Danielle Sellers: You officially made the poetry scene when your first book, Back Through Interruption, won the 2001 Stan & Tom Wick Prize. Your second collection, Things are Disappearing Here, appeared in 2007 from Persea Books. Both collections were successful and are considered treasures by many. What projects are you working on now?
Kate Northrop: First, thank you for your generosity. The thought of being treasured is exciting, although somewhat frightening when it comes time to produce new work. But it’s amazing too. I’m still a bit surprised to know that the work is being read.
My current project: right now I’m hopeful that I’ve found the basic shape for my third collection. I had a remarkable stay at a residency in Sweden where I wrote more poems--happily--in one month than I usually manage to write in a year. My relationship with writing is more often an adversarial one, so this new work--the work from Sweden-- is hard to trust. But finally, after a month of averting my eyes, I’ve gone back to the poems, concentrating especially on this long poem in two voices, which I hope anchors the collection. I’m not sure all is in working order yet but I do feel that all the poems belong together. That’s always been one of the most exciting moments in assembling a manuscript. So far, in my work, I don’t bother with considerations of manuscript until I have about thirty five to forty pages of poetry. Whenever I’ve tried to plan and sculpt a ‘collection’ before I’ve actually had the poems to collect, I’ve wound up manhandling the work. I have too heavy a hand when I set myself goals a priori.
I’ve been increasingly drawn, in the past couple of years, to repetition (most often, to lexical repetitions and phrasal repetitions). I’m fascinated by its ability to simultaneously emphasize and obliterate meaning. (Quentin Compson, in reference to the South: “I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”) The words of course are direct yet elusive. They are clear: you read them, you read right through them. There’s no one single meaning to settle upon. In one of my poems,“The Film,” the repetition (“Come, Lovely One, let’s go in”) makes the poem increasingly vague. What exactly is being said? Is the speaker of the poem straight-forward and ‘honest’ in calling to her “Lovely One”? Or is this a seduction, a trick? I suppose this sense of shape-shifting in the mist fits my second collection (Things are Disappearing Here, in which “The Film” first appeared) but I am also planning on placing that poem (and “Aspens”) in Clean, this new collection that questions more substantially the nature of silence, specifically the dangers of keeping silent by refusing to speak clearly.
In this new long poem--a poem in which two voices are pitched one against the other--neither voice has much interest in listening to the other but oddly, by being there, both establish a ground against which the other voice can speak, or rebound, instead of the voices drifting off into the emptiness of space. It seems an interesting twist to me, that not listening can allow for a certain freedom of expression.
I think I can spill here into Question 2.
DS: For the last couple of years you’ve taught in the MFA program at the University of Wyoming. Since your poetry is often heavily influenced by landscape, what effect, if any, do you think living in the west has on your recent work?
KN: I am quite influenced by landscape. Last week, when I was teaching at the Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference, one of the conferees (who had recently returned to Wyoming, her childhood home, from suburban Connecticut) tried explaining to me her experience of the west and concluded by paraphrasing Stegner: in the western landscape, one feels simultaneously significant and insignificant. And that is also my experience. More significant, more insignificant: these heights and great distances make me smaller (dwarfed by landscape) and larger (more often alone, far from the crowd). It seems to me I feel more keenly my own boundaries, where I begin and end. I feel more aware of my own skin. I can only say it this way -- it’s a feeling of being a bit too stark, too clean. Maybe it’s the dry air and the wind. Or how quiet the town is in the middle of the night? Or this high altitude light which is light, as in weightless, unburdened. Where I’d been living--Philadelphia--and where I grew up--rural Pennsylvania-- it’s so thick with humidity, so lush and stultifying and tangled too with family and history.
Now I spend more time alone, walking my dogs. When I drove home from northern Wyoming recently, at night, I was alone for four hours through the desolate moon-washed (and, in parts, contaminated) Shirley Basin. In these landscapes my voice is both louder (often the only voice, it can stand out and I hear it more often) and nothing at all (swallowed by space). I have always tended toward silence, and the places here--in Wyoming--are, for me, silencing even though they are, at the same time, exciting and new, thereby an occasion for speech. But speech feels troubled here. For example, the aspens. I could go on and on about the aspens. Of course in this day and age it’s not very easy or necessarily smart to write a poem about how lovely aspens are. But it feels especially silly or impossible out here. I feel hushed, as I do also when walking into a very old church.
It is this conflict--wanting to speak in a place inhospitable to speech--that I hope is enacted in the highly repetitive poems that begin the book. I hope these poems read as if they are barely there, threatened by the space around them. Often their endings trail off, overwhelmed. And again, this lexical repetition, perhaps like a mantra to keep oneself company in the nothing in which one finds oneself. And I hope that happens in this collection, something is found: over the course of the book, a voice with which to speak, no matter how slight or frail or human it might sound, in comparison to the strict purity of abstraction and silence.
Because I, as a poet and person, have to be careful. Contemplative silence (I have spent a fair amount of time at Quaker meetings) and respectful silence can shift easily into an isolating and destructive silence.
And I do feel chagrined of course to be talking this much about silence. Poets do like to go on about their preference for silence.
DS: One of the many things I like about your poetry is the pervasive nostalgia. You say, in your poem “October” from Things are Disappearing Here, “What I knew once,/ I remember. I hold in my palm/ like a stone. Do you see?/ I imagine the world/ pure, all dross burned away,/ and when I feel myself slip,/ I press that cold stone/ here against my throat.” Do you see poetry, your poems, as a stay against loss?
KN: Well, yes and no. I hope they aren’t indulgent; I hope I don’t mourn too much over my losses. If they are successful, they will enact a loss but at the same time, if they are successful, there they are, on the page, un-lost. So perhaps they are losses that aren’t lost.
Linda Gregg once said, in reference to Jack Gilbert, that poetry was for him a way of eating his life. I like aspects of that analogy but I also question a metaphor that seems to accept too comfortably a rightness in greed and consumption. But perhaps I’m being peevish and fussy? Anyway, for me, writing poetry and reading poetry is a way not of eating life but of entering into it more fully. Everything is always going by, always being lost, a fact which causes me anxiety. It’s my same childhood terror, not being able to stop time and so, trying to step out of time. In question six, you’ve asked about autobiography. There’s a poem in Back Through Interruption which is about as straight-forwardly autobiographical as I’ve ever been: a poem about my habit of sitting alone in closets when I was a kid. I knew that I hadn’t stepped out of time, but I sure felt a little better there in the dark because I only had to overhear my parents’ voices and not see them speaking or moving about the house. I always understood the woods being lovely, dark and deep.
So yes, I am keenly aware of loss and I use writing and reading as a way to experience the passing world more fully. I guess really I can’t be sure if my poems are a stay against loss (since I don’t know if they are going to stay around; I doubt it) but the writing of them is a temporary stay. I don’t think very quickly so writing allows me the chance to linger, to put more pressure on my perceptions and to live those perceptions more completely for imagining them. What does the all-night deli look like at 3 AM? How do the aspens sound? How does the field look with a stray dog vanishing in it?
If the poems manage to call up something clearly for someone, then I imagine they might be a stay against someone else’s loss. A friend of mine wrote the other day that he was reading my first book and was reminded, in reading the long poem that ends the first section of that book, of the first days after his father died. Why the poem resulted in his powerfully remembering a moment up out of his life, I’m not sure, but I think he felt grateful to feel closer again to his father’s death.
DS: When reading your body of work, one notices the strong historical persona poems. I’m thinking of a poem in Things are Disappearing Here, “The Countess,” about Elizabeth Bathory, a 17th century countess who goes “gynocidally beserk” and becomes a serial killer of young women, or the imagined love affair between Akhmatova and Modigliani in Back Through Interruption. What attracts you to the figures you choose and to the historical persona in general?
KN: For me, histories become more real if I imagine them. Reading history I tend to gloss over, to acknowledge facts and dates but I don’t retain much if I can’t get inside a little more. So writing (and the research required) allows me further into history.
In early drafts, I did try to write “the Countess” as a first-person poem, from the perspective of Elizabeth Bathory, but I eventually felt disgusted by my own efforts at what felt like playfulness, or costume. Disgusted….because it seemed to be such an exercise while really, Elizabeth Bathory did torture and murder over six hundred girls. The reality of those girls kept worrying me, as did my attraction to the subject matter. So one of the central concerns of the poem, when I switched gears to employ ‘myself’ as the speaker, proved to be the very difficulty of writing about someone as sensational as Elizabeth Bathory. Was I just indulging in cheap thrill-seeking? I felt I had to ask myself that question. Was I a creepy Peeping-Tom? And if I was, to what end?
The pleasant surprise of that poem was the moment when the speaker (me) imagines Elizabeth Bathory looking into a mirror (as I am also looking into a mirror, by writing the poem) at her aging face and seeing finally that “lines would arrive, without clearly having happened.” The lines on her face, inevitable, but also, the lines I was writing about her, lines that were written rather quickly but were not inevitable, were not going to exist unless I wrote them. That moment arrived early, in writing the poem. Then, further in, directly comparing my craving to write about her with her craving for young girls:
“it was this craving
which is like that one: to enter through resistance
into what moves beneath -life, voice,
But of course, the region of unlikeness is quite great. I mean to suggest, through this poem and the organization of that book, that there are options, options I only fully realized in writing this poem, “The Countess.” I placed the “The Pure Beauties” (an ars poetica, of sorts) at the end of the book because I wanted to leave the reader with options. One may be driven wild and mad by one’s imminent aging and death but one may also find something--an action/a thought/ a stance/a commitment--through which one may appreciate the passing world and still let the world go. For me, that commitment is writing.
I suppose I’m also drawn to historical figures because I’m drawn to research, which is certainly one of the more pleasant aspects of the vocation.
DS: You are skilled at writing about tragic events. Do you have any advice for going about that subject matter?
KN: I think it’s important to strive for surprise and discovery. The difficulty in writing about tragic events…..there’s not much gray area, is there? Too easily tragic events are already in lock down; the imagination can’t move about freely. One has to find what’s been hidden away from the lights, ignored.
In writing about tragic events, I find it helpful to concentrate on images that may able to suggest what the voice of the speaker cannot say without risking melodrama. Since you mentioned the poem “Akhmatova & Modigliani,” I’ll use it as an example. In that poem, we learn details about their relationship; we observe them in the park. Later in the poem she visits his studio (a visit they’ve planned) but he isn’t home. (It’s a true story.) So I’ve imagined her throwing the roses through his open window (also true) and then standing there, listening. Without the detail of her stance (she shifts from foot to foot) then following lines would have been melodramatic instead of tragic: “the years ahead pick up their dark bags” and as they are at the threshold of the 20th century, “soon they will murder / lovers like these, murder husbands / and sons.” It still may be melodramatic but perhaps it’s not quite as thick with violins for the presence of a strange and/or surprising detail. I also like the humdrum quality of the kitchen cupboards that shut, in the final moments of the poem, and echo into the brutality of Stalinist Russia waiting at the close of this affair. I especially wanted to build this poem with tender yet unpredictable images, like the cupboards closing. Had I ended the poem on say, one stray glove on a table, the poem would have been a failure.
DS: When writing autobiographical poems about family, do you feel bound to tell the truth? If you allow yourself creative license, how do you rationalize it?
KN: If I have a bind in writing autobiographical poems, it’s the opposite. Too often, I feel bound to not tell the truth. Somehow, altering the story even slightly seems to protect the key players. I’m not sure this is really very responsible of me. Perhaps I’m not giving some of the key players enough credit?
Sometimes I think the choices I’ve made in subject matter are easier since I’m not writing anything that might ever be a commercial success and therefore read outside the poetry world. We’ll be reading Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club in my Introduction to Literature class this fall and I’d like to bring up this question of autobiographical detail. She certainly reveals many disturbing details about her childhood in that book but claims the revelations strengthened her relationships with her mother and sister. Pretty amazing.
Finally, like many writers, I also manipulate autobiography (lie) in order to tell a truth better. First of all, there are lies/manipulations you tell yourself, as a writer, in order to make discoveries about the material with which you’re working. Years ago I was writing a poem about being about eight years old and falling through the ice on our pond. The writing was very flat and predictable until I altered the narrative so that my sister fell through the ice with me. While that was a lie (in actuality she was safely up in our room), she did, as a result of certain events in our upbringing, also “fall in love with damage and dark attraction.” I sort of knew that to be true but not fully, not clearly, not undeniably until I said it, in writing. And of course I lie for emotional resonance, for the sake of sound, for a sounder truth. I do try to lie only when it serves the poem. I try not to tell fishing lies, lies designed to make the reader think a certain way of me, Kate Northrop.
DS: I’m attracted to the poems about your sister, particularly because it’s a relationship I struggle with in my own poetry. Louise Glück said, in her poem “Tango”: “of two sisters/ one is always the watcher,/ one the dancer.” Do you agree or disagree with that assessment?
KN: I think that can be the case for a long time. Although my sister and I are very close, in many ways our relationship is healthier now that I live in Wyoming. I think it’s easier for both of us to reckon with ourselves without the other one around the corner.
DS: Some of the best writing advice you’ve been given?
KN: Oh, advice is so site-specific, isn’t it? When I was out of school, it was good advice to go back to school. When I was unable to take myself seriously, it was good advice to sit down every day at eight in the morning to start writing. When I was peevish and cranky with my 7th or 8th workshop, it was a good idea to stop workshopping poems.
But because you asked--
1) Dogged persistence…..that from a fiction friend, Tim. He was about 50 when he told me that anyone he’d known who had doggedly persisted eventually wound up doing good work. I see that now. When I think of the class with which I entered my MFA program, it’s clear that those who became writers are simply those who have kept writing.
2) Enjoy the pleasures of writing; there are plenty of difficulties.
3) “Teach us to care and not to care.” That’s still my goal, when it comes to my own work.
DS: List something you’ve always wanted to do but have been too afraid. How will you go about accomplishing it?
KN: Oh, I’ve really tried to think of something pertinent to say. I’m afraid of so many things.
Mostly I’m afraid to write and I never overcome that, although the fear dissolves a bit once I’m there, over the page.
DS: This interview will appear in the fall issue. What are some of your best memories of fall?
KN: In the fall semester of 1992 I enrolled as a non-degree graduate student in a poetry workshop, my first. That semester was tremendously important for me; I felt I had finally begun something serious, something I wanted to commit to, something that was new but also strangely familiar. Since I’d been young, I’d wanted to write but hadn’t found anything I was any good at, certainly not my papers in college or my very embarrassing attempts at fiction. But writing poetry….I felt pretty quickly that I might be able to do that. Or, at least, the possibility was greater with poetry than it had been with any other genre.
So I was really happy, reading and writing for that class. I was awake in a way that I probably hadn’t ever been before, at least not for a long time. I drove around a lot, late at night after work, smoking and getting ideas for poems. I felt so thrilled by it all and now an autumnal landscape, especially at evening, reminds me powerfully of that happy, surprising time of discovery.
Northrup’s first collection of
poems, Back Through Interruption (Kent State University Press 2002) won
the Stan and Tom Wick First Book Award. Her second collection, Things Are
Disappearing Here (Persea
Books 2007) was the finalist for the James Laughlin Award and a New York Times
Book Review Editor’s Choice. Her poems have appeared recently
AGNI, The American
Poetry Review, The Massachusetts Review, Raritan, and other journals.
Northrop is Associate Professor in the English department at the University of
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