Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Kim Garcia
The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: In “Mountain Aubade,” specific images like “wild dogwood” and “spider silk” allow you to conjure a sublime scene in very few lines. Did you have a particular location in mind when writing it?
Kim Garcia: I wrote “Mountain Aubade” while on a fellowship at the wonderful Hambidge Center for the Arts in the mountains of Georgia. It’s a place I’ve been many times, and it feels like home. I like to use the world immediately around me whenever possible. I’m wary of writing poems only from the remembered world or the world pre-mediated through art. I like to take these things (art, memory, rite) and test them against whatever the day brings—the action of the landscape as a living thing.
RR: The imagery in “The Dead Wait on the Living to Go on Living” is incredibly compact and nuanced—it could be interpreted as religious, too. What was the inspiration for this poem?
KG: The starting place for this poem was in a prompt a friend, Sue Roberts, gave me one winter’s day in Boston. It was a list of things she wanted in the poem, and I followed it like a recipe, letting the unconscious choose according to intuition. Then, of course, the shaping and cutting took place. I had to ask myself what had just happened on the page. That process usually takes place over a period of years. I work on the poem, then I walk away from it for a long time, then come back and look at it as though it were someone else’s work. If it’s not alive for me each time, I let it go. I don’t always work like this, but something of this quality of knowing nothing, of having no point to prove, is what I trust in writing. It’s what I crave, actually.
I am considered a religious poet, and I see why. I write with reference to Old and New Testament stories, and in my first book I wrote many poems in the voices of Biblical characters. It’s clear I’m writing from within a tradition. But it’s a tricky term, “religious.” I’m not interested in theology, although I respect the work of theologians. Bad theology, like bad law, is very destructive to the fiber of human relationships. But I’m interested in faith, as it is quickened by painful states like doubt, despair, and fear, or vulnerable ones like raw joy and forgiveness. That’s its cutting edge, not beliefs and ideas. If readers come to my poems to find beliefs ratified, they will be disappointed, I think. My hope is that if they come to feel in company with a certain yearning open to whatever is, doubts and all, I will meet them there if I possibly can. It’s an intimate, human exchange.
RR: Alliteration and assonance seem to be common traits in your writing. What do you think those traits add to your writing? Have you always enjoyed playing with these traits, or are they something that you fell into later on in your writing career?
KG: I love the sound of Anglo-Saxon verse, and you hear that in the alliteration. I think you use what you love before you think about what you’re doing. It’s only recently that I’ve started to ask myself about where that might have come from—working class roots perhaps?
RR: How important is accessibility of meaning in poetry? How hard should a reader work to “solve” a poem, if at all?
KG: I think accessibility or connection is everything in poetry, or in any of the arts for that matter, but there are so many different ways that we access and connect. There are poems that I connect with deeply and immediately, while the meanings are still unclear. It’s like seeing something fascinating behind a scrim of fog. I return again and again to those poems, and they reveal more. I think what I’m experiencing is the freshness I would have felt as a very young child, hearing this gorgeous babble emerging that is drawing me on with glimpses of meaning. It isn’t nonsense, by any means, and you can feel that. And you bring your whole experience to it in order to fill in the gaps. Many times the poem is enacting an experience you haven’t yet had, but you can start to sense how it might be. In that sense you are getting supra-accessibility—you are connecting with a life you haven’t yet lived. That’s what poetry can convey to us through its music and power. It returns us to the plasticity of our childhood minds when language was fresh and we stretched for it out of fascination and desire.
I don’t like the sound of “solving” a poem. It suggests that poets sit around coming up with obscure puzzles for other people to solve. Perhaps this idea gets started when we are in school, constantly taking tests on the theme, rhyme scheme, and ideas in a poem. It’s treating poems as obscurely written essays. Poems are closer to songs. If I were asked to take a quiz explaining the lyrics of Radiohead, I would fail it.
On the other hand, it’s helpful to understand that poems benefit by reading them through two or three times before expecting yourself to get them. They aren’t coming at you, forcing themselves on you like advertisements, propaganda, or websites monetized by grabbing attention at any cost. It’s more like meeting a person. You don’t know them in the first five minutes.
If you plan to read a poem three times—once to get a sense of where you are, the general drift of the communication, second to get a little clarity on certain images or words that are new to you, and finally letting the full symphony of language play—then usually a poem will fall open for you. And once a poem has connected with you, it is yours forever. You can return to it again and again over the course of your life, and it will go on nourishing you.
RR: If we were in your poetry class on the first day of the semester, what would we hear when you introduce your class?
KG: I would probably say something about reading poetry as a writer, letting yourself fall in love as you read. Students are used to cramming for information, for what can be tested and graded. I encourage them to linger and listen to the way poems change the silence around them. This is the foundation of writing fine poems yourself, and it is essential nourishment.
“Mountain Aubade” and “The Dead Wait on the Living to Go on Living” appear in Rappahannock Review Issue 2.1.
Kim Garcia, author of Madonna Magdalene, is the recipient of the 2014 Lynda Hull Memorial Prize. She has been featured on The Writer’s Almanac, and her work has appeared or will appear in Crazy Horse, Mississippi Review, Cimarron Review and Subtropics, among others. She teaches creative writing at Boston College.