Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: The characters in “Martha and Tooter” are so charming! What is the significance of those two names and how did you approach bringing them to life? 

Joshua Kulseth: There’s a colloquialism in my neck of the woods which describes some older women as “old birds”, and it’s usually somewhat derogatory (though only playfully so), and has the meanings “fretful” or “easily disturbed” and the like. Well, my mother of course named these two chickens after my grandmother and great aunt—two women I love dearly, but about whom it could easily be said have the tendency to get worked up, often over small matters. As I said in the poem, it was funny to me the way the chickens reminded me of their counterparts in real life, and that absurdity certainly inspired part of the poem (though the incident with the coyote was the direct impetus), but I guess having observed chickens for much of my life (as well as my relatives), and the connections I made between the fretfulness of both, led me to select images and themes around that same kind of busy-body-ness—clucking and scraping at corn and gossip, and the like.

RR: The extensive detail focused around getting to the chicken coop creates the feeling of an epic journey within the poem. How did the narrative unfold in the writing of the poem?

JK: Well, I’ve been influenced by a number of poets, and while I can’t remember the exact inspiration I drew from, I remember being particularly moved by Elizabeth Bishop’s poem about Ezra Pound called “Visits to St. Elizabeths” wherein Bishop utilizes this same buildup of momentum to eventually come to the conclusion, allowing for the repetition of phrases and images to lull the reader into a kind of sleep, and that’s what I remember wanting to do; I wanted to, yes, create a journey for the reader (though I don’t know if I thought of it as a journey at the time), but more so use this hypnotic-type rhythm to lull the reader into a cozy sense of security (much like the chickens), only to have them arrive at the end where the chickens are eaten.

There’s a tragi-comic sense of one’s security being violated. Chickens evoke the image of a rustic, calm, steadily-paced farm life, and I wanted to ruffle the feathers (if you’ll forgive the pun) of this image.

RR: The chickens getting eaten at the end, which perhaps should be a somber moment, feels playful. How did this come to be the tone for their death?

JK: Well it’s a funny story which I tried to capture somewhat in the poem. My mother named the two chickens after my grandmother and great aunt, and so one day she texts me and says “Martha and Tooter were eaten by coyotes” and for a split second of panic, I thought she was referring to my grandmother and great aunt, and I was understandably distraught until I realized she was actually talking about the chickens. So, compared to my relatives being eaten by coyotes, the reality of the situation wasn’t very sad to me at all (and it took on a comic tone as a result of the mixed communication).

RR: We understand you’re currently pursuing your PhD in Creative Writing. Can you talk about that experience and how it’s impacted your writing?

JK: Oh boy the PhD. First, let me just say I’m abundantly grateful for the opportunity to be back in school, and especially the opportunity to teach (teaching is the reason I went back for my PhD).

That being said, it’s been the hardest academic challenge of my entire life. As a PhD student we spend two years in course work (meaning we take literature courses and such, aside from our workshop classes), while also teaching two courses, so much of my time has been spent writing critically about literature or teaching, and as a result my creative writing output has suffered.

However, it’s been incredibly useful for establishing contacts in the literary world, and for garnering critical skills to be able to broaden my academic horizons. I suppose it has sharpened my writing, since I don’t get as much time (or don’t have as much energy) as I did during my MFA, and as a result the poems I’m writing now are perhaps more pointed toward the themes I will be working on for my eventual dissertation.

RR: Do you have any new projects or pieces you’re working on these days?

JK: I’m always working! Seamus Heaney compared the writing of poetry to dipping a bucket into the well of oneself, and he adds, once you’ve tasted what those waters contain, it’s impossible to stop going back for more. So, I’m constantly exploring and growing as a writer, plumbing the depths of whatever there is to discover in myself or the world around me; always on the lookout for seemingly ordinary occurrences which cover the rich veins of shared human experience. For instance, I was sitting in the park yesterday watching a father hit golf balls to his young son (no older than seven or eight), and the absurdity of it (the boy had no glove, and golf balls are notorious hard to catch in one’s bare palm, not to mention hard to see in the glare of the sun) got me thinking on what meaning might be hidden behind it; what theme or meditation might this observation illicit, either about myself and my own past, or our shared understanding of intimate relationships. Anyway, it’s a work in progress, but that’s the kind of stuff I’m always on the lookout for.

Joshua Kulseth’s work in Issue 7.2: 

“Martha and Tooter”