Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

An Interview with Kate Northrop

BY KAREN ALAYNA THIMELL

Hot Metal Bridge: In your third book, Clean, many of the poems are composed in couplets, tercets, quatrains, some broken in form and others perfected and, well, clean. How did form influence the work or the work influence form?

Kate Northrop: Oh, I fear that my answer will seem peevish, especially here, right at the outset of the interview.

For me, in my writing, work is form. I sense, in writing, that the form surfaces and in doing so, alters the shape and sound of the surface, but the surface can resist and in resisting, alters form. But even that formulation divides what I experience as one, a whole.

The work is being formed in the moment. You write a few words and you listen to the sound of those words. You respond with more words — the words that may become the particular and necessary response to that first call. But then, of course, the response becomes another call. I think writing, for me, is finding all the particular and necessary responses. And finding (learning) how those responses best constellate.

HMB: In a collection that haunts and is haunted by speech and its absence, the pieces often speak by syntactical negation, faces defined only by shadow, the underside of leaves, the blur of a car in motion, a field one can walk through without entering. One instance of this is in the poem “Winter Prairie”: “A struck note, a shape / Cut from the world yet held in the world / — like staring hard into a grave. / I speak to you; clearly someone else speaks.” Can you share a little about how paradoxical meanings (resistance and invitation) guide this central focus of agency, of learning to speak or being unable to?

KN: Well, I — me, Kate Northrop, my person — I can speak all day long. I speak, speak, speak and mostly get tired of speaking and tired too of other people’s speech. But it’s necessary. So anyway, I can speak but of course, there’s a world I can’t say.

On this predicament, I like Donald Hall’s essay, The Unsayable Said. Here’s an excerpt: “Poems tell stories; poems recount ideas; but poems embody feeling. Because emotion is illogical — in logic opposites cannot both be true; in the life of feeling, we love and hate together — the poem exists to say the unsayable.”

So, in general, I am taken with paradox for its ability to address this state of being human, of housing such complex and contradicting emotions.

I suppose I also think there is something clean, perfect and terrifying about a paradox. It never answers. It is never over. It never lands. And so there is something of forever to it, something powerful.

And right, Clean is “haunted by speech and its absence.” The second poem of the book, “Like the Girl in the Car,” conjurs a “you” who wants not to be seen but to be seen through, not to be the blaze or the arsonist but to be the silent crowd gathering, “each face / turned one way, and clean, as the first idea of a freeway—”  The “you” wants to escape.  To escape the responsibility of standing still, of saying something,  I want paradox, in this section of the book, to instill a sense of slipperiness, of shifting between possibilities without—again—landing. I meant for the speakers to be evasive, escaping through double meanings and paradox. And this perplexity forces itself—I hope—into “Detail,” the long, central poem of the book, a poem written in two voices. It is this second voice, this second speaker, who learns, through the course of the poem, the depth and sound of her voice, and is startled off eventually, at the end of the poem. In this poem, “Detail,” I avoid paradox entirely. There’s no escape through slippery speech.

A teacher in graduate school once warned me of “the terror” of finding one’s voice. I don’t believe we have “a voice” but instead, have voices. And hearing some of those voices, especially for the first time, can be frightening. I meant this ‘finding’ to be a central drama of the collection.

HMB: At times the shifts in voice and point-of-view seem to address shifts in a power dynamic. For example, in the opening poem “Cat,” the speaker begins by addressing the you but only in terms of the speaking I, “Now do you see what I mean?” There are also many instances of certainty and uncertainty—I saw, I looked, you see, you are sure—that make me more aware and curious about how communication and understanding function through point-of-view.

KN: Maybe I’ll start at the end. In the penultimate poem in the book, Dunes, the speaker remembers a drive she and her lover took through the dunes in the Red Desert, in Wyoming. At the end of the poem, the speaker remembers that after the seeing the dunes, she and her lover had gone back to the motel, back to bed, and afterwards, the lover recited YeatsThis is the end of the poem: “….and afterwards / You recited Sailing to Byzantium // And I shut my eyes to see, along with you / The bird, the tree, the gold enameling.”

I think it’s true that each day, we have to imagine each other.

On this requirement, I like Philip Gourevitch: “This is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.” I also like his formulation about power and the abuse of power: “power consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality.”

Power of this sort is full-blown in the central poem of the book, “Detail.” In this poem, which began as an experiment, two voices are called into the same room (on the same page) though neither is listening well to the other. The first voice stomps through fields.  The first speaker — the dominant voice — very much wants to force the second speaker into another story. And the second speaker does eventually get forced out of her reality but first, in the privacy of the quiet right-hand corner of the page and in the privacy of not being listened to, the voice can speak about things never spoken of. But that sort of relationship isn’t sustainable. Not in the poem or in our lives. The second speaker is forced out of the room and in that absence (over that absence) I set down passages from Roethke’s “Moss Gathering.”

But, an alternative: you can imagine someone else’s reality without abandoning your own. I think many relationships would be stronger—would feel a lot more exciting, more comfortable—if those involved in those relationships practiced imagining each other’s realities. Poems can be good practice.

So yes, I think it is my responsibility to imagine that other realities are true. Not only to imagine that are true, but how they are true.

HMB: I’m interested in the way in which individual poems at once scatter and plot a path insisting to be heard clearly. I imagine a merry-go-round, spinning to see only a blur, or else headlights, a field of snow, the girl, all rising in refrain. As Louise Gluck expressed on silence and speech as a child, being unwilling to speak, if to speak meant to repeat myself.” What was your process for organizing and crafting a book whose poems build a narrative arc around the subject of speech and silence? How did recurrence and repetition embody and satisfy this larger theme?

KN: I’m very much drawn to repetition; I like the strange, almost erasures I can create. Through repetition, I simultaneously insist and blur. I can make an immediate ghost of the statement I’m repeating.

And I think I mean repetition and recurrence to quietly create an emotional tone, an unspoken threat. “Like the Girl in the Car” is the second poem in the book. The title runs straight into the first line, “you are tired, tired, and like her you are sure / that specifics in the world only dirty the world…”  I wanted “tired, tired” to be a cover-up — the wrong word for a more troubling reality — and a moment of resignation. I wanted to introduce, in the very beginning of the book, the problem/predicament of the cover-up. (I imagine cover-ups to be clean.)  Someone wants badly to say something but cannot, or is not being allowed. I hoped the second person made for a double cover-up here as well.  Is the speaker using “you” to mean — but avoid — herself? Or is she being told who she is? Both, I think.

And because I make use of so many instances of repetition and recurrence, the poem “Detail” provides a moment of relief, I think. While the poem continues with the questions of the first half of the book, I think it does so with a new language, with a new voice.

And the book had to be short, of course, so it’s as slim as I thought I could get away with. Because too much repetition will be boring, grating. I mean, imagine a villanelle going on for even 6 or 7 more lines. That would be too much.

HMB: What do you think threatens contemporary poetry? What do you think poetry is capable of today that may not have been true or possible in the past?

KN: Well, there’s such exciting development in film and video. My friend, Kate Greenstreet, makes strange and surprising work (www.kickingwind.com). Her work brings me closer to tears than most poems I’ve read recently. And of course, we can access so much now, and so quickly. I’m also grateful for the explosion of publishing opportunities. I think, in the past, we were presented with ten or twenty Big Famous Poets, mostly men, who published with Knopf or FSG or Norton. But the publishing world has opened up – and now we hear from more voices in myriad shapes and forms. Does that threaten contemporary poetry? I don’t think so.

HMB: Have you ever stopped writing for a period of time or given up on projects? What have you noticed helps you through that slump?

KN: I keep all of my old notebooks. I think there must be a hundred of them. And it feels ridiculous, especially if you move a lot, to keep hauling around all those notebooks. So while I’ve finished barely ten percent of anything I’ve started, I don’t give up on that work.  I like to keep returning to it, especially when I am in a slump. I return to that older work with more freedom, with less fret and fuss. I like returning to old drafts after a few years have passed.  Some poems –“In the Snow,”  “Cat,” “Evening” — were composed over ten years, I’d say. And those are very short lyric poems.

And for me, I seem to stop writing for periods of time. I don’t think of that as a slump but as a quiet time, as a fertile time. Writing mostly frustrates me and makes me feel crappy, so when I don’t write, I feel in the world without being so at odds with it. It’s nice to observe something without feeling that I need to mark it or capture it or question it. Or at least, I don’t have to question it always in writing. It’s nice to let it go by and it’s nice to question the world in conversation or in class. It doesn’t always have to be in writing. But I wouldn’t have felt this way as a younger writer. As a younger writer I worried that if I’d stopped writing, well, then, I wasn’t ‘really a writer,’ just like I’d expected all along.

HMB: You grew up and have lived in rural and urban, eastern and western regions. Because landscape acts as a compelling force in so much of your work, what differences are there, perhaps intrinsic, in the Western and Eastern writer, or rather, in Western writing from Eastern writing? What other concerns are present when engaging the land in your writing?

KN: I don’t think I’ve been here long enough to have a sense of any intrinsic differences but the move from eastern Pennsylvania to Laramie, Wyoming certainly altered my own writing.

Laramie’s a small university town (pop. 27,000) on the high plains. I’d spent much of my life in Pennsylvania, so after moving in 2006, I felt, for a good while, uprooted and vulnerable. I felt keenly my being foreign. Those first few months, I felt unable to speak loudly enough.  But I also really loved that period because I felt grateful for the space I knew in writing. And this new state—this feeling out of place, feeling off the ground — necessitated a new poem. “Aspens” is the first poem in which I wanted the poem not to speak of vanishing but to be vanishing. It was this poem which, in writing, I began to sense that ghostliness made through repetition.

And my surprise and delight at the West’s ‘vast space’ – that is true and predictable. The sky seems vast, the Shirley Basin seems vast, the Wind River Range seems vast. But I don’t think the vastness is really very interesting as a predicament for poetry. What I do find interesting is the other complicating fact of living here: claustrophobia. It’s a small town, a university town and I can’t go anywhere without having to talk to someone about course-scheduling or the next department chair or their recent publications. It’s very tight here. If you’re going to talk smack about someone you look around first to make sure they aren’t in the restaurant. So that predicament — being in a place of vast space but also feeling closed in — that’s the bind some of the poetry came out of.

HMB: I often feel sick of my own voice, as though there’s never enough dynamism to my work. How do you remain true to your voice as a writer, but also allow for, or surrender to, surprise in the process?

KN: I actually worry that I am limited to only one voice, to my voice. I hope not to be true to my own voice. Sometimes I wonder if this notion of finding one’s ‘voice’ stems from a sort of urgency toward marketing or branding. I did hope, in graduate school, to ‘find my voice,’ but now I’m not even sure what that means?

Anyway I probably can’t get away from sounding like myself. An old friend wrote to me last week to say he’d read Clean and it was, he said, “very Kate Northrop-ish.” I felt dismayed by that.

For me, it’s been helpful to enter into experiments. After the publication of Things Are Disappearing Here, I reread my first two books and I felt discouraged. You know that passage from Gluck, that in organizing a book, you “discern the book’s themes, its fundamental preoccupations, you see as well the poems’ habitual gestures, those habits of syntax and vocabulary…” It seemed to me that my poems had too many habitual gestures. So after Things Are Disappearing Here, I wanted to shake myself out of habit. I began by skimming through old notebooks, copying old lines into my new notebook, setting one line in opposition with another line, seeing if I could get something started, and pretty soon, I was writing “Detail.” And I was weirdly happy in doing so. Those were new voices in my head — and that was thrilling.