Wednesday, June 1, 2011

At the Bottom of a Shadow: An interview with Kiki Petrosino

It’s very quiet in this room. It feels like
being at the bottom

of a shadow, at the bottom of
a room. (“Question”)

Kiki Petrosino is the author of the poetry collection, Fort Red Border (Sarabande, 2009). She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in FENCE, The Iowa Review, Harvard Review, Gulf Coast, Forklift Ohio, and elsewhere. Her poem, "You Have Made a Career of Not Listening," was anthologized in Best New Poets. Her awards include a post-graduate writing fellowship from the University of Iowa and two staff scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. She has recently moved to Louisville from Iowa City, where she worked for five years as a Program Assistant at the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. She is an assistant professor at the University of Louisville, where she teachers literature and creative writing. Check out her author page, featuring a great interview about her work, at Sarabande’s website.

GL: Robert Redford, the comically romantic muse who stars in the first section of your anagrammatically titled and uber-wonderful collection of poems, Fort Red Border, exhibits a mixture of a glib, amorous proficiency and dialogical absurdity—he says the darndest things: "You float around my house all day / just like a little cloud of sweetness." Redford's such an interesting choice for a poetic subject qua beloved because he's so…meretricious. For example, I noticed when watching one of his movies not too long ago that he seemed really adept at putting on and taking off his glasses. That is, he appears to prioritize all the wrong things, have little to no negative capability, and somehow still be appealing. So, did you choose Redford (as your Beatrice) in part because his polished veneer allowed for projection and fantastical extrapolation? Do you think that the speaker's paramnesiac trysts with Redford show us, more often than not, the way that modern love works? That we fall in love with images that allow us to dramatize a monodramatical affair with the self?

KP: Yikes. I hope that we moderns haven’t succeeded in creating a world where love is nothing more than a series of “monodramatical affairs with the self.” The self can be such a stifling, terrifying little locket to cram yourself into. I once heard the poet Dan Beachy-Quick say that love is a leap across empty space. And I believe that for love to work, there ought to be something real on the other side of that leap. But can I confess something? I don’t think the poems in my “Redford” series are love poems at all. And I don’t consider the “Redford” who emerges in those pieces to be a romantic figure, painted in the usual shades of eros (or whatever the silver screen is made out of). I’m glad that you’ve mentioned Beatrice here, because Dante’s journey was on my mind as I wrote these poems. This series came to me during a time in my life when I felt deeply wounded on a bunch of levels. Some of this wounded-ness had to do with romantic love, but most of it was about me learning to accept the circumstances of my life at that point. I think my Redford emerged as a possible answer to my hurt. The certainty that I associated with the Redford archetype was like a cool glass of water or something. The contrast nourished me, and was generative of new thought. For me, the “Redford” poems are artifacts of a highly personal, interior thought process—yep, a long monodramatical affair. So I always hesitate when asked why I “chose” Redford as interlocutor. It didn’t feel like a choice; more like a surfacing. The Redford I found in my poems is really a constellation of desires for lots of things—certainty being chief among them. This is, perhaps, similar to how Beatrice embodies all the virtues that Dante yearns for in his epic. There was a real Beatrice, of course, but that person is not the angelic guide whom Dante crafts into being. That Beatrice, the one who calls Dante by name in Canto XXXI of the Paradiso, represents Dante’s best self, in both a spiritual and artistic sense. And I think Dante knows that all along. He knowingly invests her with all that is good and wise and pure so that he can strive towards that. When we hear Beatrice interrogating Dante, and when Dante answers her in the poem, he’s actually in dialogue with two conflicting aspects of himself. Dante as Seeker. Dante as Keeper of Wisdom. So I’ve always read Dante’s Beatrice—and, for that matter, his Virgil—not as true characters, but as forces that come from within the poet; they give voice to his inner life. I’d like to think that a pale copy of that might happen in my series; that desire gives rise to a revelatory encounter with the imagination, and that this encounter is an opportunity for redemption.

GL: In one of your poems, "Canton Thirteen," you describe "the slender rise of [Redford's] collarbone" as "[making] a ridge / under my cheek, like the worn fishtraps they've found in dry / moat beds near the Tower of London, delicate forked machines / of flint and willow, no bigger than a thmubspan." I remember seeing a poem you wrote as far back as 2003 that featured a reference to fishtraps. I don't know if I remember it correctly, but I believe the poem said something like this: "Love knits a fishtrap loose in water." Why does this image offer you such abiding fascination? And what do fishtraps have to do with love?

KP: You’re right to point out that certain lines tend to stay with me. There really is a very old wicker fishtrap on display at the Tower of London, and when I saw it as a young tourist, I thought, what a beautiful machine. The thing is, I have no idea what fishtraps may have to do with love, which probably explains why it’s taken me multiple poems to work through that image. Perhaps it’s a question of sound. I have to confess that, as a museum-goer, I often find myself more taken with the explanatory notes that accompany an artifact than I am with the artifact itself. The note next to the fishtrap said, “Fishtrap, willow and flint,” which has such a wonderful and wistful sound to it. As if someone were speaking a command, or a wish, into the empty air, and this was the result. As a poet, I’m interested in how desire can bring a world into being. And I’ve learned that the laws of such worlds may have very little to do with objective reality. For example: in my memory, that fishtrap was as transparent as Wonder Woman’s jet. It seemed like nothing more than a white clasp woven from extremely tender shreds of bark. But I just did an image search for “Fishtrap, Tower of London,” and it turns out the real fishtrap resembles a giant Triscuit ™ more than anything else. Awesome! It doesn’t change anything for me. I love them both.

GL: The second section of Fort Red Border, titled Otolaryngology, begins with the prose poem "White." The poem details in stunningly beautiful language the perhaps typical or maybe most essential characteristics and actions of the color/figure White: "White rises from her set of tines…White drags her swordwhite self packed down in rice." White does and is many amazing things, but toward the end of the poem, you write of White that "her broken breath [is] the tree you break yourself against." This line struck me because I remember you using this phrase to describe one of Shakespeare's sonnets; you said something about how one of the sonnets features a "voice that breaks against the rock of itself." At any rate, it seems to be an idea especially important to you: that a poem constructs its own method and means of destroying itself in such a way that reveals ever more meanings while never providing a totalizing account of meaning. In "White," interestingly, the catalog of descriptions and actions enriches our understanding of White, but never finalizes it. We can only guess at White's motivations, and we can only guess at the extent of White's figurative relationship with the color white. Even the last line of the poem promises more violence to come, not closure. White remains an active and dangerous force, but not an agent that helps resolve or fully account for its meaning. Which leads me to wonder if you think (your) poetry is most revealing, dynamic, or moving when it attempts to mean violently, to complicate and/or proliferate meanings, instead of tapering toward some kind of meditative or epiphanic conclusion?

KP: Well, the connection between violence and meaning isn’t something I’ve really considered in relation to my own poetry. But now that you mention it, maybe I am hostile to the notion of fixed definitions. Kiki smash! In fact, one of the first poems I can remember writing was called “Fork,” and it was a series of associative definitions of the word (i.e., “an extension of the tongue,” “an outstretched arm with flaring silver sleeve,” etc.). I chose to lineate the poem in the manner of a dictionary entry and to include a phonetic spelling of “fork.” There was something empowering (to my high-school self) about proliferating the possible meanings of this rather utilitarian word. I felt the same way while writing “White.” We all think we know what “white” means, but it doesn’t just lie there on the page. It’s a word that moves through the world all the time, like a glacier. And like a glacier, it gathers some things into itself and crushes others to smithereens. There are times when white appears to open itself up to our view (“The Great White Way,” “White Light/White Heat,” and my favorite: “Whitesnake”), and there are other moments, particularly in America, when the idea of white excludes (“Whites Only,” “White flight.”) If I took a hole-punch, or a garden spade—or if I drilled through the wall—could I find another way into white? Could I kick down the door and find myself, somehow, in someone else’s white—maybe even your white? The thing is, just when it seems possible to do this—to transgress the definitional boundaries of a word in order to generate new meanings that I like better—that same word will come roaring back at me with a roundhouse kick. For example: when I visited Nigeria a few years ago, I overheard the shopkeepers referring to me as “white.” This is something that wouldn’t happen in America, where I’m a “person of color” due to my mixed heritage. Neither descriptor has anything to do with my actual skin color, but yet here’s this word, this color, this word “white,” that gets all freighted with meaning to the point that it serves as shorthand for a whole host of other physical and cultural attributes. In Nigeria, the word “white” actually had the power to kick my ass, because it showed up and attached itself to me in an unexpected way. It engulfed me for a short time, forcing me into an extremely uncomfortable bear hug. In short, “white” is a word that constantly reminds me that I have not mastered it. It’s an extremely solemn word, because it can be about space and eternity and beauty, but it’s also a dangerous word for those exact same reasons. I can’t fully account for white, but I keep unfolding it. I keep trying to break it open.

GL: Okay. So your poem "Secret Ninja" is something of a crowd pleaser. I've read it to a handful of people over the past month or two and they inevitably love it. But the poem, aside from being tender and funny and inventive, is all about adolescent suffering. The speaker catalogs a number of things she would like "smash," and does smash, I guess, in her imagination--things she hates, things that irritate or perhaps traumatize her, like gym teachers. The speaker wants to enact some kind of clandestine transformation that would render the speaker powerful, magnificent. First, I'd like to know what kind of secret ninja transformation you wanted to enact when you were young? And, second, I wonder if the narrative of such transformations, found in comic books, action flicks and fantasy lit, have affected the way you write?

KP: My dear Greg, I wanted what every young girl wants: a total makeover. The kind of makeover whereby your garden-variety blushing weirdo (who, each day, carefully pins a Starfleet combadge to her uniform blazer) might magically transform into a slender orchid of a lass. I wanted long platinum hair, vanilla-scented shampoo, a Fossil watch, an emerald-green prom dress, and perfect, squared-off teeth. I also wanted a British accent. How I suffered. Certainly, books and movies helped me out. I watched Sabrina about a million times during my high school years, and I still love both the original 1954 film and the 1995 remake. (“I have learnt how to live... how to be in the world and of the world, and not just to stand aside and watch. And I will never, never again run away from life. Or from love, either…”) I don’t know if such films have exerted a direct influence on my writing, but the archetype of transformation—the whole ugly-duckling-becomes-swan-and-proceeds-to-rock-the-mic fantasy—is certainly alive and well in my imagination. As far as writing goes, I believe the page is a realm. It can be a space for enacting transformations in language. It’s good to be confident when you approach the page, but not arrogant. After all, the page will not be impressed by your kicky new haircut and French verbs. The page wants results. I don’t think I’d be a poet now if I hadn’t suffered through my terrifically dorky adolescence. My identity as an outsider forced me to become a good observer of things, and allowed me to cultivate an inner life that continues to sustain me today. Qapla!

GL: The third section of your book is comprised of a series of valentine poems. One of these poems describes the speaker's trip to the butcher's, where she orders "the perfect amount" of meat. The speaker goes on to say that she finds food "ingenious" because she can successfully order "some of the food" and "Not [just] any food"; that is, she can get exactly what she wants. But with love, well, "You can't order some of the love" because "you get the wrong love" or "the wrong amount." Were the valentine poems an attempt to grapple with and explore this problem: trying to order a certain kind of love and rarely-to-never getting what you want? If not, please set me straight.

KP: The conceit that governs those lines came from my early study of French. In that language, you can’t just say that you want to buy (for example) some cheese; you have to say that you want “some of the cheese.” In other words, you have to stake out a claim to your personal smidgen of cheese as separate from the total amount of cheese that exists in the universe (“Je voudrais du fromage”). In an instant, the particularity of what you want is juxtaposed against the totality of what’s possible. This contrast reminds you that you’re just a speaker in the midst of a larger system. You can’t have all the cheese in the universe (says French) but not for the reasons you think. You can’t have all the cheese because the truth of cheese—the cheese—is so huge that it belongs to everyone. The cheese belongs to French (says French) but maybe you can have a little. If you ask politely. It’s all very reassuring, at least to the non-native speaker. But when we move to matters of the heart, you’re right: Cupid doesn’t take special orders. Like artistic inspiration, true love probably belongs to the realm of the unspeakable. Just as there are some poems that seem to drift from view the more you try to pin them to the page, true love must surface in its own way.

GL: It's been a couple years now since Fort Red Border was published, and even longer since you wrote many of these poems--some of them date back to 2004, right? So, what direction has work drifted in since? Are you writing more Redfordian poems--fantastical narrative/dramatic poems--more self-broken, sound-conscious poems like "Or," new stuff that fuses these modes, or Planet Weird poems that defy categorization. In short, what are you working on these days and how's that going?

KP: Right now, I’m working steadily on a new manuscript of poems and adjusting to some exciting career changes. This past fall, I joined the faculty at the University of Louisville, so I now have the chance to teach and write full time. I’m also co-editing a new electronic journal of poetry, Transom, which I launched with fellow poet Dan Rosenberg. In January 2011, a new chapbook of mine, The Dark is Here, was published by Forklift, Ink. And this past April, The New York Times published my poem, “Allergenesis,” as part of a spring-themed Op Ed page. These days, it feels good to write poems that don’t mention the pronoun “I.” It’s great fun to escape from the locket of the self, to explore other terrain in language. Repetition and musical incantation remain important to me, so some of my new poems attempt to thread particular sounds together. Sometimes I do find myself returning to the fantastical narrative/dramatic realm, and I’m working on a series of prose poems featuring a recurring character called “the eater.” I’m several poems into that series now, and I’m not sure where the eater wants to go next—maybe nowhere. For the past few months, I’ve just been writing one poem at a time and liking that phenomenon. Mostly I’m trying to listen and follow my intuition rather than force poems onto the page. It’s a process of seeking and revelation.