The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Keetje Kuipers about her new book The Keys to the Jail, alter egos, landscapes, political poems, and how the fictionalized and the real inhabit the same space.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This conversation was edited by Brian Spears.
Mark Folse: So I was writing a poem about a friend’s divorce, thinking about my own, that began: That notebook/from after/the one you’re told to burn.
Brian S: I’m always interested in titles, so where (besides the poem of the same name) did the book’s title come from?
Thom Ingram: I want to hear about imaginative leaps. How you get from the impulse of the start of the poem, to the epiphanies, and their images at the end. You seem particularly awesome at this.
Mark Folse: Agree with Thom, you have the talent of the trick of the turn.
Keetje: I’ll start with the title question: The title poem was one of the earliest poems that ended up in the collection, and I knew from the time that I wrote it that it was going to be an important poem for me in terms of where I was going thematically with my writing at the time. I don’t do “projects”—nothing against them, I just don’t work that way. But I do try to pay attention to what’s going on with my writing as I accumulate new poems…
Mark Folse: But the book is very thematically coherent even if it wasn’t consciously so in the beginning.
Keetje: So the idea of being a prisoner in one’s life kept entering the work. And while the first book focused on loss, this one looked at blame, so I felt like jailer and jailed all at once when I was writing these poems—trapped in a life that made me unhappy, but the unhappiness was of my own making. So, yeah.
As I wrote the poems, I began to see the themes, and then try to write towards them more purposefully. A mentor told me that I should think of the speaker as an alter ego—in this case, a sadder version of myself, the way Sasha Fierce is a fiercer version of Beyonce.
Thom Ingram: I feel that. You uncover the work as you do the work. Or figure out what the heck you are talking about as you go along.
Mark Folse: As you saw the themes arranging themselves, did the sections come from the editor or from your own arrangements?
Keetje: I didn’t want to section the book; I wanted it to be more of an old school collection of poems just hanging out together. But all my readers and my publisher looked at the first version of the manuscript and told me that wasn’t going to work—and they were right.
No, I set all the poems out on the floor and played with the sections, moving them around and rearranging. I like a collection to have an arc, even a narrative sort of arc, but not the arc that corresponds to the reality that spawned the poems, if that makes sense.
Jennifer: Was the jailer/jailed dynamic or the alter ego part of what became the other self in the book? (When I say “other self,” I’m thinking of “Birthday Poem,” “A Beautiful Night for the Rodeo,”…)
Keetje: Absolutely, Jennifer. I needed to not only have a little distance from what I was writing, but I also wanted to be able to be in conversation with myself in the poems, to have two speakers at times, both, or all, of them me (“5 Women Ending in a Flower” or “Please Check Under the Bed”)
Mark Folse: The poems as characters almost, requiring their own arc.
Keetje: Yes, Mark, I’d hoped there would be multiple voices in the manuscript, though with a sense of unity, obviously.
Thom Ingram: Just like in our heads. Many voices with (we hope) some unity.
Keetje: I’m not sure what to say about the “leaps” between the beginnings and endings of my poems… Was there a specific one you’d like me to talk about?
Jennifer: I loved that self as/alongside someone else. So much happening around the idea of change in those poems—sometimes it feels like a wonderful transformation, other times a loss. Often both at the same time.
Keetje: I feel like I’ve been moving through the stages of grief, from disbelief to sadness to blame to guilt. We are different people in those moments. I was trying to give each of them their time.
Thom Ingram: There are lots of them. In “The Keys,” the bones in the bowl. In “The Loneliness,” the workers outside the window.
I am asking a magic question.
Keetje: You ARE asking a magic question!
Thom Ingram: Do these come to you as you are writing? Are they driven by language? Do you know when the perfect notes hit, that that was it?
Keetje: Funny tidbit: “The Keys” is actually a mirror poem, I just cut the mirror from it when I put it in the book. I don’t know why I cut it, but the thing works backwards and forwards, and now I sort of wish I’d kept it in.
Thom Ingram: Are they as epiphanic (made up word) for you as they are for the reader?
Keetje: I think a lot of a first draft for me is driven by sound. My teachers were all very into traditional craft tools, and I think that even though my stuff is mostly free verse, all of those tools are clicking away somewhere in the background, sound tools most of all. So those are fun discoveries to make as I’m writing.
I was looking for an early draft of that poem to share with you, but I can’t seem to find one!
Brian S: About how long did it take to “finish” this book?
Keetje: I wrote this book really quickly—a few of the poems are from 2008 or 2009, but almost all of them were written in 2010 and early 2011. I was a Stegner Fellow then and had so much time to write (and navel gaze), so I did.
Thom Ingram: How do you compare the composing process and editing process? Do you like one better than the other? Are you better at one than the other? Do you struggle with one more than the other?
Keetje: I love both parts of the process, but now that you ask that, Thom, I actually love the editing process. I’m oddly type A for a poet, so there is something extremely pleasurable for me about deconstructing a draft and stripping it down to its bones and then writing it all over again. I love that work of tearing it up, of re-examining every single word I’ve chosen, of putting it into a form and then taking it back out again. But, having said that, my best poems are the ones that come out perfectly formed the first time. They’re more rare, but they’re the best.
Rebecca: Crap! I was all excited about this chat and then forgot about it for a few hours today. Hi everyone! Hi Keetje! I LOVED every single one of these poems (which is rare; usually I get some and feel meh about others, even in collections that I love).
Jennifer: I’m curious about the recurring image/metaphor of the ocean. Why the ocean? How does your thinking about that image work with/against/around your thinking about landscapes?
Brian S: I was curious about the ocean as well, since I know much of your history is in Montana, a decidedly not-oceany place.
Mark Folse: And forgetting where Missoula is in relation to the mountains, I know the ocean sensation of rolling fields. Bradbury’s “The Sailor Home from the Sea.”
Keetje: The ocean had to do with living in California during the time that I was really working on the book. The fog would roll in in the evenings, and my dog, Bishop, and I would take these two hour walks around the neighborhood in SF where we lived, and go up high on the hills and see the fog hanging over the ocean, and stare in people’s lit windows, and think about loneliness. The ocean was always there, lurking, waiting to swallow me up with its huge sadness even when I couldn’t see it—I could smell it and taste it.
It’s certainly the most antagonistic relationship I’ve ever had with a landscape on the page, and I think that was a fairly new writing experience for me.
Thelma: Early 2011 was when Fukushima happened, so I wonder if the images of the tsunami might have made the ocean seem unusually antagonistic.
Brian S: Now I’m curious to see how you’ll write about Alabama (says the Louisiana boy).
Keetje: I’m loving trying to fit as many possums into my poems as possible, Brian!
Mark Folse: “Speaking as the Male Poet”: why this one persona? There are men translated (as in “The Oar”) but here he speaks.
If you don’t know Everette Maddox, I have to send you a copy of “13 Ways of Looking at a Possum.”
Keetje: I think I’ve heard of that, Mark, but haven’t read it!
Brian S: I remember thinking “I know that guy” when I read that poem, only to realize that I knew a lot of those guys. More than I wanted to admit.
Mark Folse: I goofed the title (ashamed of myself): Thirteen Ways of Being Looked At by a Possum.
Does he cut himself when you’re shaving? Or is that just me?
Jennifer: That poem was really interesting set alongside some of the poems that write the self as man in more desirable or positive ways.
Keetje: I’m not going to tell you which particular poet I was thinking of when I wrote that poem (yes, there was a particular poet), but…
Thom Ingram: “Speaking as the Male Poet,” I read as a serious comment, but I saw you reading it on YouTube at Page V. Stage and the audience took it as comedy. In a book (and time in your life) full of loneliness, how does comedy play in there?
Jennifer: The sad thing is we can probably all read that poem and think of a particular poet. Or two. Or several.
Keetje: I will say that being the daughter of a sociologist has always made me very sensitive to gender dynamics, especially when they have to do with power, and watching the way that certain work by men was received in workshop while similar work by women was received in an entirely different way… well.
Thom Ingram: Or ourselves.
Rebecca: Okay, I’m caught up. I’m always looking for the feminist perspective in poems written by women (I can’t help it, I don’t want to help it), and I saw it so much in the “Five Women Ending in a Flower” section, which was followed eventually by the “Speaking as the Male Poet” poem. And I was blown away and so happy.
It’s kind of like reading Jan Beatty’s poem where she tells the Best American Poetry series to kiss her ass. So what I’m saying is: yes, I know those male poets. I know what you’re supposed to write like.
Keetje: There has to be humor in the anger and the sadness, I think, or else it’s just completely self-indulgent, right?
Thom Ingram: Rebecca… title please?
Keetje: I get a fair amount of laughs when I read that poem, but also I get laughs when I read poems about being drunk, even though there is often nothing sadder than being drunk.
Thom Ingram: Can you see that humor in the middle of it, or do you see it looking back? “How silly were we?”
Keetje: I had the editor of a reputable literary magazine solicit me for work when I was in the midst of this manuscript. When I sent him what I thought were some of the best poems, he wrote back to say that he found the speakers to be “hysterical.” He did NOT mean funny.
Brian S: I think there has to be humor in general, but it’s not self-indulgent. I’ve gotten so tired of the overwhelming maleness of everything that I don’t even watch TV shows that don’t have women as fully-realized characters anymore, no matter how good people tell me the shows are. I’m just not interested.
Rebecca: The Jan Beatty poem is “Dear American Poetry” and it’s in the collection The Switching/Yard.
Keetje: I love you, Brian.
Rebecca: Brian, yes, yes, yes. Round of applause. I cannot deal with the amount of people who love True Detective and are not at all bothered by the (lack of) women’s roles that have any sort of interiority.
Keetje, I want to laugh and cry at the editor’s response.
Mark Folse: He said that? Hysterical. Amazing. Thinking of being swatted down in class for saying “seminal”, but I’m an old fart who just went back to school.
Thelma: Ah, yes, hysterical, from the word for womb, one of the world’s most ancient anti-woman epithets.
Keetje: Eventually I found it very funny, but it took some time 🙂
Jennifer: That’s for the next book: “Speaking as the Male Editor”
Thom Ingram: Nice.
Brian S: His loss. Have you started on new poems with the book having just come out?
Keetje: An angry woman is probably something society hates more than anything else, and lot of times my speakers in this book are really angry. I was worried that male readers wouldn’t be able to connect with the poems, and that women would feel shut out of them, too. Even though I’m writing from myself, I don’t want to write only for myself, so that was something that was on my mind a lot when I was working on this collection.
Brian S: Y’all have reason to be angry. Most days I’m amazed you don’t try to set the world on fire.
Thom Ingram: Ya, how do you view a book with such distance. I know you said it has been what three years or more since you wrote these. How does what you are writing now compare with these? What changes? What remains?
Rebecca: Okay, so backing up—what I typed in while I was trying to catch up—some of the stages of grief that you talk about tie in really well with the themes of the jail. And even though “waiting” is not a stage of grief (it isn’t, right?), it fit in so well. It really resonated for me because I am in the middle of waiting (to hear back from PhD programs—I’m on several waitlists), and several people I know are waiting. Did you feel like you were waiting for one thing, or just sense the waiting/jail/confined of everyone around you, or the idea that life is one big waiting game?
Keetje: For those of you who don’t know, I have a 14 month old at home, and I’m a single-mother-by-choice, so my writing life has changed dramatically in the last year. But yeah, I’m writing a fair amount still, and (no surprise) there are a lot of babies in these poems. Mostly they’re about the weirdness and self-consciousness of having a child.
Thom Ingram: There weren’t many of these I felt shut out of. Most of them, by craft and content, connected with my own loss and loneliness and confusion, and, at the end, hope and possibility.
Mark Folse: Agreed
Rebecca: Keetje, I found your anger not at all off-putting. It was the kind of anger that was restrained, as in I think if you use the metaphor of simmering and boiling water, some of it had boiled off. I found that because you were so precise in the words you used, the anger never felt raw. It was accessible.
Mark Folse: And other’s not so shut off and delving to understand.
Thelma: The ferocity of this book’s poems is actually refreshing. “Down to the ditch water.” I loved that.
Keetje: Thanks, gentlemen—you have no idea how much I appreciate hearing that. And thanks for pointing that out about precision, Rebecca—that is always what I’m hoping.
Mark Folse: Ferocity a much more apt term than anger.
Rebecca: But the anger was still very powerful.
Thom Ingram: Intensity. Sincerity. Genuineness.
Beth: Hi, I’ve been quietly reading along…hopefully that’s not too alarming! You mentioned that your writing life has changed since having a child. I was just wondering if that is mostly because of obvious time and attention constraints, or are there are changes you’ve noticed?
Rebecca: Btw, I wrote about “Letter to an Inmate in Solitary Confinement” on the poetry blog I share with a friend, Structure and Style.
Jennifer: When we were talking about anger, I was thinking I didn’t read anger so much as fierce truth-telling. It seems like you’re bringing that to the poems with babies in them. Especially those last two sentences. Oof.
Keetje: Beth, your question about how Nela has changed my writing: mostly it’s about having the mental space. Sure, I don’t have any time, but time can be made (robbed from sleep mostly). But it’s the mental space I no longer possess. I have written my poems while taking walks for the last several years, and I still take lots of lovely, peaceful walks. But now I’m thinking about washing diapers or pureeing carrots instead of poems. It’s hard to shift gears.
Brian S: Seconded. I haven’t written since the twins were born. I’ll make the space eventually, but I haven’t found it yet.
Keetje: Thanks, Jennifer—I’m also thinking a lot about my own parents these days, and how odd it is after all these years to suddenly understand them in a way I never had before. There is a lot of gratitude and humility in the poems I’m writing now, but bewilderment, too.
Rebecca: I think there’s an essay by Judith Ortiz Cofer about having to get up at 5 a.m. to write, to make space for herself.
Keetje: Yes, Brian—sometimes I find it and sometimes I don’t. I’m actually more drawn to writing prose these days, even though I feel like it requires more time. There’s something about the continuity of prose that works better with my brain these days. It doesn’t require the kind of epiphanic thinking that Thom was asking me about before—it’s more of a slog, which is something I can do these days.
Thom Ingram: I love that in both instances you are taking the instances of your actual life and turning them into art.
Rebecca: I’ve heard that when you become a parent, all of your issues with your parents come out in ways you thought you’d dealt with or repressed.
Thom Ingram: I’ve had teachers complain about students being self-referential and not grandiose and long-viewed enough.
Keetje: Like I said before, Thom: I write “from” myself, but I don’t want to write “for” myself.
Mark Folse: Infants have the eyes of poets: they see the magic in the corner of the room and crawl doggedly toward it,
Keetje: I don’t even like to say that I write “about” myself, because it’s so much looser than that, you know?
Rebecca: That’s the point of creative nonfiction, to me—making art out of our lives, making the bad and terrible and hard things beautiful. Making the language sing.
Thom Ingram: That’s a great way to look at it.
Rebecca: And I like when poets do it, obviously. (That’s why I like a lot of creative nonfiction written by poets, too.)
Keetje: There’s plenty in my poems that’s fictionalized, but not the feeling—the feeling is real.
Jennifer: I like that about/from/for distinction. I’m totally going to borrow that.
Thom Ingram: But even the fictionalized ocean has the scent of actual ocean.
Rebecca: I like that line, Keetje. YES.
Keetje: It’s hard to write poems about the baby, though—I feel like I can’t render her in a way that does her justice. These poems that feature her are really just a prism that provides another way of examining myself. Blerg.
Thom Ingram: I always think of Naomi Shihab Nye’s “One Boy Told Me”.
Keetje: I also find myself increasingly committed to writing poetry that is more overtly political, but man, that is ridiculously difficult for me.
Jennifer: What makes it difficult?
Rebecca: Why do you think it’s difficult?
Beth: Funny, I was just about to ask about other subjects that you find difficult.
Jennifer: Great minds. 🙂
Keetje: Again, I feel like I can’t render these issues in a way that does them justice. I’m so overwhelmed by their complexity and the challenges of facing them. For instance, I’m teaching a bunch of Jake Adam York to my students right now in my Poetry of Southern Witness class—and those poems! How does he do it?!
Rebecca: Sometimes political poems are really off-putting, but strangely I like some poets better when they’re being political. Like, say, Bob Hicok. I like him best when he’s writing about the economy.
Mark Folse: Were you thinking of having a child when working on these poems? The line approximately “I don’t get that drunk again/feet planted in this carpet” and “A Beautiful Night for a Rodeo,” that you aren’t there.
Rebecca: Ooh. I haven’t read any poems by Jake Adam York.
Keetje: I tried to write a Trayvon Martin poem that other day and was just cringing all over the place doing it. It’s such important work, it’s part of our job as poets, but I fail again and again at it.
Thom Ingram: See, you have magic questions for other poets. “How do they do that?”
Keetje: Totally, Thom.
Mark Folse: Are we really trained the craft of political poems, in this country where poets are insignificant? (Thinking of the piece online about the young Ukranian poet).
Rebecca: Maybe it’s still raw? Again, I find so far in reading your poems that you’re very precise and controlled. That’s not to say I don’t find a lot of feeling/depth of emotion here, but you don’t just vomit all over the page. I know language is one way you’re doing this; how else do you create that distance/composure?
Jennifer: I wonder if it’s a matter of the whole “from you” thing—Bob Hicok and Jake Adam York have it down when it comes to writing political poems that at least seem to be “from” them.
Brian S: If anything, I think we’ve been trained out of being political poets in this country, at least in the way I think you’re using the term, Mark. I was told by one of my professors that it wasn’t good to get specifically political in poems because I was writing obsolescence into them, that no one would know in 10 years what I was talking about.
Keetje: Today I was driving home from work and they were talking on the news about that oil spill near Galveston, and I saw a woman walking down the street reading a book while she was walking, and I was full of milk because I’d been away from my daughter for five hours—and I wanted to put all those pieces together and make a poem out of them! But the politics is difficult for me to work in in a way that I’m happy with, and then the mental space to write the poem is difficult to find, too.
Rebecca: I suppose this is another waiting game, then?
Mark Folse: The politics of the BP oil spill generated a lot of poetry, but then writers had the physical landscape to work with, not an abstract but that particular pelican frozen forever in the shape of the state seal.
Keetje: My undergraduates in this Southern Witness class are writing amazing poems about the 50th anniversary celebration of integration down here—but I think you’re right, Jennifer, it’s because this is “from” them!
Thom Ingram: I think of it like I think of comedians. The ones who are topical and political have to be WAY better than those who just dance on the same topics that have been funny for ten thousand years.
Thom Ingram: Brian, there are 1,000 examples that prove the prof wrong.
Beth: Maybe that’s it Brian—the best political poems are political and universal in some way? Because even political events are human events.
Brian S: Yeah, I know. He seemed to think that “Easter 1918” was the one that succeeded, but that all the others failed.
Thom Ingram: Codger!
Beth: (not that I agree with the professor, just made me think of a potential quality for good political poems)
Rebecca: I don’t know about that. I still subscribe to Czeslaw Milosz’s ideas that unless we make history personal, it will always just be records and history books. That the personal matters.
Jennifer: With Wikipedia, no reference will ever be obsolete.
Beth: Aside from seeing moments and things and people (as you just described), do you have rituals for language gathering?
Keetje: Beth, I gather things just in the way I’ve described above and I chew on them for days, weeks, and then all of a sudden I’ll realize how they fit together. It has to do with figuring out what that poem actually wants to be “about.”
Beth: Solving a puzzle
Keetje: Beth: Puzzle, yes! For me it’s like sudoku.
Mark Folse: Now that you’re in the south, will you be able to shake the dust of Montana from your shoes, or will you always be at some level the Tumbleweed Queen?
Keetje: I’ll always spend summers in Montana—I’ll never leave that place and it’ll never leave me.
Rebecca: I just feel inclined to mention the amount of child of divorce poems—or a feeling similar to that, if that’s not exactly the case—in here, and how much I appreciated them. I don’t see poems about those feelings often, I think, and they resonated deeply. But I don’t have a question. Just a thanks.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days?
Keetje: I am reading lots of Jake and also all of Natasha Trethewey again. But Melissa Kwasny is a poet I come back to a lot, too. I’m also reading tarfia faizullah and Rob Schlegel and Randall Mann and a ton of other stuff I picked up at AWP.
Beth: Would be sad if all political events were forgotten in 10 years. Maybe that’s why poets should write about them.
Rebecca: I think the point is always to make something universal or accessible, but it can still be rooted in an event or a time.
Thom Ingram: Poets: First version of history.
Keetje: That Trayvon poem ended up being about a mother losing a child and so I think I had to make it personal in that way for it to work for me. I’m ok with it now. I had to imagine myself into the mom’s shoes
Thom Ingram: Keetje, awesome book. Great work.
Rebecca: Thanks so much for everything!
Keetje: Thank you, y’all!