This interview with Karyna McGlynn about her book I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl was conducted during the spring of 2010 by seven poets: Aaron Delee, Dane Hamann, Sarah Jenkins, Joshua Lobb, Christine Pacyk, Lana Rakhman and Virginia Smith.
Q: I enjoyed the many perspectives on the same or similar situations in this book. Where did the collection begin? Has it always been a collection? Did you recognize a theme and write to it, or did you realize you had several poems that belonged together?
Karyna McGlynn: The book started out as this grad school manuscript, Dark Rum Funnel, which was much more language-y and eventually split into two separate projects: The Mahogany Dimension and what's now I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl. The book didn't really start to gel as a collection, however, until I went to Ireland for the Moveen Residency. I had intended to use the residency to work on a different project, but instead I started writing a lot of new poems that had a similar feel to them, including 1994's title piece. It wasn't until I decided to use the poem "I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl" as the title that the theme and organization of the book started falling into place for me. I had been writing pieces that were thematically linked all along; I just didn't recognize the theme until that title was staring me in the face.
Karyna McGlynn: Film has always had a huge influence on my writing, but the way it informed this collection was surprisingly indirect. It's like the poem would begin with an image or idea that had been haunting me and only later was I able to track the image or idea back to a specific film. The poems inspired by movies in 1994 aren't really "about" the movies per se--rather, they come from the residue left from repeatedly viewed movies--something left unresolved in the movie that my unconscious worried over until a poem came out. Some of the connections were easier to make than others. I think there are probably at least a dozen more unattributed movies that inform the book; I just couldn't tell you what they are.
Q: In I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl you frequently experiment with form and structure, whether this means writing in couplets, playing with formatting on the page, or toying with spacing between words. Does the form suggest the poem, or the poem suggest the form? And are these forms specific to this collection, or is this something that you are still pursuing in your poetry? Do you format your poems after writing down the initial draft, or as you write them? In other words, the poems that play with the spacing on the page, do you construct them with the format in mind, or do you arrange them that way during the editing process? Do you ever worry that the structure may a inhibit reader from understanding the poem as you had intended?
Karyna McGlynn: I've always been interested in the way form can convey meaning or control the pacing and mood of a poem, but it wasn't something I really started experimenting with until this collection. If I had to choose, I would say that poem suggests form here, but in truth, I think content and form are inextricably linked. The poems in this collection, with only a few exceptions, arrived with form intact. That is, most of my first longhand drafts of these poems utilize the same form as the final drafts, so it wasn't something that I applied onto the poems later. At the time the poems were written I was experiencing a lot of emotional turmoil so I think the form was an unconscious attempt to exert some control over a situation where I didn't have any. Luckily, I think this ended up mirroring the book's main theme: fragmented selves trying to attain agency in predetermined and hostile landscapes. As to whether the form inhibits a reader's understanding of the poems as I intended them: I'm not too worried about this. If I had wanted absolute control over the reader's interpretation, I wouldn't have allowed for so many multi-directional reading experiences. Every poem has a dominant reading path, which is usually fairly intuitive (left to right), but not always (e.g. "The Poem with Its Teeth Caught in the Carpet"). I'm not concerned, though, if readers stray from that path. If anything, I worry that the mere presence of so many formal experimentations will scare potential readers away, or cause them undue anxiety as they read. Ideally, the form should create a sense of frustration and fragmentation on the part of the speaker while allowing the reader the pleasure of multiple interpretations.
Q: Due to the variety and depth of language in your poems and their layout on the page, the poems can sometimes be hard to follow. It seems that we, as readers, can choose whether to read horizontally or vertically. How do you organize your lines and do you expect your readers to read them in the pattern you intended?
Karyna McGlynn: I addressed some of this in the last question, but to elaborate further, the language and layout choices I use here are meant to assist rather than inhibit understanding. The visual experience of these poems carries much of the weight in terms of tone and pacing. For instance, if I were to reformat the title piece as a prose poem, I think much of the meaning would be lost. Form is integral to this poem's mood, as it is with the book as a whole. Like any other reader of English, I'm inclined to read left to right and top to bottom, deriving meaning from that direction. However, I've noticed that when reading poetry I derive additional meaning from constellations of words that radiate from the main path (I think I did too many Word Search puzzles as a kid). I'll fixate on a cluster of words/sounds by virtue of their proximity to one another. This is one of the things I find most pleasurable about the experience of reading poetry and was something I wanted to play with in 1994.
Q: In your notes section, you acknowledge several sources that you are responding to or drawing from. Some are contemporary sources, but others are fairly old. Even though you write with a contemporary style, what do you feel the benefits are when you use some of these older/forgotten sources?
Karyna McGlynn: The past is always present in my writing. I think the collision of old and new diction, sources and allusions is appropriate for a book that deals with time travel and our complex relationship(s) with the past. We are not purely products of our own time--we are a decoupage of memories, both individual and shared. I think this is especially true at the beginning of the 21st Century. We've yet to forge a new identity for ourselves--we're still a mash-up of 20th Century influences and anachronisms. I think it would be disingenuous to try to write without the shadow of the past century creeping onto the page. I don't even know what that writing would sound like.
Q: I think the titles you have chosen for you poems (and your book) are great! How do you come up with them? I noticed that some of them lead very naturally into the poem. Then, the opening line of the poem acts as a secondary line, oftentimes lowercased; kind of like the front door to one's home being left ajar, inviting outsiders in, but still a little unsettling. When you're writing these poems, are the titles initially within the poem or are they supposed to act as titles from the moment they are created? Or do you title the poems after they are completed? How did you choose the title of your book?
Karyna McGlynn: I like the way you compare the transition from title to first line to a front door left ajar; that's exactly the sort of effect I was going for. For me, a poem is born with its title, which is often inseparable from its first line. I find it nearly impossible to title a poem after I've composed it--the titles that result from such efforts almost always sound stilted or summative. I think a title should be part of the experience of the poem rather than a label foist upon it.
The title of my book came a bit later in the process-- when I realized that my working title no longer matched the direction the book was taking. I initially chose to name it after the poem "I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl" because I thought that was the most memorable and attention-getting title in the collection, but I quickly realized that the new title was the manuscript's raison d'être, and that was what helped me to finish and organize the book. Titling the actual poem came very naturally. I dreamed the events of the poem and when I woke up that phrase kept rattling around until I wrote it down.
Q: Do you consider the poems in I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl persona poems? If so, what are the advantages/challenges of inventing a narrative persona that bears similarities to the poet (age, gender, etc.)?
Karyna McGlynn: I've never considered the poems to be persona poems (there's too much personal psychological truth to them), but I also don't intend the book to be autobiographical. Of course, there is always the danger of readers mistaking the confessional tropes and similarities for autobiography, but I think there are enough supernatural, divergent and/or implausible elements in the book to frustrate that interpretation.
Q: It seems as if there is a single narrator in your poems (voice, style, diction is consistent throughout the collection,) yet, taken together, the poems seem to be telling stories (or story fragments) with many disparate threads. Was it your intention to have a single narrator telling fragments of one story, multiple narrators, one narrator piecing together fragments from different perspectives, or perhaps something else?
Karyna McGlynn: There is a single narrator of the book, but she reveals the narrative via a series of doppelgangers and alternate or past selves. These various incarnations of the self intervene in each other's timelines, and each possesses only part of the story. That is what gives 1994 its fragmented and amnesiac feel.
Q: Along with the way the poem begins with a second line, you often end the poem without any finalizing punctuation. Moreover, punctuation is sparse throughout the book. The lack of punctuation is made up in the way you utilize the page, leaving big rifts of space for pauses. Was there any leading factor in your decision to this approach?
Karyna McGlynn: This was a different approach for me. My poems tend to be punctuation-heavy. With this collection I allowed shape and space to set the tone for me. In a lot of the poems punctuation felt too fussy and "written." In Simone's blurb she states that the poems feel "channeled instead of penned", which was exactly the effect I was going for. I think the minimal use of punctuation, the use of white space, the addition of the Ouija theme, and the way the titles cascade into the opening lines all help to create this hypnagogic tone. Similarly, for the poems with no end-punctuation, I wanted them to feel as if they have no determinate beginning or end--that they continue to unfold into the white space and into the following poems.
Q: I loved your poem "Glass Backlog." The simple, yet powerful way you deliver the experience of violation is wonderful; especially with that last line: "There are mean boys touching my things". Out of context, it might fall flat, but to a reader who has undergone the momentum of the piece, it's horrific and lovely all at the same time. Do you remember or mind sharing the birth of that poem?
Karyna McGlynn: Thank you! Unfortunately, the genesis of the poem eludes me. I don't remember first writing it. That said, I recognize a lot of the individual elements that came together to form it. For instance, I had a menagerie of glass animals as a child. There were also twin boys named Chad and Stephen in my grade school (though they were never in my bedroom), and I would often look up so-called "obscenities" in my mother's college dictionary. The poem sounds narrative, but it's really much more impressionistic, which caused me some problems when I was attempting to publish it individually. Editors kept trying to get me to make the narrative more clear, but it's not a poem that's telling a story. Rather, it's conveying a plethora of nasty feelings that most people don't like to associate with childhood. I'm not generally so stubborn about revising poems based on editorial suggestions, but I was in this case.
Q: You entirely omit punctuation in many poems while using conventional punctuation in others. How do you decide which poems in which you want to use punctuation or not? What do you find most difficult about writing without punctuation?
Karyna McGlynn: I don't think there's anything particularly difficult about writing without conventional punctuation, but I do think it changes the tone and pacing of your poem immensely. Like any other choice a writer makes in a poem, it comes with its own set of concerns. For instance, in unpunctuated poems I think you have to give added attention to your line breaks and syntax. You also have to figure out whether the lack of punctuation introduces any unwanted ambiguities. In general, the poems in the book that utilize standard punctuation tend to be more narrative than the rest (e.g. "Would You Like Me to Walk Your Baby?" or "Amanda Hopper's House"). With the more narrative poems, I'm inclined to keep the punctuation intact. The dreamlike ambiguity that arises from foregoing punctuation didn't feel like it served these poems well. They are story-like, so I gave them story-like punctuation.
Q: When crafting an image, what do you focus on first, having language be more visceral or inventive (distinctly original)? You achieve both qualities in your poetry, but I'm just curious which quality you focus on achieving first or if one is more appealing to you.
Karyna McGlynn: I don't know that I consciously focus on one of these more than the other. I think you often get one by virtue of the other. If your poetry is viscerally effective, isn't it usually inventive as well? I do often write from my gut and I think it's more important for me to write poetry that activates the senses fully and effectively than to try to say something in a brand new way. That said, if a poem crafts its images in an overly familiar way, are those images still evocative?
The fox had no face the loggermen said
they rolled a barrelful of something muffled
down the back of a mountain
a woman moved so fast I couldn't see
what white thing she tucked between her legs
there were spiders hatching inside her mattress
we said that's not what's hatching
she opened her mouth to call her father inside
a small pile of salt fell out
she was wearing a nightdress the color of pistachios
I wanted to throw her over my shoulder
she was too heavy and my arms were marmalade
she pointed to the boulder under the creek
right where the rope swing dropped off
it looked like the skull bone of Paul Bunyan's blue ox
a sudden sickness of red algae bloomed to the surface
the current licked itself clean in a second
A Red Tricycle in the Belly of the Pool
the live oak over the nursery got a disease
they could only save one limb
it wasn't surprising; it wasn't that kind of nursery
a girl rode her red tricycle around the bottom of the pool
the pool had no water; it hadn't rained
the girl kept smelling her hand
it smelled like honeywheat, or the inside of a girl's panties
someone said, race you
she nodded okay and pedaled like hell
after three laps no one had passed her
she looked over her shoulder, lost her balance
ripped her hands & knees on the blue concrete
the one limb on the live oak curved like a question
would she need stitches again
there was already ink under her skin & iodine on her tongue
or was it the other way around
she could see black thread bunching
sewing centipedes under her skin
her throat burned and she couldn't move her legs
it wasn't a tricycle
it was something she couldn't get her foot out from under
she hated to stop or lose her shoe and, I'm sorry
the pool was full of water
Karyna McGlynn is the author of three chapbooks: Scorpionica (New Michigan Press, 2007), Alabama Steve (Destructible Heart Press, 2008) and Small Shrines (Cinematheque Press, forthcoming). Her first full-length collection, I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, received the 2008 Kathryn A. Morton Prize for Poetry (Sarabande, 2009). Her poems have appeared in Fence, Gulf Coast, Willow Springs, Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, CutBank, and Ninth Letter. She lives in Austin, Texas.