“The Overlapping Language of Geography and Anatomy”: Six Questions with Patricia Kirkpatrick11/05/2012
In Odessa, Patricia Kirkpatrick’s second poetry collection, the female body inherits the virtues of a Midwestern prairie: a sustaining vibrancy, an ever-unfolding history, and a deep-rooted resiliency. But like the landscape that inspired these poems, the body is a vulnerable ecosystem.
Kirkpatrick, who was awarded the first annual Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry for Odessa, depicts such varied experiences as a craniotomy operation, night drives along deserted highways, and divorce mediation with the precision of a surgeon.
In this interview, she talks about finding one’s voice through poetic form, navigating the channel between poet and mother, and crafting myth from Minnesota soil.
Milkweed Editions: Odessa refers in part to a small town in Minnesota near the border of South Dakota. What drew you there?
Patricia Kirkpatrick: I wanted to see the landscape of Silence in the Snowy Fields, Letters to the Country, and Journal of a Prairie Year. I started driving out to western Minnesota to the places Robert Bly, Carol Bly, and Paul Gruchow wrote about. When I reached the prairie of western Minnesota, something else took over. I found the village of Odessa and its tiny brick jail built in 1913 that’s now on the National Historic Register. I felt the presence of life, a way of life I couldn’t see.
Odessa seems to be what I once heard someone call “the site of a tearing.” The land surrounding the town was inhabited by the Dakota people, who were forcibly removed from it. After that, European immigrants settled there; their descendants were forced to leave when the United States made a “refuge” to restore prairie habitat and preserve Dakota relics and sites. The landscape is a beautiful place of lush grasses and great horizons, but also bloody slaughter, severe weather, and profound isolation. A place, as Paul Gruchow writes, “in which souls regularly wither.”
Odessa became for me life that is torn, lost, sometimes abandoned, sometimes reclaimed, and transformed.
You use various forms in Odessa, including the sonnet. How did you decide to use these forms?
After the death of my mother, the end of a marriage, the diagnosis of a brain tumor, rehabilitation from a craniotomy, the loss of a teaching job I’d done for some twenty years, I didn’t know where or how to begin writing. Form helped. It let me put a fence around material and work within limitations. “I will put Chaos in fourteen lines,” Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote. I tried to read a sonnet every day for a year. When I wrote sonnets, I didn’t rhyme or count syllables, but I was devoted to fourteen lines per poem. I also tried forms that don’t come from the European tradition. The call-and-response of the blues has roots in Africa. Odessa’s love poems are influenced by Chinese poetry I read in translation.
You were diagnosed with a brain tumor and almost immediately underwent a craniotomy. How have your experiences with the tumor changed your relationship to language?
The experiences didn’t just change my relationship to language, they changed my entire writing process. In the hospital, after the craniotomy, I wrote whole poems immediately, first line to last (and some of them held up). Of course I was on drugs that inhibited my critical sense. I followed my nerve and intuition. Other drugs brought anxiety and hallucinations. Still, I felt I’d visited an “underworld,” and there was wonder in that. As I healed I tried to reference that world. I write less linearly now. I put words and images all over the page and margins, then try to pull them together. My poems are still mostly in traditional syntax and units of the line and sentence, but they don’t start that way on the page.
I became fascinated by the overlapping language of geography and anatomy: words like core, mantle, current, fissure, dendrite, dome, lobe, and map. Language of the legal system also struck me: words like pleading, order, court, bar, bench, fault, stream, and settlement.
I hesitate to talk about the brain tumor too much, not because I don’t want to but because Odessa is not a transcription of my experience. My experiences informed the book, of course, but they also opened me to other people’s experiences and new vocabularies. I wanted to write about experience—including trauma—that is thrust upon us and to examine the notion of “self.” Is there a core self consistent through—or independent of —one’s place in the world? Is the self different from the soul? How is the soul related to what happens to the body?
After surgery I started reading Greek mythology and made flashcards to teach myself the gods and goddesses. I wanted to see how the story of Persephone could fit in a Midwestern setting. Edith Hamilton writes in her book Mythology, “The first cornfield was the beginning of settled life on Earth. Vineyards came later.” In Europe the word “corn” stands for all grain, so for me Hamilton’s cornfields were the prairie, the beginning of life on earth.
Then there is the connection to the sacrifice of a child. In the myth, Persephone is abducted by Hades, the brother of Zeus who is “lord of the universe,” “the supreme ruler,” and Zeus tells Hades to let Persephone come back to her mother at least for part of every year. To me that story implies some complicity by those in power with a predator. Children are sacrificed and exploited in all kinds of ways in contemporary life, including sexually. When you drive west from Saint Paul, Minnesota, you reach the small town and field where Jacob Wetterling was abducted. I thought about that and the historical trauma—when one civilization fractures and overtakes another—that has occurred on the prairie.
Motherhood takes many forms in Odessa. Where is the intersection of poetry and motherhood in your life?
That intersection is haunted for me, as for others, by the usual suspects: time and money. I wanted a life in poetry. I also wanted to have children and a family; not all women do. I am grateful to have both. Being a parent and writing a poem both involve conscious choices and a grace or fate that you don’t choose. And when you raise a child, you have to let the child go. Poems by Rita Dove and Eavan Boland focus on that aspect of the Persephone story. I will say that when my children were babies and began babbling syllables in their cribs, I thought, “Ah, hah. The lyric comes before the narrative!”
You identify as a lyric poet. What does that mean to you?
Song and feeling, what Muriel Rukeyser calls an approach to the truth of feeling. Sound and emotion that conveys the inner life, but the inner life in relationship to the world. The lyric for me is not a story . . . at least not a whole story. Yet the lyric conveys an essence which, like a perfume, contains the whole flower. It’s fleeting, but it creates something lasting.
Read a sample of poems from Odessa here.
Questions by Gretchen Marquette.