Interview With Poet Kathi Wolfe
WG: Kathi, you were recently part of the Split This Rock Festival in Washington, DC. For readers who are not familiar with this festival can you describe what it is and then talk about the panel you were on and how you came to be part of it?
KW: Split This Rock is based in Washington, D.C. As its website (www.splitthisrock.org) says, STR "calls poets to a greater role in public life and fosters a national network of socially engaged poets…Split This Rock…celebrates the many ways that poetry can act as an agent of change;…bearing witness to the diversity and complexity of human experience through language, imaging a better world."
The STR website also says, "Our programs integrate poetry of provocation and witness into movements for social justice…"
Every two years, Split This Rock holds a festival in Washington, D.C. The first festival was, I believe, in 2008.
I can't remember how I first heard about Split This Rock or first came to be involved with it.
I'm a freelance journalist as well as a poet. I write about disability, LGBT and other socio-political-cultural issues as well as the arts.
I don't believe that we, who are poets, live on Mount Olympus, drinking the pristine nectar of the gods — untouched and unconnected to the often grimy, unseemly, mucky political and social reality of the world. I agree with Auden's famous dictum that poets don't legislate.
But I believe that through poetry, poets can change (even if only in small infinitesimal increments) the hearts and minds of those who legislate. I loathe pedantic, preachy, polemical "political" poetry. I'd bet that most poets (it's true for me!) don't think when they sit down to write, "I'm going to write a political poem—I'm going to make an awesome contribution to 'the poetry of witness' today!"
A poem, first and foremost, should be well-crafted, memorable—a good poem. Having said this, through the alchemy of the poetry gods and our muse, poets can write poems that witness injustice — that, poem by poem, change the world.
As I said, I don't recall exactly when I first heard of Split This Rock. I probably learned about it from the Washington, D.C. poetry scene. I was excited by Split This Rock because it fosters poets who create poetry of witness. STR brings together poets who are concerned about a wide range of issues, including but, not limited to: LGBT issues; racism; environmental issues; peace; sexism, immigration and ableism (disability-based prejudice).
Very few of us live in only one community. Most of us live in intersections of communities: we're people of color and female; or LGBT and disabled; or we have a disability and are people of color. We care not only about racism, but about homophobia and peace. I care deeply about disability issues, ableism and disability culture. But I see disability issues within the context of other political, social and cultural movements and issues. To me, caring about any one issue alone (whether it be homophobia, racism, ableism, etc.) would be like trying to only eat the peas in fried rice. I might be quite hungry, but it would be almost impossible for me to scarf down just one veggie in the rice at a time.
Split This Rock is one of a very few progressive groups to include disability issues (ableism) in its mission. Sarah Browning, STR's executive director, and its staff, board members and volunteers are awesome!
I first took part in Split This Rock in 2008. I believe I was a member of STR's coordinating board or a committee of the board. That year during the festival, I convened a workshop on disability culture. In 2012 (I think that was the year), I took part in a reading from the anthology Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability at that year's Split This Rock festival. (I was a contributor to the anthology.)
This year in March I convened a panel at the Split This Rock festival called "Beauty, Disability, Queerness & Body Politic." I read with L. Lamar Wilson. Lamar is a terrific poet! He is gay, black and has a disability. I love his first poetry collection Sacrilegion!
The panel focused on the intersections of disability, queerness, race and other cultural/political/social issues. We each read for about 30 minutes. After that we had some engaging, lively discussion with each other and with audience members.
I don't think I'm talking out of school when I say that Split This Rock has struggled with accessibility. People with disabilities have encountered some accessibility issues with Split This Rock.
I believe that many of the accessibility issues have been around its website (and other forms of access) for blind and visually impaired people. STR has been, I believe, making a good faith effort, to work on these issues. For instance, I can now access Split This Rock's website on my IPad. I think it's fair to say two things: 1. Split This Rock truly wants to be accessible and 2. It's taken some nudging to get this to happen.
One other point: As I've said, Split This Rock has been great at incorporating disability into its mission and programs. It's had featured poets with disabilities, including (awesome poet!) Sheila Black. The festival has had some readings, panels and workshops convened by people with disabilities.
Many groups and publications in the poetry/writing world don't care at all about people with disabilities or disability issues. AWP is a case in point. Many writers and poets with disabilities, including myself, have run into difficulties with accommodation from AWP. A former staff member of The American Scholar told me that the powers that be at that publication said that they "didn't care at all about" offering accommodation to writers with disabilities.
Given the above, I give props to Split This Rock for including disability issues in its programming. Yet, I'd still like STR to develop more knowledge around disability culture/issues and more comfort around people with disabilities. I'd like to see Split This Rock do more to highlight ableism and disability culture. It would be great to have this happen on an ongoing basis rather than at points where there are problems with accessibility. In other words, I'd like to see the issues impacting people with disabilities become more of an integral part of its DNA.
It sounds as though you've have been pretty deeply involved with Split This Rock for quite a while. It is true, as you mentioned, that despite their attempts to be inclusive, STP has sometimes fallen short from the point of view of people with disabilities, so it is great to have your insights into the complexities of the situation. I was interested in your comments about the difficulty of maintaining a balance between writing work that has a social impact and avoiding didacticism. For poets with disabilities, I think that is a crucial question. How have you been able to achieve that balance in your two published books, Helen Keller Takes the Stage and The Green Light?
KW: How to maintain the balance between writing work that has (or one hopes has) a social impact and avoiding didacticism is a tough one. If I had a sure-fire answer, I'd be Queen of the World, and writing this from my Royal Yacht!
But, as a lesser mortal, with my Eeyore coffee mug in hand — here's my take:
I love Split This Rock and I care about social-political-cultural issues. But my first love is for my characters: my most ardent poetic passion is for telling stories that arise from the lives of my characters.
As I said before, I don't believe that most poets are driven by a conscious desire to write "political" poems.
I didn't go to my computer one day and say to myself, "I want to write poems that'll have a social/political impact. I know! Writing poems in the voice of Helen Keller could teach readers about social injustice."
I'm being a bit flippant here. But you get the idea? Writing such didactic poems would have been deadly — it would have made Helen Keller as exciting as Velveeta or oatmeal.
I'm a story-teller. Not all, but a lot of my poetry, is narrative poetry. Everything is driven by my characters. Who knows where the characters come from? Characters come to me like dogs — scratching at the door, licking my ear at 3 a.m. — insisting that I let them out ASAP!
I was in a poetry workshop one day. The teacher gave us a writing exercise. I can't remember what it was exactly — it had something to do with water. Who knows why? Maybe my unconscious connected to the scene in the movie "The Miracle Worker" when Helen Keller put her hand under the pump and understood the meaning of language. For whatever reason, the minute I heard the word "water," Helen Keller entered my solar plexus.
At that moment, I wasn't happy to have Keller in my head. Then, I knew nothing about her except the "goody-two shoes" images of her that resound in our culture. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't kick her out. She and I lived together (figuratively) for about four years, as I wrote my chapbook Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems.
As I came to know her, I learned that Keller was far more than a plaster, deaf-blind saint. I discovered that Keller was an opponent of racism, an early feminist, a vaudeville performer, a writer, and, that she had a love-life.
I found Keller to be fascinating. I began to think of her (and still think of her) as Helen. Yet, I didn't set out to write a chapbook of political poems about her. I felt compelled, as I discovered her, to tell the story of her as a character. As a poet, I wanted to write the narrative of Helen in the context of her life.
This context included everything from her love of junk food (hot dogs) to her deep friendship with Annie Sullivan (first her teacher, then her dear friend) to her (reputed) romance with journalist Peter Fagin. This context, also, included her fondness for dogs and Scotch and her respect for the Bible. Her political views, of course, couldn't be separated from her life. Keller was a political creature in her bones. So, there's no way that I could have written the chapbook in her voice without including her political views and passions. Her political passions were part of her total DNA.
This is another way of saying that the feminist truism that "the political is personal" isn't a cliche. That's the key (or one of the keys) to avoiding didacticism in poetry. Everything….humor, sadness, grief, passion, sexuality, political perspectives…flows out of the characters…out of the narrative.
Grace Cavalieri, poet, playwright and host of the radio show "The Poet and the Poem," helped me understand this. Once when I talked with Grace about political poetry, she said, "The political comes from the personal. It begins, for example, with a little boy listening to his father tell a story about being in a war."
With Helen Keller, this was a bit tricky because didacticism was a part of her character. Actually, Keller was far more didactic than I'll ever be. I'm much more interested in human personality than public policy. I'll take reading a fab book of poetry ("The Fateful Apple" by Venus Thrash is my latest fave) or binge-watching a terrific TV show (I've just emerged from hours glued to "The House of Cards") to being in a protest march any day. I care deeply about political issues, but you wouldn't want me as an activist for your cause. I might see some merit to the other side's point of view, tell a few jokes, or want to pet your dog.
Not so with Helen Keller. It wasn't that her life was limited by her political activism by any means. But it was there. When she was arrested in a political demonstration, Keller told socialist Eugene Debs, it was the happiest day of her life. So as a character, Keller insists that poems in her voice contain an element of didacticism. The trick for me as a poet was not to let Helen's didacticism run amuck in the poems. Fortunately, since I was writing the narrative — her story — I avoided (or hope I avoided) this. Once, I began writing her narrative, Keller, as a character, kept reminding me that she could no more be completely defined or limited by her political passion than she could be by her disabilities. I couldn't have written a chapbook in Keller's voice that was overly didactic. How could I have reduced a woman who was a socialist who loved to shop on Fifth Avenue in New York to a didactic figure? If I'd tried to do that, I couldn't have kept a straight face. Every time, I was tempted to become too "political," I'd remember that Keller loved her dogs so much that she not only wrote poems to them, but composed verse in the voice of the pooches answering her poetry.
I wrote my chapbook The Green Light, too, because its characters, like annoying dogs, demanded that I feed them right now. This chapbook is about a fictional family. It's set mostly in Southern, N.J., from 1950 to the early 1960's. There's a husband, Stan, a veterinarian, his wife, Rita, a mother, their two young children, and their dog Sparky. Stan is Jewish and Rita is Protestant. Rita, also, has type 1 diabetes (called juvenile diabetes during the period when the chapbook takes place). Their daughter Kate is visually impaired.
As with the Helen Keller chapbook, I didn't set out to be "political." In many ways, I didn't have to worry about being didactic in writing ;The Green Light as I did with the Keller chapbook. Stan and Rita weren't writers, political activists, or iconic public figures. Yet, the chapbook is political in the sense that much poetry is "political." I mean by this: much poetry tells a story. Even if it's not directly referred to, poetry often takes place in a particular period of time. Through their lives, the political and personal blend together for Stan, Rita and their kids. Stan encounters anti-Semitism from an anti-Semitic veterinary school professor. Many of their friends and family disapprove of their inter-faith marriage. Rita struggles with the physical problems of having diabetes (low blood sugar, amputated feet, etc.) and the knowledge that her life expectancy is (likely) limited. At the same time, she insists on living her life to the fullest — on being intimate with her husband, dancing, enjoying life — being a good mom to their children.
It's funny. This may not seem political in the sense of public policy debates. Yet, the very act of writing poetry in which characters with disabilities love, marry, work, enjoy life, have a love life, raise children, etc. is political. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, disability studies, and the (somewhat) increased cultural visibility of people with disabilities, we're still pretty much where, say, women were in the early to mid 1960s. It's ironic. I'm queer and legally blind. I used to think that people would be shocked to think that I, a lesbian would like sex or be able to marry (in 19 states, plus Washington, D.C. in the United States, and in the United Kingdom. and other countries). Now I believe that they'd be more freaked out at the thought that I, legally blind, would have a love life, marry or be a parent.
It's true for all of us: when we write good poetry, the personal and political come together so seamlessly — that both poets and readers stop noticing whether the poetry is political. It becomes a distinction without a difference. This is especially true for poets with disabilities. Our bodies, at the nexus of so much cultural fear, fascination and discomfort, become part of the body politic. Creating our poetic narrative out of this intersection is by turns, difficult, maddening and exhilarating.
Kathi, you were working on another series of poems called Uppity Blind Girl that also sounds as though it is both character driven and wandering into the political. How is that work going?
KW: Yes, I've been working on my Uppity Blind Girl poetry chapbook off and on since 2009. Some of these poems have been published in Wordgathering. Wordgathering has also published an essay that I've written about my work on this chapbook.
Uppity is the main character in the chapbook. Most of the poems are in her voice. There are other characters (her mom, older sister; girlfriend; strangers who she encounters on the streets, subways, delis, Penn Station, bartenders, etc.; neighbors; and prospective employers. A few of the poems are in their voices; and these characters are heard and seen in many of the poems.
Uppity is a young woman in her early 20s. Her real name is Elizabeth, but, by her own choice, she's often called Uppity. Uppity is blind. She can't see anything. She's been blind since her birth. Her girlfriend is named Sabrina. Sabrina has a dog (not a guide dog, a pet) — a poodle named Toto. Uppity meets Sabrina and Toto in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. Uppity's parents live on 79th street in Manhattan and her older sister Justine lives in a different Manhattan neighborhood. Uppity is the only character with a disability.
Uppity and the other characters in the chapbook are fictional. I doubt that I'll ever know what alchemy created Uppity. I suspect that she emerged from my muse, my unconscious, from the universe's collective unconscious, and in part from some mysterious obsession that stuck to the craw of my brain. I don't mean anything pathological by obsession here. I just mean, that, I think every poet…every writer has obsessions that in a mysterious way propels them to create…to write. So, I don't believe that Herman Melville was ever a whale (smile), but I'd bet that some kind of obsession with whales led him to write Moby Dick. In the same fashion, some kind of obsession jump-started my brain, and compelled me to write Uppity. There are some similarities between myself and Uppity; but we're quite different. So, though Uppitty's a character (who as I've been writing my poems has gotten into my skin), she's not me or my alter-ego. The other characters, too, are fictional.
Uppity! The love of my life! My tush pain! How is the work on the chapbook going? Wonderfully. Oy! I'm coming near the end of my work on the chapbook. It's working title is Blindista: The Uppity Blind Girl Poems. I'm going through the arduous, sometimes, tedious process of getting ready to submit it to chapbook competitions and publishers. I'm figuratively giving the manuscript a haircut — trimming it when needed, cutting out unneeded words and repetitions. Like a mom getting her child ready for the first day of the new school year, I'm checking out her clothes — washing out stains, giving away pants that have gotten too small — insisting that she not wear the flip-flops she's been running around in all summer. I'm not being completely figurative, here. Uppity is a clothes horse. She loves parading around in stilettos and snazzy sneakers in bright colors like red. To keep readers from getting bored, I'm changing her shoes and her outfits. The other day, I was editing a poem that takes place after a hurricane. In it, Uppity was walking around in high heels. Thank God, I noticed that! I quickly took her out of the heels and put her into rain boots. I hope to begin submitting the chapbook for publication by the end of this summer. After that…wish me luck!
As it was with my previous chapbooks and their characters, I love Uppity! But their are times, when she drives me nuts! I suspect that a lot of writers have the same type of relationship with their characters. It's like how it is sometimes with your spouses, siblings, BFFs, parents…maybe even your pets or yourself. When I was working on the Helen Keller chapbook, there were times when, figuratively, Helen and I took separate vacations. I adored Helen, but to keep sane, we had to spend some time apart. The same thing happened when I was writing The Green Light. I loved Rita, Stan, their kids and their dog, but there were times when I wished they'd take a hike — when even Sparky got on my nerves. Fortunately, having survived these rough patches with these characters, I'm confident that Uppity and I, even after the hard process of manuscript editing and marketing, will still be BFFs. No matter how much we drive each other crazy, I'll always love these characters. They're not me, but as I've said, through the process of their creation they've become part of my DNA.
The Uppity chapbook is character driven. In your question, you say that it sounds as though it is "wandering into the political." It's more that it's (I hope) wandering into "the human." I mean by that — that the chapbook is the story of a character who is immersed with…encountering…humanity…and the human condition. "Human condition" sounds ponderous and is a bit of a cliche. But I'll go with it here. Uppity gets rejected in love, falls in love, feels jealous, becomes angry, prays, fights with and loves her sister, fights against, and in some ways, becomes like her mom, speaks of her love of language, and is terrified as she wanders alone through New York City — trying to guide Sabrina and Toto to their apartment in the midst of a power outage after Hurricane Sandy. Along the way, people stare at her, try to heal her, pray for her without her asking for their prayers, and act as if she's mentally incompetent because she's blind. If you have an apparent (visible) disability such as blindness — then ableism becomes part of the human condition for you. Cultural discomfort, ignorance, fetishizing, fear, prejudices and discrimination with and against disability and people with disabilities become part of the air you breathe. You might become a disability advocate or activist and take part in protest demonstrations or work in disability rights policy or legislation. This isn't the case with Uppity. She's not a disability rights activist. Uppity isn't involved with public policy. She doesn't talk about "ableism."
But Uppity is aware of the attitudes that people have toward her because of her blindness. She isn't political the way some of us were back in the day — in the 1960s and 1970s. Uppity doesn't march around Broadway in New York City, chanting, "Down with ableist pigs! Yay ADA!" Her approach is more like that of a lot of young people who I meet. Like many of us who are LGBT, she plays with — reclaims — the ableist metaphors that are thrown around about disability. When a waiter asks Sabrina if she (Uppity) wants a glass of wine, Uppity quickly tells the server what she wants. When an editor tells Uppity that because of her blindness she can't write a blog on fashion, she says that there's no reason why she can't blog about spirits (wine or beer tasting) or fragrance (perfumes). In one of the poems which Wordgathering published, Uppity is at a bar during Happy Hour. There, she has a dream in which she can see. The dream becomes a nightmare, when instead of seeing wonderful things like smiling faces she sees a roach crawling in a glass. Her romantic fantasy about the bartender is ruined, when she sees that the barkeep's shirt is the color of Pepto Bismal.
As I've said before, our culture generally doesn't expect people with disabilities to have romances, make love, fall in love, work, talk back (let alone snark back) against disability based prejudice or get about or live independently. A few weeks ago, I called my bank to ask a question. "Wow!" the bank representative exclaimed, "Do you live by yourself?" "Yes," I said." "Does anyone look after you?" the customer service representative asked. "No, I'm fine by myself," I said. "Wow! That's amazing!" she said.
Let's be honest about this. It's easy as poets and writers, from our positions in academia, from being influenced by disability culture…to forget that many people with disabilities know little about the disability rights movement. Lots of people with disabilities don't know about the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many who have disabilities aren't "out" about it. They're closeted or feel shame about their disability.
Against this backdrop, any work of art that features characters who are open and unashamed of their disabilities is political. Even if the characters aren't political in the conventional sense of the term. So getting back to my Uppity chapbook. I didn't set out to write a political book. I didn't wake up one morning and say to myself, "I'm going to write a chapbook that will be a political statement against ableism. I'll create a character called Uppity who will be a vehicle for this statement."
As with my other chapbooks, this chapbook is character driven. Uppity is, I hope, a flesh and blood, three-dimensional character. At times, she speaks out against people who stare at her or try to heal her. But most of the time, Uppity's living her life. She's being human…not "political." Yet, because this culture is so soaked with ableism, a character such as Uppity becomes political. Writing a chapbook with a character like Uppity becomes political. Because in the context of a culture which still, generally, perceives people with disabilities as being exotic, asexual, incompetent, "inspirational," helpless, isolated, etc…writing poems in the voice of a fully human character with a disability—becomes, what Carolyn Forche calls creating "poetry of witness." In other words, I didn't set out to write a political chapbook. Yet, if I did my job…if I wrote a good chapbook…if I created a fully human character…then in the context of our culture…I've written a political chapbook.
In addition to your own poetry, you do writing for several publications. Tell us about that work.
KW: I've been a freelance journalist since the early 1990s. My main areas of interest have been LGBT, disability and other social/cultural isseus; media; and the arts. As the saying goes…(smile)…some of my best friends are academics from deans to journalism profs. I have a B.A. in English from Kirkland College and an M. Div. From Yale University Divinity School. But, I'm not a scholar and I loathe reading (apologies to the academy!) academic writing. I'm (I hope) what Virginia Woolf called "the common reader." I'll eagerly devour everything from poetry to "The New York Times" to "Mrs. Dalloway." This is a way too long-winded way of saying: I write for the general , curious, (I hope—at the very least — awake) reader.
Over the years, I've had a great time writing, as a regular freelancer, for a variety of publications and news outlets. I'll tell you about a few:
I did some reporting and columns for the now defunct Disability Rag, which later became The Ragged Edge. "The Rag" was a seminal disability rights and culture magazine, edited by Mary Johnson. It published everything from news stories by Mike Erwin to poems by Kenny Fries and, in its prime, was read by everyone, on the right and the left politically, from Nat Hentoff to John Leo.
I had a great time writing for the (also now defunct) disability magazine Mainstream. Edited by William G. Stothers, the former city editor and ombudsman of the "San Diego Union Tribune," the magazine published profiles on notable people in politics and the arts with disabilities as well as news stories on disability issues.
Here's a bit about a couple of publications that I write, as a regular freelancer, for now:
I'm a senior writer and columnist with Scene4, an international, monthly arts and media magazine. Thanks to its editor Arthur Meisalman, I happily write about whatever in the arts or culture is sticking to my craw from gender in the arts to Katharine Hepburn to my holiday book-gift giving recommendations.
I'm a regular contributor to The Washington Blade. The Blade, which was founded in 1969, was the first LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) newspaper. The Blade has been labeled the "newspaper of record" for the LGBT community by the New York Times.
Kathi, I really appreciate your taking the time to do the interview and giving us some insight into your work. Is there anything else that you would like to bring up ?
Thanks so much for interviewing me! I'm honored to be interviewed by Wordgathering. We've talked about Split This Rock. And, I was part of a Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability anthology reading, that you and Sheila organized and led at Split This Rock. Knowing this, I wasn't surprised that you began this interview by asking me about Split This Rock or annoyed that most of your questions were geared toward inquiring about my views on writing poetry that was political, but not too political. It was an interesting way to go, and if I'd been conducting the interview, I likely would have asked similar questions.
But (yes, there was a "but" coming!), I want to step back a bit. I want to make sure that I'm seen as a poet not as a political poet. Just as I'm proud to be queer and to have a disability, I'm proud that I care about social justice. I'd never deny that I'm a poet's who's queer with a disability. Yet, I don't want to be known as a queer poet or a poet with a disability. In the same way, I don't think of myself or wish to be labeled as a political poet. In the poetry world, I'd like to be known, first and foremost, as a poet. I'm not talking about erasure or assimilation. I wouldn't want my queerness, disability or passion for social justice to be denied — or, like the elephant in the room, never discussed. I just don't want to be boxed in as a political poet.
Poetry should be judged on whether or not it's good poetry. In my poetry, the political and the personal often merge. When I say personal, I'm not speaking autobiographically. I'm talking about personal in terms of the daily life of a character or the speaker of a poem. Many of my poems aren't conventionally political. Some aren't about social justice at all.
Of course, I can't control how my poetry is viewed. But I wanted to give my view on how I see my poetry and how I'd like it to be seen.
At the end of the day: there are different poetic styles and sensibilities, and poets embody all the diversity of our society. But it boils down to this: despite these differences, a poet is a poet and a poem is a poem. No poet that I know gets up in the morning and thinks, "today, I'm going to be a political, disabled, queer, person of color, woman, male, old or young poet." The poets I know have wanted, hoped and (believers or non-believers) prayed that they would be good poets — bards worthy of their craft.
WG: Your viewpoint, of course, is one that has been expressed by quite a number of poets who have contributed to Wordgathering and —I'm not sure if you know this —but there were several poets who declined to be included in Beauty is a Verb because they did not want to be type-cast as "disability" poets. Nonetheless, the nature of Wordgathering is that it focuses on disability-related writing because that is pretty much it's raison d'etre. If this were a gourmet magazine, I'd probably be asking you about your food poetry and recipes. Having said that, though, what would you have liked to be asked?
KW: I've enjoyed being interviewed a lot! I expected your questions to deal a lot with disability, and I'm fine with that. I felt that many of your questions dealt a lot with my views on political poets. That was fine with me. But, though I know it wasn't your intent, I didn't want to be typecast as a political poet. I wanted to be asked about other facets of my work and creative life as a poet than the political. Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about what what other questions I would have liked to have been asked!
Here's a question, that I wished you'd asked me. "What inspires you to write, and what five poetry books would you take with you if you were cast away on a desert island?"
WG: And how would you answer?
My muse is a capricious, though never boring witch. Who knows what will inspire me? Reading Mary Tyler Moore's book on diabetes sparked something in me that compelled me to start writing The Green Light. Elizabeth Bishop's poetry recharged my batteries while I wrote The Green Light. The work of Cornelius Eady, Lola Haskins, Marilyn Nelson and Grace Cavalieri inspires me to tell stories in my poems. Sometimes, a newspaper headline jump starts a poem for me. Terrific TV shows or characters (such as "MASH," "Mary Tyler Moore," "Mama's Family" from the "Carol Burnett Show" or "Mad Men") have helped me (by some mysterious process of osmosis) learn how to write and develop characters.
It's hard to pick the five poetry books that I'd want to be with me if I'd ever be cast away. But if time's running short, and there's scarcely room to carry anything, I'd hope to fine Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara, The Evening Sun: A Journal In Poetry; by David Lehman, a book of Shakespeare's sonnets, What the Living Do by Marie Howe and The Awful Rowing Toward God by Anne Sexton.
WG: And what other questions would you want to be asked?
Kw: "You have an M. Div. degree from Yale University Divinity School. Do you see a relationship between poetry and religion and spirituality?"
I get asked this quite often. To back up a bit: When other poets learn that I've studied religion, they often become uncomfortable. I can feel them looking at me with a mixture of discomfort and curiosity. Sometimes, they'll even shift in their seats, look the other way or turn away from me.
I understand this response! In our culture, religion has often become identified with the "religious right," the pious, fundamentalists —with folks who believe they have all the answers to all of life's big questions — from why people suffer to what happens after we die. Who wants to be around such folk? Poets of this ilk — if one could call them that — would likely write, not poetry, but "inspirational" verse. Who desires to read or hear such "poetry?" I'm not dissing religious people here — I'm just displaying my skepticism towards people who think that they have all the answers.
After, I reassure people that I'm not a Bible-thumping, fundamentalist; that I'm as skeptical as anyone; and that I have a B.A. in English from Kirkland College — they relax, and turn toward me again.
Despite our cultural skittishness towards religion, I believe that poetry is deeply enmeshed with life's big questions. Whether believers, agnostics, non-believers, or skeptics, poets often play, wrestle, laugh with, rage at and question the meaning of life. As has been often said, the subjects of many poems are life, death, pain, love, hate and, of course, sex. It's not that the poetry world is always so "spiritual." Often, the "po biz" is more concerned with who's ego needs to be stroked — or when the next prestigious prize will be awarded. But a current of spirituality is often found, running through, this competitive egotism.
WG: To wrap things up, would you talk more about how you use humor in your poetry?
KW: No pun intended…but the attitude of the poetry world toward humor is sometimes funny! Once, I went to a poetry reading. Before she read, a poet apologized profusely for any humor which might occur in her poems. You've probably guessed the punch line: her poetry was quite good, but there was nothing remotely humorous in her work.
I don't know why there's so much disdain for humor in the poetry world. When I say humor, I'm talking about comedy in the sense of "the human comedy." I mean that life is often tragic and comic at the same time — that people in horrible situations frequently live in the midst of their pain.
I don't use humor as one-liners in my poetry. I'm not a comedian, and I don't write light verse. This isn't because I disdain comedians or light verse. I love comedians from Jerry Seinfeld to Amy Poehler and I adore the poetry of Ogden Nash. But, my talent — such as I have — doesn't lie in light verse or stand-up comedy.
In my work, humor arrives from — is driven by— the characters. In real life, people, even if they're in painful or tragic situations, make jokes, smile, laugh or are witty. The same is true for my poetry. The humor arises organically from the characters and the situations in their lives.
In Helen Takes the Stage, there's a poem called "Q & A: Palace Theater." It's filled with jokes such as "What is the slowest thing in the world?/Congress." The quips aren't there just for the sake of telling a joke. They're there because the poem is a found poem from Keller's 1924 vaudeville act. They're humorous observations that Keller herself made while performing in vaudeville.
In The Green Light there's a poem called "The Twist" which takes place on the Jersey shore in 1961. Rita is speaking in the poem while she's doing the twist, a dance that was popular in the early 1960s. Rita thinks
"I'm the Jackie Kennedy
The humor in my poetry isn't laugh out loud, or "ha! ha!" funny." It's the (often painful) laughter and wit that's part of the fabric of my character's lives.
Thanks a million to Wordgathering for interviewing me! It was not only a great honor, but fun.