I read Kim Addonizio’s new poetry collection, Now We’re Getting Somewhere, twice in one sitting: the first time, moving swiftly through her musings on semiotics, climate change, Virginia Woolf, loss, love, and contemporary life; the second time, as a returned traveler emboldened by familiar terrain, doubling back and laboring on lines.
Now We’re Getting Somewhere elicits this kind of reading, as Addonizio is interested in opposites, in the absurdist meditations that come from probing a word, and in the efficiency with which poetry illumes a paradox. The writing is witty but sly, a wink at the confines of convention. No matter how many times the poems are visited, the familiar folds in on itself and blooms anew.
It’s not surprising that Addonizio, a recipient of a Guggenheim scholarship, dedicates her eighth volume to “the makers,” a sentiment that aligns with its irreverent yet tender tone. Upon finishing, one feels an almost physical release, owing, in part, to her music background, rhythm she injects like the harmonica she’s been known to play at readings.
I connected with Kim over Zoom from her home in California. We spoke about surrealism, creative space, the nuance of poetry, and, though they didn’t make it into the interview, her two cats, steadfast companions during the pandemic.
The Rumpus: In your poem “Signs,” you write that there isn’t any meaning in things, that probably there aren’t even things. But then you digress and indicate that you do, in fact, think about things. It seems this is what the book is about: things and their impact—“thing” being the nomenclature for all that is nameless, and the way the poetry creates space in an attempt to reach it.
Kim Addonizio: The thing about “things” is that on the quantum level, my understanding is that objects don’t really exist. Or something like that. Anyway… this is pretty much the poetry of the Trump years. I published my last book in 2016, so these poems were written from about 2015 into 2020 and the beginning of the pandemic.
Rumpus: You mention many writers in this collection: Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, Walt Whitman, among others. There are also nods to Shakespeare.
Addonizio: And Keats, also.
Rumpus: Yes, and Keats.
Addonizio: I guess one influence would be Whitman and the Whitmanic tradition as it flows through the Beats and various other writers. Whitman felt like a powerful force when I discovered Leaves of Grass. Influence is such a tricky word. Does that mean the style, does that mean the subject matter, or does that mean something else? I’m in love with Keats as a Romantic poet, who died young, ravished by the sensual world. I have a crush on him as probably a lot of writers do, and of course, he loved Shakespeare.
Rumpus: In “Art of Poetry” you write about how unrealistic it is to expect things to stay in their places. There’s a reference at the beginning of the collection to Urs Fischer’s wax sculpture of Julian Schnabel and later, Rene Magritte and Sandy Skoglund, artists who render reality obsolete. You have moments of surrealism, too—analogizing yourself to an insect, or an alien trying to center a spacecraft. It made me think that in trying times, self-possession can be gained by dismissing the reality you are expected to thrive in and using its rules to hurdle into something new. What are some “rules” you’ve disregarded to become the writer you are?
Addonizio: I think of those artists as questioning the nature of reality. Pointing to a reality that has more levels than what we may think of as reality, anyway. With Magritte, thinking about the connection between the word and the thing, the image and the object, is really fascinating. The Julian Schnabel sculpture made a big impression on me. I saw it early on and I wish I had gone back to see what happened as this giant man melted because it was so striking to watch his head begin to dissolve from the candle. Such an image of impermanence, and that flame reminded me of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
I see poetry being more about means than rules. I think about the means that you can use to create a poem. I perceive the rules we all perceive, the conventions and the norms. It’s hard for artists to carve out a space away from a certain kind of vision of reality that focuses on power and money. On the practical level, it’s difficult. It’s also difficult trying to stay in a creative space, mentally. Especially one that doesn’t lead to, say, creating an app. You kind of have to make your own reality, and reinforce it with as many unrealistic people as you, who for some strange reason want to pursue this thing that we do.
Rumpus: In “Guitar” you write, “When my guitar is sad it glows eloquently and goes berserk / thinking of light thinning in a hospital gown / and the sound of paper slippers on gray linoleum / like a voice being mopped off the tiles.” I’m drawn to this idea of a guitar as a heart, a heart as a guitar, bumping together opposite things to make them speak. Do you think it is opposition that most strongly elicits from us the impulse to make sound? To create?
Addonizio: There’s definitely a disturbance in the field. I don’t think that a gardener or a chef is any less creative; they just use different materials for their art. Poetry, of course, uses language as its material. Poets are considered creatives in a way that gardeners usually aren’t. That division is much more radical than it used to be. There wasn’t always this distinction between artists and “regular” people. It often feels to me as though the culture at large is trying to devalue that whole aspect of our existence. It’s oppressive to have a purely material sense of reality. Spiritual beliefs transcend that and I think art is also an attempt to transcend. That goes back to your statement about juxtaposing things or metaphors that take us out of the ordinary and allow us to inhabit other species or places on earth or the universe than we literally, physically can.
Rumpus: Did you ever have trouble feeling familiarity with what a past version of yourself wrote?
Addonizio: Definitely! When I look at earlier books, I think, oh, who was that person who manifested in the poems? I often feel I’m channeling a voice, even though I think very consciously about what the voice is saying and I’m trying to shape what the voice has told me. That’s the conscious part of it. The unconscious part of it is mysterious.
It’s so fascinating, this permeability of me as a person sitting here writing and the person, the apparition, the phantom, that appears in the poems. It’s one of the things the book is exploring in the section “Confessional Poetry.” “The confessional” is such a maligned term. I think about it as an available mode to use more than I think of it as a cry from the heart, although, then again, I hope it’s very much a cry from the heart. It is and it isn’t. So, how do you negotiate that? I wonder if the poem of the lyric “I” in general has become maligned as naïve and lacking structure. The personal lyric has become such a thing for so many people trying to tell their stories, needing to tell their stories. That can be one value of poetry but for me, it’s not necessarily the highest value. I’m more interested in ideas, and that [section of the collection] is an exploration of ideas about the confessional. It seems that a lot of people, especially when it comes to women’s poetry, find it easy to dismiss the personal as a way of demeaning our ability as thinking as well as feeling creatures. Poetry is a mode of thinking through things that I can’t really articulate.
Rumpus: That brings me to your poem “Little Old Ladies.” There’s a line about pharmaceutical companies drawing nearer, promising indelicate side effects. This poem disrupts still-prevalent notions of womanhood with irony. You write of women being retired to a symbolic pastoral landscape which I think speaks to the linearity with which marketers define women. Capacity to bear children, ability to nurture, maintenance of sexual availability. Then, this overselling of drug benefits. How do you use poetry to access and gut ideas? Do you think poetry is capable of this in a way other mediums are not?
Addonizio: Mainstream American culture is a culture of marketing: marketing our feelings back to us, appealing to our basic aspirations and twisting them. It’s transactional. Whereas poetry is multivalent. The way that a poem can take a deep dive into something in a short space is one of its advantages over other kinds of writing. The kind of information a poem can bring to us is more complex and nuanced than a speech—a public utterance—that’s simply meant to convince us in some way.
Rumpus: In “Song for Sad Girls” you write: “There’s a low piano part in here somewhere, sinking under a wave / of minor thirds.” How does your music play into your writing?
Addonizio: Playing music has always been a part of my life. It has inspired subject matter from time to time. I think more than that it has helped my ear. It helped me listen to the music of the sentence and the line, and the music of one word set against another.
Rumpus: I felt this musicality in “Confessional Poetry.” The white space after each confession changes our rhythm as readers. We slow down. It also introduces some gloom.
Addonizio: Obviously, silence is part of music, too. The piece actually started off as a one, one-and-a-half-page poem. One day it occurred to me to break it into a longer form, using a lot of white space, and that changed the pace and the feeling. I wanted each line to resonate for a moment in that space so you’d consider it in a way you wouldn’t have otherwise. I like to think of each page as a confessional. A little booth where you’re separated from the priest by a screen, where you kneel down and tell your sins. I thought that might work for this poem, to let each little “confession” address the issue: Well, what is it? It’s this, no—it’s this, no—this. It’s all a bit tongue-in-cheek but also, you know… not.
Rumpus: Speaking of religion, you mention Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. In his paintings, time of day is often indiscernible, a feeling familiar to anyone who has ever spent a significant amount of time in bed. Let’s talk about your poem “In Bed.” Beyond the literal sense, what can a bed be?
Addonizio: For a couple of years, I wrote almost exclusively in bed. I had an apartment I didn’t like, except for the bedroom, so that’s where I pretty much lived. It was the place I felt farthest from the world and safest from those rules you mentioned. Safe from the constraints that told me I needed to do something practical. All of the things that tug at us in our lives that are not about what we are trying to do in the moment, which is write. Bed always felt like a place where I could really cocoon myself and feel freer to write.
Rumpus: The collection ends with renewed acknowledgement of—to go back to the very beginning of our conversation—a nameless thing. A distance that has, for the time being, collapsed. Would you call this hope?
Addonizio: Maybe solace is a better word than hope, though I’m all for hope. I did feel strongly that “Stay” should be the last poem in the collection. One of the things the book is concerned with is the struggling self. It’s very much a book that has women and girls in mind. “All Hallows” is a poem that tries to speak to—as singer-songwriter Gillian Welch said—girls with “a dark turn of mind.” When I write, “Oh my weird sisters, we’re not bad, just lost—look at Anne Sexton swirling overhead / behind Plath & her impeccable broom, look at all the blottophiliac girls / longing to faceplant in Mr. Death’s crotch”—I’m talking to that self-destructive urge. And then stepping in to say, Stop it right now and pay attention. Wanting to resurrect Virginia Woolf so she can take off her wet clothes, sit by a fire with a cup of tea, and put her feet up. I wanted to speak to anyone who has ever gotten within miles of thinking about hurting or killing themselves. To say, Wait. It could be the smallest thing that keeps someone alive. As in “Stay,” when a stranger gets on the elevator with a bouquet of white roses. They just entered your life at that moment and sure, they’re for someone else, but in that moment the universe has actually brought you white roses, and that is a beautiful thing.
Photograph of Kim Addonizio by Johnna Crawford.