Interview with Keetje Kuipers

Keetje Kuipers has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow and a Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident.  Her first book, Beautiful in the Mouth, was awarded the 2009 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize.  Kuipers’s poems “In Medias Res” and “Just Outside”—both from her new manuscript—were featured in Issue 36.4 of The Journal, our current autumn online issue. Associate Poetry Editor Shelley Wong recently spoke with Kuipers about these poems, her upcoming book, and the way that landscapes influence her writing.

Shelley Wong: We are so excited to publish your two poems: “In Medias Res” and “Just Outside.” I’m curious if these two poems are part of your upcoming book The Keys to the Jail (forthcoming from BOA in 2014) and how they speak to the manuscript’s broader themes. If they are not part of that collection, what inspired them?

Keetje Kuipers: Yes, these two are part of the forthcoming book, The Keys to the Jail. Here’s how I’m describing the new book these days: “This new work continues Elizabeth Bishop’s tradition of the art of losing, but delves deeper into the self-accusatory nature of such an examination of loss. While they have often been elegiac, my poems are currently more interested in examining who is at fault for our losses: Who can we blame? I find the bereft female speakers in my poems blaming themselves for everything—the harsh words of failed love, the aging of a once-beautiful body, even their own voracious desires. These speakers sometimes put on a brave face, but their self-condemnation becomes apparent as I tease out two speakers—two selves—in the poems. While I have always enjoyed the use of persona in poetry, this evolving collection works to capitalize on our ideas of female roles in particular, and the obligations that come with them, finding failure in the self who cannot succeed as a mother or a wife, a sex object or a daughter. These poems want to come face-to-face with many of the things our contemporary culture loathes—an unsanitized death, a sagging breast, the ubiquitous sense of isolation in a crowded world. And in their many-voiced turnings—often making use of such obsessive forms as the villanelle and pantoum—the speakers in these poems ultimately come to rest in a familiar contemporary landscape of acquiescence, one without redemption or forgiveness.

The two poems in The Journal, “In Medias Res” and “Just Outside,” both deal with the type of alienation that comes from self-blame—how once you’ve reached a place of such deep disappointment in yourself, it’s as if you’ve stepped outside of your own body to gape at what you’re doing to it. Haven’t we all watched from a distance as we ruined a love affair, sabotaged our own careers, withheld the nourishment we needed (food, forgiveness), or drank or drugged ourselves into submission? These poems are written from the midst of that distance wherein the self gazes so unkindly at the self.

SW: Your wonderful first book, Beautiful in the Mouth, referenced many specific cities, states, and places. It seems that these two poems are about recovery, placelessness, and making a mental journey. How would you describe the shift in writing your second book? Was it a different process?

KK: The second book came together much faster than the first. The poems in the first book were written over a span of about six years, while the second book came together in just two. I was a Stegner Fellow during those two years, and many of the poems in the new collection draw on the landscape of the Bay Area—fog, eucalyptus, the ocean. However, I didn’t feel particularly rooted in the landscape, and I think that sense of not belonging to the place coupled with the fact that the landscape seemed so mutable to me (again, the fog, the ocean—all of that constant shifting and creeping) really encouraged me to produce poems voiced by a speaker occupying a liminal space. The speaker(s) in the new collection do make a sort of journey from sadness to anger to blame to a kind of attempt at forgiveness and recovery.

I enjoyed my time as a Stegner Fellow more than I can express, but it was also a difficult two years for me. Those two years worked as a sort of bridge in my life between a period of dead ends (in terms of publishing, my love life, and my stalled professional career) and where I am now, which is a much more secure and happy place. At the time, those two years felt like a bridge to nowhere—at least not anywhere that I could imagine. And those poems were written from the very midst of not knowing who I might become, and not being able to reconcile how I would forgive myself if I failed at my every attempt to become someone I might love and respect.

SW: These two poems seem to present a state of interior retreat that is deeply connected with nature’s transformative power (withdrawing into the ocean’s fist or going nowhere, growing one’s hunger “like a root”). You have lived in many different states and served as the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident in 2007. How does your immediate natural environment influence your poetry’s content or form—or does it? Do you find yourself writing more about landscapes from memories?

KK: Much of my writing that makes use of landscape comes from a place of longing, and there are a number of poems in the new book that once again return to the landscape of Montana—a place that I longed for intensely during the two years I was working on the new book. I do write more about landscape from memories, and now that I am living in Alabama, I once again find myself writing about the landscapes that I miss the most.

Just last week, I wrote a poem called “On Needing to See a River”—of course, there are rivers here in Alabama, but I’m used to an excess of rivers, and that is something I don’t have at the moment. At the same time, I love to make use of the new vocabulary that I encounter when I travel or move (which I’ve done often). I find myself making lists of new flora and fauna or features of the landscape. Here, it’s bugs—palmetto bugs, mule killers—and plants like crepe myrtle, magnolia, and kudzu. I love the strangeness of these new things in my life, and I love to employ strangeness in my poems whenever possible.

SW: Many poems read as being “in medias res”—whether it’s in the middle of an emotion or a narrative—and the poet has to negotiate how much to disclose and withhold. How do you know when a poem is finished?

KK: For me, a poem that I’m writing can never fully answer the question that it asks. If it reaches a conclusion in response to the question that it inherently poses at the outset, then it’s overwritten and might not be salvageable. At the same time, the poem must work toward an understanding of itself or its speaker. So many of the poems in the new collection work as a conversation between the self and the self. These voices of anger, blame, and dissatisfaction volley back and forth in each poem until one voice says something that’s nearly unspeakable, something to give the other voice pause. I see this last call as a kind of final threat or dare launched across a deep chasm of misunderstanding, and it hangs there for a moment before it drops into the darkness below. That’s when the poem’s done: when there is no voice left to answer back.

SW: What has inspired you lately?

KK: Well, I’m six months pregnant, and that is an endless source of inspiration these days. I was very sick the first six months, so I didn’t do much writing then. However, now that I’m back on my feet, I find that I’m predictably drawn to the subject matter of pregnancy. While I’m very excited about becoming a mother, these poems seem to be working as a place to express the natural fears that come with first-time parenthood. My own mother appears in almost all of them, along with my looming belly, full of the unknown.

Right now, I’m working on a poem about my father shooting and butchering an elk while, three-thousand miles away, I’m watching videos on YouTube of women giving birth. The strange and marvelous intersections of the unknowable future are my inspiration these days.

Shelley Wong is a Kundiman fellow, an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University, and a poetry editor at The Journal. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Lantern Review, Kartika Review, Linebreak, Eleven Eleven, and Flyway.