Kirsten Kaschock is the author of three books of poetry: Unfathoms (Slope Editions) and A Beautiful Name for a Girl (Ahsahta Press), and The Dottery, winner of the Donald Hall Prize for poetry from AWP (University of Pittsburgh Press). Her debut novel, Sleight, a work of speculative fiction, was published by Coffee House Press. A chapbook WindowBoxing is out from Bloof Books. She has earned a PhD in English from the University of Georgia and a PhD in dance from Temple University. She is on faculty at Drexel University.
She has six poems—“Pissing on Tombs,” “Succubus Instructions,” “Equalize,” “Abandon the Tower,” “Working up the Courage for Good Prose” and “By Chocolate”—appear in the fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the six poems that appear in the new issue: “Pissing on Tombs,” “Succubus Instructions,” “Equalize,” “Abandon the Tower,” “Working up the Courage for Good Prose” and “By Chocolate.”
A: A few of these started as argument poems—poems I wrote in an attempt to convince myself of something. They have a touch of the polemic. That’s a tone I adopt playfully... a remnant of the failed debater in me. I’ve felt this desire to try on a different voice for awhile—a more formal voice who cares about what I care about but is also more steeped in the canon (the one I was assigned to read as an undergrad) more than I have ever wanted to be. I am lately wrestling more with the influences I’ve rejected... or at least pushed toward the back of my lineage. So, in “Abandon the Tower” I allude to Charlotte and Emily and J.J. and J.R.R. and in “Pissing on Tombs” it’s Poe and Pooh.
I also try on personae. In “Equalize” I imagine myself a would-be gun moll (which I am not), and in “Succubus Instructions” I instruct female demons on how to correctly manifest (and protect themselves from their victims). “Working up the Courage for Good Prose” is a piece I wrote in Canton, NY, when I was there for ten months as a visiting professor at St. Lawrence U. and separated from my life partner and much of my life. There’s a romance in such a retreat, but it is worn as a protection from the often lonely reality.
Most of these poems are written in triads. Because truth. There’s a first line, a second—there’s negotiation. And then there’s often a bleeding into the next when what you are searching for isn’t right there, or when it’s too much.
“By Chocolate” is about the dessert imagined as a literal end. It’s got it all—the allusion to Shakespeare, the stilted diction, the triadic form, the argument. It also has punning and compressed sonic play: two things that seem inescapable for me, no matter what I am writing or what new thing I am trying on.
Q: I’m curious about your attempts to wrestle with the influences you’ve rejected. Is it a matter of now having the experience to engage with those works you read too early? What is it you feel you’re attempting to work through, specifically?
A: No. I don’t think I encountered them too early. Some of them did not speak to me (meaning, I was in no way that I could imagine myself the intended audience and sometimes had to even dis-imagine myself to engage with the content and stances without rancor). But the language is musical and the music stayed with me. The syntax of earlier eras especially seems strangely liberating. Let me explain—I can break any grammatical rule I want in contemporary poetry. I am in some circles encouraged to do so. I can also utterly fail to communicate. When I was taught work by pre-twentieth century and early twentieth century writers—I was expected to follow their circuitous paths through the English language. More “figuring” was expected of me as a reader during my exposure to, say, Milton or Donne or Joyce (yes, I know, I’m spanning centuries if not continents)—but I was promised meaning if I muddled through. Many of these pieces are delivering (for me) pretty straightforward content but dipping backwards into a way of ordering information that feels foreign (received as it has been from writers I never identified with) but also like home (I was reading it as I began my writing life). So—I’m wrestling with the dysfunction of split lineage. What do you do with the reading history you didn’t choose? Can you reclaim any of it? If so, by what strategies?
Q: Well, that is the curious thing about any kind of creative lineage: for the most part, it is one we are allowed to choose. But where do you find the conflict in histories? Is the tone or phrasing or structures of one influence banging up against another during composition? What, precisely, is the complication you’re feeling?
A: Do you think we mostly choose? I don’t think I think so anymore. I am grappling with these writers who I read a great deal of when I was younger because they’ve crept and crept into my writing when I haven’t chosen. Because I’ve spent years editing them out. So here I am inviting them in instead. But maybe you are asking what parts of them? A certain slant of confidence. A way of indulging in pretty looping phrases or redundancy (compared to my usual more cut and cutting syntax) without worrying that I am being too self-indulgent. Knowing that I am being ornate and excessive and choosing not to care. To claim instead. It is because Poe writes like this: “It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered,” (FoftHoU) that I come up with statements like: “I should let this emo un-/boy or
boylite in on how//belle-langue only prettifies—its/photogenic grotesques mere/tarted-up dowdiness—//Death,
a veritable jane.” The line and stanza breaks may serve to disrupt the Victorian bluster, but not completely. I’ve given into these syntactic impulses more here than I have before. So I’m fighting myself—my instinct to excise this laciness. Lace, I was taught, is only for certain men of a certain age. That wearing it would trivialize me. So I’ve stuck more to gray flannel as I’ve hewn towards the writer I want to become. Here, I'm fighting that desire to abridge, to let rejection define me.
Q: So the question becomes—after three poetry collections, a speculative novel and your current wrestling-in-progress—what are you aiming to work towards? How do you feel your writing has progressed over the space of these four published works, and what, specifically, do you consider the goals of your current works-in-progress?
A: I aim for everything. Explosion. Inclusion. Implosion. Precision. Impossible things to aim for at once. I’ve always been trying for the impossible and the unsayable. That’s what has always motivated me—my impotence. I am finishing up (have been finishing up for over six months) my second novel. It’s science fiction and familial. Working title: The Rate at Which She Travels Backwards. Everything is connected and everyone is isolated. I love the villainess; I am trying to make certain other people can as well. So, in these last poems, I have been moving backwards maybe because my prose-life has been moving forwards into a future I can’t see as anything but painful. The instinctual thing is to retreat—atavistically—beneath the leaves of the books/trees of an earlier time. The novel does a great deal of sampling from the past and the present as well. I’ve grown more comfortable with my ability to juggle antagonistic impulses, but tying them up satisfactorily—well, I’ll let you know if and when I do it.
I’m still seeking balance on the high wire with my fire batons. I need more chalk on my feet. Have I progressed? Well, that depends. Is survival progression? I have to think so. Since I just do this to breathe.
Q: How difficult is it to navigate composing poetry alongside science fiction? The number of writers attempting both are extremely rare (although Canadian writer Heather Spears comes to mind), and even less so for those working more experimental strains of poetry. How does one form interact or inform the other, if at all?
A: You see, I don’t really understand why experimental poets don’t write more sci-fi. Sci-fi has dug them for awhile. From Samuel Delany’s Babel-17, to China Miéville’s Embassytown, and recently Max Barry’s Lexicon—science fiction has been the place in literature where the power of language to alter reality is not only taken seriously, but even weaponized. I’m not half-joking. Poetry is where I do the thing I do. Science fiction is where I explain to myself (and others) what it is I’m doing and why. It is a very natural fit. My science fiction is concerned, unsurprisingly, with the untapped potentials of art. Sometimes it is incredibly generative to be doing poetry alongside the prose—and sometimes I concentrate on one rather than the other for fairly long stretches. This might also have to do with my life, which like everyone’s life, occasionally overwhelms me. Do the two genres inform one another? Hell yes. They are conjoined twins. I never knew I needed to write speculative fiction until I started, and now I don’t know how I wrote poetry before I had that space to theorize my language use. This novel I’m writing has a nod to time being “a quality of movement.” Thus, to arrive at the future, one must only move more slowly than other people—books do that, the written word does that. And now I’m more clearly understanding my recent poetic draw backwards through time. Or, to paraphrase E. M. Forster: “How did I know what I thought before I saw what I said?” I probably didn’t. In fact, I’m still puzzling through it.
Q: Among other things, your short bio mentions a PhD in dance. How does your work in dance, if at all, impact upon your poetry and speculative fiction work? You already engage in what some might see as an influence and engagement between unexpected forms: does dance also influence the writing?
A: Yes. The type of modern dance and experimental poetries I’ve engaged in and the soft, psychological science fiction I adore—these genres have tremendous interest in using their own materiality to transcend materiality. The way I practice all my forms is alchemical… I believe that juxtaposing just the right combination of gestures or words or speculative imaginings within the right framework (a philosophy, a discipline, a narrative) can create a wholly new thing. And though new things can be magical or disastrous, the desire for new things—that is quintessentially human.
Dance gave me the ability to trust in the unsayable. It offered me the knowledge that things we cannot clearly and concisely articulate in language are nonetheless valuable aspects of the human experience. Perhaps the most valuable aspects. I try to hold to that knowledge within my writing. I try ever to reach for and snatch at things I will never succeed at wresting from aether to page. I am okay with that failure. It’s the only one of our many futilities that really calls to me.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I return to the work of Sabrina Orah Mark and Patrick Lawler often—and await their new work breathlessly. In reach of my pillow are Elizabeth Bishop and Doris Lessing (a later find) and Rilke and Bill Knott. I have a small book called Knots by R.D. Laing that has lately been useful to me, in the same way the Tao Te Ching is… a page at a time. Also, right now, The Tempest and Hansel and Gretel.
What re-energizes me? More than writing—live performance. It challenges me to translate across mediums, from the spatial and temporal and collaborative to the form that most pretends to be none of those. That impossible transfer is endlessly generative for me.