Showcased Writer: Raphael Helena Kosek

Interview by: Deven McKinney

“Landscape Sans Christina” Published in Silk Road No. 10


Raphael Kosek, a Hudson valley native and English Professor at Marist College and Dutchess Community College frequently delivers beautiful ekphrastic poetry. Her 2009 chapbook, Letting Go, was published by Finishing Line Press, and includes several O’Keeffe-inspired poems.   She has written and published many ekphrastic poems, finding inspiration in the paintings of Homer, Rousseau, Inuit stone cut prints, and many others. “Landscape sans Christina” is a beautiful example of Kosek’s ability to communicate the human experience, capture another artist’s medium and style simultaneously using only her impressive mastery of language. In this interview Kosek reveals a little about what shapes her work as well as a small glimpse of her process that so magically allows her words to captures so much in so little a space.

What was your first piece that was published? What set this piece apart from earlier submissions?

There was a long hiatus in my writing life, so a brief background is necessary.  I started writing poetry at age twelve, continuing through college where I did a creative thesis of my own poetry at Vassar.  After marrying, teaching high school English and raising two children, I returned to poetry in my forties as I fully began to understand that I would die a bitter old woman if I didn’t.

So I had a lot of catching up to do.  With a masters in American lit, but no MFA, I read all the contemporary poetry that appealed to me and joined a local writers workshop.  I believe that life has been my “MFA,” and also reading lots of good contemporary poetry.  The first poem I published was in the mid-nineties about four years after I’d returned to writing poetry, and it was called “Landscape/Lifescape” which ironically bears resemblance to “Landscape sans Christina.”  I had been sending out poems before that and they probably were not carefully pruned and focused.  Dorothea Lange said “Art is an act of total attention,” and this surely applies to poetry as well.  “Landscape/Lifescape” was full of “real images” of a lake my family frequented during the summer, a place I came to love, and the poem is about the connection between nature and human nature.   Much of good poetry comes from keen observation and also listening.

Did your process change after that first publication or did it remain the same?

I don’t think there was any change, but learning to write good poetry is kind of like learning to breathe: we think we know how to breathe, but if we begin to think about it, become conscious of every movement, direction, nuance, we gain a larger awareness of the process.  Image is so important in a poem and I fall in love with the images in paintings because painting is all about the strength of image and its implications.  A poet and a painter both work with a blank canvas.  The page is our challenge; we have to make people see and feel what we see and feel very much like what a painter does.  And poetry accomplishes that through images; sensory images are our colors, shapes, landscapes, portraits. Then of course, there is the music of the line, the breath, the pause, the sound.  But I am very interested in that connection between painting and poetry—and that is the importance of image.

What about American artist Andrew Wyeth inspired your piece “Landscape sans Christina”?

This poem came together from two different but related sources: Wyeth and my mother.  My mother always complained about the lack of people in the landscapes in my living room, sort of accusing me of a penchant for lonely or forlorn places.  When Andrew Wyeth died in 2009, an article in the NY Times recollected that he once suggested that he should have just painted the field and left Christina out of “Christina’s World” so that we should “sense” her presence “without her being there.”  This startled me at first as this is one of America’s iconic paintings, but I understood that he meant the real subject of the painting is not Christina, but the setting, her “world.”  And by the very landscape, the colors, perspective, wide expanse of that field, we get that the subject is the loneliness, the barren hardscrabble life with a cold sea on the other side which we cannot see, but certainly feel.  We feel both the dignity and stoicism of living there.  And a poem should work the same way by subtly conveying feelings and ideas through its images.  But of course if he had left Christina out, we would not be talking about “Christina’s World” and there wouldn’t be a jillion posters of this iconic painting. We are interested in humans because they are us.

In your piece “Landscape sans Christina” you seem to have captured some of the Wyeth style images. Does your process usually involve inspiration from other artists or do you take the inspiration as it comes and draw from all sources?

Good question!  Of course, I find inspiration in many sources, but I have to admit that images speak strongly to me as I have nearly a hundred ekphrastic poems (poems inspired by other works of art).  I went through a difficult period in my life around 2000, and happened to go home over that summer with a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe.  I started collecting books of her paintings and the obsession grew so that I was writing on average two poems a week inspired by her work.  Many of these are published and finished, but I am still working on several of them that are “not ready.”  So it was natural for me to turn to other painters.  Some say that is cheating because you are already supplied with an image, but I think it speaks more to the quality of the painting that is so rich and offers so much to interpret and spin off of.  I came of age during confessional poetry and although I admire a lot of it, I have always felt uncomfortable in that genre– so that may explain why I like to reveal the inner through the outer—a spectacular image, not that I haven’t written some very personal poems.  All good art posits an idea, feeling, or question which goes beyond the art itself.  So in responding to a painting I am trying to harness in words not only the concretes, but the emotions and the abstracts that the work strongly suggests and run with them. But not all my inspirations are visual.  Recently I overheard someone telling a friend that he had gone swimming with horses at a dude ranch.  This piqued my curiosity and I asked the stranger about what he meant.  He provided a few details and this become a s poem called, (no surprise), “Swimming with Horses” which appeared in an animal-themed issue of The Chattahoochee Review.  I think a poet has to be shameless and ever vigilant.

What is next for you as a Poet? Other genres?

I have written a few lyric essays, and am currently exploring the flash nonfiction genre which intrigues me as it has a lot in common with the condensed language of poetry.  I read a lot of nonfiction and there are a lot of excellent essays out there that range from the personal memoir to narrative, environmental, and the lyric essay. I love the variety and the idea itself, that to essay originally means “to attempt.”  Of course, I will always return to poetry because I am a sprinter at heart, and trying to say what cannot be said, or what is beyond words, is the most spectacular challenge, and I will never tire of it.  It’s also a lot of fun.  Speaking of Wyeth, I have a full-length poetry manuscript titled Learning Winter which is seeking a publisher, and my epigraph is a quote from Wyeth.  He said,”I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter.  Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”  Poetry is like that.

Showcased Writer: Victoria Kelly

victoria_kelly_photographInterviewed by: Bre Hall

“The Departure” from Issue 11

Victoria Kelly received her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, her B.A. Summa Cum Laude from Harvard University, and her M.Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin, where she was a U.S. Mitchell Scholar. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013 (Scribner) as well as Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, North American Review, Nimrod, and Hopkins Review, among others. Her chapbook, Prayers of an American Wife, was published by Autumn House Press in 2013. Her first full-length poetry collection, When the Men Go Off to War, will be published by the Naval Institute Press in 2015, as the first poetry collection in the Press’s 100-year history. Her debut novel will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2016.

How and when did you come to writing?

I have been stories and poetry for as long as I can remember, but it was while I was an undergraduate at Harvard that I began to think it was something I could pursue seriously. I was fortunate enough to take classes with wonderful writers there, including the poet Peter Richards and the novelist Katherine Vaz.

What was the inspiration by your prose poem, “The Departure”?

This poem is actually a true story. My father is a very intuitive person, and not long before my grandmother died, unexpectedly, he had a dream that my grandfather, who had died a few years earlier, came to get her. They had been married for over fifty years when he died.

Why did you choose to write the “The Departure” as prose poetry? Did you know it would be a prose poem from the beginning?

I set out with the intention of making it a prose poem from the start. I knew I wanted to compile a collection, and I wanted to experiment with different styles of poetry. I had been writing a lot of verse before that, and I wanted to do something different.

What genre of writing do you prefer? Is your other work similar to “The Departure” or different? How?

I also write fiction and earned my MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Fiction. My debut novel is coming out with Simon & Schuster in 2016, and my debut story collection will be published with Queen’s Ferry Press that year also. The Naval Institute Press will be publishing my first poetry collection, When the Men Go Off to War, in Fall 2015.

How have you grown because of writing?

I cannot imagine doing anything else. Writing allows me to feel like my “work” is something I am actually passionate about, something worthwhile. I also have a one-year-old daughter, and another on the way, and it is something I can do while also being a mom.

Showcased Writer: Fernando Manibog

fernando_manibog_photoInterviewed by: Bre Hall

“Warm Sand, Endless White” in Issue 12

Fernando Manibog holds a Ph.D. in energy and resources from the University of California-Berkeley, a master’s degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University, and a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies from De la Salle University in Manila, Philippines. He has recently completed graduate certificates in journalism and evaluation from Georgetown and George Washington universities. He was an energy economist at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. for 27 years and presently works as a part-time consultant. Currently, he takes writing workshops at the Bethesda Writer’s Center, participates in creative writing groups and studies at the Studio Theatre’s Acting Conservatory. His work has been published in Silk Road Review, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and the Bethesda Writer’s Center Workshop and Event Guide.

What compelled you to write your nonfiction piece, “Warm Sand, Endless White”?

My archenemy from elementary school provoked it. We in the diaspora were trying by email to organize a big reunion in our Philippine hometown when suddenly he asked: “How many of us are still around?”  I was shocked by the responses.  Husky Nora and Hunky Rudy, Frisky Nick and Flaming Jimmy—they and many more have died in their early-50s, done in no doubt by too much pork fat and fried rice.  Only the carrot and celery eaters were left standing. When I got the final invitation, a big snowstorm hit Washington D.C.  So there I was, an empty nester digging mounds of snow alone, missing those fiery characters from my childhood—my kindred spirits who ignored many rules to grab the pleasure of the moment. I had to write about it.

How and when did writing become part of your life?

College, I guess.  I enjoyed writing term papers.  So much that classmates bribed me to do theirs. But my Aha! moment came when my Philosophy professor assigned us a paper on existentialism, and graded my piece an “A minus with a grudge, because this is a literary, not an academic piece.”  Not wanting to go hungry for the rest of my life, I peddled the academic writing part, and secretly wrote journals to quench the literary part. It was only in these past 10 years when I finally got out of that shell and started taking creative writing courses at the Bethesda Writer’s Center.

Do you write strictly nonfiction or do other genres interest you as well?

Fiction has interested me recently. It is tough, I must admit.  I fearfully watch the hard, lonely work of the budding novelists in my writing group.  I have so much to learn from so many amazing and exciting writers out there.  How did they do that?

Does your background in energy and resources ever appear as a part of your writing? If so, how?  If not, why not?

Oh no, never. I am trying to ramp down that office-bound Ph.D. part of me actually.  It was a professional life that was wrenchingly surrendered to pleasing others. Life’s last trimester should be fully and creatively mine—to play.

On a daily basis, what inspires you to write?

People.  I love watching people as they morph behind appearances and pursue their barely concealable goals.  I love them funny or strange, heroic or vile.  I can’t stop wondering what 11 million tons of gray matter could possibly hide and might reveal.  That’s from 7.3 billion earthlings each having about 3 pounds of brain.  Except that dreams and secrets are probably not in the head, but in the heart. And that can’t be measured. So I write to find out how deep and eternal it all can be.