“On the backyard firepit, a cicada / anchors itself…it splits / its own back, and emerges, lime green / and terrible: splayed / over the carcass of itself.”
~ from “Reconciliation” in &s
We are days away from National Poetry Month. In early celebration, I’m hosting poet, Christina Kubasta, to talk about her new chapbook entitled, &s (Finishing Line Press). In her collection, Kubasta pairs ideas using juxtaposition: wanting less and yet more, pushing away one expectation only to root oneself in the weight of another. Her poems explore the way we view ourselves, our bodies, in relation to an other; they invite us to consider the truth uncovered in such explorations, even when the truth makes us uncomfortable. Especially so.
Along with her Q&A, I’m offering a giveaway (courtesy of Christina–Thank you!). Click HERE for a chance to win a copy of &s (deadline to enter is Tuesday, April 4th, at noon)!
Now, welcome Christina Kubasta!
Christi Craig (CC): I know that collections like this, whether filled with poems or essays, tend to unfold unexpectedly, almost naturally, like magic. Can you tell us a little more about the development of this chapbook and its title?
Christina Kubasta (CK): As I was thinking about the poems in this collection, I found the ampersand playing an outsized role in a number of titles – including the opening poem “Autonomy & the Importance of Empty Space.” I’ve liked the ampersand since a grad-school friend peppered all her writing with it; it’s so visually attractive. But whenever I use it, someone will object – it’s not “professional,” or something similar. But some situations call out for the ampersand, and some resist it.
While I didn’t have a reason why I’d use the “&” as opposed to the “and,” I ran across the essay “The 27th Letter” by Mairead Small Staid (I used a line of it to open the book). In it, Small Staid gives a history of the ampersand (fascinating!), how poets have used the ampersand, and talks about how this character can be used to suggest collaboration. She notes that when two authors’ names are joined by the ampersand it means they worked together on a text, rather than approaching the work at separate times in separate places.
Armed with this idea, I returned to my poems and tried to think about when particular ideas existed side-by-side, inflecting each other, shaping each other, influencing each other. To return to that first poem in the collection, which explores a desire for autonomy & independence, as well as a desire to be enveloped and not desire the empty room or the solitary, those ideas exist together, playing off of each other & informing each other. The speaker of the poem (like many of us, perhaps) wants both “to escape—just for a moment—try a different kind of life,” and also (at the same moment!) to “return to the room // behind the window, behind the awning / and be grateful.” The collection is full of ampersand-moments like this: ideas that exist twinned with other moments, inseparable.
CC: Some of us (and by “some” I mean me) resist change with force and indignation. Many of your poems, like “Reconciliation,” speak to the painful but positive side of transformation: “sometimes we become less than what we were / and it is no tragedy….” Your poem paves the way to acceptance, a theme that runs throughout this book. Is it the writing of poetry–and the poet within–that brings you to a better understanding of body, life, and experience? Or is it in the acknowledgment of the experience, and the resolve that follows, that brings a poem to the surface?
CK: I would say this too is an ampersand moment, a both/and. I think poets should be honest, above all. I tend to resist the idea that poets have any answers at all – which means also that we shouldn’t pretend to, in our poems or anywhere else. But poets pretend all the time. I distrust that. I distrust the poet’s voice that says to the reader Listen, I’m going to tell you something important . . .
Witnessing a cicada unsheathe itself from itself was horrifying and fascinating to me – we often hear them, and see the husks they leave behind, but I’d never before seen one in the act. We often dream of other lives, but know we shouldn’t admit it, because it will cause pain. We misunderstand each other, often. There’s a line from a Stephen Burt poem that captures a lot of this feeling for me, from his poem “The People on the Bus.” He writes, “if we wish too often, this fall, to have led another life / We do not mean that we would give up ours.”
Instead of pretending wisdom, I think we should just tell the truth. As painful as a transformation may be, it may just be. And it may be no tragedy, barely noticed. But that doesn’t in any way make it less true as an experience.
CC: In your bio for Marian University, where you are an Assistant Professor of English and the co-director of the Honors Program, you say that “teaching and writing inspire each other.” What is it about teaching that most fuels your desire to write poetry?
CK: Because I teach research writing, creative writing, and literature to students in all different majors from many different backgrounds, I get to approach texts in new ways all the time. A student who has never read poetry before will often notice something that a more seasoned reader of literature wouldn’t – because the student doesn’t know what s/he should read for, something completely different or surprising comes up in our discussion.
Those moments inspire me to re-read a text in a different way. Revisiting poetry and language with fresh eyes is invaluable, and something my students push me to do.
I’m originally from a small town in Wisconsin. Talking with a friend from high school lately, we were reminiscing about our classmates and where they went after graduation. A few of us left the state for college, most went in-state, some went to a 2-year community college or tech school, and some went right from high school to employment or family. When I’m talking to my students at Marian (many of whom have similar backgrounds) I recognize some of the pressures they face, the names of their small towns, that their spring breaks and summers are spent earning money to support their educations. I’m inspired by them: their drive & passion, their questions, their stories. Sometimes those details find their way into my work (whether poetry or prose).
More often, the idea that what I’m writing should speak to something that matters, because literature should be about things that matter, is driven home by my students and their lives. If a poem is merely pointing out something pretty, or nice –the occasional poem – then it isn’t doing enough. If it is reinforcing a common idea, or a structure of power, without questioning it, then it’s not doing enough. Obviously, much of my work falls short of this standard, but I feel compelled to strive for something more difficult & a large part of that is because what I’m writing should matter beyond the well-wrought image or the well-turned line. That isn’t enough anymore.
CC: What are you reading these days?
CK: Last week was my Spring Break, so I got to finish up some reading – some for school and some for pleasure. I finished Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom, a memoir and exploration of her father’s identity; re-read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (which I’m teaching in a class this semester); read John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester (a pseudo-horror novella set in Iowa), and lot of Mark Doty’s poetry. The Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Spring Conference this April in Milwaukee will be featuring Mark Doty and I’m honored to be a part of making that happen. Doty’s imagery is swimming in my head right now – how he imagines heaven for so many people; how often his dogs appear in his work, pointing him toward some realization; how love is present, but also desire (thrumming insistent desire) and we are not diminished by desire and what the body wants, but made fully human by it, whether accompanied or not by love.
CC: Who is one poet you return to again and again for sustenance or relief?
CK: It depends on the day. I love Dorianne Laux and Frank Bidart for some moments. Catherine Barnett’s “Sweet Double, Talk-Talk” sometimes needs to be read aloud (the cat or dog are willing to sit & listen on those days). More than a particular poet, I have poems snipped & saved for certain days. I have the “worried about X” poem, a poem for when that person “who means X to me” dies. I know where I’ve filed them; I retrieve them as needed. (I know this sounds maudlin, but . . .) I tend to like poems that don’t provide relief exactly, but lance open & cauterize a wound.
A Wisconsin native, C. Kubasta experiments with hybrid forms, excerpted text, and shifting voices –her work has been called claustrophobic and unflinching. Her poetry has appeared in So To Speak, Stand, The Notre Dame Review, Pith and Construction, among other places. She is the author of two chapbooks, A Lovely Box and &s (both from Finishing Line); Box won the 2014 Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets chapbook prize. All Beautiful & Useless (BlazeVOX [books], 2015) explores the stories of growing up girl in rural Wisconsin in fragments, ellisions and half-understood stories. Her next book, Of Covenants, is forthcoming from Whitepoint Press in 2017.
She teaches writing, literature and cultural studies at Marian University, is active with the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, and is Assistant Poetry editor at Brain Mill Press, where she writes an occasional column, Portaging. She lives with her beloved John, cat Cliff, and dog Ursula.