Featured Poet

KELLY CHERRY


Interviewed by Emeniano Somoza


Prologue:

I have a confession: I don’t read poems, I simply skip stones on the surface of their shimmering clarity, or forbidding dullness if you will, depending on the poet’s skill; if, by reading, we mean the conscious cognitive process of recognizing letters arbitrarily arranged –by the poet –into  words then into sentences into stanzas and finally into meaningful thought chunks –in short, the building blocks of our evolving understanding of the phenomena taking place within and without the perimeter of our immediate environment, or reality. Eudora Welty in her nonfiction narrative, One Writer’s Beginnings, detailed this kind of reading common among beginners.

I must emphasize that for me a conscious disconnection is vital at the outset in order to jolt the incorporeal from the conditioned languid physical, before re-aligning the elements with the promptings of the poet’s quivering fresh vision. The wakeful realm can be addictingly disruptive.

The instant the mind recognizes the connective tissue that links my reality to that of the poet’s, the thrilling game of skipping stones takes place –over and through the surface of the poem, granted all good poems are like cool, clear bodies of water.

As stone catches speed, or pace, all my sensory functions and responses must now depend on what it sees and feels as it traverses through its trajectory, and not according to what my physical eyes see on the page. For instance, if the stone is slammed by a wave, or the whiplash of an onrushing tide, I must feel the purgative coolness of water on my face. If the surface is so placid and clear, without looking over my shoulder, I should see butterflies around me, and feel the fluttering of tender gossamer wings, creating tiny ripples  –I too must feel joy and wonder. And when the stone hits a rock or any hard object jutting out of the water, I must feel pain. Momentary disturbance.

 Syzygyan Poet’s Poet

If skipping stones were officially recognized by international sports tournaments, reading Kelly Cherry would be my first Olympic gold. (While I admit I had conceded to the oft-praised qualities of the classic works of the masters, I must confess again that I was doing it at the prodding of academic pedants breathing down my neck.) Which means that Cherry is my first monumental triumph as a reader at consciously recognizing thereby appreciating the beauty and the overarching vision of her body of work.

Her poems are both instinctually reflexive and morally celebratory. You ask them questions, and they answer back and long after you have put them down as you open your eyes back to the wakeful realm of the living, the poems won’t shut up, they keep giving, on and on, like nesting tables, or dolls that keep mothering newborn ideas after another.

Reading Cherry is like looking at and through the placid body of a lake of mirrors –her voice and images as clear as they are direct right to the feels. Where good poetry should be. Humanity can only evolve from some such promptings.

The Syzygy Poetry Journal is honored to feature Kelly Cherry as the first Syzygyan Poet. Below is my conversation with her.


kc


Em (Editor At Large, The Syzygy Poetry Journal):

Congratulations on being the inaugural Syzygyan Poet of our new poetry journal. You were nonplussed there for a minute.

Kelly :

I sure was! But, of course, happily so. And I love the word Syzygyan. If I played Scrabble I’d work it in everywhere. I don’t play Scrabble, because, I suppose, writing poems uses up that part of the brain. Other parts take care of the themes and leaps and thought and metaphor but the tiny technology of punctuation, choosing the right word, rhyming or slant-rhyming or not rhyming, caesurae, placement, meter: these refinements are more interesting and difficult than Scrabble.

Em:

I love Scrabble. It should be officially included at the next Olympics along with skipping stones. Haha. By Syzygyan, we mean that particular poetic voice which embodies the ideals or the journal’s editorial vision –that is, to provide metaphorical bridges and connective tissues for all those cosmic longings, holes, hunger, emptiness, or gaps as they were -emotional and psychological – in our once-celestial bodies…

Kelly:

Stardust. We’re all made of stardust. It’s ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust.

I love to think. It’s not always a thing that pleases people in poetry, and often I have to cross stuff out to insert a lyrical passage or vivid image, but thinking excites me. It always has. My older brother once said to me the most interesting question in the world is how. I said I thought the most interesting question was why. He looked at me with great pity and said, “I know.” I understand that he thought why was foolish and how points to a reality that can be intricate but is comprehensible and useable. But I had zero ability for how. I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate and for a year and a half as a graduate student, at which point I discovered that some schools offered writing classes. There weren’t many then; just three.

Em:

Our wanderlust becomes more pronounced each time we look at the stars, or the heavens at the end of the day, do you think there is a need to identify or acknowledge this gaping silent longing before we can finally find our own voice?

Kelly:

I agree, Em. At the same time, I know that my future will be shorter than yours and currently I think a lot about death. Not mine, particularly, but others. I’m currently working on a manuscript of poems about WWII and fate. But I also have in manuscript a book about things invisible, including macro and micro phenomena and consciousness and conscience. I just published a chapbook with Unicorn Press titled Physics for Poets, which includes some of those poems. Although someone has said that we are running out of mysteries in the universe, I doubt it.


I think the upshot of this is that we must acknowledge it’s hard to play God. I also think any God would find it hard to play God.


Em:

As a child did you always feel the need to connect with the stars? How has this helped you in your artistry?

Kelly:

Absolutely. Like most kids, my friends and I would lie on the grass at night and talk about what was or might be up there among the stars. More specifically, when I was fourteen my brother gave me one of his books for my birthday present; it was J. Robert Oppenheimer’s The Open Mind. The book is short and fairly simple, but I didn’t know what kind of writing it was. It wasn’t fiction. It wasn’t poetry. So I asked my brother. “Well, I guess it could be called philosophy,” he said. I knew right then that that was what I wanted to study. Unfortunately, my parents had their own ideas, with the result that I attended five schools, one of them twice, and was kicked out of two. Eventually, however, they gave in.

I liked asking questions like “What is nothing? How can something come from nothing?” Etc. I imagine many kids ask these questions, but I didn’t grow out of them.

Em:

In your poem, ‘Small Errors With Gigantic Consequences,’ the universal man is victim of his own follies, which in fact are the very defining traits of our humanity. Do you think man should evolve to achieve perfection or find salvation?

Kelly:

I very much like the way you have described this poem, Em. You’ve gone right to the point.

But the choice between perfection and salvation is a sharply limited choice. I don’t think we will or can evolve to perfection. First, what would perfection be? And how would it get along with all else that is in our universe? As for salvation–well, where do we look for salvation? Not in a heaven, I think, and definitely not on earth.

Em:

I know perfection and salvation seems oxymoronic…but is it possible?

Kelly:

Not oxymoronic, as the prime example of someone both perfect and saved is Jesus Christ. If you believe in Jesus Christ. But anyone else? Not likely. I think you should think some more about this and get back to me.

Em:

You are a highly visual poet, and your use of ‘butterfly’ is exemplary of the direct and clear application of an image to capture the larger, deeper meaning of hopeful existence. For the benefit of those who are still trying to find their clear voice, how do you catch the elusive ‘butterfly,’ at least in a poem?

Kelly:

I have to work at visual images. I grew up with classical music–my parents were string quartet violinists and my sister was a flautist–and my first instinct is always to concentrate on sound. But of course poetry also depends on image. I was on Wikipedia, looking at a picture of monarchs clinging to a tree. Maybe I shouldn’t say that; maybe it subtracts from the poem. But images and ideas and sentences are everywhere and a writer should take advantage of them. I don’t mean plagiarize; I mean that sentences float through our heads all day long and most of them escape us. So to catch “the elusive butterfly,” feel free to consult books, photos, movies, the news, your friends and family, anything and anyone. Since you already know you’re looking for a “butterfly,” you’ll find it.

Em:

Going back to the Butterfly Effect, on a more philosophical sense, is chaos, organic or otherwise, a necessary evil?

Kelly:

I have to stop here to think about this. I suspect the usual conclusion is that chaos is undesirable. It makes life difficult; it allows for disorder and tragic mix-ups and tragedy, period. A chaotic world is one in which people, and animals, get hurt.

But now I glance at my desk. It is so crowded with stuff that it’s impossible to find what one’s looking for. On the other hand, I sometimes find useful things I didn’t know were there. Or one thing is lying next to another and suddenly I see a connection. Chaos permits creativity. It gives us a space in which to make mistakes…essential in science and in art. Chaos lets seedlings–and that’s a metaphor–grow where they will.

I think the upshot of this is that we must acknowledge it’s hard to play God. I also think any God would find it hard to play God.


I liked asking questions like “What is nothing? How can something come from nothing?” Etc. I imagine many kids ask these questions, but I didn’t grow out of them.


Em:

Close your eyes for a minute, what or who do you see?

Kelly:

I see a field humming with cicadas. Probably because they are out now, and I’ve always loved the noise cicadas make. It reminds me of childhood. Of having time to loaf and play. Of being outside.

Em:

Yes, because summer, the sun’s favorite canvas, which by the way also happens to be Syzygy’s birth-season. Now of all the pieces featured in this maiden issue, which one do you think best encapsulates the essence of the quintessential Syzygy poem?

Kelly:

Maybe “Complicity,” which is deeply skeptical but, I hope, lightened by  the playful language and the rhythm. Also, I actually once took a class on Home Repair. The teacher laid out a long line of threaders, screws, nails, etc. I learned how to take out and clean the little whachamacallit that the water goes  through before it comes out the faucet. This is probably the only thing I’ve actually remembered from that class, but the bolts and nuts and screwdrivers in that poem stem from there.

Em:

Any parting word? Where can readers go to read more of you? You have books/ anthologies on the way?

Kelly:

My Wikipedia page includes a list of all my books.  A Kelly Cherry Reader is available from Amazon, as is Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories, which is for men as well as women. Both came out this year. My book “Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Poem” is forthcoming from L.S.U. Press in 2/2017, and they have my earlier books of poems.

One that might interest you, Em, is The Retreats of Thought, which is made up of sonnets about philosophy.

I am currently working not only on the poems about WWII and fate but also on a book of flash and short-short fiction.


I don’t think we will or can evolve to perfection. First, what would perfection be? And how would it get along with all else that is in our universe?


Epilogue:

I never did honestly hear or read about Kelly Cherry before Syzygy. But she was the only poet out of the whole bunch who moved me in more ways than one right from her first piece. I still ask which word, phrase, or line in particular had pushed me to the watershed.

When we sent out the notices, my memory of Kelly was back to zero -at that point my editorial brain was in full throttle. Yet her poems were quickening stronger as the day wore on.

Thank You notes poured in. The tenor of one of them, however, other than the usual sweetness was of puzzlement and it bordered on the skeptical side. I asked for the respondent’s name, then crossed-checked it with the poems. Voila! This was the poet responsible for my sudden meltdown.

We were unanimous: Kelly Cherry was going to be our first featured Syzygyan Poet. When I dug into her track record, I was blown away for the second time.

The Syzygyan Connect

Kelly mentioned in one of her answers the image of monarch butterflies on Wikipedia. A couple months back, I was intently looking at that very same image on Wikipedia while surfing for visual prompts.

Synchronicity?

In our correspondence, she encouraged me to finish the poem. But I am so full of awe and wonder I don’t think my galumphing emotions will do the image justice against hers.

True, we don’t judge a poet based on their tear-jerking qualities alone. But I have to say that Kelly Cherry connects in huge ways. And if you’re not prepared for an encounter with her, the cosmos, no, the butterflies will do it for you.

But I digress…

I guess I only wanted to talk about the hallmarks of a true Syzygyan poet.


Biography: Kelly Cherry was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and grew up in Ithaca, New York, and Chesterfield County, Virginia. She did graduate work in philosophy at the University of Virginia and earned an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Cherry was the daughter of violinists, and her  early exposure to music has had a profound affect on her work, which ranges in genre from poetry to novels to short fiction to memoir to criticism. In an interview with Kaite Hillenbrand, Cherry noted that “musical dynamics, phrasing, pitch, tone, texture, orchestration et al. provide inspiration, and sometimes a model, for a poet, as do the lives of some composers.”

Cherry is the author of more than 20 books and chapbooks of writing. Her collections of poetry include Songs for a Soviet Composer (1980), God’s Loud Hand (1993), Death and Transfiguration (1997), Rising Venus (2002), Hazard and Prospect: New and Selected Poems (2007), and The Retreats of Thought: Poems (2009). Her works of fiction include Sick and Full of Burning (1974); In the Wink of an Eye (1983); The Society of Friends (1999), which won the Dictionary of Literary Biography Award for Short Fiction; We Can Still Be Friends (2003); and The Woman Who (2010). An accomplished writer of nonfiction, Cherry has also published memoirs, including The Exiled Heart (1991), and essay collections, such as Girl in a Library: On Women Writers & the Writing Life (2009). She has also published two translations of ancient Greek drama.

The recipient of numerous honors and awards, Cherry was named the poet laureate of Virginia in 2010. She has received fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and Yaddo. She taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madison for more than 20 years. She retired in 1999 but still holds the positions of the Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and the Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities. The inaugural recipient of the Hanes Poetry Prize and the Ellen Anderson Award, Cherry was a Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 2010. She lives on a small farm in Virginia with her husband, the fiction writer Burke Davis III. – Poetry Foundation


Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Featured Poet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s