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PAYING ATTENTION TO ACTUAL WORDS
Jesse Lee Kercheval, a prolific writer whose work emphasizes the quest for finding a home, coping with death of family members, and struggling with spirituality, will visit Fresno this week for the latest installment of the Fresno Poets' Association reading series.
Kercheval, who was raised in Florida, currently teaches as the Sally Meads Hands Bascom Professor of English and director of the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
She is the author of seven books and two chapbooks. Her story collection, Alice in Dairyland, won the prestigious 2006 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. Her memoir, Space, won the Alex Award from the American Library Association. She has published two recent collections of poetry, World as Dictionary and Dog Angel.
In a phone interview, community journalist Logan Perkes asked Kercheval about being a poet who writes about her children, how women fare in the national poetry scene, and how she makes the time to be creative.
First, can you give a brief timeline of your career as a writer, and how you came to write poetry?
I started as a fiction writer, as an undergrad at Florida State. I went to the Iowa's Writers Workshop in fiction. The program there is segregated by genre, but I begged Gerald Stern to let me take his poetry workshop. Today, I'm mostly a poet. I mostly read and write poetry.
I switched to poetry because it has a lot to do with voice, paying attention to the actual words. I think more interesting things are happening right now in poetry than in fiction. When I began writing fiction it was more experimental, but it has become more conservative and traditional.
Narrative is more inherently conservative than poetry. Poetry has the constant struggle to define and redefine what a poem is. There is not much question about what a novel is.
Your collection Dog Angel is composed of free verse and prose poems. How did you decide which form you were going to use for each poem?
Poems seem to arrive in the form they want to come in. It is the old truism that form follows function. I would rarely change the form of a poem once I wrote it. The lines are the length they originally were.
I have a lot of long-line poems in Dog Angel. This book is kind of looser and has a more conversational feel than my previous book of poetry. I never write in traditional forms like sonnets.
How do you begin the process of putting a book of poetry together? Do you have a theme selected early on or does the unifying theme come after you have written the bulk of the poems?
I always write some poems and then spread them out on the floor and look to see what I've got. There are always some orphan poems that will never be published in a book and don't fit with the rest. It is more organic and less about thinking than feeling your way through the structure.
What other writers and artists have most influenced your work?
I agree with [Jorge] Borges that who you read when you're young most influences your thought. I have been most influenced by French surrealist poetry, especially Robert Desnos. I am influenced by people who have different styles than I do.
Who are you currently reading?
I'm reading Frank O'Hara's Collected Poems. Also, [I'm reading] the work of Cole Swensen and Brenda Hellman.
I was at a recent poetry reading in San Francisco and a well-published poet read a poem comparing poets to members of Congress, saying that most poets are white, well-educated, men. Do you think this is accurate? Is poetry for the elite? How do women fit into contemporary poetry?
People complain that the power structures of poetry tend to be heavily male and white. I think at the working level this tends not to be true. [The fact that men dominate the power structures within poetry] affects what it universally takes to be recognized by the power structure. This affects who wins the awards; but on the daily level, there are far more women in poetry classes at the university and in the community than men.
Poetry is more diverse than you would think. In the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we have a lot of women professors and [we are ethnically] diverse. The writing department is more diverse than the rest of the English department and the rest of the university. Things aren't changing that quickly in the country. I think things are changing faster in the world of poetry.
You write about your children in your work and they become recurring characters with their own humor and wisdom to convey. Were you ever worried that writing poems about being a mother would be deemed only of interest to women, much like what occurs in women's fiction?
Sometimes I think twice about sending out poems about being a mom to a literary journal where some 20-year-old will be reading it. I think this is a concern for women to be stereotyped as only writing about the home and family, not larger issues.
I've never had anyone return a poem and say that was the reason. I feel like the times you get to write about your children becomes a payback for the time you put in to raising them. Overall, I have this fear less writing poetry than if I were writing narrative.
How has teaching creative writing affected your own writing? Do you find it difficult to critique others people's work and still create your own?
It's a great fit in some ways. I have a lot of flexibility with my time. I get to spend my time assigning books of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction that I then get to read and discuss and think about. I am part of a community that shares this interest. It is a good life but in some ways it can sabotage your writing.
Teaching offers more immediate gratification than writing. If I have a great day teaching, I feel like I am done for the day. It is constant struggle to be writing and not pour more time into teaching and let myself be satisfied by that work. It is harder to teach and write poems than write fiction, because with a novel you are thinking about it all the time but poems are easier to push out of your mind.
I am constantly trying to get space where poetry is the only thing I am thinking about.
Many of your poems in Dog Angel are set in Spain. Why does Spain offer so much poetic inspiration?
Spain was the first trip I took with my children overseas. When you go on a trip to a place outside your experience, it may only be a week, but you come back with so many poems because everything is so vivid, memorable, and rare. You can get a lot of poems from such a short amount of time.
In your poem "Magdalena at the Prado," Magdalena is eager to hear and believe the story of Christ's immaculate conception. You write that this seems to make more sense to her than the anatomical description of sex and conception she has been given. What role does this tension of the fantastical faith and a pragmatic secularism have in your poetry?
I have this constant war within myself having been raised without a religion and raising my children that way. But I always wanted to believe in heaven, and that there must be a God. Yet, there can't be a God. It is the rational and spiritual part of my nature that slug it out.
I have a strong need to believe it is part of who I am. Of course, a lot of this is brought out by my children because they are asking me all these things. They go through the Woody Allen phase of asking questions but coming up with no answers.
In your poem "Clocks," you show the struggle you have between making time to write and parenting two children. How do you deal with this struggle and make the time you need to develop your craft?
This is one reason I primarily write poetry. It's hard to stay up at night and work on a novel but poems you can work on one and finish it in a night.
It helps having a job that gives me a pay raise each time I write a book. I have a supportive husband who helps a lot. I'm in a women's poetry group in Madison and the other women all work in other careers and don't have the time I have. We all do it and make the time.
[Writing is] the kind of thing that if you could stop you would, but since you have to do it, you make the time. I write instead of watching television.