Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes! The subject of this interview is Karla Kelsey’s forthcoming A Conjoined Book.
Rusty Morrison: Here, in this text, are two books that are so inextricably intertwined. There are so many ways in which each one complicates, compliments, interrogates, intervenes in the other! Can you speak to how this project came about? And then some of the ways the subjects engage each other?
Karla Kelsey: In 2006, when I moved to central Pennsylvania, I had never lived so far east, nor had I—a native of Southern California—ever lived in such a rural area. What struck me first was the enormous beauty of the landscape, all trees and river: I felt I was living inside an emerald. Then I began to learn the environmental trauma the landscape had suffered, and still suffers, from the legacies and traditions of mining, lumbering and now fracking. Also, there are contradictions in such places where the wide, slow Susquehanna runs idyllically along small farms—but, between river and farm, container trucks zoom past both Amish horse and buggies and adult bookstores. At one point near Harrisburg the road crests through rounded green hills to a view of Three Mile Island. The first book, Aftermath, seeps in this landscape, foregrounding the embodied experience of beauty and rend. There is catastrophe tremoring under this book, but it remains unnamed.
After writing Aftermath I thought: What if the catastrophe were to be named? What, then, would happen to the language that I have on the page? How would it curve to an “aboutness?” The Grimm brothers’ tale, “The Juniper Tree” (wherein a step-mother kills her step-son and allows her daughter to take the blame), intrigued me because of its savageness; because of its questions of guilt and responsibility. Also, the boy’s bones, buried under the same juniper tree that shades his birth-mother’s grave, transform into a bird that avenges his death—an intriguing metamorphosis of innocence into the agency of the natural.
I re-worked Aftermath around this tale with the intention of revision—but in the end, I found that I had written a second book, Become Tree, Become Bird. A handful of friends were kind enough to read the two different books and to offer their opinion on which book was stronger. G.C. Waldrep, who shares this central Pennsylvania landscape, suggested that I put them together. I instantly loved this idea, for it would foreground what happens when narrative is introduced to landscape and embodied experience. The project became A Conjoined Book.
RM: The unnamed ecological crisis looms large in the first book, and then the human failing of the fable’s mother character looms large in the second. Was this an intuitive choice? I’m imagining that the concepts of crisis and cause/effect are “at play” here, and shift for you between the two books as a result of this. The concepts of destiny/fate seem at play, especially in the second book’s reflections on storytelling fables and folklore. I’m wondering if you can speak to these larger themes and their appearances in the text.
KK: This particular coupling of ecological crisis and the fable mother’s human failing was, on many levels, intuitive. In an early version of Aftermath I had fragments that suggested to me a submerged narrative of a child’s death: “the white square of silence / the push and the sunk like a stone.” I realized that the narrative suggestion was available only to my mind and I wanted to keep it so, rather than creating a through-line of story. I was interested in asking landscape and pattern to bear and unfold affective states, rather than the solid-state emotionality of narrative. I felt the particulars of a physical sense of loss were more important to the book than creating a narrative drama. But because this early, private figuring of loss-as-child was something that I thought quite a bit about (and ultimately rejected as a structure for Aftermath), the decision to use “The Juniper Tree” feels pre-figured, pre-determined, perhaps fated, by this early draft.
The phrase “the white square of silence / the push and the sunk like a stone” no longer appears in either of the texts, but when I think the words I am transported to a one-lane bridge over part of the Susquehanna; to standing on the bridge in winter, the smell of snow on water and the metal of the bridge rusting through paint; these physical sensations are conjoined with a feeling of irretrievable loss. This landscape and sense created Aftermath. Such moments of deep embodied feeling are sometimes caused by events, but are not encapsulated by the autobiographical—are not explained by an individual story of cause and effect. But storytelling forms, such as the folklore underlying Become Tree, Become Bird, create vehicles for telling fleeting, visceral moments, so that we can distill them and transfer them into a social form that allows for an experience beyond personal narrative.
While such vehicles create story, such forms as fable and fairy tale confront us with the fact of all narrative’s untellable and ever-changing components. In many ways “The Juniper Tree” is about the breakdown of story: The step-mother, instead of accepting the narrative in which she has killed her son, allows her daughter, Marlene, to conclude that she herself has killed her brother. But she also tells Marlene that this is a story that cannot be told. It isn’t until the bones of the boy transform into a bird, who performs the story in song and deed (not as linear plot) that the story forces its way out. And the tale itself exists as something that has been told and retold—and that has shifted in its telling. Become Tree, Become Bird is such a shifting, a re-telling of both Aftermath and “The Juniper Tree.” We seem to be fated to certain forms (think Vladimir Propp, to whom this book is deeply indebted, and his irreducible narrative elements), but we are also fated to never inhabit the same form in the exact same way.
RM: You engage many questions of aesthetics, using a deft exploratory lyric approach. Can you speak to your decisions regarding how and why this material came into the text? Can you discuss how you brought them to such elegant fruition? How do you see these concepts in conversation? Which poems/pages do you recall as being the most vexing to complete?
KK: A Conjoined Book owes itself to process. The book began via a narrowing of approach: Aftermath rejects narrative and concept in order to foreground landscape and pattern. Become Tree, Become Bird began by grafting, quite literally, fragments of narrative onto Aftermath. A Conjoined Book required deep editing of both books: Mere repetition of passages from Aftermath amid the story of Become Tree, Become Bird was not enough. Talking with you, Rusty Morrison, about the manuscript was essential to realizing that aspects of both texts could be further translated, modified and scaled back. Through such revision, Become Tree, Become Bird in particular opened to other genres: formalist theory, feminist theory, color theory, optics, biography, geology. The more I wrote into these volumes, the more they gained individual strength and the more they began talking back and forth with each other.
One of the most exciting moments of working on later drafts of the book was when I realized that I needed to create new “Shadow” components of the “Shadow/Source” poems in Become Tree, Become Bird. The “Shadows” that I had were fairly straightforward repetitions of language from Aftermath. I worked into these moments a little fragmented narrative that I had written the previous season in Budapest—a place with an entirely different physical and emotional landscape for me than the Pennsylvania of A Conjoined Book. In working this narrative into Become Tree, Become Bird, I felt I had discovered a true, symbolic version of the “unnamed” event catalyzing Aftermath. In this way, what helps to complete the “Shadows” of the second book is key to the mysterious conditions that set in motion the first book.
RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything about you that is not in the bio printed in the book, and that might give insight into your more personal relationship to this text?
KK: I hope that my thoughts (above) on process, landscape and embodiment speak to my personal relationship with the text. Living with the text and working and re-working so intensely, for so long, has allowed it to imprint and form me—just as I have imprinted and formed it.
RM: Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you reading currently?
KK: The “Source” page of A Conjoined Book lists kinship authors particular to this project—authors who layer the work, and if not for these authors, the book would not exist. Always I feel I am writing with and between Sylvia Plath and Lyn Hejinian. Rosmarie Waldrop, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Cole Swensen; Donna Stonecipher, Laynie Browne and Danielle Dutton are always important writers to me and they inform this book in particular.
Currently, I am working on a project that has me reading in three veins: architecture/ornament, empathy and imaginative work with a focus on Central/Eastern Europe. On architecture and ornament I read: When Buildings Speak by Anthony Alofsin, Owne Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament, Oleg Grabar’s The Mediation of Ornament and Mariusz Czepezynski’s Cultural Landscapes of Post-Socialist Cities. Anything by Neil Leach and Beatriz Colomina. On empathy I’m reading The Transmission of Affect by Teresa Brennan and Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Imaginative work that I’m reading includes the Romanian authors: Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding and Nichita Stănescu’s Wheel With a Single Spoke.
RM: You chose the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Can you talk about your reasons for your choice?
KK: “Moss” is by Ashley Lamb, a multimedia artist who I met in 2007 when she was in central Pennsylvania for a residency. At first sight I loved Ashley’s collages and have collaborated with her on a series of handmade chapbooks that we created for Kate Greenstreet’s work. Ashley made 40 or 50 small collages that I framed with textured wallpaper, and hand-bound into covers for the books. When Omnidawn asked me about a cover image, I instantly thought of Ashley’s work. I sent her the manuscript and she sent back to me “Moss,” which corresponds so wonderfully with A Conjoined Book: the birds in the upper left-hand cover in cut-out, the two figures in the foreground telling the tale, the green moss overtaking the image from the right. A wonderful Klimt in the Philadelphia Museum of Art gave me the idea for using a textile pattern to back the collage. Cassandra Smith knew exactly the sort of design to try, and masterfully connected all of the pieces on the cover into a fantastic whole that speaks to the book’s world of landscape, imagination and pattern.
Karla Kelsey is author of three books of poetry: Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary and Iteration Nets, both published by Ahsahta Press, and A Conjoined Book, forthcoming from Omnidawn Press. She edits and contributes to Fence Books’s Constant Critic poetry book review website. A recipient of a Fulbright lectureship, she has taught creative writing and American literature at the Eötvös Loránd University and at the Eötvös Collegium, both in Budapest. She is on the creative writing faculty at Susquehanna University. With Aaron McCollough she co-edits SplitLevel Texts, a publisher of contemporary innovative poetry and prose.