like listening to music by people where I feel there’s the possibility of understanding each other based on who or what we are. I think it comes out in the music. It’s like having a friend in the room.