The Glorious Sexy Ugly: An Interview with Kara Candito by Justin Bigos

Kara CanditoKara Candito is the author of Spectator (University of Utah Press, 2014), winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize, and Taste of Cherry (University of Nebraska Press, 2009), winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Her work has been published in Blackbird, AGNI, The Kenyon Review, jubilat, Drunken Boat, Forklift Ohio, The Rumpus, Indiana Review, Best New Poets 2007, and elsewhere. Candito is the winner of a Pushcart Prize and the recipient of scholarships and awards from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Council for Wisconsin Writers, the Vermont Studio Center, the MacDowell Colony, and the Santa Fe Arts Institute. She is a co-curator of the Monsters of Poetry reading series, a creative writing professor at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, and the co-director of Membership for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She lives in Madison, WI, where she reads, writes, eats spicy food, drinks mezcal, and dreams of living in the tropics.

Justin Bigos: Your second collection of poems is titled Spectator. In American culture this word carries a connotation of passivity: the spectator of sport, entertainment, disaster—of spectacle. But at least in Middle 17th to Late 18th century British English, the word carried the meaning of scientific observer—not at all a passive thing. I see at work in Spectator this very tension—an inherent tension in any act of looking, I think—between the passive and active, fantasy and reality, the inner and the outer. Can you tell us when you realized Spectator was your title, and how you see it as emblematic of the collection?

Kara Candito: Great question, Justin. I think the mode of scientific observation speaks to many of the poems in Spectator, which are obsessed with the borders between subject and object, and also the accumulation and examination of objective and subjective “data.” The title itself emerged early on in the process in a line from “Bestiary” (“I never spoke there either, a pure spectator”), a poem that considers how gender shapes lived experience. If women are culturally inscribed as passive observers, then how might I, as a female poet, expose and also challenge women’s assumed roles? The speaker of “Bestiary” is simultaneously critical and complacent. She plays but also critiques her role as an object of male desire and intellectual performance.

Similarly, in writing a series of poems that entered into dialogue with Lorca, whose work has been so been so instrumental to me as a poet, I considered the boundaries between reading and writing, and history and myth. How has Lorca’s biography intersected with interpretations of the dynamic body of work he left behind? Furthermore, how does my own cultural and historical perspective inflect my engagement with his work? As a PhD student at Florida State University, I read Jonathan Mayhew’s Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch, which makes a pretty convincing case for the invention of ever-shifting “American Lorca(s)” via 20th-century English language translations, apocrypha, and the claims made on his legacy by the purveyors’ aesthetic and theoretical movements like Ethnopoetics, Queer Theory, the Black Arts Movement, the New York School, the Beat Generation, and Deep Imagism. Through the Lorca persona poems in Spectator, I try to get at the unstable boundaries between emulation and imagination, and influence and invention.

I’m also fascinated with the ways in which technology turns us into spectators (both active and passive) of our own lives. Via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc., we construct a mythology of our lives by documenting their minutiae (What’s for dinner? What’s growing in your garden? Are your kids, partners, or pets acting cute or acting out? What are your political views? What’s bothering or gratifying you at work/home? How do you share your successes, failures, and moods with the audience?). As we know, the social media self exists outside of the internal and intimate selves, just as the work of art exists separately from the artist.

Finally, my fairly recent experience of marrying a Mexican national and having to narrate and, in many ways, invent our relationship for the US government, was both alienating and empowering. Compiling a collection of photographs, emails, plane ticket receipts, and leases, we were forced to construct a public narrative of our relationship. Yet, in the course of all of this documentation, we came to mythologize our relationship in ways that were undeniably active, even poetic.

JB: You beat me to the punch on Lorca, who I definitely want to discuss. I have not read Apocryphal Lorca, but the idea of “American Lorcas” is fascinating. In some of your poems in Spectator, I notice what seem to be parallels in how you and Lorca sometimes use phrasings and lists, often paired words. For example, some excerpts from your poems: “a mouthful of wax and sympathy,” “motor oil and grief,” “journals of tears and onion milk.” From Lorca: “blue horse of madness,” “midnight lament and ragged cloth,” “faded glove and chemical rose,” “fangs, sunflowers, alphabets.” What I see as parallel is the beautiful mixture of concrete and abstract, the idea and the image. But now I wonder how much this perceived parallel is influenced by the particular translations I have read (which, here, are from the New Directions selected poems of Lorca, edited by Lorca and Donald M. Allen), as well as my semi-literate ability to read Lorca in his original Spanish, and other portrayals of Lorca that have helped determine a particular “American Lorca.” Do you have any ideas? Do you see similar parallels in your work and Lorca’s?

KC: I love that as 21st-century poets we can say yes to influence without feeling like it’s a dirty word. It’s entirely possible that I’ve internalized certain aspects of Lorca’s aesthetics, which intertwine concrete and abstract, and death and beauty, via plural and unsettling images. It’s also true that I’ve felt for as long as I can remember an attraction to poetry that gets at the glorious sexy/ugly; sex/death; sublime/abject that I see at work in the world. What I find most remarkable about 20th-century American poets’ critical and creative responses to Lorca, and their translations of his work, is their selectivity. Donald Allen, who also edited the The New American Poetry (1960) anthology, seems to focus most on Lorca’s poetic intellect (he published a translation of “Theory and Play of the Duende” in The New American Poetry) and his quest to celebrate the purity of Andalusia’s marginal, “primitive” cultures. So, I imagine that you’re reading more of Lorca’s lyric poems and fewer of his experimental, avant-garde works. Some writers seem to focus on the lyric, pastoral Lorca of Poema del cante jondo and Romancero gitano, while others focus almost exclusively on the more experimental, surrealist Lorca of Poeta en nueva york. First of all, I think it’s extraordinary that Lorca reinvented his own poetics to such an extent that acolytes of a particular movement, for example, the New York School, have everything to say about Poeta en nueva york, but don’t seem to want to touch Canciones. Personally, I see Lorca as a kind of a fairy godfather for American poets who have, since Modernism, grappled with questions of how to negotiate subjectivity and objectivity, emotion and detachment, and individual and collective experience within the field of a poem.

JB: You mention the “photographs, emails, plane ticket receipts, and leases” that you and your partner collected to create a “public narrative” of your marriage. In your poem “Ars Amatoria: So You Want to Marry a Foreign National,” composed of sixty-one short sections, various literary motifs and figures are contemplated as ways of constructing what I hear as a private narrative. Some phrases from this sequence: “the longest chapter/ of a difficult novel,” “like the last scene of a predictable thriller,” “ the problems of poetics and narrative shifts,” “to mistake panic for epiphany.” Can you talk about this sequence in terms of its interaction with the more “public” story you and your married partner constructed? I am also interested in the tension between the poem’s many parts and each part’s pith.

KC: I’m glad you asked about “Ars Amatoria: So You Want to Marry a Foreign National.” I chose the fragmented Roman numeric sequence structure because it seemed to me the most apt enactment of the maddening, often mystical bureaucracy of the marriage-based immigration application process. As a series of imperatives, observations, and associations, the poem moves through linear time toward a concrete resolution (a “bona fide” marriage) while also embodying the psychology of surveillance, as it manifests both internally and externally. The poem’s “you” is so conscious of being scrutinized and examined that she begins, perhaps necessarily, to objectify herself and her partner at each stage of the process. By drawing parallels between other narratives and her own, the “you” tries to console herself (i.e. If this drama is like the romantic plotline of a predictable thriller, then there will be a happy ending!), and also to establish emotional distance (All of these terrifying turns and nuances are just a postmodern novel that demands analysis.). Similarly, as we prepared for the interview stage of the application process, Victor (my husband) and I constructed the narrative of our relationship, examined it from different angles, and added or subtracted certain moments. Like memoirists, we streamlined real events to achieve an appealing plotline. At some point, we started believing in this happy myth version of our relationship.

Of course, living together in a small apartment for the last two years has complicated that narrative …

JB: It’s a beautiful and, in its way, terrifying poem; the sly intelligence of it is precisely what betrays a profound vulnerability. I’m interested in your phrase “psychology of surveillance.” Stepping away from your own work—just for a minute—do you feel this phrase is apt in its description of contemporary American poetry? Do you feel American poetry is beginning to “embody” or respond in any way to the surveillance state we arguably live in? Big question, I know.

KC: Yes, definitely. I’m fascinated by the post-Snowden assumption that we’re always being watched, and sure that this conviction will become more and more central to our contemporary poetics. I suspect that it will play out in terms of the treatment and function of metaphor in American poetry. In one sense, metaphor serves a practical function in that it expresses the inexpressible by stating it in different terms. Having taught “Introduction to English Language Literature for TESOL Teachers” to graduate students in Wuhan, China, for the past three winters, I’ve come to recognize the relationship between metaphor and prohibition. Unlike the American students I’ve taught, Chinese students seem to me adept and uncannily fluent in the language of metaphor, which makes a tremendous amount of sense when I consider the psychology of both cultures. Whereas American students see prohibition as the exception rather than a rule, Chinese students understand it as an ever-present force that relegates expression to the realm of metaphor. This is why there’s an elaborate, dynamic and, dare I say, poetic “Grass Mud Horse Lexicon“ (“an online glossary of terms created by Chinese netizens and frequently encountered in online political discussions”) for Mandarin language internet users. While there’s nothing romantic or ideal about censorship (external or internal), I’m curious to see how our current cultural climate of surveillance manifests via the treatment of metaphor in American poetry.

JB: That’s fascinating: metaphor as a vehicle for protest. I find your poems most subversive in their disruption of literary tradition and expectation, and I thrill at how you subvert explicitly on the surface level, but surprise and keep the reader off-balance in deeper ways. Your poem “Epithalamium Intercepted at the Border,” for example, signals right away, in the title, a new kind of epithalamium, wedding poem as contraband, love song as “illegal.” In his praise of Spectator, Eduardo Corral writes, “Kara Candito has enlarged the contemporary love poem.” I agree. I love that you are most subversive, to my ear, when writing love poems. Do you think of your poems as love poems, and what do you think the love poem needs in order to “enlarge” our sense of love poetry?

KC: First, yes, I accept and believe that the love poems I write are love poems. In fact, I think a lot of poems I read and write are love poems in disguise. Second, in my experience, love, intimacy, and desire in general don’t exist outside of the realms of social and cultural regulation. Rather, they’re subjected to and often redefined by conscious and unconscious regulatory forces. In “Epithalamium Intercepted at the Border,” the speaker collides head-on with the impossibility of sustaining a relationship in a cultural context that’s entirely foreign to her. She feels shitty about her accent, rejected by the you’s family, and bewildered by a new set of linguistic and religious taboos. Inextricable from the relationship she’d intended to celebrate and formalize, the speaker’s sad otherness spills over and ruins everything. As mentioned, in “Ars Amatoria: So You Want to Marry a Foreign National,” the struggle unfolds between the privacy of intimacy and the public bureaucratic power system(s) that demand the justification and formal presentation of intimacy. Of course, the speaker must confront her own privilege as an American citizen, and this new awareness complicates her experience of the conflict (i.e. “The American sensibility betrays an ignorance of scale.”). The poem’s loose model, Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, is basically a three-part courtship, sex, and marriage handbook for young Roman noblemen. Ovid’s emphases on decorum and ritual make it clear that, in Roman society at least, desire, love, and marriage were always subjected to an intricate set of rules. For example, since all young noblemen are obligated at some point to relinquish their youth and freedom in the name of marriage, they should choose wisely: “Before your youth with marriage is oppress’t,/Make choice of one who suits your humour best” (13-14). Chivalry and good manners are also are key: “When Venus comes, with deep devotion rise./If dust be on her lap, or grains of sand,/Brush both away with your officious hand.” (36-8). Beneath all the fusty formality, I think there’s an element of subversion in Ars Amatoria, as if Ovid realizes the ridiculousness of the rules, and is advising his audience how to follow the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.

Returning to the contemporary love poem, I think it might be enlarged by deeper explorations of those tensions between self and society, and self and erotic other. And speaking of Eduardo Corral, I think that his poem “Ditat Deus” does just that in that it braids images that embody cultural, sexual, and class identity in beautiful, unsettling ways. The second section’s opening couplet, for instance, evokes a taboo image that’s simultaneously gorgeous and inevitable: “I learned how to make love to a man/by touching my father.”

Finally, love is just subversive to me because it involves a leap of faith that seems absurd in the absence of some unnamable force.

JB: I love that description of those lines from Corral’s “Ditat Deus”: “gorgeous and inevitable.” In such a striking debut, those two lines are some of the most memorable in Slow Lightning. And since we’ve been talking about the taboo, the subversive, I wonder if we can now turn to your ars poetica. You have two poems in Spectator that are titled ars poetica, which, again, signals tradition—but again you disrupt expectations for convention, at least by titling the poems as parts of a series (#9 and #40), “versions” of some hidden, central ars poetica, which seems to deflate the whole idea of ars poetica as some singular, definitive statement on poetry and poetics. Can you talk about your choice to imply a sequence of ars poetica but only reveal parts or versions? Also, since there are other poems in Spectator, as well as your first collection, Taste of Cherry, that read as ars poetica but aren’t labeled as such, why announce the poem as ars poetica at all?

KC: I like to think of the ars poetica as an impossible structure or endeavor, not just because each poem demands a new angle of approach, but also because the ars poetica requires a mode of self-consciousness that can be, for me at least, antithetical to writing poetry. In other words, the second I try to identify and label something I do, it starts to become a habit, rather than an act. Inspired by Terrance Hayes’ “Ars Poetica #789,” in his second collection, Hip Logic, the two ars poetica poems in Spectator unfold in moments of crisis or panic, when style and self feel plural, even elusive. In “Ars Poetica #9 (the Afterhours Version),” the speaker addresses this discomfiting plurality via a series of husbands who loosely resemble figures from other poems in the book. In the course of writing “Ars Poetica #40 (the Worst Case Scenario Version),” I was grappling with the silence that happens at the end of most of my creative projects and the process by which this silence mutates into a scary, new urgency, while also mocking the part of me that’s precious enough to think, “I’ll never write again! And this matters.” Those two pieces, in particular, felt more playful than some of the others in the collection, and as such, they undercut some of my own expectations and probably the reader’s, as well. Self-mockery and revision are very loud, very real impulses, although I sometimes resist pursuing them because I have this illusion that poetry should be dignified, rather than messy and accurate. In short, I see the two ars poetica pieces in Spectator as bringing on the necessary doubt and sarcastic voices. And I agree completely that I’ve addressed style and also occasion more aptly and organically in other poems, like perhaps, “Egypt Journal: The Poet’s Condition” from Taste of Cherry and “Monologue during a Blackout, from Spectator. Finally, when I think about how the contemporary ars poetica might court and subvert expectation, I return to this moment from Richard Siken’s “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out”: “We clutch our bellies and roll on the floor …/When I say this, it should mean laughter,/not poison.” Just holy shit.

JB: Holy shit is right. I’m a big fan of Siken’s book, Crush. That poem of his you just quoted from is one of the influences for your poem “Dear Forgiveness.” In the notes section of Spectator, you acknowledge taking a line from “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out”; you also note that your poem is in the “Golden Shovel” form, “as it is named after Terrance Hayes’ ‘The Golden Shovel’, an homage to the Gwendolyn Brooks poem.” So in this one poem, “Dear Forgiveness,” we have Richard Siken, Terrance Hayes (there he is again!), Gwendolyn Brooks, and, of course, you, Kara Candito. I’m fascinated by the layers of influence that exist in this single poem, and I am happy to see you explicitly acknowledge them. No matter how playfully you may use the materials of your own life, you seem to me a poet whose poems come primarily from poetry itself. Can you weigh in on the question of literary influence?

KC: Wow, Justin. I love that our dialogues always lead me to consider something new about my processes and obsessions as a writer. Yes, it’s entirely true that my poems are first and foremost conversations with other poems and poets. This is obvious in the “Lorca poems” in Spectator, but more subtle elsewhere in the collection. The “Golden Shovel” structure, as incarnated by Terrance Hayes, attracts me because it uses another poet’s language as a point of entry and also departure. That Richard Siken ends his sprawling poem, “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out,” with a direct address to forgiveness has always floored me, both emotionally and aesthetically (“Dear Forgiveness, I saved a plate for you./Quit milling around the yard and come inside.”). By giving forgiveness a body with an agency that resists and eludes the speaker, Siken gets at these intuitive truths I can’t quite articulate. Perhaps it’s that forgiveness is really more like a friend who shows up late to dinner than an internalized process of negotiation and resolution. I wanted to engage that sensibility, so I wrote a poem in which forgiveness plays an ideal date that never shows up and leaves the speaker at the mercy of her own wounded bravado. Similar to Hayes’ “The Golden Shovel,” “Dear Forgiveness” absorbs and recasts the syntax and lineation of its source poem. For me, this meant revisiting that jagged longer-lined structure that I embraced full-throttle in Taste of Cherry, and resisted in Spectator, because it felt at odds with the poems’ occasions and trajectories. In a way, “Dear Forgiveness” felt like returning home to the desperate, erotic universe of Taste of Cherry, but with a distance that was enabled by starting with Siken’s language, rather than my own.

For me, influence is almost inseparable from the creative process. Whether I acknowledge it directly or indirectly, I’m always dealing with absorbed or learned language (poetic or otherwise). Furthermore, I’ve figured out a lot about myself as a writer by considering what influences me and why. When my undergraduate workshop students tell me they don’t read a lot of poetry because they’re afraid that it would interfere with their writing styles, I ask them why that’s a bad thing. I also ask them to look towards non-poetic texts for material and inspiration. Lately, for example, I’ve been writing long, fragmented poems that deal loosely with the experience of being out of place and language in China. Chinglish signs and translations have been really generative as hybrids of the English language and Chinese figuration. Even or especially when a text is translated faithfully, there are these undeniable gaps that relate to cultural perspective.

JB: I am glad you mention your most recent work—you beat me to the punch. When I first interviewed you about Taste of Cherry, we ended the conversation with a hint of what was to come, and which, we now see, became Spectator. I’m intrigued that the newer work sounds both a continuation of your obsessions as a poet (e.g., “being out of place and language”), as well as a departure in terms of form. Can we end this conversation with just a hint more of the next manuscript, a little taste?

KC: Sure! I’ve actually been working on a shape-shifting sequence poem in twenty parts, which uses a variety of forms, such as the travel diary, daybook, and epistle, to evoke an American professor’s experiences in Beijing. These slippery forms are so much fun to work with, and they help to capture the alienation and childlike wonder of day-to-day life for someone who’s lost all power to communicate. This poem and others that deal with immigration and exile will be included in my third collection, which is tentatively titled So Sorry. In terms of poetic influences, I’ve been revisiting Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire, and rediscovering the works of some classical Chinese poets, like Li Bai and Wang Wei. Here’s an excerpt from the sequence poem, “Thirty Days in Beijing”:

                    Does travel make you feel like—
Marco Polo
Pilfered noodles
A discarded mistress
An island dispute
A redacted letter
A kill shelter
A ghost-whore
An ash pond
Something Margaret Thatcher said about motherhood

Justin BigosJustin Bigos is the author of the poetry chapbook Twenty Thousand Pigeons (iO Books, 2014). He has published poems and stories in magazines such as Ploughshares, Indiana Review, New England Review, The Collagist, and McSweeney’s. He teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University and co-edits the literary journal Waxwing.