Keetje Kuipers Interview with John HoppenthalerIn 2007, you were the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident, and you used the residency to complete work on Beautiful in the Mouth, which was awarded the 2009 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and is now published by BOA Editions. Can you tell us about that experience and how living in the wilderness may have informed some of the poems in the book?
It really was the wilderness out there: I was in a little cabin two hours down a dirt road from the nearest town. The house was off the grid and way out of range of cell phones. My only way of communicating with the outside world was with one of those trucker-style radios. I shared the radio line with the rest of the wilderness-dwellers scattered up and down the valley that runs the length of the Rogue River, and the phone would always cut out after a few minutes. It really meant that I couldn’t have long conversations with anyone—except my dog, of course. This was probably the most profound way that living in the wilderness informed the poems in the book: I had absolutely no one to talk to about the work that I was doing. The new poems I was writing didn’t have other eyes on them besides my own. The revisions I completed went through draft after draft without outside commentary. The ordering and restructuring of the book changed daily, and my choices to lose or keep poems in the manuscript were no one’s but my own. Of course, before I embarked on this wilderness experience, I’d gathered plenty of feedback on much of the work that appears in the book. And when I returned to civilization, the poems and the manuscript continued to change as I sought feedback from mentors and peers. However, being out there alone with no one to turn to in my moments of artistic questioning and doubt taught me a kind of self-reliance as a poet that I hadn’t had before. I feel much more confident about the poetic choices I make now, and while I have dear friends who I go to often for insight on my work, I trust myself to make the final decisions.
Can you speak a bit about your education and mentors, and how the experience has affected your work?It’s hard to know where to begin with this question because so many people have been good enough to teach me, take me under their wing, push me along. I will say that I my first mentor, the poet Nathalie Anderson, who was one of my professors at Swarthmore College, instilled in me the utmost respect for formal tools in poetry. This was later reinforced by another very important mentor, the poet Garrett Hongo, who was a professor of mine during graduate school at the University of Oregon. Having this really foundational respect for craft and musicality has continued to directly influence the way I write my poems. The poet Dorianne Laux has been present in my life as a mentor ever since I read her first book, Awake, when I was a senior in high school—this was the first book of poetry I’d ever read. The fact that I ended up working under her mentorship while I was studying at the University of Oregon was a great stroke of fortune. I’ve also really benefitted from the support of mentors and colleagues like Kevin Gonzalez, Henrietta Goodman, Marion Wrenn, Stacey Lynn Brown, Major Jackson, and Tracy K. Smith. These are all writers who have shown me that they deeply believe in the work that I’m doing. They all knew me when I didn’t have a single accolade to my name, and they’ve shepherded me faithfully toward what my work can be, should be, wants to be. There is nothing like the experience of finding a mentor and working towards becoming her colleague and peer. That is my greatest aspiration.
The landscape of your poems varies, and it seems you are always on the go, traveling here and there. Are you restless? If so, how might this restlessness reveal itself in your work?I recently read a Carl Phillips interview where he said, “I have this longing to live in one place and call it home forever, but some part of me seems to require longing, rather than the satisfaction of that longing.” I couldn’t agree more: I was born in Washington, spent the first few years of my life living there and in Montana and Idaho (my father was a fishing guide during those summers), then moved with my family to Minnesota and finally California. I went to college in Pennsylvania, lived in New York as a failed actress, traveled through Spain in search of material, went to graduate school in Oregon, took a wilderness fellowship in a cabin there, moved to Missoula to teach at the University of Montana, and am now living in San Francisco as a Stegner Fellow. Am I restless? Have I had a choice? I think in my youth I never felt tied to any of the places that I lived. Since then, I’ve let my work dictate my geography, partly because geography didn’t seem to matter. I fell in love with New York when I lived there, but that’s not an uncommon story. It wasn’t until I moved to Montana as an adult that I felt I’d found the home I’d never had. It was the strangest experience to recognize a place—recognize it truly in my heart—though I’d never really known it before. Now, geography has become of primary importance to me, and the battle for belonging—and the butting together of disparate and conflicting geographies that express different parts of myself—are clearly hashed out in my poetry. In our current world, where so many of us have lived and traveled all over, where we’ve defined ourselves differently and transformed to become new people as we’ve moved through the geographies of our lives, we all have many landscapes to reconcile within us. It seems to me that reaching a resting place doesn’t guarantee rest.
In your poem “At the Museum of Modern Art,” you write, “They say the modern condition is one / of isolation, and if I’m anything, // I’m modern.” Many of the poems in Beautiful in the Mouth, as well as some of the poems featured here, seem to speak to this situation. Many of your poems are infused with a feeling of great loneliness.I am lonely. I don’t think you can carry your house on your back for ten years and not feel that way. My grandmother dropped out of high school and married my grandfather, a taxi driver, when she was sixteen. She had my mom two years later, and three more children followed. She’s lived in the same town—Holland, Michigan—almost her entire life, and nearly all of my extended family still live there, as well. I have a dog and a car with a hatchback. It’s modern, and it’s lonely, and it’s what I have to work with as a writer.
Often, in Beautiful in the Mouth, tension seems generated by the collision of inadequate language and the ineffable. For example, in “Blackfoot River” you write, “And what are we moving / towards in speech except more words that waste their motion? / The unspeakable spoken and spoken until it becomes / lost in the bright keening of the stars, those unknown / latitudes we measure every message against.”Poetry has been a huge source of comfort and solace in my life. It has allowed me to connect with people I’ve never met, to feel less alone in the void of movement that has been my life, to find a way of understanding myself and those around me. However, it can’t do all the work I’d like it to. While it’s my passion—and my profession—language has failed me just as it fails us all. Words, and poems especially, are merely an attempt at understanding, expressing, and encapsulating our strongest feelings of desperation and yearning, desire and fulfillment, fear and repulsion. They are beautiful, necessary attempts, the same way that standing on top of a mountain and shouting your name into the uninhabited air is an attempt—we must declare ourselves over and over again, and still never really find a way to understand how we exist.
How has your experience as a theater major and an actor affected your poetry?I believe that poetry is best when recited. Therefore, I believe it should be written to be read aloud. It needs drama, music, and character—all performative elements. It also needs a story. Poems are tiny plays: they have individual personas, voices, monologues. And poetry is, like the theatre, originally an oral tradition, and I think it will best survive that way. As we move away from print media and find poems as art pieces (http://www.bornmagazine.org/) or streaming fleetingly through our iPods (http://www.poemflow.com/), we’ll best be able to carry them with us as text heard, inhaled, remembered, and recited.
We’re Facebook friends. Recently I read a posting you made in response to Cate Marvin’s essay on the VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) site that discusses her experience as the Writer-in-Residency at the James Merrill House (http://vidaweb.org/dealwithit.shtml). Cate’s essay speaks to the discomfort and fear the committee seems to have felt at the thought of Cate, a single mother by choice, arriving with her new baby, Lucia, in tow. You wrote to Cate that the piece “spoke to me very clearly about the struggles of my friends, as well as my own fears about becoming a writer/mother.” Might you speak to that a bit more specifically? I’d like to be able to say that—at least when it comes to the literary community—such stories are shocking, but of course that’s not true.Honestly, it feels a bit dangerous for me to speak to it more directly. I’m in the process of applying for academic jobs, and while I understand that any potential plans I might have to eventually become a mother can’t be held against me during the application process, it’s unlikely that those plans would be looked on favorably by my colleagues if I were to declare them outright. These are hypothetical plans, of course. They don’t really exist. However, I have been witness to just the sorts of situations that Cate described in her essay: I have a friend who was told by the faculty that she never would have been accepted to her MFA program if they’d known she planned to have a baby during the course of her studies (she completed all her course work and thesis with flying colors, and graduated on time). Another friend was repeatedly denied fellowships and grants by her academic institution, though she was the most qualified applicant—the faculty were concerned that, as a mother, she wouldn’t have the time and energy to put those funds to good use. Of course, there are many places within the academy that treat mothers wonderfully. I’ve seen the Stegner Program at Stanford be very supportive of fellows and lecturers with young children—and because of their support, those mothers have continued to be productive writers, doing bold, exciting work. But my feeling of wariness persists. A few years ago I became dear friends with a group of women writers and artists at the Vermont Studio Center, all different ages, some with children, some without. We spent many hours discussing whether motherhood and art are compatible. Now, if we weren’t so afraid of a lack of support—not to mention outright shunning and roadblocking on the part of our colleagues—would we really have been having that discussion? It seems doubtful.
You chose to quote a section, from that same essay: “I don’t believe in autobiographical poetry. And if it exists, I don’t want to write it. . . My life is not my poetry.” I’m interested to know if this statement of Cate’s applies to your own poetry, as the speakers of your poems seem to tell tales that are tangibly autobiographical.I can’t deny that almost all of my poems are based in autobiography. However, unlike a memoirist, I feel no pressure to remain faithful to the original story. This rarely bothered me until recently, when my book was published. I’ve been asked in interviews and at readings about the personal experiences that are contained in many of my poems. People want to know more about the back stories of those experiences, especially the saddest, darkest ones. Because the poems appear autobiographical (and, of course, they usually are), readers think they know me, have some insight into who I am, understand my history—and they speak very frankly to me about myself. I understand that this is natural, and when I read someone else’s poem, I make many of the same conclusions about autobiography and the feeling of intimacy that it transmits to me as the reader. I quoted that section from Cate’s essay not so much because my work isn’t autobiographical, but because that’s not all that it is. Regardless of whether or not I’m telling the truth in a poem, I don’t want my character or life to be judged by what I say within one. That’s a tough order, I know, but a girl can dream.
What’s next for Keetje Kuipers?I have a year left as a Stegner Fellow—and I plan to get a lot of work done in that time. I’m nearly finished with my next collection of poems, tentatively titled The Keys to the Jail, and this summer I started a non-fiction project about the cabin in the wilderness where I lived for seven months and the woman, Margery Davis Boyden, who that fellowship is named for. I also hope to embark on a poetry translation project this fall. Other than that, my plans are simple: bake more pies, take more hikes, and find a job that allows me to continue doing the work of writing—and teaching—that I love most.
Our last vacation
It was the season of dead moles,
black silken pelts like evening purses
abandoned along the forest path.
We collected mushrooms on a charred hillside,
smudged ourselves in soot, marveled
at the way bones crumble when they've been
burned, then played Keno in a bar
where spent chainsaws, those chewed teeth,
hung from the ceiling while we listened
to your father's wife describe her time at the slots:
cherry, cherry, cherry, pineapple. We met a man
who owns a mortuary and we shook his hand.
You said geese mate for life, so if you shot one,
you'd have to shoot them both. The leaves
kept coming down, knotting the air into thin
ropes of light, spinning their green palms
like wide roulette wheels on the river's muddy face.
The odometer's dials turned over and over,
just like they do in ambulances. I told you I thought
we'd know when it was time to go home.
Getting over the future
Tonight I want to burn through it, watch desire
become smoke, or cut down tree after living tree
just to get rid of the green. And the fossil fuels—
let's turn on every incandescent bulb, each burner
on the stove (blue flame, white), both radios full
volume in empty rooms, the microwave circling
its singular glass plate, the bathroom fan churning
the air like cream, the heat turned beyond any natural
limit, car idling at the curb, garage doors opening
then closing incessantly, almost endlessly, every last
plug in the wall, every last switch flipped—let's spend
them all night long, until a cloud of carbon hangs
above our bodies in the morning. I want nothing left.
Deplete our ore, mortgage all the tenderness. Drain
the well, the rivers. Sweep the oceans of their fish—
sardines, cod, salt water eel—I never want to taste them
again. We have to set the prairies on fire to bring back
certain seeds, torch the forests to drive the most reluctant
mushrooms to the surface. Not that I care, not that I want
anything renewed, replenished. No, get it gone, this growing
my heart does for you. I won't need tomorrow then.
The end is in the beginning, the ghosts shining through:
two dirty white horses on a hillside in April
were once two dirty white horses on a hillside in October.
I understand that I'm going to have to forgive you,
stop seeing your body as the oil slick on the runway.
And you'll have to choose, too, to become something new.
You'll have to stop being the greenhouse at night, the soft rabbits
who throw their bodies against its wooden door, who know,
when they smell it, heat and clean dirt. You can't be hunger.
And you can't be its answer, quietly bedded down
with the cargo: dynamite, rum, fresh-for-now-water.
I'm waiting until I forget how happy we were.
At the Museum of Modern Art
They say the modern condition is one
of isolation, and if I'm anything,
I'm modern. That must be why missing
you feels so inauthentic. Even in
the pastel glow of a Diebenkorn,
I can't forget that I belong alone.
Unlike the homeless couple, curled
together under a yellow blanket
in the doorway of the Chinese bakery
each night, I hate the intimacy we share.
But if I can imagine these solitary
pictures removed from their frames
and pressed together in a kind of awkward
kiss, and if the photograph of a woman
naked on a park bench were to reveal
the figure perched beside her, a hand
resting on her breast just above
that scuttling heart, then I can say this:
Come home. Help me find a way.
All the Rivers in the World
You've never seen weather like this:
the furrowed brow of the purple horizon
gathering behind the roadside billboards
for girls who've gone missing. All those
girls are dead. Storms fill the sky, too:
raptors hunting wind, cottonwood fluff
winging its way across the air's dirty mouth.
You know all language can't be beautiful,
but there's so much emptiness to make up for.
If you have to love, love the land. Love
the little houses made of cinderblock
magic, the chimneys long darkened
by dead fires. Love the tree line that says
we'll live in rain while it snows above us.
Don't be too proud to read what's written
in red willows, or to hear the birds crying
thief, thief! You know what's been stolen,
where you hid it, why you can't give it
back. Oh, tumbleweed queen, all the rivers
in the world couldn't make you any lonelier.