Interview with Kiki Petrosino

Sam Leon

Kiki Petrosino has authored three books: Fort Red Border (2009), Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013) and her most recent, Witch Wife (2017). A graduate from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, her poems have appeared in The New York Times, Best American Poetry, Tin House, and Gulf Coast, among several other publications. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Louisville, where she also directs their creative writing program. Along with dedicating her time to residencies, fellowships, and part-time teaching at Spalding University’s MFA program, she is also cofounder of the online literary journal Transom. A nimble and daring poet, Kiki and I were able to discuss her writing and publishing experience in a not-so-quiet corner of the AWP Conference in Tampa.


Sam Leon: So, your third book recently came out. I was first introduced to your work when I read Fort Red Border, and what I was thinking about when I was reading Witch Wife is that sometimes when poets release multiple books, they seem like multiple versions of very similar work. Yours seem very different. Can you talk about this new book in relation to your past work?


Kiki Petrosino: This third book is sort of my meditation on poetic form, whereas the first book certainly was about introducing myself to whatever reading audience is going to be there for poetry and introducing my themes and concerns. I still adopt quite a few forms in that first book, but many of them were occasional forms. So in that first book, I had like ten poems that were called “Valentine” that were all this form I created that was this title and a big sort of address that reminded me of a valentine address. Maybe it was referring to the rhetorical surface of the poem. But in Witch Wife I have nineteen villanelles or villanelle versions. I have a pantoum, I have a sestina in there. So I’ve been looking at traditional forms and thinking about my relationship, my ethos with those forms. I also think that this book is a very personal book, since we’re talking about where I am personally, emotionally, and language-wise.


SL: The use of repetition is really prominent in this book, and I think it’s done really well. I know that “Maria” and “Elegy” really struck my friend and I when we were going through some poems together. I was wondering if this has any relationship to the title, in terms of evoking a sort of chant vibe?


KP: Repetition has always been one of my best-loved tools. When I was a student, I had a professor named Gregory Orr. He has a book called Poetry as Survival, and when he taught that class, we read a manuscript version of that book. It was about these principles of what would make an effective poem, and the one I really remember is incantation. He talked about repetition and how it creates a world for the poem and how it creates an atmosphere of sound. And so, I’ve always worked with repetition in my poetry. More than an evocation of repetition, I think of the title Witch Wife as a double entendre. It presents its “witchiness,” but it also asks the question of “which wife?” Among a possible infinitude of selves, which wife are you, or am I?


SL: Something else that really interested me is your use of hyphenated words in this collection. “This Is How We Feed the Animals” and “First Girdle” both have really interesting combinations of words that create another meaning out of that combination. I have a dual question that sprouts out of that: first is the limitation of language and how you’re addressing that by creating new words. Do you feel that you’re limited by language, or do you feel freedom in language and the things you can do to modify words?


KP: I think it’s more the second one. English is my first language. I grew up speaking it. I studied French in high school and I studied Italian in college. I was an Italian minor, I lived in Italy for a while, and my father’s family is Italian. So even though I didn’t grow up speaking that language, it’s probably the language that I’m most interested in other than English. Looking at them side by side, and it’s probably because I’m a native speaker of English, I feel freer to move in English. I like the ability that English has to attach other things to itself, the Velcro nature of English, where you can just put a hyphen on something and it becomes a word. Like the word dumpster fire, though it isn’t a hyphenated word, that phrase and concept is now a part of the dictionary as of this year. We all now have this new word that we can use, like self-care, which means something really specific and has a cultural resonance to it. English allows that, whereas with the other languages that I’ve studied, there’s so much beauty built into the language. The symmetry, the frequency of rhyme, especially in Italian, is so prominent. For me, as a second-language learner, I spend most of my energy staying within that language, staying within the beautiful cathedral of that language. Whereas with English, I’m like, “This cathedral is made of Popsicle sticks!” It’s mine, and I can unglue it, and put Velcro on it, and I can create a completely different structure out of it. I know that that’s a kind of privilege that I have, and I try to work with awareness of it.


SL: That’s a great answer. Another thing I love about the language in your work is the playfulness of it, even while dealing with serious subject matter. I think a lot of poets right now are doing that really well. To newer poetry readers, that might seem odd. Can you talk about the dynamics of that?


KP: I’ve always really wanted to build room for humor and playfulness into my work, especially when talking about serious topics. A lot of the poems in Witch Wife talk about family and the different pressures that women are under to make a decision to have children and face career pressure, and how those pressures conflict with each other. There’s a sense in which to have one, you have to give the other one up. Or you have to lessen or diminish one. But it’s also ridiculous that we ask or demand these things of women. Within that ridiculousness there’s room for absurdity. There’s room for saying, “You have to hurry if you want to get started,” which is in one of my poems. We’re always hurrying, especially women in the professional field. To tell a woman to hurry is an absurd statement because women are literally running marathons every day—we’re already working at and beyond capacity in a way. So to say, “You’re still not doing enough,” or “You’re still not there,” to me it’s something to laugh at, because it’s so absurd. So in the book, I’m thinking of some of these social messages that we receive and turning them on their heads to show how ridiculous they are.


SL: I could ask a million questions based off of that answer, but I’ll just give you something open-ended. As a mixed race woman who writes political and social poetry, can you talk about poetry and publishing right now, and how you think it contributes to the political landscape?


KP: I think that the publishing industry has a responsibility to amplify the voices of those who have historically not been welcome in the poetry community. I’ve always been in predominately white spaces, from where I’ve lived to where I’ve gone to school. So even though I have this mix-raced identity, I’ve always been one of the only people of color where I’ve lived and worked. I’ve never had an African America teacher or professor of any subject. I had one poetry professor of color with South East Asian ancestry, but that was not until graduate school. The sense that I had going through academia is that I had to establish myself as a technician and that I had to be very good at poetry according to the standards of academia, which was mostly white academia. And only after that point would I be permitted or authorized to insert some argument about identity. When I was coming up as a young poet, it was very much discouraged to be overtly political in your poetry. What people would say is, “You have to write a good poem first.” That conveniently glosses over the fact that even saying that is political—to tell a young poet to only worry about craft and not the politics. It’s political because it argues that the place of the poet is somewhere outside these political discussions, when actually the whole history of poetry has been deeply interested in and concerned with the political.


So maybe what the publishing industry and academia need to do is take a step back and think about whose voices are being heard and who is on the syllabus every semester. Can we create a constellation of other voices that we want to study? Not just from now, but from all eras, because there have always been poets of color that have been writing. As literary studies start to encompass more of the Atlantic world, if we’re going to talk about North American artistic production, we have to talk about the whole Atlantic world. Actually, that’s an exciting prospect, to be able to study Creole writing or writing that comes from the African and Islamic communities. The more that you can know about how language works, and what others have done with language, I think the better you can be as an artist.


SL: You’ve been publishing work for about a decade now. Do you think that the way you engage with the body in your writing has changed over the past ten years? How have you seen that change?


KP: I’m probably more willing to write the body as a personal possessive, whereas before I wanted to be more elliptical of that and not really write about my body at all. I more so was interested in writing about the poem as a body, which I still believe is true. The poem is a body and reflects a lot of concerns about the body. Rather than write a poem that just presents the speaking poet as a disembodied brain that’s just roving over the material, I would now rather figure that voice as an embodied voice. I like to think of the body more specifically, especially the race-marked body, and how it moves in space and spaces.


SL: I’ve seen you’ve done some residencies. How do you see that fitting into your process?


KP: With my first two books, I didn’t have any residencies. I was in school full time, working, living, and trying to come up with a writing practice that would fit those bits of available time. Then I was able to have a residency for three years in Florida, at the Hermitage Residency in the Sarasota area. The first residency period that I spent there, I spent the first two or three days just feeling really guilty that I had time and that other people that I knew were good writers might not have gotten that opportunity. I felt kind of weird and like a lot was being expected of me, and I didn’t know if I could write a lot of work. I was sort of having a mini crisis about what I was supposed to do with all this time, which really wasn’t infinite. It was only a couple weeks. I remember my first or second night there, a wonderful visual artist that was also at the residency saw the look on my face, and she came up to me and said, “Stop feeling guilty.” I hadn’t even told her anything, but she told me to stop feeling like that and spend my time actually making work. So that’s what I did for that residency. I think they’re useful for writers to have, but I don’t have to have a residency every summer in order to do my work. But I do like the idea that I could go to residencies throughout my career.


SL: You’re doing a lot of things. You’re teaching, you direct a creative writing program, you’re producing your own work, you’re attending conferences, but you also founded an online literary journal. Can you talk about it?


KP: Yes, cofounded. It’s called Transom, so if you look at, that’s the online magazine that I cofounded with a poet-friend of mine, Dan Rosenberg. We went to Iowa together, and even though we were in different classes, we became friends. After leaving Iowa, he texted me and asked if I wanted to coedit a journal with him. He wanted to do a journal that would also make room for translation, which I’m also interested in. We do two issues every year, unless we decide to take a hiatus for an issue. We’ve done eleven, and we’re currently editing our twelfth issue. So we have new, emerging, mid-career poets, and we always have a translation feature, where we have translators translating work from all different languages and across all different time periods.