Spidering Out in the Ice: An Interview with Joanna Klink

There is always chatter… I want to be able to listen, to be receptive. In the midst of mayhem.

This conversation was conducted by Rae Gouirand through email over a period of about five weeks stretching between late July and early September 2015.

RG: How is your life as a poet centered right now, in the second half of 2015? Do your days have patterns?

JK: I feel pretty centerless.

What lives at the center of your poems?

I would like an otherworldly quality to be there, somewhere… a silence. Strange energies that are vaster and wiser than who I am.

What is the relationship between reading and writing in your life? Are there books you read perpetually?

I’m happy when I’m reading. I would give up writing long before I would ever give up reading.

I do reread certain books, again and again. Derek Walcott’s White Egrets, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey, J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Often my impulse is to return to something that has changed me, because my spirit is thinning and I want to be transported in exactly the same way I was before. Which never happens. It’s beautiful and unsettling—haunting, to keep going back.

I really want to talk about notes, and about the notes sections at the end of this collection and your earlier collections. Whenever I read a collection of poems that harkens so many points of origin that root in others’ published works, my heart goes warm—these lineages are not always acknowledged within the bodies of books with as much love as a notes section seems to communicate, and I think they present interesting archives. How do you take or keep notes?

Yes, I love notes pages, too. (And I’ve always appreciated journals like Fence, which replace the contributor’s note with whatever the author happens to be reading.) Sometimes I jot down phrases and passages as I read. If I’m using or modifying someone else’s line in a poem I’m writing—or even if I’m not, but want those lines to be connected to the poem—I will put them in the notes pages. The notes are a way to summon the presence and authority of the voices that spoke them.

Do you remember a moment in your life (inner or outer) where you became engaged with the world as a poet?

The year after I graduated from college I was living with my parents in Iowa City, trying to figure out what to do next. That was 1991. On November 1st, a graduate student in the University of Iowa Physics Department, where my dad taught, went on a shooting rampage. Four of my parents’ friends—colleagues, people I had known since childhood—were shot in a seminar room and killed. At the time, Heather McHugh was teaching an undergraduate workshop at Iowa which I was auditing. I was surprised she didn’t cancel class that week. We met, and she had us read elegies out loud. Nothing else. Three and a half hours of elegies.

The shootings changed my family, and so they changed the course of my life. Heather McHugh made me see what poems could do at a time when I could barely stand up.

That’s incredible to imagine. (I’ve read JoAnn Beard’s prose about that shooting.) Seeing “what poems can do” at those changing moments has kept me on the ground more than once, too.

The opening poem in Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy is titled “Elemental.” How would you name the elements on the periodic chart of your fascinations as a poet? Which is the weightiest of those elements?

I just want to pay attention. I find it incredibly difficult to pay attention to what is happening in any moment.

It’s so strange to hear that, because your work helps me locate a gatheredness, or presentness, that becomes more and more palpable the longer I spend in its pages—the poems in this collection both drive and speak to engagement itself so deeply, even through (or especially through) the lens of loss. Is there a name for what competes with your present attention, for whatever that kryptonite is? (Or, also: do you find it easier to pay attention to what has happened?)

There is always chatter—there is too much chatter and information streaming through my head, and it creates a kind of reactive blandness that is totally disorienting (I am not a calm person). I feel like I am working more, now, at this hour in my life, to get away from that noise. I want to be able to listen, to be receptive. In the midst of mayhem. Writing poems helps put me in that receptive state. I am trying to extend that receptivity into my daily life, and I guess the hope is that that would, in turn, alter the charge in my work, make it better.

Looping back a moment to where we are in time—I’ve been looking forward to asking you about the rivulets of white space that often cut through your stanzas like in “Early Night, Askew” and the title poem. When I taught your earlier collections last winter, my poetry students all came to discussion with multiple, simultaneous ways of having read them–as cracks forming live in our ways of speaking, as cracks the speaker was documenting or marking or lamenting in the stringing together of words, as markers of where language leaps across something to find itself again… Would you describe your intuition for how those cuts move through some of your poems?

That’s a great way to put it: cracks forming in real time as you speak. Like lines spidering out in the ice when you’re walking on it—a little precarious. Exhilarating maybe, but mostly troubling. In those two poems, it felt like I had to work to override some weird resistance. In the title poem it seems, in retrospect, to have had something to do with my will to hold those fragmented periods of my life together in one story… and in “Early Night” to hold together whatever I might have in common with someone I found quite awful.

I would love for you to tell me the story of how one of the poems in the collection (your choice which) came to understand itself—I find these histories fascinating and rare. Where did it root in life or thought, how did it find language, and how did it come to realize its form?

The last poem in my new book, “Processional,” I wrote while sick. I have an autoimmune disease, and at the time it was less under-control than it is now; I had spent several days in bed feeling lousy and unable to eat. It was the only time I ever reached for poems in that kind of state… Anyway, the refrain “If there is a world” came, I think, directly from my feeling that I was very far from being in the world. Very far from feeling that my minutes in it mattered.

I was planning on saying something about that line and the way the weight of the entire collection comes to bear on that refrain and its “if.” I’m not surprised to hear that it came out of that kind of moment where you’re standing over to the side of time and space. I actually wondered where that poem came in the development of the collection, whether it existed for you before “Elemental” did, since that poem opens the book seeming to have already decided some things about the world, opening with that line, “I brought what I knew about the world to my daily life / and it failed me…”

“Elemental” was first. But I can see what you mean—the tone of that poem is probably more confident than other poems in the book. When I wrote it, I felt like declaring my confusion about all the ways I had failed, about what I didn’t trust and couldn’t believe in. I guess I was trying to find, by the end of the book, some way back to trust, to vision. To be able to capture some picture of the world as it is, and as it might be—both at once.

To the idea of prophecy: there are all kinds of self-fulfilling ones in literature, and all sorts of narrators that serve as mouthpieces for the study of how it is that we make our own truths evident to ourselves. In reading this collection I got to thinking about what belief has to do with the poem. I wonder: do you think poetry believes something?

Many poets would quietly agree that the poem they’re writing knows more than they do. I don’t mean to sound mystical. I just think there is a transport that occurs in writing poetry, and it sometimes allows the poet to see past the shamefulness or loveliness of the given world—to see all the possible worlds that could exist alongside what is. For me that often means trying to imagine a world, as you suggested earlier, without loss, without giving up my (increasingly fierce) understanding that loss is the air we take into our throats, the streets, the people we love, every thing we touch.

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