Kiki Petrosino: National Poetry Month
First can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to be besides a poet? What are the discoveries that have meant the most to you?
If I weren’t a poet, I’d like to be part of a “Morning Zoo”-style radio show…the zanier the better. One of the most important discoveries I made about poetry is that poems can be funny. And zany. Even though I don’t always write funny poems, knowing that I can is liberating. Surrealism makes space for astonishment, and that includes astonished laughter.
When you first began sending your work into the world, did you have an idea of the writer you wanted to be?
I only knew I didn’t want to stop writing.
How do you begin a new work? Do you begin with a structure in mind?
I do begin with structure, but, maybe paradoxically, it’s important for me to loosely define what structure is. In my first book, I wrote a whole series of poems each titled “Valentine.” A valentine possesses rhetorical structure, or at least we expect valentines to look and sound a certain way. My valentine poems worked with and against that expectation, in order to create their own structures. For other poems, I might begin with a form-related wish: to write a ghazal or villanelle, maybe. Then I just give it a try and see what emerges. In general, I like working with repetition/incantation. Sometimes that’s the spine, and I don’t need to draw the rest of the skeleton.
What is a typical day when you’re writing?
There is no typical day, which is how I like it.
You have a gift to show vibrancy in everyday experiences. In what ways do you think Hymn for the Black Terrific is marked by your unique voice?
I like to think of my I as a ravenous observer of worlds. As a poet, I live two lives: the one where I’m in the check-out line at the grocery store, and the one where I’m a fucking mermaid flicking my fins in the diamond sea. Both modes (and many more) are available to me, and to the I of my poems. Everyday moments become strange when observed through a fantastical lens. The fabulous always contains something usual, routine, or quotidian at its core. I like to make poems that bang the heads of Normcore Barbie and Surrealist Barbie together. “We girls can do anything.”
Do you find it difficult to write about race or identity? How have you learned to write so strongly about such personal themes?
The form of the lyric poem, in the Anglophone tradition, lends itself to many varieties of personalized utterance. So in that sense, writing about “the self” or the “I” is not difficult. However. I have spent my career meditating on the distance between externally-defined “identities” and the private “Who I Am” knowledge that we all have inside. This interior notion of self may or may not be validated by the larger world. Putting people and things into neat categories make us comfortable as a society, but the creative process can’t be about comfort. Sometimes I think one of the most subversive things I can do, as a poet of color, is to write about things that aren’t about “my struggle” with race or identity. I’m not struggling. I’m a damn starship captain.
Do you care about the effect your writing will have on your readers?
Yes, particularly when it comes to book construction. I do endeavor to attend to the experience of the reader. A book of poems is a curated experience, hopefully immersive, enchanting, and full of gifts. I love hearing from readers who’ve enjoyed my poems. They usually pick up on something that I hadn’t necessarily tried to emphasize (or curate), and that’s when I get to discover something new in the work. A little moment in my poem may remind a reader of something they have lived. I like hearing about things like that.
What things do you think have changed in your writing process over the years?
After workshop one afternoon in college, I watched a professor of mine grab his leather messenger bag, put on his leather blazer, and glide out of the room in his leather boots. He was headed, I thought, to the coffee shop to write poems for the rest of the day. Back then, I thought that was how poets worked: in public, with coffee, wearing Poetry Garb (i.e., leather). I tried it in graduate school and in the months following but could never quite get the trick of it. Some of the poems in my first book were written in coffee shops, but today, I prefer to write at home, in my pajamas, in complete silence. After class, I do grab my messenger bag (nylon), but I don’t write poems for the rest of the day. There are e-mails. I have to go to the bank. I used to draft a handful of new poems in one sitting, but now it takes me a few sessions to get one draft, which is hard because my “free” time is so limited these days. I try to approach the page without expectations, I try to give myself a break when the first draft fails. All of this is work, part of the process. And the process is private. I know now that I don’t have to put on a statement necklace to get ready to write a poem. If I’m putting on a statement necklace, I’m probably going to the bank.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on what (I hope) will be my third book of poems. I don’t want to say too much about it—I’m in the secret time of conjuring. But one of my goals is to create a book that consists of only one section (my first two books contained three sub-sections each). After an early career of writing small to medium-sized series, I’m interested in collections of poems that just make one shape, or arc of argument, from the first poem to the last.
Kiki Petrosino is the author of two books of poetry: Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013) and Fort Red Border (2009), both fromSarabande Books. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry,The New York Times, FENCE, Gulf Coast, Jubilat, Tin House and elsewhere. She is founder and co-editor of Transom, an independent on-line poetry journal. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Louisville, where she directs the Creative Writing Program.