On “Space, In Chains”: An Interview with Laura Kasischke

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Laura Kasischke’s eighth collection of poetry, Space, In Chains, renders its subjects — family, illness, and death — newly startling. In each poem the other world glints to us through the gauze of the everyday. There’s a ghost-flash behind the bride’s veil, an unsettling warmth transmitted in a mother’s touch. The processes of living, of feeling and thinking, are allowed to inhabit their full ineffability. As Kasischke writes in “Heart/mind”:

Light inside a cage, the way the heart—

Bird trapped in an airport, the way the mind—

That gorgeous correspondence between suggestion and image is difficult to name in any poem, and is, in my estimation, the mark of necessary poetry. I am writing this blog post from an airport (which could, as is often the case in these liminal spaces, be any airport), and from time to time I hear the sounds of those “trapped” birds up in their artificial canopy. At first I think their chirping must be a recording, like an endless repetition of bird-sounds playing in a tropical exhibit at the zoo. But then I see a black dart flit past and remember that the birds are here. A man to my right smiles absently in the direction of the bird’s flight. Those flight paths feel as if they flash against some dewy net, just “the way the mind—“ does what, exactly? Goes on cycling and perceiving, despite the invisible walls of its black box?

Laura Kasischke’s poetry takes me to places of deep strangeness and deep clarity, and reminds me that “strange” and “clear” are not opposites after all. I had the privilege of asking her several questions about poetry and her new collection.

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Could you describe your poetic process without, of course, revealing so much that you feel you’ve actually flattened the process and damaged the mystery of it?

I need an idea before I can sit down to write a poem — an image, a metaphorical suggestion, some music, a sense of atmosphere. Generally I need to have had the idea long enough that it’s starting to annoy me, and then I proceed (long hand and in a raggedy notebook) to proceed associatively. I want the subconscious to surprise me. Sometimes it does. This requires a lot of revision later.

This might actually be the kind of question that requires a poem for an answer, so I’ll keep it brief! Writing toward the ineffable: What’s it like to try to do that, and how do you? How can anyone?

As I suggest above, I primarily compose through association. It’s during the process of writing it that the poem’s concerns come to me. That sounds more mystical than it is, but it is a kind of heightened energy I can’t exactly account for. Nor can I say that I’m writing toward something. Dredging is a better description, I guess, in that it implies I’m just fishing around, hauling up what’s already there. Subjects and themes and even images and metaphors aren’t something I write toward, with that implication of intention — and when I do, it’s generally a disaster and results in a predictable and embarrassing poem I have to throw away.

Could you write a little about the power, for you, of images? There are so many discrete instances of image-making in the book. They floor me on their own, but as they pool together — both slowly and quickly, in individual poems and throughout the collection — they take on an even larger power. Why is that? How do images work?

Memorable or evocative images have an uncanny quality about them, I think. When they operate as metaphors, there’s generally a witchy space between the inherent abstraction and the sensual thing. Think “birth” and a “red hunter in a forest” as in a poem by Trakl. You almost get it perfectly, but it also implies something too unnerving to get. Yeats described a poem as being “a crisis that unites for certain moments the sleeping and the waking mind.” That’s the larger power of the image, when that crisis, that unity, takes place — first between the poet and the poem, and then, hopefully, between the poem and the reader.

You write with quiet and particular urgency about memory, family (parents), illness, and finally, death. Do you ever feel a sense of intimidation about writing on such essential, looming topics? In these poems, too, I notice the personal (which exists in some closer proximity to the speaker(s)) and the mythological (which exists at some greater remove from the speaker(s)) coming together in intriguing ways. How is it that these two elements can come together and create our personal mythologies?

I don’t spend enough time thinking about what I’m going to write about, or what I have written about, to feel intimidated. I’ve been given only so many things that inspire me to write, so I’m too stuck with them to worry about them. Regarding mythology, personal and otherwise, I think this operates in a poem in the same way the image does. There’s an eerie closeness between the idea of “romantic love” and a beautiful immortal born in/from/of seafoam. These nearnesses are as potent in the individual life as in the universal. If we just consider the strangeness of the mandrake root — how much like a human being it looks once someone points out that it looks like a human being, how easy it becomes to imagine the thing screaming when you pull it out of the ground by the hair, how likely we are to hear that scream when all of this has been convincingly conveyed to us — we understand the power a poem can have, unearthing its resemblances, working with the tool of suggestion.

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Find out more at laurakasischke.com.

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