Rappahannock Review Poetry Editor: What was your inspiration for “Mushrooms”? Was this based on an experience from your life?
Karla Keffer: “Mushrooms” was based in part on my grandpa, who worked on a celery farm as a child, and who was very laudatory of both the process of working the land and the people who worked it, whom he considered some of the most genuinely good people he had ever met. The Creekside Mushroom Mine is a real place in Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh. Although I’m from Pennsylvania, I never visited there myself, but I still fondly remember the episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” when he took a trip down the mine and came home with a crate of mushrooms. The images all came together one night as I was eating mushroom stroganoff. This was about a week after the massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. I have only a very little bit of Jewish ancestry going way back, but I’ve always felt keenly the tremendous horror suffered during the Holocaust, even though I have no proof that any of my own relatives were killed in the camps. But I felt so strongly about the confluence of the images that I knew I had to write them down.
RR: This poem uses several repeated images, imaginatively linking the people and the mushrooms. Can you talk about how you developed the imagery and the imagistic echoes in the poem?
KK: They emerged very organically, if you’ll pardon the pun! I wish I could detail a more concrete, conscious process when it comes to developing images and rhythms, but I’m the sort of writer who, when they’re accessible, they’re there in twelve-dimensional technicolor, and when they’re not, I can’t get them out with a safecracker. I think a lot of how I develop echoes and rhythms has to do with growing up with two parents who were musicians, and with being a singer myself and absorbing repetition and rhyme.
RR: What is your creative process in writing poetry? In your bio you mention that you are working toward a PhD with a focus on fiction—can you talk about your approach to each of these genres?
KK: I’m very much a visceral sort of writer – if I don’t feel something emerging organically, if it doesn’t feel like an extension of myself, it’s very difficult for me to write it. My approaches to writing in both genres aren’t dissimilar; they’re very much both a heart-on-my-sleeve approach. I think a big part of the challenge in working from the gut is in shaping and reshaping from a more detached perspective so the work retains craft, so it isn’t simply a matter of throwing a bunch of stuff on a page and hitting “post” like it’s Facebook. Revision isn’t typically easy or enjoyable for me, but it’s the sort of thing I’ve learned is absolutely necessary if you want to have a successful piece, so I’ve learned to grit my teeth and do it as best I can. It’s crucial to have a supportive, intelligent community to help you do that, and with whom you can talk about your difficulties.
RR: We understand you’re an assistant editor for the Mississippi Review. How has your position as such changed your process and considerations when writing?
KK: I think it’s at once made me more empathic and more discerning. I never forget that there’s a person on the other side of that story, and as such I try to remember my own vulnerability when asked to open up and make art. But it’s also taught me a great deal about what makes a piece successful, which is usually a certain emotional depth that I strive for in my own writing. I think, above all else, editing, and reading students’ papers, too, has brought home to me the necessity of revising, because while we all want to hammer out that brilliant, cathartic piece on the first go, we have to accept that that almost never happens.
RR: Given the recent rise in overt anti-semitism in the United States and the themes of “Mushrooms” – what place do you feel art, specifically poetry, has in informing and commenting on these kinds of issues?
KK: I think art has more of a place, and more of a right and responsibility, than ever in informing and commenting on injustice and hatred. Art has a way of insinuating itself into people’s brains, and hearts, in a way that making pronouncements against hatred and injustice doesn’t quite achieve. We need to make art right now, so much art. These are terrifying times. We’ve forgotten the lessons of history; we’re forgetting our humanity. Art keeps us human, keeps us feeling. We need to keep creating so we have something for future generations to return to, to learn from, so they, too, can create and humanize themselves and each other.
Karla Keffer’s work in Issue 6.1: