The Rumpus Interview with Kirsten Kaschock

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I met Kirsten Kaschock twelve years ago when we were new graduate students in creative writing in the Syracuse University MFA program—she, in poetry; I, in fiction. She was pregnant at the time; a few days later, she gave birth to her first child. When I think of Kirsten’s work, that first image of her always comes to mind because it strikes me as a metaphor for the kind of artist she is: generative, essential, fully ripe. Her writing has a tender ferocity that represents the maternal, but more. She’s a writer whose every breath and word comes from the core. What she delivers is pure guts and stop-your-heart beauty. There is about her work a vast inner hush and an eternal keening. There isn’t anyone like any single one of us, but the way there is no one like Kirsten Kaschock is a different thing. You need only read one page of her debut novel, Sleight, just out from Coffee House Press, to see what I mean.

Kirsten Kaschock is also a poet and a dancer. Her two previous books are Unfathoms and A Beautiful Name for a Girl, which was a Rumpus Poetry Book Club pick earlier this year. In addition to her MFA from Syracuse University, she has degrees from Yale, the University of Iowa, and the University of Georgia. She’s working on another degree—in dance—at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she lives.

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The Rumpus: Why did you write Sleight and how did you come to write it?

Kirsten Kaschock: I was on tour for my first book of poetry—ten days in the Northeast after being in Georgia for a year. I was away from my three-year-old and my fifteen-month-old and was feeling their absence acutely, but driving along 95, I was also able to let my mind wander over things I had been thinking about in brief spurts during the first year of my PhD. Specifically, I was wondering about the relationship of art to place and to the act of witnessing. I had been reading some events of American history I hadn’t been exposed to before (the massacre of Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, for example) and looking at the bureaucratic documents of slavery (bills of sale, census forms, and so on). On the hour-plus drive I had from our home outside Atlanta to the University of Georgia in Athens, there were these crazy religious billboards signed—blasphemously, one might think—by God. On tour, I thought about how differently “truth” might be interpreted in different locations. The billboard that is threaded throughout my novel reads: “You Are Living on the Site of an Atrocity.” The idea for that billboard and its dismissible knowledge were the seeds of Sleight.

Rumpus: You’re known as a poet and many passages in Sleight read like poetry. What did you achieve in this book that you can’t when writing poems and what couldn’t you achieve?

Kaschock: I couldn’t leave things too open-ended. When you read a sonnet, fourteen lines with white margins all around, you are signaled to sit with the thing, to mull it over, to apply it to your life (or not), to the poet’s life (or not), to think about it as a quirky expression of a unique personality or as a universal truth. Poetry (at least the poetry I am interested in) invites the reader to read in several ways, to take time with the language, to resist arriving. But I want something different from the novels I read: I want direction. So I sought to offer a different experience than I do with my poems. That isn’t to say Sleight does not provide room for thought, but I did work very hard to give readers ground to stand on, a compass of sorts, and structures to hold onto when things go slanty (even if some of them are moveable).

Rumpus: What about the experience itself? How did it feel different to write a novel than it does to write a poem?

Kaschock: I loved writing Sleight, having so much time with the characters, the world, the art. It was for me a place to go outside my doctoral classes, outside my third pregnancy, outside of my suburban cul-de-sac partway between Atlanta and Athens. It was better than a poem because it lasted: It wasn’t just a snatched moment but a sanctuary. I remember the day—I was loading the dishwasher—I was about halfway through the book, when I suddenly knew how the novel had to end. That was a scary moment for me, because until then I had been writing it scene-by-scene as I write poems word-by-word. After that moment, though, I had a place I had to get to: an end-point. And I was terribly sad. New to long-form fiction, I hadn’t realized that I wouldn’t keep writing Sleight forever, not emotionally anyway. The characters were/are like family—hard to lose in that way.

Rumpus: I know that experience you speak of, when you’re at the point in writing a novel that it seems it will go on forever and then one day you see the end like a shore in the far distance and you have no choice but to swim to it. It’s the relentless drive of narrative, the great machine of the novel form, and it’s a part of what makes Sleight so compelling. But I was always aware of the poetry too. In Sleight, the forms gorgeously coexist. Can you talk about that please?

Kaschock: Most of the sections of Sleight began with me writing prose poems. Many of these were edited out, some were incorporated more prosaically into the sections, and a few remain. A novel lets you take the candlelight of an idea and give it flesh. The prose poems were flickery—faint lines of barely heard music. After I got them down, I just kept going. The characters grew less skeletal, and their circumstances acquired blood as well as mood. But I never did relinquish what one might call poetic mystery in this book. The more I wrote about the central art form (sleight—which does not currently, actually exist), the more it became unsayable. The more description it has, the more footnotes, the more explanation of how the characters are obsessed with it, what it means or doesn’t mean to them—the more unmoored the book gets from this world. In this way, the book is poetic. Something at its heart escapes my attempts at pinning down.

Rumpus: That’s a wonderfully apt phrase: “something at its heart escapes my attempts at pinning down.” I think it applies to all the most beautiful things in the world—art, love, the way the sun looks as it sinks into the horizon. They are beyond pinning. And yet, you pinned your main characters, Clef and Lark, to the page. The intimacy with which you portrayed them was remarkable. It felt emotional, mystical, psychological, and visceral, but most of all physical, in a literal way. It struck me that the body was the touchstone of this narrative. Do you agree? I know you’ve been a dancer for years. How did that experience inform the book?

Kaschock: Oh, I agree. The body is big in my family. Of my four siblings, three have danced professionally, and the fourth runs marathons. I’ve danced since I was seven, although never professionally. I still take ballet, and when I’m not dancing, I do yoga, give birth, write books, and collect advanced degrees. Dance informed the way I approached this novel absolutely. For one thing, the scenes in the first half of the novel are choreographed. Each of the four main characters first appears solo. Then possible duets are explored, dropped, and reconfigured. When all four finally appear in the same room—the book reaches a crisis point. Building tension with bodies is a compositional strategy I learned from dance, but it marks a truth in the world, not just on stage. John Cage once wrote: “Theatre takes place / all the time wherever one is and art simply / facilitates persuading one this is the case.” When two strong personalities need to coexist, you have conflict. When there are four—you have chaos. I grew up in a house filled with art, love, and a little madness. We all danced. Sleight, among other subjects, explores the fraught relationships of those who belong to such a thing: an art, a cult, a family.

Rumpus: List the three sentences in Sleight that mean the most to you and tell me what they mean to you.

Kaschock: You go for the throat, don’t you, Cheryl?

Rumpus: Not just the throat: the jugular.

Kaschock: I’ll do my best.

1. “You can’t imagine what it’s like . . . not to have desires but be populated by them.”

This sentence is spoken by Lark—one of two sisters the book is concentrated around—to Byrne, a new acquaintance. It is her way of expressing an overfullness that I have felt both as an artist and as a woman. We often hear of being pulled in many directions, as if external forces were, more often than not, the cause of struggle, but Lark recognizes her lack of balance as a sort of internal crowding.

2. “And when you are good and a girl at something, you stay with it—maybe for all the good girl words that come.”

Clef says this to a reporter when she is trying to explain why she and Lark stuck with their training in sleight. I think anyone who has succeeded in a sport, or in academics, or in any artistic discipline has experienced external validation and how it can become both addictive and identity-defining. When we exhibit certain talents, our pleasure in them can become wrapped up not just in the doing, but in the being-applauded-for.

3. “You don’t get to be a miracle without knowing it early on.”

This is from a description of West—the director of one of the sleight troupes who brings everyone in the book together. He is the impetus. Some people are charismatic and confident as if from birth; I’ve known a few and been related to one. I was trying with this sentence to capture the guilelessness and immodesty of that type of aura.

Kashock Dancing

Kashock Dancing

Rumpus: Each of these examples is connected directly to one of your main characters and yet your explanations thread back in discreet ways to your own life—your experiences of motherhood, success, acceptance, and love of charismatic people, to name a few. Just as those crazy religious billboards you saw years ago were a seed for the larger social questions you grapple with in Sleight, I wonder about the more personal seeds that informed the way you developed your characters.

Kaschock: I have taken to calling my work Confessional Sci-Fi. I really think it is apt. You, Cheryl, work in autobiographical fiction and in memoir in this gentled-brutal way I will never fully understand, although I admire and adore it. I say this because alternate worlds are the only way I know to access what some lovely man recently called my “severe muse.” So I dig deep into this world where art could really matter, could actually alter reality, and what do I find there? I find both horror and a way back to the dance I thought I had left when I began writing. Lark is a character who removed herself from the sleight she loved and ended up pursuing other art: I’ve done this. Perhaps because of her choice to leave, Lark questions her ability to be fully present in her own life: I’ve done this too. But as you know, characters become themselves through a process more alchemical than structural. I know Lark because I share some traits with her—but other things about her are darker and more twisty than I could claim even in my most gothic moments. Other characters have traits plucked from myself (and artists I’ve known) and thrust into backstories and situations that provide the catalysts for different types of reactions. I take the undisclosed seeds of the real and plant them in the soil of the what-if. Then, I watch for bloom or blight—Confessional Sci-Fi.

Rumpus: I think Confessional Sci-Fi is the perfect description of what you’ve done in Sleight. I laughed at your observation that you will never fully understand what I do in my writing because I know precisely what you mean. It’s my experience of your work too. I love it while knowing clearly it is not what I could create. That ability to truly see the original other is infinitely profound to me. When an artist works fearlessly out of his or her vision, such as you’ve done in Sleight, something vital is communicated that transcends the camps of aesthetic and style. What’s more interesting to me than aesthetics is what’s happening on a core level. I think at the heart of every writer’s work there is a question he or she is trying to answer. Mine, for example, has been: How can I live without my mother? Which I translate into the more universal: How can we go on when what is most essential is lost? What’s the question at the core of your work?

Kaschock: My question: Why do I make art? Translated more universally: What do we want from art, religion, from each other? And why the hell are we willing to accept so many substitutes?

Rumpus: And so, what have you come up with? In all of your glorious artmaking, why do you make art?

Kaschock: I make art because I have to. I would be lying if I said anything else first. But that is only the beginning. It isn’t enough for me to just make it. I need it to do something, to communicate with others, to provide them with information or language or questions that make them want to do something. More and more, along with this urgency I feel, has come a sense of responsibility: I want art to do good in this world. And since I am the mother of my art, I am trying to raise it right. In the end, Sleight is a book that questions those of passionate intensity who yet lack all conviction (forgive me as I cannibalize Yeats, poorly). It is not enough, I think, to want to make something happen. There are worlds to consider at every step.

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Photo of Kirsten Kashock by Katie Zeller.

Photo of Kascock dancing by Bill Hebert.


Cheryl Strayed is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Wild (Knopf, March 2012) and the novel, Torch (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and journals. She lives in Portland, Oregon. You can follow her on Twitter here. More from this author →