Friday, September 29, 2023

TtD supplement #248 : seven questions for Meghan Kemp-Gee

Meghan Kemp-Gee is the author of The Animal in the Room (Coach House Books, 2023), What I Meant to Ask: A Chapbook (Alien Buddha Press, 2022) and The Bones and Eggs and Beets (Small Harbor Editions, forthcoming), as well as a chapbook forthcoming with above/ground press. She also co-created Contested Strip, the world’s best comic about ultimate frisbee (and soon to be a graphic novel). She is a PhD candidate at UNB Fredericton and lives in North Vancouver. You can find her on Twitter @MadMollGreen.

Her poems “Blanket,” “Bike Lock,” “Ice Packs,” “Plane Ticket,” “Winter Coat” and “New Clothes” appear in the thirty-eight issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Blanket,” “Bike Lock,” “Ice Packs,” “Plane Ticket,” “Winter Coat” and “New Clothes.”

A: I wrote these early in September 2021. I remember sitting in a wooden chair on the front porch of my AirBnB during a sudden late-summer rainstorm. I’d just arrived in Fredericton to start my PhD program at UNB. I’d just biked back across the river from campus. I was excited to be there, but I was also completely bewildered, stressed out, and lonely. I didn’t really know anyone in New Brunswick yet. I’d never even been there before! I didn’t know where I was going to live yet, because I’d just moved from Los Angeles to Vancouver to Nanaimo to Vancouver to Fredericton in less than six months, so I was pretty tired of packing up and moving and unpacking. I was reading Phyllis Webb’s “Naked Poems” for Triny Finlay’s poetry class. Reading great poetry always inspires me to write! I don’t know exactly why, but Webb’s work made me want to write something simple, straightforward, just to get my thoughts straight, and that’s where this “Things to Buy in New Brunswick” got its start: inspired by my big list of things I had to buy to replace the stuff I’d left behind in LA or North Vancouver. Looking back, I think that big list of things to buy was my way of itemizing the big leap of faith it takes to land in a brand new place and start all over again.

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I just finished writing a big manuscript called Nebulas about astronomy and afterlives, and right now I’m composing some poems about famous athletes. So these “New Brunswick” poems contrast sharply with those in terms of topic and scope – they’re a lot more personal, intimate, and “small” by comparison with a nebula or a celebrity athlete! But I think there are definitely some prose techniques I’m trying out in these poems that I’m continuing to use and develop in all my work. In general, I really enjoy how prose forms contrast with formal elements like repetition and reversal, rhyme and meter. If you do it right, I think you can create interesting tensions between visual and aural forms!

Q: I’ve always considered, at least in my own work, visual placement to be notational: that if I wish for something to be read or sound a particular way, then it requires a particular placement upon the page (whereas jwcurry has argued as notation as being far more fluid). What is your approach or consideration for how things are placed upon the page, and subsequently read aloud and/or heard?

Honestly, this is a question that I feel I haven’t fully resolved yet. I think my visual poetic practice is still very much in development, catching up to my own knowledge and theories about the relationship between sound and image.

Over a year ago, I was taking a poetry class with Sue Sinclair and some outstanding creative writers at UNB. It was probably the best writing workshop I’ve ever been part of; it was a small class full of outstanding poets who also happened to be wonderful, friendly, supportive people and brilliant, brilliant readers. I remember one particular moment where the other students were discussing a single line from one of my poems. They were noting the fact that this was the longest line in the poem, and analyzing that. And I was sitting there, thinking “What the heck are they talking about? It’s exactly the same length as all the others.” But then I realized: they’re not talking about the length the way *I* think about line length. They’re not counting feet or syllables. They’re responding to the line visually.

And I’m so grateful for experiences like that, because they really challenge how I was schooled as a poetry reader and poetry writer, and they challenge my own biases as someone who (like you) thinks of visual elements more as “notation” for the primary purpose of the poem, which is to work through sound.

That was a valuable reality check for me, not just because it’s good to be aware of how differently different readers read our work. It’s also a good reality check because in my teaching life, I’m keenly interested in the theory of image/text, and how different kinds of composition work as multimodal texts. When I’ve taught multimodal composition and visual composition in college classes, I always encourage my students to think about how texts produce meaning visually. But as a poet who’s actively publishing in all kinds of journals, for practical reasons, I feel I have to actively not-think about those considerations a bit. Poets generally get at least a little bit of input about how our work is presented and laid out on the page, but ultimately there are going to be visual and design elements you’re not in charge of – or at least that are going to be determined in collaboration with your editors, printers, etc.

In the future, I think I’ll be a lot more interested in composing more multimodal forms, including visual poetry. A few months ago I wrote a chapbook that’s kind of a mashup between sound poetry, erasure poetry, and fuzzy photocopies of old manuscripts; I’m still a beginner doing work like that, but I loved it and I’d like to try more!

So this is all just to say that... I genuinely struggle with this question! I think I’m still evolving, and I have more to learn. I have a pretty strong sense that my poetic practice has yet to catch up to my theories about pedagogy, composition, and multimodality. But I don’t know what that “catching up” is eventually going to look like.

Q: You give the impression that you compose in clusters or projects, whether as chapbook-length or larger manuscripts. How do you approach composition? Are you a poet of individual pieces that collaborate to form larger structures, or are you a poet of larger structures from the get-go?

A: I used to be very poem-focused. I loved the idea of each individual poem as a perfect, self-contained unit. And I still like that! It’s one of the things I love most about reading poetry, especially short poems – the way that you can walk into a poem and shut the door, like it’s a perfect little room.

While I'm still interested in reading and writing single poems like that, I have become more interested in groups and sequences. I think it all started with The Animal in the Room, actually. In the second year of my MFA at Chapman University I had an idea to write a few poems about deer, and then the whole collection just spontaneously grew all these branches and new directions and limbs from there. Once I’d written that way once, I wanted to do it again! And I also learned a lot from the process of editing The Animal in the Room. In our first convo about the manuscript, my editor Susan Holbrook made this amazing suggestion to add a few more prose poems to the collection, so that they could act as a connective tissue.

When I wrote another full-length manuscript last year, I was very intentional about that strategy – weaving and interrupting and reweaving sequences and connections throughout. I like the word “intertextual,” meaning poems that connect with each other, both within a collection and beyond. Collage, braiding, cut-and-paste, mosaic, clouds and nebulas – those composition metaphors really inspire me right now!

Q: With a full-length collection and two chapbooks under your belt, as well as your current work(s)-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you feel your work headed?

A: Since completing my MFA in 2017, I think that my work has been trending towards longer sequences – chapbook-length and full-length collections. That’s a bit funny and ironic for me, because I really define myself as a “short-form” kind of poet! But maybe I am growing towards being more of a longer-form type of person, and I’m open to that growth. No matter what I’m writing, I really believe that you have to listen to the poems and let them guide you where they want to go – they’re always smarter and more interesting than you are. So I’m going to keep trying to do that.

I’ve recently read a couple of novels-in-verse that really dazzled me, including DA Lockhart’s awesome Bearmen Descend Upon Gimli. I’ve started to wonder, could I try to write something like this? Maybe someday?

Q: You seem very interested in examining the boundaries of genre and form, whether from within or between. What drives, or even sparked, this interest?

A: I won’t say that form is everything to me as a poet... but it might be pretty close to everything. I think that form was one of the main reasons I originally wanted to write poetry. I’ve always found great satisfaction in the crafty, technical, physical part of writing, whether it’s the puzzles and miraculous surprises you find in received forms, or whether it’s leaning into your formal structures to try to invent something new or pleasing.

In terms of “borders,” I think that forms by definition have borders. Forms require something to demarcate space, time, and sound – and even when you don't choose those structures, they have a way of choosing themselves, of choosing you! In my practice, I think all poetry – whether you want to call it “formal” or not – is about pushing against a border, or tenderly caressing one, or trying to locate one, or destroy one. Once you’re in contact or friction with one of those borders, you can do whatever you want with it – obey it, avoid it, put your shoulder against it, bend it, break it.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: There are several poets and several books that just can’t fail to inspire me and get me writing. I’ve never read “Song of Myself” without wanting to write something about it afterwards. Glück’s The Wild Iris is definitely another one like that, and Rankine’s Citizen is another. But I think statistically the all-time champ for me is Elizabeth Bishop. So many of my poems are about her poems, trying to talk to her, asking her questions. A buddy and I used to joke about painting our nails to match the cover of her Complete Works. I feel like there’s about a million new poems I could write hidden in that book.

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