“What remains in the aftermath of emotional tragedy is worth claiming”: In conversation with Keetje Kuipers
Jonathan Plays in the Key of E
Which makes me weep. Which makes me press my face
into the bear skin rug. Makes me remember
my body’s shadow crossing the shallows
of the lake. Could I touch bottom? Reach
the lowest point and find my footing there?
Around me, everything divines a way
of making peace with itself. As Jonathan’s
hands reach up the octaves, I want to say
I’m the only thing that can’t, that won’t
learn how: swallow who won’t dip and dive,
deer walking gently into the headlights.
But there’s been a wedding. And I’ve been
swimming. Anything could happen tomorrow.
(Keetje Kuipers, The Keys to the Jail, BOA Editions)
PAUL MARTONE: I was thrilled to receive The Keys to the Jail from BOA Editions this spring, Keetje. Co-founding and directing Late Night Library has been a rewarding experience in many ways, not the least of which is celebrating the successes of poets & writers I know personally. Congratulations on the release of your second book. It’s damn good.
KEETJE KUIPERS: Thanks, Paul. I hear you loud and clear on the pleasures of celebrating the successes of the writers we first met back when we were all just coming to the craft. I recently got the most excellent news that my friend (and our fellow UO MFA alum) Jay Nebel has won the Saturnalia Book Prize for his first collection of poems, Neighbors. The contest was judged by Gerald Stern and the book will be published next spring. I’ve loved Jay’s work for a long time, and I’m so glad to know that a lot more lovers of poetry are going to have the opportunity to read and enjoy his work soon. That first book thing is such an amazing jolt, maybe sort of like having a baby for the first time. Number two gets just as much love, but there isn’t the same wonder and terror. At least that’s how I felt about it. Writing and publishing The Keys to the Jail scared me for lots of reasons, but I didn’t feel so full of doubt about my identity as a writer the way I did with the first book. I’m glad people are enjoying it, but even the mixed reviews (like the one I read today) don’t sting the way they did with the first book. These poems were written during a very particular point in my life, and they feel now almost like they were written by someone else entirely. It’s nice to have that distance from them, since they are deeply sad poems, full of loss and longing.
PM: Oh yeah, absolutely. Jay Nebel is a badass poet, my favorite local Juice Pimp, and Late Night Library family. We’re excited to promote his debut next spring. That being said, let’s talk about Goodbye is Forever, the first grouping of poems in The Keys to the Jail. I love the way the opening poem “Another Time, Another Place” begins the work of examining that “forever-ness.” You write about “the mask of distance” separating two friends. Does distance mask itself, or are we the ones doing the masking? We who “don’t just forget the words of love,” but “forget what they mean”? For me that wonderful phrase “the mask of distance” suggests that our perceptions can be more influential and determining, perhaps even more isolating, than whatever’s created by distance itself. Am I right about this, or making shit up? In other words, does the mask work against the heaviness and also the “forever-ness” we often associate with distance?
KK: You’re not making shit up. In “Another Time, Another Place” I was thinking of the way that a relationship with a lover can become one of friendship once that romantic relationship has ended (And so how are you / and I to know each other now, friend?), and the way that that downgrading of the relationship is a kind of distancing—not necessarily geographical, but emotional. Once my lover becomes my friend, there is a physical distance imposed on us (I can no longer touch him under his shirt) and a verbal distance, as well (I can’t call him “baby”). But when we strip a relationship of these things that have been fundamental in the way that two people have related to each other for some time, then what is left? And how do we fill the gap that’s left—without confusing ourselves, without losing our sense of what is love and what is not? And what hunger we must feel across that distance we can’t close. The love we feel at the close of a relationship is almost greater than the love we felt while we were in it.
PM: You consider love from so many compelling perspectives throughout the book. The poem “Brotherhood” comes to mind. I’m vacationing on Block Island this week with my family. My brothers are here with me. They’re identical twins, two years younger than me. We live on opposite coasts, and I don’t get to see them anywhere near as much as I’d like to. So here we are, and I’m reading “Brotherhood.” At its core, my love for my brothers is so intense, even when we’re laughing, or talking about trivial things, or bickering about shit that doesn’t actually matter. But I don’t think I’ve ever considered the intensity of that love in relation to the intensity of my love for my wife Karma, or the intensity of my feelings for anyone I’ve ever loved romantically. How did you find yourself entering this poem? It feels gutsy to me. Maybe because I’m imagining you watching a former lover’s interactions with his brother and experiencing some raw form of envy, and then afterward choosing to examine that feeling. Or maybe this poem is less personal? Either way, I’m also wondering about the opening line. The Keys to the Jail presents so many conditional statements that grabbed my attention. In this case, “If brotherhood is the only true form of love . . .”
KK: Oh, all these poems are “personal,” Paul, though in this case I was thinking of a lover who didn’t have any siblings, but who loved his male friends like brothers. Because my mother is a sociologist who teaches, among other things, the sociology of gender, I have trouble getting away from theories of power and status when it comes to heterosexual relationships. In this case, I was trying to reconcile the reality of never being able to have that love from him for myself. That quality of adoration that men have for each other is positively primal sometimes, and there are moments, situations, and people who can never compete with it. The relationship had ended months before I wrote this poem, and I wasn’t aching for that lover anymore, but, like many of the poems in The Keys to the Jail, this one was trying to figure out the nexus of that loss, and then reconcile it. One of my mentors at the time, Ken Fields, who I was working with at Stanford as a Stegner Fellow, encouraged me to write towards that rawness. As the author of that recent mixed review of the book noted, “Kuipers might be reluctant to love, but she isn’t reticent to write openly about topics often veiled in metaphor. It’s refreshing to see a woman write as honestly about sex and need as Kuipers does.”
That openness was a direct result of Ken’s encouragement, and I challenged myself constantly in the poems in this book to write to emotional places that actually shamed me. It broke some part of me, as a woman and a human being, to love a man who could never love me as much as he loved the men in his life. For a long time that felt to me like a failure of mine, and it took writing this poem to realize that it was a failure of his. As for the conditional statements, I’m a sucker for a sonnet, and even when I’m not writing one, I’m thinking within the framework of that sort of rhetoric. Beginning with the conditional is a comforting device for a poet to use when trying to enter a difficult poem, but just because it’s a comfortable place to start rhetorically doesn’t make it any less powerful as a way of setting up an argument, and I’m always trying to argue something in my poems. I’m never willing to give in to the complacent or passive, especially not when trying to translate some portion of my personal experience into poetry.
PM: That’s definitely an approach to writing I can relate to, and as a reader I felt it deeply in these poems. Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned feeling distance from The Keys to the Jail, feeling distance from that point in your life during which they were written. How would you characterize the life you’re living now? How has it affected your writing?
KK: The life I’m living now bears no resemblance to the one I was living when these poems were written. While my first book took seven years to write, I wrote The Keys to the Jail fairly quickly, in just two years during the time I was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. In many ways that was an incredibly privileged and fortunate time in my life: I was being paid a living wage to do nothing but write poems all the time. I lived in San Francisco, was part of a rich artistic community, and read and wrote and walked through foggy parks to my heart’s delight. On the other hand, I felt lost, the same way that many American twenty-somethings do these days. I didn’t have a partner, a permanent job, or even a geographic location where I felt I could safely begin to put down roots into my adulthood. I constantly questioned what would come next in my life, what I wanted to come next in my life. Looking back, that navel-gazing sometimes feels a little silly. Now I have a partner I love and trust, a job that absolutely thrills me, and the most beautiful little baby in the world. My life is better than my wildest dreams, and all those fears and worries—particularly my belief that I had already “ruined” my life with the choices I’d made—feel positively foreign to me now. But that’s not to say that the poems I wrote then weren’t deeply felt or that they no longer carry weight for me. That person—voice, speaker, character, persona—with all her loneliness and desperate hopelessness still exists on the page, and I have great empathy for her when I read those poems.
The poems I’m writing now are of a different tenor, and if anything, I’d say they have more in common with the voice in my first book. There are still the complications of attempting to reconcile one’s identities as a woman—mother or daughter or lover—and the tinges of darkness in the new poems are certainly a result of juggling those roles in new ways. But there is real joy in these poems, too, and a greater focus on looking outwards for inspiration. Perhaps it’s a result of having a child, but I’m increasingly concerned with the poet’s role as witness, especially to cultural triumphs or tragedies. Many poets are wary of writing “political” poetry, and I am, too, mostly because I find it challenging to write with feeling about something outside of myself without sounding shrill. I think the trick is to remind ourselves that we’re not outside of it at all, that what is happening in our world, even if it’s happening a million miles away, is something personal and intimate for each of us. This past spring at Auburn University I taught a course called Poetry of Southern Witness. We read a number of books by Jake Adam York and Natasha Trethewey, and my students all wrote several poems bearing witness to points of cultural pride and shame in their Southern lives. I gave them poetry writing assignments that I would never have wanted to take on myself, and I was blown away by their deeply thoughtful responses. They each wrote a poem in honor of the 50th anniversary of integration at Auburn, and these were made into gorgeous broadsides by some of Auburn’s graphic design students. This was brave writing, writing that required them to face difficult subjects that probably made them uncomfortable. I was so inspired by their work that I’ve set a higher bar for myself in my own writing, and I’ve felt heartened by other poets, like David Roderick, who are also calling for a greater sense of attention to the contemporary American experience that reaches beyond pop culture clutter and into realms of social justice and witness. Many of my poems are inspired by a moment I’ve had with my daughter, but for me each of those now takes place quite consciously against the larger backdrop of our global predicament, whether that be poverty, war, or rising temperatures.
PM: Late Night Library recently released my discussion with Kara Candito for the July 1st episode of Late Night Conversation. Kara’s second book of poems was published recently, as well (Spectator, University of Utah Press), and one of the things she talked about in that podcast was being at the point in her writing life where she doesn’t feel apologetic or anxious when she says that some of her poems are political, or for believing that political poems are important. It was terrific hearing a poet of our generation say something like that, just as you’re saying something similar now, because many of us—poets and writers alike—have been trained to be wary of political writing. That wariness helps us recognize the limitations of political writing and avoid certain pitfalls, I think, but it becomes harmful when we shy away from exploring feelings that result from socio-political realities. In the fall of 2012, during the presidential election, I wrote an essay about my grandfather and the act of voting knowing people might read it and say, “oh, he’s using this story about his grandfather as an anecdote.” It was an anecdote in the sense that it revealed something, but what it revealed—at least what I hope it revealed—is that political realities affect us deeply in our hearts, and in our relationships. With cultural triumphs and tragedies, the stuff outside ourselves is often inseparable from the stuff inside us, I think. You mentioned Jake Adam York and Natasha Trethewey as cultural witnesses. Are the poems you shared with your students available online? I’m also wondering about poems by emerging writers who embrace the role of cultural witness. Any you might recommend?
KK: My students read three books by Natasha Trethewey (Bellocq’s Ophelia, Domestic Work, and Native Guard) and two books by Jake Adam York (A Murmuration of Starlings and Persons Unknown). Our discussions of poetry of Southern witness included not only the Civil Rights movement in the South, but also slavery, the Civil War, the effects of the New Deal era in the South, as well as the Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Katrina. Because I am not a Southerner myself, I tried to be very open in the sort of assignments that I gave my students—I wanted them to have opportunities to write about the cultural joys as well as the historical tragedies of their home place, and I wanted to be sure that they felt as though they could write about their South, not my Yankee idea of the South. I’ll be teaching the class again in the fall, and I’ll be adding several books to our syllabus including work by Claudia Emerson Andrews and Maurice Manning, both of whom I would characterize as poets of cultural witness. I decided to include Manning’s work in particular not only because it is tremendously well-crafted, but also because it gives us an alternate picture of the South, one that focuses not on the Gulf but on Appalachia. My students will also be reading Breach by Nicole Cooley, a collection that was written in direct response to Hurricane Katrina.
As for what’s available online, there’s quite a lot by Trethewey and York that a reader can find by searching, but I think I’d recommend the following poems as a starting place for a discussion of their work as “witness” poetry. First, York’s most recent collection, Abide, published posthumously, focuses less on the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement and more on his own cultural witness. You can see his craft really expand in this collection, retaining all of its bravery but softening its gaze to include the personal. I adore his poem “Grace,” which is from this new collection and was published online, as well. Trethewey’s poetry of witness moves back and forth between detailed historical documentation and personal family memory. I always find myself gasping by the end of “Pastoral.”
I think there are many young poets today who are embracing the role of cultural witness. Kara Candito, who you mentioned, is a great example. Also, Natalie Diaz, who won Late Night Library’s Debut-litzer Prize last year. And Tarfia Faizullah and Barbara Jane Reyes immediately come to mind when I ask myself what culturally and civically engaged poetry I am most excited about these days. In the next issue of Southern Humanities Review, where I’m the poetry editor, we’ll be publishing an essay by David Roderick about the role of the “civic poet” in America today—readers will be able to find the essay online, too, and he will share a number of suggestions of poets to watch. I first heard him present this essay at AWP, and much of what he had to say inspired me to dig deeper in my own writing and reading.
PM: Tremendous. Readers will find links to the poems you mentioned beneath our conversation. Let’s conclude by discussing the last sections of The Keys to the Jail. “Jonathan Plays in the Key of E” is featured at the top of the page, as an introduction to our conversation. Two additional poems that stood out for me are “I Will Away” and “Entreaty,” and I’m curious to know if you have a few favorites, maybe a poem or two that’s received less attention than some of the others?
KK: The very last section contains some of my favorite poems in the book, probably my favorites because the speaker in these poems turns, if not hopeful, at least calm and clear-eyed enough to see that someday hope might be a possibility. “A Beautiful Night for the Rodeo” is a poem in the final section that admits to itself that there might be a way out of sadness and regret, and that what remains in the aftermath of emotional tragedy is worth claiming. I love that this poem combines forgiveness for the self with a real fierceness. “Some Advice for Both of Us” is a short poem that is much less conversational than “Rodeo,” but it’s written in address, perhaps to the self or to a friend, counseling a calmer, more rational response to loss and the gaping desires that loss leaves behind. It’s very much focused on image and language, and I like the way these elements create most of the rhetoric in the poem.
Both of these poems are ones that I’ve felt good about since first writing them, but “Jonathan Plays in the Key of E” is one that I have grown to love over time. First, I love that it was written at one of the most beautiful places on earth, Holland Lake Lodge in Montana, where a friend of mine was married. Second, it’s a short poem, without irony or anger or any other way of “flinching” away from vulnerability. Finally, in the whole book there were only three poems that were not first published in magazines before the book came out, and this is one of them. I’d been holding it back, waiting to see if I could place it somewhere “big,” and then all of a sudden I ran out of time and the book went to press before I’d heard back from editors. I had to withdraw the poem from consideration, and I’ve since felt as though this poem didn’t get to have much of a life on its own before the book came out. It was always a sort of shy, quiet poem, and it’s stayed that way.
Find a copy of The Keys to the Jail at IndieBound
Late Night Conversation with Kara Candito
“Grace” by Jake Adam York
“Incident” by Natasha Trethewey
Paul’s essay about his grandfather and the 2012 presidential election
Keetje Kuipers is a native of the Northwest. She earned her B.A. at Swarthmore College and her M.F.A. at the University of Oregon. She has been the recipient of a number of fellowships, including those from the Vermont Studio Center, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Oregon Literary Arts.
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 book, Beautiful in the Mouth, which was awarded the 2009 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and was published in 2010 by BOA Editions. It contains poems previously published in Prairie Schooner, West Branch, Willow Springs, and AGNI, among others. You can also listen to her read her work—which has been nominated seven years in a row for the Pushcart Prize—at the online audio archive From the Fishouse. Keetje’s second book, The Keys to the Jail, was published by BOA Editions in the spring of 2014, and contains poems that appeared previously in American Poetry Review, Jubilat, and the Indiana Review.
Keetje was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University from 2009-2011, and she was the Emerging Writing Lecturer at Gettysburg College from 2011-2012. Currently she is an Assistant Professor at Auburn University where she lives with her family and their dog, Bishop (named after Elizabeth, of course).