Showcased Writer: Raphael Helena Kosek

Interview by: Deven McKinney

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

Poetry

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: Dorothy Barresi

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Interviewed By: Sterling Bax

“Walnut Acres”, “August Explanation”, and “Vegan Heaven” Published in Silk Road No. 10

Poetry

Dorothy Barresi has four published books of poetry, including American Fanatics; Rogue
Pulp; The Post-Rapture Diner; and All of the Above. Barresi has also been published in numerous
magazines, and been the recipient of many awards including an American Book Award.
Aside from being an accomplished author, Barresi is a Professor of English and Creative
Writing at California State University, Northridge.

“Walnut Acres” is such an interesting poem format. How did come about deciding to use
mortgage headings on each of the numbered sections?

You know, “Walnut Acres (with Cockroach)” is one of those poems that underwent so many
changes over the course of composition and revision that the end result still surprises me when I
read it. It began as a cockroach fantasia—several riffs on a tiny but powerful disruption of the
suburban surface. A little bomb going off: a cockroach reminds us that our veneer of domestic
control is really thin! And I was having a great time writing this theme and variation piece on the
suburban cockroach, and it was very arch in tone, but it lacked a sense of the imperative. That
poem was always in sections, but the idea for the mortgage headings happened in the revision
stage at a time when I was obsessing, along with the rest of the country, about the value of my
house (in the San Fernando Valley in north Los Angeles) as the economy was tanking. Am I
under water? Can I refinance? Can I control this chaos? Home value: one more kick in the slats of
the American Dream. About that time I was invited by the artist Lisa Bloomfield to participate in
a mixed media art show called “Considering Eden” at the Annenberg Community Beach House
Gallery in Santa Monica. So I began to revise “Walnut Acres (with Cockroach)” to read at the
show, and all of the parts came together: the mortgage headings, the staggered placement on the
page, the sparks of movement run up against the feeling of being hopelessly stuck. I think the
imperatives made themselves known finally, but it was a long process—about two or three years
in total.

Your poetry seems to capture the mundane aspects of life, but in an incredibly abstract
way. Is it a daily occurrence for you to see a moment and analyze it in terms of poetry?

Yes—that’s an occupational hazard for any writer: to see moments in life as material. Years ago I
was a pallbearer, along with my sister and brothers, for my grandfather, and we wore these
elegant gray gloves, which we were instructed to take off and lay on top of the casket as we
stepped away. There was something about the action of taking off those gloves and placing them
on the casket that set off a little alarm in my head: poem moment–even in the midst of grieving.
But often I don’t recognize the poetic possibilities of a moment until long after it has happened. I
once heard someone say that memory would not be possible without imagination. It’s the writer’s
imagination that makes a moment resonant.

The poem “August Explanation” develops a religious theme. What role does religion
play for you in your writing today?

Well, I was raised Roman Catholic, so the elaborate trappings of that particular faith practice have
found its way into my poems from the beginning. For me, there’s something ritualistic about
constructing poetic structures, and there’s a good bit of incantatory, prayer-like mystery in its
soundings. Art and spirituality arose at the same time in human history; that can’t be a
coincidence! But beyond that, the struggle between faith and doubt fascinates me. I’m always
setting existential church fires in my poems. As I say in “August Explanation,” “My origins are
out to get me.” On a literary level, God is the character to end all characters!

My favorite part of your poems is the shock factor from punching lines, like “we are all
gods to what we kill” in “Vegan Heaven.” Is there an intentionally dramatic element to
your poetry?

One thing I talk about with my students is the need to grant a poem’s speaker the authority to
make a strong statement. I think that’s one way a speaker is granted “sincerity”—even if the
speaker is dead wrong! And I don’t mean sincerity in the sentimental sense of that word (i.e.
authenticity), but sincerity as a kind of momentary confidence, even if the strong statement made
is contradicted in the very next line or the next poem! That doesn’t matter. What matters is
speaker position and speaker discovery over the brief course of a poem. What does the speaker
believe, and how does she arrive at that fleeting moment of certainty. In class we’ll read Louise
Gluck’s “Brown Circle” or the long poem, “October”
(or just about anything by Gluck, for that matter), or “Hansel” by Kim Adonnizio, and talk about
the power of a declarative statement. It’s shifty business! No narrator is truly “trustworthy,” but
the immediate power of a strong statement is indisputable. No matter how dispassionate the
declaration, it carries emotion directly to the reader. We feel, even as we investigate the speaker’s
motives. That being said, Gluck is capable of great subtlety or delicacy, and that’s something I
admire tremendously; I’d like to have more of that in my poems!

The images in your poems have a grotesque element. I’m curious about how you feel
about the images. I also love this part of your poetry, and when I’m writing for myself I
find the grotesque to be the most satisfying to describe. Is it similar for you or is there a
disdain for some of the darker elements?

No disdain at all! Like you, I love writing about the darkness right under the surface of daily life:
the ordinary gothic business of human nature and random fate—that’s a plotline I think about a
lot, especially as a mother. It’s morbid, and I don’t have any defense for that, but I will say that
I’m attracted to those elements because I’m an anxious person—a constant worrier, and art is one
way of exercising/exorcising that. As far as an attraction to the grotesque, I plead guilty. One
hundred percent! One reads Flannery O’Connor as a kid, or watches Rosemary’s Baby, or attends
a vigil on Good Friday, and boom: hooked.

Showcased Writer: Priya Chandrasekaran

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Interviewed by: Sophia Vadino

“Two Women” Published in Silk Road No. 10

First Chapter

Priya Chandrasekaran has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and has been awarded a New York Foundation for the Artist Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature. Her short story “The Stops” was published in the Spring 2010 volume of J Journal: New Writing on Justice. She is currently studying anthropology at City University of New York where she is writing her PhD dissertation.

I really enjoyed Two Women. The detailed, poetic descriptions create a very vivid image for the reader. What influenced you to write the piece?

As with much of my fiction, the words just began to flow from me.  I was compelled to write them down.  I think it was Alice Walker who said that writers are mediums for their characters; to me that rings true.  My fiction is very diverse – I can’t say I have “a voice.”  The characters and the way they emerge out of me are inseparable. Of course the words change in the process of revision — sometimes almost all of them. But the feeling, the cadence, the aura, the pace of a piece often resides.  I wrote this first chapter after returning from India and visiting my ill grandmother.   Though none of the particular events I describe transpired, I was haunted by the shared despair of grief, even for someone who has lived long or lived well, as well as by the chasm in how people are able to care for those they love simply based on their position in society.

Before writing Two Women you wrote mostly nonfiction. Why did you decide to start working on a piece of fiction?

I have written both fiction and nonfiction for a long time, and initially I was writing poetry.  It’s true that before beginning this chapter, I was completing a book of literary nonfiction based on my time in Peru.  But even then, I was writing stories. For me, the gift of fiction is that it is an exercise in intimacy and humility. It compels you to get inside the skin of another being, to lose yourself so to speak.  I am a better person for the effort, and I hope to always return to it.

Just the first chapter of Two Women was published in Silk Road. How is the rest of the novel progressing?

I have to say the project is on hold for the time being.  I just returned from a year in India for fieldwork in cultural anthropology. But I can already see how the fieldwork experience has brought me closer to these characters and the lives and worlds they inhabit.  They are waiting for me to meet them again.

When did you first get into writing? What made you want to be a writer?

I never wanted to be a writer – there was never really anything else.  I understood myself to be a writer since my mother gave me a journal when I was in second grade. I remember reading some of my first poems to relatives on my father’s side in my grandparents’ home in Trichy, south India. And when I was done, they applauded.  The house has long been demolished, but the place remains with me.  I think it was the encouragement at such a young age that forged this identity. I feel lucky for that, to know something essential about who I am.  The funny thing is that this identity has followed me, even when I’m not writing. Writing is a practice, absolutely, but being a writer is also something that has less to do with pens and papers or keyboards and screens and more to do with the way you experience and interface with the world. I believe there are writers who have never “written.”

You studied Anthropology. How has that influenced your writing?

I’m still studying anthropology, and currently writing my PhD dissertation in anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).  I see no divide between my anthropological pursuits and my literary ones – both have to do with being an ethical and political being in the world, with understanding myself in relation to others – not just personally but as someone who is part of a moment of history, who contributes to that moment and its future possibilities.  I can’t see characters outside of the reality of social, economic, political realities that divide and connect people.  I’ve always sensed that my labor towards a more just world would be quiet, but that’s not for lack of ardor.