Certainty is the cage that keeps us safe from curiosity. I've been released from the cage. I am the songbird and I am flying for the window. I know it's closed but I plan on breaking through. – Charlie Coté, Jr. (1987-2005)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Air Kissing On Mars: An Interview with Kim Dower

Air Kissing on Mars (Red Hen Press, 2010)

 From Kim Dower's Website:
Kim (Freilich) Dower grew up in New York on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and received a BFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College in Boston.

Upon graduating, Kim stayed at Emerson where she taught Introduction to Creative Writing: Poetry for two years before moving to Los Angeles where she pursued other writing projects and began her own literary publicity company.

A few years ago, “like magic, like a dream,” poetry re-entered her life and the poems have been rushing out as if a 25 year dam had broken, and she’s been writing three or more poems a week. Kim Dower's collection of 71 poems is a sensual and rhapsodic journey through emotional landscapes sweeping everyday life. Playful, intelligent, funny, edgy, engaging—sometimes biting, ironic and dark, sometimes dreamy and surreal, full of poignancy and arresting metaphors, the daily, simple occurrences in Air Kissing On Mars startle and provoke, while stirring up the fairy dust and turbulent weight of memory; evoking the possibilities and gorgeous chaos of life. Open and inviting, these poems draw the reader into a world seen upside down, inside out, a sideways bird reporting on a universe filled with mystery and passion. Joan Didion meets Tinkerbell, Kim Dower’s poems are as whimsical and light as they are rich and intense. Simultaneously humorous and profound these passionate and personal poems, relatable to all, are drenched with vivid imagery, and sparkle with surprise.

Lost languages, disappearing mailboxes, locomotives pummeling through dreams, taxi drivers thrown by the earth’s rotation, shadows in closets, vanishing carrots, men who exfoliate—all manner of haunting evocations come together in this opus of shining and startling wisdom.
Kim was gracious enough to grant an e-mail interview about her first book of poems. I first met her in Thomas Lux's workshop at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival several years ago.
CC: Twenty-five years is a long gestation period for the birth of these “jazzy, sassy, sexy poems,” to quote Stephen Dobyns about your book. How did you find your way back to writing poetry and how might you explain such prolific output?

KD: My way back was easy because I never really got lost. Just sidetracked and distracted. I may have stopped "formally" writing poetry, but I never stopped thinking about it.  I only stopped putting it down on the page.  I've always seen poems everywhere -- ideas for poems, lines, moments, and have kept notebooks all along.  Not journals -- I'm not a journal writer -- I'm a line writer, titles, moments, ideas, images, dialogue I overhear.  I have notebooks in every drawer, every corner of my house.  My profession as literary publicist has also kept me working with writers, and a lot of my work is, in fact, writing. I've written screenplays, stories, half-finished abandoned poems, a million press releases, pitch letters. I've ghost written books.  So words have always been around me and I've been writing on deadline forever.  The poems were stacking up in my head and in my heart - just waiting for an opening.  When my son left for college and the opening presented itself, the poems started spilling out -- in the middle of the night,  the early morning, late in the evenings. The poems were just waiting for me to have time for them.

CC: In the acknowledgements for Air Kissing on Mars, you thank Thomas Lux for introducing you to poetry at Emerson College. How did he influence your writing then, and how is he still an influence?

KD: When I was a freshman at Emerson College I took an elective in my spring semester called "Introduction to Creative Writing: Poetry."  Thomas Lux was the instructor.

I'd been writing poems since I was a child and loved reading poetry, so I thought I'd take the class and see what poetry in college was all about.  That first class changed my life.

Thomas Lux

Tom announced we were all poets. He gave us this massive identity. He read us a poem by Bill Knott.  He made poetry real, relevant, important, exciting.  I left the classroom feeling like I knew why I was alive. I was a poet.  I had a job. That was that.

Years later, when I'd been away from poetry for a long time and began writing again, I contacted him.  He said "the warranty has expired," which was hilarious, and then invited me to send a dozen poems and give him a few weeks to read them.  I did.  He said it was as if I'd never stopped writing, but encouraged me to find a writing workshop and get back into the craft.  He encouraged me to stick with it.  He reminded me that I was a poet, always had been and always would be.  That was that.

Once again, I felt charged with meaning, inspiration and dedication to what I had loved to many years before and what I continued to love: writing poetry.

CC: Lux calls it nightingale fever tempered by wisdom and caring. I call it emphatic, zany, at times obsessive, and most often engaging. How would you describe the voice that speaks these poems?

KD: My truest voice.  My most alive voice.  The voice that tries to be most observant and most honest. The voice I hope will never leave me again.

CC: After reading “They took the mailbox away,” the first poem in the book, I wondered how many “ruined lives” will be redeemed by the reading of these love letters? What if anything gets reclaimed for you in the making of these poems?

KD: Myself.  I have reclaimed myself in doing what I love the most.

CC: I admire the strength of your associative leaps, the unexpected inevitabilities you might say. For example, in “She Is Awakened by a Hair,” we get “a train way of track / thundering through her bedroom, / the moon on its back” to describe what the hair is not, and yet that hair, “stuck to the roof of her mouth,” makes her think of that train, and that moon. How are you able to make these associations?

KD: I have no idea. Truly.  I close my eyes and imagine the next line, the next picture, and I write down what comes to me.  Sometimes that'll be changed 100 times.  Sometimes I get it right away.

CC: And of course, I want to know what that promise might be at the end of the poem, but can only imagine. I don’t suppose you’ll tell me.

KD: What are the promises we make to ourselves?  That we'll be good?  That we'll never love someone or always love someone? A promise we struggle to forget - haven't we all promised something to someone we wish we could take back?  Or is that just me?

CC: I promised myself to stop making promises. It's not working.

These poems have certain obsessions, like the beach, the moon, tonsils, death, sex, gelato, screeching (that word shows up a number of times), and especially a longing for that which is not present. Can you talk about the creative power of obsession, how it turns to passion and finds some containment in the poem?

KD: A poet once said (and I wish I could remember who said this) that our obsessions don't change, just the way we write about them.  That really resonates with me.

Certains obsessions have always been a force in my life. Obsessing itself has always driven me: desire, feelings, images, over and over, thinking about something (someone) until I have it (them).  Obsession drives me.  Being an obsessive person has caused its share of problems except when it comes to the creative power of obsession.  Then I'm grateful for my obsessions.  Proud of them. I adore them and nurture them. I love how my obsessions inform my work - how they drive it.  I would have nothing without them.

You see how obsessive I am?

CC: Well, yes, I see, and in your book, the speaker blurts out, “I love a man who exfoliates,” in the poem by the same name. These poems are exuberant that way and might even be a kind of aesthetic stance. I know your life can be quite hectic with your publicist gig so I imagine there’s some therapeutic value in writing these poems. In fact, the poem that follows has this line, “you name it, I’m tired from doing it...” What gets exfoliated when you enter the making of a poem?

KD: You name it, it gets exfoliated when I write a poem.

CC: So that's why you're so radiant?

There’s a remarkable description of birth in the poem by the same name. The poem envisions so much that will be missed. I can’t help but think the speaker is also describing her own birth. As you’ve dedicated the book to your son Max, talk about how his life inspired this collection.

KD: His life has inspired my life - he has inspired me - and therefore his life has inspired this collection.  Just feeling a life grow inside me and knowing him before he was born
was a poem.  Every day he was inside me was a poem.  I would write them but can't find where I put them. The physical act of giving birth (though cesarian) was beyond my comprehension.  I am grateful to my son for the way I see the world.  For how he changed the way I see it because I see it through his eyes, too, and as he was growing up my perceptions changed watching him.  Sometime I'll read him a poem (when he'll let me) to see if it might connect with him.  He'll tell me to change a word and I'll change it.

CC: I'd be afraid to give my son's that same liberty, but who knows, I haven't tried it. First I'd have to get them to read one first. Usually they just roll their eyes.

“Geography Matters” is emblematic of the way you take an absurd situation (i.e., the Yugoslavian driver saying, “let me make you an example”) and pushing to its even more absurd implications of language. Talk about the making of this poem, which enacts the making of an example.

KD: The poem is based on a real incident -- an absurd incident - my favorite kind:  a driver taking me from Delray Beach to Miami to catch a plane back to L.A. who wouldn't stop talking about geography and the way the world works.  He didn't stop talking for an hour. At first I wanted to jump out the window but then I started writing down things he was saying.  I became fascinated and charmed.  I was amazed by how much he had to say to this stranger in the back seat.  He wanted to teach me things about geography, about his life, about driving a cab. I knew after a few minutes there was a poem here. I wanted to tell his story in my poem.

CC: I've had cab rides like that. I'm thinking of writing down the things I hear in the men's locker room at my gym. Maybe I'll call it Overheard in the Sweat Locker.

Your professional life is all about promoting writers who will be read by the kind of folks you describe in “The Couple Next Door.” How do you think about readers when you promote writers.

KD: That's an interesting question that I'm not sure I understand. I never really know what readers will like.  I know they want to connect the characters with their own lives. They want to relate.  They want to say, hey - she's talking about me!  They also want to laugh and cry and feel alive when they read.

Our job as poets is to show situations in a way they've never been seen.  To show simple, everyday things in ways they've never been shown, but without making a puzzle out of it.  I feel like I'm making a puzzle with this answer.  How do I think about readers when you promote writers?  I think the same thing for myself that I tell my clients -- write from the heart, be authentic, tell the truth for
as long as you can and be amazing!  Readers will be amazed.

CC: Another strategy in your poems involves list-making, which of course makes me think of Walt Whitman. Are you a compulsive list maker? What do you think makes for a compelling list poem?

KD: I write lists all the time, but they're dull lists about things I really have to do.  If it's on the list I will do it.  I do all the things on my lists.  My list poems have nothing to do with my real life lists.  A compelling list poem is surprising, just like any other compelling poem.

CC: The death of your father is a recurring theme in the book. What impact did this have  on you and the way you see the world, and yourself?

KD: I'm still learning about the impact of my father's death (and his life) through writing my poems.  I didn't really know the impact of his death until I started writing these poems and I don't know if I'll ever have the answer to this question.

CC: Your poems are very sensuous and pay close attention to the connotation of things. For example, gelato in “His Flavors are Tender.” That poem represents a longing that I see throughout the book. Can you talk about how this kind of hunger speaks to the human experience?

KD: All my poems are about longing which is what all of life is about, isn't it? I suppose life for me is about hunger.  It's about what I long for. When is enough enough. Are we ever satisfied?  I don't think so.

CC: The door triptych intrigues me and seem to represent otherness, distance, and separation. Can you talk about what those three doors mean to you?

KD: Other, distant and separate -- perfect!  This is the way I often feel. This isn't a sad thing, this is just the way it is.  However many friends I have, family, loved ones,  work, no time in the day to think  . . .  at the end of that day I will feel other, apart, separate, and have since I was a little girl. Perhaps that's why I write poetry.  To pull myself out of those feelings.  To try to make connections where I've never felt them.

CC: Talk about the section of the book called People Give Me Titles. My favorite is “Coffin Bone.”

KD: When I got back into writing poetry, I asked some friends to give me titles.  It was a way I could jump start myself - force myself to write a poem - one every day. It was a fascinating and successful pursuit because I got some fabulous titles (including "The Door" which you asked me about in the previous question),  and I had an excuse to send these friends the poems so they'd be forced to read and comment on them!  Poets love other people to read their poems and make comments!

The "Coffin Bone" is from my friend Karen Karbo who's a wonderful writer and someone I've known for a long time who encouraged me to start writing again. I loved that title though I had no idea what it meant.  I wrote the poem not knowing what it meant and then I looked it up.  It was a thrilling and surprising definition. I'm grateful to her and to everyone who gave me titles.

Karen Karbo
CC: What are you reading now, and who would you cite as influences in your own work.

KD: I'm rereading Frank O'Hara because I love his poetry to death.  I'm rereading everyone who influenced me: O'Hara, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Erica Jong, James Tate, Thomas Lux,  Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman - there are so many! I'm reading Words in Air the letters between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I'm reading Jane Hirshfield's book, After which is amazing.  I love Billy Collins, Kim Addonizio and Charles Haper Webb.  There's so much poetry to love and learn from the list could go on forever.

CC: What are you working on now?

KD: Poems!  More and more and more poems for a second collection which will be called, Snacking on Venice, Before Dawn.  Do you like that title?

CC: Can't wait to read those poems!


camerone said...

I had the distinct pleasure to have Kim sit at the same table as me during a recnt luncheon of literaary folks...

What a treat - a lovely person who is a giving and insiprationalmpoet with a keen eye who brings the reader close to the bone....

Charles Coté said...

Agreed! Thanks for the comment.

Unknown said...

Hey Charlie, I really enjoyed this interview with Kim. A great conversation between the two of you and I love the discussion's thread about occasions for poems.

Unknown said...

PS It's Deborah D from PB, unknown! Ain't that the truth? LOL!