Kathleen Winter: An Interview With Serena M. Agusto-Cox

May 4, 2011

Poet Kathleen Winter

1. How would you introduce yourself to a crowded room eager to hang on your every word? Are you just a poet, what else should people know about you?

I love living in the country, being outdoors. After growing up in Texas, I shipped out to Massachusetts after college, then to California and lately to Arizona to get an MFA at Arizona State University. My favorite job ever was night-shift in a Brookline bookstore, working with lots of other writers. I love the Pacific. I’m not religious; yoga is about as spiritual as I get. I’ve worked as a baker, tech editor, lawyer and writing teacher. I’m a sloooow reader. The last time I had a TV was in 1989–can’t take that stuff. Also, I’m looking for a teaching job! Within two hours drive of Glen Ellen, California.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

Poems can bring us into other people’s brains, so poetry can help enhance our empathy, tolerance, interest and understanding by helping us realize how much we have in common with the strangers who surround us. Also, reading poems can connect us to writers from the past, giving us a sense how they were similar mentally, although they lived hundreds or thousands of years before us and probably on different continents. That realization can make us more aware of ourselves as part of the project of the species, and the species and life on Earth as a continuum, and therefore, with any luck, make us more interested in acting in ways that will help folks in the future.

As far as modes of delivering poetry, what I’m most familiar with and practice is the written version, or the written version read aloud in a fairly non-performative way. But I heard Patricia Smith recite her poems in a performative style a few years ago and she was terrific, so maybe I need to get out more. I just heard singer and guitarist Michael Zapruder (Matthew’s brother) this month at Gulf Coast’s off-site AWP event, performing poems by some of the Wave Books poets, and I loved that show.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

I’m obsessed with swimming, dogs, reading and writing. Also with trying to find, enhance, extend, maintain, and understand fluidity and human interconnections. Also, with getting rid of every single billboard in California, starting first with the ones on highways. (We’ll start there and then move east across the country.) Also, frozen yogurt and Tarkovsky movies.

4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

I’m a junkie for school, so I’ve loved being in an MFA program, and all the workshops, classes, readings, conversations that involves. Before going back to school I was in several workshops with poets in Sonoma County, Calif.,  and at Esalen Institute at Big Sur. Those experiences helped keep poetry at the forefront while I was working as a lawyer.

The essays in Stephen Dobyns‘ collection “Best Words Best Order” and Jane Hirshfield’s “Nine Gates” have helped me to better understand what I want to accomplish technically, and how to go after it. Maybe more importantly, I find that reading good non-fiction can inspire me to immediately want to write. Donald Hall’s anthology of essays by poets, “Claims for Poetry” is useful but frustrating, because Hall includes far too few women poets and far too few poets of color.

5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

Since poetry is joy, knowledge, power, beauty, news (and entertainment), I think helping more people find poetry–either to make it themselves and/or to enjoy reading and hearing poems–is an important mission for poets. But that doesn’t mean we have to or should write in any certain way. I guess volunteering is the means. Making yourself available in communities where poetry doesn’t abound yet.

6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

I can’t listen to music while I write or edit poems–it interferes with my ability to compose and to hear the rhythms, sound qualities of the words. If I’m reading, I prefer music without words, especially jazz, baroque, or ambient music. Favorites are the Impulse recording of Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, the “Passages” CD by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass, and anything connected with Jordi Saval.

7. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?

Many more writers now. ! Halleluja !

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

I swim, walk a dog, and try to eat green things in between the tortillas.

9. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?

I write when I’m seized by the energy of inspiration. For me, “inspiration” generally means intriguing words, sounds or phrases that came to mind (lots of times this happens when I’m trying to go to sleep, or have woken up in the middle of the night, or first thing in the morning). So I think I start lots of times with the music of language. A bit less frequently, an image or idea or possible “subject matter” will occur to me and get me started. Sometimes running or swimming will kick me into the writing zone. Food usually doesn’t work (too distracting!)

I’m not so great about overcoming writer’s block . . . I guess I just wait it out, in hope and faith that the poems will start again. I’ve noticed over years of writing that my periods of writing are very cyclical: weeks or months of intense creativity, followed by a fallow time. So far, thankfully, the words have always come back, eventually.

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

Now, while I’m finishing up the last semester of the MFA program in Tempe, I write in a rented room in a house that’s two states to the east of the house in California where my partner and dog live. So the ideal writing space is back in Glen Ellen with Finnegan lounging next to me in the ratty dog bed. My desk right now is two filing cabinets with a board across them; I’m looking at drywall. Back home I often write in bed, and look out through the windows at douglas firs, toyon, and madrone trees.

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

I’m trying to publish my first full book manuscript, “Nostalgia for the Criminal Past,” which is free verse lyrics with a few prose poems mixed in, and maybe four or five poems (loosely) written in form. The second book I’m working on now has a double crown of sonnets and then a lot of experimental (at least for me) style poems, so I’m trying to figure out if all these poems can live together in one book.

Thanks to Kathleen for answering my questions. Please check out her sample poem:

Wrong Sonnet:  Multiplicity

My husband asks Why don’t you write a poem
about why you like Virginia Woolf when
nobody else does.
The excruciating detail of a marriage
is what I like, I say, the drifting
in and out of Clarissa’s mind and into Peter’s,
how they notice the flow of London traffic
as a living animal, how they feel
themselves distributed in sub-atomic
bits into each other and over the city’s squares
and towers, out into the hedgerows, the waves.
But Clarissa wasn’t married to Peter
he would say, if he’d read it, she was
married to Richard. And I’d say
maybe she was, maybe she was.

–Previously published in The New Republic.

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