NOTE: Adele and I started this interview a while back and I never had the chance to post it. Some of the elements refer to her book What Matters as a recent publication.
MT: I first want to comment on what I see as the arc of this collection, What Matters. Memory, in this book, seems like a kind of sacrament: memorializing literally makes real by nature of the act. I’m thinking especially of the line “language…larger than / logic” (“The Sap Bush”). (I’ve chopped that line up, but it seemed so evocative to me that I couldn’t bypass it.) The first section fulfills and meditates on this traditional task of the poet. Then the second section puts that function into crisis—the poet dies (or rather confronts the possibility of her own death). The crisis is (I think), if the memorializer dies, how do those that the poet loves (including herself) continue to exist? This crisis gives birth to the third section, which affirms “We Don’t Forget,” but is admittedly much more subdued (chastened?) in its memorializing. Would you agree with this characterization?
AK: I love that poetry allows for different interpretations of meaning. Your “take” on What Matters is compelling (and I love where you’ve gone with it), but it’s rather different from my own. Memory as the “arc” (or perhaps “ark”) of it all wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Memory does play a role in the “story” (and, yes, the book does tell at least part of a story), but memory in the book’s context isn’t quite what “memorializing” suggests to me. I agree with you that remembering is one of the poet’s tasks. A contemporary poet (I think it was Gerald Stern) once said, “It’s the poet’s job to remember.” Getting back to “memorializing”—I’ve always thought that when we memorialize, we honor the dead (you, know, preserve their memory)—What Matters is a book about survival. Most importantly, it’s a book about the human spirit. It focuses on the fact that we’re all survivors of something: fear, grief, illness, the losses of loved ones. Individual details may be different, but we’re all survivors.
The poems in the first section look at the past and how, even if only peripherally, we are who we were. Those poems set up for section two, which deals with my own breast cancer experience—a confrontation with mortality during which I often “went” to the past, a safe place when nothing else in my life was safe, a place that reminded me what living was about and buttressed the contents of my survival toolbox. The poems in section two are about the conditions of survival—how we meet them and what they cost us. You’re spot on about the second section giving birth to the third, which looks at life as it is and the ways in which the human spirit remembers how to live. There was a definite before, during, and after sensibility when I arranged the poems. You mention “We Don’t Forget,” did you notice that the last word in that poem (the last poem in the collection) is “rejoice?” That wasn’t by accident.
MT: It’s interesting that you use the word “survival” because that’s exactly what I had in mind when I was thinking about memorializing—only I was thinking about it in terms of helping others into the world, helping them survive their own passing. For me, one of the pleasures of this collection was that it evoked what poetry does so clearly—poetry remembers and, building on the word ‘rejoice,’ celebrates—so it’s really enriching for me as a reader (and poet) to see your own survival and the role these poems played in it. I did notice “rejoice,” but I hadn’t thought about it in the context of the whole book—joy and rejoicing as, in the end, “What matters” or what “We don’t forget” how to do. I see pretty clearly how remembering related to your “survival toolbox,” but can you elaborate more “rejoicing” and its role in your own survival story?
AK: Thanks for your kind words, Micah. It’s so important for poetry to leave enough gaps and silences for readers to fill in the blanks. I hoped that What Matters would offer a message of encouragement and hope while giving readers room to map out their own places in the poems.
No form of survival is ever a “sudden epiphany.” Survival is a slow process, a measured progression that requires nearly impossible determination (read “understatement” here). It’s definitely a spiritual journey—sounds kind of trite, but this trip we call life is about spirit.
For me, and I suspect for many, gratitude is a necessary part of the process. Of course, it’s hard to be grateful when you stand on the edge of crash and burn. One day you’re simply living your life and the next you’re faced with something you didn’t anticipate and aren’t sure you can deal with. It happens to all of us sooner or later, in one way or another. Surviving becomes part of the trek, but it’s a lonely walk no matter how much support you have. Faced with fear, grief, loss, or illness, where do you go? You either give into the darkness of it all, or you look for a way out. Acceptance is part of the way back up—a grace that can lead to gratitude. (Stay with me, I’m working toward rejoicing.) There’s so much for which to be grateful (one more hour, one more day). Learning how to be grateful is another instrument in the survival toolbox. If you can manage gratefulness, you can begin to move away from the damages of what you work to survive. It’s kind of like when the feeling of the subject matter becomes the poem. You remember how to live, you remember what happiness is, and that projects itself backward and forward. Slowly, you begin to rejoice in whatever happiness and love you can find. What do we live for? From the poem:
Grace is acceptance—
all of it, whatever is—as
in we live for this: love
and gratitude enough.
MT: This concept of gratitude is important to poems, I think. Who for you are some “poets of gratitude,” poets who embody or maybe model gratitude as a almost poetic mode?
AK: The poet who rushes immediately to mind is Gerald Stern. The first poem of his that I ever read (many years ago) was “Lucky Life.” In that first read, Jerry impressed me as a “grateful” poet, and I don’t think this theme in his work has changed over time. Mary Oliver, who celebrates the natural world with inherent gratitude is one of any number of poets who seem “gratefully typical.” I suspect that the poets who express gratitude most effectively are those who have defined it in themselves and incorporate it into their work as a way of acknowledging and affirming what they’ve been given. Inherent in their poems are generosity, appreciation, and compassion. Another “gratitude poem” that stands out for me is “Thanks” by W. S. Merwin.
MT: Forgive me for bringing in my own poems, but this discussion of gratitude makes me think of a line I’ve been working with in one of my own poems: I call gratitude a kind of vertigo: in part because it feels so depthless. Once you open yourself to it, in a way everything must become gratitude. I’m curious if you had the same experience with it? That somehow learning to be grateful is a kind of release, a radical openness?
AK: I’m so glad you brought your own poems into this “discussion.” I’ve just been listening to you on YouTube, and I’ve read several of your poems online. In your work, which I see as a kind of semi-surrealist/New York School hybrid, there’s a definite sense of gratitude—even your “riff, riff, riff” in the Melville poem, your priests “out in Manhattan,” and those pesky birds in your beard suggest something of gratefulness and praise; and there’s the point I want to make: gratefulness and praise, for me, are part of the same sensibility. It’s about always being open, always being in process—totally depthless, as you note. There’s a profoundly spiritual component when it comes to radical openness and the release it can bring—gratitude follows naturally. That said, I have to believe that emblematic gratitude in any poet’s work is a reflection of the poet’s truest, most generous self. Not all poets go there, and if you don’t feel it, you can’t write it. For me (and I suspect for others as well), craft half-fills the glass, gratitude raises the elixir to the top.
MT: I use the word ‘depthless’ because that is the thing about gratitude (and praise, as you have pointed out): there’s never too much. No matter how many times poets have praised the beauty of the beloved—whatever that might be—it never gets old. Even if poets are doing similar ‘moves’ when they praise. I think this is one of the great lessons of reading poetry from the past: things have changed little and praise never gets old. There is something profound in that recognition, I think—something about the nature of being is revealed there. One artist who really captures this for me is Brian Wilson—from the Beach Boys. When I listen to his album SMILE, it feels like he’s tapped into this endless well of creativity, of joy almost. I also feel the same thing when I listen to Handel or read writers like Horace and Auden. They all seem to go back to that same ontological source. As you pointed out, once you have tapped into this, craft almost seems to become a side issue. Or maybe it would be better to say that craft is transformed? Elevated? As you said, though, there is a radical openness. This is terrifying, isn’t it? You’ve also taught writing for many years, I believe. Obviously this openness isn’t something ‘transferred’ to a student, but in your experience as a teacher, is it something that can be elicited somehow?
AK: The “depthless” quality of the kind you mention is precisely what makes certain poems timeless (Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” O’Hara’s “Autobiographica Literaria,” Kinnell’s “Crying”). There are legions of such poems (mega-known and not-so known). Just as the beauty of the beloved and the praise never get old, neither do the poems that celebrate such intense awarenesses; and, yes, I do believe that radical openness transforms and elevates craft. You mention music, and I agree that it’s hard to listen to some composers and not rise to the joy they’ve created (it’s impossible not to “smile” through Brian Wilson’s “Good Vibrations”). Gratitude and praise speak the language of joy, and I think if we read deeply enough, there’s either an inherent sense of gratitude/praise in most poems or a longing for it (which is one of the reasons I love reading about poets as much as I love their poems). BTW, did you know that the setting for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was a poem by Schiller?
Yes, I’ve taught for what seems like forever in schools and in private and agency-sponsored workshops, always with a nod to the “elevated mood” of what we call “great” poetry. I can’t say that I’ve ever consciously “lesson-planned” to elicit openness, and I’m not sure if it can be elicited when there isn’t a predisposition to it or a willingness to “go there.” Most importantly, the role of “teacher” is to inspire and encourage writers to try. What really resonates for me is your idea of poets working from the same ontological source. For me, this approaches the spiritual. In poetry’s great conversation with the spirit, there’s a profoundly “mystical” component (not to be mistaken for “religious”) that praises or gives thanks in one way or another. To not be open to that, to miss out on it—now, that would be truly terrifying.
MT: I remember the moment when I first felt like I tapped into that source: I spent much of high school trying to sound like TS Eliot. And I remember writing one night by myself in my room when suddenly I felt (felt!) a kind of hush fall around my room as I finished the lines of a poem. It was a kind of spark but also a satisfied emptiness—like I’d come to some kind of rest. That feeling alone was enough to keep me coming back to poetry for a good 4-5 years. These days I’ve realized that the more you chase it, the less you have its grace in that sense. Anyways, that was a key transition point for me as a writer—where I knew what I was doing had somehow transcended itself, my own (little) artistic Damascus. Did you have an experience like that? A moment when you unexpectedly “tapped in?”
AK: What a wonderful moment, and so interesting that you mention T. S. Eliot. My first experiences with poetry came early: when I was four, I was diagnosed with something called “polio fever” and spent most of that summer in bed. My mom, a great reader who appreciated all kinds of poetry, taught me to read and write using poems by Eugene Field and the Gospel of St. John. She wasn’t a trained teacher, so I have no idea how she managed it but, by the time I got to kindergarten, I was already writing little poems. It wasn’t until high school, however, that I discovered Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and fell in love with poetry that didn’t rhyme and used language in such amazing ways (what I thought of as “mature” poetry at that time). For me, the realization wasn’t that I’d tapped into the “source” but, rather, that I recognized it and wanted to be there. The “tapping in” is an ongoing part of the process. As you expressed it, the more you chase it, the more elusive it becomes. It is definitely both gift and grace when, in writing poetry, you find the “road called straight” and the scales fall from your eyes—that happens from time to time and makes the trek worth its price.
MT: It’s interesting to use the word ‘mature’ to describe writing. Now that you have quite a number of books under your belt, do you feel you can go back and see ways you have matured (or perhaps simply changed)? Were there things that you felt you had to write about that you no longer feel inclined to discuss? Sometimes now when I go back to certain poems of mine, I have a hard time remembering the person who wrote them. I don’t know whether to be sad about that or not.
AK: I make a point of not looking at the “old” books and chapbooks because every time I do I want to tweak and refine the poems in them. I’ve always focused on imagery and sound, but I’ve moved away from primarily narrative poems to, most recently, prose poems that look at the ways in which the spiritual self interacts with the outside world. Earlier on, there were stories that needed telling but, now, having been told, I don’t go back to them and consider them “turned corners” in my life. As you noted, there are times when I barely remember the person who wrote those poems. Most of the time that’s a good thing.
MT: Which came first—the change in form (to prose) or the change in content (from narrative)? Or was it a kind of organic unity? I guess I’m trying to get at the sense of how an artist navigates a change in his or her art—how the artist senses it and knows to move with it.
AK: Making the leap from lined poems to prose poems was definitely organic, nothing I planned but had been leaning toward for some time. I didn’t consciously navigate a change in art direction, but after finishing What Matters, I went for a long time without writing anything. I’d begun to think that maybe I’d never write again when, finally, I wrote a prose poem. Completely unplanned. There wasn’t any sense of a shift, but I did move with the idea of something new.
When I started to write the prose poems, the process was the same as always. I don’t think about what I’m doing when I begin a poem and, most of the time, I have no idea where a poem might go (sometimes nowhere). Imagery and sound have always been in the same craft-arc for me, that hasn’t changed, but not having to think about line breaks was freeing. After years of writing narrative and lyrical poems, I welcomed something different that can be lyrical or narrative, both or neither. I’m especially drawn to the way prose poems contain complete sentences and intentional fragments, the way they speak the language of dreams, and how they give a nod to the surreal.
At this point, my poems (both lined and prose) have become deliberately shorter—I want them to be more focused and compressed, more seamless and sharper-edged. Now (and I don’t recall ever thinking about this in my earlier work), I want my poems to tell me something bout myself, something I haven’t learned yet, or something I’ve forgotten. I want them to startle and surprise me.
MT: The long poetic silence is terribly frightening for a writer, I think. I went through something similar after getting married and moving to Vancouver. Both my life and life environment changed radically. I also started teaching, which I found took up a lot of my creative energy. During that silence I tried to come to terms with the possibility of not writing again—a kind of dark night of the poetic soul, if you will. It was an almost spiritual confrontation—stripping away false conceptions of my poetic selfhood, what ‘kind’ of writer I was, what it means to love poetry and be ‘poetic.’ It changes your approach to writing. When the poetry did return, I found I was writing more consciously formal poems. I’m not sure why that was, but the structures gave me more confidence—especially since I felt ‘out of practice.’ I also felt, though, that there was a maturity I didn’t have before, that I had gone to a new depth. It’s interesting then that you describe your own shift after not writing as wanting poems that tell you something about yourself—they’re more searching, piercing, perhaps. Do you feel like you’ve stripped something away? Gotten to something more ‘essential?’
AK: “Spiritual confrontation” is a great term for the almost–panicky feeling of poetic silence and the challenge it presents. Like you, there was a time when I worked full-time and had concurrent part-time jobs, and all the commitments of daily life. There wasn’t a lot of time or energy for poetry. When I did have time, the muse was often absent, so I started to write nonfiction for journals related to teaching and for conservation and ecology magazines—something like you turning to formal poems except that what I wrote didn’t requite the intense concentration and need for long expanses of uninterrupted time that poetry requires (it’s easier for me to put a piece of nonfiction aside and come back to it later, than it is to “suspend” a poem). What I learned is that I can write poetry without needing prose, but I can’t write prose without needing poetry. There have been a few times when I seriously thought I’d just give it up, and did for brief periods, but I could never make it stick. Even when I’m not writing a poem (which is too often), I think about writing one.
As I’ve gotten older, my creative priorities have changed—the need for approval tossed out of the ring. I used to care tremendously about what people thought of my work. That’s changed. I’ve recognized writing poetry as the spiritual process it’s always been for me—what you call “poetic selfhood.” The need for approval has segued into a need for my poems to mean more than they say, for the poems to offer spaces and gaps for readers to fill in, for whatever is personal in the language to speak and to be understood in more voices than my own. When I first started sending poems to journals, there was a lot of personal, narrative poetry in vogue, and I conformed to that. Now, it’s not about telling my story, it’s more about telling a story that will have meaning for others along with, and other than, me. Like all changes—essential, yes, fundamental and necessary.
MT: Sadly, I find myself dreaming about the time when I will really stop caring about what others think of my poetry. Can you tell me more about that freedom? Was there any way that you achieved it? Or did it just come with experience?
AK: Maybe a combination of age and experience? I’m not really sure. It was definitely sparked by many years of studying New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton in which Merton wrote “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves.” He went on to write, “If you write for God you will reach many men [and women] and bring them joy. If you write for men [and women]—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.”
MT: This reminds me of something Joe Weil once told me about medieval artists: when painting or decorating a cathedral, they saved their best (most holy?) work for corners nobody else would ever see. It also reminds me of the scholastic distinction between ‘making’ and ‘doing.’ Doing is the realm of “Prudence,” which, as Maritain says, “has for its matter the multitude of needs and circumstances and traffickings in which human anxiety flounders about.” This is the world of writing for others, a kind of constant reflexivity, this is Maria Gillan’s infamous “crow” that caws at poetic instinct. On the other hand, you have “making”—the true realm of art, concerned purely with the truth of the creation itself. Its mode is human, but, as Maritain again says “there is for Art but one law, the exigencies and the good of the work. Hence the tyrannical and absorbing power of Art, and also its astonishing power of soothing; it delivers one from the human; it establishes the artifex—artist or artisan—in a world apart, closed, limited, absolute, in which he puts the energy and intelligence of his manhood at the service of a thing which he makes. This is true of all art; the ennui of living and willing, ceases at the door of every workshop.” I think this is really why ancients spoke about art as a kind of possession (i.e., inspiration) because there is really a sense in which the artist is in the service of something other. Yet we still speak of an artistic identity. To what extent does an artist serve two masters?
AK: This all reminds me of the difference between process and product and how some artists live in service to the things they make. But … does the product serve as arbiter of the process quality? What is the ultimate good of the work? Which is the greater truth, the process of creating or the product created?
It’s the old dilemma of two masters. The scripture reference in your question is apt. Of course, St. Matthew is talking about serving God or money (mammon) in Matthew 6:24, but to take the quote further, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Nemo potest duobus dominis servire: aut enim unum odio habebit, et alterum diliget: aut unum sustinebit, et alterum contemnet.)The question is, “Which master does the individual artist serve, the creative process or the thing that he or she creates?” I suspect that some artists manage to do both, but there has to be a preference—spend time in the process of creation, or sit back and admire what you created (“the good of the work”)? I suppose it all comes down to individual responses to the creative experience, what the artist names as his or her priority and what he or she wants to possess more—the ability to create or the created thing. This all kind of begs the question of ego (and goodness knows we see enough of that in Poetryland). I can imagine the medieval artisans Joe told you about, how they created with the highest intention and made sure their work would only be seen by God—storing up their “treasures” for heaven. I suspect that all artists are in the service of “something other,” how they define it (artistic identity) is entirely personal (unless, of course, it’s defined by the public, and that’s another (smelly) “kettle of fish”).
MT: I wonder if we might conclude our discussion by looking at two of your poems—one from an earlier era and one of your newer prose poems. Could you share one or two poems and comment on how your evolving sense of poetics shaped the craft choices you made in those poems?
AK: Here are two poems, one written when I was 6 or 7 years old and the other from A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing At All (the prose poems collection, forthcoming in 2014 from Welcome Rain Publishers).
Today I threw my poems away.
They didn’t say what poems should say.
Maybe someday I’ll write a book.
But Look! I reach my hand up to the sky
and touch the place where sparrows fly.
What Calls You
Back then I wasn’t sure what calling meant. I thought something mystical—God’s hand on my arm, a divine voice speaking my name. Instead, I discovered the colors of cyclamen, how even the meanest weeds burst into bloom.
It works like this—among the books and fires—grace comes disguised as the winter finch, its beak in the seed; the twilight opossum that feeds on scraps—her babies born beneath my neighbor’s shed. Every day, I learn what love is: the finches, the opossum, the child with Down Syndrome who asked, Can I hug you a hundred times?
Whatever idea I had of myself turns on this: what lives on breath is spirit. I discover the power of simple places—silence—the desire to become nothing.
Sheesh! Am I still writing the same poem? I wonder if, perhaps, a lot of us do that in one way or another?
Apart from recognizing a strong sense of the Divine and an incorporation of human nature into the natural world, I can’t say that I’ve ever consciously thought about an evolving sense of poetics or deliberate craft choices. Auden said that a poem should be more interesting than anything that might be said about it. I’ve never been big on analyzing anything. For me, poetry is best when it’s “discovered” rather than written. I admire certain poems for their technique, for their music, and for the brilliance of their language. But those qualities fall short if a poem doesn’t have a strong “spirit center.” By “spirit center” I mean what we discover about ourselves and about others when we read a poem. If a poem is cleverly constructed or contrived, if it does linguistic handsprings, and if its meaning becomes subordinate to form, it may attract attention (especially if that sort of thing happens to be trendy at the moment), but what a poem lets us see, what we find out about ourselves and others because of that poem, and the ways in which a poem tells us that we’re not alone—these are “what matters” to me.
Thanks so much for this interview, Micah, and my sincerest congrats on Whale of Desire—a must-read spiritual and artistic tour de force!