interview with Steven Salisbury
Christine Kitano is a poet known for her books Sky Country and Birds of Paradise. She received her MFA from Syracuse University and her PhD in English and Creative Writing from Texas Tech University. I reached out to her to talk about her writing process, the job of poetry, and how her poetry has changed over time.
SS: In an interview with The Journal, you stated that “language itself is always inadequate,” which is a part of your piece “Insomniac in Love” that struck me the most. The lines that stuck out to me were “Let me say it how we’ve been taught / to say it: I love you. Or, I miss you. / These words that fail their meanings.” Can you speak a bit more about how the inadequacy of language creates challenges and opportunities for poets to do their work? I know you have said previously that “the poet’s job is to manipulate [language] to communicate that which cannot otherwise be communicated.” What are some of these ineffable things and how do giving them a name fulfill poetry’s job?
CK: Language is always a stand-in, an approximation. We’re taught to mold experience to language and in everyday communication this is adequate. Plenty of nuance exists; we understand “happy” as distinct from “cheerful” as distinct from “thrilled,” but the experience we actually feel is always only approximated by language. There’s a certain satisfaction in finding the word that best fits an experience, but often a single word is inadequate. That’s where metaphor comes in. Happy like pulling on a wool sweater on a cool day or happy like a red wagon full of puppies? There’s a difference, and every shift in diction and syntax marks a different emotional register. Metaphor and poetry allow us to access deeper complexities of experience.
SS: A lot of your book Sky Country focuses on your identity as an Asian-American. As that is how I got to know your writing, I expected that the poems of yours we would publishing would have similar themes, but they abandon this entirely. However, your style has remained the same. Your poems are largely driven by imagery and drawing meaning from objects. Is there a particular reason that the focus of your writing has shifted? Do you even see it as a shift? I have always been drawn to the idea of imagery moving us through pieces in lieu of a conventional “narrative” aspect. Do you find this affinity for imagery restricting at times? What are some things imagery affords us that narrative does not?
CK: I can speak more about my reading than my writing—when reading a poem, it’s usually the imagery that first captures my attention. But there’s so much more to a poem than an image. In workshop, we often say a poem has to “earn” the image, which may be too strong of a verb. But I do think a good poem should be more than an image with scaffolding. The whole body of the poem must work together. Landing on an interesting image is always a good start, but it’s the choreography of all the other elements that makes the image work.
SS: I have always been very interested in learning from other writers’ writing process. I would like to hear a little bit about what your process looks like. How many times do you write the same poem? Do you edit them a lot or just rewrite them entirely? Many writers have said that it is important to write every day. Is it important also to not write sometimes?
CK: I try to write every weekday for 25 minutes. I work as a professor, so depending on where we are in the semester it sometimes has to be less than that. I used to feel defeated about this; if I missed my writing time once, I felt I should just give up for the week, then the month, then forever. But now I make a point of getting back to it as soon as possible. During my writing time, I try to generate new work but usually just jot down sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, overheard conversations from the day, that sort of thing. I always begin these writing sessions with reading, and sometimes I spend the entire session reading, simply taking notes on lines I like from the poetry collection I’ve picked up. Then, maybe once a month, I take a Saturday and sit for several hours with all my notes and look to see where I have the beginnings of a poem. If I’m lucky I’ll find two or three scraps that I hope to flesh out into a draft. Once I reach that stage, I’ll work on each draft individually until they feel like poems. Each draft probably takes between a couple of days to a couple of months to find their “final” forms. This is a boring routine and most days feel hopeless. Every time I finish a poem, I feel like I’ll never write another one. But then I do. My luck hasn’t run out yet.
SS: Finally, I would like to know how you decide what is worth writing about. There are an innumerable amount of things that are difficult to communicate that do not surface in your poems. That said, I think your poems are largely imbued with a sense of sadness/yearning/loneliness in a way that captures my attention in ways that other poems do not. How do you tame these overwhelming emotions into obeying the rules of poetry, and how do you decide how you are going to represent them?
CK: My first artistic training was in music—I played piano as a child, then began cello when I was a teenager. I was never good or talented, but learning music taught me that art requires practice and discipline. Art is not scribbling in your notebook or pounding random keys (though of course, a piece of art can certainly begin this way). But art is learning how to take these raw emotions and shape them for communication. I hated piano because I felt I couldn’t communicate through the music. This was because I hadn’t practiced enough to have the skill to be able to communicate. Poetry requires the same level of study and dedication. I still “warm up” before writing, only instead of scales, I read poems. Reading what other writers have written is how I learn technique. I don’t ever begin a poem with the intention of “obeying” rules, but I am cognizant that I am writing for communication. Having a strong sense of tradition allows me to imagine how I might respond to the world.