Kristin LaTour: What Will Keep Us Alive
Kristin LaTour’s What Will Keep Us Alive (Sundress Publications) is a cross-country journey of the spirit. Sometimes it takes dark turns into towns full of secrets, and sometimes it bursts with the power and color of strong women who take charge of their routes and destinations. LaTour’s poems are rich in image and texture, glistening with the sheen of nostalgia and haunted by spiritual and supernatural ghosts.
DONNA VORREYER: The speakers in your poems often “charm as they wound” according to Simone Muench. You have a talent for walking a line in your poems, lulling the reader into a sense of domesticity and then pulling back a layer to reveal the messy underneath, often with a very subtle hand. Is this something you strive to accomplish? If so, what is your process?
KRISTIN LATOUR: I feel like I am supposed to give some academic answer that allows insight for other poets into “How I Did It,” but I’m going to give an honest response. I have no idea. I can tell you that I love domesticity, sewing, baking, keeping house, but I know that the process of things is messy. I end up with a dress, apron, or well-made bed, but nothing starts out that way. To sew, you have to damage perfectly good fabric, cut it into shapes, sew it together with a sharp needle, and sometimes rip out stitches that are wrong. In the end, when the scraps are tossed, and the machine is put away, and I’m done sweating and swearing as I rip out seams, I have a lovely garment. All anyone sees is the lovely garment, but all the work that went into it is important. No matter how well put together anything is, there was work that went into getting it that way. Maybe because I see and understand that messiness, in a physical object or in a relationship or personality, I want to show both.
DV: How do you manage to walk that line and deal with the “messy” without delving into the sentimental or going for shock value?
KL: A reader usually only sees the final, published poem. That poem may have started out as a jumble of words, or a vague thought, and gone through drafts where words and lines and sections were omitted, reworked. As far as not getting too sentimental or shocking, I’m not a reader who wants to read sappy or shocking poems. I want readers to understand something about people when they are done reading one of my poems. If I’m sappy, they are going to get turned off. If I’m just out to stun people, they won’t get the message, either. They might even give up. I don’t think readers learn much from either of those extremes.
DV: Many of the images in your poems are rooted in nostalgia, using words from other generations in many realms—fashion, cooking, furnishings. We have nassau, whimsy, rebozo, snood, ticking, hoosier, bodices, sextants, and dowagers, to name a few. Is there a particular reason for this use of language/image that is often out of modern use?
KL: This is another question where I’m going to be honest. I get a lot of my ideas for poems from reading other works and from prompts. And I love vintage and antique items, even words. I own snoods. The word “rebozo” came from an article I read about Frida Kahlo’s clothes which were locked away upon her death and then rediscovered upon her husband’s death. All the sailing terms are from a trip I took to New Bedford, MA, where I read and learned about whaling, and took a few books home to read. Between my reading and my love for old things, even activities like sewing (where “bodice” comes from), those words creep into my poems. Also, in my family tree, there are women who would have worn rebozos. My sister owns a 1940s Hoosier. I wear snoods. I hope they make a comeback someday. They are awesome if a woman is having a bad hair day.
In addition, my next manuscript centers on the whaling industry in New Bedford, MA. I have been doing tons of research on the time period, the industry and life for women left behind. Many of the nautical poems are inspired from that research.
Lastly, I am a practitioner of domesticity. I love to cook, bake, sew clothes, knit, house-keep in the old fashioned sense of mending items and making things for my home. I have been known to teach myself crafts like candlewicking, which does not involve candles. I know how to darn holes in clothes. I joke sometimes that I would have made an excellent farm wife in the early 1900s. It’s the dying in childbirth, and childbirth in general, that makes me think I would not have loved it.
DV: It sounds like many of your ideas come from reading, personal interests, and experiences. Do you use other strategies to get your writing moving?
KL: Sometimes I’ll use a prompt where I start with a random word or phrase pulled from a book. There’s also a website called the Sunday Whirl where each week a new set of a dozen, somewhat-related, words are posted. Words don’t die. There are lists of old words online, fun words that don’t make sense for us to use anymore. That’s where the poem “Thimblerigger” came from. I know there are people who might argue that prompts are cheating, or that a person who lacks imagination needs them, but I love them. All my poems are still mine. I still craft them out of my imagination.
DV: What Will Keep Us Alive seems to draw heavily on language and ideas from an other-worldly or spiritual realm—packing cauldrons, fur from tarantulas bringing nightfall, a “little witch” practicing her spells, advice for marrying into a coven. It gives the female speakers power in the book, no matter what their circumstances are. Could you talk a bit about how this thread developed? Did these themes emerge naturally or were they an organizing principle for the collection?
KL: I am a spiritual person and curious about religion. I grew up Catholic. I was obsessed with fantasy books in high school. I studied goddess worship when I got my MA with a minor in Women’s Studies. I have learned about many other religions through reading and friends. When my editor and I decided on sections, she pointed out all the occult poems and asked if I could make that theme more steady through the book. I wrote a few additional poems with that theme in mind to balance the sections. “Moving West” was one of them. I think there’s also a lot of prayerful poems in here like “Retablo at the Altar of Santa Frida” or “Recipe for a Star.” And there’s also quite of bit of an absent God, in the Judeo-Christian belief, in poems like “Into the World Came a Soul Named Ida” or “Lot’s Wife.” I think a lot of us feel magic in our lives, pray in whatever way we pray, or feel like our God or spirit has abandoned us.
DV: The book seems to not only move through time and generations of women, it also moves through landscapes and regions. From “Moving West” to the “Sonoran Desert” to “Palisades” to “Time to Start Over,” the speakers seem to crisscross the country in search of what will keep them alive. How do these landscapes figure into the journeys of these women?
KL: The short answer is that I find the women of these places have different voices. There are different cultures in each area. And I’ve spent time in all of them listening to those voices and learning about those cultures.
The long answer is that while the poems are mostly third person, each has a scrap of me in them. Those are the landscapes I’ve inhabited, the landscapes in which I recall my past or inhabit my present. The original title of the book was “What Will Keep Me Alive” and my editor, Erin Elizabeth Smith, recommended changing it because so many of the poems weren’t “personal.” When I was writing them and arranging the manuscript, I felt them to all be personal, but I see how readers may not have seen that when so many are persona poems. My mother moved from Ohio to Arizona before I was born, and I heard that story as I was growing up. I had my own story driving back and forth from Arizona to Ohio on family vacations. Then I went to college in the upper Midwest and learned that culture. My accent changed. I got my MFA in Maine and spent a lot of time in New England both for residencies and to visit friends. I go back to all three areas often and live in the Midwest. So these women’s journeys are my journeys, my ancestors’ journeys.
Find a copy of What Will Keep Us Alive here.
Kristin LaTour’s first full-length collection, What Will Keep Us Alive, is available from Sundress Publications. Her most recent chapbook is Agoraphobia, from Dancing Girl Press (2013). Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Fifth Wednesday, Cider Press Review, Escape into Life, and Massachusetts Review and in the anthology Obsession: Sestinas in the 21st Century. She teaches at Joliet Jr. College and lives in Aurora, IL with her writer husband. Readers can find more information at KristinLaTour.com.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of two full-length collections of poetry: Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress Publications, 2013), as well as seven chapbooks: Tinder, Smolder, Bones and Snow (forthcoming in 2016 from dancing girl press), Encantado (Red Bird Chapbooks), We Build Houses of Our Bodies (dancing girl press), The Imagined Life of A Pioneer Wife (Red Bird Chapbooks), Ordering the Hours (Maverick Duck Press), Come Out, Virginia (Naked Mannequin Press), and Womb/Seed/Fruit (Finishing Line Press).