The Colorado Poet, #21, Winter 2012

Interview: Kate Kingston

Shaking the Kaleidoscope (Lost Horse Press, 2012)

Bob King: Kate, a number of your poems refer directly or indirectly to South American poets, particularly Lorca and Neruda. Of course, they’ve been important for many U. S. poets, but what is their attraction for you, personally and poetically?

atie KingstonKate Kingston: My literary background was influenced more by Spanish poets than English authors. As an undergraduate, I attended the University of Valencia in Spain and studied Spanish literature while pursuing a Spanish major at the University of Wisconsin.  “La Generación of 1898 and After” was some of the first poetry I studied after leaving high school. Federico García Lorca was included in this generation along with Pío Baroja, Miguel de Unamuno, Antonio Machado and others.  While living in Valencia, I toured southern Spain and discovered Andulucia, Granada, the Alhambra, and Ronda. I was intrigued by gypsies, flamenco dancing, and bullfighting –all extreme cultural differences from what I had been exposed to in the United States. Reading Lorca’s poetry gave me insight into this new culture. Through his poems I developed a greater understanding of the landscape, people, and culture that was Spain. So García Lorca was an early influence.

More recently I returned to southern Spain for a residency at Fundación Valparaíso. I revisited Granada, the Alhambra and Lorca’s summer home, Huerta de San Vicente. Being immersed in the same landscape and culture that had influenced Lorca, I returned to read his “Collected Poems,” edited by Christopher Maurer alongside his biography “Lorca: A Dream of Life” by Leslie Stanton.  After reading the life of the poet alongside his major works, I developed a new sensitivity to his poems and plays. 

I had been casually translating Garcia Lorca and other writers up to this time, and decided it was time to take translation more seriously.  

While working on my MFA in Writing at Vermont College, I wrote my critical thesis on “Translating to Experience.” I had been casually translating García Lorca and other writers up to this time, and decided it was time to take translation more seriously. I immersed myself in contemporary poets writing in the Spanish Language and Neruda was one of them. Research led me to John Felsteiner’s  Translating Neruda:  The Way  to Macchu Picchu, which uses Neruda’s poem as a center of discourse on the translation process. I also read and admired William O’Daly’s translations of Neruda, among others. When I saw the film, Il Postino, Neruda became very real for me as a human being. I was not trying conscientiously to respond to these poets, but often after reading their poems, translations, and biographies, I felt an internal response that came out in numerous rough drafts. Whatever thoughts were subliminal began to surface. So these years of study, reading, traveling, and translating became a strong influence, not just in my writing, but in my life.

BK: I notice you use a lot of parallelism or different kinds of repetition. In “Gravity” you repeat “Sometimes you slip” throughout the poem. The title of “Though I’ve Never Heard a Raven Speak” is repeated four times in its poem and you use the repetition of “I don’t hear” or “I don’t see” in the “My Mother’s Footsteps.” What’s the magic in this parallelism for you as a poet? Is it a structuring device? An inspiration to continue?

KK: Actually it’s both, a structuring device and an inspiration to continue. This too goes back to Lorca’s influence.  His poem “Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” was written in four sections, but it is the first, “La Cogida y La Muerte” that stays with me.  The poem is about a friend who was killed in the bullring. Lorca uses repetition of  the line, “A las cinco de la tarde” to recreate the rhythm of the death knell. It also serves to stop time in that tragic moment when death “lays her eggs in the wound.”  I have read the poem numerous times to students to demonstrate how anaphora can be used effectively as the skeletal structure of a poem, how in this case it creates the somber tone, and you can recognize this tone even if you aren’t familiar with the Spanish language.  So naturally in my own writing when looking for a skeletal structure, I often draw on anaphora.

In addition, I have found that the repetition of a line in a first draft will help me push the poem forward. It is a very effective technique to prevent writer’s block.  When I free-write and the flow threatens to diminish, I repeat a line and it keeps the words flowing, often taking the poem in another direction.   Sometimes I am not even aware of what I am writing, so previous influences find their way onto the page. I try for three hand-written pages, and then later work to sculpt the poem into one page or less.

BK: Several of these poems are what I’d call domestic moments, shopping with your daughter, or your son’s encounter with an Albino King snake at a store and there are your childhood memories. How do you approach these moments and how do they become a poem?

I think that the poem approaches me. I never try to force a poem.

KK: I think that the poem approaches me. As I mentioned, I never try to force a poem. If I do, I get instant writer’s block. Instead I let whatever is inside surface.  In “Albino King Snake” I remember shopping for a snake that my son wanted very much for a pet. The keeper told us we needed to buy live mice to feed the snake, and he demonstrated how they only eat one mouse a day. I think he was trying to underscore how easy it was to have a snake as a pet. However, my son left and never mentioned going back for the snake again. It was his first confrontation with the brutality of the natural world and that triggered an emotional response in me that came to the page.

Likewise, in my daughter’s search for the truth about angels, I began to re-examine my own indoctrination into the belief of an angel hierarchy. I did not sit down to write about either of these two incidents.  But they triggered something in me so when I started to write; they surfaced on their own. 

I try to write every day. I fill notebooks and then go back to see where there is an emotional trigger. Then I begin to work with the skills I learned from conferences and workshops, and of course, from reading other poets. I think the metaphor of the bullfight is behind many of my poems. In Albino King Snake, there is the ritual death. In Fish Like Angels, there is the dance of fish, that relates to the ballet-like aspect integral to the art of the bullfight with its dance-like fluidity.

In personal poems I often reach back to previous influences like Lorca and Neruda. For example when I was writing the poem “At the Cabin,” I was on my dock overlooking the swamp with its

In personal poems I often reach back to previous influences like Lorca and Neruda.

myriad colors of green surrounding me, and Lorca’s line “Verde que te quiero verde” came to mind.  In our culture “green” is related to a sense of peacefulness, however, in Spanish, “verde” is associated with death, so I was drawing on both culture’s interpretation of green in this poem.  In the revision process, I began to research all the words for green—chartreuse, celadon, emerald , camouflage, viridian,  emerald—and work them into the poems to create an underlying resonance of Lorca’s line which is referred to twice in the first section, both in the poem, “What Does Lorca Own?” and “After Reading Romance Sonámbulo.”           

BK: You’ve traveled a lot and gained material from those visits or encounters. Do you find a difficulty in writing about another place, a “foreign place,” if I can call it that, or is it the same as writing about a familiar place?

KK: A change of place, the exposure to new landscapes and cultures, stimulates my writing. As I discover new territory, I discover new material. Many of the first drafts of the poems in the first section of the book were written at my residency at the Fundación Valparaíso, Spain. One morning after an unnerving thunderstorm, I found a fine layer of sand on my balcony. I learned later that it’s carried in the clouds across the Mediterranean from the deserts of Morocco and deposited in Spain during heavy rains. This new type of erosion intrigued me and gave me the image “rashes of sand” in the sestina, “From the Coast of Almeria.”  That same poem was inspired by hearing a maid sing a tragic love song as she changed the sheets, her voice floating from an open window.  These new experiences surfaced unexpectedly in my first drafts.

Many of the Mexico poems in the second section come from my annual sojourn to the San Miguel Poetry Week where the director, Jennifer Clement, always starts off the week with an exercise that never fails to pull up some hidden influence tempered by the culture.  “What Does Lorca Own?” and “Shaking the Kaleidoscope” actually came from these exercises, among numerous other poems in the book.  However, I thought these two belonged in the first section with the Spain poems due to subject matter.

The third section shifts to more personal poems that draw on images from Southwest landscapes where I reside. I’ve spent a lot of time at residencies in the West including Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.  When I’m immersed in this rugged terrain, similar to that of Spain and Mexico, I find myself exploring through writing how our outer landscapes reflect our inner landscapes. “Lluvia Huérfana,” is an example of a poem where I work to integrate self with environment. While cross-country skiing the high country I began to compose  comparisons and similes drawn from images of my surrounding or remembered surroundings. Though it was a peaceful day, Lorca’s “green” enters the poem alongside the question of mortality, so that the final stanza, though written from images of outer landscape, resonates with inner landscape: “Like the juniper struggling with difficult/snow, splitting finally to expose/the white underwood, how/the severed bough changes from/green to rust in a single season./ Lluvia siempre” 

A sense of place is very important for my writing, though at times distance lends more to a poem than actually being there.

A sense of place is very important for my writing, though at times distance lends more to a poem than actually being there. Sometimes even long after I return from a place, it continues to find its way into my writing, much like the writing of other poets that I may have read years ago.  

BK: I was interested in your title poem, “Shaking the Kaleidoscope,” which turns out to be five poems spaced within the first section and numbered, all about the same incident. How did this come about? Was it a long poem at first? Or did you keep returning to it? Or craft it at once?

KK: The poem “Shaking the Kaleidoscope” was written first as one long poem and it was written in Mexico from one of Jennifer Clement’s exercises.  Her cue was to write about violence in our lives, and I literally could not recall violence in my life, but I remembered being in rather violent twists of fate and I began to question violence, not just the physical act, but also the negative space in violence, like not doing something; for example, not to drop a peso into a begging woman’s cup can be an act of violence by what it does not give. I also questioned whether it is violence to fall and break your tooth even though no one precipitated the harmful act. And even though I didn’t cause my son to stop breathing for that fraction in time, it precipitated an emotion in me as if he had been violated, though again there was not a particular person initiating the violence. And of course, Lorca’s influence emerged with the violence of death in the bullring which found its way into the poem alongside my own personal brushes with violence. My life has nothing to do with bullfighting, yet has everything to do with bullfighting.  

In the first draft, I used the repetition of “I cannot recall violence” to push the images in the poem. Whatever came into my head related to violence went into that draft.  When I began to revise, I saw different realms of violence emerge in the writing. I decided this anaphora would be the skeletal structure to link the juxtapositions that otherwise might have seemed too disparate. 

The poem was a finalist in the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and published as a single poem in Nimrod International Magazine. However when I was putting the book together, I experimented with breaking the poems into sections and using the poem itself as a skeletal structure in the first section to link the Lorca/Spain poems with a resonance to follow in the third and fourth section. Carolyne Wright, my editor, saw immediately where I was going in the manuscript – to reveal how poets of another generation, another culture, another gender, can influence not only a person’s writing, but more important their life and perspective.  In the final revision process, we worked together to strengthen this sense of “Shaking the Kaleidoscope,” this sense that I am writing from many different perspectives, but in essence, they are all part of the same kaleidoscope.

BK: How long did it take you to get this book together? Were there hesitancies along the way or pitfalls? If so, how did you deal with that as a writer?

KK: The most difficult thing for me was how long it took to get the manuscript published. I had been working on it for over ten years. I published three chapbooks during this time, and was encouraged by the fact that the full manuscript placed as finalist and semi-finalist in several competitions including the May Swenson Poetry Award, Brittingham & Felix Pollak Poetry Prizes, Zone 3 Press First Book Award , and The Backwaters Press Competition. So this was definitely a compliment for the manuscript but it did not get published. 

I revised the manuscript bi-annually and it emerged over time under different titles. In 2011, it placed as a finalist in the Idaho Poetry Prize under the title, “What Does Lorca Own?” and Lost Horse Press chose to publish it. It was a celebrated moment when the publisher, Christine Holbert, asked me if I would like Lost Horse Press to publish the book.  But how did I deal with this lack of a publication for ten years? I kept writing. Publishing is wonderful and I wish it for every serious writer, but the writing is what sustains me. I have a definite need to write. It helps me negotiate the complexities of human nature and to gain insight into the self.  It is also something I can do wherever I am, and respond to whatever is happening in my life or the lives of people close to me.  I have poems on snowboarding, hiking, raising children, traveling, and responses to other authors. These may seem like diverse topics, but the fact that they are experienced by one individual and processed by one individual gives them a sort of cohesiveness and a certain complexity. It is like the poems are a component of a life-size jigsaw puzzle and each poem is a piece contributing to the whole.  So I kept writing in spite of the lack of a book publication, thankful to those presses who encouraged me by recognizing my work.

Publishing is wonderful and I wish it for every serious writer, but the writing is what sustains me.

BK: Along with the relief of bringing a book out, do you have feelings or ideas for the next one or do you just write a poem and go on to the next?

KK: I write a poem and go on to the next. I wish I could write for the book. It would be a lot easier, but if I sit down to write with a specific goal in mind, it inhibits my writing. I get instant writer’s block. I have to just let the poem evolve and then decide where to put it in the manuscript. I have an eclectic attitude toward writing. I never know what I am going to come up with or where it will fit into a collection, until I look back on what I have. Then I begin to think in terms of the book. I have a second manuscript, History of Grey, which is circulating now. I honestly can’t say which of the two manuscripts is the first or the second in chronological order. They evolved alongside each other, but each has its distinct resonance.  I am also well into a third book of poems, but at this point I have no idea what shape it will take.