Poetry Will Survive: A Conversation with C. Kubasta
Last winter, TMR's Mandy Grathwohl spoke with poet C. Kubasta via email about her new poetry collection, Of Covenants, published by Whitepoint Press in December. You can keep up with C. at @CKubastathePoet, and visit her online at ckubasta.com.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
M: What are your origins with literature?
C: Reading was a part of our family culture; we had a "chapter-a-night" routine. My brothers and I would lie in the front room, listening to our father's voice: the wonder of word made flesh, the inevitable disappointment of a chapter ending.
In 5th grade, my reading became a problem—I'd sneak whatever I was reading to school, and hide the book in one of those flip-open metal desks, thinking I was subtle when I carried on my own esoteric education, rather than whatever the rest of the class was doing. During the fall, it was Alex Haley's Roots, when I learned how image worked—how it could sear into the brain. At conferences that October, my teacher tried to convince my parents to hide my book, to break me of my extracurricular reading. But my parents didn't.
I think part of the reason my poetry is as it is—intertextual & layered—is probably because of this appetite, a kind of omnivorousness. I learned about love & sex from my paternal grandmother's bodice-rippers, from my maternal grandmother's Clan of the Cave Bear.
M: What sort of future are you working toward?
C: Lately, I've been returning to the themes that first drew me to poetry. Aging has brought me up against similar experiences that I recall from the transition between girlhood & womanhood. I feel myself called back into my body, trying to write about the experiences of feeling caught, but also writing about the flesh we inhabit, through it, is freeing & transcendent. It's the thing that must be written.
My newer poetry continues in its interruptions, but circles back to desire—the body's wants that it cannot have.
I've also been writing fiction. My first novel was recently picked up and will be out this fall. My novella, Girling, was published in December by Brain Mill Press. It's the story of growing up girl—the continual gendering that is enforced & considered necessary, in large & small ways. Watching the #MeToo and #MeAt14 stories proliferate, I see the girls, Kate & Ann, and their diverging experiences.
Looking forward, I'd like to stay angry, never satisfied with form or content, never content.
M: What was your process in putting Of Covenants together?
C: The first poem I wrote, which really became the entire structure of the book, was "The Uses of Salt." I was riding in my car to work, listening to Wisconsin Public Radio—some report about whether the supplies of road salt would hold out for the winter. I started thinking about salt—its taste, how it was used in lieu of money. I began repeating that line "less arbitrary than coins, than cowries" aloud in the car, listening to its sounds.
From there, everything seemed linked to some kind of promise, agreement, or transaction. I began exploring these ideas of covenants. There is something about the structures we build—whether they be transactions of exchange, language, and our legal system—that define and describe our connections to each other. It might be exactly the ways in which those systems are flawed that most perfectly describe our connections to each other.
M: What are some of your favorite poems from the collection?
C: "The Uses of Salt" was a foundational poem, and I love the sounds of it. Another important poem is the one that was published in Matador, "Them & Us & We." It came out of a conversation with a good friend, about the word "sister" and all the things it could mean.
There are a few poems that, while not doing anything particularly interesting or new in terms of form or language, are deeply personal. "The Map" is for my youngest brother Zach—I sent it to him during his first semester of college. It was the first time I'd communicated with him via poetry, and been as close to completely honest as I get. "Mercy" is part of an ongoing-dialogue I have with a dear friend, where I'm trying to understand my misunderstandings, my shortcomings, my hasty rush to judgement.
There are a couple other poems like that in the book, dear & personal & speaking of pain that I wouldn't utter, except in a poem. Because those utterances are wrapped up in the covenant of language and I'm afforded the mask of the speaker's "I," I feel like I can say things there.
M: In 2013, The Washington Post reported that "poetry is going extinct." As a poet, do you find this to be false?
C: These recurring concerns about the "death" of poetry are cyclical & misguided. Many people write poetry. I wish more people read poetry, but if writers of poetry read poetry we're doing fine. It's central that poets read more, read widely, and read outside their aesthetics. If we want to continue to grow as writers and chroniclers of experience, we need to challenge our experience—what we think we know, and how we write about it.
Also, new venues for sharing poetry are sprouting up all the time—it seems there's an endless variety of new journals & magazines, blogs, online sharing platforms, many with a particular focus on themes, certain voices, and aesthetics. Not all of them continue, but that's okay too—some voices need to be heard at particular times, loudly. Some are slow-burn and continue building.
What we call "poetry" has changed over time, and I suspect it will continue to. Whether we're talking about lyrics, formal poetry, free verse, rap, fragments, or the fabulous redacted erasures that Isobel O'Hare is doing of statements from men called out on their behavior publicly in the wake of allegations of abuse, poetry survives because it speaks in a visceral way to our lived experience of the world. As long as we don't get caught up in trying to define it too prescriptively (trying to throw power around & restrict voices), value its inherently transgressive spirit, and appreciate its fundamental role in articulating human experience, of course poetry will survive. Humanity needs it to survive.