Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “Thoughts on a Haunting” intertwines the dark supernatural with a very raw reality. How do you see supernatural elements interacting with real-world emotions, and how do you balance that in a poem?

Molly Sutton Kiefer: My first dissertation topic (which I may or may not return to) was depictions of women and madness in literature—the madwoman in the attic notion. To me, houses are always haunted by something, though I’ve always been struck by how haunting can mean so many different things. I think we live in a world where we are haunted by so many things, and the literal and metaphoric blur. When I was in high school, my parents bought a house that had been a couples’ dream house, but that couple broke up before it was finished. Every time I went back to visit during college, I could feel the energy there. It was different. I’m trying to tap into those energies a space gives off when I approach a poem like this.

RR: Each stanza is numbered, and to us that emphasizes the sense of dread. Can you talk about how you landed on structuring the poem that way?

MSK: The first poem I read that employed this form was Lisel Mueller’s “Curriculum Vitae.” My default and favorite form is the lyric essay, so I’m always trying to get my poems to move there, and my prose too—why be linear when you can braid? I’m not sure if I was thinking about dread when I was writing this poem, but I like that idea, that there’s a kind of taking time in numbering, the tock-tock-tock that happens in a horror movie. My favorite poem that uses this listed form is “alternate names for black boys” by Danez Smith, but it’s doing something very different syntactically. I teach it every year, I love it so much.

RR: In your bio you mention you’re working on your PhD in literature with a focus on queer ecopoetics. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

MSK:  I am working on a PhD and having a blast! I’m doing it through Old Dominion, which has a summer residency program, and you are on Zoom for meetings during the school year; this lets me continue my work as a high school English teacher (I also adjunct on the side). I am still in coursework, which is where I’d stay forever if I could; I’m not getting the PhD for career advancement or change. I come from a family of PhDs, including my paternal grandmother, who is my hero, so I’m going for it too. I am a member of the queer community, but more importantly, I am raising a genderfluid child, and I’m at that age where I’m more concerned about the world they are inheriting than my own place in it, so I’m toying with the idea of exploring queer women / trans male poetry of climate / environment. I’m in the reading-as-many-books-and-poets-as-I-can stage, but we’ll see where I land. I keep cycling around disability and othering and voice. My first book was about (in)fertility and the body as medical object; I also have a lot of work surrounding grief cycles. Like everyone else, I’m interested in too many things. 

RR: You’re the founding editor of Tinderbox Editions, which we love. How did you get started with that work?

MSK: When I had my littles, I was a stay-at-home mama for both, who are only two years apart, for a good number of years, and I yearned for the chance to find ways to help people with their writing. My friend Brett Elizabeth Jenkins and I started a little literary magazine called Tinderbox Poetry Journal, which grew so fast. I knew a few people who had gorgeous manuscripts—Kelly Hansen Maher and Katie Rauk—and they were two of my first three manuscripts, and they remain two of my favorite books of poetry today. It fit a need I really was desperate for when I wasn’t teaching or being a student, and I deeply believe in finding meaningful ways to give back to the community that nurtured me for so long.

RR: Are there writers that influence your work in both your personal and/or professional life?

MSK: So many! The poem here is part of a collection called Dear Audre, in which I have a sequence of epistolary prose poems written to Audre Lorde and responding to her book The Cancer Journals. I go through cycles of reading, letting my different selves dominate what I’m spending time with—sometimes I can’t get enough fiction (Toni Morrison blows me out of the water here, I also love Margaret Atwood, Shirley Jackson, Barbara Kingsolver, Willa Cather and Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips got me working on my own first novel), sometimes it’s the lyric essay (Maggie Nelson, Christine Hume, Joni Tevis, Caroline Cabrera) and the essayists! (Sarah Manguso, Leslie Jamison, Annie Dillard, Gretel Ehrlich) oh, I could go on! There are so many beautiful writers in this world; I think I’d be content just reading, if we could turn that into a profession. I could be a professional appreciator of good writing. 


Read “Thoughts on a Haunting” by Molly Sutton Kiefer in Issue 11.1.

Molly Sutton Kiefer

Thoughts on a Haunting

1. They ask me if it bothers me, that someone hanged themselves from the beam in our basement.

2. This man fought wildfires before he died. He watched the prairies burn.

3. My mother is still living, but she is already masterful at haunting.

4. I say no, this isn’t the haunted house, not like our previous one with the man on the stairs.

5. When the previous owner moved in, the one we bought the house from, there was nothing in the house, but in the basement, there were offerings left in a ring on the floor where he died.

6. My mother’s aura crackles around her. When my brother-in-law first heard her diagnosis, he said he never thought he’d feel sorry for cancer.

7. I first saw the man on the stairs in the middle of the night, before we had children. He wore a suit, brown tweed, and was built squared, like my own grandfather or the old man in Up.

8. My mother told me the story of the man who traveled the world with his wife’s ashes, leaving a pinch of her everywhere he thinks she would have loved to see. I think, but do not say, my father would never do that.

9. The man on the stairs looked right at me when I sat up in bed beside my husband and cocked his finger, as if telling me come here.

10. I never saw any evidence, but sometimes I look up and wonder which beam he chose, which would support a firefighter’s load.

11. My mother is shrinking: the chemo has her hair in drifts, her bones, pocked. She is taking classes on managing her anger, but she is still angry.

12. I paint wildflowers on my wrists to show her: I will carry her with me.

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Molly Sutton Kiefer is the author of the lyric essay Nestuary as well as three poetry chapbooks. You can find her work in Orion, The Journal, The Colorado Review, among others. Molly is working on her PhD in literature, where she will focus on queer ecopoetics. She is the founding editor of Tinderbox Poetry Journal and runs the nonprofit press Tinderbox Editions. Molly currently teaches in Minnesota, where she lives on three acres of woods with her family.