This interview with Kristy Bowen about her book in the bird museum was conducted during the week of May 11th, 2009 by eight poets: Christine Pacyk, Aaron Delee, Nicole Gallicchio, Andrew Galligan, Sarah Jenkins, Joshua Lobb, Lana Rakhman and Rose Woodson.
Q: In your collection of poems in the bird museum, you experiment considerably with form. During the initial draft of a poem, does the form present itself to you as a means to experiment, or is form secondary to either the language choices you make or the thematic significance you're going for? Did you have a specific goal in mind while putting the book together or was the layout the result of a natural tendency for you to experiment with language and forms?
Kristy Bowen: In most cases, those poems that play with formal constructs (glossaries, footnotes, mathematical equations) always seem easier to write, largely because one is basically limited somewhat by the circumstances of the form and those limitations are oddly comforting. The entire first section of the book, most of which was originally a chapbook called errata, was written as an exploration of "feminine" vs. "masculine" texts, or modes of writing, so I had a list of things that I wanted to try out--poem as etiquette manual, poem as textbook, poem as concordance.
Q: Going back to forms, do you find that you are able to express meaning or theme better in one form versus another? If so, which form do you feel most at home with and why?
Kristy Bowen: Lately, there has been a ridiculous number of prose poems, to the point where I've been trying to force myself to write something else. The manuscript I am just finishing up is prose poem heavy, almost self-consciously so, and my newest project is actually a sort of novel-like thing in short prose pieces. Perhaps, having started out as a fiction writer, I've just come full-circle . All of the poems in my first book, the fever almanac, however, are broken into rather traditional lines and stanzas, and at the time, pre-2005, that was definitely what I was most comfortable with. I'm also convinced a lot of it has to do with what I find myself reading. Up until then, my knowledge of poetry was pretty limited to more traditionally, stanza laden poets like Sharon Olds, Rita Dove, and Louise Gluck. As I began to find myself drawn to more formally experimental work, my own work took a turn in that direction.
Q: In what ways has your work as an artist influenced your writing; conversely, how has your writing influenced your art?
Kristy Bowen: I think my delvings into collage art have had tremendous impact on how I construct a poem, as well as my gravitation toward the "series", several smaller pieces which form a whole. I was recently telling someone that very rarely do I find myself writing poems which stand alone. Even though they are hopefully enough to stand on their own when encountered by editors and lit mag readers, they are still very much dependant on the other pieces in the series to form a whole unified body. In some ways, the pressure to write a single poem that encompasses everything I need to say is way more pressure than I want to put on myself as a writer. Instead I like to approach it from different vantages, skirt around it, poke it a stick, with a shovel. As for process, up until maybe 2004, I always sat down with a clear idea of where a poem needed to go, maybe some vague images, some sort of idea of what I wanted to accomplish. Since then, however, I rarely sit down with anything concrete. I keep a journal filled with all sorts of bits and pieces--words, phrases images--the detritus of things I've read, seen, thought. I sit down and start melding a number of things together and see what emerges. It's somehow much more fun and less angsty for me as a writer to wind up with something I wasn't expecting to get and work from there, rather than something I am trying to do. Sort of like the difference between putting together a collage and trying to paint a portrait.
Q: Some of your poems take a very "modern" approach to an idea (i.e. "footnotes to a history of desire"). How do you define "modern" poetry and where do you see your poetry fitting into the larger context of "modern" poetry? Have you received any criticism for your more experimental pieces? For example, "footnotes to a history of desire" shatters most conventions of poetry; in fact, some may question whether or not it is actually a poem.
Kristy Bowen: I've never been very good at gauging where the line falls between more traditionally oriented poetry and more experimental or avant-garde work. I tend to view it as more of a continuum with poets like Billy Collins and Gwendolyn Brooks on one end and, say, Charles Bernstein or Christian Bok on the other. And even then there are variations in exactly how a poet is traditional or experimental--form, language, syntax, which is given more weight. In certain MFA workshops, no one got my work because it was too experimental. In others, I was told I was too traditional. I've been rejected from a journal because my work was "not experimental enough," yet always feel like there are certain journals that will think my work is way too far out there to the left so I don't even bother submitting. I tend to feel I fit best in more experimental-leaning publications, so that's where I send work these days. The footnote piece initially appeared in an online journal (alice blue) which tends to publish similar work. Even in terms of getting my books published, Dusie's tends to be very far to left on the spectrum, while Ghost Road, who published the fever almanac, definitely is more to the right. My third book, girl show, which will be out from them next year, is sort of a middle ground. There's not as much formal innovation as in bird museum, but the poems are much more based in surrealism that what I've written before, yet to the eye, look more like traditional verse.
I've also never been good with definitions of what is a "poem." I would venture a concentration, a distillation of language, text, image, idea, no matter what it looks like on the page (or even if it is on the page at all). Though I suppose this would mean all sorts of things could be a poem (a film, a performance, an installation.)
Q: It seems like some of your poems draw from local history (i.e. the "archer avenue" series)--what is your process of molding history into poetry?
Kristy Bowen: I am a research freak, so it always begins there. I tend to immerse myself in certain things for awhile. Sometimes, they become part of my work. I've always had a supreme love of ghost stories and legends, and Resurrection Mary has been on my radar since I'd read about her in a ghost book I checked out when I was 11. At some point I decided to do the project and totally read everything I could find, visited the area, took weird ghost tours. Again, it's a sort of collage process integrating the history into the work. The cool thing about urban legends is that there are so many versions of the possible truth that I could play around a little with this in the poems, even down to the narrative voice.
Q: Throughout the book, I read a relation between the many images of concealment and confinement with those of propriety, domesticism, or etiquette. They all seem to imply order, and one that's forced and not willful. How would you describe your use and treatment of these images?
Kristy Bowen: The thing that keeps surfacing in the book is that relationship between knowledge and danger, how confinement, be it societal, physical is meant to keep things safe and protected yet at the same time takes away their volition, their voice. This is especially true in the first section of Victorian poems, where everything seems to be seeking to contain, to partition the realm of female experience from something else, something darker that's sort of hinted at, but never revealed. The second section, the Cornell inspired poems, is all about women in boxes, in roles, forced into objects. But the problem with containment is that it's messy and never whole. There is always a movement towards transgression. There's always this tension between safety and confinement. Even in everyday modern life. A few years go, there was a week where every single story on the news was something awful happening to a woman or a girl. Found bodies, torture, abuse. (so disturbing I finally stopped watching the news for awhile.) In the third section, there's a turn in the book, where the containment starts to loosen, but the danger factor increases. The women move between being empowered and endangered and back again.
Q: The voice in this book seems to lurk behind the scenes. The voice can seem hidden as many of the poems are written double-textually, appearing as dictionaries, instruction lists, and other existing forms re-worked into poems. What is the appeal to you as a writer of poems that function this way? Is a clear voice secondary to drawing out and against a reader's inherent understanding of the way to read and/or use such texts?
Kristy Bowen: think, with all my work, in each book, there is probably not really one voice at all, but several. Even the poems that do fall into the category of seemingly objective modes--outlines, instructions, catalogs, still have their own sense of voice, and it's not always the same throughout. I think in some ways, such modes give the illusion of authority, which you get in other, more lyric pieces, but at the same time, they work to undermine that authority. I'm all about shifting identity, shifting senses of "truth" these days, especially in the new stuff that I've been working on.
Q: In many of your poems, there is a feminine presence, vis-à-vis, characters, description, even articles of clothing? Is this a recurring voice in your work? How did you come up with the reoccurring "dress" theme in your book of poetry? You seem to use that term to symbolize many different aspects of femininity, so how did you want your audience to interpret that word in the poems?
Kristy Bowen: I don't think I initially had any intention to use that as a symbol, or a recurring thing, but it just sort of wound up that, that dresses kept surfacing and resurfacing. They show up a lot in my first book as well, but perhaps less as a trope. I think there is a tension between that which is feminine, girly and something with a little harder of edge. There is also the idea of "costume" in the book, the things we put on willingly and the things which are foisted upon us. It doesn't help that I am a freak for fashion, vintage dresses in particular. My favorite things have an annoying tendency to keep reappearing in poems...
Q: Was there a real bird museum? How much time did you spend there?
Kristy Bowen: I had in mind, when I came up with that title for the poem, the sort of taxidermied displays that on sees in Natural History museums. That sort of canned song that they sometimes have playing in the background that sounds like birds but isn't. Everything so still and encased in glass. The poem the book title was taken from was written as part of the Andromeda poems that are inspired by Cornell's boxes, and there is a similar contained feeling to his work. Apparently, a couple of museums in the country are actually devoted solely to birds, however.
Q: How did you come up with the format of the book? Specifically, how did you choose the order in which the poems are placed, and why did you place the poem "footnotes to a history of desire" in the last section? And how did the "phobia" section, or section five, come about and why did you chose those phobias in particular?
Kristy Bowen: The overall book is actually a collection of several short series of poems, some of which initially appeared as chapbooks. I think within each section, each series and project had its own priorities in terms of form and experiment. The original manuscript layout, when I put it together, and when it was accepted for publication, had everything mixed together, with no defined sections. It was also considerably shorter and did not include the Resurrection Mary poems, nor all of the Cornell-inspired poems. When I started looking at it again, however, I realized that each poem had more resonance when placed next to the poems they were initially written with, rather than scattered throughout. And sections made it a little easier on the reader, as well. Once I was dividing it up, I decided to add in all of the andromeda poems, the Archer Avenue poems, both series that were written outside of the big project, and weren't initially part of what I was thinking of as my next full-length book, but that still nevertheless fit in thematically. Although I didn't name each section, I still sort of in my head consider the first poem in each section as a sort of title for the section. "footnotes.." which was originally in the feign chapbook and could have gone in the middle of the book just as easily, somehow seemed to be a good makeshift section title for the last handful of poems that were more about relationships and desire, so I thought that might be a good opener. The phobia poems were the last section I wrote, and I suppose I was looking, as I wrote them, for fears that tied in with rest of the text, as well as things which I have tiny fears of myself--madness, time, numbers, drowning. (I am not actually afraid of the color red, erythrophobia, but it's a color that makes me uneasy (part of my weird synesthesia thing). I didn't even know there was a word for the fear of it though it until I read one of Simone's poems, and found it.) The entire series really started with the red poem and snowballed into an entire batch of them.
Q: How does a poem begin for you? When and how do you decide what form you'll use for a poem? How do you title your poems?
Kristy Bowen: Usually, I will sit down with my notebook of snippets, words, ideas, and images, and just start making connections, trying to find some thread, some rhythm, that pulls the poems along and builds it from nothing. Sometimes it's easy and I have it right away, other times I have to dig for it. The form usually, as I mentioned earlier, usually comes rather organically from the feel of the poem, unless I set out with a specific idea to write specifically in a given form. I have this list in my notebook of titles (for poems, for projects, for books) that come to me, so sometimes I'll choose a title and try to write something that works with it.
Q:What words do you not like/have an aversion to/is cautious about using? Do you have any writing rituals? Is there anything you need to do to sit down and start writing?
Kristy Bowen: I was once told in a workshop to never use the word "dark" so I proceeded to try to work it into every poem I wrote for about six months. I don't like abstract concepts very much, words like "truth", "faith," "love" since they don't really have any resonance besides what you fill them with, which ideally would be the concrete stuff of the poem. I tend to get a lot of writing done either during downtime at my day job or late at night right before I go to sleep. (I'm a night-owl and barely functional in the morning, so writing then is so not an option.)
Q: Why do you go into cataloguing/listing with poetry? What are the pros & cons you see with it?
Kristy Bowen: I think cataloguing/listing, is one of the things that I do to get a poem moving sometimes. I like to leave the reader to draw their own conclusions from the lists farther than inserting any type of authorial voice into it (though it's there if you look, it's hard to get away from it even when I try.) I think the imaginative capabilities for the audience, who is then charged with doing some of the work in the poem, is very fulfilling, at least in my opinion as a read, in terms of making connections, drawing narrative, etc. However, it's also seems sometimes like the text then becomes too much in the readers control and that the poet is less in control of the interpretation. I sort of like that tension, however, so I like to use that technique a lot.
Q: Who do you read and what are some of your influences? What do you do to overcome writer's block?
Kristy Bowen: Lately I've been reading a lot of contemporary poets. I just finished Brenda Shaughnessy's Human Dark with Sugar and Robyn Schiff's Revolver. I bought a whole stack of stuff while at AWP and haven't had nearly enough time to get through all. Influence-wise, I have to admit I owe a whole lot to Plath's work and quite a bit to Sexton. Oddly, when I first began writing anything of quality (not the 4 or year so before that when I wasn't) it was actually The Wasteland that really broke things open for me. I suddenly want to be able to do the sort of things that Eliot did so well. These days, I read a lot of younger, contemporary women poets.
Kristy Bowen's work has appeared in Diagram, Caffeine Destiny, Cranky, Another Chicago Magazine, and others. She lives in Chicago where she dabbles in collage/text/book art, edits the online zine, wicked alice, and runs dancing girl press. Her chapbook, feign, was released by New Michigan Press and another chapbook, errata, is available from her website. One of her full-length collections, the fever almanac, is out from Ghost Road Press, which will also be releasing her third book, girl show. The book featured here, in the bird museum, is available from Dusie Press.
From in the bird museum
another cautionary tale
This one begins with girls,
candied and small boned as mice.
Begins in kitchens or hallways.
On the phone or in cars beneath picnic
blankets. When the killer comes
from the bushes. From the closet.
From the backseat of a blue Cadillac.
The girls line up like a seam. Fight back.
Fashion a rope from their hair, a compass
from a compact. When their date goes
for gas, they stab the psycho with a nail file,
hide the evidence beneath pink twin sets,
harbor something black and lush as licorice
beneath their tongues. Swallow the man
with the hook, the stranger inside the house.
When left alone, poison the boyfriend
and bury him beneath the cellar. Slaughter
the narrative, read it backwards like the gospel.
The dirty, dirty word in their mouth.