The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Kimberly Grey about her collection Systems for the Future of Feeling (Persea Books, December 2020), the challenges of writing about grief, Anne Carson energy, how poems that seem to be about the present moment aren’t always (because the present isn’t always that different from the past), and more.
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 join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include torrin a. greathouse, Erin Belieu, Adrienne Christian, Threa Almontaser, Kayleb Rae Candrilli, Andrés Cerpa, Kevin Simmonds, Kaveh Akbar, Carly Ingram, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: The publication of this book was pushed back a couple of times because of COVID, right? What’s that been like and how does it feel to try to release a book in the middle of a pandemic?
Kimberly Grey: You know, it’s been hard. I’ve had cancel many events, trips, etc. And, it’s hard to get the word out in the same way when you can’t connect directly with people. But there have been some bright lights in there, including reading with Anne Carson a few nights ago. She Zoomed in from Iceland. If times were normal, I doubt I’d have the opportunity to read with her. So, virtual events do create community that would otherwise not exist!
Brian S: Iceland! Right, and in fact the first time we virtually met was because of one of those online events. The memorial for Eavan Boland, which you organized so many months ago.
Kimberly Grey: Yes, that’s true. And what a special even that was. I still can’t believe she’s gone. She felt immortal.
Hi Molly! Speaking of Eavan, last time I saw Molly was at a reading I gave at Stanford for my first book!
Molly Spencer: Yes! I was thinking about that today. I loved that book, too!
Kimberly Grey: Thank you! And huge congrats to you on both of your books! Big year!
Molly Spencer: I feel like Eavan is immortal. She lives on in so many poems, poets, and poetries.
Kimberly Grey: This is very true.
Brian S: I have her last book in the teetering stack on my desk.
So, did you talk with Anne Carson about the poem “Interview with Anne Carson” at all?
Kimberly Grey: That’s a big, emphatic NO lol. I think she’d hate it!
Molly Spencer: I would be afraid to talk with Anne Carson about anything! I would just stand and bask in her presence.
Brian S: [whispers] she should have won the Nobel this year…
Molly Spencer: Her poem at poem-a-day today… the statement about the poem was fire! I want to borrow some of that energy.
Kimberly Grey: I was very nervous to read with her. But she was very kind! I’ve met her before at Stanford. Molly, did you know that the final line of the poem is in another poem she published in the New Yorker in 2009! I was like, I know I’ve read this line before…
Molly Spencer: I did not know that. That takes guts. Let us all borrow Anne Carson energy.
Kimberly Grey: Lol yes. It’s called “Tag.” She was like, I’m just going to take this line and throw it in a new poem.
Molly Spencer: I feel like she’s got enough in the bank to do something like that. She’s earned it.
Kimberly Grey: Haha, yes exactly.
Brian S: I wonder if that was deliberate? Like, sometimes I think writers who’ve been around and published a lot don’t really remember everything they’ve written.
Kimberly Grey: I mean, she’s got to know there are people who’ve read her entire oeuvre and would catch it right away! But who knows! It’s verbatim the exact same line. So, I think she knew.
Molly Spencer: I wonder… I am always acutely aware of reusing words and images. I write myself notes like: NO MORE STONES! NO WILLOWS!
I imagine she did know, yes.
Brian S: Look, I’m not saying every poem I’m writing right now has fried chicken in it, but they mostly do…
Kimberly Grey: lol
Annata Tempinski: Jumping in to ask Kimberly to talk a bit about the “Proper Expressions of” poems in the book.
Kimberly Grey: Sure!
Brian S: Thank you for saving us, Annata!
Annata Tempinski: Anytime (I did enjoy the fried chicken comment, though!)
Kimberly Grey: Alright, well it’s about to get darker lol.
Brian S: I think at this point in 2020, we can take it.
Kimberly Grey: I wrote most of the “Proper Expressions of” poems and the interview series in 2016–2017. In late 2015, I became estranged from my entire family. Sort of exiled, I would say. I was the black sheep and my family was not a family that valued education or intellectual capability. So, my life trajectory—Stegner Fellowship, publish a book, etc.—really put a target on my back.
I had severe PTSD from my experience with my family and then, after a few beautiful months in Italy at Civitella Ranieri, I flew back to the US on Election Day 2016. It was a recipe for disaster in many ways. I was in a very bad place and I could not write poems, or anything. I could barely function. But, I began writing the “Proper Expression” poems and the interviews as creative exercises. They were things I could do that still engaged with language and the page, without the pressure of having to write, what I conceived in my head, as a POEM poem. Whatever that is.
Molly Spencer: I’m sorry to hear about the strife of your family. That must be really hard. I’m so very heartened, though, to see how what began as not writing poems (“creative exercises”) grew into poems that are now in a book.
Kimberly Grey: Book #3 is all about it. Yes, it was really good to still be engaging with something creative during that time. It maybe even saved me.
Molly Spencer: I think sometimes when we can’t write it’s because we can’t write what we think of as “a poem” at that moment.
Kimberly Grey: The fragmentation of the “Proper Expression” poems gave me space to not be entirely coherent and fluid. I think because I felt so fractured, those poems were helpful in terms of allowing me to think on the page in a new way.
Molly Spencer: That makes sense. How did you come to the “interview” poems?
Kimberly Grey: I was just reading the poets I love and wanting to desperately speak to them and found I could speak to them through the work.
And, it was really fun to create a dialogue that could never exist. So really, just another creative exercise that kept me reading and writing. I didn’t expect them to become a part of the book. And then they did. There were others that didn’t make it into the book. One with Plath, one with Berryman, one with Mei-mei Berssenbrugge.
Annata Tempinski: Thank you, Kimberly. I find the “Proper Expression” poems so interesting in style. And, the “interview” poems Molly brings up, too.
Molly Spencer: And it looks like all of the poets’ “answers” came directly from their work, yes? I love what these poems say about creative lineage, especially because there’s such a range of poets in the interview poems.
Kimberly Grey: Yes, directly from the work.
Emily Francis: When did you start thinking about the systems?
Kimberly Grey: The systems came first. I started writing them in 2012, which is right when I began the Stegner Fellowship. I’d spend hours in the Green Library at Stanford reading Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. I was so fascinated with her repetitions. I know people find her annoying or incoherent, but there’s something incredible moving about her repetitions and her idea of repetition “as insistence.”
Molly Spencer: I love the idea of repetition as insistence, too.
Annata Tempinski: Oooh, Plath. Too dark?
Kimberly Grey: I think the Plath interview was too in line with some of the harmful mythologizing of her. I tried to engage more with her surreality, but it did end up becoming about her as she exists in our literary consciousnesses. And that didn’t seem right to me, so I didn’t include it.
I had one with John Berryman, too. I love The Dream Songs and also find them so harmful and problematic in their use of blackface dialect. So, some of the interviews stayed private.
Molly Spencer: I love knowing about the poems that don’t make it into a book. They are somehow still a presence, in my mind.
Kimberly Grey: Like those secret songs at the end of an album. Except they aren’t there.
Molly Spencer: Yes, exactly.
Brian S: When I was rereading some of the book for tonight’s chat, I flipped to the poem “We Were Civilized When?” and that opening line, “Remember when we were not in sadness as in a bomb-hole?” and then later, “But pain has uninvented us” really struck me. I know that a lot of people, myself included, have talked or joked about what a shit show 2020 has been, but this poem reminded me that this feeling has been around a long while, more for some than others.
Kimberly Grey: Yeah, and it’s so strange how much of this book sort of fits into 2020 even though it was really written mostly between 2012–2017.
I wrote “We Were Civilized When” when I was in Italy the second time and Trump had just dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in history in Afghanistan. And I was so scared, hyperventilating at being in a foreign country, thinking he was about to start another war.
Emily Francis: There are so many places where the work captures both personal grief and collective grief so well.
Molly Spencer: Yes, Emily, that was my experience of reading this book, too. It works for all our levels of grief.
Kimberly Grey: Thank you! Brian, I liked what you said in your “Why We Chose” piece about how the collective pronoun functions in the book. I was happy that was something identifiable. And, too, why I loved the dedication “For Myself and Others,” which is Stein’s line.
Brian S: It’s something I really like seeing in poems because I think too often the poet can get so caught up in their own world that they forget other people are feeling the same kind of things, that “we” is as essential a state of being as “I.”
Molly Spencer: I’m really interested in the presence of the conditional in this book: the power of the word “if.” Can you talk about your relationship with the conditional? Was it something you brought in intentionally or did it just happen and then you explored it?
Kimberly Grey: I think the conditional is fascinating because it’s full of both hope and uncertainty. Potential but the unfulfilled.
Annata Tempinski: Yes!! Great dedication. What about the last section, “Reason,” in this book and the origin of it (if you will)?
Kimberly Grey: I think language, in general, functions in the same way. And that many of the gestures and forms of the book, particularly the opening and closing sequences, are really grappling with the inadequacy of language. Or should I say its simultaneous expressibility and inexpressibility.
Annata Tempinski: And maybe interpretation and mis-interpretation.
Kimberly Grey: “Rhetoric” and “Reason” were the first pieces I wrote for the book in 2012. They were originally published as conventional poems and then I broke them into stanzas and gave them their own pages.
Molly Spencer: I love the bravery of that formal choice: tiny poems on their own pages.
Kimberly Grey: I was just beginning to experiment with repetition, reversal, the way language itself, as it progresses from random words into syntax and grammar and then sentences, becomes its own little system: all of these small interacting parts that are interrelated and each have their own job toward a unified whole.
Molly Spencer: They gain heft by being set off that way.
Annata Tempinski: Nicely put, Molly!
Kimberly Grey: I love what Roland Barthes said: “Is it not the characteristic of reality to be unmasterable? And is it not the characteristic of any system to master it?”
I would revise that to “try to master it.” I think these poems demonstrate that trying. But they don’t succeed.
Emily Francis: One of my favorite parts of the book are the lines/line breaks in “No System for Grief.”
Kimberly Grey: “No System for Grief” actually began as “System for Grief,” but nothing worked. And it wasn’t until I allowed the poem to become fragmented in its syntax that it felt like it actually became a mechanism of grief.
Molly Spencer: Yes, there’s a real sense of these poems engaging with the attempt.
Kimberly Grey: I truly subscribe to what Lyn Hejinian said about language never being able to adequately describe experience. But that out of the failure of trying to make it describe experience, comes improvisation. And that’s the attempt. That’s the poem.
Molly Spencer: Yes, and Jack Gilbert said it, too. How astonishing it is that language can almost mean something; how frightening that it doesn’t. (I’m paraphrasing.)
Kimberly Grey: Yes, exactly. And Wittgenstein’s philosophy on language is basically centered around the expressibility of the inexpressible.
Molly Spencer: Ahhh, I love the idea of the poem itself as the attempt!
Brian S: And even (especially?) when you’re writing and talking about grief. There’s a poem by Miller Williams called “Let me tell you” which ends with the idea of a writer taking notes somewhere inside while their father dies, and the last lines of the poem are (I won’t try the line breaks) “He will forgive you if the line you found was a good one. It does not have to be worth the dying.” Which it can’t be, obviously. Language can’t come close to that. But we try anyway.
Molly Spencer: There’s a strange comfort in the inadequacy of language.
Kimberly Grey: Exactly. And that’s what I was trying to say in “Consoling System,” which is a poem I wrote waaaaaayyy before Trump. And I’m a little worried people will read it as talking about him. But I was really thinking about the abstract idea that the president is our national consoler. That when something happens, they come on the news and speak to us and use language that tries (and rarely does) console us. So, I wanted to write a poem that very clearly failed in consolation, but the formal repetitions of the “there there” are attempting to try.
Brian S: Have you seen the movie Big Hero 6?
Kimberly Grey: I haven’t!
Brian S: One of the main characters is a robot that’s supposed to be a doctor, and he was designed by the big brother of the main character, who dies earlier in the movie. The robot doesn’t know this at first, but when he does, he tries to console the little brother by hugging him, patting him on the head, and saying “there, there” in a sadly robotic voice.
Kimberly Grey: Awwww! I’ll have to check it out!
Brian S: I really like it, even though it’s supposedly for kids.
Kimberly Grey: Well, those are the best ones.
Emily Francis: I daily wish I had a personal Baymax to take care of me.
Brian S: We have a plushy of him that lives on my daughters’ bunkbeds.
Kimberly, what are the poems you tend to read at readings these days?
Kimberly Grey: Usually the systems poems. Mostly because the others would be difficult to read out loud.
Annata Tempinski: Kimberly, if you were to have the hypothetical dinner with any poet, who would it be?
Kimberly Grey: Hmm… not a poet, but probably Roland Barthes. And Paul Celan.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days? Anything coming out in the future we should keep our eyes out for?
Kimberly Grey: Well, I actually just got the saddest news that a former Stanford undergrad, Anthony Veasna So, passed away. He was brilliant and kind and just got a huge deal from Ecco for his first book (which will published next August). It’s called Afterparties.
I’m in the dissertation year of my PhD and finishing my dissertation, so I’ve been reading a lot of theory. I love Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain.
Brian S: What’s the focus of your PhD?
Kimberly Grey: I’m doing a creative dissertation, and it’s my third book, a collection of hybrid essays called A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing. It’s about trauma, familial dislocation, and the idea that “thinking” the pain rather than “feeling” is also an important activity when overcoming trauma or grief. The critical portion involves trauma and narrative theory in the works of Roland Barthes. So many of his books center around the death of his mother, and I wanted to investigate that.
Brian S: That sounds fascinating, says the person who hasn’t had a real relationship with his mother for twenty-six years and counting…
Kimberly Grey: Oh yeah, you might be the audience for it then.
Brian S: Seriously, I feel like in a different setting we could talk for hours just about that subject lol.
Kimberly Grey: Yes, sounds like it!
Brian S: Thank you so much for joining us tonight and for this terrific book. Also, thank the rest of you for your wonderful comments and questions!
Kimberly Grey: Thank you for having me, and thank you, everyone, for reading!
Photograph of Kimberly Grey by Kimberly Grey.