This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Kirsten Kaschock. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview (read the unedited transcript here). To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
Kirsten Kaschock: Hello.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Hi Kirsten!
Brian Spears: Hi Kirsten! Glad you made it.
Kirsten Kaschock: I just want to let you know, I’m naked.
Kirsten Kaschock: Joke.
Michael Hollander: You’re also very small.
Kirsten Kaschock: Yes, I am. Do you mean my font?
Brian Spears: Shall we just jump in?
Kirsten Kaschock: Sure.
Brian Spears: These things always start off slow, but I have a question right out of the gate. There’s no title poem, so would you mind telling us where the title for your book came from?
Kirsten Kaschock: The title is the end of the penultimate poem in the book. The name is actually “Fail” but that is depressing, unlike the rest of the book.
Brian Spears: I really did love this book, almost from the moment I first looked at the .pdf of it.
Kirsten Kaschock: I’m so glad. Especially, if I may assume something, because you appear to be a man?
Brian Spears: I am.
Mark Folse: Interestingly, a lot of the list chatter from the past month came from men.
Michael Hollander: Kirsten, why do you say that—yes a lot of men on the list liked the book.
(For instance, me.)
Kirsten Kaschock: I was once told that poems about children and pregnancy would alienate half of my possible audience. Because, I suppose, unlike gardening and war, birth is not a universal subject.
Mark Folse: The jacket note says you “like to make things, and sometimes people”, which seems so strongly at variance with the narrator’s feelings about motherhood.
Kirsten Kaschock: So so glad. Yes, I try to write across gender, but the subject matters are mine, and I was finding out that I was female as I wrote these.
Brian Spears: I think Aimee Nezhukumatathil had a similar worry about her book when we did it last month. Maybe it’s just us.
Brandon: Care to expand on that point?
Brian Spears: I was intrigued by the voices in it, especially the way you used dialogue in “Snuff Ballet.” Did you think of that as a large piece from the beginning?
Kirsten Kaschock: Yes, “Snuff Ballet” was always big. Notes toward a play, actually, that were really better as a poem.
Brian Spears: So it started out as a play and then became a poem?
Kirsten Kaschock: It never got off the ground as a play—but someday I will write one, I am sure of it.
Brian Spears: That’s interesting about Snuff Ballet. Reminds me of Six Characters in Search of an Author, which started as a novel then turned into a play when Pirandello couldn’t finish it.
Is that becoming more common now, do you think, or has that always been the case? Maybe I’m just noticing it more, that writers are jumping genre and melding them as well.
Kirsten Kaschock: These poems were written while I was a mother of one, then two, then three infant boys.
Brian Spears: How far apart did you have them, if you don’t mind my asking.
Kirsten Kaschock: 3 years after the first, 2 after the second. And before I had kids, I really did think of myself as a human and an artist before woman
Kirsten Kaschock: I have a hard time determining my genre in general. Now, everything is endlessly muddled
Brandon: I think that comes through in “Houdini Dies”
Kirsten Kaschock: Mother-artist-beast-woman-teacher. Oh yes, Houdini came from admiring that NYT obituary
Brandon: The challenge of living multiple lives
Kirsten Kaschock: Obituaries used to be so damned eloquent.
Brian Spears: I can’t say I’ve had a lot of experience in reading them. How have they changed?
Kirsten Kaschock: Escape artist—that’s what this whole book wants to be—an escape from these roles, ones I never knew were there until…
Mark Folse: “Write your own obituary: write it about someone you admire” is one of the greatest lines I’ve read in a long time.
Kirsten Kaschock: Now they are so short, no real narrative, event, event, connection, event. No oomph to them
Brian Spears: Maybe that’s a niche market to be explored. The long, discursive obituary, published monthly, done up by hand and letterpress, etc.
Kirsten Kaschock: YES! Love death.
Brian Spears: Whereas I am interested in everything I can find that will stave it off, including having my brain downloaded into a computer, or even better, a cyborg body.
Kirsten Kaschock: Cyber-downloads YES! Absolutely—I write confessional sci-fi.
Brandon: Another Rumpus section.
Brian Spears: Ha! Don’t give Stephen any ideas.
Kathy: Slow typer here—back a bit in topic—I am a woman who tends not to like most poems about pregnancy and children, but I really loved your poems. I think it is because most other poets use children and pregnancy as some sort of vibrating god-like metaphor above all metaphors. In yours, the children and pregnancy were equal to all other things that we struggle with and celebrate in life.
Kirsten Kaschock: Thank you. I also tend to write about that stuff more as idea. The feeling is in the doing. Not that I don’t feel… just that I think as much about the feeling, and like the distance that gives me.
BrianM: How would you describe your attitude towards revision? Do these come out mostly formed, if you can pardon a bit of mixing so early now?
Kirsten Kaschock: Revision. I am a tweaker. I read out loud, I fix words. I scrap whole sections. I write the whole thing backwards, I mash together three different poems. Revision is play.
I know about the uber-metaphor too. That is why I think there is god in this book too. I’m not a big god-person, but fucking angels? Sometimes I wonder who wrote these…
Brian Spears: I saw devils in Snuff Ballet–the voices giving notes.
Mark Folse: It was interesting that there were three poems concerned with god in the first section, then in the third the angel poem as almost a repudiation of the divine.
Brandon: That’s interesting regarding the intrusion of religious imagery. Do you think of your poems coming more as a result of craft or sporting from some internal, yet foreign source?
Kirsten Kaschock: Yes. Demons. They are demons. They are real out-in-the-world demons, and late-at-night-messing-you-out-of-sleep demons.
Urgent. Duende. I believe in that. Poetry should be like 19th century childbirth. In one out of 5 cases either the poet or the poem should die.
Mark Folse: Duende, yes. Someone remarked on the list that you had a “severe muse”.
Kirsten Kaschock: Yes, sprouting is a great word. Vegetable love and all that.
Brian Spears: I’m going to have to remember that childbirth line. That’s genius.
js: Well, that would help with MFA admissions …
Kirsten Kaschock: Ha.
Brian Spears: Who do you read these days, Kirsten?
Kirsten Kaschock: These days? Out loud to my kids Philip Pullman. Finished AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book yesterday. Neal Stephenson.
Or do you mean poets?
Brian Spears: Mark, I remember when I read that that I thought “I think I made a good choice.” I’m never sure of these things.
Kirsten, anyone, but poets yes.
Kirsten Kaschock: Poets I read to get permission to do things… I read The Network over break which I believe you did…. a friend and a constant source of inspiration is Patrick Lawler. Sabrina Orah Mark is a bit of a hero of mine—her devotion to her vision. Older poets… Spicer, Sexton, Ahkmatova, Symborska, Transtromer, I can’t spell…
Brandon: I have Mark’s book The Babies; it is very good
Brian Spears: You said earlier that you’re not a big god person. Neither am I. Do you think that attitude toward God or maybe religion is changing poetry? I’m thinking large scale here.
Kirsten Kaschock: I think art is our replacement for god (I hope I’m not offending).
Brandon: More so than science?
Kirsten Kaschock: Which is to say, we seek something here—which is why I cannot, like some of my very good friends, totally get away from content. I’m married to a molecular geneticist. I’d say they are partners in the crime.
Brian Spears: Not offending me. It seems to me that for centuries art was of god, or representative of god, and now that’s changing as the world becomes more secular. Maybe that’s what it is—it’s becoming a replacement.
Mark Folse: Art is how we have always built the gods we need.
Brian Spears: My partner Amy has written a number of times about how religion is the most successful fiction ever written, because it’s been embraced not only as story, but as an accurate depiction of the universe.
BrianM: Can you expand a bit on “get away from content?”
Kirsten Kaschock: Oh—the way I compose. I know many poets that go from form to content, and I never do—always the other way around. Which is why I can be a bit of a sledgehammer sometimes—Jane, Jane, Jane, etc.
Brian Spears: You start with content and beat it into a shape you like, or the shape you feel it needs to be?
Brandon: True but in a very good way.
js: So Kirsten, would it be fair to say you want to capture an inspiration first and form it second?
Kirsten Kaschock: OH yes! My little brother and I are working on a series of creation myths together. Definitely. I love religious literature. Especially the mystics… Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, etc.
BrianM: I’ve read in many places that most poets really only have a few big ideas/poems in them and they are poking at these from different angles their whole writing career. Does that resonate with you?
Mark Folse: But that’s the duende again, the severe muse: poetry as sculpting the material you are given, or driven to use.
Kirsten Kaschock: Sculpting—absolutely. Yes, beat it into shape. It’s a very violent process (not unlike the ballet I was raised with).
Mark Folse: Outside of snuff ballet, how does dance enter into your poetry? Or does it? Or did you actually just answer that.
Brian Spears: The dancers I’ve known all describe ballet as terrifically violent, but I’ve never experienced that side of it. Is that part of the art? To do violence to the body and create beauty?
Brandon: Can you talk more about dance and the way it lends itself to your poetry?
(Sorry for the repeat question.)
Kirsten Kaschock: I am drawn to images of capture of the muse. Coleridge wrote that allegory is the translation of abstract notions into picture language, or something… he saw that as a negative—but the idea of giving form and shape to the shapeless—that’s f-ing magic—no?
Kathy: Can you say any more about what you are listening for and looking for as you are sculpting and beating the content into shape? Maybe I am asking how you might know when you are getting near the form the content is asking for?
BrianM: it is a good bit of f*cking magic, yes
js: f-ing MF!
Kirsten Kaschock: Dance taught me that we create ourselves—even the things we think are most unalterable—how we walk, smile, are intimate—these are changed as we train the body. So clearly, how we use language changes the thoughts we place into it—they need to conform to the shape of the language. So I try to be responsible.
Brian Spears: I’d say that giving form and shape to the shapeless is an inherent part of what we do. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been a big fan of Coleridge.
Kirsten Kaschock: Language is the way you raise your thoughts (like children).
Brian Spears: I guess it is that chaotic.
Kirsten Kaschock: Yes. He was a bit clueless at times. But—”which slanted down the green hill athwart a cedern cover… ”
Brandon: And you said you discovered a certain femininity in both, at least over time? In language/writing and motherhood I mean.
Kirsten Kaschock: In ballet? No. It was assumed. I found femininity in motherhood. At least the femininity I’d never sought to own before that.
Mark Folse: Where does Houdini fit into that: there is a sense of motherhood as playing to the expectations of the crowd.
Kirsten Kaschock: Who was it that said the mind was utterly gendered… Lyotard (he also sought the cyborg path in that essay, I believe, downloading brains and all that).
Brian Spears: I’m going to have to look him up.
Mark Folse: And an ambivalence about the desire to escape: what? The expectations? Morality?
Brian Spears: “I do not want you to imagine you will fit into grace easily” from Tips From Your Salvation” is a line that really resonated with me. The church I was raised in preached that pretty much, and while I’m not a believer anymore, I still feel that in terms of my art. If it’s coming easy, then it’s not going well.
Kirsten Kaschock: What is good and easy? (Oh my brother the yogi would hate me for writing that, only he wouldn’t… he does not judge.)
Culture. It has gotten heavier for me, but also lighter since I realized its heaviness… Not morality.
Brian Spears: Are you afraid of flying? I was just glancing over “Man-Made.”
Kirsten Kaschock: Not at all. That first line is a paraphrase from something the dance Vaslav Nijinski (a schizophrenic) wrote in his journal.
js: I just want to say ‘snuff ballet’ is an incredible bit of writing
Brian Spears: And I chuckled to myself with the line about how Pittsburgh is a terrible place. Even though I’ve never been there.
Kirsten Kaschock: I love flying. I only wish you could be on the outside of the plane…
I love Pittsburgh.
I lie alot in poems.
Brian Spears: Don’t we all?
Kirsten Kaschock: Because that’s how you get there.
BrianM: Pittsburgh’s great!
Kirsten Kaschock: I hope so.
Brian Spears: Even when, perhaps especially when, we’re trying to tell truth.
Kirsten Kaschock: Wasn’t Franzen babbling recently how he couldn’t tell truth without the layers?
Kirsten Kaschock: I’m not a huge fan, but i’ll take that for $200.
How many Brians are on here anyway?
BrianM: At least one too many
js: We’re all Brian, really
Isaac Fitzgerald: Ha!
Brian Spears: How long did it take you to put together the manuscript?
I just want to note for the record that I’m going to have an aneurysm trying to edit this down for the Rumpus.
Kirsten Kaschock: This manuscript has poems that span seven years, but there are three other manuscripts I was writing during that time as well.
Mark Folse: Is Brian Sugar? (sorry)
Kirsten Kaschock: I love Sugar.
I’m not lying, either.
js: That’s sweet [sorry].
Brian Spears: Are you kidding? I’m not in the same universe, writing-wise.
Kirsten Kaschock: I want to marry Sugar. Is she available? Does she believe in polygamy?
Brian Spears: And where are those manuscripts at present? Still in progress?
Kirsten Kaschock: The novel will be out from Coffee House in the fall… the other two are being sent and tweaked (ah the endless tweaking… too bad I don’t do math).
Meth… or math.
I do do myth.
Mark Folse: You should ask her.
Kirsten Kaschock: I don’t even write well enough to have a letter answered.
Mark Folse: Doctoral fellow, three boys, all these manuscripts: are you sure it’s not meth?
“Dutiful, The Sister” seems somehow, gentler than the rest of the book.
Kirsten Kaschock: Ahhh… my godmother died of pancreatic cancer four years ago this week. My mother and she were semi-estranged, but my mother took her in for the six months prior to her death. So… gentle because there was an occasion? People other than myself to be responsible to?
Brandon: My condolences.
Kirsten Kaschock: Thank you.
Brian Spears: Any particular groups of myths that you lean toward?
Kirsten Kaschock: Nope, all of them. Hindu, faerie tales (black forest kills!), Native American, the Lurianic kabbalah… any I can get my hands on. Coffee. Only coffee.
Brian Spears: The myths themselves and not the story of the myths?
Mark Folse: I always look at last poems for a hint of transition toward, maybe, the next thing, the next ms.
Kirsten Kaschock: The next thing? I’m obsessed with the girls in basements and backyard tents…. but it won’t be about that… and the Bybee memos. Found poems from there are haunting me.
Brian Spears: It took me years to even accept the idea of a found poem, and now I can’t get enough of them. Go figure.
Kirsten Kaschock: The idea of myths—the need to explain what we cannot. That is so fundamental to what I think is best (and sometimes worst) in us.
Brian Spears: What are our contemporary myths, do you think?
Kirsten Kaschock: We can talk our way into and out of anything—but our need to do so, to have the words no matter how illogical or supernatural—it’s both beautiful and horrifying.
js: We live in a very impoverished time for mythology.
Kirsten Kaschock: Oh no we don’t. Conspiracy theorists are amazing mythmakers, as are ideologues. Hate them you can, but they spin webs that entrance millions.
Brian Spears: I thought of that when you mentioned the Bybee memos. That one of the US’s biggest myths is about its own inherent goodness, and that it’s grasped so desperately today by so large a portion of the population even though there’s great evidence to the contrary.
Kirsten Kaschock: I sounded like Yoda. Yoda was in a good myth (until the dreaded unnamed monstrosities appeared).
js: But those myths don’t have the same force that other more organically grown ones do …
Kirsten Kaschock: We don’t know that yet, do we? “The Civil War had nothing to do with slavery”…. that has a force we can’t shake, doesn’t it?
Brian Spears: You’re not kidding it does. I grew up in south Louisiana and that was part of my high school curriculum.
Brandon: And motherhood has a strong mythology.
Kirsten Kaschock: In my novel, there are billboards appearing around the world that say “You are living on the site of an atrocity”
Brian Spears: And it’s back in force with the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
Brandon: Even today.
Kirsten Kaschock: Yes, motherhood is the best—the possibility of creating from one, more—with diversity (of age, gender) and unoppositionally! It’s a Utopian model for our interconnectedness…. with everything
Brian Spears: We’re done with the hour everyone–it ran by, I think. Any last questions for Kirsten?
BrianM: Thanks Kirsten! and Brian!
Brandon: Everyone was great! Thanks Kristen!
Kirsten Kaschock: Thank you. I had a blast.
Brian Spears: Thanks to everyone for coming out, and for Kirsten for chatting with us.
Mark Folse: Wonderful book. Thank you Kirsten, and Brian for the selection.
Brian Spears: Thanks for some great answers.