The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Kara Candito about goats, sexuality, Lorca, and slow writing in this chat about her book Spectator from the University of Utah Press.
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 Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So, top of the hour, first question—where did you find that goat for the cover? I mean more like, what’s your relationship with the cover image?
Kara: Well, I love Beth Cavener’s work. I discovered her work at the Chazen Museum here in Madison, where she has a sculpture called “A Rush of Blood to the Head” on display which features two goats with giant erections embracing. That wasn’t the right tone for Spectator, obviously. But then I discovered “Olympia” (the cover image). Something about the way she imbues animals with human emotions/desires really speaks to me.
Jennifer: How were you thinking about the book’s title? There’s the relationship of silence and spectating in “Bestiary,” but I wondered how you thought about being a spectator in relation to the book as a whole…
Kara: I’m fascinated with the voyeurism that defines so much of contemporary culture. We watch others, we watch ourselves, and share images of ourselves being watched. Revisiting the stories and myths that encompass many of the poems in Spectator necessitated a kind of voyeurism, too. As did the processes involved in an international marriage.
Yes, “Bestiary” was the poem in which I discovered the title. There’s a sense of the female body as animal and grotesque throughout the book and the speaker observing the manatee in “Bestiary.”
Brian S: Where does that poem fall in the chronology of the book? Early? Late?
Kara: Do you mean where does the poem fall in terms of when it was written?
Brian S: Yeah. I’m always interested in how long it takes for a book to come together, among other things.
Kara: It was written earlier than many of the others, around the time that the Lorca persona poems were written. The book took about 4.5 years to write.
Jennifer: Now that I’m looking back through the book, I can see those representations of voyeurism: cameras, footage, eyes everywhere…
Kara: Yes, definitely. Having to provide evidence of your most intimate relationships really makes one feel outside of them in a powerful, almost poetic way.
Brian S: I was thinking that we published the Levis poem 3 or 4 years ago now. I still get chills when I read that poem.
Kara: That pleases me, Brian! “Family Elegy” was such an ungainly poem. It took forever.
Jennifer: Could you talk a bit about what moved you to write in the persona of Lorca?
Kara: Sure. Lorca was one of my first obsessions as a writer. I’m fascinated with the way he uses language, how he makes eroticism and annihilation overlap. I also took this excellent graduate seminar on Lorca and queer theory, which made me think about the ways in which he deploys and deflects desire.
Brian S: That sounds like a fascinating class.
Kara: Historically and culturally, Lorca’s sexuality was taboo, but to the contemporary reader, it seems so evident, I think. I’m fascinated with ways in which self and (social) world intertwine, and Lorca seems to me an embodiment of this overlap. So yeah, it also became a question of how to enter into Lorca’s persona while still making the mask obvious. I mean I can’t and didn’t want to mime Lorca (who did it first and best). So the whole thing was a challenge.
Brian S: He’s someone I wish I’d read more of. I’ll have to make time for it. You’ve re-piqued my interest in him.
Kara: Excellent. Poeta en Nueva York is a great place to start.
Jennifer: Those were some of the most powerful poems in the book for me… maybe because they speak so well to the other poems that wrestle with desire in more contemporary situations.
Kara: If you’re a theory nerd, Jonathan Mayhew’s Apocryphal Lorca rocks, too.
I’m glad you connected with them, Jennifer.
Brian S: Can you talk a little about how “Genealogy of the Father” came about as a poem? I was really drawn to it, probably because of my own difficult relationship with my dad, who passed away earlier this year.
Kara: I saw that on FB, Brian. The “Father” poem started as a kind of perverse dare. When I was doing a VT Studio Center residency, this older male poet visited. Those of us who had individual meetings with him all came away with one assignment: to write father poems. At first, I balked at the idea, thinking about the legacy of 70s-80s poetics, etc.
Brian S: Those male poets!
Kara: Then, I started seeing these very real threads about inheritance (cultural and social) in my work and began to weave a kind of tapestry surrounding the “father.” It ended up being one of the most difficult poems to write.
Oh male poets!
And it was ultimately really rewarding. So thanks, older male poet, for asking me to write the “daddy poem.” I’ve also been more and more drawn to fragments and fragmentation and their function in the long poem, so this was a kind of primer for “Ars Amatoria” and some of the newer stuff I’m working on.
Brian S: Section VII. “How does it feel to want?” Just a punch to the stomach. My dad never said that, exactly, but he got the same emotion across.
Evie: But also male personas. That seems to be part of how you gain the distance you wanted from Lorca while using him as a persona—you’re a woman writing in the voice of a male poet. Was that difficult?
Kara: That’s a great question. It was hard as hell, to be honest. But I think it would’ve been harder with a dead heterosexual male poet.
Evie: It’s hard to convey tone without body language, right? How did you approach that challenge in the poems?
Kara: Excellent segue, Evie. I find that repetition and association work best for me in terms of conveying tone. By which I mean association as figurative language. To say one experience or image is like another can often, for me, invest it with an affect that might otherwise be missing.
Evie: I’m looking for a good example of this…
Jennifer: I’m thinking of the desperation of the Open During Construction sign in “Monologue During a Blackout.” It pulled humor into a moment when I wasn’t expecting humor…
Kara: Thanks for that, Jennifer. I guess the only way to bridge the giant chasm between human and animal (zebra) was to create a very synthetic bridge.
Evie: Yes—I see that! I also saw it in the repetition of the image of the blizzard from “Creation Myth (1979)” in “Family Elegy.” There’s humor—a kind of dark humor—in that.
Kara: Interesting. Thanks for pointing that out, Evie. It’s weird how much wintery imagery crept into Spectator.
Brian S: Or the near-repetition of the Spanish in “Dying In an Earthquake in Mexico City”?
Kara: Yes, I got into the accidents and miracles of translation and heteroglossia, too.
Humor is so hard! At readings, for example, I’ll sometimes read a poem that I think is hilarious and no one laughs (shame).
Jennifer: They probably don’t think it’s okay to laugh during poetry readings. Poets are serious folk, no?
Kara: I wish we weren’t so serious. Or maybe I’m just not funny.
Brian S: Yeah, I try to disabuse them of that notion about 30 seconds into my readings.
Kara: How do you do it?
Evie: You have to smile knowingly. : )
Kara: Yes. Silly sage smiles.
Brian S: I use a lot of self-deprecating humor in my opening remarks and then lead with a poem that has a slapstick moment in it. Or a fart joke. Or an f-bomb. Something very low brow.
Evie: Alliteration is also funny.
Brian S: The key is that you can’t be subtle, not at first.
Kara: Alliteration can be hilarious. And I’m into the scatalogical, too.
Kara: So can I ask y’all which of the poems from Spectator you enjoyed/connected with/remembered, etc?
Evie: So, I just want to say hats off to some of your wow-lines! For example, from “Lorca’s Last Letter to Dali,” the closing sentence!!
Kara: Oh hey, thanks, Evie. That one might’ve been a gift from Lorca.
Evie: “…while Spain / emptied its ashtrays into our mouths.”
Brian S: I’ve already declared my love for the Levis Elegy, but also “Ars Amatoria.” Something about those tiny sections that just build off each other. That strikes me, by the way, as a poem that could be very funny in the reading depending on how you pause it, even though the net effect of the poem is a bit more serious.
Jennifer: For me, one was “There are Lots of Guns Here–“. I think because of where it fell in the book… I was expecting a sigh of relief after “Ars Amatoria,” and then, BOOM, more vigilance and threat. So unexpected.
Brian S: Yes, Jennifer. Yes.
Kara: Interesting, Brian. I actually think that’s one of the “funny” poems in the collection, too.
Evie: It’s not italicized, so I was thinking it’s yours. But either way…
Kara: “There Are Lots of Guns Here” was written later on.
Oops, Evie. I meant that maybe Lorca’s spirit visited the line upon me or something.
Brian S: It’s funny—I grew up next to gun culture, by which I mean that we didn’t own guns, but everyone around us did, and yet the older I get, the less tolerance I have for them.
Kara: In response to your comment about narrative, Jennifer, yes I was thinking about subverting the sense of relief.
Me, too, Brian.
Evie: I loved the “Ars Amatoria,” by the way. Anyone who has loved an immigrant—especially from south of the border—would be knocked out by it.
Kara: Teaching here in WI, there’s such a strong hunting culture, which I can respect, but I can’t respect our gun laws and the tragedies they enable.
Thank you, Evie!
Evie: Oh, right! Going back to Lorca—I totally get that.
Molly: Perhaps your life in Wisconsin brought in the winter, after such a long summer in Florida.
Kara: My husband, who’s from Mexico really can’t believe the whole cultural obsession with the second amendment.
Evie: It is mystifying, isn’t it?
Brian S: Let him know that I can’t either, and I grew up here.
Kara: I know. It’s just mystifying that so many of us feel this way, Brian, but there’s so little optimism regarding change.
Hi Molly! That could definitely be the case. I’m one of those porous, external writers, so that would make total sense.
Brian S: How long have you been in Wisconsin?
Kara: I’ve been in WI for 4 years now.
Molly: Brian, are you in the Midwest too?
Brian S: Yep. In Des Moines for the last 3 years.
Kara: Shout out to all the poets living on CST Jennifer, Molly, Brian! Where are you, Evie?
Evie: NJ! EST!
Kara: My heart is on EST.
Brian S: Which is what my wife refers to as “real time,” being the Florida native that she is.
Evie: LOL—literally. Great line, Kara!
Kara: Let’s just say I get your wife, Brian.
Evie: I also love your wife’s take, Brian. (Says the woman who grew up on Central time…)
Brian S: What are you working on now?
Kara: I’m working on a series of longer, fragmented poems that respond to my time teaching in China, immigration, displacement in general, and also the works of some visual artists like Ai-weiwei and Louise Bourgeois.
Kara: The “third collection” is so far called So Sorry.
Brian S: Louise Bourgeois? Have you read Camille Guthrie’s Articulated Lair? It was a book club selection last year.
Molly: Have you read Camille Guthrie’s Articulated Lair?
Kara: I have not, but I will now!
Brian S: There’s a Bourgeois on display here in Des Moines. One of those crazy spiders.
Kara: That almost makes me want to drive to Des Moines.
Molly: I just reviewed it for PANK/—it’ll be out June 3 or 6 or something—it’s good. And I loved using the conversation from here as source material!
Kara: Love that stuff. I’ve been reading Destruction of the Father/Reconstruction of the Father.
Brian S: It’s not a bad drive. I went through Madison on my way to Milwaukee last year.
Kara: Yeah, I’ve done it once and it wasn’t bad in good weather.
Brian S: If you’re doing readings for the book is all I’m saying.
Molly: (Midwestern drives are so dull though… Oof.)
Kara: It’s true, although 80 midwest miles are actually feasible, while 80 northeast miles are insane. Traffic, humanity, etc.
Brian S: Look at it this way—you’re nowhere near Nebraska or Kansas. Are you doing any readings for the book outside of Madison?
Evie: A lot of corn, but it’s pleasant.
Kara: That is optimistic. I’ve been to Nebraska once. Omaha seems like a great town.
Molly: And windmills! Yes, are you doing a tour? 🙂
Kara: Yes, I’m reading in Minneapolis, Chicago, Salt Lake City, and somewhere else I can’t remember.
Molly: Oh, when in Minneapolis?
Kara: It’s for Matt Mauch’s series. The name is escaping me.
Brian S: Oh, at Maeve’s? I read there maybe a year ago?
Molly: Not Maeve’s?
Kara: Now that summer is here, I’ve been making some readings dates. Yes, it’s Maeve’s.
Brian S: Jinx again.
Molly: I know, right? Brilliant minds, all of that.
Kara: You and Molly are like a single chatroom heartbeat.
Evie: Let us know if you’re coming to the NYC area.
Brian S: This chat is making me feel like I know people, which is very odd. Good odd, but odd.
Kara: I will definitely try to make it there. Miss NYC.
Molly: (My husband made fun of me—wait, there’s no audio? So it’s like Internet relay chat, huh?) (And my daughter is all, “What’s making that pecking sound?! Is that a bird?!” She’s super-frustrated trying to find the bird.)
Kara: I know what you mean, Brian. My husband asked me if I was going to change out of my around-the-house clothes for the interview and I said NO WAY.
Evie: The poetry world is a small world, sometimes.
Molly: Kara, I’m curious, always, about revision—what is your process to get a poem “done”?
Brian S: Who are you reading these days? What books should we be looking for?
Evie: Please answer both of these questions!
Kara: I’m a slow, slow writer. I often write a “bad” poem, then come back to it after a few months and hack it up into something entirely new. I guess that’s why it takes me 4-5 years between books. Sigh.
Evie: Nothing wrong with that.
Molly: It takes Carolyn Forché something like a decade. It’s well worth the wait. We all have our own paces.
Evie: Bob Hass too.
Jennifer: There’s something to be said for slow writing. I’d rather read a book that’s had time to develop than one that got spun out too quickly.
Brian S: Reminds me of a review of an early album by, I want to say, Mobb Deep? Said he banged out an album in a week, and the reviewer wanted to know why he didn’t take the time to make it good.
Molly: (I keep wanting to “like” these statements. I have to sit on my hands.)
Kara: In terms of who I’m reading now (this is a great time to ask because it’s summer): Lunch Poems; Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam; Carmen Gimenez Smith’s Milk & Filth; Lorna de Cervantes, From the Cables of Genocide.
Evie: lol, Molly.
Kara: And James Schuyler. I always go back to him.
Molly: Oh yum, that’s a good list!
Kara: Agreed, Jennifer!
Brian S: 1 minute to go. Any last questions?
Molly: What journals do you like the most / what’s a dream journal to get into / that you’ve gotten into?
Kara: My dream journal is Beloit Poetry Journal (hopeful smile).
Molly: Thanks, Kara!
Brian S: Thanks everyone for coming out tonight. And thanks Kara for such a fabulous book.
Jennifer: This has to be one of the funniest chats I’ve been in on.
Kara: Ha, Molly. Thanks so much all for your careful readings and brilliant questions. And for the book recommendation. Camille Guthrie’s Articulated Lair is on my list.