Editor-in-Chief Keene Short interviews Chelsey Clammer about her essay collection Human Heartbeat Detected, out now from Red Hen Press.

Keene Short: First, congratulations on the book publication! This collection is impressive on so many levels, and I’m especially interested in the structural dexterity of your essays. Could you speak to the role of structure from essay to essay, how you arrived at a given structure, how you see so many different structures operating together in one book?

Chelsey Clammer: Thank you for the kind words! Structure is one of my favorite things ever. In fact, sometimes I don’t know what I’m writing about until I find a structure for it. I think my go-to structure is a segmented essay because my mind doesn’t think in a linear, narrative sort of way. I see my life in bits and pieces—fragments that make up a whole—so it makes sense that when I go to narrate a personal story, my brain goes to a segmented structure.

I think a lot of the time I also just start writing and I’ll see that a different structure is emerging. Whether that’s flash, a hermit crab essay, or a lyric/hybrid structure, sometimes the writing just starts egging on a structure. So, if I know what I’m doing with an essay, the structure comes naturally. If I don’t quite know what I’m trying to say, I try out different structures and see if it fits with the story.

Now, to put them all together in a book, well, I hope the reader is just open for seeing different structures among the essays. I try to compile them so they are related and shift naturally to one another via tone. Or if there’s a really challenging structure, such as the essay “Graphtology” that even includes my handwriting, then I’ll try to put an essay after it that’s a bit less challenging to read in terms of structure. You gotta give the reader a break sometimes too. It’s all about that reading experience.


KS: Your writing is often very blunt when describing abuse and trauma, but there are moments when you punctuate that bluntness with humor. Short essays like “Well That Was Awkward as Fuck” or “ctrl + alt + delete” or the moment in the middle of “Stunning” when you shift into a section titled “Answers to questions you probably have right now” are some of my favorite examples of your wry, often sardonic humor. Do you see these moments as interruptions, or as part of a more composite tone that runs through the whole book?

CC: I love adding in bits of humor or wry/witty things in serious writing. My favorite part of the book is in “(C)leave” when I’m talking about how me and the girl’s mother will probably never be friends again. I say, “But the chance of her mother and me becoming friends again is roughly notgoingtohappen% so I need to just let go.” That percent symbol just cracks me up because it’s kind of weird to have in the middle of this really sad essay.

So, to answer your question, I think that humor is just a natural part of how we experience and process all the hard stuff like grief, trauma, and abuse. I don’t intentionally think, “Hey, I need to insert some humor in here.” It’s not like there’s a science or anything to bringing in humor. However, I’ll just be writing and something witty or weird will come to me, and I don’t shy away from putting humor into the hard stuff. Hopefully, they don’t read as interruptions but more as just embedded in writing that’s trying to convey what it’s like to experience these tough situations. Because as humans, I feel like we need that humor to help get us through the hard moments.


KS: The essay “Carving Out a Community” reads as a kind of craft essay for community-building, both in theory and practice. How much of this book was written in the context of this community-building practice more generally? For you, what does that community look like now?

CC: For me, the book is looking at the ways in which we are “human” to one another—both in those terrible and beautiful ways. So, part of being human is forming a sense of community. I don’t know if the book was specifically written in the context of community building, but I do feel like the essays together create a statement about how we can help see each other through our traumas, how we can recognize harm done to us and the harm we do to others, and then how we can move through and beyond that. For me, community looks like people who are just in love with supporting other people while also taking care of themselves. I feel like writing is a way in which I take care of myself because it helps me to process everything I have experienced. Then, through sharing these stories, I hope that a sense of community can form from that. All we have in our lives are the stories that create who we are. Each person is a story, and as we share those stories in any form—whether that’s through a written narrative, music, art, whatever your chosen route of expression is—we start building a sense of community.


KS: On that note, practice is often that forefront. This essay is driven by scenes, action, decision-making, and narrative. Behind that practice, what theories are at play?

CC: I think when you write, you need to consider what the reader’s experience will be of the book. That’s the theory I use when I approach my editing practice. When I write, I write for me—to get my story out of me, to see what words I can find that best fit my experience. Then, as an editor, revising is where the real writing happens. That’s when I start thinking about how the reader will experience my story, and I’ll take a lot of the exposition I started with and craft it into a scene or action that reflects what I was trying to say. It’s one thing to reflect on an experience, but it’s a whole different type of experience to be a reader and feel as if you are in that scene and sharing that experience with the author. You can read about someone’s thoughts all day, but I feel like you can really start to understand them if you feel like you are right there, experiencing them too.


KS: Many of these essays explore the connections between psychological and bodily trauma. Do you see this book working in the tradition of writing the body, or is that tradition too narrow for what this book manages?

CC: I think the body is such a huge part of how we process psychological trauma. Our bodies innately respond to trauma, and a lot of addressing that trauma has to do with, well, getting our bodies to calm the fuck down and learn how to heal. So, when I write, I try to write from the physical experience of that situation. If the body holds so much trauma, then writing about trauma means we have to write from the body. I think the book goes beyond just writing about the body’s experience of something and stretches into the space of seeing how the body functions in the ways in which we process trauma.


KS: Lastly, I’m curious what’s next for you?

CC: I’m almost done with my next collection of essays! I have a few more to write, but years ago I had the idea of writing about the empowering women in my life. Then, in 2019, I was the Jack Kerouac Project’s Writer in Residence. It was three months of just writing. I went into the residency planning on writing a memoir about my experiences of emotional abuse, and I realized it would be a really dark three months if that’s all I wrote about. So, I switched projects and started writing fun essays about these empowering women. The essays don’t in any way shy away from trauma, but they look at trauma in the light of how resilient women can be, and the women who taught me to have this sense of resiliency after experiencing trauma. I have 11 essays written so far, 8 of which have been published. So, we’re getting there! I’ve had a blast working on this book and I’m really excited to get it out into the world soon.


Chelsey Clammer is the author of BodyHome (Hopewell Publications, 2015) and Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017), which was the winner of the Red Hen Press Nonfiction Manuscript Award. Her work has appeared in The Normal School, Black Warrior Review, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, Hobart, Essay Daily, and The Water~Stone Review, among more than one hundred other publications. She is an online creative writing instructor for WOW! Women On Writing. Chelsey received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rainier Writing Workshop. Her next collection of essays, Human Heartbeat Detected, which looks at the ways in which we are “human” to one another, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press (Fall 2022). Chelsey is currently working on a new collection about the empowering women in her life. She lives in Colorado.