The Colorado Poet, #20, Fall 2012

Interview: Kathryn Bass

The Mysteries (Kadroodle, 2012)
Available at, Tattered Cover in Denver, and Innisfree in Boulder

Bob King: You have several persona-poems in this collection, from a fairy tale character to a suitcase, from Eve to a moth. What’s the attraction for you of using a persona?

Kathryn Bass: First of all, let me say thank you for reading my poems so thoughtfully.

There are many ways into this question. Since this is a backward-looking book, I’ll start by looking in that direction. Like all children, I spent much of my childhood trying to make sense of the things happening around me. The way the yellow kitchen would steam up on spaghetti night. The perfect shells of selves abandoned on tree trunks by cicadas. The tiny golden scales with nested weights on the living room shelf—so shiny and difficult to balance. I was surrounded by all manner of wonders.

My mother’s mercurial temperament, which seemed to define on a minute-by-minute basis what kind of world I lived in, was another source of deep and abiding speculation. As an investigator of human behavior and a meaning-maker, I gave volition to the people—and the things—around me. I worried, for example, about hurting the feelings of stuffed animals (books like the Velveteen Rabbit turned up the volume on this complicating habit).

I must have appeared a docile child, but my mind was bustling with activity, creating and revising backstories, intentions, victories and frustrations for the people and objects I encountered. I suppose this was a kind of belief system for me—one that adapted regularly to fit my changeable world—to make some sense of what was and is senseless.

For me, persona poems likely begin with curiosity—with the impulse to inhabit someone or something in order to understand its behavior.

BK: You often exhibit a double-ness of thought or a turn from the conventional to the skeptical--I don’t know the right word for this. One example is “The Handless Maiden,” a Grimm and--if I may--grim tale of a young girl whose hands were cut off. The penultimate stanza goes “Angels, if you are real, / your gifts are very difficult / to earn,” which sounds like a kind of acceptance. But the last stanza is one line: “And you can keep them.”

Or in “A Song for Seeds” you speak of the seeds needing to believe in the warm light. “You must have / faith,” you claim, which sounds like a fairly conventional sermon but it’s followed by the line “You must have faith/ and luck.”   Or in a poem about a quilt you speak of the secrets that are there “to share their weight, / to comfort / or to suffocate.” Are you aware of this turn of thought in your work that I’m trying to name?

I do like to ask myself at the end of a poem, is this really the end?

KB: What an interesting question. I do like to ask myself at the end of a poem, is this really the end? It can be a source of both joy and tension to be in the middle of writing a poem. Sometimes poems are headed to places of intense vulnerability or unwelcome discovery. And I find that poems often offer me what I like to think of as “emergency exits”—ways to get out before I find out where the poem’s really going.

These false endings are seductive. They’re satisfying. They tie a nice ribbon around the poem. When I see that it’s all come together neatly, I wonder: Have I ducked out before saying all the poem has to say? When it feels as if I’ve gently closed a door behind me, I ask myself if there is a way to blow out every wall instead. The examples you point to are instances where I resisted the urge to “make things nice” and did my best to make things real instead.

BK:One of your sources for poems seems to be childhood, whether looking back in time as you ride a bike, thinking “once you could ride with no hands” or vividly remembering an incident, like taking the porcelain rabbit from your aunt’s house. Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer has said your work takes us back to childhood, “not as we remember it, but as it felt to be there,” and that porcelain rabbit poem certainly does that. Why do such memories stay with us? And what can a poem do for our childhood memories?

KB: It’s one of the great tricks of poetry that by capturing the precise singularity of a moment, we can make it universal. The process of writing this book happened to bring back in vivid detail several focused moments from my childhood. I hoped by honoring these moments with precision that I could illuminate the strangeness of the experience of growing up.

This might be a good place to talk a little about the book’s origins. I started working on it about three years ago, when I was struck with a sudden interest in looking up a series I loved as a young girl: The Judy Bolton Mysteries by Margaret Sutton. (Nancy Drew is a common comparison, though Judy is quite different for two reasons—a single author wrote these books, and Judy is not perennially stuck in adolescence; she matures through marriage and a range of life experiences.)

I visited a website created by fans and saw the list of book titles. They struck me immediately as great poem titles. I started writing and, though I didn’t remember much about the books themselves, I found Sutton’s titles to be marvelous triggers for memories from my own childhood. I suddenly had access to experiences I hadn’t thought of—or thought of as remarkable—in decades.

The book’s title refers literally to the Judy Bolton Mysteries, but it also describes to me something essential about the nature of childhood. We do not acquire knowledge in an orderly fashion as children (or indeed, as adults). The universe unfolds itself, and we are constantly arriving at what we believe to be Truth—and then having to reassess and readdress based on new data.

It’s our nature to want things to be simple, straightforward, predictable—at least sometimes. They are relentlessly not so. I think that’s why children and adults alike are so drawn to genre mystery stories. It’s compelling to imagine that every question might have a singular answer. That life is a solvable puzzle. It’s why we describe such books as an “escape”—they give us a chance to imagine that everything has a tidy beginning, middle and end. 

It’s our nature to want things to be simple, straightforward, predictable—at least sometimes. They are relentlessly not so.

The world of my childhood—growing up in the late 60s, 70s and early 80s—was and is fascinating to me. I wanted to see if I could recreate it through poetry and make it vivid and resonant enough to give others access to the complexity, richness, density and mystery childhood represents. I wanted to write about this common and unique experience we share without solving or simplifying it.

BK:Nature is another source for you, whether a particular plant, as in “Christmas Cactus from an Estranged Friend” or seasonal landscapes as in “That Autumn” or “Even Now in the Mild Sun.” Can you speak about your response to the natural world?

I think the great task of poetry is noticing, and nature certainly gives us marvelous opportunities to notice. The sky, the wind, the weather, all things green and growing—It’s a 24/7 show.

I recently read Susan Cain’s wonderful new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, so I’m looking at your question through the lens of that book. My professional life is overflowing with person-to-person intensity. Deadlines. Clients. Conflicts. Interruptions. Nature is the cure.

I am no great outdoorswoman, but a day hike, a step into my garden, a walk to the park with my dog—these are the environments in which I can reflect and complete the deeper processing my personality type requires. In this context, I can choose my level of observational activity, approach rather than being approached. I can hone in on a blade of grass or expand into the limitlessness of sky. I have my great revelations and inspirations in the context of fighting the good fight with bindweed, transplanting volunteer shrubs, sinking tomato plants into the ground. Cain would call being outdoors a “restorative niche” for me—and tell me to do more of it.

That being said, nature isn’t something I idealize. Part of its relief is that it simply is what it is. Bindweed is nature, but it’s also the closest thing I have to an arch nemesis.

BK: Every so often I feel a little jab from you about the methods of “poetry.” In the moth poem which, of course, could be considered a standard subject, you write “That electric hunger / of light for some speedy companion-- / you can make up your own metaphor.”  In another, you speak of a bird dying: “It was a sparrow, but this is no allegory.” Do you sometimes feel a disconnect between standard poetic methods and getting at the truth?

KB: You’ve probably caught me at something, but I think there are two different things going on in the two particular examples you give. To my mind, the moth-speaker is expressing a bit of exasperation, feeling that everyone thinks they already know all there is to know about moths and flames.

In the second instance, part of the poem’s process is showing. “Here’s an easy way,” the poem said to me. “Do you want to take it?” I chose to keep this experience in the real-time of the poem—to show a path the poem offered so others can choose to follow it or not, just as I did. I enjoy the cohabitation of two contradictory possibilities here. When the poem says “this is not an allegory,” the reader must for a moment experience it as an allegory, even as he or she is told to dismiss this possibility. It’s a kind of Schrödinger's cat moment, a trick that gives the poem multiplicity.

BK: You divided your book into sections titled after an individual poem, sometimes at the beginning of a section and sometimes not. What was it like putting this book together or dividing it up? Or what was your process?

KB: Putting collections together is a real challenge for me. I like the conceit that poets are sprinters and novelists, marathoners. I did see what this book wanted to do, but I couldn’t have run the marathon without a lot of help. My poet-friends Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer and Maria Berardi helped me make the book fit for distance running by ruthlessly culling and reordering poems.

The section headers are all titles from Judy Bolton books because I wanted the relationship to literal mysteries to serve as a framework for the book. The collection’s center of gravity comes from a specific event in my childhood. All else revolves around that.

There’s real darkness here, and one of the great challenges of this collection was to find a way to make the book worth reading—pleasurable—in spite of its darkness.

There’s real darkness here, and one of the great challenges of this collection was to find a way to make the book worth reading—pleasurable—in spite of its darkness. I struggled a great deal with how to welcome people into the book and warn them at the same time that they were entering a haunted place. I also wanted the book to feel it had an arc and moved from one way of seeing mystery to another.

As with most books, reader-to-writer feedback is sporadic, but I’ve been so grateful to the people who have told me the book was a gift that arrived in a time they needed it. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the talents of my husband, book designer, graphic artist and reader extraordinaire Joel Bass, whose illustrations grace all of the poems with Judy Bolton titles and whose cover design is a knockout. I have so many people to thank for the success of this endeavor. Regardless of the solitude of writing, this was most assuredly a group effort.