An Interview with Kathleen Winter
Dexter L. Booth: I want talk to you about your new book, I will not kick my friends, and I want to start by discussing your artistic evolution, if that’s okay. A lot happens in the life of a writer, especially between books, and it sometimes feels like fans who like an initial project expect an artist to keep producing the same material, but instead it’s very much development and growth that really defines an artist across their career. How has your work evolved since your first book, Nostalgia for the Criminal Past?
Kathleen Winter: Thanks so much to you and Waxwing for asking, Dexter. Since I published Nostalgia for the Criminal Past I’ve started writing more loosely, in a fragmented style in some cases, and have moved further from autobiographical material. I’ve found very direct connections between most of the debut collections I’ve read and the lives of the poets, and that was the case with mine too. But in the second book I wanted to shift from my experience as subject matter. Another difference is that I will not kick my friends has more emphasis on lyric and on image. These days I have more tolerance for ellipsis and fruitful disconnection within my poems and those of others, and I rely less on humor, though it still bubbles up. In this book I wrote a few more longish poems, although for me “long” just means two or three pages.
DLB: Can you talk a little about ellipses and disconnection? I’ve seen both used in numerous ways and I’m wondering how you used to read them, what’s helped build your tolerance, and how they’ve become useful for you in your own work now. I think it’s safe to say we live in a pretty connected world, so I’m particularly interested in how you use disconnection and what it means to you when you encounter it in poetry.
KW: Expanding the scope of my reading made me more adventurous as a writer and more “tolerant” as a reader, as Norman Dubie might say. I used to be too impatient and if poems foregrounded gaps or abrupt leaps, sometimes they irritated me more than intrigued. But it’s so much fun to write using more subtle connections (or you could say more extreme leaps?) and non-sequiturs that maybe aren’t actually disconnections if you give the poem time and patience to unfold in the mind. Writing that way’s a pleasure because of the feelings of expansiveness and challenge and surprise, to surprise oneself by what strange bedfellows one can create in a poem that still hangs together tonally or thematically. Sometimes leaving space in a poem, whether visually or by changing topic or by ellipsis or other means, can establish a temporal space too, which I think can be essential to letting the poem happen more powerfully.
DLB: Let’s jump forward a bit. You have three new poems published in this issue. They feel a little more personal. Equally as introspective as your previous work but definitely different. How would you compare them to the work in I will not kick my friends?
KW: How one vacillates and swerves! I’m laughing because I just said I was writing in a less personal way and yet you’re right, at least two of my poems in Waxwing are quite autobiographical. But these are from the next (hopefully third) book, not I will not kick my friends. The new poem that feels the most personal is “Holes in Drywall Made by a Fist” because it comes out of experiences in my first marriage, which I don’t often talk or write about now, although that man was a poet and writing was important to me in the process of ending that relationship. As with so many other women, domestic violence and sexual assault have been on my mind more than usual in the last two years, given the Kavanaugh hearings, Me Too movement and constant insults to women perpetrated by Trump. “February” also is more personal than most of the poems in my second book because my life is the subject matter, whereas the collection has me thinking about the subject matter — somebody or something else — art, politics, science. “Windfall Legacy” focuses on place, so the speaker, as a specific individual perceiving, doesn’t come forward as much. That poem aligns with some of the short lyrics in I will not kick my friends, a few of which were written, as it was, at the Dobie Paisano Ranch in Austin, Texas, where I had a wonderful four-month residency in 2015 by myself (with some deer and raccoons).
DLB: How have you seen your passions and obsessions unfolding over the years, particularly as you’ve moved into, through, and away from your second book?
KW: Since I first fell for poetry in college, I’ve stayed passionate about sound qualities, whether it’s internal rhyme, anaphora, rhythmic phrasing, assonance, or the sonic patterning that develops when I occasionally use traditional forms such as sonnet or pantoum. Particular, enticing sounds of single words or phrases can start me writing and help to structure a poem. I’m more likely to be inspired by thinking of sound than by creating an image, although viewing a literal image (photographs and paintings mostly) inspires a lot of my poems. Once in a while I’ll wake up with a phrase in my mind that gets me up out of bed to write.
My early interest in writing about visual art remains, and museums are dependable sources of inspiration. Allusion is a favorite tool, as is using found language. Notes at the end of the collection identify sources. For the second book I also wrote a lot in response to or in conversation with filmmakers and other writers. A passion that’s new in I will not kick my friends is writing about science, particularly anthropology and archaeology.
As a fervent dog-lover I have to work against wanting to write dog poems every week; I try to get by with throwing in an occasional dog cameo. We live in the country so Nostalgia for the Criminal Past¸ being more grounded in my own life, has a fair number of wild animals. In October for my birthday I got to watch a huge adult mountain lion tear across a road near my house.
I’ll probably always be writing about feminism and relationships among the genders, and I’m fascinated by the history of women artists. I persist in enjoying puns and poems with a sense of humor, although I try to ration it. Do you ever struggle against using too much of a particular element, like humor?
DLB: Sadly, I find it hard to force humor into my poems, especially when they’re personal or political. I’m jealous of poets like Russell Edson (I’m thinking now of his poem, “Ape”) who can find that balance between seriousness and humor. In your book, Eve has a bit of a humorous bite to her sometimes — “Even Adam might be / handsome if I could get him / into a turtleneck, a Citroën coupe.”
Can you talk about the title of the book? Who are the “friends” you refer to? Are they literal? Are they the artists, musicians, mathematicians, etc. the speakers converse with throughout the book? How did you arrive at I will not kick my friends?
KW: You’re right, the “friends” are those inspiring folks who keep popping up in the book: scientists, auteurs, writers and artists; sometimes also the characters/subjects of their art, e.g. Caddy from The Sound and the Fury and Henry James’s Isabel Archer. As many of us do, I like to use a favorite poem title as the book’s title. “I will not kick my friends” is one of the most autobiographical poems in the book and includes my mother, my husband Greg, my former career as a lawyer, and italicized language from Brenda Hillman, one of my favorite poets and teachers. That poem is written in the fragmented form that for me feels exciting and freeing, and which helps me establish pacing of the language and thought. The title phrase came from a friend of mine whose daughter had to write it down a bunch of times on the chalkboard, which (as a childless person) greatly amuses me. And the title’s ambiguous, a quality I love.
DLB: The image of a child writing a single line continuously on a chalk board reminds me of Bart Simpson in the opening credits. There’s also a kind of humor and absurdity to that idea, but what a great way to come across a title! There’s a lot going on in these poems. They’re complex, in a way I find challenging, but really rewarding. You have epigraphs dividing and organizing the sections, but each poem performs a skillful balancing act, managing form, rhythm, voice, and a slew of artistic, scientific, and historical references. What was the revision process like for this book? What struggles arose while you were trying to ensure that all of these moving parts worked in tandem?
KW: Bart Simpson — I love it! For me the trickiest thing about making a book isn’t writing the poems but trying to corral them into sections and pick out all the dead wood. I’m relatively prolific but I don’t tend to write poems in series, or to write “project style” books. I revised a lot in 2017. The manuscript circulated in different versions and came close in a few other contests before it won the Elixir Prize. I re-ordered it almost every time I submitted it to a press. The poems vary a lot in terms of form and level of accessibility, which made it hard for me to decide which section to put at the front.
DLB: How do you pick out the dead wood? I was told by a fellow poet that they never regret removing a poem from a manuscript, and I agree, but do you ever find it hard to let go of a poem, to tell it “you don’t belong here”? And do you ever look at the book as it is now and wish you’d gone with one of the previous versions? Were you altering the manuscript out of necessity? Ideally, we hope a press takes a book on its own merit, but publishers also have aesthetics and editors have specific visions and it can get complicated, especially when sending to contests. Do you think this is what it was always meant to be?
KW: That’s a lot of good questions in one breath, dude. I wouldn’t want to go back to an earlier version. The book (finally) got to what it was meant to be, but still, yes, I think it’s hard to leave poems out that are strong but just don’t fit in any of the sections. There’s no guarantee I’ll publish another book, so what if those (allegedly good) poems never make it into a book? That’s what I’m thinking when I reluctantly cut them out, sometimes at the suggestion of a friend I’ve asked to read the manuscript. But those decisions were thankfully up to me. Dana Curtis, the publisher at Elixir Press, is an excellent poet and generous editor who really trusts her poets. She’s not going to second-guess or interpose her ideas for the poet’s vision.
DLB: This book does an excellent job of juggling various components of relationship and memory. There are romantic, familial, and platonic relationships between people, relationships between texts, relationships between people and objects, and between ideas, across time, as well as spiritual relationships. It’s a really a lovely journey, highlighted by moments of personal, historical, collective, and societal memory. Did it ever feel overwhelming trying to compartmentalize all of these aspects of the book into individual poems? I guess I’m wondering what challenges you encountered in the creative process.
KW: Thanks for reading it so generously, Dexter. I think the challenges aren’t in the creative process so much as the publication process — finding a press the book is right for. Elixir has been wonderful to me, but I took a long time to get this second book out and the press is very small (it’s no Graywolf), so promoting the book is a challenge. Another challenge is finding readers who want to read poems that sometimes are oblique, more evocative than explicit. Also to read a book that has a lot of tonal, thematic and stylistic variety—just when you get used to something, the poems shift! That’s usually cool with other poets, writers, and creative types, but sometimes after readings I get comments about how “intellectual” the poems are, which I think is their nice way of saying “I didn’t like it.”
DLB: I understand that struggle. It’s sometimes hard to find a middle ground between challenging and accessible. I think the path is in finding human connection with the reader, though, in reminding them that art is a reflection of human experience, and that’s a thing that should be contemplated.
Three of the main themes I encountered in the book were the personal, social, and political. Was there a conscious effort to distinguish these three as you were writing? Or did they all take on their own forms as you worked?
KW: Writing for me usually is the fruit of inspiration, hardly ever of will, so I wasn’t making a conscious effort to distinguish poems by theme until later, when I constructed the book. Poems come up for me singly, discretely, usually dependent on what I’m reading or watching, so I end up with work that varies widely in tone, form and content. I haven’t succeeded in my half-assed efforts to write a manuscript focused on one overriding idea or even using the same form or structure for all the poems. When I submit batches of widely varying poems to journals I sometimes wonder if the editors think I have a compound personality. Do you ever feel conflicted in your approach, or when you’re putting together a book?
DLB: I suspect most artists live with compounded personalities. At least for me, the voices in my head are rarely my own. The personal, social, and political are certainly connected, but I can rarely use the same tone or form when writing about all three. Is there a hierarchy to the three for you, or do you see them as interconnected?
DLB: Let’s get to the nitty gritty. Eve is such a strong female voice and she really helps catapult the later voices in the book. I have more to say about her in a bit, but can you talk about the role of feminism in the book, or in your work at large?
KW: Writing about the gendered power dynamics that surround us has been crucial and irresistible to me for years. Half the poems in I will not kick my friends have something to do with feminism or gendered social roles, but sometimes I approach these subjects obliquely, and I try to keep changing up the tone. Sexism of course pisses me off, but fortunately in a way that charges my imagination and catalyzes my writing. Humor has often played a part in my approach, with my grandmother’s “you catch more flies with honey” in mind, I guess. But in the two years right after college I was in a violent marriage, and also I was raped in college by an acquaintance (in my apartment), so violence against women is a critical issue for me, and one that I haven’t mixed with humor.
In this book, “Maison du Général Baron Robert,” “Inevitable Colonials” and “Missing in the Louvre” are the most overtly feminist poems, but many of the poems about film in the book’s first section also refer to the restrictive impact of gender roles on women, and the crippling focus on female appearance that patriarchy enforces. As a former Christian who first started to question my faith because of the sexism of “the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” not to mention the scapegoating of Eve, I love to write Eve as the smartest one in the garden, or the snake’s murderous moll. Also Nostalgia for the Criminal Past has a couple of Eve poems — her role as the evil temptress (Mike Pence version) is given a run for its money.
DLB: There are a number of Saints in the book, and at least six poems that reference them directly. The speakers of your poems seem to be asking these saints to take on an array of tasks in the world, ranging from the mundane lice check to watching over our politicians. Would you mind telling me a little more about them? Where did they come from and how do they speak to the other poems in the collection? How did they come about as presences or characters in the book?
KW: The saints came from spending nights in San Francisco with my dear friends Eva Valencia and Tom Coffeen, who have a bookshelf in their guest bedroom where I saw a child’s book, The Picture Book of Saints, that inspired one of my poems and got me thinking about inserting saints into other poems. I thought of writing the saint poems as a way of creating a thread of cohesion for the collection, since they could appear in sections that were otherwise more focused on film or ekphrasis or politics or science. I liked the idea of these non-religious saints who are powerful, salubrious presences.
DLB: Much is lost in translation between French and English. What was your process? How did you decide what to let go of?
KW: In the poem “A Day of Peace,” written “after” a prose poem by Jean Follain, I let go of the original meaning completely, and wrote a homophonic translation based on what the French words looked like. And what I guessed they sound like, since I don’t speak French! I had a blast writing the found poem, “Bad Blood II — a Review,” from the language in Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poem “Bad Blood.” I used all his wonderful vocabulary to create a movie review of a horror film.
DLB: The book starts in the Garden of Eden, but by the end it seems we’re in modern times, with the final section taking the reader on a tour of various museums. The scope is huge and I’m wondering if you can discuss the crafting of the book? Did you have a set plan before you started writing the book or did this structure appear organically during the writing? What advice do you have for other poets trying to manage multiple, large ideas in their work?
KW: I’m no wizard at organizing books: I rehashed this one a million times. My process was that I wrote the poems, then collected them — there was very little premeditation about the shape of the book or what would be in it, with the exception of writing the saint poems late in the process. I knew there’d be a lot of ekphrasis and allusion because that’s what inspires me and museums are my go-to place to be inspired to write poems, but figuring how to divide a book into sections is tough for me. Susan Terris was very helpful towards the end, as were Hannah Sanghee Park and Kathryn Nuernberger, in finding an order among and within the sections.
DLB: I want to draw attention to your Notes page at the end of the book—as it happens, that’s often my favorite section of a book. It’s evidence that creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I loved seeing who showed up in yours — Rimbaud and Stevens, Henry James, Berryman, Brenda Hillman and Kafka — but I was particularly fascinated by the fact that you pull from scholars, historians, and musicians, as well.
KW: Creativity definitely is contagious! The accretion and combination of ideas among artists thrills me, and I’m grateful to all the people whose work inspires my own. Although science courses were hard in college, now I love to read about anthropology, archaeology and physics. Richard Feynman’s books are a kick. Some of the language of science is so rich and foreign, fun to integrate out of context.
DLB: I noticed that you didn’t just reference other works, but that you made a point of noting that certain poems were either inspired by or in conversation with these pieces. For you, is there a distinction between being inspired by another writer and being in conversation with them? Can you elaborate on how you distinguish between the two?
KW: What a great question, to make me think about that distinction … I guess it’s a matter of the intensity of the connection or dependence of my poem on the other poem. I think of two of my poems as being “in conversation” with “Anecdote of the Jar” by Wallace Stevens and “Father’s Famous Devastation” by Olena Kalytiak Davis because I wrote my poems with their poems directly in mind and in response to something in their poems. In “a port in air,” Stevens’ image of the solitary, elevated jar becomes my central metaphor for the pompous movie star being interviewed on Fresh Air by Terry Gross. I had Stevens’ poem in mind throughout the writing of my poem. I think you’d need to have read the Stevens poem to fully get mine. For poems I say were “inspired by” other pieces, maybe the first poem started me thinking/writing, but the connection isn’t as critical to what my poem ended up being (not a main ingredient?) My poem “Your deadpan” is addressed to Davis and refers in particular to one of her many great poems that directly consider consciousness and its spiritual identity.
DLB: This feels important, given that there’s recently been a lot of noise, on Twitter in particular, surrounding authenticity, originality, and plagiarism in the Poetry world. Have you been keeping up with any of this madness? What are your thoughts on the rise of plagiarism in literature?
KW: I’m not on Twitter, but as a teacher I see a boatload of plagiarism and it definitely seems to be on the rise in the university, probably because it’s easier now. Allusion and integration of others’ language can be a legitimate part of original, authentic poetry, if the other writer is somehow acknowledged. But I’m sure there are occasions when lines are crossed and there’s no attribution, or the scope of use is too great, or the intent was to rip someone else off (as it obviously is in the plagiarized essays I’m occasionally given by college students). And I’m sure there’s also accident.
DLB: It’s hard not to get overwhelmed by the current state of the world. Everything feels so hectic and uncertain right now. Your poems turn a keen eye to things that are often overwhelming or difficult to look at directly. “Under the surface, great whites watch as oceans fill up with plastic. / More plastic soon than fish, if seers are genuine,” the speaker says in “Portrait of a Lady, ” bringing the dangers of pollution into perspective. In “Receptive Fields of Single Neurons in the Cat’s Striate Cortex,” the speaker notes that “…there are people so powerful / they go into war zones // and carry only cameras”, and in “Dreamland Saint,” the speaker implores said Saint to “…appear / to our electorate in Fall, replace the suits / on new screens, fill our representatives with joy, / humble, as though they could make a durable good.” Do you think poetry can affect politics? What is art’s contribution to the moral and ethical battles we’re going through right now in the world?
KW: I believe that communities of people sharing vision, courage, and energy can affect politics for the better, and that many of us go to poetry as one of our key sources of these essential empowering qualities. And so many poets are activists as well as writers, putting their bodies forward as well as their words. Politically-engaged poets help me stay optimistic that we’ll redeem our national politics, and do something significant to respond to climate change.
DLB: Reading I will not kick my friends I couldn’t help but feel that the poems were pushing back against the existence of the Western canon. Everything from the Bible to indigenous art seems to be held under a microscope and questioned in terms of its relevance in a shifting society. The idea of a single canon from any generation, made up of any individualized set of cultures or genders seems highly problematic. Do you think there’s a solution for this?
KW: Even over the last ten years, since I made poetry a fundamental part of my life, I’ve seen the Western canon begin to wiggle uncomfortably and become more pervious as it’s challenged to evolve. Part of the solution is that process of challenging received wisdoms about which poets are worthy of notice. Part of it is continuing to value diversity, teach it and increase support for poets of all backgrounds. Poets of all ages, too — today’s poetry powerbrokers heavily favor youth when they promote emerging voices, especially when it comes to who’s awarded fellowships and book contracts, who’s published in the most prestigious journals and websites.
Surely you’re right that the canon’s still problematic, this idea of a cultural “greatest hits” that takes forever to change and has been so relentlessly white, classist, sexist, not to mention homophobic. But there are hopeful signs, like being able to conveniently teach a range of poems by contemporary greats like Natalie Diaz, Claudia Rankine, Martín Espada, Terrance Hayes, Eduardo Corral, all from Bedford’s Literature: a Portable Anthology, or poems by Alberto Ríos, Joy Harjo, Rita Dove and Li-Young Li in the Norton Anthology of American Literature.
DLB: Are there other writers or artists you admire that might also be pushing against tradition? What artists do you wish more people were paying attention to?
KW: There are so many poets I’m not keeping up with, and it kills me. For the last two years I’ve taught at three different colleges, five and now six courses each semester, so my thinking time after work goes to my own writing and to reading the New York Times, which, since Trump came in, has become even more essential to my sanity. When I was under-employed, at least I was able to write a lot more during the school year! There’s a second renaissance of English translation of international poetry occurring now that I’m mostly missing. C.D. Wright and Anne Carson are innovators I admire but I’ve only begun to read their large bodies of work. King Me by Roger Reeves is vivid, dynamic and unique. sam sax’s several books and chaps, Caki Wilkinson’s The Winona Stone Poems was a revelation in terms of how lively and innovative formal poems can be. Other recent collections that blew me away? Ryan Vine’s To Keep Him Hidden, Brittany Perham’s Double Portrait, Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of all are terrific. What’s your take, Dexter? Who should I be reading, when/if I ever get time to read again?
DLB: I’m really fond of all of Doug Kearney’s work. He does amazing things with language and typography on the page that really push my notion of what a poem can be. Alice Notley is always a go-to for formal inventiveness, as is Sarah Vap, specifically Viability and End of the Sentimental Journey. Fatimah Ashghar’s If They Come for Us has been by my bedside recently, and it continues to blow me away. I wish more people read Bob Kaufman’s Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness and Ted Joans’ Teducation. Compression & Purity by Will Alexander is another. I could go on for a while. Like you said, there’s so much. It’s hard to keep up with it all.
KW: Yes! I heard Doug Kearney give a great reading in Berkeley a couple years ago — he’s a powerhouse. Sarah’s book Faulkner’s Rosary was one of the collections I was reading when I wrote the fragmented poems in I will not kick my friends that are my favorite part of the book.
DLB: The two opening poems in your book, “Noir” and “Nouvelle Vague,” are stark for the ways in which they set up the trajectory of the book as a whole. We start at the start, in Eden, but as the poems progress we never make that expected return, though Eden, the snake, and Adam and Eve’s relationship are referenced throughout the book. This is a fascinating move and seems, to me, to hinge on Eve’s defiance of (multiple kinds of) entrapment. “… god this garden bores me” she says at the start of “Nouvelle Vague,” and the introduction of Sartre at the end of the poem points to her embracing freedom as an objective reality, denying not just everything that’s core to our understanding of Genesis, but also to our understanding of gender dynamics, relationships, art, and autonomy. This is calculated, high satire, and it’s very rewarding to read. At what point in the writing of the book did you realize that this was where the book was headed?
KW: You’re giving me more credit for planning than I deserve. But to the extent that a book (even a less-autobiographical one) is necessarily an extension/representation of my life, I’ve been headed away from God, snake(s), and the garden for years now, and what better place to go than a museum, where the last section of the book is situated? Your question sent me back to a poem at the end of Nostalgia for the Criminal Past, “Bathing at the Museum,” which claims those “halls of disbelief & art” as heaven.
DLB: Correct me if I’m wrong, but Eve appears to pave the way for the other speakers in your poems to be iconoclasts of a sort, not so much destroyers of old institutions and concepts, but definitely critics and skeptics. Even the title “Nouvelle Vague,” nods to the refreshing approach of French New Wave filmmakers like Godard or, perhaps more aptly because of her feminist stance, Agnès Varda. Even the more direct poems in the collection sometimes come off as ambivalent towards the world and narratively ambiguous. You’re giving the reader a lot of space to arrive at their own conclusions and the poems speak for themselves, but is there anything specific you hope a reader walks away with? Is there anything else you’d like to add?
KW: Funny, I just got home from visiting my “muses” Eva and Tom, who’ve moved back to Phoenix, and Eva, who’s very knowledgeable about film, was talking about Agnès Varda and autobiographical aspects of her filmmaking. Reflecting on the female speakers in I will not kick my friends, as well as other female characters in the poems, reminds me that when I was writing those poems I often was thinking particularly about the woman artist. She pops up throughout the book, from Sylvia Plath to Katherine Mansfield to Remedios Varo to Elisabeth Bishop (the unnamed speaker of “Extinctions”) to Dora Maar to Frida Kahlo to Susanna Coffey to all the female artists excluded from the Louvre and its sexist history of fine art production. This focus continues in what I hope will be my third collection, with poems exploring the archaeological and anthropological origins of art and female artists, whose work we’ve now learned started in the days of the painted caves.
DLB: Thanks, Kathleen, for such an insightful conversation.
KW: It’s a pleasure to talk with you, Dexter! Thanks so much for this exchange.
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