Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “O, My Charmer, Spare Me” feels very personal, powerful, and demands accountability with the use of “you” in each line and stanza. Do you see this poem as a rallying cry for justice? If not, what is the intention of using “you”?

Katherine Gekker: I’m intrigued that you’ve referred to justice, especially as a rallying cry, in this poem. It is not a concept I would have associated with my writing here. But your question makes me reconsider. Sometimes, for me at least, a poem sparks ideas and responses that weren’t ones I anticipated when writing it. So, perhaps justice here is both for cobras who have no vocal cords and whose mouths are sewn shut, as well as for any of us who haven’t been able to speak, who’ve not been heard, or listened to.

RR: The animal imagery is such a striking motif: present and serpentine. How did the snake and the charmer come to be instead of, say, a lion and a tamer?

KG: I’m an amateur pianist. I also have an abiding fascination with snakes, although Dickinson’s “narrow fellow in the grass” usually startles me. When I came across this piano piece by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the title appealed to me on many levels. I researched snake charmers, whose abuse of cobras led to the Indian government banning the practice in their country in 1972. I was shocked at how the cobras suffer in the name of entertainment, so I wanted to give them a voice. And somehow, that “you” became the “you” that has harmed and continues to harm each of us. An accusation. This poem came together very quickly. That’s unusual for me.

RR: This poem is sharp in its diction, using words like “frayed,” “jagged,” and “teeth.” What inspires you to write about or allude to discord?

KG: For me, discord and conflict are generally more interesting topics than peace and harmony. I look for words with a lot of hard consonant sounds, such as those with Anglo-Saxon and Germanic roots, because they amplify that sense of discord or conflict

RR: How do you approach writing poems that take you out of your comfort zone, and is there one in particular that did so?

KG: I almost never feel comfortable when writing! In this poem, I kept challenging myself to push through to the most uncomfortable images and language I could bear to put down on paper (“gulp my / own eggs”). It’s something I strive for, with mixed success, in form, subject matter, and voice.

RR: You were born in Washington DC. Could you share any hidden gems that tourists wouldn’t know about?

KG: A great favorite is north of Dupont Circle: the Spanish Steps. The Mexican Cultural Institute, which I only discovered this past year, has spectacular murals and a beautiful organ. Saint-Gaudens’s Adams Memorial, commonly known as Grief, in Rock Creek Cemetery. There’s a replica of it in the Smithsonian American Art Museum (easier to get to than Rock Creek Cemetery). Not too far from Rock Creek Cemetery, which is not near Rock Creek, are the Catacombs of DC, a replica of the Roman catacombs and a place to cool off during Washington’s hot and humid summers. For local, and often unknown, history of DC, the Anacostia Community Museum, one of the Smithsonian museums, but not on the mall. Recently rediscovered: The H St NE corridor. With streetcars! The Botanic Gardens. After visiting, head up toward the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and see the many specimen trees. The plaques are a mini history lesson.


Read “O, My Charmer, Spare Me” by Katherine Gekker in Issue 11.1.