Kiki Petrosino teaches at the University of Louisville, where I received my undergraduate degree. Though I wasn’t lucky enough to take a class of hers, I remember discovering her work in the library and thinking, “The person who wrote these poems is on this campus?” I keep her books within arm’s reach; one thing I continue to appreciate about her work is her insistence on writing into or from whatever spaces she feels are hers. In this interview conducted via email, we discuss how place and lineages (familial and poetic) inform her work, particularly in her latest collection, Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013, Sarabande Books)—Jeremy Michael Clark
Jeremy Michael Clark: During a recent conversation between the writer Claudia Rankine and the artist Carrie Mae Weems, Rankine said that where some people see her as a poet who writes about race, she sees herself as someone who writes about how people negotiate space, in which race necessarily plays a role. Like Rankine, I see your work as concerned with negotiating space. In your last book, Hymn for the Black Terrific, it seems to be negotiated, implicitly & explicitly, on different registers (personal space, familial lineage, historical narrative, space in the racial imagination of America, etc.). When I read that book, I get a sense that the boundaries are not set in stone. Can you talk about moving between these various spaces?
Kiki Petrosino: One thing that Claudia Rankine and I share is that we’re both women poets of color who are employed in academia. The university is a space that historically has excluded and underrepresented the contributions of African Americans—first as students, and then as faculty. I haven’t theorized my own work and its relationship to space, but I appreciate your hypotheses. I sometimes think of myself as a poet of “place,” which I distinguish from “space” in the sense that when I think back over my life, I first recall the specific localities where I’ve lived and how those places informed my sense of self and my poetry. Mostly, I have lived in white-majority towns and attended white-majority schools. But sometimes that’s neither here nor there (to coin a space-related phrase). What I mean is, it’s not the spaces I’ve negotiated so much as the places. For example: I was born in Baltimore and went to high school there. I never felt uncomfortable in the “space” of school (in fact, it might be my favorite kind of space to be!) but I don’t think most “Baltimoreans” would consider me a true native of the city, since I’ve spent most of my life as an outsider. Likewise, I spent two years as a high school teacher at a boarding school in Switzerland. Again: no trouble occupying an academic space. But I was an American in Switzerland, fluent in Italian (and half-Italian by heritage) but not an EU citizen or a Swiss. I was neither here nor there. So, my poems have become an occasion to talk about what it means to belong somewhere, or even “to be from” somewhere. Who gets to decide where I’m from or where I belong?
JMC:The idea of being “neither here nor there” is interesting to me. What comes to mind for me is a notion like, “If you belong nowhere, you can belong anywhere.” Growing up, my family moved a lot (although within the same city), so I don’t have a particular site to which I can nostalgically return or connect to my sense of who I am. I think (& maybe I’m projecting onto the world) there’s a general assumption that to be tied to a particular place is a more stable way of being. But, aren’t there ways in which that can be limiting? Having lived in various places, do you see a freedom in that?
KP: Yes, the notion of “being tied to a particular place” is, ultimately, just a story we tell in the long narrative of identity. No matter where I go, I’m still the storyteller trying to make sense of my experiences. And I guess that’s the story I’ve had to accept about myself: that language itself is my source of stability, that I’m always in the middle of another story, trying to find language for it. Of course, I’m sad that I can’t really participate in the “general assumptions” about home and identity. I’m quite envious of people who have a home place for their memories. Last year, I bought a house and I’m busily doing what everyone does: making it my own, a home place for once.
JMC: Your essay from earlier this year, “Literacy Narrative,” ends with the line, “Write about me.” And that “me,” in my reading of the essay, was both your great-grandmother’s voice & your own. In other words, to write about yourself necessarily involves writing about your great-grandmother, & writing about her seems to, in a sense, help you sharpen your sense of who you are—developing this ability “to hum in millions of intimate keys.” The boundary between self & other is, blurred in a way that feels, to me, like an opening, rather than an erasure. I hope that’s a fair reading, or at least an interesting mis-reading – can you talk more about this idea of speaking to (or through) the past, or the way the past speaks to (or through) us in the present?
KP: Very fair reading. Alverta was my great-grandmother, and I don’t have much memory of her. But from looking through photographs, and based on my closer relationship to my grandmother, I’ve discovered a strong (maybe even eerie) physical resemblance among myself and the women of my family. About 18 months ago, I embarked on a journey through the world of adult orthodontia to close a gap in my front teeth. Now, when I smile, I can see how much my facial structure resembles theirs: Alverta (my great-grandmother) and Cleopatra (my grandmother). Despite her rural upbringing, Alverta dreamed of becoming a city lady, and she tried to move to Washington, D.C. several times, but she struggled to support herself there. A generation later, at the age of 12, my grandmother left the farm in Virginia to continue her education in D.C. She lived with white families and took care of their children, while putting herself through school from grade 7 through college. It was hard work, but she got her teaching degree. I graduated from the University of Virginia, only 20 minutes from the rural county where Alverta was born. Like Cleopatra, I became a teacher. I feel that, through my life, their journeys are still continuing. Like: we’ve all been enacting different installments of the same dream. This sense may contribute to the feeling of blurred boundaries that you notice in my poetry.
JMC: In Hymn of the Black Terrific, “>your poem “Cygnus Cygnus” effectively revises the scholar Pythagoras, relocating poets not in the white “breastwork of swans” but “mostly in the feet of swans, black as drums / pressing our rageful webbing into the earth’s flank.” And you end the poem with, “Let no harm come to the dark you’ve made.” There’s an interesting comment on darkness here. Can you speak more about the inspiration behind the piece?
KP: I wrote it for a former teacher, Dean Young, with whom I studied at Iowa. The darkness I try to identify in the poem is my attempt to describe the darkness Young creates in his work (more than a dozen books and counting). I read his poetry as inherently dark, even when he’s hilariously funny in some pieces. But Young’s “darkness” is fertile, more like earthly soil, than the abyss of space. There’s a kind of gallows humor he deploys, especially when describing grief or loss. One of my favorite lines by him is “Your feelings will never change, you’ll just stop paying so much attention.” I love how that line acknowledges the truth of grief, which is that the wound never heals, you never really “get over” anything. What happens is subtler than that: you stop paying so much attention to that particular hurt and move onto something else (probably more hurts). The act of “not paying attention” to the loss is a kind of betrayal in itself. And in Dean Young’s poetry, we’re all betrayers; our survival depends on it. I think that’s a vital position for poetry to explore, precisely because it’s so uncomfortable to admit.
JMC: Wow, I was not familiar with this particular line, but I love both it & your discussion of it; I also love the idea of “darkness” as fertile, rather than a void. What you said makes me think of how inattention is often considered something negative; if one is not paying attention, it’s considered avoidance or ignoring. But you’re right, I think: our survival, our emotional health, depends as much on what we’re not paying attention to as what we are. Not that we necessarily forget, we just minimize or make peace with it; or like you said, we become consumed with other issues. But I think in order to get there, that attention has to be first be paid, right? We can’t just skip the darkness and the loss, right? Can we only look away from something once we’ve looked at it?
KP: We definitely have to confront our losses, no skipping allowed. But I’ve learned there comes a point when you risk losing yourself to grief. We’re human creatures; we’re supposed to grow from our experiences. Maybe we’re even hardwired for growth. Sometimes I’m surprised by my mind’s capacity to dwell on some hurts, while moving quickly past others. What controls that process, and who’s in charge? That’s what I think Dean Young is paying attention to in that line of his poem (“Opal”). I love how the phrase sounds authoritative, like a piece of received wisdom that we should already know. I think it’s mostly not true that “time heals all wounds,” but it is true that only with time can you look back on past hurts and understand >how that loss has (hopefully) helped you grow in caring, sensitivity, empathy.
Jeremy Michael Clark is an MFA candidate in poetry at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. His poems have appeared in Callaloo, Day One, Forklift, Ohio, and Pluck!. A Cave Canem Fellow, Jeremy is from Louisville, Kentucky.
Kiki Petrosino is the author of two books of poetry: Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013) and Fort Red Border (2009), both from Sarabande Books. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, The New York Times, FENCE, Gulf Coast, Jubilat, Tin House and elsewhere. She is founder and co-editor of Transom, an independent on-line poetry journal. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Louisville, where she directs the Creative Writing Program.