Kate Greenstreet interviews Megan Kaminski about her writing life and her second book, Deep City, out in October on Noemi Press.
Kate Greenstreet: We’ve been friends for a while but I realize I don’t know: how long have you been writing poetry?
Megan Kaminski: While I have always loved reading literature—from reading Little House on the Prairie as
a kid to falling in love with Shakespeare and Faulkner in high school
to studying poetry as an English lit major in college—I didn’t start
writing poems until I was in my second year as an undergraduate. I was
very busy playing sports (field hockey and track) in high school and
then college, and I never really considered myself a creative person.
But one day in class, during a discussion of Emily Dickinson, my
professor took me aside. Somehow she saw something in me that I didn’t
yet see in myself; she assumed that I was a poet and suggested that I
take a poetry workshop in the department the following semester. I was
too shy (and flattered) to tell her otherwise, so I signed up for the
workshop and wrote my first poem. I’ve been writing poems ever since.
KG: What year was that?
MK: 2000, I think. Though to be honest, I did write a poem in elementary school that won the fire safety poetry contest; the local fire department gave me a t-shirt that made me a “junior firefighter.” The poem was pretty gruesome—all crisped corpses and dead wives and babies—and I think I wrote it with the intention of making my teacher really angry and getting myself sent to the principal’s office (something that occurred with some frequency at that point in my life); I was definitely surprised when my poem won.
KG: That’s funny. Were you a shy kid who needed to create disturbances, or a mischief-maker who later became more subdued?
MK: I was small for my age and a little prim in my appearance—and often mistaken for being younger than I actually was. My mischief-making was probably a protest against all of that. I had a lot of friends and a large vocabulary, much of it completely inappropriate for my age, and I liked to cause problems for teachers (and adults in general).
KG: Did you begin to see yourself as a creative person when you started writing poems? What happened then? Did your daily activities change?
MK: I think part of my reluctance to think of myself as “creative” came out of the sense of voiceless-ness I often felt as a young woman—the sense that my perspective, experiences, and existence in the world was somehow not valid or of interest. I was forced to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man something like three times as an English major, as well as a slew of other books in high school and college that one could characterize as “dude lit” (The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Hemingway’s collected works, etc). That’s not to say that they weren’t good books, but I don’t think that I was offered many models of women authors, or even strong women protagonists. And the work by women that we did get to read was often overshadowed by the ways in which the writer’s genius was framed as pathology—I’m thinking especially of Plath, Dickinson, and Woolf. I read a lot of contemporary fiction on my own, but again, that was also mostly from the male-dominated canon. It wasn’t until I had an amazing role model in that professor (Sara Blair)—she was definitely the coolest and smartest woman I had met in my life up to that point, and she somehow thought that what I had to say might be of interest—that I saw that possibility of being a writer myself. I think about that frequently now that I am a teacher. So I don’t know how much of it was considering myself a creative person, but rather feeling the permission to think and speak in that way.
And, yes, my daily activities certainly changed. Through a combination of injuries and a growing dedication to my scholarly and creative pursuits, I ended up quitting the track/cross country team before my senior year. My heart wasn’t really in it anymore and Charles Wright’s advanced poetry workshop conflicted with cross country practice, so my decision was made.
I’m still an athlete in my way, though, I suppose. I was a yoga teacher for a while and I still practice, as well as swim and hike and generally enjoy being outside.
KG: Last winter you told me you were looking forward to warmer weather, to “reading and thinking with open windows.” I’ve often thought of that phrase since. It’s a good description of how I feel when I read your poetry, regardless of the weather. I wonder: do you find your writing changes much with the seasons? Are some seasons better for composing, and others revising?
MK: While I spend a lot of time reading and thinking, I’m very much a creature of sensation and the body. And maybe because of this, the seasons seem to have a big impact on me. I’m currently in the thrall of summer—and the way the heat and humidity on your skin feel like a constant embrace. I don’t know if one season is better than another for writing (or thinking), though I can say that needing to rely on artificial temperature control for hot Kansas summers and cold Kansas winters has done much to intensify my sense of longing for the outside world—for open windows and walks and seeing friends—and that probably comes across in my poems.
KG: What role does research play in your work?
MK: Typically I start with a rather broad question or concern, and then as I start my research (reading, music, film, movement and other lived experience) and writing poems, that question leads to further concerns. So I just follow the thread and see where it takes me. For Deep City, I worked with sources ranging from David Harvey, to Honoré de Balzac, to Young Jeezy, to Julia Kristeva, to The Gates (a short-lived tv drama)—and then there are all the cities that I have lived in and visited and the ways in which I am a creature of those places.
KG: I think you’re around the same age as Young Jeezy. He put out his first album, as Lil’ J, at about the time you turned from sports to poetry. Did you first hear his music back then or did you get turned on to him at some later point? Can you say a little bit about how Jeezy’s music and/or Jeezy himself acted as a point of reference for the poems in Deep City?
MK: I wish I was that cool. I didn’t really know his work until “Soul Survivor” came out when I was in grad school. His album The Recession came out just as I started working on Deep City. I loved the album, especially the single “Put On.” There is something about Jeezy’s display of resilience and pride—the power of the individual voice and body—in the midst of a city crumbling around him. The cars, cash, guns, jewels, drugs, and beautiful women that he sings about are both armor and adornment against the harsh and unblinking city/economy/state. That song made me want to re-explore and re-conceive lyric possibility in my own work.
KG: Let’s talk a little about the cities you’ve lived in. When and why did you live in Paris? What other cities have you lived in and how do they continue to live in you?
MK: Oh, I fell in love with a Parisian (when we were both living in Los Angeles) and was whisked away. It was in the early aughts, not long after I graduated from college. I’ve also lived in New York; Washington, DC; Virginia Beach; Portland, OR; and Casablanca (briefly, when mostly residing in Paris). Of all those cities, I think Los Angeles is the one that most felt like home; I just dreamt that I was there last night. But mostly I don’t feel tied to a particular place, which is perhaps why I have moved around so much—I pretty much always say yes to the next place, the next possibility.
KG: How did Los Angeles feel like home? Does it still?
MK: It’s a place I keep returning to. I lived there on three separate occasions, and I think of it as the first place that I lived as an adult. It still feels like home in some ways, but also it feels haunted. Maybe all places are like that when we get older. Each city has temporal layers in addition to physical geography. Whenever I visit, I am surprised how everything feels so thick with memory. It’s been maybe a year since I was back, but I’ll be in town in the spring, so I’ll see.
KG: Did your family move around a lot before you began moving on your own?
MK: Not so much. I was born in the Midwest when my father was in graduate school, but we moved to Virginia when I was pretty young. We moved on my eighth birthday, I think, and even at that age, I was pretty excited to move on to bigger and more exciting places.
KG: I haven’t read Deep City yet. How would you describe it?
MK: Deep City thinks about the city and the body as architectures in crisis. The poems explore the city and suburbs as container and contents of collective memory and how space shapes the body/how we create space. They examine language and identity in the crisis of late capitalism, with its unaffordable housing, healthcare, and educational systems, exploitative labor practices, and continuous violence on everyday citizens (both through routine police violence and the “war on terror”).
KG: Is the body an “architecture in crisis” mainly because we are mortal?
MK: Because we are mortal, because our bodies are composed of battling cells and organisms, and also because our bodies are under attack by pollutants, police violence, poverty, corporations, the state, environmental catastrophe, etc. Our bodies’ architectures are composed so much by things we don’t see or think about (systems of state, technologies, ecologies, and myriad other things that construct and shape our physical existence).
KG: In a talk you gave at Naropa while you were working on Deep City, you said you thought the book would be exploring “what happens when narrated identity becomes unbearable.” Could you tell me more about that?
MK: In a lot of ways, I think of Deep City as an examination of voice and identity—the ways we construct and give voice to our selves. I was thinking a lot about what happens to that voice/identity in moments of crisis. And those interests led me to Kristeva’s Powers of Horror and to thinking about this passage from that work:
“For, when narrated identity is unbearable, when the boundary between subject and object is shaken, and when even the limits between inside and outside become uncertain, the narrative is challenged first … the unbearable identity of the narrator and the surroundings that are supposed to sustain him can no longer be narrated but cries out or is decried with maximal stylistic intensity.”
I think that is one of the modes of speech in Deep City—the sense of crying out. I’ve been thinking a lot about the construction of the lyric voice and the sense of a coherent self that we might associate with it. I find that lyric “I” problematic historically. But, in some ways, I wonder if the experimental post-avant’s rejection of the lyric subject doesn’t reinforce the various hierarchies that it purportedly seeks to dismantle. Thinking of Leslie Scalapino’s insistence that “[n]o one is free of their narrative.” I’m interested in ways to reconsider and revise the lyric mode—perhaps ways to de-center and radicalize it. While the “I”s in the book are certainly shifting, I’m interested in capturing multiplicity and complications, not in obliterating the possibility of a subject. When I’m thinking about narrated identity becoming unbearable, I’m thinking both of narratives imposed upon us and the narratives we build for ourselves.
KG: A friend said recently that even if he didn’t have to teach to make a living, he would still want to teach in an informal way, outside of the university setting—to share his experiences and methods, things that might be helpful to other poets at various stages. For him, teaching is one of the practices of poetry. Do you feel that way?
MK: Yes—I think sharing and being in conversation with other poets is so important. Even though my job at the university keeps me busy, it’s important to me to make time to connect with other poets informally, outside of the institutional setting.
I often feel like a bit of an outlier—perhaps all artists within the institution do? When I decided to go to an MFA program I was doing it to have the dedicated time and guidance to become a better poet; I had no intention of pursuing a career in the academy. Even though I discovered as a graduate student that I loved teaching, I didn’t plan on doing it full-time at a university. I really enjoyed teaching yoga and teaching a writing class or two. There is something so beautiful about helping someone do something that they have never done before (and maybe didn’t think they could do). But as I kept writing and teaching, my research drew me back to the university system—and I discovered that I am better at teaching poetry than yoga.
There are so many amazing young poets writing, and I love to read their work and hear about what they are up to and help them in any way that I can. And many poets I admire have reached out to me, providing informal mentorship and advice, and have even had my back in some difficult situations. I feel honored when I can provide the same kind of help to others.
I love being at the university, though I think the formal structure of the university can only go so far: it can provide essential access to learning and support for artists, but also the institution (and all institutions, perhaps) can be at odds with the actual creation of art. I think it is important to be open about this and the limitations of the academy. And I often think about the ways in which moves towards professionalization within creative writing programs can produce students of publication strategies, social media campaigns, and institutional privilege, as opposed to students of poetry/fiction.
KG: What is poetry? And where does yours come from?
MK: Mostly, I’m willing to call almost anything poetry that says that it is poetry.
I don’t really know where my poems come from, or at least I don’t completely understand how the poems come into being. I absorb things, they inscribe themselves in my body and mind. Then I sit down and write. I definitely edit and tinker with poems, but most of the composition occurs somewhere deep in my brain. I guess in some ways everything in my life becomes a part of my practice. It’s not something I can turn on or off.
KG: Did the publication of your first book change your life?
MK: For me the most exciting thing about my first book was that it was a way to send a little piece of myself out into the world to interact with other people. Sometimes I feel a little isolated living here in Kansas, so it makes me happy to think about my poems traveling about and interacting with people in the form of my book, even when I cannot.
KG: You curate a popular reading series in Lawrence—does that help with the isolated feeling?
MK: Yes. I love to hear other poets read! It’s often a revelatory experience.
KG: Do you like reading your poetry to an audience?
MK: I love reading my work! In college, I was definitely the student who ducked down in her seat in hopes of not being asked to read aloud. But I’ve gotten over that. Right now I’m in the process of putting together readings/class visits/etc. for the late fall and spring.
KG: It’s great that poetry gives us a reason to get around. I wonder: where else can poetry take us? Do you have a goal or a destination in mind?
MK: I think poetry can lead us towards a greater sense of connection and compassion. That’s my hope, at least.
Megan Kaminski is the author of two books of poetry: Deep City (Noemi Press, 2015) and Desiring Map (Coconut Books, 2012). She is an assistant professor in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at the University of Kansas and the founder and curator of the Taproom Poetry Series.
Kate Greenstreet’s books are Young Tambling, The Last 4 Things, and case sensitive, all with Ahsahta Press.