kiki petrosino is the author of Fort Red Border and Hymn To the Black Terrific. Her poems have appeared in Tin House, FENCE, jubilat, Gulf Coast, the Op-Ed section of The New York Times, among others. She co-edits Transom and teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville.
Petrosino’s poetry is slippery. I don’t know a better word. As soon as you think a poem is about a complicated idea, it pivots to discuss very concrete issues of the body. Her poems can feel like they were written about you, but are obviously from and concerned with a singular mind. She writes poems that act as nexus points, drawing in various scraps of our world into something we can really hold in our mind.
Front Porch: The poems in Hymn For the Black Terrific strike a really interesting balance. The poems are conceptually heavy and very intellectual, but they always remain firmly rooted in issues of the body and the physical. Why is this balance important to you? How did you work to maintain it?
Kiki Petrosino: I didn’t have to work very hard, at all. Because: the forms of poetry are bodily forms. That is: the iamb is a heartbeat, and the line (may) correspond to breath. Plath says “the blood jet is poetry.” This means that all poems are, to some degree, rooted in the body. I haven’t thought about this as an issue of balance, but I suppose it is. The form of the poem anchors it to the page and to the body. From this place of scaffolding and support, the intellectual work can proceed. Why am I thinking of a coral reef just now? Well. It might work like that.
FP: Both Hymn and your first book, Fort Red Border, include conceptually linked prose poem sequences. What attracts you to the form? What do you see as its advantages for narrative and/or linked poems?
KP: In a prose poem, the sentence can masquerade as a documentary mode of thought when it’s really much slipperier, more associative. Like: a prose poem pretends to count sheep when it’s really combing your hair with a blue comb. For me, the form is attractive because it lets me take surreal flights in the middle of a sentence. On the other hand, I may tell a story if I wish. This flexibility is a real advantage of the form.
FP: The Eater is one of the most interesting characters I’ve encountered in recent poetry. She’s emotionally complex and the treatment of her appetites is very nuanced. Where did the Eater come from? How did you decide to devote such a large section of your book to her?
KP: The Eater roams a landscape populated with all the temptations we’re invited to indulge but not escape. There’s no place where she can rest her appetite, no situation that mustn’t, perforce, be addressed in the language of consumption. In this way, she’s a personage without a parsonage. A kind of Cain. And for me, the Eater’s problems are peculiarly gendered. It’s dangerous to be a hungry woman in our culture, but even dangerouser to (dare to) be satisfied.
FP: One of the marvelous things about Hymn is “Mulattress”–—a long poem that takes as its epigraph a quote from Thomas Jefferson denying the existence of poetry in black people. “Mulattress” is an important poem about identity both as a black woman and as an artist. The cultural reception of black artists is a topic that our culture doesn’t like to address, but it should, given the recent controversies concerning Jimmy Kimmel’s infantilizing treatment of Kanye West and Miley Cyrus’s appropriation of the bodies black female dancers. What has been your experience in America as a black female poet?
KP: It’s my great fortune to belong to a supportive community of writers of all colors. While my multicultural background has always been important to me on a personal level, I have not always brought it explicitly into my poetry. Little by little, poem by poem, I’m working on it. This path is right for me, the slow one. My writing has less to do with “my experience in America as a black female poet,” and more to do with how my specific handful of artistic gifts have developed over time. What I mean is: I am a strange creature, especially to myself.
FP: You note in the book that the titles of the Eater poems were taken from the names of dishes you encountered during trips to China. “At The Teahouse” is also dedicated to singers from a Chinese village you visited. How else have these visits impacted your work?
KP: I’m fascinated by the sense of disorientation produced by travel. In China, I suddenly became a person who couldn’t read, write, or speak. Of course, I was trying all the time—following the Chinese characters for Entrance and Exit lit up in green neon, or opening the lids of dishes to find something—anything!—familiar beneath. Success feels different in such circumstances. More physical. More like adventure. Traveling outside your culture and your language takes you down to the body. You use your eyes more, to figure out facial expressions, to follow a pointing index finger down a path. All your senses light up because you’re using them for practical purposes. Maybe this goes back to your first question, because: all that awakeness in the body has to come out in the writing.
FP: A few of the poems in Hymn were first published outside the traditional literary journal circuit. Some appeared in art exhibits, one in a broadsheet produced by Cornell University, and one in the op-ed section of The New York Times. How did you pursue these unconventional publication avenues? Is it important for you to reach out to an audience that isn’t necessarily looking to interact with poetry?
KP: I’d like to be the kind of poet that people who are new to poetry can like. I mean, I want my poems to show up like friends. The publications you listed above were solicited; other people asked me to contribute my work, and I did so, happily. It’s a joyful thing to know that you might encounter poetry in a newspaper, or on a broadside. Poems should have lives off the traditional page, if at all possible.
FP: On a similar note, Hymn for the Black Terrific seems to sidestep the thorny conversation about accessibility in poetry; the poetry is definitely complex, but is also very inviting. How concerned are you with creating a space in your poems for the reader? How do you know when you reach the point in writing and revising where you know the poem has a voice and meaning of its own?
KP: For me this comes down to music. Each poem strives to establish a unique rhythm, tone, voice, and timbre. Often I compose and revise aloud, typing lines onto my computer and then vocalizing those lines. Sometimes the way into a poem is through the ear rather than the eye; the sound can invite the reader to take part in the piece even before the language catches up.