DOUBLE PORTRAIT: Kim Addonizio in Conversation with Brittany Perham

by Megan Sexton  ·  May 14, 2021

BRITTANY: Last night we had a Zoom drink and you said, “I’ll never write again.” This, about a month before your next book comes out. Over the last dozen years we’ve known each other I’ve heard you say this many times—often in the fall, as it turns out, and often for months on end. And I’ve said this to you many times, often lying in bed miserable and often for months on end. I should say that we’ve said this while also cumulatively writing six books (mostly yours), and making a chapbook together. [note: The Night Could Go in Either Direction, Slapering Hol Press.] But when we say it, it feels true. It feels true even when it looks from the outside like—lucky us—we must be writing. So what is it about this insidious feeling that gets us—and, by all accounts, many writers—no matter what we do? Why are we incapable of believing that new work will come, and instead have to resort to feeling like our lives are over? (That sounds flip but I’m serious—it feels like that.) I don’t think this is precisely the same thing as “writer’s block,” though maybe these are twin conversations. Also: I’m certainly not asking you how you “overcame” this feeling, or how someone else might overcome it.

KIM: Maybe instead of “We shall overcome,” our mantra should be, “We are overcome.” But, yes. So often I feel as though I’m written out. Like there’s nothing left to say. And what helps me, actually, is you reminding me that I’ve said it before, and went on to write X, Y, and Z.  A big part of it, I think, is remembering that I’ve been here before and it feels like forever, but it will change. I know I’ve said that to you often: This will change.  It’s hard to feel like a writer when you aren’t writing. My brother Gary is kind of an extreme athlete, and he’s miserable when he goes a few days without playing tennis or rollerblading or skiing. For us, it’s a few days—or weeks—of feeling like the writing’s over. I don’t know what we can do besides hang on and have faith it will return. Reading helps, because eventually I read something that triggers me a little and gives me some kind of inspiration. I think of the end of Theodore Roethke’s poem, “Beginning Winter”:

A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you. 
It will come again. 
Be still. 

BRITTANY: We often find ourselves having three conversations: the hair conversation, the poetry conversation, and the death conversation—some of which have taken on a new intensity and seriousness in the pandemic. As far as the poetry conversation goes, I’m thinking about what it feels like to be read. You have often faced an audience and a set of critics (and I think it would be true to say “primarily male critics” here?) who can’t or won’t separate you from the speakers of your poems. This has been something you’ve dealt with since you first started publishing but it’s also something that intersects now, in a new way, with age and the fact that you’ve written so many books.

KIM: Yeah. It’s a constant surprise to me, that so many critics have such a naïve attitude toward a poem. I expect that kind of thing in a beginning student—thinking every word is true, thinking they have to stick to strictly autobiographical facts, or that the poet they’re reading is doing the same. But, come on. We insist on saying “the speaker” in workshops for a reason. (At least, I do.) One (dare I say “male critic”) reviewer recently referred to “the sense of irresistible compulsion in her sex life.” Excuse me, and WTF? Also, apparently my poems are full of “sensational sexual content,” which makes me wonder if he has ever had a cable TV subscription. Of a poem about women and girls being murdered—anomalous remarks in that he mostly focuses on a certain kind of poem, rather than, say, the more political work—this same reviewer writes, “Here the appeal is not only the relief from responsibility in helplessness…” and goes on to compound a gross misunderstanding of the poem, essentially blaming the victim. I could go on…But it’s unladylike to respond to one’s reviewers.

BRITTANY: Your body of work certainly draws from the tradition of confessional poetry in that it can be placed in the aftermath of Plath, Sexton, Lowell. In my mind, it aligns with that tradition precisely because of its willingness to throw everything over in service of the poem. When we read Plath or Lowell, we are ready to see that the poem’s allegiance is to art rather than to personal experience but we tend to forget about this when we are reading living writers, especially women writers. We forget to equate a feeling of “artlessness” in the poems, a feeling of truth-telling, with artifice. Artifice is a word that’s often used pejoratively, but I think artifice is everything.

KIM: Yes, it is. A poem isn’t a therapy couch. Not if it’s any good. And that should be obvious, but people (dare I say “male critics”?) seem to want to shove you onto one, anyway.

BRITTANY: Artifice is the thing that makes us believe we are getting a glimpse into something private, into something “confessional,” when really the made thing is all we see. –And, I would say, all we should see. (And all we want to see if we like reading good poems.)

KIM: I don’t really care about the literal intersections. I want to believe in the fiction of the poem, just like a good movie. I know it’s not real, but I don’t care; I want to invest in the character.

BRITTANY: This conversation gets more complicated, on the one hand, if poems have some traction with the feelings or events of our lives. But, on the other hand, aren’t these the poems that require more artifice? Aren’t these the poems that are, in fact, more artificial?

KIM: One would think so (she said drily).

BRITTANY: Your new book, Now We’re Getting Somewhere, has a central series called “Confessional Poetry,” which speaks directly to these ideas. The series is important not only in this collection but, if I may say so, to your work as a writer over the course of your career. Can you talk about this poem? How did it begin? Could you have written this poem ten years ago? Twenty? What would it have sounded like if you had? Why did you have to write it now and why did you make the choices you made?

KIM: I’ve been tarred and feathered with the “confessional” label as long as I can remember, so I finally thought, why not just say something directly? I’ve always enjoyed toying with the whole me/not-me thing. It’s a bit of a “fuck you” to (dare I say…) certain people. Breaking it into short bits, into separate pages of one to four lines, came later. I wanted to let the ideas and images breathe. And also, each page makes a kind of “confessional”—as in a church confessional booth. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…Hah. An essay that had a big impact on me, years ago, was Susan Sontag’s “The Pornographic Imagination,” in which she talks about pornography as a mode of writing. It can be as literary as anything else. I find that so much more interesting than reading, or writing, on one level. But try telling someone that your work is about exploring states of feeling you don’t necessarily experience at the level you’re writing them. No, you’ve got to be a hot mess, spilling your pathetic but perhaps moderately talented self onto the page. So tell me, what’s your dog in this fight?  Talk to me about your take on critics, or the use of personal experience in your work.

BRITTANY: Here’s a thing that’s sort of tangential to this conversation. On the Goodreads page for Double Portrait one reader posted a response that says, “gay????” That’s the whole review. I love those four question marks. Are they ecstatic? Shocked? Is the question directed at the poems? At me? It made me laugh but it does bring up the question of what readers are reading for. Even assuming that you can tell anything about a writer’s identity/identities from a book of poems, is determining something about the life of the writer really the most interesting thing about a book of poems? Or, worse, the only interesting thing? If so, I’ll just pack it in now. I’m not convinced that my use of autobiographical material is what’s particularly interesting about my work, or anyone’s work. As you say, a writer makes a compelling fiction out of so many things. But as I’m writing this, I realize I do read voyeuristically in terms of craft. What is this writer doing with the language? What are they not doing? What are they great at, what do they suck at, what can I steal? What new things do they make me feel? Whatever’s on the page, that’s the company I’m keeping. That’s the pleasure. If I’m thinking about the writer as a human at all it’s because I know them. The thing I miss most from when I was young is going into a bookstore and not knowing a single writer and also genuinely feeling like every book of poems was amazing.

KIM: I felt that way too, when I was a new poet. It was all discovery—discovery of what language could do. Though I know we also both recognize that many poets have expressed, and do express, their identity (identities, because who has just one, or wants to be reduced to just one) in poems. Hard to read, say, Hopkins or Herbert without seeing their particular kind of connection to God. When you read Black writers like Terrance Hayes or Claudia Rankine, they are often putting front and center their examination of how they and others experience and construct Black identity. Juan Felipe Herrera is foregrounding Chicano experience and swirling together Spanish and English. When you’re a writer in a culture that positions you outside of its norms and power structures, whatever those are—class, race, gender identity, etc.—that’s going to find expression one way or another.  We need to hear those voices that have been pushed aside, trampled on, silenced. We need counter-narratives to our fucked up American story, those expansions and complications and contradictions, to get closer to the truth of our history.  We also need counter-narratives to our relationship to the planet as well as to other humans. And what about animals? What about another level of our existence, beyond the mundane, the material? Poets write out of all these concerns, and good poets are involved with the strategies of language to embody those concerns.

BRITTANY: Yes and this speaks to what the writer is interested in and wants us to be interested in. The way each writer teaches us to see. When we read, one thing we can tell a lot about is a poet’s identity as a poet: What are the concerns or obsessions in a particular book, or over the course of a career? In what way is the use of language idiosyncratic to the writer? What sources is the poetry drawn from and what new territory is it marking? When we finish reading a good book of poems, we feel we know the writer in an essential way precisely because we’ve participated in whatever the writer has constructed. If they’ve built something enterable, we become intimates. The fiction has transmitted something real.

KIM: That intimacy is one thing that drew me to poetry.

BRITTANY: You’ve written eight books of poems—How do you see Now We’re Getting Somewhere as working with concerns or obsessions you’ve always had, and how do you see it as a departure? Is each new book a departure, a kind of reinvention of one’s poetic identity? I’m interested both in terms of subject matter and in terms of what artistic questions/interests this book has.

KIM: I don’t think I can articulate specific artistic questions, but I do feel I keep trying to change with each book. My first collection was what I would call the “plain style,” influenced by CD Wright’s early poetry—she was one of my teachers—and by Frank Stanford, whose work she introduced me to. Jimmy & Rita was a narrative, a verse novel. Tell Me’s long lines and syntax owed much to CK Williams’s work. After that I think there were more disparate influences—from the blues to so many other writers. It’s harder for me to identify those accretions. My obsessions have been pretty constant, and anyone can see the themes repeating. That’s probably true of all writers. For me, it’s my relationship to the suffering of others; the suffering self; forms of love; mortality. We’re not dealing with a lot of new territory, we poets. How many poems about new love, or failed love, have been written through the ages? How many about war? Do we really need one more poem about death? Apparently, we do. I don’t know that art evolves as much as it simply needs to change constantly, according to its time and culture.

BRITTANY: So this brings us back to the question of content in contemporary poetry. Is poetry now valued primarily for content, and what are the implications of that? What is it we want and need from the artform right now as readers? What can poetry actually give us in this time (of COVID-19, continuing white supremacy, cable news, imminent planet death)—if anything? What do you read for?

KIM: Those are all great questions, and I don’t have any answers. Not any global ones, at least. It seems like a big, thorny, glorious mess of contradictory needs and desires is at play in our ideas about poetry and poetics. As in any other human endeavor. About the only thing I can say with any authority is what I get from poems: a sense of another consciousness responding to life. Grappling with it, celebrating it, fearing it, loving it, ranting against it. A voice singing back.  At least once a day I think of Lucille Clifton’s lines: Every day, something has tried to kill me/and has failed. Her poem is speaking as a Black woman, so it has that resonance for other Black women, but it speaks to me, as well, both as a woman and mortal creature. Sometimes I go to poems looking for solace, or company. I definitely go looking for language that wakes me up. There are poems I recite to myself when I need to feel calmer, whose words and rhythms seem to change my brain waves. I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree… The poem as bee-loud glade. Maybe we all go looking for different things, and at different times in our lives. But I believe—to quote Yeats again—that what we all want and need is that connection to the deep heart’s core.

BRITTANY: Listening to you talk about yourself as a reader brings me to another personal question I want to ask. You’ve done all of your writing and made your living as an artist mostly outside of academia at a time when, we all know, poetry is almost entirely written from inside academia or at least from its fringes. I’m sure many of us would be glad to hear you talk about the making-a-living part—like, how have you managed this impossible task—but I’m really interested in the art question. I think it’s probably possible to talk about some of the ways your vantage point has shaped your experience in the poetry world, but is it possible to say anything about how it has shaped your poems? (Or is it impossible to discern anything about one’s own vantage point while also existing inside it?)

KIM: I was an adjunct at various colleges and universities for a handful of years in my thirties—often teaching composition—and I still earn money from academic gigs, whether that’s a reading or workshop at a school or an occasional Visiting Writer position. But from the beginning, I knew I didn’t want to end up in the academy. It just wasn’t a life I could envision for myself. I was afraid academia would kill me as an artist. I was more afraid of of that than of figuring out how to earn a living, and I never really believed in the concept of economic security. It was always, Let me just figure out how I can pay my rent for the next two or three months.  But it was easier then to live on less. Basic economic survival is more difficult now. I guess I haven’t answered the art question, have I? It does seem that your life experience is going to be limited in certain ways if you go from high school to college to grad school and then into teaching. But one could argue that Emily Dickinson didn’t exactly get out much, and her art was brilliant. And speaking of choices, not everyone has the opportunity to go to college, or to stay in their room and contemplate existential questions.

BRITTANY: You told me a story once about the moment you realized you were going to have to do something to get people to notice your writing.

KIM: Self-presentation, self-invention, persona…If you don’t invent it, someone may invent it for you. I didn’t set out to create a persona—but I do like fingerless gloves, hah. That was one of the things you and I bonded over! We were both wearing them, I think, the first time we met.

BRITTANY: We were, and we did. I think many of us struggle with pretending a confident enough persona to ‘sell’ our poems in this material world.

KIM: It’s unnatural, for many poets, to say Look at me. Or Listen to me. It takes a lot just to send your work out, to believe you have something interesting or important to say. I think that’s especially hard for women, considering all the messages we get about looking pretty and shutting up. I mean, fuck that. We are so trained to look to others for validation. So afraid to not be nice. I don’t believe in niceness. I believe in kindness. And that it’s ok if some people don’t like you, or if they disapprove of what you’re doing. You have to believe in yourself, ultimately.

BRITTANY: Yes, you have to believe in the work you’re doing in each poem, in each book. One of the things I’m interested in in Now We’re Getting Somewhere is syntax. I’m always interested in syntax, it’s true. But as I keep going back to your collection, I’m watching the interaction between sentence and line. I’m watching your use of fragment. I’m watching the single-sentence poems; the long-sentenced, heavily clausal poems; the unpunctuated poems. Did interest in syntax lead you into this collection? Did syntax lead you toward a particular kind of subject matter, stance, or way of speaking? Or did the drafts you were writing have (among other things) an organic, common interest in certain types of constructions; was that how you knew they would form a collection?

KIM: I’m always interested in syntax, too. I remember one of the first things I loved about CK Williams, when I was heavily involved with reading him, was his syntax. I learned a lot from his poems about how syntax can express thought. And I have to say that every time I reread Ginsberg’s Howl, I’m wowed by the syntax. Who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high, sat up smoking…I think that’s brilliant. I once had my students copy his syntax, and even if their language was cliched—especially when it was—the brilliance of the syntax shone through. The voice that emerges—I’m always trying to find the voice. Not my voice, but the voice of the poem or essay or whatever. So yeah, in this collection, there are certain moves—can I say, moves that the voice makes? That’s how it felt. Definitely a stance, a way of speaking. As for subject matter, several poems are for women, especially young women, struggling with the self, and with self-destruction. And I want those women to find these poems. I wonder if you feel that you write poems for other people, or how you see your relationship with The Reader, if you think about that at all. I mean, one aspect of your book Double Portrait—which is a beautiful book that Claudia Rankine called “all the way human”—I love that—is the self in relationship with some Other. A mother, a dying father, a brother, a lover, a country. So what about the reader as an Other?

BRITTANY: I’m tempted to say that the reader is the only real other. Every other “other” is a construction. I almost wrote ‘is a device,’ though that suggests a hardness or a lack of genuine feeling I don’t mean. The others that appear in Double Portrait are deeply felt—they have to be felt into being out of nothing—and so they have a different kind of reality. I’ve talked a lot about the work with the idea of “the other” elsewhere, and about the use of the lyric “you,” because Double Portrait revolves around these constructions: everything depends on them. The reader has to has to believe in each “you,” in each relationship, and in each speaker as much as I do. We always talk about how art depends on the reader or listener or viewer—because it’s completely true. A poem depends on the reader turning their mind toward the words on the page and, through luck and the writer’s skill, the words on the page turn toward them. How’s that for a poetic metaphor? Is a poem without a reader still a poem? If a tree falls in the woods…To answer your question, I think about the reader all the time. Sometimes I have a particular reader or set of readers in mind, as though I’m writing an open letter—sometimes not.

KIM: I love that idea: that the words on the page turn toward the reader. Ultimately, the poem seems to me a letter to the Unknown Reader, who may one day open it and find something meaningful.

Brittany Perham is the author of DOUBLE PORTRAIT (W.W. Norton, 2017), which received the Barnard Women Poets Prize; THE CURIOSITIES (Free Verse Editions, 2012); and, with Kim Addonizio, the collaborative chapbook THE NIGHT COULD GO IN EITHER DIRECTION (SHP, 2016). She was a Wallace Stegner Fellow from 2009-2011. She lives in San Francisco.