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Imagine Otherwise: Kiki Petrosino on Writing from the Body

Imagine Otherwise: Kiki Petrosino on Writing from the Body

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November 6, 2019
Kiki Petrosino wearing a polka dot shirt and glasses

How are both our bodies and our creative work haunted by history’s ghosts? How does place and historical geography transform the work we do in the classroom? How might poetry and other public intellectual work transform cultural diplomacy?

In episode 99 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Pushcart Prize–winning poet Kiki Petrosino about the role of the racialized and gendered body in her newest book Witch Wife, how Kiki teaches her students to wrestle with the histories buried in the land they’re on, why culture and art are such powerful ways to do public intellectualism, and how building a world full of conversations is how Kiki imagines otherwise.  

Guest: Kiki Petrosino

Kiki Petrosino is the author of three books of poetry: Witch Wife (2017), Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013), and Fort Red Border (2009), all from Sarabande Books.

She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Kiki’s poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Best American Poetry, the Nation, the New York Times, FENCE, Gulf Coast, Jubilat, Tin House, and Ploughshares. 

Kiki is a professor of poetry at the University of Virginia. She is also the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Fellowship in Creative Writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Al Smith Fellowship Award from the Kentucky Arts Council.

Kiki Petrosino wearing a polka dot shirt and glasses. Quote reads: Witch Wife is about the wildness and strangeness of the body, but it's also about the body as a form, a container for our emotions and the vessel that we use to go through our life. I use traditional and contemporary poetic forms to talk about the body's desires and also the body's frustrations.

We chatted about

► Kiki’s book Witch Wife (1:49)

► Drawing witchy inspiration from other poets (2:52)

► Recovering the lost voices of the Lewis and Clark expedition (8:23)

► How to adapt classes to multiple universities (9:29)

► Teaching and writing from place (11:54)

► The importance of using one’s writer voice (13:53)

► Imagining otherwise (17:12)

Takeaways

Witch Wife and writing from the body

I use a variety of traditional and contemporary poetic forms in order to talk about the body’s desires and also the body’s frustrations. So there are villanelles in this book, there’s a pantoum, there’s a sestina. Throughout the poems there’s an exploratory speaker who is thinking about her life—her coming of age in the early sections, thinking about her marriage in some of the later sections, and coming to terms with the boundaries and also the freedom that being grounded in a body could possibly represent.

Reimagining lost voices

We’re reading Lewis’s and Clark’s journals alongside contemporary works of poetry that contemplate the journey. So we’re looking at Frank X. Walker’s iconic book in the voice of York, who was the enslaved man who accompanied the expedition. And we’re reading Diane Glancy’s novel in verse in the voice of Sacajawea, which is called Stone Heart. And we’re looking at Campbell McGrath’s persona poem called Shannon.

Teaching and writing from place

I want to be able to write about places and from place. I also know that a course becomes more interesting and relevant when you can tie it to something that is outside of its immediate locus. It’s been really rewarding to teach courses that have to do with the places where I’m teaching. You just feel more dynamic going into the material because there’s something about the landscape that’s discussed in that material that is familiar and right outside the door.

The importance of using one’s voice

I think that writers have a unique position. We have a platform, we have a voice that we’ve cultivated and as we publish readers look to us to articulate ideas, to think about the times and places where we’re living.

Imagining otherwise

Cultural diplomacy can also be applied within the United States. We as artists come from all different sorts of communities and part of our job is to bring those communities together and speak with one another. I think that opening up conversations and talking with one another about what makes our community special, what makes our perspective special, those things should be happening freely.

More from Kiki Petrosino

Kiki’s website

► Kiki’s book Witch Wife

► Kiki’s book White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia

► Kiki’s book Fort Red Border

► Kiki’s book Hymn for the Black Terrific

Kiki on Instagram

People and projects discussed

Villanelle (poetic form)

Pantoum (poetic form)

Sestina (poetic form)

Edna St. Vincent Millay

► Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Witch-Wife

Lewis and Clark expedition

Meriwether Lewis

William Clark

Thomas Jefferson

Documentary poetry/archival poetics

Frank X. Walker

► Frank X. Walker’s book Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York

York

Diane Glancy

► Diane Glancy’s book Stone Heart: A Novel of Sacajawea

Campbell McGrath

Campbell McGrath‘s book Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Persona poems

Ben Percy

► Ben Percy’s book The Dead Lands

International Writing Program at the University of Iowa

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds.

Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Episode transcript

    Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

    [00:23] This is episode 99 and my guest today is Kiki Petrosino.

    Kiki is the author of three books of poetry: Witch WifeHymn for the Black Terrific, and Fort Red Border, all from Sarabande Books.

    She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

    Kiki’s poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Best American Poetry, the Nation, the New York Times, FENCE, Gulf Coast, Jubilat, Tin House,and Ploughshares. 

    Kiki is a professor of poetry at the University of Virginia. She is also the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Fellowship in Creative Writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Al Smith Fellowship Award from the Kentucky Arts Council.

    In our interview, Kiki and I talk the role of the racialized and gendered body in her newest book Witch Wife, how Kiki teaches her students to wrestle with the histories buried in the land they’re on, why culture and art are such powerful ways to do public intellectualism, and how building a world full of conversations is how Kiki imagines otherwise. 

    [01:15] [to Kiki] Thank you so much for being with us today, Kiki.

    Kiki Petrosino: Thank you, I’m happy to be here.

    Cathy: So you’re the author of three books of poetry, the most recent and my personal favorite of which is called Witch Wife. That is a really amazing book that uses poems almost as spells or incantations to wrestle with history’s ghosts. First of all, can you tell our listeners a bit about the poems in that book?

    Kiki [01:49]: Yes. Witch Wife is about the body and about the wildness and strangeness of the body, but it’s also about the body as a form, the body as container for our emotions and the vessel that we use to go through our life.

    In this particular book, I use a variety of traditional and contemporary poetic forms in order to talk about the body’s desires and also the body’s frustrations. So there are villanelles in this book, there’s a pantoum, there’s a sestina in this book. Throughout the poems there’s an exploratory speaker who is thinking about her life—sometimes thinking about her coming of age in the early sections, thinking about her marriage in some of the later sections, and coming to terms with the boundaries and also the freedom that being grounded in a body could possibly represent.

    Cathy [02:52]: I’d love to hear the story of the book’s title because I know it comes from a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, another feminist poet whose work engages some similar themes as you do: of desire, of queerness, of gender complexity, of femininity. Is Millet a big inspiration for you in general or was there something particular about her poem “Witch-Wife” that grabbed your attention and made you want to name a book after it?

    Kiki [03:16]: Well, this is where I confess that I was actually not aware of the Millay poem until after the book had been named and after the title poem had been written.

    Cathy: Oh, that’s so interesting.

    Kiki: Yeah. However, I have always really, really loved Millay’s poetry and I will just kind of take the fact that my title overlapped with hers or maybe I grabbed it out of the cosmos somehow and was able to apply it in a way that I hope would live up to some small part of Millay’s lyric legacy. After I named the poem the title poem and named the book, I became aware of the Millay poem. I read it and couldn’t believe all the ways that my book seems to be in dialogue with that poem.

    Kiki [04:15]: It’s a three stanza poem. It has 12 lines only. It’s very contained, very terse in a way, but it starts out:

    She is neither pink nor pale,

    and she never will be all mine.

    She learned her hands in a fairy tale

    and her mouth on a valentine.

    I’ve written about valentines in previous books of mine. And there’s a nursery fairytale type of poem in Witch Wife, the color pink and issues of paleness and darkness are operative in Witch Wife and in my other books. There’s something mysterious and eerie about the she that is being discussed in [Millay’s] “Witch-Wife” and that’s the same kind of feeling that I wanted to have in my book. So I wonder if it was maybe a gift from the universe today that this title occurred to me and it already existed in the Millay. I’m just really happy that this sort of magical thing happened.

    Cathy [05:12]: That’s so interesting. So many of the poems in your book Witch Wife are about history’s ghosts and the ongoing manifestation of history and genealogy at the level of the body in often ways we don’t understand or recognize or certainly are not conscious of. So maybe there’s some weird channeling happening there.

    Kiki [05:33]: Yeah, I think so. Maybe there’s something about witchiness and invoking that kind of energy. I had no idea that there was a poem already called “Witch-Wife.” [Millay] does hyphenate the word, which I do not do. I’d been thinking about what that hyphen could possibly mean in the context of the Millay poem versus the non-hyphen in mine.

    [06:27] I meant the title poem and the book title Witch Wife to be a double entendre and to be a play on words. In this book, the speaker is thinking about her life as wife but also as a former young woman and thinking about her future. She’s sort of asking the question, “Which wife? Which wife will I be? Will I be a wife who retains the knowledge of that kind of mysterious, other worldliness of coming of age and youth? Will I be the more practical wife who sets things aside in order to pursue something that is a bit more grounded?” So that was my intention.

    In the Millay, I think the hyphen might indicate a kind of hybrid identity, a kind of otherness that is always linked to wife, a kind of witchiness that’s always with wife and a type of wifeliness that has a witchiness to it.

    Cathy: I know you just started a new job this semester at the University of Virginia as a professor of poetry. What are you teaching this semester that you’re excited about?

    Kiki: Well, I’ll talk to you about my graduate student seminar. Like you said, I just joined the University of Virginia faculty as professor of poetry and that means that I get to teach in the Master of Fine Arts Program with a wonderfully dynamic group of young poets.

    [07:22] This semester I’m teaching what’s called a reading seminar in which we discuss a certain set of craft issues and combine critical and creative writing in the midst of that study. So my course is called The Poetics of Lewis and Clark. I’m using the Lewis and Clark expedition, which took place between 1803 and 1806, to give students an occasion to talk about something called documentary poetry or archival poetics. It’s basically the practice of going into an archive or taking primary source documents, maps, legal language, and things like that and trying to bring some of that language into one’s poem in a way that interrogates the limits and possibilities of the archive.

    [08:23] So the Lewis and Clark expedition was envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, who was the founder of the University of Virginia. Our special collections library here has a lot of amazing artifacts and documents related to the Lewis and Clark expedition and also to Jefferson. So this is a great place to think about that historical episode and also about some of the voices that we know were on the expedition but didn’t have any kind of a voice left behind in the primary source documents.

    We’re reading Lewis’s and Clark’s journals alongside contemporary works of poetry that contemplate the journey. So we’re looking at Frank X. Walker’s iconic book [Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York] in the voice of York, who was the enslaved man who accompanied the expedition. And we’re reading Diane Glancy’s novel in verse in the voice of Sacajawea, which is called Stone Heart. And we’re looking at Campbell McGrath’s persona poem called Shannon.

    Cathy [09:21]: I’m curious about your approach to pedagogy. How do you approach the teaching of writing and poetry in the classroom?

    Kiki [09:29]: Well, my teaching practices change with each semester and I feel that that is because I always want to continue to grow as a teacher. I’m always adding new books and taking books out and refreshing each syllabus as I teach it.

    The Lewis and Clark class I introduced at my former job at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky as an undergraduate course in literature that was also multigenre. So we read a post apocalyptic novel of Lewis and Clark by a great novelist named Ben Percy [The Dead Lands]in that class. We talked a lot about Clark in particular because Clark’s family settled in Kentucky. So I had taught the course in a certain way in Kentucky and it was very inflected towards that landscape and towards the resources that were there in Kentucky.

    [10:31] In coming to Virginia, Lewis and Clark are still very relevant and very vibrant, but it’s from the other side of the expedition. In a way, we’re going back to the very, very beginning of the expedition. This is the place—Charlottesville—where Louis was recruited by Thomas Jefferson first to be his secretary and then later to co-lead expedition. So I wanted to adjust the course, design it to focus on poetry rather than multiple genres of literature and also talk about Virginia as a site for this particular archive.

    I’ve put more poetry on the syllabus, but also we spend a lot of time thinking about what archival poetics or what documentary poetics—what does that term actually mean? What kinds of poems can be deemed to be documentary in scope? And what, on a practical level as a poet, do you do in order to build a poem out of documentary materials? So we have a lot of craft-based discussions that are focused on poetry with Virginia as the main site of discussion.

    Cathy [11:33]: Is that an approach that you produced or that you learned about through your own craft? I’m curious about this relationship between what we do in the classroom and then what we do in our creative work. I’ve had this conversation with a lot of guests on the show since everybody has such different approaches. I’d love to learn about yours. Are there maybe lessons that you learned in your creative work that you find yourself putting to work in the classroom or vice versa?

    Kiki [11:54]: Yes. In regard to this course, the important thing to think about is place. That’s something that is important in my own work because I have had the good fortune to live in some wonderful places in my life. I want to be able to write about places and from place.

    I also know that a course becomes more interesting and relevant when you can tie it to something that is outside of its immediate locus. I love to teach any kind of literature course or creative writing workshop, but it’s been really rewarding to teach courses that have to do with the places where I’m teaching. You just feel more dynamic going into the material because there’s something about the landscape that’s discussed in that material that is familiar and right outside the door.

    [12:52] Even though Lewis and Clark didn’t produce their journals for literary purposes or as poetry at all, there’s still a lot of language inside those documents and inside those journal entries that has to do with the place where we’re all living and about how it feels to live in this place so that those kinds of connections make the learning experience more dynamic—and the teaching experience too.

    Cathy: How do you see your work in all of these realms—in the classroom, in your creative work, in your various projects—how do you see these things combining your interest in academia, art or creativity, and social justice activism?

    Kiki [13:53]:I almost think that they’re all part of the same activity, which is teaching students and also learning on my own part how to be an engaged public intellectual. I think that writers have a unique position. We have a platform, we have a voice that we’ve cultivated and as we publish readers look to us to articulate ideas, to think about the times and places where we’re living.

    I am now a professor, but previously I worked as an administrator at the University of Iowa for something called the International Writing Program, which is a world-famous residency for international writers. They come every fall to the University of Iowa for three-month residency. I helped lead that residency for several years before coming to the University of Louisville and then to the University of Virginia as a faculty member.

    I guess I would say I a nonprofit administrator, but I was also a kind of academic staff person at the university. I was not a faculty member, but I learned through that experience the importance of things like cultural diplomacy, making outreach across cultures and across borders. I learned how to write grants and narrate projects in ways that would bring funding and more social engagement and other networking opportunities to those international writers while they were here in the United States.

    I started to see artistic production and the creative economy as a really dynamic part of the fabric of American work and American life. It’s intellectual work, artistic work and creative work. All of these things create opportunities not only for writers but also for members of the public to connect with the whole world of ideas.

    Cathy [15:34]: Are you working on any new projects right now that you want to give us a peek into?

    Kiki [15:38]: Yes, I am working on a new book. It will be my fourth book. It’s called White Blood and the subtitle is A Lyric of Virginia. This is a book that involves some documentary poetics. It is an investigation of the legacies of slavery and racial discrimination in the upper South, but particularly in the Commonwealth of Virginia where I currently live. It’s also where my ancestors lived as free and enslaved people going back a long time. So I started with some genealogical research into those family members.

    Then I have some poems that reflect on my time at the University of Virginia as an undergraduate because I’m actually back here as a faculty member at my alma mater institution. So I’m thinking about that in that book and trying to contemplate the landscape and the terrain of Virginia as it is layered with all kinds of complex history.

    Cathy [16:45]: This brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask folks, which really gets at that big why, that big purpose behind all of the varied projects and collaborations that you do. That’s that version of a better world that you’re working towards when you step in front of a classroom, when you write your poetry, when you teach students how to write their own poetry. So I’ll ask you this giant question, but I think it’s an important question. What kind of world do you want?

    Kiki [17:12]: I think that I would like a world full of conversations. I talked a minute ago about cultural diplomacy and usually that’s a term that we use to talk about conversations that can happen from one nation to another—for example, a delegation of artists from China and a delegation from the United States. I was part of a project like that. Or bringing high school students from the Arab world and also from Russia to the United States to do a summer enrichment program. I’ve done things like that before, all through the International Writing Program.

    But cultural diplomacy, I think, can also be applied within the United States. We as artists come from all different sorts of communities and part of our job is to bring those communities together and speak with one another. I think that opening up conversations and talking with one another about what makes our community special, what makes our perspective special, those things should be happening freely.

    [18:21] We shouldn’t feel so partitioned off in our own sense of where we might belong. There could be a community or another person who you have a lot in common with. If you start a conversation with that person or with that group, you’ll find that you have a lot in common and you’ll find that you can move forward with something, with a project or with an initiative. So the first step is to actually meet people who are unlike yourself and to open up a conversation through art or just interpersonally. So I would love it if we were all open to that and open to learning from one another through language and conversation.

    Cathy [19:03]: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the creative ways that you imagine otherwise.

    Kiki: Thank you so much.

    Cathy [19:14]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by me, Cathy Hannabach.

    You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]


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