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Willa Carroll Interviews Rachel McKibbens

Interview originally appeared in a longer form in The Bakery Poetry.

Many of your poems in The Bakery, and in your fiercely moving debut book, Pink Elephant, are marked by an arresting sense of the human spirit as unbroken, despite incredible suffering. This kind of quality is beyond discussion. What we can discuss is the formal power of the poem "Leverage," and the heartrending "Giants," both featured in the July issue of TB. Both poems possess a compression of the line and an economy of language that amplify their harrowing content. Were you aware of honing the poems towards a chiseled intensity as you revised them? Or did they emerge close to finished? 


I think one of the hardest jobs of a poet knowing when to build a larger landscape for small moments and when/how to return to simplicity for the larger. I have attempted to write the poem “Leverage” twice.  My first attempt was in 2000, when I first started writing poetry. Ten years later, I tried writing it again, switching the narrative and starting point and I’d say it is the poem I tried to write back then, but couldn’t.  Both “Leverage” and “Giants” were written during this past April’s NaPoWriMo challenge. “Giants” came from one particular day when I was having a hard time getting the image of my niece’s empty body out of my head. Every heartbreaking detail of that week began slowly breaching the surface. Things I’d filed away in my grief came back and I made myself write down the facts of that moment.  Writing of and through grief is a lot like being in labor: finding a small focal point and concentrating on that one thing that will remove you from the internal chaos. Keeping it simple was the only way.

Much of your work is incredibly rich with charged corporeal imagery. Do you intentionally think of "writing towards the body, or from the body" in the process of composition? What are your thoughts about the ongoing implications of writing of and from a female body in this culture in which women's health and women's bodies continue to suffer "attack" in both political and personal spheres? 


I wonder if you have even the slightest idea just how fantastically massive that question is, for me. As a child, I grew up with gender-identity issues that plagued me up until my mid-twenties. I had an extremely skewed view as to what being female meant due to childhood traumas and, for a larger portion of my life, thought I could choose to be perceived as male by mimicking the misogyny I’d witnessed as well as endured growing up. To this day, I am still discovering my femininity. Poetry has a lot to do with my growing appreciation of being a woman. Finding the language to express all of the inner turmoil is such a relief for me. Now, writing from the body is automatic. I definitely fought off specific language in the beginning, to avoid being a “female poet.” Ha!  


Having the permission to write solely from the female perspective is rebellious, still. Poems from the beginning of my career are about oppressors more than survivors, so I am proud to have reached the point in life where my art reflects my newfound pride in being a feminist, where I have found my place within the écriture féminine. 



You touched on some important issues in your recent post in TB in which you discussed divides between academic and performance poetry. How does your engagement with the stage affect your writing process? Do you always read your work aloud as you compose or revise? You are a celebrated performer of your own work, yet do you ever find that you write poems that "work" better on the page? Or do commonly perceived distinction between page and stage consistently blur for you?


I know of too many poets from the Academy who read their poems brilliantly who are not coined “spoken word artists”, yet, when a poet known for their performance skills crafts a poem that hits all the right academic buttons, they are simply “better than expected.” I dare anyone to tell me that Khaled Mattawa isn’t one of the best out loud poets in the galaxy. He manages to re-ignite every moment in a poem with this visceral cadence and sound that opens up the poem, giving you more of the poem than if you just read it in a book. And shouldn’t that be the point? 

I don’t write a poem to be read out loud, I read the poem out loud because it was written.


I enjoyed the poetry reading you hosted at The Yards in Rochester this past June, featuring a group of women poets who participated in a writing retreat at your home. The sense of community and support between the writers was palpable and exciting to witness. Can you talk about the importance of community for you as writer? Can you encapsulate some of what came out of that weekend? Will you plan another gathering in the future? 
Moving from Brooklyn to Rochester proved a drastic change for me, artistically, on top of the other obvious differences in lifestyle. Upstate New York’s culture is much more insular. A lot of hunkering down is necessary. The weather is a person here, whereas, in NYC, the weather is just an inconvenient hurdle. The first three years, I was quite the hermit. “Writing in the dark” I called it, because I no longer had the community of peers that I had before. I no longer had weekly check-ins with other writers. There was only me and my partner to share and critique with. I knew I wanted to create something that would send a jolt back into my artistic self, but I couldn’t decide on what it was until last March. I used Facebook to see how many women were down with traveling to Rochester for a four-day extravaganza, packed with writing workshops, morning Tai Chi, poetry readings and curated discussions on sexuality, race, craft, etc. I needed it, but I knew many women throughout the country needed it, too. Thirty women came. Some camped in the backyard, others crashed on couches or yoga mats on the floor. It was spectacular. It originally had this long and ridiculous name. Then I joked and called it “WombStock.” Then I overheard one of the women giving directions to another poet and she said, “The pink door.” So, The Pink Door it is. I plan on having one every June.


I grew up in Rochester and have lived in New York City for sixteen years. I take refuge periodically in Rochester to write and "rest my nerves" outside of the frenetic New York City pace. I can't resist asking how moving from Brooklyn to Rochester has affected your work? 

I answered some of this question in the response above, but I’ll add that I notice my writing is cleaner, succinct. The pace is different in Rochester. There isn’t the kind of urgency in my writing that existed back in my city days. I get to be more contemplative. 


Lucille Clifton once said in an interview that she wrote her poems at the kitchen table with her lively family in motion around her as she worked. Many of your poems foreground the deep joys and complexities of family life and motherhood. Do you write at "the kitchen table," or in only solitude, or both? Do you have any quirky personal rituals around writing?  
I can write anywhere, thankfully, and I’m sure it has everything to do with being a mother. I don’t write often, though. I go long periods without writing or even thinking about writing. I am usually driven to write. When I am in a dark space, I shut down, go quiet. And the only way to get out of the hole is to write my way out of it.  I’ve heard other poets criticize others for not writing of the sweetness, but for me, I’d rather enjoy the sweetness in its present state. Those of us who suffer from depression don’t get as much sunshine as other people. So when it’s time to play, it never dawns on me to sit down and write.

You mention your artist statement in TB that you took a yearlong break from writing poetry to compose plays. How has working in the dramatic form affected your poetry or vice versa? What's your current focus with your writing? 

The first pieces I wrote were short stories and plays. Cinema, stories and plays were my first loves. My greatest escapes.  When I start a poem, I often think, “Is this going to be a Tennessee Williams kind of poem or Joyce Carol Oates?” or “Will this poem be directed by Lynch or Fellini?” I wrote a small one-act while hiding out in my hotel room during a break at the Dodge Poetry Festival a few weeks back. I plan on beefing it up a little. But currently, I’m trying to get back into my memoir. I’ve neglected it for two years due to personal shit and I think it’s time I get off the mat and go in, swinging.