Tom Beckett

An Interview with Kirsten Kaschock

Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

Kirsten Kaschock: Where did it begin? Second grade, a haiku—the idea of compression combined with the idea of power. My haiku was hung up in the hallway beside my drawing of a willow tree, and the school counselor called me out of the room to tell me how deeply it had moved her. She was foreign—an adult—and my memory is memory and thus, inaccurate, but my memory tells me she was tearing up as she told me this. She had brassy hair clearly done up with large rollers and big, thick glasses that magnified her glassy eyes. This story continues to define my writing: my first poem gave me an intense face-to-face audience-experience with a heretofore stranger. The potency of that.

Where does it begin? Need. The need to rework experience with tools. I’ve learned two tools in my life fairly well, my body and my language. I’ve worked through all sorts of experiential knots with both. Living with others (my husband, my children) is also a working through. I wish sometimes I could just be, but then I don’t think I’d make as much. Probably if I were okay with just being, I wouldn’t mind that—but as it is, I’m not. My need to make is not shelve-able. I find it odd that the things I make are not concrete. Like maybe this is an accident. Like my choreography, and especially my poems, should actually be small carved blocks of would. (That typo is probably more accurate than its correction).

TB: To know one’s body and one’s language well strikes me as huge. And, in our culture anyway, rare. It’s a large part of what attracts me to your work—your ability to entwine these realms. Could you speak to how this works in terms of your practice?

KK: Experimenting with language and with movement is something children do until they are told to use those tools “more appropriately.” The disciplines of dance and writing as I learned them were about going deep enough into technique to earn that experimentation back. Later, I began to question if one needed to go through the rigidity to get to the freedom, but for me that path provided me with a sense of confidence as well as a needed attitude of surrender. Both. I know now I must be confident enough to surrender, to trust in unknowing.

Dance and writing have beautiful divergences, but retaining some of each while inside the other is my way to threaded-ness. So when I give a prosepoem circular or inverted phrasing, it is a formal device I’ve used in choreography. Even better are strategies that can’t be translated directly: to try to repeat a poetic phrase at different levels; to attempt a poetic line with a different facing; to attenuate the phrase in time. In dance, one might try to tighten-the-gestures, or to use the white space, or to converse, or to pun. Really, the crossovers are endless: form, content, approach, theme, philosophy. I don’t know if I write coherently about my desire to fuse these worlds.

TB: Tools and moods, beside having the commonality of double ohs, seem to me to be what we—as artists—don’t talk about enough. I really want to explore your sense of process. I get the sense, in reading your work, that motion and emotion exist on the same plane. I don’t know if this is a coherent observation, but it’s my excuse for something like a continuation of our conversation.

KK: Motion and emotion on the same plane—I like that. And the double oo (I have a list of double oo words that will eventually become parts of a poem). Making lists of words is part of my process. Insistent ideas are easier to express when I have a formal constraint—pressed through a narrower tube things flow more forcefully. Of course, I both create the tube and discard it if it proves unhelpful.

I like tasks. Games. So these small exercises (tools) I use to help me get into a state (mood) where what could be termed the content of my work is not so heavy, so molasses... I noticed in your aphoristic work, “Andswearving Fragmeants” in Otoliths, that short, almost-didactic statements seemed to send you flying forward into ideas that proceeded one-on-another’s heels. There is so much momentum in these numbered questions, answers, statements of belief. The form, in this case, not only allows but propels one into a contradiction of self—a way “to contain multitudes.” Of course, that’s just my take.

Form is not something I am precious about... it is the paces I put myself through to get beyond the formal. How to use words to try to break/get beyond language, to use movement to get beyond the body. By testing the specific limits of the media I try to find where those media are porous—transcendent...

TB: There’s a lot of stuff going on in your response, but I’m going to be a little reductive. On the one hand, you’re extolling the practical value of constraints—of creating, say, a constellation of vocabulary as a basis for establishing boundaries to react to/against. On the other hand, you’re trying to get beyond materials/media to something unknown, something beyond what you know. What I think you’ve described is the foundational dialectic of poetry writing—at least the kind of poetry writing I care about.

What makes you itch to write poetry? What gets you going?

KK: Frustration. Pain. I wish I could write out of joy, but usually when I’m joyful (I have brief spurts)—I don’t do much writing. Poetry is also a place where I bash heads. My own. Meaning: I find I disagree with myself often, and that I carry associative links around with me that bother, nay, obsess me. I sit down with these internal conundrums and try to play out a rhythm—multiple rhythms—hoping they will overlay into something I can live with. Right now, I am working on this connection that has been with me for a decade: domesticity and rectangles. I’ve written 26 poems so far about the shape of the rectangle (book, window, room, computer screen, Volvo, stage proscenium, bathtub, the family unit...) and how this elongated square relates to... women? the family? capitalism? I swear there is something there. I haven’t hit the root yet (another double oo—a favorite), but it’s lurking. I write also because when I stop writing for any length of time I am not myself. Writing accesses and coalesces thought in a way I am incapable of without it. I am a devotee. An addict. I don’t think I know any writers who do not suffer from this need. Are you free of it?

When I am not writing, I dance more. When I am not moving—my writing is more tortured. Balance escapes me. I am constantly making peace with my own asymmetry.

TB: I suffer too when I can’t write. I note in “Andswerving Fragmeants” that poetry is a form of substance abuse and that connections can’t be found often enough.

Domesticity and rectangles. Wrecked angles/angels? Is it a matter of exploring the ways in which our experience of the world is framed? The ways in which we are framed?

I love the way you create generative contexts to work from, the way you worry a line into revealing its rich associations. Your piece in the most recent Otoliths worked with the sentence “Time is a quality of movement.” Somehow I suspect you’re not yet done with that line of thought.

KK: Yes, framing. All art is incompletion. That is how art works for me—either by sculpting (a revealing by removal) or collage (revelation by juxtaposition of fragments). Creating something and saying “this is done” is an illusion and an act of violence, of isolating things/objects/ideas and pretending that they are whole, can stand on their own. I feel the same way about the concept of family in our culture. How family is used as a credo for greed rather than as an impetus for connection with a larger world. And yet I participate in both art and my family with fervor. I am a violent animal.

“Time is a quality of movement” is science (I am married to a scientist—an act of generative collage?). Meditating on this statement is yet another act of accretion—trying to think through its anti-intuitive ramifications on my life. On others’ lives. Physics is personal. As you wrote: “Lists and collage are my syntax and grammar. I come alive within active juxtapositions.” This is perhaps the fix. Finding the connections... how they light up when we do our work well... how the synapses crackle. You are right that I am not done with this phrase—I am in fact worrying it to death, as part of an attempt to braid my entire fragmentary life together: movement, motherhood, language.

TB: You have a novel coming out in a few months. What was its impetus?

KK: The impetus?—an art form that doesn’t exist: sleight. Sleight has no content (or at least none of which the creators nor performers are consciously aware). The art form is empty. There is no there there. Sleight is the setting, and in some ways also the main character. The novel is about the people who take part in such a thing, whose lives it is. It is about how everything they do, all their relationships, their identities—how all of it is colored and altered by something they can’t ever quite define or capture or understand.

It’s a tad autobiographical.

TB: I’m looking forward to reading it.

Do you see your writing as, in any sense, a social project? Are politics and/or philosophy important to you?

KK: Very important. I’m an unhappy capitalist. I think our democracy is failing, but I don’t know the remedy. I’ve read more pages of philosophy than poetry or fiction in the past three years. But I have a problem with philosophy, politics, and art— the creators of it do a hell of a lot of preaching to the choir. And nitpicking. And infighting.

My politics and philosophy provide of course a substrate for my work, but I try not to speak out of ideology. I’m not even sure what mine would be... transcendental-empathy maybe. I try not to be paralyzed by ideas. For example: any categorical word I know to be inaccurate at best (a box that bleeds), but I don’t want to fear using words. Break them a little bit, so that I can see the blood, smell it. But not shatter them beyond use, because I believe in communication. Imperfect though it is, any faith I have is in our ability to learn from one another and our world. (I just used the first person plural—daring, no?)

How could putting out ideas not be a social project? I do not want a boutique audience. I like engaging with people different than I am, who think differently than I do but also deeply and with love. Those people are not only poets, so I make an effort not to sequester myself inside my poetics.

TB: Who do you think of as your artistic forebears?

KK: Caveat: our ancestors do not always provide us with dominant traits but are inside us nonetheless. Some of mine are Rilke and Ponge, Basho and Bausch (Pina, a choreographer), Robyn Hitchcock, Marguerite Yourcenar, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, and Bill Knott. I have many other, current influences—but these are some of my longest standing associations, and they have marked me in the way family does.

TB: What, as an artist, worries you the most?

KK: Everything. Or, everything that worries me at all worries me as an artist. But I also find hope in art—art provides a skill set for re-invention when things go terribly curvy.

I worry sometimes that the art-I-love is invested in freedom-without-limit, in contagion and plague-states. Wanting to “make something happen” so badly it doesn’t matter what the something is. (This freedom seems akin to a new enlightenment-rationality—unquestioned in that way.) I worry about the ethics of artists, about my ethics.

I believe in mindful action, but I desire reaction. So I worry about contradiction, and being paralyzed by contradiction, and also, of course, I adore contradiction.
So I worry about madness, I guess—and the tyranny of sanity. And how to balance action with thought. And how to raise good people... and be one... everything.

TB: Thank you, Kirsten, for taking the time to do this interview.

Tom Beckett lives and works in Kent, Ohio.
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