JI: You are, perhaps, more well-known as a poet. Were you always writing fiction while at the same time writing poetry, or is this a relatively new development in your writing career? If this did recently happen, what contributed to your becoming a fiction writer? If you’ve always been writing fiction, why are you only recently beginning to send it out and/or regularly publish it?
LK: I’ve been writing fiction as long as I’ve been writing poetry—which comes to several decades now. And I’ve never really felt a large or insurmountable divide between the two. It might sound simplistic, but I think that all literature (poetry, fiction, drama, even the essay) should remain tethered to its origins: song and storytelling. I have written more poetry and most of my publications have been poems, but I’ve also written lots of full-length short stories as well as two novels—which eventually trimmed down to short stories and poems. I’ve always been uncomfortable (or unskillful)—in terms of longer fiction—having to deal with the nuts and bolts of a story, describing a character, having that person open a door and walk over to a couch and sit down, and begin to speak, etc. All the bedrock, boiler-plate components of narrative. I love writers like Joyce and Faulkner and Proust whose writings seem to float effortlessly above this clutter. And I’m also attracted to the way that fairy tales totally disregard narrative convention. A friend of mine recently talked about her six year old daughter watching the red, white, and blue of a Memorial Day parade and said, “Have you ever seen, in the winter, people sitting in the window sewing, and then they prick their finger with a needle and the blood drops into the snow? THAT’s beautiful: red and white.” Of course it turned out that she was repeating a version of the opening of Snow White, but I was struck by the sheer force of that image—powerful enough for a small child to internalize. For me, the recent popularity of flash fiction seems to have provided me with new opportunities. It’s a very attractive medium in which both song and storytelling can strike a harmonious balance.
JI: The thing I was immediately drawn to when reading your stories was the careful attention to language. It really made my day when I came upon the writing. These sentences—“They lived beyond the city, by an old plank church, its silvery cupolas coated in hoarfrost, parents always abroad, a young girl, poor relative or servant, raking leaves or burning husks in the garden, hiding in the steamy kitchen, overhearing”; and “Between classes (permed and modern-dance-upstate Jennifers, an odd violist named Celeste) catching smokes, he’d float some sixties scene, soon to be subsumed into his grander text: the TV war, student strike, the day B52s bombed the hell out of Cambodia”—just for a couple examples, make me want to drink up the language. As you mention in response to my question above, there’s the permanence of image. But you say you have trouble moving characters around and making them do things, but you seem to do this effortlessly, and in a language that rhythmically runs across the page. How do you bang out these sentences? Do they come to you in initial drafts? Do you compose by word, by image, by idea? I guess what I’m asking is: What’s your process?
LK: I write fiction very slowly. I think it’s related to all the poetry and translation, and even my work in traditional forms—my translation of Pan Tadeusz consists of 250 pages of rhymed iambic pentameter. So in that case, as well as my poetry, each different word choice leads to a different outcome and I often have to work both forwards and backwards. Even when writing fiction I seem to have some sort of natural governor on my writing speed. Certainly low-gear uphill, but also some sort of mechanism to keep me from building up too much speed on the downhill slopes. To keep with the driving metaphor, I think Philip Roth wrote somewhere about how writing fiction is like driving down a country road at night. All you have is that shield of light illuminating what’s in the near distance—and what’s beyond the range of your headlights is pretty much irrelevant. In terms of language/image/music, I don’t attempt a story, even a very short story, until I feel that I have a full set of images, characters, and situations at hand, specific words or phrases—often unrelated. (Chance also plays a role.) And I think I operate almost like the kind of bricoleur that the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss describes—someone with a sense of shifting boundaries who accumulates whatever is at hand and then, at a certain moment, creates some sort of structure out of them. Sort of like using various materials to build something inhabitable—some parts structural, some parts ornamental. Maybe the term assemblage is better. But the materials are always different and always surprising. For me, this works best in very short fiction.
JI: According to what I’ve read about you, you studied in Poland for some time. How would characterize your experiences there?
LK: Well, on one level they were disastrous—one extended stay ended abruptly with the imposition of Martial Law and another ended with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl! Aside from that, my time in Poland was crucial to my development as a writer. It gave me the chance to be the total outsider, the stranger, and at the same time an observer who could view everything, the language, the people, the behavior, the architecture as if it were some sort of sacred realm that required both reverence and interpretation. Polish poetry, Polish poets, Polish novelists have influenced me as much or more than American or British writers. And not just modern or contemporary poets like Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymborska, but older poets, particularly the work of Adam Mickiewicz, whose 19th century epic, Pan Tadeusz, I translated [you can read about the Pan Tadeusz and read an excerpt of Kress’s translation at Wikipedia], and the 16th century poet, Jan Kochanowski, whose work I’ve also translated. Add to that Polish fiction writers—Wladyslaw Reymont (Nobel Prize winner in the 1920s), Boleslaw Prus, and Bruno Schulz. Polish folklore, Polish village life, the medieval city of Krakow, Polish cafes, churches, parks, street musicians, the Solidarity movement. If I had not learned Polish and had not spent so much time there, I would have been a very different writer, perhaps not a writer at all.
JI: You mentioned the attractiveness of fairy tales for their dismissal of traditional narrative conventions. What are some traditional Polish fairy tales that come to mind? In what specific ways have you incorporated fairy tale-esque elements in your fiction?
LK: I’ve always been attracted to myth and fairy tale and much influenced by the writings of Jung, Joseph Campbell, and more so James Hillman. I think that the Polish fairy tale (actually more of a folktale) that first moved me was The Trumpeter of Krakow, which I read well before I had any inkling that I would be a writer. (My mother was always tossing Newbury Award winning children’s books at me, a reluctant reader in childhood.) It’s full of all sorts of medieval magic and alchemy but it basically tells the story of a heroic trumpeter who lived in the tower of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, sounding out the hejnal in all four directions every hour of the day and night. His song is tragically cut short when an arrow from an invading Tartar kills him. And to this day, that cut-off song is played four times, every hour from that same cathedral tower. It’s all pretty touristy now, but it’s still representative of the profound historical and mythological presences in Krakow—not at all lost on me during my stays there. In terms of folklore, I’d have to mention the Polish/Slovak outlaw, political rebel Janosik, who is always described as the “Polish Robin Hood.” However, the folk songs and stories (particularly in the Carpathian Mountains) also display a hero who is a singer, dancer, musician, lover of nature, and heartbroken lover. Incidentally, I heard many of these songs and tales in Chicago when I lived there, which created a powerful contrast to the urban environment—the very kind of materials that I just discussed in terms of bricolage. What could be more enticing for a writer than the experience of walking home from the El, passing a taco joint and hearing a group of teenage girls in the back room of a bakery singing about Janosik hiding out in the mountains and risking his life to visit his lover one last time.
JI: So what fiction are you working on now? More short stories? Any plans for a novel?
LK: Right now I’m in the final stages of putting together two manuscripts—one consist of fiction pieces of 1000 words or less and the other “full length” short stories. The longer short stories deal mostly with life during the final days of Communist Poland and life among Polish immigrants to the U.S. All fairly traditional stories—in spite of what I’ve said about fiction previously. About a novel—if I had been asked this a couple of weeks ago, I would have probably given an emphatic, peremptory “No!” However, just in the past two weeks I’ve read two novels that have begun to change my mind—Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Marukami. I’m completely taken in by Kunzru’s sense of place and spirit, in his case the Arizona desert and specifically the Pinnacle Mountains. I haven’t encountered such evocative place-writing since Joyce’s Dublin, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or perhaps even the spiritual geography of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. And on top of that Kunzru ranges through almost 300 years of the desert mysteries—not through some sort of historical narrative but by making certain, vital events and characters of the past fully present in the present—in a sense, making all time contemporaneous. Of course this is only a small part of what he accomplishes in this novel—and it has convinced me to reconsider writing longer fiction.
Photo by Bobby Bradley on Flickr