This is the second part of Amy and Kathleen’s conversation: you can read the first part here.
Following the success of our inaugural Poem to Poem, for our second feature in the series we invited Amy Key and Kathleen Ossip to hold a transatlantic conversation.
The first step in putting together a Poem to Poem is to find two pieces of writing that seem to speak to one another, whether through congruencies of subject matter, sensibility or ambition. Kathleen Ossip’s ‘To the Poet Who After My Reading Said “Your Poems Are Good. Eccentric, But Good.”’ begins with the speaker recalling her eighteen-year-old self’s ‘loving ideals about penises’, soon shaken by having a Parisian flasher’s thrust into her hand. Ossip comes back repeatedly to the poet’s ongoing search for the ‘ideal word’ – a phrase that seems also to contain, by way of ghosted pun, the utopian search for an ‘ideal world’. Amy Key’s ‘The Best Is Yet to Come’ takes the form of a series of visceral, glittering fragments. We overhear the tussle of a consciousness trying, at first, to impose order on this leaky inner discourse, before (apparently) giving in to its flow. ‘“Prone to” but not “prone”’, the poem wittily and movingly explores the ways our emotional lives relate to the body and to gender.
Kathleen and Amy exchanged messages over the summer of 2016. Their dialogue considers, from many angles, ‘the effect’, as Key puts it, ‘of society’s demands on girls and women and the bewilderment and damage that can cause.’ We begin to see how each of their poems reflects, variously, on sexism in the poetry world and beyond, ideas of consent, shame and rage as gendered experiences, and the forbiddeness of female anger. Insights emerge about their writing processes: how the ‘ghost’ of form often leads the way, how to negotiate artifice and phoniness, and how the relationship between poem and reader is often a sort of compromise. Always in sight is the biggest question: why write poems anyway?
Amy Key’s first collection, Luxe, was published in 2013. She is also the author of two pamphlets: Instead of Stars (tall-lighthouse, 2009) and History (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2016). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, The Poetry Review, New Statesman, Rough Trade Magazine, Best British Poetry 2015 and anthologies from Faber & Faber and Penguin. She co-edits online journal Poems in Which.
Kathleen Ossip is the author of The Do-Over, a New York Times Editors’ Choice; The Cold War, which was one of Publishers Weekly’s best books of 2011; The Search Engine, which was selected by Derek Walcott for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize; and Cinephrastics, a chapbook of movie poems. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Best American Magazine Writing, the Washington Post, Paris Review, Poetry, The Believer, The New Republic, and Poetry Review. She is a 2016-2017 Radcliffe Fellow and the editor of the poetry review website SCOUT.
We start, it seems, with shame and rage. I would rather talk to you about those than talk about line breaks. My first thought was that they are the two emotions I have felt most in my life but I can’t quite commit to that. I do know that they have loomed large. And I think that is a gendered experience. We are encouraged to be ashamed of our rage and, therefore, enraged by our shame. Or that is my experience of being a woman.
Elizabeth Hardwick said about Sylvia Plath: ‘She has the rarity of being, in her work at least, never a “nice person”.’ For person, read woman, because it’s of course especially forbidden for women not to be nice. Shame is an occupational hazard of the nice person, but what strikes me about your poem is that the shame is so active, almost a performance, and ‘the speaker’ (if you like to maintain that distance) is never ashamed of her shame, even though there’s also a sweetness about her. That candor strikes me as Plathian.
I wonder: When this poem began to take shape, were you aware of wanting to write about shame (via the Nelson quote) and, especially, aware of wanting to write from a gendered perspective? Is that (the gendered perspective) something that is important to you and/or your writing? I’m thinking especially of your ultra-dramatic sections vii and viii.
Also (why not get it over with): why write poems anyway?
Kate Moss is said to live by some advice: ‘Never complain. Never explain’.
The other day a poster was circling online from a Catholic church, which said: ‘There is only one priest today: please keep your confession brief and to the point. You don’t need to say why you did it.’
Both of these instructions horrify me. Imagine not being able to explain! To elaborate! I added the Nelson quote to the poem later, when it was largely finished (I’d just read The Argonauts). My friends know me as someone more prone to disclosing the grubbier thoughts I have (‘ashamed, but undaunted’). I will share the petty and insecure ideas that occur to me. More often than not these thoughts are directed towards myself, rather than others. (I wish I could identify it as Plathian candour instead!) I lack the necessary pride to contain these shameful thoughts. My container is leaky. But it is also selective about what it can bear to leak and what it cannot. And this is perhaps where I feel the gendered nature of shame most powerfully, because my shame is strongest in relation to my body, sex and romance. From the earliest time women are calibrating – am I too ample, too scant / too bloody, too dry / too lustful, too neutral / too loud, too quiet? What am I supposed to minimize, conceal, emphasize or fake?
For me, rage is both the producer and the product of shame. I’ve never learned how to rage effectively – everyone else’s anger being somehow more successful than my own – and I have always been very afraid of people who are angry. I will often leave rooms and public places where people are even raising their voices. My own response may be on the extreme end of the scale, but I, like most women, have been schooled that anger is not an attractive behaviour – like you say, it’s forbidden. Male anger is often seen as passion and strength. I’ve often been told my own anger is ‘hysterical’ and the behaviour of a ‘prima donna’. So as you’ve written – we attempt to hold down our rage, it turns into shame and we become newly enraged.
Why write poems anyway? I am very unsure. It occurs to me I am performing my own rage and shame, my own attempts at forgiveness of others and myself in poetry, and perhaps that’s also not an OK thing to do, and is something I ‘should’ also be ashamed of. In my recent writing I am thinking much more about the effect of society’s demands on girls and women and the bewilderment and damage that can cause. It is not uncommon for women to be punished for male violence against them. I found myself asking what, if anything, can be forgiven and who holds the power to forgive?
I’m torn between asking more about the emotions involved in being a woman in the (last days of and therefore more fiercely entrenched?) patriarchy, and asking poetry-nerd questions about your stylistic choices. So clearly the right option is to do both.
But maybe the first thing to say is that the richness of your poem gathers as I spend more time with it.
Last week Serena Williams won Wimbledon for the seventh time. The week before, I saw a news story that she was being hounded on Twitter because her nipples showed through her top during one of the games. She’s one of the greatest athletes of all time, her body as close to perfection as possible in its grace and power and efficiency… and it’s fodder for a sea of ridicule on social media.
To walk in a woman’s body is to walk with an assumption of shame.
I’m very intrigued by your pairing of shame and forgiveness. This feels inspired, the true miraculous leap of your poem. I think forgiveness is always something of a miracle whenever it occurs! And must always (and first) include forgiving ourselves. In your long section xi, it’s a woman who ‘pleads for forgiveness,’ but also a woman who grants it (that wonderful listing that ends with a note of unashamed self-reproach for not liking a chair!). And then the circle is completed when the speaker (or you, if I may) asks in beautiful simplicity for forgiveness from canary (someone once told me that animals in poems are always embodiments of the soul), body (one’s essential self), Mother (the source), and veneer (division into veneer and essential is where shame begins, maybe). Following this forgiveness thread in the poem feels like a way to catharsis and movement forward for this reader. And it’s prepared for at the beginning of the section with ‘I have admitted my sins…’ which, if I remember right, is the first step toward forgiveness à la Catholic confession.
(I’ll ask forgiveness in advance if I’ve gotten any of this wrong!)
So here’s where the poetry nerdiness comes in: after a poem’s worth of little short numbered sections, how did the longer section xi evolve, still fragmented but not separated out by separate numbers? What led you to that lovely flow?
Serena has been on my mind too. I wonder, did you hear the recording of her reading Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’? It is such a beautiful riposte to all she has to endure.
I started out the poem in the hope I could corral and contain some thoughts and existing fragments. I wanted to bring order to them. But I was aware of how when trying to express our shame, or to explain behaviour borne out of shamefulness, our order often breaks down. Some pockets of thought are inaccessible, sewn-up. Others are full of junk. So we trail off, turn back, pick up pace. The switch from numbering to using tildes to separate the fragments was a nod to to this: it at once a trailing off, a giving up (slump) and a liberation from keeping the argument rational and linear (whoosh!). That disorder interests me and allowing the conflict to remain intact and unresolved. I am reminded of Mary Ruefle’s essay ‘On Fear’ where she says ‘fear is desire’s dark dress, its doppelganger’ and the order (absolution through forgiveness?) and disorder (rage and shame?) are working for me in the same way in this poem, I think?
Yes! You describe that final abandonment of the numbering so well. It really is a kind of miracle gesture; it speaks so much to the way thought works: a desire to corral, to impose a final meaning, and the inevitable escape from the corral.
I’m thinking about your idea that order is a kind of masquerade of disorder, in the way that fear masks a hidden desire. In both cases, I think, obsession is involved. Whether you have a compulsion for order or disorder, you’re spending a lot of time thinking about systems or forms – in one case by putting it into practice; in the other by rebelling against it.
I’ve often thought that writers who confront inner chaos are attracted to form, traditional or self-imposed (like your short numbered sections). Your poem seems to go that idea one better by honoring both the form and the chaos. How important to your composition process is form (of any kind)? And how do you feel about chaos? Oh, and how much or little do you want to reflect that chaos in your poems? I appreciate the clarity in your fragments, and I also appreciate the chaotic progression, the lurching forward and circling back.
Off to listen to Serena reading Angelou now…
I love your expression ‘masquerade of disorder’ and it occurs to me it might also apply to your own poem we are discussing in another thread.
When I first started to write poems I tried hard to have a go at traditional forms, but there is something in my brain that couldn’t knit the rules & ideas together. I remember I once even sketched out a poem ‘pattern’ so I could visually see what I was supposed to be doing. As soon as I had to follow a set of instructions I couldn’t get anywhere. So I felt like I abandoned a sense of form early on; I didn’t get this joy other people did from working within constraints, puzzling the lines and rhythms out. What I hadn’t thought about then was that my poems were doing things formally anyway: this shape, this line length, lists, anaphora etc. I was even writing acrostics! But I perceived myself to not be ‘doing form’. I guess I was way more concerned with order than I let on.
It was risky for me – this poem. I realise some people might take against it – for many reasons, but principally might feel the construction too arbitrary and reject it as phony: like, oh come on you can’t just string all these snippets together into one thing! I guess my argument for doing it is to do with trying to reflect natural thought progression, the tolerance you have to develop for things being unresolved. Like maybe in this poem, the little runs ahead and turns back and differing feels of each segment are an attempt at expansiveness within an argument. Rather than seeking to confuse I’m trying to keep some channels open: a sort of commotion within the poem, a circular disruption to arrive at the right destination.
Personally, I find it’s the elements of mystery within this poem, within any poem, that make it a poem, that lift it beyond (and above) rhetoric. So the ‘arbitrary’ illogic of your form is one of the things that make your poem shimmer.
(And I enjoy the way you acknowledge the ‘phoniness’ in section ii. Whatever else I like poems to do and be, I like finding in them comments on themselves.)
I fear we’re pressing beyond (and above) our word limit. So maybe two more questions?
Yes! I am interested in phoniness (it seems to have cropped up in poems of mine before), acknowledging artifice and how it can both be a shield from and a way of focusing attention. The diverging tracks of thought and feeling in the poem are I guess a kind of ‘inside / outside’ trope maybe. And since you said it I realise I do that a lot! My thoughts and feelings are often not in accord, and bringing them both into a poem might be a means of giving texture to the argument (the nascent researcher in me is inclined to provide different sources of evidence), but also communicating wooziness and uncertainty. I enjoy doubtfulness.
The ‘is it finished’ question always keeps me alert. I was writing this poem last summer, as I was reading Bluets by Maggie Nelson and, I suppose, because I was so in love with that book and its form was so compelling to me, I had in mind I would write a really long poem-essay on forgiveness (which is unusual for me as I don’t often start out with a plan). It obviously didn’t turn out that way. I get angry at myself a lot when writing about lacking fluency, which is what I feel is required to have done that. The construction was much more juddery, more awkward (and maybe a little painful?). (Another reason the section numbering broke down I guess!) We have a mutual friend in Roddy Lumsden and when I was in his workshop group he would very quickly be able to decide if a poem shared was finished or not – some were ‘you need to put this in a drawer for a few months’ (code for: maybe you should abandon this) and some were ‘you just need to tighten the thread’ (micro adjustments). Because I didn’t meet my original ambition for the poem I found it harder than usual to know whether it was ‘done’. I knew I had come to the end of my breath with it, but I didn’t know whether that made it any ‘good’ or not. I felt nervous about it and chose to interpret my doubtfulness as a kind of growing pain, that with this poem I was (am) growing into a different poetics.
This is the second part of Amy and Kathleen’s conversation: you can read the first part here.
I was ashamed, but undaunted (my epithet?).
The heart is permanently gory.
I imbue all this pausing with great importance
but phoniness slides in like one more drink.
I reached too hard for courage
and pushed it further down inside me.
I reached too hard for the sparring part of me
pushed it beyond reach.
What did I remember?
I aspire to pure carcass.
Can it not be picked from the bones of me?
Boil my head when I go.
There is no one to look at my nudes.
There is no audience for my face.
I need to find one
before my body runs out.
Perhaps it is too late for my face already.
My head, there’s hope for.
Is this enough is this enough
keeps me awake at night.
Shame escapes like the white of a wave
frilly and loud on the shore.
I have admitted my sins;
my friend’s face is a glitch.
I watch and watch a clip where someone pleads for forgiveness.
She asks seven times.
That the floor is dimpled
by a friend’s stiletto heels –
I have forgiven the girl who shot dead
a man in the TV show
and I have forgiven the pavement
and I have forgiven the shark who tore
the arm from a girl
the dead hydrangea and the cat sick and the silk
that was snagged on the splintering wood
of a chair I did not like.
I have forgiven the lies I’ve been told that were intended to soothe me.
My enterprise has been: an attempt
to force emotion from things.
Feelings often lack structural integrity –
we’re all falling into each other.
My feelings can’t afford the plans I’m making.
Another hour wasted in compassion
for the screws in the bed frame.
I want to be in water
because it is so blasé regarding my desire for it.
I have now for some time been chewing
through thoughts, in the hope
of obliterating them. So to today.
Thoughts cannot be solved
especially if one focuses on the surface
rather than the effort of the root.
I pay someone to see to the roots.
‘Prone to’ but not ‘prone’.
Forgive me, canary.
Forgive me, body.
Forgive me, Mother.
Forgive me, veneer.
Some things become more beautiful in their abandonment but not me.
Please check I am very dead before saying goodbye.
First Published by Prac Crit.