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An Interview with Lissa Kiernan

Lissa Kiernan

Lissa Kiernan

Let’s say we’re sitting at a café in Brooklyn. Let’s say we’re drinking café au lait – and we’re talking about writing, about your new book: Two Faint Lines In The Violet – just out from Negative Capability Press. 

SBW:  Let’s begin in the beginning:  when did you start writing poetry – and what in your background led you to believe that you were a poet?

When I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan, enrolled as a flute performance major, I took a modern poetry course to fulfill a humanities requirement, discovered Yeats, and fell in love.

Both of my parents were artists, my mother a pianist and my father a photographer. I remember they gave me a poetry collection by Stanley Kunitz for a birthday in my early teens. Kunitz says that both gardening and writing poetry depend on the "wild permissiveness of the inner life" but I didn’t give myself that permission for a long time because, in addition to being an introvert, I resisted the negative stereotypes associated with poets. Narcissistic, depressive, neurotic, pretentious? That couldn’t be me! LOL….

I still prefer to call myself a writer who writes poetry, rather than a poet, since I also write essays and short stories.

SBW:  Place:  How has the sense of place played a role in your writing?

The abbreviated version: sorry, there is no abbreviated version. Place has played a tremendous role in this collection of poems. Here's how:

My father was diagnosed with cancer in 2003 and died from complications of his brain tumor four months later. During one of his three protracted hospital stays, he announced, apropos of nothing, “I’m not trying to be Erin Brockovich, but did you know that my closest neighbor also has a brain tumor?” I couldn't unhear that.

So I started doing some research and discovered that, in February 1997, under pressure from local watchdog group Citizens Awareness Network (CAN), the Massachusetts Department of Public Health had conducted a health study of the area where my father lived. Referred to locally as the Hill Towns, the cluster of eleven small, economically-depressed communities in the Berkshire foothills, including Charlemont, were chosen due to their location downriver from Yankee Rowe Atomic, one representing the greatest opportunity for exposure to the plant’s air emissions. Despite a dizzying array of disclaimers, the study—Assessment of Cancer Incidence and Down Syndrome Prevalence in the Deerfield River Valley, Massachusetts—nevertheless found statistically significant elevations in breast cancer, Down Syndrome, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the type of cancer my father had.

So there was this splintering disconnect between the lush, idyllic landscape where he lived, and this invisible, toxic threat that loomed around it. That feeling of the beautiful-terrible, the fortunate hazard, informs the first half of my poetry collection.

After he died, I finally gave myself full permission to write poetry. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but a need, moving my hand across the page, working its way through my grief.

Awhile later, I did make a conscious decision to pursue honing my craft when I enrolled in a workshop with Amy King at Poet’s House. Called “Making the Urban Poetic,” Amy posited that poetry was mutable enough to inherit the distinctive attributes of the cities in which its authors lived, and I play with that idea in the second half of my collection. These are poems more or less written from the point of view of a country mouse coming of age in, and coming to terms with, living in New York City, specifically Brooklyn, pre-gentrification.

SBW:  On poetry, in prose, in writing in general – maybe stories and plays, what formal devices – repetition, permutation, poetic forms such as prose poems, sonnets, villanelles, etc. are a part of your poetic repertoire? 

A lot of internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and awareness of meter and/or breath. Thanks to my early infusion in music (my mother was a piano teacher), my ear is pretty well-attuned to hearing harmonics and my heart fastened to pulse. Two Faint Lines in the Violet is primarily free verse, but includes several pantoums, two ghazals, a triolet, and a blues poem.

SBW:  In many ways your poetry is daring; you address the political ramifications of nuclear power plants and the sexuality of your father, how do you steel yourself to tell knotty, even dangerous truths about our human “being.”

One poem at a time. LOL. Seriously, though, it took what felt like forever before I began to find the words to disclose—even to myself—that I was writing poems that were also a form of investigative journalism into nuclear power. I was concerned that people would think I’d gone mad with grief, looking for someone or anything to blame.

However, by exercising due diligence and educating myself about the history of nuclearism, specifically that of Yankee Rowe, I began, tentatively, writing documentary poems about the energy plant, and, separately, elegiac poems about my father. Then it took yet another, steelier steeling, to write the poem that attempted to connect the dots, one that implicated Yankee Rowe, so to speak, as the scene of the crime.

As for my father’s sexuality, and other such "knotty" truths, that was somewhat less daunting. My father came out when I was 17, after twenty years of marriage and three children, and as shattering as it was at the time (1979, which was just before Rock Hudson's death brought about public awareness of AIDS) ultimately, his courage led to greater intimacy between us. Putting my own personal truths out there took a lot more nerve.

SBW:  Please explain duende – and its role in your poetry.

Sure...so speaking of personal truths, duende is a type of muse, though not the beatific, benign one we usually envision. It’s the muse that comes to interrogate us, to terrorize, to torture us into confession, to write the poems we're most afraid to write, the poems that might kill us in the process of writing them. Not all of my poems result from dancing with the duende, but I think some of the best ones do, such as “Census,” which I ended up making into an audiopoem. Other poems in the collection that are very duende is “Erratum, Last Line, Final Stanza” and "Dog Days."

SBW:  Who are your literary influences – poetry, fiction, nonfiction?

Poetry: Almost too many to name, both “the greats” as well as contemporaries. As for the greats: WB Yeats, Muriel Rukeyser, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman . . .

Fiction: Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Cunningham…

Nonfiction: Lewis Thomas, Rebecca Solnit, Anaïs Nin, Susan Griffin, Susan Sontag . . .

Playwriting: Samuel Beckett, David Mamet . . . Shakespeare! Hmmm. I notice that I can't list any women in this category.

SBW:  I notice in reading a number of Paris Review interviews which I enjoy and that serve as models for written interviews, many are of male writers.  Eavan Boland speaks of the influence of male writers, especially Yeats and Joyce.  Are women occupying a more viable position of influence in American literature today?

I am optimistic for the increased purview of women writers in American literature, though the numbers show that women are still underrepresented, not that we need numbers for confirmation. In my experience, women feel sexism and misogyny’s effects, however recessive and insidious, in and out of the literary arena, just about every day.

For me, the best way to counteract all that and stay positive is simply to keep writing, to keep trying to write better, to win better, to fail better (Beckett) to keep submitting, to keep mentoring and encouraging other women writers. I’m also heartened by the interest and admiration for women writers among many of my male friends, poets and non-poets, who readily self-identify as feminists.  

But in Ireland, Boland’s turf, and where I studied for two residencies during my MFA program, I gather it’s still a lamentable situation, though she and her contemporaries—Sinéad Morrissey, Medbh McGuckian, Claire Keegan—to name a few, are throwing down the gauntlet. Morrissey won the TS Elliot prize last year, for instance, and was just named the inaugural poet laureate of Belfast. So there’s hope, which makes me happy as an Irish-American woman.

SBW:  I know that you run a fabulous Poetry Cooperative, “The Rooster Moans.”  Tell us about it – how it began, what it does, and please mention The Poetry Barn.

Thank you, Sue! As a web developer by day and writer by night, creating a private, online space for writers to converse and share drafts of their work seemed like a perfect fit. The idea came to fruition when I was the poetry editor for Arsenic Lobster Poetry Journal. Each Lobster author received an invitation to join The Rooster Moans, where I led ad-hoc online poetry workshops. So our community was already writing at a very high level; Susan Yount, Maureen Alsop, Brenda Mann Hammack, and Chris Crittenden, all fierce poets, were early adopters. Soon, they offered to "give back" by leading workshops of their own. I recruited more fabulous teaching artists, and after obtaining my MFA, took The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative public.

Now we offer up to three workshops every month, free to gently-priced, on a wide range of themes: magic realism, ecopoetics, objectivist poetry, confessional poetry, ekphrastic poetry, the grotesque, the prose poem, the fairy tale poem, nuclear poetics, poems influenced by film, oulipo, conceptualism . . .the list goes on and on. I’m incredibly grateful to our teaching artists and our “moaners,” as we fondly refer to the poets who enroll in our workshops, many of whom are regulars, for their steadfast support.

Our next step is to find a physical space in which to hold in-person workshops, retreats, readings, and residencies. I envision a generous number of acres in New York’s Catskill Mountains, and am actively looking for our home, the centerpiece of which will be an eco-friendly barn made from boards branded with poetry! I’m super excited for this next phase, and our supporters have been enthusiastically cheering us along.

SBW:  What else would you like to say about writing / writers?

Someone once told me: if you can do anything else, do it! And that's not half-bad advice for anyone on the fence about writing. It's such hard work. But its rewards—self-knowledge, empathy, self-respect, love—for me, at least, dwarf the energy expended to reap them.

And for those wondering if you are cut out to be poet, I promise you’ll eventually know, instinctively, just as you know your own name. Because like family, you don’t choose poetry, it chooses you. And when you accept that, and all that kin demands, you’ll finally, ironically, arrive at a complex peace—simultaneously more energized and exhausted than you ever thought possible. Welcome home.