Keetje Kuipers has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College, and a Bread Loaf Fellow. A recipient of the Pushcart Prize, her poems have appeared in such publications as American Poetry Review, Orion, West Branch, and Prairie Schooner. In 2007 Keetje completed her tenure as the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident, which provided her with seven months of solitude in Oregon’s Rogue River Valley. She used her time there to complete work on her first book, Beautiful in the Mouth, which was awarded the 2009 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and was published by BOA Editions. Her second book, The Keys to the Jail, was published by BOA Editions in 2014. In 2016, Keetje left her position as a tenured Associate Professor at Auburn University, where she was editor of Southern Humanities Review, to write full-time. She lives with her family in Seattle.
Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: When I first came across your poems, their landscapes of loss captured me, and I found myself transposing those elegies into my own painful territories as a way to negotiate them both. I know (in the words of Robert Hass) it hardly had to do with me, yet had everything to do with me—this is the atmosphere Beautiful in the Mouth and Keys to the Jail so masterfully create. In recent poems, however, (specifically your 32 Poems piece “Springtime Makes Us Want Things”) I notice a new inside-out intimacy that calls for a different type of communion. Can you speak a little of how you see interiority and community functioning in your work?
Keetje Kuipers: As I sit here chewing on your question, a late-April snowstorm blows sideways outside the window of my temporary writing studio in Wyoming where I’m on a residency this month. The daffodils I can see being slowly buried beneath white flakes are as tender as eyelashes coated in a thin layer of tears. ‘Tender’ (or some variation of it) is the most common word in my current manuscript of poems, tentatively titled Landscape with Child, and tenderness feels like a very new place for me, and my writing, to be.
In my first book, Beautiful in the Mouth, one of the most common words was ‘desire’—I was hungry, ever and always hungry—and now, looking back, I can see that all the poems were about wanting what I couldn’t have, or wanting back what I’d already lost. That person was living inside of her loss, dwelling in that hollowed out piece of ground. Down the evolutionary line of loss (or the stages of grief, if you like), the speaker in my second book, The Keys to the Jail, was someone whose sadness and heartsick weakness I scorned. I was hard on that person, and nearly refused to forgive her for not being able to buck up and take her losses like a man. That book is hard for me to read now, not because it is full of loss—which it is—but because I had no compassion for the grief I was trying to express.
The poems I’m writing now deal directly in tenderness, and words like mercy, humanity, and humility can be found in many of them. Perhaps this is the effect of having a child—could it be that the compassion I feel for this small person who is still young enough for me to see as a flesh-and-blood extension of myself allows me to feel greater compassion for myself, for others, for the Earth even? And if so, how does that affect the interiority and exteriority at work in my poems? These are things I’d like to know, too.
Today I hiked the sagebrush trail that leads residents up into the 1000 acres that comprise this working cattle ranch and artist residency. Sleet slashed at my cheeks, and as I rubbed my numb fingers back and forth in my pockets I imagined a mountain lion padding softly through the snow behind me. After I returned to my studio and cranked up the gas stove, the two poems I turned to work on were ones that ask the reader to believe in the transformative power of landscape (one even refers to this as ‘small magic’). Whereas landscape for me was once the sight of emotional atrocity—the exterior objects and terrains in service to the poem as the scene of trauma and its aftermath—it is now put to even more selfish use as a balm, a set of talismans, a list of ingredients for the potion of forgiveness.
I’m not sure this answers your question or my own, and I don’t know if I fully understand for myself the new ways in which I’m trying to bring the outside into my poems. Community, as I’ve been reminded here in Wyoming, is what you make of it. The pamphlet we got when we arrived—called, ominously, “The Code of the West”—hammers home the point that good fences make good neighbors. But today on the road two cowboys stopped to make sure I wasn’t lost in the storm, rolling down the window of their truck, the snow falling in on them as they asked if I was ok. Tenderness can be hard-won and complicated and worn by a weather-beaten face. Loss gives way to grace in this way. And I like to think that the grace I’m exploring now is still fraught and complicated and tenuous, something that, if not earned, is at least owned in a moment the speaker recognizes as temporary rather than fixed.
CL: First, I love the description you provided from this moment of being interviewed—it speaks to the exteriority of your consciousness—and in turn, of your poems—the sheer fact that locating yourself, in physical space, mental space, time, provides an important context for whatever follows.
A recent poem of yours asks “In / the next season would I become just one / more hillside of purple vetch, unwanted / too-muchness sprung from a gravel pit’s mouth, / dead butterflies in my teeth? There were ten / thousand ditches where I could have lain my / body down.” And yet the poem’s titled “Arrival.” As though this is a homecoming. To me, asking such a question moves toward tenderness, through increased attention. This morning, I couldn’t help notice the similarities in the words—the root for ‘tender’ comes from ‘ten’ meaning ‘to stretch.’ From this we get “thin,” therefore “youthful,” but also tender as ‘to offer,’ ‘to stretch out a hand, or to extend,’ a person who stretches toward another, or attends to him or her, or pays attention—they stem from the same source.
I wonder also if tending, or minding fences is part of this—a negotiation of permeability, maybe is what I was after, where poetry requires first the attention to let the world in, then the ability to fence off that world enough to summon some quiet with it, and finally the generosity to offer something back that reimagines, or re-visions. You talk of tenderness as hard won—so I wonder how you purposefully try to enact it in these new poems, both in terms of craft and practice? And what sort of landscape are you in the process of re-imagining?
KK: A great deal of my recent writing has focused on the question of what landscape can offer, both in terms of abundance and limits. In the West, landscape comes down to a single word: water. And spring in the mountain West is a time of over-abundance, of run-off and blown out streams, of muddy irrigation gates opening and overflowing. Every spring, people drown in these waters, even though, as Gretel Ehrlich writes in The Solace of Open Spaces, “[W]e are supplicants, waiting all spring for the water to come down, for the snow pack to melt and fill the creeks from which we irrigate… the mountains hold their snows like a secret.”
Last summer I spent a few days at the Beargrass Writing Retreat in Montana, where I listened to Jack Driscoll give a talk on fiction writing and landscape. He said, and I’m paraphrasing very liberally here, that all good fiction is defined by the struggle between what a protagonist wants or needs, and what the landscape refuses to give. I’ve been trying my own hand at fiction over the last couple of years, and I’ve found that I agree with Jack: For me, landscape is integral to the drama of the story, just as it’s always been integral to the drama of my poems.
We are defined by our landscapes in multiple ways. First, we are shaped, as I’ve said, by what we demand from our surroundings and the ways in which we are, despite all of our human ingenuity, essentially at the mercy of the land and its weather and what it will give up to us. In Wyoming, where I am at the moment, people are defined by the harsh winters, geographic isolation, drought, and, especially at this moment, the relationship between natural resources and energy consumption. In Alabama, where I live, the culture is a direct extension of the heat and humidity, the lush overgrowth that environment supplies, and the fraught agrarian history of the land. And I am two different people when I am in these two different places, because there is also the question of who we can become when we’re transposed onto another landscape. While I am a writer and a mother no matter where I live, those roles are uniquely limited by the landscape where they take place. Any writing that I do wishes to investigate that transformation of identity.
The poem I alluded to earlier in our interview when talking about the transformative power of place—its title is “Ars Poetica with Barn I Want to Burn Down”—interrogates a landscape the speaker loves, one that she wants to call home. But if tenderness and forgiveness are hard-won places to arrive, as I’ve implied above, then perhaps part of what is difficult about arriving there is allowing oneself the comfort and contentment of being in a place that wants you. This very recent ars poetica of mine addresses the landscape directly, and questions the language we use to describe it: Can a harsh place be a home? Must one earn one’s place in a hard land? Is the naming of a place what allows us to belong there? Or is the naming an artifice that actually holds us at a distance from what we address, that essentially protects from our own belonging and longing to belong? I find myself in a place of joy in my life, and the pleasant surprise of that landscape is one I am still trying to define—and hope to earn my belonging there by defining it. It’s like learning a new color palette and then attempting to paint an old landscape with this new set of hues. But the push-pull of understanding where I am—figuratively and literally—is an exploration I’m enjoying.
Last week it was snowing here, and on the one day it didn’t snow but remained overcast—good conditions for a hatch of caddis, which I witnessed, and for fishing, too—I resisted the urge to hit the stream. I was into my writing and didn’t want to give a moment of it up. But now I’ve missed my window. Spring has arrived here at the foot of the Big Horns, and the melting mountain snows have made the rivers high and cloudy. Nothing’s going to rise for my fly. The landscape is telling me that now’s the time to write.
CL: Yes, I very much understand the impact landscape has on one’s writing. I remember after moving to the Midwest I couldn’t write; I didn’t know the beings that surrounded me, especially the trees. And so I set out to learn their buds, their barks and leafings, because only through the ability to summon their names could I see how they fit to the fabric of the place and begin to weave my own strand through it. At the time it felt as though I needed a certain level of engagement, a certain integrity in witnessing the place, to give me license to write of and from it. Which touches on a common fear, that we must be someone in particular to write a certain thing, or to give voice to certain experiences, injustices, or circumstances. What does the impulse to witness require in terms of identity (and its transformation) or attention?
KK: Oh, yes, I did the same when I first moved to Alabama four years ago. Suddenly my poems were full of kudzu and dead armadillos—it only seems right to learn the language of a place, as if by naming it properly we can finally become a part of it. As I write the answer to your latest question, I find myself back in the South in Auburn, Alabama, where I have taught for the last four years, the humidity heavy outside my window and the landscape lushly green. This is, of course, the same landscape that inspired Jake Adam York’s books, the trees and the birds of this region calling forth from him more than mere ornamental poems of landscape. While my work has always been populated by the things of place and region, it is only in the last few years that I’ve begun to explore the history of those things—what it might mean to say ‘pine’ in Montana and what it might mean to say ‘pine’ in Alabama are two very different propositions, not only in terms of species but also in shifting historical significance. Jake’s work is an inspiration to me not only because his project—to memorialize the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement—culminated in a number of beautiful and deeply moving collections of poetry, but also because that work was tremendously ambitious. Bravery in poetry is underrated, or, perhaps, our admiration is often just misplaced. While I think it can be challenging, rewarding, and even gutsy to expose on the page one’s own painfully lived experience, I believe the work of any truly committed writer must include an examination of our complicity in history, as well as the history that is unfolding around us at this very moment. Without pity, sentimentality, or a morose sort of self-reflection, Jake’s poems turned their gaze to a home he loved—Alabama and the greater South—and peeled back the layers to reveal not an indictment of home but instead a complicated love, full of disappointment, horror, and the rebuilding of trust and understanding. And while his poems certainly redelivered narratives perhaps lost to or neglected by many of us over the last half-century, his work was also more than mere story-telling. Jake took the stories of the men and women who gave their lives to the most important fight for justice and equality in our nation’s history—one that, as Jake well knew and struggled with in his poems, is ongoing—and redelivered them out of the shadow of history and into the light of present relevance. Though Jake did significant archival research during his writing process, there is nothing musty or molded-over about the taut and tremblingly alive poems he wrote out of that research.
I could go on for a lot longer about Jake’s work, and how ashamed I am, truly, by my own inability to clear the bar he set for such a piercing self-gaze as a citizen of a complicated, flawed, but still beloved country. I often attempt poems that might do similar work, and I most often fail. I think it is the trying that is most important, though, and the failing again and again, never becoming comfortable with the failure to write poems that witness my complicity (in racial violence, environmental destruction, etc.) but reconciling myself to the value of the repeated and failed attempt. I very rarely send these poems out for publication in magazines because I know they are failures, and when I do send them out, I prepare myself to be open and willing to discuss their inadequacy, their failure to meet the challenge I set for them and myself.
When, as an editor at Southern Humanities Review in 2014, I established the Auburn Witness Poetry Prize in Honor of Jake Adam York, I wasn’t sure what sort of poems we would be looking to publish. In our first year, I received many queries about how we planned to define ‘witness’ for this contest, and I responded with a very loose definition, as I wasn’t sure myself how to frame that gaze. I looked to others in the poetry world who are engaging with ‘witness,’ particularly Split This Rock, who include the word ‘provocation’ in the call for their contest for poetry of witness. I admire this additional distinction they’ve made, as I’ve come to believe that poetry of witness ought to be most essentially about what the reader is called to consider and question, rather than some sort of conclusive narrative that is more easily packaged and delivered by the poet. We received a generous number of submissions during our first year of the contest, and those we chose as winners—the powerful work of Amanda Gunn—and runners-up are poems that I return to for my own inspiration, and provocation, again and again. But we also received many more poems that failed, especially ones that attempted an examination of complicity and yet couldn’t find their own shifting, mutable place in that particular landscape. I am grateful for these failed attempts, and heartened to see so many poets trying to do this kind of work. However, ultimately, it is the act of grappling that we wish to see on the page, not some arrival at a hard and fast reckoning or reconciliation. One of the elements that makes Jake’s poems work is the way in which he manages to remain present within his poems without ever becoming the focus of them. This is true witnessing.
CL: I’m always amazed by successful attempts and wonder first about the differences, if there are any, between a successful poem and an important one (to have read, to have written)? In much poetry of witness this seems to get conflated, often in conjunction with the author of the piece and the speaker, and also the poem’s belonging in the public or private realm. In his successful attempts, you describe how Jake remained “present within his poems without ever becoming the focus of them;” which, in the age of the selfie, seems like a rare thing. The early ‘witnesses’ were also ‘martyrs,’ which is interesting to think of both in terms of Jake’s project and how poet-personas seem to influence much of the way ‘witness’ is carried out and received. What sacrifices might a poetry of witness require?
KK: A recent project of mine grappled with some of these very concerns. This spring the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University invited faculty from the university—visual artists and creative writers—to pick a piece from the museum’s permanent collection to respond to through our own art or writing. While I do not generally find myself inspired by ekphrastic exercises, this seemed like an enticement that might push me out of my writing comfort zone and into new creative territory. In the course of this project, I found myself engaging not only with the ekphrastic, but also historical research, erasure, and, most importantly, witness—all elements rarely found in my previous work.
I began by choosing a print of a painting by Walton Ford entitled Scipio and the Bear (you can see it here). Like much of Ford’s work, this watercolor makes use of stylistic techniques akin to those made famous by Audubon, and at first glance a viewer might think she is taking in a simple study of an animal in its natural habitat. However, Ford’s paintings are subversive and grotesque, often questioning a history of racism, violence, and colonialism. I was originally drawn to this painting simply because I am interested in bears, who have been frequent visitors in my life out West. However, in choosing a piece by Ford, I was also choosing to face a set of ugly histories, which is what I discovered as soon as I began to research Ford’s own inspiration for his painting.
Ford himself was responding to a section from Audubon, the naturalist of the New world, in which the ornithologist recounts participating in a plantation bear hunt, during which a slave, riding horseback, kills the largest of a number of bears by landing an axe in its skull. The man’s name is Scipio, a popular moniker for slaves displaying bravery, a reference to Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal. Though Audubon expresses admiration for Scipio’s fearlessness, horsemanship, and saddle-making skills, he remains an animal, a centaur at best, half-man and half-beast. Ford’s response to this text makes use of traditional naturalist taxonomy to interrogate the violence and dehumanization inherent in the scene. Though Scipio is not at the center of the painting itself, Ford makes his presence the crux of the piece by placing him in the title.
Once I’d discovered this backstory to Ford’s painting, I felt even more stymied by my ekphrastic project. Rather than driving me to write, the mass of information I now felt compelled to interrogate—which included both the dehumanizing portrayal of Scipio, as well as a gleefully violent scene of bloodshed—was overwhelming. How could I respond to all of this in a simple poem? It felt like an impossible task. For several days, I sat with what I’d discovered, and in returning to the text again and again, I found that even though the bulk of the journal entry dealt with the bears, it was Scipio whose story I wanted to retell, if I could. Like Ford, I wanted to excavate Audubon’s text, and in order to do so, a certain amount of erasure seemed necessary. Though I had never worked with erasure before, I couldn’t conceive of approaching this project without making use of the original text. When we read a primary historical source, the words create a cage for memory and meaning. But if the margins could speak, they would be full of other stories, or the same stories told from other perspectives. I somehow wanted my poem to bleed through what had first been written there.
For my erasure poem, I used only the first two pages of Audubon’s text, a more innocuous section of the journal entry which describes the black bear’s habitat and habits. From that language, I began to locate the words to interrogate the historicity I found myself confronted with. Though I was crossing through large portions of the text, what I wanted was the opposite of erasure: instead, remembrance and confrontation. In particular, I found myself interested in questioning the notion that there is an abundance of time for us to wait for justice and equality rather than insisting on it now in whatever our present moment is. The poem itself came together fairly quickly, and turns on the word ‘time,’ which appears repeatedly in the piece. While I was initially somewhat pleased with my first foray into erasure, the project still felt only half-complete. What was I supposed to do with this text that I had photocopied and scribbled on with a pencil? Could I just send it to the museum to be framed? And how would a reader pull from what I had ‘written’—a very lyric piece seemingly about the passage of time—all of the weight of the history with which I was trying to engage? I wasn’t interested in creating an important poem, or even an entirely successful one—but I felt compelled to do my best to do justice to Scipio, and that still felt like a woefully incomplete undertaking to me.
I was lucky to be working on this project while at Jentel where I was surrounded by visual artists, including sculptors and installation artists. In my conversations with them over dinner, they encouraged me to explore how the next step for this poem—already a huge leap for me in its use of ekphrasis, historical research, and erasure—might require a move towards the visual. Still thinking as a writer, I first looked at erasure poems on paper, like Tom Phillips’ gorgeous project, A Humument. But I have no natural skill with a colored pencil, and I couldn’t begin to imagine how I might draw my erasure poem into a place of greater meaning and significance. But Jen Bervin’s The Dickinson Composits, a series of large scale embroideries of Emily Dickinson’s variant marks, opened up the possibilities for me. As soon as I began to consider the use of fabric, I knew that I wanted to reconstruct Scipio’s saddle, and to make the saddle into a kind of a book. Luckily, Jentel is just outside of Sheridan, Wyoming, a town known for its traditional, handmade saddles. I visited several saddle-making supply stores, and returned with a sheep’s skin, some scraps of cow hide, a length of hollow rein rope, waxed twine, a leather needle, and an awl. Using these materials and tools, I created a rudimentary saddle, not unlike, I hoped, the one that Scipio had crafted and used himself. Then I had a copy of the original text printed onto a large piece of fabric, and used wool knitting thread to cross-stitch the red line of correction over the words that I wanted to erase in order to make my poem. I saddle-stitched these fabric pages onto the sheepskin, and then laid the entire saddle/book over a set of metal hoops taken from an old whiskey barrel.
The resulting piece—a sculptural poem entitled Hollow Haunts—is not so much an erasure but, I hope, instead an illumination. The saddle itself, situated on the hollow ribs of history, functions as an allegorical interrogation of time: Scipio rides the past as a person of the future, resistant to the inherent vulnerability of his place in time. Scipio was brave for insisting on his humanity during an age that denied his personhood. While ‘the times’ are often used to excuse all manner of evils, including slavery and racism, the Scipio that I believe emerges from this text didn’t wait patiently for his time to come, but instead refused to be anything less than a fully realized human being. His ‘bravery’ was in living triumphantly, carving out the accomplishments and satisfactions of craftsmanship and skill, all part of his declaration of self in a time when selfhood did not exist for black people in America. Hollow Haunts pits the slow march of time’s progress against the rightfully impatient hunger for individuality, personhood, recognition, and respect—the refusal to be captive to time’s constraints in the making of a self.
You can see a photograph of the sculptural poem here, and hear me read it, as well. I don’t know if this is a successful or important poem of witness, but I do know that it required me to become an active witness, which is perhaps the more important part of witnessing. Successful or not, I hope I was able to honor those who were more than simply survivors of our country’s brutal history.
CL: We continually need to invent new ways of being in the world, new ways of saying what needs to be said, and your process here with Hollow Haunts, definitely did so. As someone who spends significant time in artists’ residencies or amidst a creative community, what important practices or new ways of living could we extend beyond those spaces, in an effort to do the work that cannot wait?
KK: I should say here that this conversation we’ve been having has unfolded over several months, months filled with coverage of the continuing horrific murders of people of color in our country, often by those authorities who are charged with protecting all of our citizens. During this same period of months, I spent time at a residency in Wyoming, returned to my now former home in Alabama (where I made the difficult decision to leave my job in order to raise my daughter in a place that would be friendlier to our queer family), and finally made the move across country to our new home in Seattle (where we watched the presidential election returns in horror and grief, but with the comforting thought that our next door neighbors, at least, had not voted against everything we hold dear). These very different dwelling spaces, and the very different people who call those spaces home, have provided me with the opportunity to engage with the questions of what we can be doing now, in our daily lives, in different ways.
I think one of the things that’s most heartening to me right now is that this conversation—these questions of what we can do—seem to be happening all around me much of the time. And conversation is where action has to start. I find myself talking almost daily with friends and strangers, black and white, about such deeply troubling concerns as police violence, profiling, gentrification, and the need for greater diversity at the highest levels of all our institutions, including government, the arts, publishing, and higher education.
But conversation—though a meager starting point for the action that is so necessary in our country at this very moment—can be challenging, too. I am currently on a listserv with a number of other creative writers, and the posts there can range from thoughts on upcoming grant opportunities to how best to treat your kids for lice. But I have also found it to be a place where heartfelt conversation about race in America is taking place. It is so heartfelt, however, that one recent post asked if we (read: white members of this particular community) should perhaps not be having these conversations on the message board because we are unwittingly subjecting the POC members of our community to our stumblings, fumblings, and graspings, our white guilt, our white (lady) tears, our ludicrous sense of helplessness, and our complicity.
I believe fully that white people need to be having conversations with white people about race right now. And I do not think a person of color should ever have foisted onto her the obligation of educating the white community about race. Though I am grateful for such edification I often receive from generous authors, editors, and friends, I understand that it is my job to be doing the work, too, rather than passively absorbing. And so I must stumble through the conversations because I must endeavor to participate in them fully, the same way I must stumble through my attempts to write into my poems the racial violence that none of us can afford to stand by and watch as it continues to unfold.
So how do such grapplings begin and in what ways can we bring them into our daily lives? First, I think it’s important to acknowledge that whatever it is I feel as a white lady—and here I’m talking about shame, guilt, discomfort, awkwardness—doesn’t matter. In my stumblings, I do not get to privilege my own feelings. Second, I cannot ignore my own whiteness, but must acknowledge its constant presence. I live in a country where my skin color allows me to move through a world of default privilege, and it is my job to remember every day that that is the case. If I can’t acknowledge it in on my own front porch, how I can hope to work against its tenacious institutionalized grip everywhere else I go? When I first moved to Seattle, I met up with another poet who I had only ever emailed with, and so we did not know what the other looked like. We had decided to rendezvous at a park, and before our meeting she sent me an email identifying herself as white. Weeks later when I met her husband for the first time (also white), he asked how we knew each other, and my friend responded, “Oh, how do two white ladies ever meet and become friends?” This woman is committed to being awake to her color and her privilege in every moment and interaction, and I believe she hopes thereby to counteract and undermine its power.
An old friend recently came to visit my family in Seattle. She brought her son, who is the same age as my daughter, and we spent several days visiting the park, the pumpkin patch, and our favorite neighborhood cafe. We also spent hours talking, and having those kind of intimate and comforting conversations you can only have with someone you’ve been close to for a long time, opening up about the losses and joys that are most personal to us. Some of those conversations were also about race; for instance, my perceptions about the community I just moved from—a state with a large black population but very intentionally minimal integration—to the community I just moved to—a city with a small black population and a historically segregated set of neighborhoods that many community members are anxious and eager to change into a more diverse mix of people living side-by-side.
I am white and my friend is black. We met almost twenty years ago in college when we lived on the same hall in the dorms our freshman year. About 50% of the students were white. A good portion of the rest of the student body was international, meaning that though you could see many faces of color on campus and in the classroom, these students had often come from very privileged backgrounds and from countries where they had not had to struggle to grow up and educate themselves in a system rigged against them because of their race. African-American students made up the smallest percentage on campus.
Our hall in the dorm struck me then as representing a surprisingly diverse cross-section of the student body, but it seems, in retrospect, that perhaps we had been assigned our roommates according, at least in part, to race. My roommate was white, like me. Next door was the suite of Asian women, and down the hall was my black friend and her Hispanic roommate—a strip of ever-darkening color, like the paint samples you can pick up at Home Depot, as your gaze moved from the north end of the hall to the south end. On a college campus with these low numbers of black students and a likelihood that, if white, you would be assigned a room with another white student, it was simply a fluke that my friend and I found each other and began an enduring friendship.
And don’t these ratios and segregated living spaces echo what so much of our country looks like? And so then doesn’t it make sense that the process of truth and reconciliation in the U.S. needs to happen in those intimate spaces, in the very places where we lay our heads down? What I’m trying to say is that when the conversation I was having recently with my friend veered toward racial violence and systemic racism and what any of us can do to stop these micro and macro aggressions against people of color, I shouldn’t have been at all surprised by the simplicity of what my friend suggested: “White people need to have black people in their lives.” This struck me as profound since, though it seems obvious, it is not something I am hearing from a lot of people right now. First, a strong segment of folks in the creative writing community are actively engaged in creating spaces that are only for people of color, where their voices can be privileged, and the white noise, so to speak, can be silenced for a time. I agree that these spaces, like the real world and online gathering places created by #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, are absolutely necessary. Another strong current that I feel running through my community is the need, as I mentioned above, for white people to talk to white people about race, which I also agree is necessary work.
But friendship? Shared personal spaces? Intimacy? I’m sorry to say that I hadn’t truly considered their power, or their particular potency at this moment in our country. In Alabama I saw black and white people interacting on a daily basis—at the grocery store, in the classroom, while waiting for the elevator. In many of the places that I’ve lived, this hasn’t been such a common sight. However, those interactions that I witnessed always took place in a public sphere. Where people made their homes, gathered as a community, and went to church was governed by a much stricter and more deeply segregated set of rules depending on where cross-racial interactions and relationships took place (for instance, the culturally standardized codes of behavior and conduct that have dictated how black domestic workers have operated in white homes in the South for generations). But what could be possible if even a little more of the truly personal spaces of our lives became more integrated?
My family was the first queer family that any of our neighbors in Alabama had ever known. My daughter’s babysitters had never known a queer family and had only peeked into the home of one thanks to “Modern Family.” But the Southern culture demands intimacy, and so while we lived in Alabama, neighbors and acquaintances came into our home and entered our personal spaces again and again for birthday parties and holiday celebrations, to hold new babies and deliver casseroles. And I know that being present with my family under such intimate conditions affected and changed their perceptions of who queer people—queer neighbors and friends and the surrogate family we became to many of them—might be. If we had stayed in Alabama longer than those four years, what additional growth and understanding might have been possible? It can sometimes be as simple as being given the opportunity to be compassionate, to acknowledge another person’s humanity as real and full. So now I want to know: How many white people in our country are currently engaged in an enduring friendship with a person of color? The kind of friendship in which we spend hours, days, in each other’s homes. The kind of friendship that calls for and thrives on intimacy and a sense of familial connection. Is this site of personal, human closeness the point where we must begin again?
Here in Seattle, white people give a lot of lip-service to the desire to move their families into neighborhoods which have historically been the community sites for people of color in our city. But by doing this, white people push people of color further and further from the center of the city, and because these same white people often send their children to private school once they’ve moved into those neighborhoods and renovated the old Craftsman that they purchased for a song, they are not doing anything to either enrich the community itself or connect with the people who have called it a home for generations. Living next door to someone does very little to create intimacy and understanding if we continue to live our lives so separately.
In the 1980’s my well-intentioned parents told me that America was a melting pot and that anyone and everyone could be friends regardless of the color of their skin. I don’t think that half-truth served anyone very well, and I won’t tell my own daughter that lie. I will use all the hard words that stick in my throat to teach her about her country and herself. What else can I do? Everything I can professionally to advance writers of color whenever possible. This has been as small as the decision to almost exclusively buy, read, and teach collections of poetry by writers of color. In my work as an editor, I solicit poems almost exclusively from writers of color. And when given the opportunity to nominate a writer for an award, I always look first to the pool of promising writers of color.
My guiding principal concept is to participate. Participate every chance you get, and when you’re not given those opportunities to participate, create them. And participate, too, in love.
CL: I think you’re entirely right about friendship. In this way I feel very blessed by my graduate program and the friends I made there; also by my home church which currently has an African-American pastor. After spending countless mornings over coffee with Dale, or at our youth banquet, or a rotating shelter dinner, or having him sit beside me and my dad at the hospital, it’s impossible not to participate, not to have hard conversations. About family and career, about art and faith, about justice and race. Dale wants to know about my poetry, and I want to know about the workshop he gave, if his boys made little league playoffs. And this life together means hard conversations will happen. Like you said, I stumble more often than not, and find it easier to participate with an actual somebody rather than writing to an ‘audience.’ I’m intrigued by the idea that white people need to talk to white people about race. Which is true, so I’m curious—do white people need to write for white people? Who is your audience? Is there a danger in limited address?
KK: I was in college when I first started writing poems, revising poems, doing the work of trying to make poems. There was just one poetry workshop offered each semester, and it was very competitive to get into—in fact, I wasn’t admitted until my junior year, at which point I was overjoyed to have earned a spot at the small table. But until then, I wrote and shared work with friends, found poetry fellowship on the staff of Painted Bride Quarterly (in nearby Philadelphia, at the time), and tried to get my poems published in the various student-run literary magazines on campus. There were probably half a dozen literary magazines operating at my college, but there was one that everyone considered to be the best: smooth vellum inserts, substantial and creamy paper, understated single-tone cover. And, like the coveted workshop, I couldn’t get a poem in their pages for two or three years. I can’t remember my precise motives for wanting to be in the workshop or in the “best” literary magazine, but I also do not remember seeking a sense of validation as a writer in those places (the pleasure I got from working out language and feeling on the page was validation enough for me). Instead, my lingering memory of that time is one of longing, longing to join a conversation—about art, words, philosophy, politics, love—and not knowing where to look for a doorway or what the secret knock might be that would then let me in among the voices and give me a place for my voice, too. So, since my voice did not yet have a home, I decided to make a home for it. Whenever I thought I had finished a poem (or sometimes even when I knew I had not—to this day, I have no qualms about publishing less-than-excellent work-in-progress, since publication, is, in fact, a conversation, not something static and frozen though it can look that way on the page), I would print out a few copies of it (without an author’s name attached—again, I wasn’t looking for that kind of validation) and post them in the stalls of women’s bathrooms around campus. I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning the poems to me (though sometimes there would be comments in the margins, which thrilled me in that they confirmed there was a reader for me out there somewhere) and I never outted myself as the author. Instead, I felt good knowing that someone—anyone—was reading a thing that I had poured several ounces of my intellect and heart into, flawed and febrile though those early attempts surely were.
When I think about who my audience is now, I feel very much the same way: The poems are all in-progress and in conversation. Some of them will sing and some of them will sink. And, at the moment, I am in many ways more interested in the sinking ones, because I believe that if they’re failing that means that I am trying to do something difficult and dangerous and, at least for me if not the reader, scary. When I teach, I always tell my students that, ultimately, I am judging their work on risk: If they write a beautiful lyric, full of striking images, surprising metaphors, and at least one decent turn, then yes, I’ll be glad for their showmanship of craft. However, their grade will be based on whether or not they are pushing their own limits in terms of either formal technique or content (if not both). And this will mean something different for each writer. For me that push has sometimes meant trying to write multi-page poems (14 lines is generally my sweet spot) or attempting to transgress the delicate borders of my sexual identity. Right now I want to push my work to engage in political action and social accountability, which is almost as hard to do in a poem as it is to be funny in one. And so, in some ways, the imaginary audience I’m walking around with right now is one that is disappointed in me, disappointed in both my cowardice and my clumsy fumblings to overcome it.
Last year I published a poem that I knew to be an utter failure, but it felt important to me to attempt to engage through my work in the conversation about race and violence in America. My imaginary audience in that case was pretty unimpressed/discomfited/disgusted by that poem, but I think it’s a poet’s job to try to write about more than the leisurely occupations of sipping tea and watching the rain fall and contemplating one’s own mortality (a type of poem I’m sick to death of reading right now). I have to risk letting myself look bad—more than that: I have to risk utterly fucking up—when I talk with my friends or publish poems or answer questions in an interview. I’m now willing to put my name to the poem hanging in the bathroom stall and say, “Hey, I’m working on it.”
Having fairly recently left a job in the academy in order to rededicate myself to my writing full-time, I’m discovering that the pressures that fed my creative engine as a professor no longer move me to put pen to page. I feel as though I’m returning to my babyhood of poem writing, where the work happened in workshops where I was not a professor but a peer and where my ideas and enthusiasms were fed by the readings and talks I attended, not the readings and talks that I gave. It is both comforting and, frankly, self-annihilating to return to the back of the classroom or to seat myself around a table of writers where I am just one more head bent over the blank page. But what a gift it is to be reminded that authority is often artifice. My audience right now is anyone who is willing to sit down with me and pass poems back and forth across that slippery tabletop.
CL: I love that. I also more admire the failed poem with ambition and ingenuousness than the clean one. If you ended up at that tabletop with someone who had never written a poem before and read precious few, what piece would you give her first, to ignite that enthusiasm?
KK: I would probably give them the same poem that was the first contemporary poem I ever read, “Kissing” by Dorianne Laux. I was a senior in high school and, aside from some work by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare, I’d had very little exposure to poetry from any era. My English teacher told us all to go to a library or bookstore and find a collection of contemporary poetry. I was lucky enough to have one of those genuine independent bookstores in my town—the kind where the staff post little notecards with recommendations all over the bookshelves—and someone had written a glowing little card for Dorianne’s books, covered in exclamation points and stars and adoring comments. I pulled her second book, What We Carry, from the shelf, sat myself cross-legged on the worn, grey carpet, and read the final poem in the collection, just as the comment card had entreated me to do. And I was instantly hooked on poetry. It’s remained the poem that I read on the first day of class whenever I teach a workshop, and it feels wildly relevant and comforting—“they are doing what they have to do / to survive the worst, they are sealing / the hard words in”—every time I turn to it, especially after an election as disillusioning as this last one. Reading that poem was the door that opened to my future as a writer. It was the dawn of email then, and I found Dorianne’s contact information on the University of Oregon website. I asked if I could interview her for my high school English assignment, and she generously said yes. Little did I imagine that almost ten years later I’d be her student, or that we’d end up with the same publisher (BOA Editions), or, perhaps most meaningful of all to me, I’d discover that she and I shared a birthday (Phil Levine, too). Fated? Star-crossed? Meant to be? I sure as hell hope so.
Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives and teaches south of San Francisco, California; for more information, visit catelycurgus.com.