For your listening pleasure, Kathryn Kirkpatrick reads from the “Threshold” section of her 2011 poetry collection, Unaccountable Weather.
We began our conversation with a discussion of her academic background and her current dual appointment at Appalachian State University, in both their English Department and Sustainable Development Program.
P53: How would you say your different fields set you up to write this collection?
KK: When I get over my head with the poems, I turn to the other writing, in my case interdisciplinary essays, and it helps to work out other parts of me. I think broad reading and different kinds of thinking inform the poems we write in incalculable ways. It’s like having another kind of experience to draw on.
Carolyn Forche used to say that she had to become a different kind of person to write different kinds of poems—in her case, she traveled and immersed herself in complex political work and witnessing. But I think you can do this kind of travel in many ways. For me the conjunction of our environmental and political crises has been so devastating that I have to engage at more levels to keep feeling constructive. I think the poems in this collection have the same spirit—how can this experience of illness and fear be worked with constructively.
P53: What philosophies did you find central, or running parallel, to your subject, in the course of writing Unaccountable Weather?
KK: Well, for one thing, I wanted from the start to structure the book as a trip through the underworld. I suppose it was my training as a feminist—I felt as if male poets have no problem allying their experience with some kind of mythic text, and I felt that in order to write myself through and out of any kind of victim status, I could reframe the illness in that way. That’s how the goddess poems become part of the collection—they started to feel to me like the representation of what Julia Kristeva calls Monumental time or the theologians call Kairos time. That’s a cyclical almost spatial form of time you can walk around it, and it helps to gesture toward that sense of timelessness one experiences when ill. Those poems interrupt the linear narrative in the book in ways that felt right.
P53: I definitely felt all of that. The perversion of the concept of what is natural, either in time, body or environment, was strange and powerful. Moving toward a more practical aspect of the writing, what role did research or conversation play in collecting and creating the voices of your narrators?
KK: When you’re in that medical space of life and death, all the facades can really drop, and your kinship with other people comes to the fore. There’s just no reason to play any kind of social game. One of the lines in the book is “This is the urgent business of survival.” So in that space and with the people that are able to meet you there—not everyone is—the most incredible things get said and exchanged. People told me stories they had heard across the years about women living with, recovering from, going through breast cancer, and I wanted to get those voices into the world. They inspired me with their fiestiness, and I had certainly heard nothing like them before. I wanted to honor those women in some way.
And, of course, those women turned out to be some of my guides.
P53: What was foremost in your mind, thematically or technically while writing the collection? And what was the greatest obstacle to its completion?
KK: Besides the trip through the underworld, I had no definite plan. And honestly, I wrote many of the poems while I was undergoing medical treatments. I can remember drafting a poem and working on it on a bus in Carrboro as I made my way to a radiation treatment. You really get to know your relationship with your art in such a situation. I would never have imagined how sustaining the writing would prove to be.
The obstacles involved my own fears about making this kind of material so visible. It was a rather frightening prospect for a while. And it didn’t feel like the kind of manuscript I wanted to “shop around” a lot. I really didn’t send it to many places. When Kay Byer said “Send it to Press53—that would be a good home for that book—that’s exactly what I did.”
P53: Was this a huge shift in terms of personal connections in your writing?
KK: I’ve always worked with elements of my own experience, transforming as I go.
P53: Well, I feel like we’ve just grazed the surface, but I should probably wrap things up with one last question. What are you currently working on?
P53 : At the moment I’m getting an earlier manuscript ready for press; it’s called Our Held Animal Breath and should be out in the fall of 2013. But I’m also drafting new poems, of course!
Kathryn Kirkpatrick’s Unaccountable Weather is available through Press 53 and Amazon.com.