Stitching the Sea Together: A Conversation with Kathryn Smith
Poet Kathryn Smith isn’t afraid of channeling ghosts. Reading her first two books, Book of Exodus, about a reclusive Russian family who fled to the Siberian taiga to avoid religious persecution in the 1930s, and Chosen Companions of the Goblin, which gave voice to the nineteenth-century spiritualist Fox sisters, is a little like playing with a literary ouija board.
Smith’s latest collection, Self-Portrait with Cephalopod, which francine j. harris selected for Milkweed Editions’s 2020 Jake Adam York Prize and called “lush and obsessed and frantic and deathy,” is also haunted, but in this case the specter gliding through the pages is impending climate collapse. Growing up near the water in Port Angeles, WA, and living through the seasonal devastation of fire season in Spokane, WA gives Smith enough material to write an elegy-in-advance, a meditation on the way we transcend the natural world and are simultaneously earthbound to its mercies.
In a testament to the era of social distancing, though we live only a few miles apart Kat and I talked over GoogleDocs, about how to write a climate book without dogma and what is missing in the Anthropocene.
The Rumpus: Congrats, Kat, on the selection of your manuscript Self-Portrait with Cephalopod, winner of the 2020 Jake Adam York Prize. Your first two books you’ve called “projects,” written with specific conceits in mind. In Book of Exodus, you write about a family that lived in isolation in the Siberian taiga and then, in Chosen Companions of the Goblin, you write about the Fox Sisters, who ushered in the American Spiritualist Movement in the nineteenth Century. Self-Portrait with Cephalopod, you’ve said, came about in a more “traditional” way. Can you talk about how you conceive of your books? What leads you toward a “project book” versus a more traditional manuscript?
Kathryn Smith: I think the range of Self-Portrait with Cephalopod made it a little harder to put together in some ways. With a project book, there’s a central theme linking the poems together, so if the format or voice varies, there’s still that core concept threading through it all. With this collection, I still wanted the book to feel whole and connected, but it’s trickier because I didn’t start with a particular conceit in mind. So in some ways, for me, a project book and a more traditional manuscript come together in opposite directions. The project starts with the idea as the hub, and with the traditional collection, I’m looking at poems I’ve written over the years, looking for the linkages after the fact.
Rumpus: Are there specific craft techniques that you bring from your experience creating a “project” book that helped you in making Self-Portrait?
Smith: I definitely became more comfortable with the idea of refrain—meaning, phrases or images that recur through the course of the book. Instead of being afraid of repeating myself, I found ways to give certain images new meaning or different weight by where they’re placed in the book.
With my first book and my chapbook, there’s also a sort of arc happening narratively, and while Self-Portrait isn’t a narrative, exactly, I definitely thought about that a lot in arranging the poems. I think the reader should feel like they are in a different place at the end of a poetry collection than where they started.
Rumpus: Yes, I can see how you’ve used imagistic repetition in Self-Portrait with Cephalopod. I’m thinking specifically of the poems “The Danger” and “Tree of Life”—can we talk about those poems for a bit? They seem narratively connected, too. The book uses drowning imagery and specifically these “drowned women”—one obvious impetus for that would be the rising waters associated with climate change, but I’d love to know about your intentions with that image-set in the book.
Smith: That’s really interesting that you read these as the same narrative. I’d never actually thought of it that way. There’s a lot of drowning imagery in the book, I guess, or fear of drowning. But I never thought of the character as being the same person.
In “The Danger,” the “story” is of this young teacher who drives into the lake, but the poem is more about the middle school students, those left behind, and the very self-absorbed take on this tragedy that comes from being thirteen. How it feels to have something terrible happen near you but not exactly to you, and how this teacher, whose name no one remembers, is just kind of an outlet for adolescent angst and turmoil.
The woman I reference in “Tree of Life,” Kala Williams, was found along the banks of the Spokane River several years ago, and it was a cold case for a long time. I wanted to say her name in the poem, partly as penance for not remembering the name of the eighth-grade teacher, and partly because she was forgotten by the system. She was just a cold case number, but she was also a person, and I wanted to somehow honor that, even if I didn’t know her.
I think the idea of rising waters is spot-on in many ways. The tide goes in and out throughout the course of this book, which is of course a natural occurrence, but climate change is altering the tides. In “Tree of Life” and a couple of other poems I talk about what the tide reveals when it retreats. Natural elements, human garbage, “skeletons of every size.” Water is dangerous, the ocean is dangerous, yet we’re drawn to those dangers.
Rumpus: There is another thematic component to Self-Portrait with Cephalopod that I find striking. In “Cast Your Cares Upon Him” you tell a story you saw in the Spokesman-Review, Spokane’s local newspaper, about a woman who threw her infant down an embankment because “the devil told her to do it.” Something I see happening again and again in the book is a confluence of community reporting, the natural, physical world, and Biblical allusion. What are you investigating with these elements in conversation with one another?
Smith: In a lot of ways, the process of writing poetry for me is a process of trying to figure things out. I think that comes through especially in poems where I grapple with concepts of theology or apply biblical language or references to situations where you wouldn’t expect it. I’m a person who grew up attending church and participated in a Christian tradition for much of my life, but I am very much a lay person. I find a lot of things in the Bible utterly baffling, especially in the context of the world. So that’s the perspective I’m writing from. However, my partner is a Biblical scholar, and they would tell you that I have a unique theological insight that comes through in my work. And Traci Brimhall, who blurbed the book, said something that I found really insightful and helpful. In her original blurb, she wrote that these poems are “asking why God feels so conspicuously absent in the Anthropocene.” When I read that, I was like, “OMG! That is what these poems are doing!”
Rumpus: Yeah, I think that sums it up well! It seems as your poems are attempting to point to that absence without necessarily offering to fill in the blank with any definitive answers.
I love the line in “Perception” after the speaker touches the eyeball of a recently deceased cow in the barnyard: “From that day on the surface was never enough.” This reads to me as an origin story for a poet—how does this line resonate with the rest of the book for you? What are you interested in exploring below the surface with your work?
Smith: I could point out examples from almost every poem of places where I’m trying to get beneath the surface. I’m not sure what they would add up to, or if they’d point to one particular beneath-the-surface Thing (with a capital T). I guess the line that comes to mind first is from the title poem, “Self-Portrait with Cephalopod and Digitalis Purpurea,” where I say “I know / so little, I wouldn’t recognize my own heart if I saw it / outside my body.” So, the self? That’s kind of boring. But I guess that’s the big question for all of us, isn’t it. The universal human desire to know who we are and why we’re here.
Rumpus: Do you think climate change makes those questions more urgent?
Smith: For me, no—not in the sense of, We’d better figure out the meaning of life before the planet dies. I think climate change makes those questions heavier. More futile, almost rhetorical. I often wonder why humans—and me, in particular—are here if we’re just fucking things up. And I marvel that, in my poems, I’m often able to come to some sense of hope about the whole thing.
Rumpus: Speaking of hope, having faith and hope in your own work as a writer can be challenging. I remember you saying that this manuscript, in its current iteration, was rejected by the same contest it won the next year. How do you keep your equilibrium in the publishing process when you know that a situation like that is possible?
Smith: It’s mostly stubbornness punctuated by rare spurts of blind optimism. And sometimes, it pays off. I almost didn’t send this manuscript to the Jake Adam York Prize, because, like you said, it was rejected the year before, flat-out. But then I read that they use different readers each year, so I figured it was sort of like sending to a completely different contest. After I won, I had a handful of people reach out to me on social media saying they had been readers for various contests and had seen the book and were so glad to see it was finally going to be published. So, that has been pretty amazing. Those interactions are huge for me in terms of forging ahead in the future.
Rumpus: You grew up in Port Angeles and it appears as a location, as a place of rumination, in Self-Portrait with Cephalopod, frequently. Poets are often rooted in place or interested in reconciling the places that we imprint on as young people. Has your relationship to Port Angeles changed as you’ve spent time writing about it?
Smith: Yes, definitely. Writing about it means I’m reflecting more on that place and on growing up there. Sometimes an image or event from my childhood or adolescence will show up in a poem, and then I’ll kind of probe deeper into my brain to figure out why it ended up in the poem. Also, just the experience of being from a place but no longer living there and going back fairly frequently because my parents still live there, my sister moved back a few years ago, so I get the opportunity to see it differently as an adult.
Rumpus: In “Situs Inversus” you collage a number of contexts into a single poem: the visceral alignment of the developing body, dissecting squid in biology class, medieval mythology, and an inquiry into what the soul may look like—the collaging is reminiscent, I think, of the way that Marianne Moore acted as a magpie in her work, stealing all of the shiny bits of the world around her, connecting them with a cohesive thread. When writing a comparatively longer, sectioned poem like “Situs Inversus,” can you talk about the technical challenge of balancing such disparate threads in a poem.
Smith: That’s the longest poem I’ve ever written, and it still surprises me that it came together the way it did. I think the biggest challenge is making the disparate elements feel connected—to make the reader believe they all belong in the same poem. In “Situs Inversus,” I played around with the sections—how long they were, which elements showed up where—and tried to balance the historical narrative elements with the speaker’s reflections. A poem like this is almost like a conversation. There has to be back and forth.
Rumpus: I think it is notable that this book won the Jake Adam York Prize from Milkweed Editions following 2019, when another Spokane-area poet won the same prize. How would you describe the impact of the Spokane poetry community on your work?
Smith: Yeah, Spokane is kind of amazing. When I got the call that I’d won the prize, my first thought was, Oh, are you calling to talk about Brooke Matson? [Matson’s book, In Accelerated Silence, won the 2019 Jake Adam York prize] I don’t know what it is about the writing community here, and trying to define it would probably ruin some of the magic, but there’s just the right combination of amazing talent, sense of community, and self-deprecation (or maybe I should say humility) that creates an environment that fosters community and creativity. This book wouldn’t exist without my Spokane poet friends.
Rumpus: When francine j. harris selected this book she called it “a pre-apocalyptic reverence and reflection… that feels almost monastic.” Writing about climate change, in a similar way to writing overtly political poetry, can be challenging because it can slip so easily into a tone of preaching condemnation or absolute doom-and-gloom; I thought you handled the tone of writing about catastrophe so well in this book. The “reverence” harris mentions is balanced really well with a wry and self-aware voice that permeates the poems. Are there pitfalls you want to avoid when writing about climate change?
Smith: If I’d said to myself, I’m going to write a book about climate change, it would have failed miserably as poetry. I approach it more as part of my daily life. I am a human animal living on a dying planet, struggling to both shrink my impact and acknowledge my complicity in ecological collapse. It’s a topic that permeates how I think. So, when it comes into the poetry, it comes from that place—my inner struggle. In terms of what I read, when I read a poem that expands beyond the self or digs beneath the surface, when it can deal with “big issues” without being didactic—that’s definitely something I’m drawn to, and what I hope to achieve in my own work. The universal in the particular, as I think some dead white dude probably said.
Rumpus: You say that climate change is “a topic that permeates how [you] think” on a daily basis, so the tone that sometimes appears in Self-Portrait with Cephalopod, the wry and darkly comical voice, does that skews close to your own personal, daily response to ecological horror? I guess, in other words, do you have any advice for those who feel despairing around these issues?
Smith: Oh, geez. I’m just a poet. But I guess maybe that’s my answer, too. Reframe your response in terms of who you are and the work you do on a daily basis. If I felt like I had to set my despair aside in order to make art, I would be writing drivel. Write into the despair, not away from it.
Photograph of Kathryn Smith by Dean Davis.