“A NAGGING COMPLEXITY TO KEEP US SEEKING AND AWAKE”: INTERVIEW WITH KARLA KELSEY
by G.C. Waldrep on April 2nd, 2014
(After a hiatus, we continue with our series of interviews with AP contributors and others. Karla Kelsey has just published her third collection, A Conjoined Book (Omnidawn, 2014); her sequence “Vantage of Landscape and Soft Motion” appeared in The Arcadia Project.)
AP: We included the sequence “Vantage of Landscape and Soft Motion” in The Arcadia Project, but in A Conjoined Book it’s spread out through the manuscript, as one of several components. How did the sequence evolve, in your mind, as it shifted towards periodic resonance in the manuscript as a whole? And what’s at stake when the title shifts, in the second part, to “Vantage & Graft”?
KK: As the sequence became part of Aftermath, the first of A Conjoined Book’s two books, the poems became architectural support for the book, more or less evenly-spaced across the volume and serving as place for other components of the book to move towards, through, away from. As such the sequence became more fixed, pillar-like, rather than being a form that flooded from one to one to one. At the same time, though, the poems became multiple in the way that they couldn’t in their anthologized form: in Aftermath one can read them as they arise in a linear motion through the book, but because each of the poems has the same title, employs the same form, has the same number of lines, and comes out of a continuous emotional register, I hope they also invite reading as a sequence. I’ve always harbored a fantasy, akin to Mallarme’s, of books that want reading, on a physical level, in multiple ways.
By the time I began working on Become Tree, Become Bird, the second of the conjoined books, I knew that the series would act as architecture and so began working on the poems by grafting the narrative of “The Juniper Tree” onto the already-existing series. Because I didn’t want a loud repetition of the “Vantage of Landscape & Soft Motion” series I first rewrote the poems backwards, sentence by sentence, and then began cutting them back, incorporating the “Juniper Tree” text along the way. It very much felt like pruning, grafting, trellising. “The Juniper Tree,” like many folktales, unfolds in three parts and the “Vantage & Graft” series writes through the middle section. Other forms in Become Tree, Become Bird are responsible for the first and last parts of the tale which, in my retelling, are more echo than narrative.
AP: For all its formal innovation, A Conjoined Book is also an opulently gorgeous text, in terms of music and especially diction. What do you see as the relationship between beauty and innovation in the work, or in poetry generally?
KK: In innovative circles, it often seems to me, beauty is not fashionable and is something that one is supposed to be suspicious of. (However, I think this is more of a critical/rhetorical point of view, because there is such beauty in so many innovative texts.) But I grew up in the dance world where beauty is inseparable from all of the big questions, emotions, articulations. And there, it is not classical-ballet-accesses-beauty-whereas-experimental-forms-do-not: Swan Lake has its beauty as does Pina Bausch’s Vollmond as does Merce Cunningham’s XOVER. Beauty accompanies pain, joy, dissolution, repetition.
And so I suppose I’ve never really understood the impulse to expel beauty from innovative forms: sure, when we get into static aesthetic objects that bow down to received concepts of beauty, I get it. But this calcification can happen with any gesture: the rude, the ugly, the sweet, the spiritual, the intellectual. The thing that gets me about beauty is that it can accompany these other modes and, when true, complicates them rather than canceling them out.
AP: The second half of the book takes the terrifying Grimms fable “The Juniper Tree” as its point of departure. At what point in the composition process did you discover or rediscover this tale, and what was at stake, for you, in appropriating it?
KK: In hindsight I can psychoanalyze my choice of folktale, but this is less interesting than the various stories that surround the tale: the Grimm brothers’ project of collecting folktales; the figure of Philipp Otto Runge, who first recorded the tale and who also was a painter who invented a “color sphere,” much admired by his friend Goethe, to explain the relationship of colors; the narrative Vladimir Propp develops in Theory and History of Folklore to explain why folktales require telling and retelling, allowing reader participation in their unfolding. These subplots appear in my book and became what’s at stake, along with wanting a form-content relationship to appropriation that makes it a deep-tissue necessity of the book.
I wrote Aftermath, the first of the two “conjoined” books, first. Always with this book it was important for me to resist telling. Aftermath, as its title suggests, comes out of catastrophe—out of what I think of as an unnamed personal/ecological rupture, but I wanted the book to work into the fracture-lines of “after,” to push against the impulse to package breakage into story. Such packaging always has felt uncomfortable to me, perhaps too easy or something I couldn’t trust myself to do in a way that didn’t turn complexity into something unfaceted. On top of this: what a remarkable range of experience, expression, affect we miss when we jump right to narrative telling.
After I had worked on Aftermath for some time I found I wanted to contend with the question of what happens when narrative starts to build, to weave fracture into sense. I had the idea of rewriting Aftermath, but weaving a narrative into it that would both absorb the reader and make clear to the reader that story-telling is a construction that takes place after event. But how to do this?
The problem was solved by appropriation. Using “The Juniper Tree” allowed me to make overt, from the beginning, the constructed nature of the story. Clearly the events of “The Juniper Tree” did not happen to me in any sort of literal way, which created the space to allow them to also speak to the way tales are formed, told, transmitted, passed down. And then came your brilliant encouragement to publish the two books together as one.
AP: Like most fables and folktales, “The Juniper Tree” opens itself up to a variety of interpretations–including the ecological, as a murdered child is transformed through its incorporation into a tree and then into the call of a bird. Can you comment at all on how this tale engages with the natural landscape? Would it be fair or unfair to say that A Conjoined Book might also, and profitably, be read as an ecological gloss or parable (among other things)?
KK: One of the questions I had when working on Aftermath was about the relationship between the ecological world and narrative. It has often been pointed out that the concept of nature, for instance, is a construction that doesn’t necessarily serve the non-human world. “Nature” has more to do with human need and desire than it does with the world as it is in and of itself. And while we “know” this I don’t trust that we act of feel or believe as if we do. And so how to create space for aspects of experience that certainly impact humans but aren’t essentially or only human? How to work in the mode of human and non-human cycles, fissures, growth, decay?
Folktales and mythologies create compelling ecological parables because they cannot be read literally–there is no mistaking these acts of artifice for whatever it is we have told ourselves we point to when we say “environmental” or “ecological” or “natural.” Folktales come out of cultures working closely with the earth: though I doubt folktales hold answers they require us to loosen our grip on our own engrained stories of cause and effect, the natural and the supernatural. There is an immediately sensuous, visceral quality of folktales: their vivid colors, animal noises, attunement to objects, stunning violences. But, within the experience of the tale there are no easy answers and plenty of nagging complexity to keep us seeking and awake.