Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Kartsonis and King’s chapbook By Some Miracle A Year Lousy with Meteors (Dream Horse). The interview was recorded on June 14, 2012 and was transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Collaborative books make me obsessed with process. We could start with the poem “Shoe-Tree,” even just that phrase “shoe tree.” I’ll sense two different voices: one mimetic-tending, one more opaque. Of course both could come from a single author, but here I picture two people contributing, amid some primal scene, almost sexual. So where do these poems start for you?
Sophia Kartsonis: Cindy, can you remember? I think that was your line.
Cynthia Arrieu-King: What’s our first poem? The shoe tree poem?
CK: Let’s try to remember that poem specifically. Didn’t you . . .
SK: Oh god, that seems so long ago.
CK: One Christmas, over break, we started horsing around. We’d written ridiculous emails back and forth about Christmas cookies, then decided we should write a poem. No big discussion happened about how we’d go about this. We just alternated adding to existing lines, then soon gave up finishing whole sentences—leaving that as the other person’s problem.
SK: We didn’t plan to write a book, or even a poem that first time. One of us probably suffered a sugar low or nervous breakdown and the other kept kidding around. That’s all we need for our collaborations.
AF: So you’d begin with some line-by-line exchange. I’ve got a specific question about opening lines. This chapbook offers great ones, which provide a sense of traction, clearing shared space in which to operate. Like for “Into the Celery Doors,” I love: “Around the bodega its blunt black awning.” From “Fox Shoots Hunter in Belarus”: “Red weeds crinkling, a back taken up mountainous.”
CK: For the first poem you mentioned I think I started, but honestly I can’t remember who started that second poem. Once any amount of time passes we can’t recall necessarily who did what. This work seems to have come from some other place. I’ll sometimes think, that’s definitely Sophia. But I’ll often be wrong. Poems springboard out of conversations, or internet sites or whatever. We do this bird thing where we’re like: look at this shiny object and can’t we make something from it?
SK: Exactly right. And you did start “Into the Celery Doors.” Initially I couldn’t place myself. I loved that opening, since I so admire Cindy’s syntactical mysteriousness. We work quite differently. I’ve collaborated with people where our voices instantaneously grate. With Cindy, this third voice takes hold and we’ve made the thing and now can’t remember. Like for the “Fox” poem, we’ll assume Cindy started since that responds to a news article she found. I too will spot something and think, that’s a Cindy/Sophia idea, more than a me-alone idea. You can’t hog all the best prompts for yourself. It’s more as if oh, we could make that awesome.
AF: So had you collected and developed some material independently, before you started collaborating? Or does finding the material create a space that you two enter together?
SK: A different ludicrous-to-serious proportion occurs when I work with Cindy. I mean that in a loving way.
CK: Even with some aesthetic difference between us, we have this overlapping way to look at things. We’ll agree that the more absurd and grandiose a story sounds, the more we can mine it for a poem. We see it; we know it. It’s like shopping with a friend and saying that dress looks very you, or that dress looks very us.
AF: Nietzsche suggests that people formed corporations to start projects they’d never start on their own. They’d feel intimidated or ashamed or guilty by themselves. What have you tried here that you wouldn’t try solo?
SK: Cindy’s so brave and intuitive and trusts the reader in a way I don’t always. I’ve sometimes offered what a friend calls “run-on imagery.” I’d like to think I’ve tamed that. Cindy’s work employs the minimal amount of words to make an idea come through. So we’ll finish a poem with me not quite sure what we’ve said, and I’ll sense it says something pretty cool, but won’t know how we did it.
CK: I definitely feel the inverse. In grad school I called Sophia “The Maximalist,” because she has this wonderful big vision. Wherever I get stumped she fills out the space with amazing leaps and swoops of thought. We complement each other, with our thinking moved ahead in the process.
AF: You attended school together?
CK: Tell the man, Sophia.
SK: The University of Cincinnati’s Ph.D. program.
AF: Do you want to describe how you met? Did it take a while before you started collaborating? Could that only begin once you lived far apart?
SK: Of course this sounds cheesy, but I remember the minute Cindy walked in. I was . . . a year ahead? Did it work that way?
CK: I think so.
SK: Yeah, OK. She joined us for lunch. I first saw her in the hall at Cincinnati, wearing this fabulous green t-shirt. I refer back to that as “the moment” since it stays so vivid, as if the little-girl portion of me wanted to grab her by the shoulders and say, “You will be my friend.” It felt that instant. Then her poems, I loved her poems. But I couldn’t imagine she’d want to write with me because we did such different things—which helps explain why it works, I think. Also, in terms of background, we have immigrant fathers, this work ethic we’d both learned and resisted. But the conversation started over lunch and opened into humorous exchanges, which later took the form of emails, which produced the kind of one-liners that led to this chapbook.
CK: Sophia’s incredibly witty. Basically I’ll just want to hear what Sophia ends up saying about some of these subjects. But I also find it interesting, Sophia, that you’ve mentioned work ethic because I remember sending these poems to places where we wouldn’t have submitted on our own. Or places we previously did not get in. We’d be slightly begrudging the magazines for this. Still I’d send our poems and they started getting taken. Then we continued writing them sort of distractedly. We kept playing and didn’t have this work ethic going where we tried to reinvent the wheel, or earn an A. We goofed around and ended up places we couldn’t have reached consciously trying.
AF: Well in terms of what’s conscious and unconscious here, alliteration and assonance often seem to shape the poems’ trajectories. Do these aspects provide some stabilizing structure or momentum—the way jazz improvisation happens amid a tightly woven structure? I can give a couple examples. Again, from “Into the Celery Doors”: “Iron-scent / touches the ticket-edge before a run down stairs: / the dream of monotony gone, heads ascending / to some nightish-above.” Or lines like: “I have pressed my liver between panes of glass like / a souvenir shop wild aster.” I’ll also note many “I”-driven assertions, anaphoric constructs. Do you deliberately and/or intuitively establish sound parameters in which multiple voices can bounce around?
CK: I’ve definitely had moments when I said to myself: I’m slightly overwhelmed here; I’ll just repeat something to give it a direction, though I don’t know what direction yet. As far as alliteration and assonance goes, I think we kind of overlap there. Or you know how you’ll interject and take on the accent of the person you talk to a bit, just as this ball you pass back and forth.
SK: I like what Cindy said about how, work ethic aside, these poems came from the desire to play with a friend. I didn’t know if they seemed good, whatever I might mean by that. And I certainly didn’t think in terms of marketability. Sometimes I’d try to write a pretty line or one with strange sound repetitions because I wanted my friend to say oh, that’s cool—or that I was “bringing it” to our poem. So we’ll play, but playing at a level that includes respect and admiration for the other person as poet.
AF: You’re both polite. Everyone else I interview gives much longer answers, but I’ll sense you leaving space for each other. And repetition, within this chapbook, occurs in less obvious ways as well, suggesting a call-and-response-based enterprise. This could take the form of list making, or repeated constructions. I remember: “A cool green gate to pass under, a cool green pill / and bliss.” Or “A bamboo grove / of guesses: Should I be on this side, or the other?” I’ll sense a seam where the poem got passed from one person to the next. But do such seams really track your collaborative process, or have you shaped them to hint at, to depict a polyvocal performance?
CK: I hope my students don’t hear this, but I don’t think we’ve consciously thought that through. How about you, Sophia?
SK: I didn’t think so at the time, but am realizing, at least with some of those examples, that when I’d try to get my bearings with Cindy’s lines but wasn’t quite sure, or if I wanted to leave room for her to explore a thought, I might offer a restatement or make that list move—which allowed her either to expand the list or elaborate on what she’d wanted to say. I’d think, let’s leave a couple doors open in case she hasn’t finished exploring that, or in case she wants to riff for a minute on further possibilities.
AF: That’s great. In “Windshelf,” we find: “Feeling buoyed up, in fall, the maple leaves a library / that dandelion spores pause against / before starrily descending / to where you are sitting.” I’ll think I hear one poet opening a description that the other extends, then the first takes someplace else, then the other does, all amid luxurious syntactical profusion.
CK: Most likely that happened. We write the poem then do not fiddle much after. Somebody sends an email which says, I think that’s the end.
AF: Still I couldn’t help but assume this project required careful editing. In my own experience, editing often becomes the most difficult part to perform collaboratively. For some sense of stylistic unity, even a disparate unity, even an inconsistent tone, you’ll need a coherent vibe to keep it all together.
CK: We’d maybe cut one word here and there. One poem about a girl in a closet got worked to death.
SK: I remember, early on, Cindy started going back and editing up to the current line, treating the whole poem as if editing on her own. This became kind of cool because I’d read through then go, no—I want to change that back. And by editing I mean tiny things. But enough to switch a word, or she might have caught a tense shift. Soon I got in a similar habit. So by the time somebody’s email said “Done?” we probably were.
CK: Those edits I made without asking seem obnoxious. But Sophia would just restore things or say, how about this? Then she’d do what she wanted to do. More explanation, more debating might take all energy and fun out of the process.
SK: I think it does. Here we both could have a loose grip. I can’t collaborate with everyone and make that assumption, since people . . . even poets open to collaboration can get touchy in a way Cindy doesn’t.
AF: Back to the question of what you got away with here: for your individual poems, could you edit this loosely and minimally?
SK: That’s not how it goes with my work. I don’t trust my first gaze enough to consider a piece finished or polished.
CK: I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it much. I do keep a pretty loose grip on my poems. I like that phrase of Sophia’s. It makes sense with what we do. With my own work, I’ll try something which resembles moving furniture around. But I wouldn’t move a stanza with these poems.
AF: Did you feel a need to preserve the interpersonal exchange? Would more elaborate editing destroy that? Do you seek to provide some constructivist sense of how this finished project got put together?
CK: I want to keep a sense of fun. Sophia’s able to sound lighthearted and grave at the same time, and this helps to show that we are playing. She brings that. Sometimes I feel like the guy tightening the screws. But I don’t need readers to treat these poems as events or happenings, or footprints of what we’ve done. I’d like if our poems even could disguise themselves as poems by one person. What do you think, Sophia?
SK: First of all, Cindy’s selling herself short, because there’s absurd intelligence in the shorthand imagery she brings to our poems. She’ll create the staccato that . . .in one of my own poems I might strive for fluidity, whereas here the music sounds harmoniously discordant—pleasing to my ear because it’s not a pretty pretty bolt of shiny cloth. It’s this crazy quilt that doesn’t even limit itself to fabric, but includes tin cans, starfish and whatnot. That’s Cindy. Those lists of. . .
CK: Can’t we have it all? That would be me.
SK: Though then the poem breaks and moves to something else. And that break, that catch in the poem’s throat—with my own poems I might ask, why this hiccup in the middle of the poem? But in our collaborations, poems punctuate themselves then move toward another plot in a way I find dynamic.
AF: Are there, for you both, collaborative duos you had seen, particular projects you read that gave a sense of license, of how this could operate?
SK: We should go on record as collaboration whores. We both have worked with a number of people, right? And I had seen the performance of Joshua . . .
AF: Matt Rohrer and Joshua Beckman?
SK: Yes. They came to Alabama. I found that much more courageous than I could be, because it happened on the spot. But with us, I didn’t even think in the realm of poetry when we began. It felt more like chats, emails, keeping up a conversation in which we tried to stop each other from crying or made each other laugh or planned the next great food adventure.
CK: I definitely heard those collaborations back in 2000 something, at the Juniper Institute at UMASS. But also I loved not just the New York School poets, but hearing about New York School poets, about how much poetry became a part of their lives. Many people took inspiration from those ways of riffing off each other and competing in this funny way with each other. I’ve done challenges with Matt Hart and Hillary Gravendyk. And I’ve written some poems with Mathias Svalina. I’m sure there’s many more. Then I always return to work with Sophia and it’s just, you know, it doesn’t feel like a trick. It seems something we do together, a pastime.
AF: One question about form. Until “Planet Plaint,” near this chapbook’s end, every poem seems to fit a relatively familiar shape of couplets or free verse stanzas. Did other types of spatial variety, of formal variety, just seem unnecessary? Could you describe your sense of the space in which a collaborative poetics resides?
SK: Well there’s the joke about a poet’s first book needing to work through all required forms, just to show us you can. Even within my own manuscripts I’ll think, do the shapes and styles change enough? But again, the fun of assembling this chapbook was at first we didn’t know we’d be gathering poems. I don’t remember feeling very strategic about what their forms would be. If we decide to go with a larger book, we might try mixing that up a bit. We have 20 poems not included here. As many as that?
CK: At least 10 or 15.
SK: In part or in whole. Some seem quite different, presenting their own challenges.
CK: I think we maybe did one prose poem and felt funny not having line breaks.
AF: Here many phrases get hyphenated.
CK: That’s Sophia. If I see a hyphenated phrase I’ll think, there’s Sophia. Sophia comes at life with all this joy and thinks if we can make something new out of what we know, then let’s just do so and that will be our way. Sophia has this charming way of feeling like you’re her person or something. She endears people to her by generating a common language or common set of terms. I’d assume most hyphens come from that.
SK: Thanks for pretending I didn’t blow the whole thing.
AF: I’ll sense concord or compromise (in the best possible sense—like “composition”). But back to Cindy detecting Sophia’s presence: does an autobiographical “I” ever enter these poems, and what happens from there?
CK: I can’t remember if “The Small Anything City” made it into this chapbook.
SK: We had to pull it.
CK: That’s right. There we’ll both use “I” and become each other as “I.” We fluidly slip back and forth between separate autobiographical inspirations.
SK: Sometimes this “I” carries a wink-wink inside joke, with one of us knowing the other means it ironically. Interestingly, for the “Kathy Coles” poem, Kathy started off as Cindy King. Cindy found it incredibly—she’s just too humble. She would not let it stand. I loved it.
CK: It seemed strange to have a poem called “Cindy Kings” with you one of the people writing this poem. You know, like when you watch a movie and want to know what’s really real. I preferred it to show this weird way people become so tied together with their little name, which they didn’t come up with. And the person we named the poem after, Kathy Cole, she lived a real-life nightmare where a person in town had the same name as her, the same birthday, and their fathers had the same name. It took them years to realize they had the same social security number. That all created a giant mess. I thought she deserved to have her name atop the poem.
AF: So Kathy Cole is two people, rather than one.
SK: Plus she’s a delight.
AF: On the topic of how much you two get individuated in this book, how do you perform pieces live? Do they make for better embodied exchange or better reading?
SK: Here’s a confession: we don’t know yet how to read them. I’m thrilled to face that prospect, because it means I’ll get to see Cindy.
CK: Did we maybe perform one at Publico, in Cincinnati? I think we read back and forth and did this weird thing where I tried to remember who’d wrote what then it seemed ridiculous, so we just said screw that. But what you’ve done here, Andy, is to make us excited by that prospect.
SK: That’s what we plan to do tomorrow.
AF: Do you also appreciate the idea of an individual reader having to choreograph or orchestrate this whole scene in his or her head, without any bodily point of reference?
CK: These poems seem incredibly visual and compacted. So they do, I think, make good on-the-page poems. Especially for “By Some Miracle a Year Lousy With Meteors”: I think that poem’s ending really does something particular when you read it on the page. I almost wish we could run a scientific test, where certain participants know these poems are collaborative, but the control group thinks one person wrote them. I’d love to know how confused that control group gets.
SK: I kind of hope for readers to have the response Cindy and I feel when one of us says, “Done?” and we’ve got this incredible ending which takes you by surprise. I want a reader not to know where these voices begin and end, but just feel a cool chorus happening.
AF: Should we stop there?
CK: I think I’m good. I did want to say I felt inspired to collaborate by seeing two male poets (who will remain nameless) read together, and they had tons of fun, and I had this little thought like, why do all the boy poets get to do this thing? Fuck that. I want to find a friend and write poems and eventually perform them, and have our own fun. That’s something I thought of today as we went along.
SK: Oh no—that’s a great way to end.
Ariana-Sophia Kartsonis won the Wick Poetry Prize and subsequently greeted her collection, Intaglio, as it was published in 2006 by Kent State University Press. She is currently at work on a number of projects, as well as teaching amazing people at Columbus College of Art and Design. She lives out in Powell, Ohio where she cares for frogs, foster kittens and writes poems with Cindy King every chance she gets.
Cynthia King is assistant professor of creative writing at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. She began interviewing poets and writers from South Jersey and the tri-state area (New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey) both amateur and professional on her program The Last Word which aired in fall of 2011 and the spring of 2012 on 91.7 WLFR FM Pomona, NJ and will appear as a podcast on iTunes late this summer.