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.