Woven from Dreams: A Conversation with Kiki Petrosino
In 2008, I enrolled in a graduate workshop at the University of Louisville where the professor had made a course pack featuring poems from recently published collections and upcoming debuts. The first poem in the pack was “WASH,” which is also the first poem of Kiki Petrosino’s Fort Red Border. This poem stayed with me. Lines floated through my mind for years: “The sun is not a customizable thing,” “If it were a wound, it would be terrible,” “Ribs have their own set of shadows, their own lights.”
The next year when the book was published, I poured over each page of Fort Red Border collecting more images that would not dissolve. For instance: “I dream / a bird / lands on the wooden desk in my chest / to slur // its bones with ink.”
In 2013, I reviewed Petrosino’s second book, Hymn for the Black Terrific. There were questions I wanted to ask the poet then, but I decided to riddle through on my own. Now, as I sit down with my advanced copy of her third collection, Witch Wife, the time has come to initiate a conversation that’s been brewing for close to a decade. Who is this poet? What incantations forged her? How does she cast her spells?
The Rumpus: Imagine you’ve been granted three wishes by a poetry genie, but the genie predetermines the nature of the wishes. The first is that you get to be the author of a line, a stanza, a poem, or a whole collection of poems that you didn’t actually write but wish you had written—what do you choose and why? The second is that you get to create the absolute ideal reader for one or all of your own books of poetry, the reader who understands and appreciates everything you’re doing in your work completely—describe that reader. And the third is that you get to live in a parallel universe where you are successful in another career/vocation/livelihood that does not involve the writing of poems or the teaching of poetry—what does that life look like?
Kiki Petrosino: I don’t so much wish I’d written Anne Sexton’s All My Pretty Ones as much as I wish I could live inside that book. I nearly did, one summer, when I stumbled across a copy at a writing retreat in Florida. I love how Sexton’s poems readily admit their autobiographical origins; it’s a book of elegies and goodbyes of various sorts, each of them passionate and heartfelt and specific to Sexton’s voice. The poems explore the spaces of parting, as in the title poem, which begins, “Father, the year’s jinx rides us apart.” At the same time, the book is a fervent reassertion of the poet’s commitment to language. Rhyme, incantatory repetition, and deeply rendered images make the poems feel alive and kinetic. In Witch Wife, I tried a few poems in overt imitation of Sexton’s style: “Young,” “Ghosts,” and “Lament” are my responses to her poems of the same titles, in which I try to spend time among the trees of Sexton’s language, planting my own small seeds beneath.
My ideal reader is beyond my reach. She’s my younger self, somewhere between twelve and fifteen, the very worst years of adolescence, when it seems the excruciating work of growing up will never end. It never does end, of course, but the growth is slower now, far less painful than the pain of girlhood. As a teen, my default mood often was a combination of loneliness and sadness, even though I had plenty (friends, family) to be happy about! The trouble was, I felt trapped by childhood. Family friends often remarked to my parents that I looked like I “couldn’t wait to grow up,” and it was true. I wanted to see the world, make lots of friends, host dinner parties—basically, I wanted to be in control of all the best parts of adulthood. I’d like to think that my younger self would’ve appreciated my poems for the way they synthesize some of my life experiences as a writer, teacher, and traveler. I think that younger version of me needed to know that the world is really just as exciting and full of the potential for joy as she dreamed.
In another universe, I’d be a DJ on some sort of ‘Morning Zoo’-type radio broadcast. My mother loved (and still loves!) pop music, and when I was growing up, the day always started with radio, usually Brian & O’Brien (a drive-time show on Baltimore’s B104), or Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 Countdown. There’s something incredibly familiar and exciting to me about what happens in the transition from a radio announcer’s voice to the opening riff of a pop song. It makes me want to be in the center of that sound, arranging an experience for the listener. As a kid, one of my favorite “toys” was just a boombox loaded with a blank Memorex cassette tape. My sister and I would play “radio station” together, pretending to be zany co-hosts—quarreling, joking, and trying on different voices. As a naturally self-conscious child, radio seemed like the perfect place to perform without being seen. So in this parallel universe, I guess I’d still be devoted to language, but my words would live on the air in a much more ephemeral way than my written poetry.
Rumpus: I want to ask you about your first book, Fort Red Border. From hearing you speak about the book some years ago, I know the title is an anagram of Robert Redford. Could you talk a bit about committing this particular act of imagination—how the idea to create a speaker engaged in an intimate relationship with a man named Redford came about, how you tended the idea, and if you knew what you were making as you were making? Also, I must ask: what surprised you most about writing this book, and what surprised you most about the process of bringing the completed book into the world?
Petrosino: As an undergraduate, I took a music history class that was called something like Introduction to Opera. One of the pieces we studied was Zefferelli’s 1983 film adaptation of Verdi’s La Traviata. It’s about Violetta, a beautiful courtesan who falls in love with a rich gentleman, Alfredo, only to have Alfredo’s father Giorgio forbid the match. Violetta ends up dying of tuberculosis. The libretto stages a reconciliation scene at Violetta’s deathbed, during which Alfredo and Giorgio beg her forgiveness. But in the final scene of Zefferelli’s film, the redemptive trio turns out to be a hallucination; Alfredo and Giorgo disappear into thin air, and Violetta dies all alone. In writing the title sequence of Fort Red Border, I was thinking about the final moments of that film, which are all about desire’s ability to generate its own reality. I thought, What if someone were so lonely they could conjure up some company? Who would appear? I was surprised to see the Redford-muse materialize in the first poem, but then I let him stay. He and the speaker had places to go and things to say. I followed them.
Rumpus: I’m curious to know what surprised you most about where your poet-speaker and Redford traveled and what they said or perhaps didn’t say. Did you ever find yourself “lost” at any point during your writing or revision of Fort Red Border—and not necessarily in a negative sense—but bewildered and/or beguiled as to how you arrived there? And secondly, I’m wondering how you see Fort Red Border as a primer—if you do—for writing your exceptional second book, Hymn for the Black Terrific, which strikes my ear as a sonic continuation and expansion of your first project but seems to me to climb (and conquer) very different thematic terrain.
Petrosino: They traveled to many places that were meaningful to me in my early adulthood. Some, like the ski community of Crans Montana in Valais, Switzerland, were locations where I spent brief snatches of time. The boarding school where I taught in the early 2000s used to have something called Ski Term. In winter, the whole campus would move from the city of Lugano to the mountains of Crans, where everyone—students, faculty, and staff—would ski in the morning and take classes in the afternoon. At Crans, also learned to ski, sort of, though it always felt like trying on a slightly uncomfortable (and expensive) costume. In writing Fort Red Border, I wanted time to wonder about a physical and cultural space like Crans. What would it be like to feel fully comfortable, not only among people who regularly could afford to ski at a place like that, but in the environment itself, snowy, elevated, and bordered by glacier? Switzerland was a “bewildering” place for me, its unfamiliarity a wilderness that made me strange to myself. In Hymn for the Black Terrific, I wanted to keep “wilding” my language, making the familiar seem strange. The theme of travel emerges in the final sequence of that book, as a personage I call “the Eater” makes her way across various exotic landscapes. The act of eating stands in for other exploratory acts in unfamiliar space: reading, writing, watching, listening. I wrote several of the poems in Hymn after traveling to Mainland China. When you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language, your five senses become your mode and means of exploration. When you can’t speak, you listen more. When you can’t read, you pay attention to tone of voice, body language. You feel the weather. Feeling out of place is an occasion for sharpening your attention to place.
Rumpus: How do you think about and occupy the space/place of the poetry classroom? Perhaps I should begin by asking about the kind of poetry student you were as an undergraduate and graduate student—or earlier, if you had the opportunity to study poetry before college. In what ways did the academic experience of poetry both enlarge and constrain your poetic sensibilities? And as you moved to the other side of the desk, did you ever feel out of place there? If so, were you able to use that experience to sharpen your attention to the students at hand, the rituals of workshop, the anxiety around grading creative work, etc.? In a roundabout way, I suppose I’m asking what kind of poetry teacher you are and if your presence in the classroom is modeled on any particular mentors from your own life?
Petrosino: In my memory, I was a poetry student who picked up new techniques quickly but didn’t spend a lot of time reading published poetry on my own. One of my most cringe-worthy moments as a student took place during a conversation with my then-professor, Charles Wright, at UVA. He asked me the question that everyone asks young poets: who are you reading? I rattled off the names of some poets who were on my syllabi for my various classes, and then I admitted to not reading much beyond that. “You should be reading poetry every chance you get,” he told me, and it’s one of those memories that gets more, not less, embarrassing to me with every passing year. Back then, I guess I thought that reading poetry was something to do for fun, during free time. And I had no free time, basically, as an undergraduate student on scholarship. Now I see that encouraging young poets to read is crucial for helping them build a writing practice. So much work happens between the activities of reading and writing; they feed each other. So in my creative writing classroom, I always assign several published works, usually grouped around a theme. While I have the chance to teach poetry workshops at the University of Louisville, most of my classes are multi-genre. This semester, in my graduate workshop, I’ve focused the reading list on the notion of unreliability. We’re reading novels like DuMaurier’s Rebecca, and hybrid projects like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets; the point being to interpret “unreliability” broadly enough to encompass multiple sites of instability within a text. I’m also running workshop sessions in that class, of course, but I like to ask students to consider a single craft topic for the semester, something that plugs into and reaches beyond the manuscripts they’re already working on. Starting last semester, I’ve also begun requiring students to start an author website or blog on which they can post about their reading and writing. I want to prepare them to answer that “who are you reading” question when it comes for them!
Rumpus: How has reading and teaching fiction and lyric essay projects, including but not limited to DuMaurier’s and Nelson’s, influenced your own poetic sensibilities? Further, have you written or do you imagine writing creative prose, whether traditionally plot-driven or associative/experimental, whether fictional or autobiographical or some combination thereof?
Petrosino: I love the multi-genre mode, too. In my own training as a creative writer, there was no opportunity to take a workshop like that; from the moment I decided to take my high school English teacher’s extracurricular poetry workshop, I was a poet, forever amen. I think it’s really important for young writers to develop secondary genre specialties, and creative nonfiction is mine. I write the occasional lyric essay, such as this one in the Iowa Review. And, last year, I wrote a series of essays close-reading Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia for Ploughshares. This is a wonderful era for women essayists, and I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from voices like Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, Roxane Gay, Camille Dungy, and two dear friends, Leslie Jamison and Kim Brooks. My own writing process for prose is very slow, though. For some reason writing an essay feels more vulnerable than poetry, maybe because it’s still so new to me. Essays that take associative leaps between related subjects are really fascinating to me right now, likely because the poems I admire tend to move similarly. My interior life is woven from dreams, misremembered conversations, from the last history book I read, from television. I’d like, in my prose writing, to develop a lightness sufficient for moving among all those sites of inquiry.
Rumpus: When I think of your body of work to date, I think of a word I learned in graduate school that I love—rhizomatic—branching in many directions at once like an elaborate root system. Which brings me of course to your newest collection of poems, a rich new poetic growth called Witch Wife. I’m curious to know what has changed in your life as well as your conception of yourself between writing the first book and writing the third? How, for instance, is it different writing a book as a graduate student than writing a book now—as a person much more established in her literary and academic career? Or, to enter the question through another door: What do you know about yourself as a writer now that you didn’t know before?
Petrosino: I wrote most of the poems of Fort Red Border while I lived in Iowa City as a graduate student and in the few years after graduation. Between that book and Witch Wife, I’ve gotten married, started a tenure-track job at the University of Louisville, earned tenure, become Director of the Creative Writing Program in my English department, taught in London and Morocco, climbed (part of) the Great Wall of China, learned to crochet, learned to bake bread, bought a house, started guitar lessons, and eaten a fried bee. There’s an old adage that women in academia are often told. It’s said that every baby you have is a book you don’t write. In my experience, the opposite may be true: that every book I’ve written is a baby I haven’t had. My life is ecstatic and full, but the question of family remains. Witch Wife is about family, nuclear and nebulous. It’s about what happens when the mind will not rest on one side of the question or another; when you must find, within the double dutch of ambivalence, some sort of resting place. What I now know about myself as a writer is that uncertainty is generative of new poems for me.
Rumpus: What are your favorite words, Kiki Petrosino—conceptually, sonically, both? Top five.
Petrosino: Black, white, home, opal, sweet.
Rumpus: Name your five least favorite words—conceptually, sonically, or both.
Petrosino: I love language too much to have any least favorite words. Any word can become powerful in the right story.
Rumpus: Imagine you’re editing an anthology for release in 2020 called Hindsight Is 2020: A Compendium of Crucial Poets for the First Fifth of the 21st Century. I’d like to know a few of the poets whose work you’d include in this volume, and if you’re inclined, a few of the specific poems. And let’s say you have a co-editor who wants to include one of your poems in the anthology, as is only fitting, but this editor asks you to choose the poem from your own body of work to date. Which poem would of your own would you choose, and why?
Petrosino: I like to teach whole books of poetry, so this anthology would be multi-volume! Here are just a few voices I would include:
Shane McCrae, Blood
Lauren Haldeman, Instead of Dying
Camille Dungy, Suck on the Marrow
Srikanth Reddy, Facts for Visitors
Mary Szybist, Incarnadine
Katie Ford, Colosseum
Anne Carson, Nox
As for me, I’d choose my poem, “Europe,” from Witch Wife, a piece which (to date) has not found a home in any magazine, but for which I feel an affection I can’t get to the bottom of. It’s a loose villanelle that goes back and forth in time. And it’s about a real, recurring dream of mine. It may be my most autobiographical poem, and I’m not even there. Not really.
Rumpus: I’m intrigued! Might we have a taste of the poem in closing?
Petrosino: Here are the first two stanzas:
Every night, I go back to your house
behind the abandoned caserma, where once
I wept in my clothes on the street.
Your same window with its rolling blinds.
Same diesel smell. Same birds on the roof.
Every night, I go back to your house.