Poetry Spotlight: Keetje Kuipers

Sweet and bittersweet in turns, Keetje Kuiper’s All Its Charms (2019, BOA Editions) is a collection of love notes: reflections on time spent with her wife and daughter, quiet moments of observation, pockets of domestic calm. From this place of tenderness, Kuiper’s intelligent poems peel away self-importance and culpability to acknowledge larger, looming conflicts, from the abuse of the environment and systemic racism to the failings of human nature. All Its Charms is unflinching, but nonetheless hopeful as it asks (and answers): “What do I / think I can teach my daughter, especially when / I’ve still learned so little? Only that we might all / be transformed by our own unknowing love.”

Keetje Kuipers is the author of two other books of poems, both from BOA Editions: Beautiful in the Mouth (2010), selected by Thomas Lux as the winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, and The Keys to the Jail (2014). Kuiper’s poems, essays, and short stories have appeared in over a hundred journals and magazines, including the New York Times Magazine, NarrativeTin House, and Memorious. Kuipers has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, the Katharine Bakeless Nason Fellow in Poetry at Bread Loaf, the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College, and the recipient of several other fellowships. Kuipers currently teaches at Hugo House in Seattle and serves as Senior Editor at Poetry Northwest, where she is the author of the literary recipe mash-up Line Cook and curator of the series On Failure.

The poems in this book are preoccupied with acts of making, unmaking, and remaking. The collection reflects on the process of becoming a mother, raising a child, and the intimate ways mothers and children transform each other. Could you talk about how your experiences as a mother shaped this book?

I’m not sure that it was so much my experiences as a mother that shaped this book, as it was the permanent severing of my identity as an independent, untethered adult. Though I am now married, and my wife (who is currently pregnant) has adopted my daughter, I was originally a single-mother-by-choice, and, for a time, I was fiercely dedicated to that identity. I’d spent my twenties living alone, moving back and forth across the country for jobs and fellowships, and my vision of the future continued to be anchored by a sense of my own self-determination. I decided when and how and where I would get pregnant, I went to my doctor’s appointments and ultrasounds, I chose a name for my child—all of it on my own. And this seemed right to me, motherhood simply an extension of the way I’d been living for most of the previous decade. Many of the poems in All Its Charms were written in the space between that naïve assumption of creating my own destiny and the place where I’ve landed now: part of a two-parent family, a unit in which we are dependent upon each other, where I am only a piece of the story, a bit of flotsam in its wide narrative tide. As much as the book attempts to negotiate making and unmaking, there is a surrender at the heart of these poems, a giving over that admits that the deepest transformations we undergo in our lives are ones we cannot experience alone because they require us to be vulnerable, vulnerable before the people we choose either through love or birth, or, as it was for me, both.

All Its Charms seems acutely aware of time. Some poems reflect on times lost and impossible to reclaim, like “Still Life with Caviar and Crayons” and “At the Halloween Party.” In another poem, “Anemoia,” you talk about the experience of witnessing your daughter learn nostalgia for herself. How did nostalgia and memory factor into the creation of this book?

The word “anemoia” is an invention from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which is an online compendium of words created by John Koenig. It means “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” I think the word fits the poem perfectly, but I think the book as a whole is trying to negotiate a different kind of longing, one for a time you do know, but to which—as powerful as the longing might feel—you would never want to return. Getting older continues to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and I look back at the last twenty years with a kind of wonder that I survived myself. And yet, as glad as I am that I will never have to be twenty-five again—and this isn’t true for everyone, but I knew myself so poorly then, and what at the time felt thrilling I can now see was actually quite terrifying—there is this strange feeling of wanting to go back and knock on the door of my old self, to feel those same feelings of terror again, but this time purely as a thrill and accompanied by a kind of swift comfort. Am I just trying to describe the process of aging, its deep pleasures and its small wincing defeats? Maybe. As a friend of mine said, the book contains so much that is about “the holding back of happiness, the weird realization of middle age.” I didn’t realize that a life could contain so many arrivals, and that as I get older I might get better and better at recognizing them.

My six year old daughter and I love to read chapter books together each night before bed, and her favorite (even more than the old 1930s Nancy Drew mysteries, which she adores) is a YA book from the 1980s by Canadian author Kit Pearson called A Handful of Time. The protagonist is able to travel back to her mother’s childhood and witness her mother going through all of these strange and awkward growing pains on her way to becoming a strong and defiant woman. It seems to me to be an infinitely compassionate book because it holds so much compassion for the self, especially across time and through change and growth. It’s incredibly tender and merciful and full of forgiveness, which is something I think my own book was trying to write towards—a forgiveness of the self and all the opportunities and doors that forgiveness might open. Being with my daughter brings on a kind of permanent state of nostalgic forgiveness for me. Is that a thing? Maybe John Koenig needs to come up with a word for that.

One thing that struck me while reading this collection is the prevalence and diversity of natural language and imagery—animals and plants in particular, but also rivers, oceans, bugs, stars. In particular, there’s an awareness and anxiety of how one’s actions affect the environment in the grand scheme, as in the poem “Abatement.” How would you describe the relationship between your work and nature?

I love art that makes a mish-mash of the public and the private, the global and the intimate, of cultural complicity and personal implication. I’m a Neko Case fan, and a common earworm for me is her song “People Got A Lotta Nerve,”which was the first single from her “Middle Cyclone” album. The song taps into the story of Tilikum, the SeaWorld orca who caused the deaths of three people during the time he was held in captivity (his life provides the backbone for the compelling documentary Blackfish). Though Case’s lyrics for this song stick pretty faithfully to Tilikum’s perspective, there is the undeniable self-awareness of the human animal, which comes through in the chorus: “I’m a man-man-man, man-man-man eater and still you’re surprised ‘prised when I eat you.” This isn’t anthropomorphizing so much as it is identification, even solidarity.

Similarly, in my own work I’m not so interested in displacing my own feelings onto a “wild” creature or twisting a “natural” landscape around on the page in order to capitalize on its metaphorical potential. It’s something more woven together that I’m after, a poem that acknowledges our shared intimacy with the world. The scrim of “humanness” is just that: a staging device that provides a false backdrop, something to hide what’s happening backstage. I can’t write a poem about being a human alive on this planet without writing about what we’re doing to this planet. And I can’t write about what is happening to this planet without writing about my life. When I write about my marriage, I’m writing about ziplock bags and SUV’s—because, in many ways, that’s what my marriage is made of. And I’m the bay that bag is floating in, the harbor porpoise snuffling at its translucent form, the terns cutting through the smog that hangs above it. It’s not that we’re all on this sinking ship together, it’s that we are the sinking ship.

While poems in the collection draw on personal experiences, there are several that overlap with the political. “At the Arlee Pow-wow with My Unborn Child” recalls a moment of cultural and economic privilege and the shame that stems from that. Other poems touch on issues like marine pollution, shootings in the United States, immigration policy, and women’s rights. How do you see the intersection between the poetic and the political?

Last weekend, my wife and daughter and I joined in a small, community march to protest the killing of Stonechild “Stoney” Chiefstick, a Native man who was shot to death by a white policeman at the annual July Independence Day fireworks celebration in the town neighboring ours, a town which itself is a neighbor of the Suquamish people. Stoney was an enrolled member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe from the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana, but he had family in the Suquamish community where he was raising his children. In a recent issue of the Suquamish News, Suquamish Tribal member Robert “Gus” Purser is quoted as making the following statement at the Poulsbo City Council meeting following Stoney’s shooting: “There’s an ignorance about our culture and our people. We’ve been next door to you since before you were even a town. In fact, this was our village and you know literally nothing about us.”

Ignorance is a luxury, and a willful one—on the page and off. In the same way that I find it impossible to invoke “nature” without invoking plastic and gasoline, I also believe that it’s impossible to pull some kind of stand-alone poetic moment out from the historical, social, or cultural landscape we make our lives in. Very few of the poems in All Its Charms are “about” social justice issues or environmentalism—they are love poems, lyrics of motherhood or aging—but I hope that most of them are imbued with the reality in which our lives take place, one that is undeniably informed by systemic racism, misogyny, gun violence, xenophobia, and the destruction of the planet.

While I’m far from alone in this perspective, I still find it exciting to work with other members of the literary community who feel the same way. One of these is The Seventh Wave, a literary nonprofit committed to creating conversations “surrounding the most pressing social issues of our times.” They have found a number of ways of engaging with this mission through events, retreats, and an online magazine with a rotating theme. The current issue calls on writers to provide their take on “willful innocence,” asking (among other questions), “How has our inaction caused hurt?” and “What part does shame have in helping or harming the process of learning from our mistakes?” These happen to be questions similar to ones I’ve been turning over in my mind for years: How do I acknowledge my privilege in poems without reinscribing it? How do I write about whiteness without centering my own reductive shame and guilt? I’m grateful to The Seventh Wave for including in this recent conversation one of my own attempts, a small poem that aims to not only acknowledge first world privilege (including the ways that first world capitalism benefits from both environmental destruction and inhumane labor practices) but also to demonstrate the limits of our own well-intentioned empathy.

I can’t possibly do justice to Stoney’s life or death in a poem. Justice can only happen in the real world. Last weekend’s march ended at city hall, where we all gathered on the steps and listened as people spoke about Stoney’s life and his needless death. His kids were there; his wife led the event with tremendous strength; his elderly mother drove all the way from Montana to be there. There were many powerful speakers who took the microphone to talk about Stoney as their friend or family member or who spoke about their own experiences of racism as a Native person (“There can be no justice on stolen land” was an ever-present reminder of the continuing story of the ground on which we stand). But the white people who took the mic, white people who did not know Stoney and had not lived the experience of being brown in America—their voices didn’t belong on that stage. Poems and mics are not for demonstrating being ‘woke’ or for wallowing in privileged bafflement or self-loathing. On the page, I need to write poems that dig into my complicity and explore the rough edges of my limited empathy. The only poem “about” Stoney that I have any right to write is the one where I’m living on his people’s land, growing my organic vegetable garden, worrying about the possibility of my white daughter being shot by a white man at her mostly white school, while staring out a Salish Sea full of microplastics. And in real life, I need to show up and harness that tremendous privilege not by taking the mic but by lending my voice in ways that can make actual change: calling the chief of police, writing letters to the editor of my local paper, and encouraging the conversation about Stoney’s life and death to continue in all corners of my community.

What do you consider your poetic or artistic lineages for this collection? What do you think the collection is in dialogue with? Likewise, what were some major non-poetic influences on your work?

I’m not sure that my influences have changed very much from book to book, even though I’m constantly reading and being inspired by new work. Some of the most exciting moments for me as a reader come in my capacity as Senior Editor at Poetry Northwest, where I have the privilege to read the latest and greatest out of our slush pile and where I also get the fun job of throwing a spotlight on various poets through my literary-recipe mash-up Line Cook. I also love it when people share their poems on Instagram—it’s a joyful thing for me to discover the work of a new writer in my feed right next to a picture of Kourtney Kardashian on a boat near Portofino. And, yes, thematically, I do consider my latest collection to be in dialogue with recently published books by Erika Meitner, Geffrey Davis, and Natalie Shapero, all of whom write very complicated notions of parenthood onto the page, as well as Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, whose minutely detailed fascinations with and heartful commitments to the natural world are ones I think my work shares. So yes, there’s a conversation happening.

But it’s more of the enduring influences that I feel when I’m writing my work and rereading it and revising it down to the bone. I think all of the major influencing that was ever going to happen for me happened as a student, both in my undergraduate and graduate years. I’ll never get away from Richard Hugo or The Great Fires or Roethke or Sonnets to Orpheus or Larry Levis. That was graduate school, and those old white guys really did me in. They got into my brain—my meter, my song—and they stuck. But before them, I found a primary influence in Kimiko Hahn, who was writing motherhood (and daughterhood, oh, good lord, The Unbearable Heart) and gender and the politicized body when I was still in college. Her use of form left a permanent mark on my work, and later, her book Toxic Flora lodged itself in my head and heart. Like the poems in Elizabeth Bradfield’s Interpretive Work, which is a book I’ll also carry with me forever, I was struck by the interdependence of the personal and ecological, how one was not in service to the other in the poems, but undeniably of the same piece. And for both Hahn and Bradfield, that interdependence often comes down to embodiment, which is integral to my poems.

Of course, my life as a reader and a writer didn’t start in college, and perhaps it’s the much earlier influences that remain the strongest which, in my case, were musical. I used to hate it when my students wanted to write their end of term essays about a set of song lyrics rather than an honest-to-god poem. But lately I’ve begun to realize what a debt I owe to the female singers and songwriters I listened to as a teenager and young adult. I was undoubtedly influenced by the narrative tendencies and detailed particularities of Joni Mitchell’s music, both the love songs on “Blue” and the more political tracks on “Night Ride Home,” albums that my parents used to crank up on long drives home from the coast at night when I was just a child of ten or eleven. As a teen, I fell under the nerdy-feminist-baby-dyke spell of the Indigo Girls, who were perhaps my first teachers of that woven braid of the personal and the political. And then, as I mentioned earlier, there’s Neko Case, whose rage I find to be refreshing and transformative, even uplifting. She doesn’t deny herself much in her songwriting, and that fearless don’t-give-a-fuck is certainly an inspiration I don’t want to lose anytime soon.

Lastly, what are you working on now?

I’m writing new poems about how strange I find it to be a wife and to have a wife. I’m deep into a long prose project (dare I call it a novel?) set in Wyoming that examines coal culture, queer love, and insider-outsider status in a small town. I’ve got several short stories set on public lands in the Rockies, which feature characters—women, queer people, and a breadth of diversity that reflects the reality of the interior West—living out stories of man-meets-nature that are not unusual but are unusually absent from the contemporary literature of American nature writing. I’m also revising a series of essays about my decision to become a single-mother-by-choice, including how I chose a sperm donor and what it meant to bring my wife into what was once just my own little family of two. I continue to work on a memoir about my formidable and magical time as the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident. And I’ve recently begun translating the poems of Idwer de la Parra, a Dutch poet who writes about dirt and fatherhood. So, maybe the question really is, what am I not working on right now?

Interviewer Madeline Jo Grigg received her MFA in poetry from Bowling Green State University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Nimrod, The Merrimack Review, Barely South Review, and others. She is the blog editor for Memorious.

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