Featured in this Issue:
“Clothes Drying on the Balcony”
“My Mother Contemplates What to Wear in Her Casket”
This month, we’re thrilled to present five pieces by Karen Kovacik… fantastic wordsmith, Indiana’s Poet Laureate, and all around cool person. Also this month, we’re changing up the format a bit so that we can include a few interview questions to set up the poems—though obviously, in the case of great poems like these, no setup is required. Let’s get to work.
Michael: Karen, thanks so much for sharing your work with us! For starters, I was especially drawn to the lyricism of The Almanac of Night, particularly the smooth but subtle alliteration, the way it both entices and lulls and senses on a subconscious, musical level. Can you comment on the place, role, or aesthetic that sound has in your poetry?
Karen: My use of sound varies from poem to poem: I revise until the sound fits its subject. This poem began with the hypnotic drip of rain from the gutter, and that staccato rhythm and resonance, caught in the repetition of consonants, persisted throughout.
M: I love the humorous approach to mortality and genealogy demonstrated in your poem, Ancestry.com. Can you comment on the risks and/or benefits of writing about such a big topic through the lens of a website, i.e. a piece of contemporary pop culture?
K: While engaged in genealogical research on this website and others, I became aware at how precarious our transmission of the past is. One messy loop of penmanship could cause a name to be transcribed wrong and thus to be irretrievable in a search. Factor in poverty, famine, war, and uprisings, and it’s a wonder we can locate our ancestors at all. Sites like ancestry.com provide a link between an age in which the past was recorded exclusively in handwritten documents and our own. Frustrating as the penmanship can be, it evokes a palpable presence. Finding a family census record from 1910, misspellings and all, filled me with joy.
M: There’s a wonderful energy to Clothes Drying on the Balcony, reminiscent of other short poems like Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright, or a great but lesser known poem by Raymond Carver called The Cobweb. Does your process or aesthetic differ, depending on whether you’re writing a long or short poem? Do your shorter poems start out that way, or do they begin longer and get pared down?
K: “Clothes Drying…” was maybe five lines longer in the original draft. I knew from the first that this poem would function like a long tanka because it sought to capture a single, not very complicated image—my gloomy wardrobe drying on the terrace of a Warsaw apartment with only that single pair of red socks to break up the murk. I would say that all my poems, even the longest, tend to become, in revision, as tight as possible. “Ghazal for the History of English” is in 13-syllable lines; another poem, a narrative that braids together the life of Achilles with the story of the Flemish anatomist who named the famous ankle tendon and my own experiences as a long-distance runner, is arranged in careful, counterpoised stanzas.
M: Speaking of short poems, the brevity of My Mother Contemplates What to Wear in Her Casket really serves to amplify the emotional resonance, the blend of casual morbidity and dark humor, as does the fact that it’s written in the narrator’s mother’s voice. Regarding the latter, can you comment on why you chose to write this in the mother’s tone, rather than directly from the perspective of a daughter conversing with her mother?
K: This poem grew out of an actual conversation I had with my mother about her funeral plans. A lot of the phrases were actually hers. I just tightened and heightened for effect.
M: To My Last Period strikes me as a pitch-perfect balancing act between risk and wit, flinty word choice (gut, sip, muscled) and slightly more elevated lyricism (grenadine, saffron, poppy). I think what I find most striking about this poem is its ability to transcend biological boundaries, resonating with me despite my Y chromosome. How does poetry, in your opinion, convey such visceral experiences to people who cannot live through them?
K: I’m glad to hear this poem spoke to you! The real master in this genre of evoking the female body is, of course, Lucille Clifton. One of her poems personifies the departing period as a hussy who once infuriated but now is the object of nostalgia. I guess my own depiction was more brutal—menstruation as dominatrix or some such—whom I would one day outlive. Maybe what you describe as “flinty” diction enables this poem to cross gender lines.
M: Any new projects in the works? Reading any good books? Any guilty TV viewing pleasures you want to own up to?
K: I’m just now finishing up a new collection of poems, called Vérité, which will include most of these poems, but I’m also doing final edits on the manuscript of an anthology of Polish women poets, Calling out to Yeti, scheduled to appear from White Pine in 2015. Currently I’m obsessed with Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split, and I’m also reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and some new poems by the Polish writer Jacek Dehnel, which I’m trying to bring into English. As for TV, my husband and I are into “Love it or List It” on HGTV, which has a very prescribed form: one member of a couple wishes to stay in the house; the other wants to leave. Watching the show is like reading an Agatha Christie: the slight variations of the formula are part of the appeal.
Photo By: John D.