Interview with Laura Kasischke

by Ann van Buren

Laura Kasischke is a prolific author of both poetry and fiction. Her work has been translated widely. She has been the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, the Rilke Award for Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the DiCastagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, several Pushcart Prizes, the Bobst Award for Emerging Writers, the Beatrice Hawley Award, and numerous others. Kasischke holds the Theodore Roethke Distinguished University Professor chair at University of Michigan’s Residential College/Department of English Language and Literature.

Laura Kasischke will present her work via a special Zoom reading for the Katonah Poetry Series on Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 4PM EDT. The Zoom link to register for the reading will be posted at the link above.

The following interview by poet and KPS interviewer, Ann van Buren, took place via Zoom on April 5, 2021.

Ann van Buren: Thanks for making the time for this conversation, and thanks for your poetry! How are you doing during the pandemic?

Laura Kasischke: I’m getting a little tired of isolation!

Ann van Buren: I know what you mean! Has the pandemic affected your writing? Has it made it better in any way?

Laura Kasischke: It has not been better. Zooming is not like having any kind of real social contact. It’s not been good for my writing. I mean, I was able to finish and revise a poetry collection and I’ve tried to piece together a novel but it’s too much time in isolation for me. I’m on leave from teaching this year. Now I know that my dream of having a cabin in the woods where I’d just write all the time would never work out. I need to go to the gym! Our libraries are not open. I don’t understand; Barnes and Noble is open. I don’t really want to go there but touching books, I feel it is an essential service. I know a lot of places did not close down the libraries because that’s an essential service, but here in Michigan they closed libraries.

Ann van Buren: We only have curbside pick-up for books.

Laura Kasischke: I want to go walk around the libraries! In short, now I have time to finish up some things I probably would have put on the back burner, but I dunno.

Ann van Buren: Well, I’m blown away by the number of poems you write, the brilliant genius of your poetry.

Laura Kasischke: Well, call more often! I really appreciate having been asked to do this.

Ann van Buren: Many people have noted that your work has a dream-like quality to it, and many poems are from memories as well. I was wondering if you could describe the mind-state through which these magical poems arise. Is that associated with any organized school of religion or philosophy or practice?

Laura Kasischke: Well, no. Early on, I did become attached to the surrealists. I was in my twenties and really began thinking about writing poetry as a process and not a product. That’s when it clicked for me. The focus on craft. I was not trying to make a clay ashtray; I was trying to make a poem. I learned to hack into the subconscious by trying. That process continues. I don’t ever write poems on the computer. I revise them, but I write with a pen and I write a lot and a lot of it I just throw away. Either I’m in the zone and have something to work with or not. That’s the only philosophy or literary or artistic influence I can really claim.

Ann van Buren: I can see how the surrealists would have been an influence. Though there is a poem where I saw a little of Plath. The one called “To Whom it May Concern. “

Laura Kasischke: Oh, no doubt. I wrote that when I was in my twenties. Sylvia Plath had been big for me in my teens and twenties. Sometimes I read poems and I love them and wonder, Did I just memorize a poem I liked and then just write that down?

Ann van Buren: It’s definitely not the same as the poem “The Applicant” but the subject and formatting reminded me of the Plath poem.

Laura Kasischke: No doubt.

Ann van Buren: Are there any other contemporary American poets who speak to you at the moment?

Laura Kasischke: Well, it changes a lot, but a poet I’ve always loved—I think she only has three books—I wish she had more— is Laura Jensen. My favorite book of hers is out of print but called Bad Boats. I love her poetry. I read Charles Simic a lot when I was in my twenties. I also loved Robert Bly. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of poetry in translation. After a while, reading contemporary American poetry, I know the poet; I’ve met a lot of poets. So reading poets in translation—I know it’s not the poem and I don’t speak any other languages but— I don’t have to associate the poem with the poet so much. I really love Tranströmer and translations of French Symbolists and poets who were influenced or who were the surrealists.

Ann van Buren: I noticed that you’ve been published in the Dutch journal, Poetry International. That’s pretty cool— that you’re talking about the broader scope of poetry, not just American poetry of the moment.

Laura Kasischke: I think that in the US and UK, compared to other countries, we have very little translated fiction. There’s a lot of translated poetry. For a while I thought How do I know if this poem has any relation to the one that is being translated? But now I don’t care anymore if it’s a different poem, a shadow poem or a new poem. I’ve been enjoying that.

Ann van Buren: I remember attending a workshop, decades ago, with Merwin and Kinnell. They were talking about translation and different approaches to it. Some people think it should be word for word and others think, No, I am the translator, I am channeling the spirit of this poem.

Laura Kasischke: That’s what I like. I think scholars need literal translation but I think readers don’t. The sound of it is wrong. For example, it’s easy to rhyme in Italian because of the word endings, but to trying to force that into English fails.

Ann van Buren: Merwin translated poems from languages he did not speak. Have you ever tried your hand at that?

Laura Kasischke: No, I never have.

Ann van Buren: War appears in your poems, but not in a political way. Your poems are more about the sadness, the humanity of what goes on in war and its aftermath. I was wondering if you have had any direct personal experience with wars or if this is mostly coming from what you’re reading. And following up on that, I wonder if you ever have those voices in your head, the admonishments not to write about something that isn’t your direct experience because it’s often called appropriation of one kind or another. I wonder how you feel about that.

Laura Kasischke: Well, I myself have not experienced war. My husband is a Vietnam Vet. He was a marine and did two tours in Vietnam. He spent his nineteenth and twentieth birthdays in Vietnam. I grew up on various Air Force bases. My father was in the military but he wasn’t in any wars. The last—how long now—20 years, our country has been involved in various wars. I’ve been to two funerals for two young men who were killed— from our very small town— in Afghanistan and in Iraq, so I don’t know—

Ann van Buren: That’s direct experience. I’m sorry.

Laura Kasischke: Oh yeah. Well. The losses have been endless.

Ann van Buren: How do you feel about the question of writing from direct experience. I’m thinking of Marianne Moore. She was a librarian who barely left Brooklyn, but she collected endless clippings and readings that prompted many poems. How do you feel about the authority of one’s voice to write about things that might not have been part of our direct experience but may be part of our experience as Americans or as humans?

Laura Kasischke: This is not something I think about. I don’t think I’ve written anything that does not take a kernel from a personal experience. I then heighten it or mythologize it, or it takes me somewhere else. But I teach, so I think it’s important for me not to have an opinion on this because people produce strong poems in many different ways and the worst way to try to write a poem is to self-censor or to become self-conscious. I’ve written persona poems, but this has become such an issue for many people. I’ve written a poem from the point of view of my great-grandmother. That’s appropriation, but it has never occurred to me to write about being a slave on a slave ship or something utterly divorced from my experience ethnically, racially. I’m separated by time. Depending upon what we’re talking about, I don’t consider clipping newspaper articles and writing about them to be appropriation. It could be, but I do feel a little like some connection needs to be made to the poet. I don’t think that poems should be personal experience primarily anyway. A lot of the poem is based on imagery and sound. I had a poet friend who was always very appalled by anyone— without a direct relationship to it—tossing the Holocaust into a poem to add more meaning to the poem. I don’t think it seems evil or anything like that; it can sometimes just seem like a cheap trick, like when the movie starts to get boring there’s the car chase or when the poet starts to throw in a massive disaster for which all you have done is perhaps read.

Ann van Buren: Sympathy is okay but not feigned empathy.

Laura Kasischke: Empathy is when you are using material but not appropriating the material; it is part of your experience. Empathy could be an attempt to share a feeling but to jump off of one’s experience of Covid just to carry it to the killing in Syria—that doesn’t work. I mean anything can be made to work. Someone can find poetry written by people who have experienced atrocities to be moving and they might write about it, too; but I think that if you feel the need to do that maybe you don’t have to publish it. But the need to toss something into a poem to be pyrotechnical or to raise my own subject matter by adding that is a whole other thing.

Ann van Buren: You seem to be able to put this protective dome around yourself and to be fully present in your own imagination and it sounds like these other voices that say I should or shouldn’t write about this or that are not in your head.

Laura Kasischke: No! No! Before I publish something I say Should I, really? But when I write, I try never to think about that, for better or worse. When writing I say to myself that nobody but me will ever read it. Then I know nobody will ever read it because I throw so much away. But if I start thinking about that I can’t write… That would be like trying to censor your dreams, like I shouldn’t dream about that. That would be really bad!

Ann van Buren: Speaking of dreams, do your poems come from dreams?

Laura Kasischke: No, not really. Maybe other people have more literary dreams. I think I’ve written about a dream I’ve had in a poem. I might write “I dreamt this or that” but no. Lately I’ve been doing my ancestral tree and I was bored last week for a couple of days and spent way too much time on it and then I just dreamed all night that I was on the computer doing That is a boring dream, like doing the dishes and the dishes continue to pile up. It’s not great.

Ann van Buren: There are a few things that reappear in your poems. Birds often appear.

Laura Kasischke: I don’t know why! I’ve got nothing against birds! I think people have their go-to thing. In putting together my most recent book, I thought There are way too many swans! Why are there so many swans? Let’s get rid of these swans!

Ann van Buren: Like those ducks in The Sopranos!

Car accidents also recur in your work. There’s this one poem, “For the Young Woman I Saw Who Was Hit by a Car.” I could have saved a lot in therapy if I had just read this poem a few years ago. You’re talking about that heightened state of anxiety that one has when one has experienced a traumatic loss, such as the early loss of your mother—

Laura Kasischke: Yes.

Ann van Buren: You weren’t able to save that person. As a result, whenever there’s a danger situation you just leap into it like you’re a superhero and say Let me save the day!

Laura Kasischke: Yeah, sometimes. Yeah. I think it’s about PTSD in a way. I mean it’s not consciously writing about that but I think that poem happened to me. I think that, in retrospect, you just described it exactly. I’m not usually the first friend you want to call if you think you might have skin cancer or something I’m like, Call the ambulance now! You’re gonna die! I should say, Oh, it’s just a freckle.

Ann van Buren: I think it’s significant especially now that our country has been in such turmoil, not just because of Covid but because we’ve been in a fractured state and it seems like many people are doing this, seeing everything as a crisis, as a reason to storm the capitol or—

Laura Kasischke: Or to surround the capitol with 120 thousand… I agree. We all have PTSD!

Ann van Buren: I think so! I think that poem really describes this mind-state that is heightened by the news and the nature of the news that creates a sense of emergency or horrid extreme. Everybody’s living on pins and needles.

Laura Kasischke: I’m really looking forward to that ending at some point.

Ann van Buren: Me too. I guess we have to find our way to calm, first.

Laura Kasischke: It’s odd, too, because except for the pandemic, there has never been a more prosperous time, relatively speaking. Many people are not prosperous at all. But it is not WWII; it’s not the Great Depression; we’re not in Mozambique. Maybe that goes back to why my anxiety has been worse while I have been on leave from teaching and really don’t even have to drive in my car. Somebody tweeted not too long ago Do you think that this is the worst year in all of human history, or are you a history major? This has not been the worst year, but we’re reacting as if every major calendar thing is significant. When we went from 1999 to 2000 I had students who actually thought the world was ending. It’s just a made up thing, the calendar. I don’t think God started in the year one and decided to end everything in 2000. That would be so random.

Ann van Buren: It must be so hard to be taking care of so many students in these tough times.

Laura Kasischke: Ugh! While there have been a lot of other terrible times for young people I’m on an emergency level for those who are experiencing violence regularly and it’s a terrible time to be twenty.

Ann van Buren: Well, we’ll all try to make things a bit better.

Laura Kasischke: Yes, as soon as I can get out of the house!

Ann van Buren: One more question. I don’t want to end before I also point out that love is a major theme in your book. It’s so beautiful, particularly the poems about your son. “Boy in the Park” and “My Son Practicing the Violin” both speak of the boy’s creativity and power and the mother’s love for those gifts. I was wondering if we could end on your talking about that particular kind of love that your poetry celebrates so beautifully; it’s not self sacrifice or martyrdom but love that is mutually nourishing. I admire that this comes through in your work.

Laura Kasischke: Well thank you! My poor son. Luckily he has a great sense of humor about it and doesn’t care if I write about him or if he comes to a reading and I read about him. I don’t know what I’d do if he said Mom stop writing about me. But he’s been a great source of material.

Ann van Buren: Well, love comes in many different forms and it’s great to end there. We look forward to seeing you in the Katonah Poetry Series Zoom room on April 25, 2021 at 4PM.