Soojin J. Kim is a multidisciplinary artist who works and lives in Korea and the U.S. Her interest in food as a subject started from the memory of her father and has begun to transcend into the investigation of social and cultural meaning embedded. American sweets during Korean War in the 1950s are her most researched subject. For her, it is the indication of the loss of her father and a signal of the disappearance of traditional values in Korea due to the spreading of pop culture influenced by the United States.
This interview was conducted by our Art Editor Ashley Gaskin via email. Keep reading to learn more about Soojin’s history and how she incorporates it into her art. To see more of her work, check out her website and Instagram!
Ashley Gaskin: In your bio, you said that your memory of your father and his Korean War experience fueled your affinity for American sweets. Can you talk a little more about that?
Soojin Kim: During the Korean War (1950-1953), most Koreans including my father’s family became refugees. The country was really poor even before the war and the war made it worse. The U.S. was the biggest portion of the UN Army that helped South Koreans fight against North Korea, China, and Russia during the Korean war. When the war was over, my father was about 5 years old, enough to remember during and the post-war hunger.
One of his favorite stories to tell me (He told me more than thousands of times) was how he was good at running after and speaking in English to G.I.s to get American candies. Each time he didn’t forget to mention that American candies are the best.
For as long as I remember, he always carried candies and chocolates in his shirt pocket every day. It’s a bit funny and sad at the same time for me to say that when my father died, he didn’t have any of his own teeth left. I can’t think of my father without American sweets.
AG: You also mention that you studied electrical engineering before switching to art, has the idea of pursuing art always been something in the back of your mind, or did you have an experience that pushed you toward pursuing art?
SK: My father was really good at drawing cartoons. My mom said that she fell in love with him because of his love letters filled with cartoons. When I was young, I spent a lot of time with my father drawing and painting together. Both my father and I didn’t think of pursuing it as a career but art was always with us.
AG: I saw on your website that you are very involved in your community. There are many pictures of you leading kids’ to make art related to food and other instances where you brought people together through art and food. Can you describe what your community means to you and how you became involved in it?
SK: When I came to the U.S., diversity became a substantial issue in my life for the first time, since South Korea was an extremely homogeneous country. Since then I always thought it would have been nicer to experience different cultures earlier.
So, as a Korean artist who resides in the U.S, I thought maybe it’s my role to provide a bit different cultural experience to the community. I enjoy working with children talking about art and food and learning from each other the way how American sweets came across to my father’s heart.
AG: I noticed that you draw Oreos primarily. What is your drawing process like?
SK: I break Oreos first. Hammering and taking pictures of them is the ritual before I start the drawings. I have a photo library of hundreds of cracked Oreo images. I make compositions by picking cracked Oreos from my image library. I seek balance, harmony, and contrast between black and white like in Asian ink drawings. The rest of it is rendering an image using a Conte crayon on heavy texture paper. Paper texture is essential to creating a cookie illusion.
AG: Are there any projects that you are working on or plan to work on that you would like to discuss?
SK: I am working on the artist’s books and media installations to present the historical narratives behind my work. Like the stories of my father can become an illustrated book at some point. I also looking into my memories with other family members. Some mysteries got solved just because I am old enough or because I learned the cultural & historical background like my father’s obsession with American sweets. Those are my interest, and I would like to make a visual presentation of them.
AG: What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
SK: There are many different ways to be an artist. For me, listening to my true voice and to express is my ultimate goal as an artist. I can suggest the same thing to aspiring artists if they are interested in my kinds of art. Listen to your voice and find the right medium that you enjoy working with will do the job.
São Paulo based artist, Bianca Rivetti Burattini, has been developing her art for several years through a span of different mediums, from traditional to digital art. Originally an Architect, Rivetti has incorporated different facets of color and composition knowledge within her craft.
Through fine art and illustration, Rivetti focuses on creating bold, colorful works that are heavily inspired by Brazilian culture, biodiversity, the female form and an overall feeling of wonder towards the world through a blend of pop art and fantasy.
This interview was conducted by Ashley Gaskin, our Art Editor for Issue 29 via email. We’re so excited to share Bianca’s work and the inspirations behind it! We highly recommend checking out more of Bianca’s beautiful work on her website, Instagram, and TikTok!
Ashley Gaskin: In your artist statement, you mention that you were originally an architect. Can you describe how architecture has influenced your art?
Bianca Rivetti Burattini: Of course! I started architecture school when I turned 17 and, I think like everyone at that age, I didn’t have a good sense of what I wanted for my life and was very immature when it came to dealing with clients and whatnot. I began working the next year and it helped me better understand the compromises necessary to create a good creative project and how to process and adapt to feedback!
Another thing that I feel architecture gave me is a greater notion of space and distribution, which I apply to my pieces. I believe that in order to break rules of composition, you need to know how to work with them, and architecture school really helped me strategize and develop my ideas in a more organized and based way. Since my “natural” art process is very chaotic and messy I used to lose things along the way, now I have more purpose when creating.
AG: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue art and can you talk about your art journey a little more? Did you always know what kind of art you wanted to create?
BRB: Well, I learned how to draw with my mom who used to draw for me when I was a baby, while we ate. Since I can remember, art is the way that I am able to better express myself and has helped me deal with my anxiety from a very young age. Essentially, I believe art is a tool to better understand myself and express different ideas.
However, I never thought that art could be something to make a living out of, which is why I went on to study architecture. I graduated a week before the first pandemic shut down here in Brazil and had to go to two surgeries that left me unable to move very much for around eight months to a year. So, the world was in shambles and I couldn’t do anything out of bed essentially, and a friend of mine asked why I never posted my art before. I couldn’t think of a decent enough reason other than it stressed me out (haha!) so I started posting and people started asking me if I sold art or did commissions, so I began doing those and researching how art could potentially be a bigger part of my income. I’m still at the beginning of this process but have learned a lot during the last year and a half.
As for the type of art I wanted to create, it changes A LOT depending on my mood or what I’m in the mood for. I love experimenting with different materials and aesthetics and have been this way my entire life. Pop culture and surrealism are things that I’m very drawn to, as well as a more fantastic vibe I believe? So, these references reflect themselves in my art. Another thing I’ve never thought would be so big in my work is the use of color, which began during college. The power of color is incredible to me and is something I had never experimented with before.
AG: Also in your artist statement, you say that your, “Brazilian culture and its biodiversity” has greatly influenced your art, in what ways has your culture come through in your art?
BRB: God, I don’t think I can pinpoint that super specifically. It’s everywhere in my work, either in clearer ways such as our plants and animals or in more abstract lenses using folklore, our cities, poems and music as inspiration!
I also believe that, since I’m Brazilian and currently live here, everything around me is an influence, and our customs and day-to-day life also come through in my work. I hope that made sense. It’s difficult to explain what our culture means to me when I’m so immersed in it all of the time!
AG: I noticed that many of your artworks have a hint of the ocean in them, for example, your work “Lost at Sea” has the subject enwrapped in a scarf of fish. What has influenced these kinds of compositions?
BRB: Yes! I’m so glad you noticed it and it is connected with your last question, actually! I live very close to the ocean and growing up we were always either at the beach for competitive swimming or exploring coral reefs, etc. I even wanted to be a marine biologist for many years from a very young age and always researched the sea. It’s a big part of who I am and a big part of my memories.
Another way the ocean may appear in my work, or art in general, is through the influence of other media. For example, the poem “Ismália” is a Brazilian poem about a woman who became herself through death, once she accepted her madness and threw herself at the sea to be one with the moon. It’s a heavy poem but one that brought me a lot of comfort when I was younger and struggling and it still shows up in my work from time to time.
AG: You said in your artist’s statement that your subject matter is a “mix of pop culture and fantasy”. What led you to create art in these styles?
BRB: Well, like I said, to myself, art is the main way in which I explore my feelings and emotions, and from a very young age cinema and animation were very comforting to me. I think that sense of wonder and exploration that art can bring you is very difficult to replicate and once a work speaks to you, at least for me, you end up searching for all those little details and building a narrative inside your mind. I think it can even be a form of escapism. So I think the thing that led me toward this style is that little kid inside my head, that has a very creative imagination!
AG: What other artists have influenced or inspired you?
BRB: Gosh, so many! The first artist I really connected with was Van Gogh ( I know, cliché haha) because of how his brushwork attracted my attention when I was very young. Another one that has a very similar effect on me is Hieronymus Bosch, I could stare at his interpretation of the deadly sins for days on end and not get tired. I also believe that visual art doesn’t have to be inspired directly by visual art. Fernando Pessoa and Alphonsus Guimaraens are strong sources of inspiration, lots of animation studios (like Cartoon Saloon, Studio Ghibli, Disney, Laika, Ponoc, Filme de Papel, etc), series, cinema, etc! Even my friends who are writers and artists greatly inspire me.
Congratulations to Barrett Bowlin whose debut book, Ghosts Caught on Film, comes out this week published by Bridge Eight Press.
Proceed with caution. A scientist and sister hope to transform gummy bears into embryos. A sleepwalking father poses a dangerous threat to his young son. Ghosts Caught on Film is a collection of stories both haunting and funny, full of warmth, anxiety, love, and foreboding. Winner of the Bridge Eight Press Fiction Prize, Barrett Bowlin’s debut is unafraid to make you laugh while looking over your shoulder or bring you to tears while turning the page.
Inventive, entrancing, funny, and often wonderfully bizarre, Ghosts Caught on Film is a fantastic story collection. With an abundance of heart and humor, Barrett Bowlin sets the table for characters who are all daring to dream while facing their own impending apocalypse. Each of these stories resonates with existential questions, echoes and afterimages, flickers of love and longing—and taken altogether, this is a stunning debut.
Jason Allen, author of The East End
You can read “Skiagraphy,” by Barrett Bowlin in Issue 20. You can also check out Barrett’s website and Twitter to learn more about his work.
Jesse Lee Kercheval is a writer, translator, and graphic artist. Her recent books include the short story collection Underground Women and La crisis es el cuerpo, a bilingual edition of her poetry, translated by Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, published in Argentina by Editorial Bajo la luna. Her recent essays and graphic narratives have appeared in The Sewanee Review, Blackbird, Brevity, The New England Review, and The Quarantine Public Library.
This interview was conducted by Paress Chappell, our Nonfiction Editor for Issue 28 via email. This post also features one of Jesse’s essays, Typhoid Blue. We’re so excited to share her work and the inspirations behind it!
Paress Chappell: What have you been writing during the pandemic?
Jesse Lee Kercheval: I think my illustrated essay, “Typhoid Blue,” that you are featuring is the answer to that question. I started writing essays. I’d already written a whole memoir, Space, about growing up during the moon race so I am not new to nonfiction, but I had always been frightened of essays. Then suddenly I was locked down in Montevideo, Uruguay in the first days of the pandemic and I just started writing essay after essay. One of the first, “The New Troy,” about Montevideo and all its plagues was published in Guernica with a photo of my neighbors tango dancing on the roof of their high-rise.
The other thing I took up was drawing—just to get away from my computer and have something to do while confined to my rented apartment. I bought a box of colored pencils at the supermarket and started drawing—really, for the first time in my life.
Then I began putting the drawings in my essays. “Typhoid Blue” is one. It deals with a long time interest of mine in the life and poetry of the French surrealist poet Robert Desnos. His life story is important in my novel, My Life as a Silent Movie. And I have written a number of poems inspired by his work. One, “Next Tuesday” appears in my poetry collection, America that island off the coast of France. Robert Desnos even has a connection to my interest in silent films. He wrote a long poem “La complainte de Fantômas” based on the popular crime novels about a master thief. The Fantômas books were also turned into an equally popular silent movie serial by the great French director Louis Feuillade. That movie had this amazing poster.
Another of my illustrated essays (“The Fox Sister”) just won an Editor’s Choice Award will be out soon in New Letters. It is about actual foxes, the early spiritualist Fox Sisters, and a Korean folk tale about a changeling fox sister who eats her human brothers. And another, a full graphic essay or comic, “Falling” —about breaking my back when I was ten, 9/11, and the pandemic—was published in Waxwing.
Now I am easing off the essays a bit and back into poetry. I have a new collection of poems, I Want To Tell You, coming out from the University of Pittsburgh Press. But I am still drawing like mad. Art was the one gift the pandemic gave me.
PC: Why did you decide to become a translator and how has that opened doors for you in the literary world?
JLK: In 2010, I decided I wanted to learn Spanish. I had a sabbatical and, for completely random reasons, I choose Montevideo, Uruguay as the place I would live and study. I did not set out with the intention of translating poetry—learning Spanish over fifty seemed challenge enough! I spent the sabbatical just going to language classes and trying to live a normal life in a different language. But I did begin reading Uruguayan poetry. Then, when I returned to visit Uruguayan friends, I began going to poetry readings. Uruguay is a small country (3.3 million people) but one FULL of poets. In Montevideo, there are poetry readings or events most of the nights of the week. It is also country with a strong and unbroken chain of poetry by women.
As I quickly discovered, almost none of this work was available in English translation. So I started work on my anthology, América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets (University of New Mexico Press, 2016) which features the work of young Uruguayan poets, each paired with an American based poet/translator. That book turned out to be a whole wonderful project. I placed many of the poems in literary magazines. I took three of the poets on a reading tour around the U.S, including the Library of Congress and the Associated Writing Programs annual conference. We were even featured on Chinese television. Many of the individual poets in the anthology have gone on to have books published in the U.S. And I have gone on to translate books by Uruguayan poets such as Idea Vilariño, Circe Maia, Tatiana Oroño, to co-translate others and edit several more anthologies as well.
Translation opened the doors to not one, but two new literary worlds for me. The world of Uruguayan poets, which is very much my second home now, but also the world of translators, who are wonderful, generous people. I tell my students it is worth studying translation just to be able to spend time with other translators.
And translating made poetry gave me another great gift. It made poetry come alive for me again. After years of reading, teaching, writing poetry—I think I had become a bit numb to it. But reading, hearing, really trying to understand poetry in another language brought the magic back. I also love this moment where, perhaps because we are living through this pandemic, literature is getting wonderfully hybrid, in all the senses of that word.
So maybe to tie all these obsessions of mine together, I should write an illustrated lyric essay about an Uruguayan silent film. Honestly, that is a very tempting idea!
PC: What’s the connection between your writing and your interest in silent films?
JLK: Ah, there you touch on an obsession of mine that predates drawing. My husband was a special archivist at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. He first went to a Le Giornate del Cinema Muto/ The Pordenone Silent Film Festival in 2000. The festival is the premiere location for screening silent films made from 1880s into the 1930s. He suggested I might like to go the next year. I thought, Italy! Of course, I want to go! But I thought I would sit in a cafe and write poems, not attend the movies. Instead, I ended up watching films from 9 am to 1 am—nearly without stop—for the entire eight days of the festival. It was like finding the lost world of Atlantis. And then I began writing poems about the films. These eventually became my book Cinema Muto (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009) which takes the form of the eight days of the festival.
I attended Le Giornate del Cinema Muto every year right up until the recent pandemic pause—eighteen years. And I still love silent films.
Do poems exist? After a plague year, nothing is a poem to me anymore. Or everything is.
In 1924, in his surrealist manifesto, André Breton said, “We are living under the reign of logic, but the logical processes of our time apply only to the solution of problems of secondary interest.”
But we are not living in logical times. Breton, writing four years after WW I, a decade and pocket change before WWII, was not either.
Now, everything I draw is blue.
Blue lips. I am giving everyone blue lips.
The poet Robert Desnos was a surrealist before Breton expelled him from the movement. In 1945, he died of typhoid in Terezín concentration camp a month after the camp’s liberation. In severe cases of typhoid, the lips and fingernails may turn bluish in color.
Or so it says in a very old article, as old as Desnos’ last poem, said to have been found on him when he died:
Le Dernier Poème
J’ai rêvé tellement fort de toi, J’ai tellement marché, tellement parlé, Tellement aimé ton ombre, Qu’il ne me reste plus rien de toi.Il me reste d’être l’ombre parmi les ombres D’être cent fois plus ombre que l’ombre D’être l’ombre qui viendra et reviendra dans ta vie ensoleillée.
Except his poem never existed.
A Czech newspaper published his obituary, which ended with a part of Desnos’ poem, “J’ai tant rêvé de toi” (I Dreamt About You So Much), translated into Czech by a Czech poet, Jindřich Hořejší. When it was republished in France, the sentence was retranslated into French again.
A poem that never existed—existed. And made people weep.
The French newspaper said he had written “Le Dernier Poème” for his wife Youki Desnos. Youki means snow in Japanese. When I draw snow—I add blue. White, white alone is never cold enough. Except Desnos’ wife wasn’t Japanese. Her name was Lucie Badoud and Youki was a nickname given to her by her lover Tsuguharu Foujita before she left him for Desnos.
In his portrait of Youki, Tsuguharu Foujita uses on the slightest touch of pale blue for her eyes.
The poem Desnos never wrote Youki from Terezín ended up engraved on a wall behind Notre Dame Cathedral that is the memorial to the 200,000 French deportees to Nazi death camps. President Charles de Gaulle inaugurated it in 1962, before anyone discovered the mistake of the double translation.
Once a poem is engraved in on a wall, can there be any doubt it exists?
The poem is even famous in English:
I have dreamt so very much of you, I have walked so much, talked so much Loved your shadow so much, I have nothing left of you. All that remains to me is to be the shadow among shadows To be a hundred times more of a shadow than the shadow To be the shadow that will come and come again into your sunny life.
And there is also no doubt that a shadow of a shadow of shadow is blue, blue, blue.
Wave after wave.
André Breton’s surrealist novel Nadja is dotted with photos, most of them random, found art that make a story even more surreal—perhaps not unlike the illustrations in this essay. But Nadja also includes these photographs by Man Ray of Robert Desnos sleeping.The young Czech medical student, Josef Stuna, who cared for Desnos’ last days in Terezín, recognized him from the book. The caption on the photos in the book reads: “Once again, now, I see Robert Desnos . . . ”
It didn’t save him.
Besides the story about the fictional last poem, there is another one from the camps about Robert Desnos, this one probably true. The scholar Susan Griffin tells it in her article “To Love The Marigold: Hope & Imagination.”
I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago from my friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Odette told me, Desnos reads the man’s palm.
Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.
As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination.
And at least one of them lived to tell this story.
It wasn’t Robert Desnos.
“I have walked so much, talked so much”—an imaginary Desnos says in his imaginary “Last Poem.”
I think he would have loved being that imaginary, to be honest.
Not all blues are dark blue.
I should draw Desnos and color his eyes the same light blue as Youki’s. Instead I draw this.
While Superstition Review loves to write about contributor updates from past issues, we are also thankful for the chance to get to know new writers with so many different stories to tell. Please welcome Linda LeGarde Grover and her new collection Gichigami Hearts: Stories and Histories from Misaabekong. In twelve loosely connected essays, Linda shares the story of her ancestors’ arrival at the American Fur Post in far western Duluth more than two hundred years ago, capturing the thrilling tales of her family’s fortune and fate, “all with a deep and tenacious bond to the land, one another, and the Ojibwe culture.” The array of genres is highly notable, ranging from memoiristic non-fiction to Ojibwe oral tradition fused into a contemporary story encompassing older oral stories. There is so much to explore in this collection, with stories that connect us all.
In Linda LeGarde Grover’s Gichigami Hearts, we are given the gift of an intensly personal, and at the same time brilliant, walkthrough of Grover’s part of the Anishinaabe universe. Just a tremendously lovely and unique book.
Erika T. Wurth, author of White Horse
Linda LeGarde Grover is professor emeritus of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe. Her books The Road Back to Sweetgrass, Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year, and In the Night of Memory, all from Minnesota, have earned numerous awards, including the Native Writers Circle of the Americas First Book Award; Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards for Poetry, Memoir, and Fiction; and a Minnesota Book Award for Memoir and Creative Nonfiction. Her book of stories The Dance Boots was the winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize.
Allison Moyers is an oil painter and video artist from Texas who currently lives and works in Phoenix Arizona. She traveled Europe and lived in France for five years where she received her bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from ESAD de Valenciennes in 2015. Her work explores the subjects of stardom, vanity, and excess within society with an emphasis on woman and the feminine. She is fascinated by western culture’s obsession with beauty in film, literature, and classic painting that have created idealized versions of reality. The stylized and romanticized art are indispensable elements in her work and correspond to the methodic use of color that expresses human emotions through their psychological representation.
In this post, we feature a short film made by Allison as she tours her art and answers questions from our Issue 28 Art Editor, Khanh Nguyen.
Kate Cumiskey lives with her partner Mikel in coastal central Florida. She has a social justice novel, Ana, forthcoming with Finishing Line Press, and a biography, Surfers’ Rules: The Mike Martin Story, forthcoming with Silent e Publishing; both will be out in late 2022. She is currently concentrating her writing to reflect her perspective of social justice without judgement or paternalism as regards homelessness, and continuing her work in meeting the needs of homeless human beings in her community. She also leads efforts locally to ascertain safety and educational fidelity for students within the public school system through boots-on-the-ground advocacy.
Our Poetry Editor, Bree Hoffman, read and reviewed Kate’s recent book of poems, The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels and was lucky enough to also interview Kate about the book. The interview was conducted via email.
Bree Hoffman: “Candor” is the first poem in your book, and it lives up to the name by truth-telling right away. What was your thought process when opening the book with “Candor,” and what is the desired effect for the reader?
Kate Cumiskey: I’ll start with answering the second part of this question. This poem, I hope, serves as a bit of a warning to readers, “there be dragons here.” I don’t want readers to be surprised by the literal candor in the book. It’s important to me that writers speak truth, and with this book I particularly wanted to focus on truths we don’t normally speak out loud, but which do keep us isolated in that they make us feel alone. In fact, such things as hemorrhoids, death, and rape, while two of those are fortunately not universally shared, are common and lose a bit of their power when acknowledged as such. I had been struggling with a bit of inertia when this book was initially accepted by Finishing Line Press – how do we speak truth in such horrific times? – and I reread Candor to get myself back into the fray of writing what is happening to all of us, right now. FLP was gracious enough to allow the book to change with the rapidly changing, deadly times through the publication process. Candor had originally been the title poem of the book, but that too changed through this process. The title reflects my own grappling with deliberately losing my deep Southern drawl as a married teenager living in California, where nobody deigned to speak to me in public. I trained the South out of my voice, and I miss it. This book is an attempt not to recover those vowels, but to speak, now, with the voice I’ve developed on issues which are absolutely vital to me. So, Candor is a warning for readers.
BH: In poems such as “Dirge” and “Favoring Boys” your activist roots come through. How does activism influence you as a writer, and how do you hope to factor them into your work in the future?
KC: It is interesting that you choose “activist roots,” as I think of this book as very active in voice, and independent from my roots, so to speak. I do not tend to think of my parents as activists, but you are spot-on; certainly they were, both of them. I hope it is evident in the poems that my mother and I had a very complex relationship, but she was in fact the bravest person I’ve ever known. She did things I’d never dream of, and that I’d consider down-right dangerous, for example, always picking up hitchhikers no matter what, until literally the week before she passed away in 2017. That’s activism. She also reserved judgement on people outside her own circle, such as homeless individuals panhandling, saying judgement was for God-she’d give out money and when less radical individuals called her on that, saying, “what if they spend it on drugs?” She’d say, “It’s a tough life, maybe that’s what they need to get through the night.” My father was a NASA pioneer, and even though his designs were crucial to getting humans to the Moon and our technology into interstellar space, when I asked what he was proudest of in his career, he replied, “I couldn’t keep a secretary. Every one of them out-degreed me and went on in the Program. I helped them all do that.” Activism in the workplace, helping females move forward in what at the time was absolutely a male domain. So, yeah, activist roots. Right now, I’m working on a series of poems about withholding judgement. In fact, one of the central poems to that book, Cokeheads I Have Known, is forthcoming in an anthology, The Literary Parrot, Series Two. I am pushing myself hard to speak about our shared humanity, and to encourage readers to strive to leave judgement behind. Again, there be dragons here. It’s hard to examine your own boundaries.
BH: I noticed recurring themes of motherhood and generational trauma several times. Could you discuss why those themes resurface in your work?
KC: Again, you bring up something about the book I’d not noticed! Brava; I love it! I remember discussing what I was most concerned about in my work with my dear friend and mentor, Robert Creeley. He’d asked, and I responded, “Being labeled a ‘domestic poet’.” He replied with his fabulous candor, “Well, you are a domestic poet, but you’re in good company.” He was saying he too was a domestic poet. That long-ago conversation freed me of the concern, and I allowed my work to truly reflect my domesticity–what’s more domestic than parenthood? I took a sort of semi-conscious approach to this book, letting it be whatever it wanted to, even to the point of playing with, allowing myself to play with, voice in person. That evolved into my writing some of the easier poems first person, and dealing with more difficult topics, like that generational trauma you cite, in second person, and letting the poems stand that way. It’s subtle, but there, and I hope creates a bit of chaos and discomfort and puzzlement in readers. Like trauma does. I believe the deepest root of that trauma goes back to my father’s loss of his parents before he was eight; he was a Mississippi Depression orphan, son of a sharecropper and a teacher, and although he missed them, as a practical Christian he knew he would be with them again, and told stories about them as if they were just away for a while. Which, from a Christian perspective, they are. So, I really missed my grandparents growing up. In fact, as a small child in school I was confused by other children having two sets; I thought of my Atlanta grandparents, my mother’s, as my father’s parents, too, before such things were explained to me. It came as a real blow that I had missing grandparents. This deepened as it became very apparent I most resemble my paternal grandmother, who was also incredibly domestic, and a teacher; my mother was decidedly not. In fact, because I loved these things and she didn’t, she had me take lessons in sewing, cooking, even deportment and etiquette. Because back in the day a woman should be graceful and I was clumsy as a child, I also took dance lessons for several years; I still love to dance. As far as my work, the obvious answer is also that I use these underlying specificities in my past to attempt to connect with readers. It is important to me that each reader experience each poem differently; what the reader brings to the reading through their own past is as important to me as the words on the page.
BH: What advice would you offer to our readers about writing?
KC: Connect! Read! Reach out to writers whose work speaks to you, if they are living, and ask the questions you are burning to ask. Ask for help. If you are stuck too deeply in your own, isolating experiences, force yourself to look outward and write just what you see, sans analysis. Take a piece of rotting fruit, put it on the table, smash it to bits, and sit down and write that. Keep the self completely out of the work. That’ll get you writing. Work outward from there: write the doorway, then the hall, then the threshold. Then, write what’s outside that door.
BH: What does your personal writing process look like when you are building a book of poetry?
KC: It’s a mess! In fact, I’ve recently opened an office in a classic old building in order to grapple with my lack of organization, and am working on a schedule. Seriously, although outwardly I’m a bit of a mess, I’m actually pretty organized and disciplined. I keep poems in print and on the computer, and when they start to build up in number, I have a serious look at them to see if they belong in a group, in a book. And I am always sending out finished poems to find a home in a journal or anthology. My mentor Mark Cox worked hard with me on how to put together books when I was in graduate school, and I still use his method, which is deliciously physical. I find a space with a large surface area – The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels was put together in my brother’s beautiful kitchen, in the afternoon overlooking Turnbull Bay, Atlantic Center for the Arts just visible on the opposite shore–and lay out the printed verses. I choose the opening poem, and circle until I find the poem which calls to it, which wants to be next. I keep going until the book is finished. Any poems left I simply hold for another day. Another book or spoken word venue.
Kate Cumiskey’s, The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels, is her latest and perhaps most intimate book of poems published thus far. In a recent interview with Superstition Review, Cumiskey said of its origins:
“The title reflects my own grappling with deliberately losing my deep Southern drawl as a married teenager living in California, where nobody deigned to speak to me in public. I trained the South out of my voice, and I miss it. This book is an attempt not to recover those vowels, but to speak, now, with the voice I’ve developed on issues which are absolutely vital to me.”
The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels expands on this promise, and provides a candid, autobiographical collection of poems relevant to Cumiskey’s lived experiences. This includes the appropriately titled, “Candor,” a poem that opens up the collection and lives up to its name.
Write your history; write that fear at 2 a.m. the night
your son overdosed. Write tile beneath your knees.
Write rats in the kitchen, raccoons in the roof, your dog
over the fence, gone all night.
I found Cumiskey’s poems to be moving and sincere in their attempts to reclaim ownership over her lived experiences. Her poems cover topics including sexism, assault, politics, loss, and hope for the things she cannot fix. It’s hard to separate the author from the poems in this particular collection, because the two feel so intrinsically linked, and it’s readily apparent when reading them.
Bit by bit my body settles into age: fractious, screaming all the way
down. Only in twilight sleep I feel my lower jaw shift, relax, offset
to the right, the side I sleep on. My mouth clamps, thin-lipped, crooked,
and settles for sleep into Mother’s fighting look, the one she wears
when will not be moved. Then I can rest. And it feels good
like falling into my own skin.
(From “Just Lately I Feel My Body Settling”).
To purchase a copy of The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels, head to Finishing Line Press. Congratulations and thank you, Kate!
Keene Short is a writer and baker in Spokane, Washington. His work has appeared in jmww, Bridge Eight, Blood Orange Review, and elsewhere. In this post, we feature an essay of his, “Jeremiad,” along with an interview our Nonfiction Editor, Paress Chappell, conducted with Keene about the piece.
I wake up before dawn to drive to a small airport in Cascade, Idaho, in time for the one flight by bush plane into a research station in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. I am the only passenger on the bumpy flight, the plane full of faded yellow and orange upholstery and a few remaining patches of brown shag carpeting. After the plane takes off and whirs over the Idaho wilderness, I look out at the tiny crystal lakes in the rocky ledges and drops below. The pilot flies close enough to some of the slopes that I can see the frost on the trees and the waves in the alpine lakes. There are so many unmapped, tiny lakes, as blue as veins.
I am here for a short fellowship to write about climate change, history, and public land use, but I find myself mostly thinking mostly in religious terms. My parents and teachers framed the public lands system in the US for me as a model of an environmental utopia, an iteration of the commons shared co-equally among all humans and non-human animals. A paradise on Earth, the Kingdom of Heaven, easy and teleological.
The one book I bring with me to the River of No Return is a copy of my father’s dissertation, Ronald Reagan and the Public Lands, which he expanded into a book and published in a limited run in 1989, predating my older brother by a year. It’s been on my shelf for a long time, but I only committed to reading it while spending a week writing in the same public lands my father would have studied.
The plane lands bumpily in a long stretch of grass next to a tributary of the Salmon River called Big Creek. The pilot pulls a lever repeatedly to start the brakes, and the plane finally stops just short of the research station’s only human inhabitants waiting in the cold to greet us: Pete, the manager, his 9-year-old daughter, and five college students staying the in the fall for a semester’s worth of credits. The sun is still behind the mountains, and the air will be cold all morning, they tell me.
I settle into the situation: No phone service and only a few hours of internet slower than dial-up during the day when the sun hits the station’s row of solar panels. There is one electrical outlet in my cabin, which I use to charge my laptop, also only when the sun hits the solar panels. There is no heat, and I’m not permitted to use the fireplace this late in the dry season.
I write a few paragraphs in my cabin, then wander up the grass landing strip. I follow a deer into the brush who lets me get startlingly close in a shady trail next to the landing strip, munching on this and that, looking up at me with an unreadable expression.
Outside my cabin is a grassy field that ends at the row of solar panels. The river separates the field from the blond-grey mountainside, crisscrossed with ponderosa pines. The research station, with so few humans living so far off the grid, feels like the setting of a post-apocalyptic novel. This shared, off-the-radar community blends technological limits and twentieth-century agricultural methods to sustain itself, as if after some war or disease or atomic fallout. Maybe there are shades of utopia as well. Everything here is an extreme, and everyone here takes these extremes for granted. The cabin’s solitude, the river’s noise.
My father breaks the old guard conservation movement into two sects: “the mystics, such as John Muir, who considered wilderness preservation to be an ‘act and obligation of worship,’ and the more pragmatic utilitarians, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.” Both sects drew upon white settler colonialism, dividing the land according to what they wanted, a religious project of reorganizing stolen land rather than preserving it.
When I hike upstream in the early afternoon sun, I’m struck most by the burned trees that still loom over the trail from a series of wildfires. I pass three in a row on the trailside. I want to pick at them, strip off bits of charcoal, see how deep the damage goes. I want to see if there are still tree rings, what they might look like deep inside. I think of toasted marshmallows allowed to let burn to a crisp on an open fire, turning to ash on the outside but gooey on the inside. In the burned trees, will there be untouched streaks of sandy orange and sandal? Or will it be gnarled and drooping, the innards melted, disorganizing the lifespan of these ponderosa up until the fire? I want to peek inside and see proof of life. Does that make me a mystic?
When I return, I peruse the library in the other half of my cabin, filled with taxidermized rodents and hawks caught in competition above the shelves. Most of the books are standard ecocritical texts from the last four decades. A lot of Terry Tempest Williams, a lot of Scott Slovic. A lot of Barry Lopez and Edward Abbey and Rachel Carson. There are few novels and even fewer books of poetry. For inspiration, I snatch the Ecocriticism Reader and the library’s copy of the Bible.
When I finally sit down to write after a quick meal the sun is far below the mountain, and a bird flies into the window. I am in denial about the meaning of that awful low smack until I see the creature on the cabin deck. The bird’s chest and eyes move in equally violent rhythm.
I don’t want a bird to die on my watch, and I don’t know how to help. I go to find Pete, but he is nowhere to be found. When I return, the bird is still there, but as I climb the steps, he hobbles onto his feet, his talons tight between the wood of the deck. He looks around, not cocking his head but unsure, rocking a little bit. The bird is in shock, I think, feeling my own heart speed up. The little body is in shock.
I don’t know the species. His feathers are black with a white underbelly and chest. The creature is small, so so small. I go back inside to get a plate of water, spilling it on the way out again. The cabin door makes a short squeaking noise, a barely audible chipper. When I place the plate in front of him, the bird seems to jump and his eyes open much wider. I nudge the water closer, leaning in a little. The bird shakes a bit, then takes flight, giving one small squeak on his way out. I lift the plate, dump the water into a nearby flower pot, and go back inside, my hands shaking. I wonder if an omen is still an omen when the omen flies away again.
I read in the Book of Amos: “’But I gave you empty stomachs in all your cities and lack of bread in all your towns, yet you have not returned to Me,’ declares the Lord. ‘And furthermore, I withheld the rain from you while there were still three months until harvest. Then I would send rain on one city and on another city I would not send rain; one part would be rained on, while the part not rained on would dry. So two or three cities would stagger to another city to drink water, but would not be satisfied; yet you have not returned to Me,’ declares the Lord.’ I smote you with scorching wind and mildew; and sent locusts to destroy your many gardens and vineyards, fig trees and olive trees; yet you have not returned to Me,’ declares the Lord.”
Mystics used to emphasize the land, air, and water in their prophesying, denouncing tribal kings for their iniquities with threats of very real earthly punishments attributed to God. The land gives and the land takes away. The prophets knew what they were doing when they warned of impending drought and famine and disease, when they warned of refugee crises and wars and political collapse, a central part of their rhetoric.
Frank Church himself, a former US Democratic Senator for Idaho, is more difficult to place. He ran in the presidential primary election of 1976 as a progressive environmentalist, though he only won a few primaries in Western states like Idaho, Montana, and Nebraska before withdrawing when it became clear that the more moderate Jimmy Carter had sealed the nomination. My dad tells me that he volunteered with the radical environmentalist Church campaign as a college student, helping to put up posters for Frank Church with the Idaho Young Democrats. He always tells me this same story about the candidate:
Frank Church came to Rupert, Idaho, my dad’s hometown an hour from Pocatello. He hung out after giving a campaign speech at the town’s high school and my dad stuck around too, asked a few more questions as Church waited for a friend to pick him up. I imagine him in a trench-coat, smoking a cigarette, talking shop with a college student version of my dad.
Forty years later, when I was a graduate student in Nebraska, it felt like a big deal when Bernie Sanders came to Lincoln, the state capital. Thousands of students skipped classes to wait six hours in line to hear him speak, waiting to pass through metal detectors and have their bags checked on the way in. A large crowd for a college town. I wonder if Frank Church drew a large crowd for a small rural town. I’ve been to Rupert so many times. It’s a community of farmers and immigrants, not the place a presidential candidate visits even in primary season, a small, isolated town that has only become smaller and more isolated.
I hike upstream along the river with my camera, along the dusty trails rising and falling, narrowing closer to the thrashing edge of the rapids and into the quiet grassy hills away from the river, its churning locomotion. Past the rapids and a set of caves I worry will be filled with bears, I cross a bridge, maneuvering myself between the looming post-burn charcoal pillars and the emergent stubble of regrowth.
The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is on stolen and occupied Shoshone-Bannock and Nimiipuu land. The US began imposing restrictions on land usage first with the establishment of the Idaho Primitive Area in 1930, then the Wilderness Act of 1964, and finally the Central Idaho Wilderness Act of 1980, which Frank Church successfully sponsored.
The land is useful today for scientific research, especially for the stability of the Salmon River in a changing climate, but the original purposes were more sentimental. According to the legislation, congress finds that “certain wildlands in central Idaho lying within the water shed of the Salmon River—the famous ‘River of No Return’—constitute the largest block of primitive and undeveloped land in the conterminous United States and are of immense national significance.” Through an act of congress, Frank Church was able to create a legally designated block of wilderness for its immense national significance. This is an act of mysticism, a gesture toward environmental utopianism.
The Taylor Ranch has regulations to prevent overuse of resources, and it functions as something close to communal living. I share the kitchen and outhouse. We clean up the spaces and items we use. The regular inhabitants work in the garden, the farm, or with the water and solar rigs. In exchange for restraint, the land is renewable for another year. White Americans are new to this longstanding concept, and we’re still very bad at it. A bush plane flies in twice a week to bring supplies and relieve us of our garbage.
A list of Pete’s commandments hang above the door to the kitchen and dining cabin, the common cabin, written on butcher paper in blue marker, emphasizing personal responsibility, solitude, and companionship. While cooking my morning oatmeal next to someone else boiling water for tea, the gas ovens go out, and the regulars jump to change the propane tanks, instinctively volunteering to maneuver the gigantic beige metal cannister as tall as I am to a storage place while hauling in another equally large cannister.
For a while, I wonder if this is the kind of shared collaboration Hardt and Negri suggest is necessary to reestablish the commons, “produced socially, through communication and cooperation, by a multitude of singularities.” Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz, though, points out that Hardt and Negri’s limited idolization of the commons perpetuates settler colonialism by conveniently ignoring the Indigenous people whose land would then be shared in common by the colonists’ descendants. Even if proposed in good faith, the federal public lands system enacts a version of this erasure. Utopia for some is dystopia for the rest.
I imagine someone like the prophet Amos visiting this place. I picture him quickly turning bored, running his hands through his long hair and getting itchy with cabin fever, biting his nails, pacing the library and looking out the window at the deer in the field, walking up to the windows in their grazing, wondering about the nervous, shaking creature they see inside.
The Sagebrush Rebellion, consisting of libertarian western landowners fed up with the environmental policies of the 1970s, plays a key role in my father’s analysis. White landowners, generations removed from the government-subsidized colonization of the 1800s, rebelled against the conservation policies that figures like Frank Church helped to enact. The environmentalist response to the Sagebrush Rebels’ theatrical protests was a carefully designed, science-driven counter-insurgency that “often employed research data in making their claims, in which environmentalists abandoned ‘their own brand of symbolism (invoking the founding fathers, for example) in favor of evidence.’”
Is this a pattern? The New Right, coalescing around Reagan, appropriated the environmentalist left’s strategies of symbolic rhetoric, and so conservationists shifted from mysticism to pragmatism. What strikes me is that ways of justifying land use, one way or another, are grounded in mythology more than history or sustainability. My father points out that both camps reached as far back as the Puritans, who “saw in the American frontier a ‘chosen nation in progress—a New Israel whose constituency was as numerous, potentially, as the entire people of God, and potentially as vast as America,” for a model of relating to the land.
As I read this, I start to feel self-aware. I wonder how radical my dad used to be. I wonder about the Idaho Conservation League, the ecoterrorists he used to research, maybe even hung out with. I wonder, and then I worry. I’ve never known either of my parents to be radicals except in past lives, before they were teachers and back when they were students. I worry what the furnace of academia can do to people, about credentials, publications, tenure, administration with a corner office overlooking campus protests, above the fray, above where battle lines are drawn.
Maybe the question for me is not between mysticism and pragmatism, but rather a more pressing iteration of the same dichotomy: Am I an activist or an academic? Will I make the practical decisions my parents made and simply study the rhetoric of environmental movements, or will I participate in those movements at the frontlines? Will climate change give me a choice?
I decide to hike the mountain today. The further up the trail I trudge, the more silent the wilderness becomes. The fabric of this place is deceptive. I wait for animals, anticipate them, turn my head and stop to listen, nervous each time I pass a thick ensemble of trees that I might encounter a bear. For the longest time, I see nothing but the odd grasshopper.
My imagination wanders. I wonder what I could become in twenty years isolated here. There could be fires and floods to wash me out. I imagine myself alone like in so many post-apocalyptic stories, wandering long lost paths and making my way laboriously north. I look at a burned tree standing over a storm-grey hillside which surely hides a thousand spiders and a dozen snakes, and I step forward. Crickets bounce away from me on the trail with each step I take, moving out of my way like I’m a boat parting the waves.
At the highest point overlooking the river, there is a graveyard of trees in a green slope of shrubbery and grass, their shadows like fingers pointing east in the afternoon. My body is weary up here, and my face and limbs are hot. It is quiet I’m alone and ambivalent. I sit on a log surrounded by trees, living and dead, and listen to the wind, the birds, waiting for something to find me, but nothing does. I contemplate myself, the place, the geography and how it’s organized strategically into cartography, which, this far into the mountains, is hard to see from my vantage. I could die up here and nobody would know. A bear could find me, or I could trip and spiral down a sharp edge. Rattlesnakes, falling trees, dehydration.
As Jennifer Ladino puts it, “Contemplation is shaped by narrative, of course. Narratives provide us with details to mull over, but there’s an affective dimension to contemplation as well.” She has also come to the Frank Church to teach and study, and I think about that narrative, as well as the story of what my life is or could become given a wrong turn. She favors constructive, life-affirming emotional responses to ambivalence: “Compassion needs words, stories, reflection,” which geographic places (as narratives) can encourage. The prophets relied on stories of apocalypse, as environmentalists do today. Places of injustice tell stories of injustice. What about this place inspires hope? I mull over the seconds in which I feel grateful.
One story my grandmother recently told me: Teaching is my destiny. My mother teaches, and my grandmother taught, and her mother taught too. I’m a fourth-generation teacher. She was in high school during the Second World War, and she was required to tutor her mother’s male students to ensure they passed the minimum requirements so they could join the army and fight overseas. When she should have been studying for her own calculus tests, she instead taught algebra to future Marines, and the next day, exhausted, she failed her calculus exam.
I hike back down the mountain, hungry and running low on water. I poke around a short way upriver before returning to the cabin, and there on the trail a herd of bighorn sheep encounters me. They drink from the river as I make my way around the bend. One sheep stands in the middle of the trail and stares me down. I stop. We are directly in each other’s way. The sheep could charge, and I would have to stumble down a rocky slope into the river or trip uphill into a fallen, blackened tree, the charcoal rubbing into the cuts I would make on my palms. But the animal looks to the side, indifferent. The rest of the herd ambles uphill on the trail behind the sheep. I wait until they give me permission to move forward.
“More significant, however, was the loss of two allies, Senators Alan Simpson and Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming. The two New Right regulars cosponsored legislation to ‘bar all oil and gas exploration in their state’s wilderness areas.’ Why would two conservative, western politicians turn their backs on [the New Right]? ‘Constituent pressure,’ responded a Simpson aid. ‘They [Wallop and Simpson] are quite aware that a great many people in Wyoming want those wilderness areas left as they are.’ One week later, Senator Henry Jackson of Washington announced that fifty-one senators had agreed to co-sponsor legislation to prevent oil and gas drilling on millions of acres of national wilderness” (Short 65).
I wake up early and try to write a few more words, but my fingers are too cold and the bush plane is arriving anyway. It only took one week to acclimate to the situation, or so I tell myself as I stuff my lightened backpacks into the plane and climb into the passenger seat.
The pilot picks up two hunters in another station, landing on another long stretch of grass. There are a few donkeys, cabins, a stream. The hunters have much more than I do, and I’m glad when they place their firearms in the plane aiming away from the seat I’m sitting in. But I know Idaho hunters, as friends and family. They’re not stupid enough to put a loaded firearm in a vehicle (as some suburban gunowners I know have done). They also have a garbage bag of soda cans and single-use plastic, better to take home than leave out here. I notice they have no animals, no deer carcass or pile of coyote skins.
The plane lands in Cascade, and the hunters exit first, their stuff piled onto my stuff, their import pressing mine into the corner. I sit in my car in the airport parking lot for a long time scrolling through news feeds while storm clouds move over the hills before I drive north past red and orange leaves in the trees and small towns advertising pumpkin pie, espressos, free wi-fi. I pass church signs advertising Sunday service, visions of hope and despair intertwined together. Apparently we are sinners but we are also saints.
I want to stop in one of these many Idaho small towns. I want to walk into a roadside diner and order a cup of black coffee and a slice of pie and linger in the early autumn chill and listen to the old-timers in the corner talk about how warm it’s been these last few years, how dry last year was. But I don’t. I never do. Instead, I drive a few miles over the speed limit through each town like I’m a lost insect.
Paress Chappell: What were your goals as you were writing this piece?
Keene Short: This piece began as the daily journal entries I wrote when I went to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in 2018. That year, I kept a daybook, which was inspired by Brian Blanchfield. Originally, I wanted to record my experiences in the Frank as meticulously as possible, every hike and animal and conservation practice, to get an understanding for what a place is like after a specific type of conservation policy is enacted. Most of that journaling has been scrapped (the original draft I had was 25 pages, including a lot of quotes from the books I read at the time). I kept the original structure and focused on observations about climate change and conservation and rhetoric—I focused on a few recurring ideas and concerns I had.
PC: How has writing in different forms like fiction and poetry affected your nonfiction writing?
KS: Writing nonfiction for me often feels like solving a puzzle, and poetry and fiction (for me at least) require a different kind of creativity. They’re more constructive, more like creating puzzles for other people to solve. As a reader, at least, I like fiction and poetry that gives me an opportunity to think. In nonfiction, the pleasure so often comes from watching someone else’s thinking, from seeing someone else work through their own experiences or a complex set of ideas. This might be a false dichotomy between the genres, of course. I know they’re more nuanced than I’m presenting them. Where I find the pleasure in reading often differs from where I find pleasure in writing, and I think those moments are surprising enough to make me rethink my writing.
The inventiveness I try for when writing fiction or poetry can often bleed into nonfiction, when I face a problem of dots I can’t connect to make a cohesive essay. When I’m stuck in nonfiction, I might start to move from idea to idea through associative leaps or a more narrative structure or a scene. My most creative works of nonfiction have borrowed from the generic conceits of fiction or poetry, through things like extended metaphor, persona, or even fiction. I use these craft techniques to get around difficult problems I encounter in nonfiction, especially when it comes to subject matter.
PC: In “Jeremiad” you mention a dissertation written by your father about public lands. How did your father influence your view on the environment and public lands?
KS: My dad—both my parents—introduced me to environmentalism early in my childhood. Environmental destruction was one of my earliest fears, and one that has lasted with me and grown, as I’m sure is true of many people. My dad in particular had a range of academic and pragmatic environmental authors on his shelf, including some activists.
I took my father’s dissertation to the River of No Return because it seemed like an ideal place to read it. It had been sitting on my shelf for years, and I wanted to finally sit down and read it. The Frank is an excellent example of the strengths and limits of twentieth century land conservation policies like those advanced by Senator Frank Church himself, as a project of preservation but with a limited scope of the beneficiaries of that preservation. I wanted to think through the problems and arrive at a better understanding of what I can do now, today, in the midst of environmental catastrophe. But I also found myself wondering how effective academic approaches can be as climate disaster is already here. My dad embedded himself in academia, and I found myself wondering if he left anything behind in that decision, if I would likewise have to leave something behind if I chose to follow that same path or try another route toward environmental justice.
From my parents, I inherited a broad range of ideas about nature, but I never really knew what to do about them. Maybe this is what I mean when I separate academics from activists. In my own experience, it’s easy to write an academic paper about the need for climate action, but too often this becomes an ending point rather than a starting point, and academics can fly home self-congratulatory that they’ve contributed to solving the climate crisis by artistically or rhetorically articulating the urgency of the problem. It’s a divide between theory and praxis. One needs the other, but theorists who don’t engage in praxis, I think, are taking the easy way out. It’s no longer enough to study the forces that are destroying our planet. What matters now, and has mattered for a long time, is recognizing that the people killing our planet have names and addresses and stock portfolios. I’m not at all trying to indict academics of the past. What I want is for academics to start taking action now, before it’s too late.
PC: How has growing up in Flagstaff shaped your view on the environment?
KS: Flagstaff is a niche, fun, weird, and also very touristy town, and I think its contradictions made me prickly when it comes to the environment. It’s a beautiful town that white settlers built on stolen land (like every beautiful place in this country). I directly benefit from the compartmentalization of land into large public recreational sectors (for hiking, biking, birdwatching) but I know that this compartmentalization comes at a cost, and produces a distinctly artificial definition of nature as one that can be framed for an audience. For years, it’s had a housing crisis, and it’s the only place in Arizona that can sustain a ski resort, which is only possible now through the use of artificial snow, which has its own environmental and cultural concerns that the ski resort has chosen to disregard for profit. I miss Flagstaff dearly and I’m mad that its leaders have leaned into its worst tendencies, emphasizing tourism and privatized student housing over community-centered events and affordable housing for residents. The people who make Flagstaff a lovely town, the artists and activists and teachers who live there and taught me to care about the world, are not the people who have the power to make these decisions, and I think that realization has equipped me for understanding climate change as a conflict rooted in power disparity, in class struggle to be specific. National leaders at COP26 who are most vocal about the urgency of climate change are from countries that contribute the least to the greenhouse gas emissions but are already bearing the worst effects of climate change. Meanwhile, the biggest emitters (such as the US) hesitate to implement necessary changes. This is the same power dynamic in Flagstaff. And, like Flagstaff, what I want is partly to reconcile the past, but changing the future is significantly more important to me.
To learn more, visit Keene’s website. Thank you for sharing, Keene!
Our Issue 28 Poetry Editor, Bree Hoffman, interviewed Robert Krut, a three-time SR contributor, about his new poetry collection Watch Me Trick Ghosts. The interview was conducted via email.
Robert Krut is the author of four books: Watch Me Trick Ghosts (Codhill/SUNY Press, 2021), The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire (Codhill/SUNY Press, 2019), This is the Ocean (Bona Fide, 2013), and The Spider Sermons (BlazeVox, 2009). He teaches in the Writing Program and College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lives in Los Angeles.
Bree Hoffman: In a previous interview with Frontier you said that as a writer it is important to be “open to new ideas, new voices, new styles, [and] new suggestions.” What role has teaching poetry professionally played in the conception of your own poems? What have you learned from experiencing writing both inside and outside of the classroom?
Robert Krut: I don’t think I can overstate the importance teaching has played in my own writing, particularly recently. It has helped with my attempts to stay agile, excited, and engaged over the years. Working with students means working with numerous types of writers, each an individual requiring different suggestions, both in terms of reading and writing. There is a responsibility to share the entire scope of literature with them, and present them with the latest and most exciting poetry out in the world right now—this, in turn, helps keep me engaged, as well, and not complacent in my reading and participation.
During lockdown, in particular, my poetry courses were more than classes I was teaching—they were biweekly opportunities to talk with other writers (over Zoom, of course) who were all fully engaged in their process. If any of them happen to read this, in fact, I’d like them to know what an impact they had on my energy and enthusiasm toward writing over the past two years—their interest and passion really provided a spark for my own writing. In Norman Dubie’s great The Clouds of Magellan, he wrote “Work with young writers—never for them,” and it’s a quote I’ve thought about for years and years. It becomes more and more clear to me as a teacher. Working with poetry students isn’t a top-down operation. In the best cases, it is truly an interactive community.
BH: One recurring theme of your poems is the element of grimness that is present in the mundane. In “Walk Don’t Walk Walk Stand Still” we see it in the things people avoid, and in “The Dinner Party” we see it in the wounds people share with one another, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. What were some of your influences when writing these poems?
RK: Grimness in grimness has always been boring—I have always been fascinated by its presence, or at least the implication of its presence, in the mundane, that mysterious element in the everyday, as I’m sure many people are.
Way back in high school, my part time job was at a video store, which was perfect for a movie-obsessed teenager, but also meant I wound up working just past midnight. I would drive home through suburban New Jersey, fascinated by what I was seeing at that hour: stopping at my favorite 24-hour place and seeing people arguing in the parking lot, driving past the school and seeing people smoke right in the middle of the football field, passing a stray dog scratching at the church door near our house. It was all engrossing.
That job not only afforded me a reasonable excuse to be out so late, but it also led me to watch David Lynch’s Blue Velvet for the first of many times, which solidified this interest, and put it right there on the screen—in those opening moments, when Jeffrey finds the ear in the field, I saw the perfect representation of what I found interesting in the world, and it served as a sort of concrete seed for what would come, years later.
That was the same year I read “A Supermarket in California,” which shares similar DNA, the other side of a quiet town, slipping into something doomed. Those are the worlds where this book finds most of its poems; there, or in the flipside, in the mundane of the grim—they go hand in hand.
BH: There is a really interesting relationship that these poems have to other people as well as the world, creating a tone that is isolating and internal. For you, what is the role of these interpersonal connections in “Watch Me Trick Ghosts”?
RK: I sensed from the earliest stages of writing this book that it was going to be a quieter one, one that is, indeed, internal. As the themes began to become clear, it seemed to be the introverted sibling to the extroverted previous collection. This was led by the ideas I wanted to explore, but was surely enhanced by the fact that the vast majority was written during lockdown, where we were all isolated by circumstance. When you mention interpersonal connections, I flash to the fact that I wasn’t walking outside to talk to neighbors up close; there were simple hand waves from across the street. I wasn’t meeting strangers in crowded places; I was driving past closed up shops. This book is not “about” that particular time—that would be too narrow for my taste—but the writing couldn’t help but be influenced by it. In the end, it is indeed an internal book, centered on solitude in some ways, voices you hear when you are alone, and spirits tethered to your body as you move through the day. The title poem was one of the very first, and it served as a sort of guide.
BH: What are you currently working on in your writing and various workshops?
RK: In terms of my own writing, I’ve just been trying to write a little each day right now—sometimes that’s a whole draft of a poem, and sometimes it’s just a few lines. After a book comes out, I typically have an “deep breath” period where I’m writing, little by little, getting back to full momentum for where the poems will go next. As for my courses, this Winter I’ll be teaching a class specifically designed for third-year students who are beginning the process of creating a manuscript for their upcoming senior projects—I’ve taught this for the past few years, and it’s always an exciting process, and never the same. I’m looking forward to reading some great new work, and the chance to work closely with the students.
BH: What advice would you give to fellow writers and readers?
RK: The old standbys still hold. Write every day. Try to write every day. I know that’s an easy thing to say, and it’s hard to truly follow it all the time, but I have found that periods where I really try to write something every day, even something that turns out to be garbage, the momentum leads to truly productive periods.
And read a lot. Specifically, read people who are writing differently than you—don’t wind up in a literary echo chamber.
Finally, writing is such a solitary experience, which is often one of the nicest aspects of it, but it can slow down inspiration and growth. Reach out to friends, and other writers, while working. One of the rare benefits of social media is that, even if you don’t have someone in your immediate circle who writes, or reads poetry, there are ways to find a community, even if it is online. I love the independent nature of writing, alone, in the early morning hours, or late at night, but it’s not until I start sharing, editing, revising, and sharing again, that the poems start to breathe.
Carolyn Guinzio is the author of seven collections. Her new collection A VERTIGO BOOK (The Word Works, 2021) was the 2020 winner of the Tenth Gate Prize. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Nation, The New Yorker and many other journals. She lives in Fayetteville, AR. Visit her website to learn more.
Our Issue 28 Art Editor, Khanh Nguyen, wrote a few interview questions for Carolyn and this is her lovely response:
Carolyn Guinzio: I have found that I can reach places with visual poetry that I could not get to with text alone. It started somewhat accidentally, when I was with my son in a second hand store in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where we live and where he has grown up. Covered in dust in a corner we found a film reel. It was unwrapped, and it had no price on it. We held it to the light and realized it was a trailer for the movie Elizabethtown, which takes place and was shot in the town where my son was born. The strangeness of inexplicably finding it there was inspiring. We knew we could make something from it. I layered macro-photos of frames from the trailer over photographs of our current environs: our road, the hills, the windows of our house— and then layered micro-poems primarily about my son: his birth, his earliest years (we lived in Kentucky the first 18 months of his life). My hope was to get at something about time, memory, place, and loss. We lived on the eastern edge of the Central time zone, so we had to cross into Eastern time to get to the hospital: something I always found peculiar and a little disorienting. What time was my son born? How do places impact our sense of our own identities? Something about the layering of images with these ideas I felt helped me examine a complicated pursuit in a way that was more evocative and subtle than I was capable of through just text.
I was a total convert after that, particularly since place is so important to me in my work. The next thing I tried was about the experience of revisiting old haunts on Google Earth. There’s nothing like it to make one realize how limiting a virtual visit can be. I love these technologies, and having access to them is what makes so much of what I try to do possible, and yet, and yet— looking at an image of the street where I grew up does not feel like standing on the street where I grew up. A combination of media might get me closer to what fragments of memory actually feel like.
Often, a fleeting image or concept will pop into my head, and I’ll wonder: can I make that happen? The project Ozark Crows, which was excerpted here at Superstition Review, began with a single image in my mind, of two crows in the sky holding a ribbon of text between them in their beaks. The sky and trees around my home are filled with an extended family of crows, and I was already somewhat obsessed with them— their intelligence, their way of interacting with each other, ranging from the irritable to the tender. They interacted with us, too, leaving a piece of glass in the spot where we tossed out some stale cornbread, for instance. By then, I’d read so many books about crows that I was able to understand a lot of what I was observing, and this gave me so many ideas for the pieces in the book. It was incredibly difficult, and I don’t think I ever had more fun on a project. That Spuyten-Duyvil Press was able to make it into a book, and such a lovely one at that, is something I’ll always be so grateful for.
Because of my interest in place, most of the images I use are taken in places of personal significance, primarily where I live: the ground, water and sky where I’ve spent the last twenty years with my family, in the Ozark Mountains just outside Fayetteville. I think I’ve documented it to within a square inch of its life!
The project I’m currently finishing began the same way: with an image that appeared to me, and that I wondered if I could make. I love skeletonized, disintegrating leaves— I find them almost more beautiful than perfect, supple leaves. They themselves are like poems to me, a poignant memento mori. We are all trying to make something lasting and meaningful, something that can reach across time, and when I pick up a leaf with a beautiful pattern chewed into it by some infinitesimal worm, when I hold it to the sky and make a macro-photo of a tiny fragment of it, I feel like I’m participating in, acknowledging, a meaningful continuum. What if a fragment of a poem was visible through these holes? What if it was handwritten? Because I make things digitally, I want to mitigate the coldness of that form. I thought that the intimacy of the handwritten word— evidence of a human hand— coupled with the fact that the text in these pieces is so small that one has to lean in closely to glean even a fragment of meaning, I might succeed in making something that had a sense of warmth and life despite being created digitally. I am drawn to the idea that something as small as a hole in a leaf can contain a universe, or at least a poem. I’m also hopeful that, despite the crush of data we all experience, the isolation of the last year, the divisions and alienation, we can still reach other somehow.
All of this is not to say that I don’t also love writing. My newest collection, A Vertigo Book, is made entirely of words, and in fact, much of it was written during a period when taking photographs was difficult because I was suffering from a particularly terrible bout of vertigo. The words, the very shape of letters, felt like a way to hold onto the earth and keep it still, almost like bird feet clinging to a wire. And it’s probably no accident that, after months of looking up to photograph crows, the LEAF project requires me to, instead, keep my eyes on the ground.