Hi Kathryn! Tell us a bit about your residency with Jason, ‘American English’.
Kathryn: My blog posts will be micro-explorations of my idiosyncratic likes and dislikes in poetry, what I’ve observed, and what I wish could change. They will be essay-like in shape and are not to be taken too seriously because I regularly change my mind.
I will compare notes with Jason on US and UK poetry: trends, prizes, residencies, festivals, what we’re reading, and how much awareness there is, in our respective countries, of what’s happening abroad.
My Open Workshop will feature a spin-off exercise from my Breaking the Rules course. I’ll also host a Live Q&A with Poetry editor Don Share in December.
When did you first start writing poetry? What brought you to it?
Kathryn: I’ve been writing poetry, or trying to, since I was about six, and my first efforts were rhyming poems about trees and wind. Although my parents weren’t interested in poetry, my mother had been an English major at university, so there were books around, and I knew what a poem was. I was also lucky to attend a school where poetry was valued and taught.
But probably more significant was the element—or lack thereof—of music in my childhood. Mine wasn’t a musical household, so my first music was the Greek Orthodox liturgical chanting I heard in church, which is a kind of poetry, and which I found moving. My second music was the bouzouki-driven Greek folk music sung at the weddings, christenings and festivals I attended in places like Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island (where I was born)—areas that have large Greek-American communities due to immigration waves in the 20th century. I’d ask my grandfather to translate the Greek songs into English, phrase by phrase, as they were being sung. He’d sometimes say of a line, “That’s untranslatable.”
I tell my students I have a high threshold for poetry I don’t ‘understand’ if there is something visceral and affecting about its sound, even if that sound is anti-musical. I expect that comes from a childhood of being mesmerized by words I did not understand that were spoken or sung to odd and syncopated rhythms.
The first poem that really seized me was the first of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ which I discovered while absentmindedly flicking through my English textbook at age 13. Soon after, I went to the Jericho Public Library, borrowed a book of Eliot’s poems, and discovered there were more preludes. Eventually my mother bought me a copy of Eliot’s work for Christmas. I didn’t understand it, but—like the Greek liturgical chanting—it stirred something in me. I wanted to create something, myself, that was stirring in that mysterious way.
Do you have any unusual writing habits or superstitions?
Kathryn: Because my desk is a nightmare of unopened post, Christmas cards from 2008, piles of unshelved books, contracts, receipts and a collection of ECGs and blood tests that agitate my hypochondria just by virtue of their visibility, I avoid my desk and instead write in bed. ‘Doldrums,’ a painting by Vera Iliatova, my cosmic and psychic twin, is always in view. Vera and I inspire each other telepathically across the Atlantic: she has my poems in her Brooklyn studio, and her painting is visible from my bed. ‘Doldrums’ is the cover image of my book God Loves You.
How would you characterise the ‘voice’ of your work?
Kathryn: I don’t think I have just one voice; the voice changes from poem to poem. My daughter can do spot-on accents and impressions. I can’t. What I can do (I think) is appropriate voices in poems. I’ll attempt the voice of God, the voice of a ditz, a shrew, a mental patient, or a man gently discarding a woman. Sometimes the voice has a ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ quality; sometimes it’s desperate and wants to be loved. If I had to describe my voice in one phrase, I might call it ‘indecisively ironic.’
What do you like in a poem? What don’t you like?
Kathryn: I like all kinds of poems, and my likes increase as I get older. I think poets and critics who dismiss huge swathes of poetry, who make proclamations like, ‘There are only a dozen great poems that have ever been written’ are experiencing a version of poverty. Whenever I’ve had a conviction about what should or shouldn’t be done in a poem, I’ve inevitably found a poem that refuted that conviction.
When I think about poetry I’m not keen on, each example has an equal and opposite exception. For instance I’m not generally into nature poetry and yet Alice Oswald and Walt Whitman are two of my favourite poets.
Nor am I that fond of animal poems—except for all the exceptions. That animals are in the unlucky position of being symbols and devices in our often-boring poems, that they are forced to be projections of our unattractive psyches, seems unfair. But Ted Hughes’s Crow is one of my favourite collections, and I admire the many poems about birds and animals that I regularly re-read and teach.
Lately I feel slightly less patient with a certain kind of Wallace Stevens imitation that has these basic ingredients: (1) a striking, long, wry title (or perhaps a shorter title in a modern European language) and (2) what I might call paratactic razzle-dazzle, by which I mean heavy-handed juxtapositions of unrelated phrases and images that are meant to surprise the reader by creating a surreal atmosphere. Though I have a high threshold for poetry I don’t ‘understand’ in some cerebral sense, I think I also have a bullshit detector for poems that are all style and no substance, and I guess I prefer poems that have substance and style. Also, as Jason can probably attest, we’ve had this kind of poetry in America for decades. While it felt exciting in the 90s and early 2000s, it’s now become something of a cliché. We’re just getting it here in the UK, where I’ve heard it referred to as ‘avant-garde.’
You grew up in America and moved to London in the late 90s. I wonder if you could tell me a bit about your memories of the US and those initial years of transition in England.
Kathryn: I grew up on Long Island, a suburb of New York City. Although Long Island is diverse enough to defy stereotypes, parts of it are associated with a crassness you see in TV shows like Real Housewives of New Jersey, another suburb that suffers from a bad public image. I take comfort that Long Island was Walt Whitman’s birthplace, and where Louise Glück grew up. My neighbourhood, historically, was where the Vanderbilts, Whitneys and other families of fortune built their mansions and horse farms. Eventually those grand estates were sold off and partitioned into architecturally erratic developments, such as the ones I grew up on, but the area maintained a feel of the countryside.
I often played with the youngest two daughters of a prominent Mafia family down the street. The matriarch of that family once said something to my mother that years later (after some processing and transforming) became the first line of my poem ‘The Gangster,’ which is the first poem in my first book, The Book of Jobs. The girl next door to the Mafia family was also about my age; she became a novelist.
I went to Columbia University and remained in Manhattan throughout the 1990s, which was an interesting decade to be in Manhattan, just before the artistic energy transferred to Brooklyn. It was a good decade for poetry, too. I recall a heaving auditorium at the New School when Kenneth Koch read with John Ashbery; and, unless I’m sentimentalizing, I recall many crowded readings organized by the Academy of American Poets (where I worked), the Poetry Society of America, and the 92nd Street Y.
I left New York in 1999 because my husband was offered a job in London. Although London was a desirable place to live in the early 2000s—housing was still affordable, and high profile expats like Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow made London seem like the new center of the universe—my own transition wasn’t that easy. I was isolated, with a few superficial acquaintances; I was pregnant; I was anxious and quasi-agoraphobic. Websites weren’t all that developed in 1999 and I didn’t know how or where to find out about poetry readings or British literary magazines, so I continued to read, and send my work to, American magazines. In 2002, when I visited the Poetry Library for the first time, with my second baby in a sling, I discovered Poetry London magazine and its ‘listings’ section, revealing a world of poetry events I’d been unaware of. I rang up the Poetry London office and left a message asking if they needed volunteers. They hired me as the Listings Editor. The Poetry School shared an office with Poetry London in Walthamstow back then, so the Poetry School was another fortuitous discovery. I felt much happier in London once poetry became a regular part of my life.
For you, what are the differences (if any) between American and British poetry being written right now? Historically speaking, how do you think the relationship (and critical debate surrounding the relationship) has changed?
Kathryn: I don’t think I could improve on this conversation between Don Share and Maurice Riordan in a recent Poetry magazine podcast about the history of poetic commerce between the US and the UK. (Their segment begins about 21 minutes into the podcast). Basically they agree that the high point of ‘commerce’ was a hundred years ago, with Ezra Pound and Modernism and the founding of Poetry magazine and The Poetry Review. The commerce ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th century, with a low point in the 1980s. There is now a renewal of cross-cultural energy, particularly among younger poets, perhaps due to social media.
As for the differences between the two poetic cultures: I’ll discuss that question in one of my upcoming blog posts, and also in the live chat with Don Share. For now I’ll respond to Jason’s observation that British poetry seems more ‘staid’ than American poetry. I think American poetry has a history of loudness (Whitman, Ginsberg) and flashiness (Stevens) that aren’t prominent features in British poetry—until now, possibly. A lot has changed in British poetry in the last ten years or so and I think the two poetic cultures are starting to merge. That said, you won’t find anyone like Liz Berry, with her Black Country dialect, in the States; and some political concerns addressed in American poems don’t have easy equivalents in the UK.
Do you see yourself foremost as a British or American poet? The demarcations can be very interesting. For instance, in this country, many people believe T S Eliot is an honourary Brit. And there’s Frost, a born American but who spent his journeyman years in England and had British ancestory…
Kathryn: I once asked my high school English teacher whether T.S. Eliot was English or American. He explained that both countries claim him, that he was both and neither. I was slightly bothered by that non-answer; I wanted to be able to define him.
I have lived in London for 15 years and have both a British and an American passport. Despite these official documents, I feel neither particularly British nor particularly American. I was brought up to consider myself ‘Greek’, yet the concept of Greece that I was provided with was a remnant from the early 20th century when my grandparents emigrated. To a contemporary Greek person I bear no resemblance, except physically, to anyone or anything ‘Greek’. I don’t even speak the language, or not very well.
Perhaps when you feel culturally unmoored, as I do, you are less precious about labels. When I was issued my UK citizenship and the Lord Mayor said, ‘You belong here,’ I was momentarily choked up. I was genuinely delighted to be in the UK issue of Poetry. If people define me as an ‘American poet,’ I’m happy to be that too. And if the Greeks ever want to claim me, my grandparents would be very proud.
What have been some of the standout moments in your career?
Kathryn: The main standout moments of my career were the classes I took with Bill Herbert, Mary Ruefle, Kenneth Koch, Robert Pinsky, Derek Walcott, Deborah Digges, Geoffrey Hill and Mimi Khalvati. It was my windfall from the universe, being given those teachers, along with the excellent teachers I had in primary and secondary school.
In terms of my own writing, I’m grateful for a commission earlier this year by Edward Doeger at the Poetry Society, who asked me to respond to the exhibition Germany Divided: Baselitz and His Generation at the British Museum. I was not an obvious candidate for a Poetry Society commission: I’m not famous, I don’t have the usual plaudits that British poets include in their bios, I’m not on lists. That Ed read and enjoyed my second book, that he ascertained I was a poet who writes about disunity and ambivalence, was a great piece of luck for me. Ed had no way of knowing I had stopped writing for three years due to discouraging experiences and a crisis of confidence, or that his commission would start me writing again. Being asked to do things is one way that poets become better, and that’s why lists can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wish opportunities were spread around more; it makes a huge difference when they are.
What do you admire about Jason’s work?
Kathryn: Jason is one of my favourite poets. I particularly admire his humour (though not all of his poems are funny) and his range. I recall the first time I heard him read these lines from ‘Physics II: Leibniz’
… My name will not survive my death,
so I say it now: Schneiderman, Schneiderman, Schneiderman.
and how hard I laughed. I loved the bathos, the way the solemnity is overturned. As far as his formal range is concerned, he has a poem in the Penguin Book of the Sonnet on the one hand; and on the other he’s written an excellent prose poem I regularly teach called ‘Elvis Party 2001.’ He can do just about anything on the page. His thematic range is impressive too; on the less serious end of the spectrum he can write a humorous poem debating whether or not ‘wester’ should be a word; on the more serious end he writes about AIDS, the politics behind a Holocaust museum and poignant elegies for his mother. The work is sharp, clean and clever.
Are you a prolific writer? What’s your writing routine like?
Kathryn: I’m the opposite of a prolific writer and I have no particular routine.
What are you working on at the moment?
Kathryn: I’m working on ‘ugly’ poems: poems with unprepossessing rhythms and uncomfortable subjects like imprisonment, paedophilia, shame, rejection and mistreatment of women. I’m interested in primal impulses and fears.
It’s interesting to hear that. One of the things I think you write exceptionally well about is fear – what Mary Ruefle wonderfully calls ‘positive capability’ – which isn’t to say I find your poems morbid or melodramatic, but there is a slight Gothic sensibility, a preoccupation with undersides rather than upsides. For example, The Book of Jobs has many poems which are very nimble with the various ways we can undermine, vex and undo ourselves; also the paranoia of ‘The Devil Will Find Work For Idle Minds’ from God Loves You. Do you think you’re a ‘dark’ (i) writer or (ii) person?
Kathryn: Thank you for the compliment. I mentioned earlier that I was brought up to think of myself as ‘Greek’, however outdated or inaccurate that notion of ‘Greekness’ was. Humour was not a big part of the culture I grew up with. Industriousness: yes. Jokes: no. The ancient Greeks gave us Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides; the Byzantines painted icons, none of which are smiling. All of that is part of my DNA.
As for fear: a lot of my poems that seem based on real-life events are actually attempts to exorcise fears.
You also write about our conscious selves extremely well – the psychology in your poems is always extremely insightful and exact. Have you done much therapy? If so, do you think it has helped or changed your writing in any way and how?
Kathryn: It’s not unusual for New Yorkers in creative fields—and even those not in creative fields—to see a therapist, and I’m no exception. Therapy would be fairly prevalent in my New York social circle, and people find ways to afford it. I don’t think I can quantify how much the therapy has helped the writing. Sometimes it’s been directly helpful, in that a therapist has recommended I read something that then makes its way into a poem. Although I’m pleased you think my narratives are psychologically astute, sometimes I think psychological acuity is not such a great gift.
We’re both fans of the writer Adam Phillips. There was a quotation of his that came to mind as I was reading God Loves You: “Believing in religion is like believing that adulthood is the solution to childhood” (I think ‘Street Sweeper’ has nice resonances with this). And there’s another: “Since God is dead someone has got to be god”…
Kathryn: The ‘silent god’ in ‘Street Sweeper’ was in fact loosely based on a fantasy of Adam Phillips. I say ‘fantasy’ because I had never met him—but I was reading a lot of his work when I wrote that poem.
There is definitely something that unites all your writing about how certain things tend to disturb or upset us – such as work, religion or other people’s excess – and ultimately overwhelm us. You reveal these conflicts and the thoughts and experiences they invoke really vividly, but I’ve never felt the tone be too furious, or too despairing. It must be a hard thing to balance. Do you think your deft sense of humour helps here?
Kathryn: Yes, my work can be dark and ugly—and no one wants to read pure darkness. If I knew how to do transcendent joy, like Whitman, without sounding ridiculous, I’d do that. But the best I can do is humour.
What’s a good question and what is its answer?
Kathryn: Q. What are days for? A. Days are where we live.
What advice would you give to a young poet writing today?
Kathryn: My advice reflects my own values, so young poets may choose to reject it. For example, the poets I most admire are those who do what they want, so I believe that poets should avoid—or at least stay peripheral of—in-groups and orthodoxies. Everyone and everything goes through phases. The rising star of today may be no one tomorrow; the poet you dismiss today may be the subject of attention in the future. Be gracious and grateful, especially to those who believed in you early on. Be generous. Don’t let people down. Read widely and with an open mind. If poetry is what you really want to do, be persistent—it will probably pay off.