The Poetics of Searching: A Conversation with Kiki Petrosino

Kiki Petrosino is the author of four books of poetry: Fort Red Border (2009), Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013), Witch Wife (2017), and White Blood (2020). Previously Director of Creative Writing at the University of Louisville, she now teaches at her alma mater, the University of Virginia. Petrosino holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop. Her poems and essays have appeared in Best American Poetry, Poetry, The New York Times, Ploughshares, and Tin House, among others. She is the recipient of a Fellowship in Creative Writing from the National Endowment from the Arts, an Al Smith Fellowship Award from the Kentucky Arts Council, and a Pushcart Prize. Presently she is sheltering-in-place with her spouse in Charlottesville, Virginia.


Lucy Catlett: I want to start with that golden rule in poetry—how we never take the author to be the “I,” never assume the speaker to be the poet. Of course, we all approach this rule with some flexibility while both reading and writing. But the reckoning (or many reckonings) that takes place in White Blood are so personal, so local to your life—from erasure poems lifted from your very own DNA testing kit to poems that are located in named-sites in Virginia—that the speaker feels inextricable from you, Kiki, as you go through this process of searching for and interrogating your former selves, geographical selves, and ancestral selves.

And that is in part why, to me, these poems read like a search, or “a searching for.” On the other side of the collection, I felt as though I had gone through it with you. It is not a “reading about Kiki Petrosino’s ancestry and thoughts on the South”; White Blood is a going-through, a text that re-creates within you the emotional and mental processes that it describes.

So what I would love to hear is the story behind White Blood. Where in your life did the process of White Blood begin?

Kiki Petrosino: That is, first of all, a great reflection and response. I want the reader to feel as though this book is an experience for them to go through. To traverse, as you say.

I started the writing of White Blood in 2016, during a semester-long sabbatical at my previous job at the University of Louisville. By that point I had been teaching there for five or six years. The previous year I had also lost my last grandparent, my grandmother, whose entire family is from Louisa County, Virginia. I found myself at this point where I was embarking on this other stage of adulthood—where you have no more grandparents, you’re a professor, you’re a homeowner, you’re surrounded by all the trappings of adulthood—and I found myself thinking a lot about the past, particularly the deep past. I thought it might be interesting to spend my sabbatical in Virginia so that I could access some of the historical records and try and re-imagine my grandmother’s early life in that rural community in Louisa, which is, as you know, right next to Albemarle County, where Jefferson’s Monticello is located. Then I started to ask myself about the four years I spent living in Charlottesville, wondering, why didn’t I ever go there?

I never did any research on my own when I was a college student. I was at UVA as an African American student of mixed racial heritage (my father’s family is Italian American). But I wasn’t able to process all the gravity of what it meant to be a person of color on grounds. I felt haunted sometimes by the fact of the place and how this space was historically segregated between white students and faculty and the Black people who were laboring to create the wonderful space of ideas that is UVA. So I wrote for the newspaper and sang in the women’s chorus. I had poetry friends and took lots of classes.

Flash forward to 2016 and I found myself thinking, Maybe I can explore some of those ambiguities around race, UVA, and Louisa. That’s when I started building White Blood. Then the Unite the Right Rally of August 11th-12th, 2017, happened, and UVA was effectively invaded by neo-nazis carrying torches.

It brought everything into a greater frame of urgency for me. I knew that I had to write about UVA. I had to write about Virginia. And so I started writing that sonnet crown, “Happiness,” which opens the book.

LC: The “Happiness” sequence does almost feel like a port-of-entry, wherein the speaker interrogates this younger self who, while haunted by the slave history of the University, is also prideful, and witless to the larger structures of inequality that are still embedded in (and very much alive) at Virginia.

KP: Yeah. And so those sonnets were the stepping-off point. Then everything happened at once. I had already taken the DNA test, and I began to try and weave those results into a story, wanting to show how the story also contains within it far more questions than a genetic test can ever answer.

LC: I want to talk about the form of those two specific sets of poems, “What Your Results Mean” and “Happiness.” In both sequences the form seems to act out the acts of searching and thinking—the erasure form of “What Your Results Mean” reflecting the process of sifting through and lifting out answers, and the vast, blank spaces of the page communicating how much remains incomprehensible and unknown; and the sonnet crown structure of “Happiness” reflecting a mind doubling down on these unanswerable questions and issues, leaping and linking from thought to thought. They seem to communicate those experiences for you. And in that way form and content are working together to beget the poems, to reach for the answers, within the broken rules of rhythm and rhyme.

KP: Yes. The DNA poems are erasure poems. I took paragraphs and blurbs from the DNA tests that talk about the components of your DNA and where your ancestors came from in the deep past. Then I would take the paragraph and erase the words that I didn’t want to retain so that all the words in black font became the poem. That’s why the “What Your Results Mean” sequences are scattered—the words remain in their original locations, and so what you get is a kind of ladder of words, or a spiral of words, kind of like the double helix of DNA.

The point of genealogy is to find your ancestors’ story and, ideally, to find out about their lives and the things that happened to them. But that is something that, in large part, I won’t ever really be able to retrieve, because my ancestors who came here from Africa were enslaved, and those who were eventually freed still left little to no written record of themselves. So in that sequence, I’m using form to say that as much as you may be able to gather from a person’s DNA, that still doesn’t tell you where their specific ancestors entered into this whole story of America. It can only tell you what is probable and that you share DNA with others who are linked to the collective story. Because there’s no record of their thoughts or their feelings, you have to piece everything together yourself and read in between the lines. Your imagination fills in the gaps, and it’s not as satisfying as you might have imagined it to be.

As for the “Happiness” sequence, the sonnet crown is a really special form that I had never written before. What the sonnet form allows you to do is to explore a complex idea in a small space. So you have fourteen lines, you have a certain number of stanzas, and over the course of those lines you have to introduce a topic, elaborate on the theme, then tie it off at the end. And when you have a sonnet crown, the last line of your previous sonnet becomes the first line of the next sonnet. When you have a double crown, you’re going to make fourteen of those, and the fifteenth sonnet will be composed of all those repeated lines at the poem’s start that link each one together. And like DNA again, it generates this ladder. The form was especially good for talking about my experience at UVA and remembering back to that time, because by the end of one sonnet I would not be done thinking about that particular topic, and the subsequent sonnet would allow me to try and delve further in. You can move through difficult material because you always have that ledge of the repeated line, and you could say the same of any recursive, incantatory or repetitive form.

LC: I see that especially in some of the most cutting lines from this collection—for example, the rhyming couplet “my body’s debt: silent slab. / I knew I was a living lab,” or the three-line erasure “you / are likely / a cluster / a mixture / a high number.” These are the sort of revelations and epiphanies that read as though they were reached via rhyme.

KP: I hope so, because my intent was more to see what would come of the formal challenges than to fit a poem in their structures, and to communicate the peace and stillnesses that can be found in the writing of the poems themselves. Greg Orr, a former professor of poetry at UVA, talks about poetry being “a raft of language,” something you can ride on through difficulty.

LC: Across the collection, these poems are imbued with disappointment and futility, particularly at the documentary silences and voids that you found throughout your research. Can you speak to some of those moments?

KP: I think that what I learned is that futility is a feeling you have when you’ve been asking the wrong questions, and that’s what the start of my genealogical journey felt like.

I had this idea that I would find the estates or the plantations or the pieces of property where my ancestors had been enslaved, and that I could go there, and that if I could go to that land it would mean something. I imagined that by doing that I would have gotten back to their beginning, but in reality the circumstances of my ancestors enslavement in America was not the start of their story at all. The beginning of their story has to do with Africa—where they were from, how it was that they were kidnaped, how they were bought and sold across an ocean to get to this continent in the first place. Realizing that my particular ancestors have been here for a very, very long time, potentially as early as the 1700s or even earlier than that, I had to accept that I don’t know if I will ever be able to find the name or the names of my original African ancestors or the ships that they were on. What I failed to realize in the beginning of my research was that what I thought was the beginning really wasn’t. Finding out what plantations they worked on and where they lived in Louisa became a way of heading off this much more difficult question of how my ancestors even got here.

Ultimately, there is all this stuff that has been left by those particular ancestors—the names they passed down through the family, their wills and their testaments, their graves—it just wasn’t in the form that I was looking for at the start of my search. It was at that point that I realized I needed to change my whole perspective on the process of research, and then all those feelings of disappointment and futility left me. I was left with a lot of gratitude.

LC: And this collection defies any sort of conclusion, ending with a section titled “Interlude,” containing only one poem, “Psalm,” which seems to reiterate that revelation you’re talking about—that much still remains unknown and yet to be learned.

KP: “Prelude” is the beginning of the book, “Interlude” is the end, and the final poem in the book “Psalm,” is also a musical form. I ended with an interlude because I intend to continue the project, to continue the genealogical research.

I also wanted specifically to tie these sequences to the idea of musical structure, because I think about this “search” in terms of both musical structures and formal structures that are recursive, musical, incantatory or melodic. Pieces of music and the act of research are both forms of movements across time. The sections are a kind of orchestral reference that I wanted for White Blood—to make the book feel like you’re listening to a long symphonic piece.

LC: I love the question that TJ Jarrett articulates in his blurb for White Blood: “What does this body have to say of a Commonwealth never designed to include it?” It brings into focus the broader scope of White Blood, a lyric of Virginia and an exploration of what it means to be a Black citizen of the Commonwealth. Something you continue to articulate literally and metaphorically in White Blood is the continued monetization of the Black body.

KP: It’s hard to talk about the history of race in Virginia without talking about money. That was a huge revelation for me in researching this book. We were a form of wealth, you know, a form of capital. It was human chattel. That’s what slavery was. And those enslaved people generated wealth. They generated billions of dollars of wealth in the early days of this nation, and that wealth made America into a superpower. And the very, very earliest slaves who arrived in America landed in Virginia. They cleared the land that then became fields where tobacco was grown and exported to England, and they created the agrarian state of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

That was just the beginning for me. I think there’s an untold story about how the economy of America began with the exploitation of that labor, and a willful amnesia about that history that has stayed with us through centuries.

LC: Particularly in the “Albemarle” poems, but really across all of White Blood, Thomas Jefferson is very much alive. It stuck with me, your line from the poem “Farm Book,” which reads, “after death, it’s so easy to work,” and you describe Jefferson as continuing to build with invisible bricks. Of course Jefferson’s presence is felt acutely at the University, walking to class beneath his statue, inhabiting the Academical Village and so on, but can you elaborate on how you see this playing out in America more broadly?

KP: It’s really just the fact that we are still living inside the experiment of the founding fathers. We live in the system that they formulated, the experiment of American democracy, and we remain in the midst of it today. It’s still ongoing. All of us—not just African Americans, not just people of color, but every American is involved in this perpetual state of collective self-discovery. We’re getting some data, but we’re still growing, still working, still learning about what America is and who we are as Americans. And whether it’s the civil war, the civil rights movement, or the anti-war movement, all of these could be thought of as additional chambers on Monticello. They’re just made of invisible bricks, you know?

And what eventually will we build? Will it be okay? Will it be a Camelot? Will it be a place where all people are treated as equals? Will equality actually be lived and practiced? Will it be the City on the Hill that Jefferson hoped for it to be?

I hope so, really. I’m an optimist, and I really want that to be true. I want to be a part of building it. It does come from Jefferson. Jefferson has a problematic legacy, and I recognize and write about that at the same time that I share in his vision for America, his general broad view. It is beautiful. It is something to strive for and not forget about the way that he conceived a representative democracy. It’s something that we have to work towards, and it can be really, really wonderful. I hope it will be.

LC: How is it being back at the University now, as a professor?

KP: This was my first year as a faculty member in the English department. It’s been a surreal experience to walk around grounds. I find myself still remembering how to get places, even though I haven’t gone there in twenty years…. I definitely remembered how to get to the Student Union, and my body practically delivered me to the Chick-fil-A [laughs].

I do feel like I should be here, especially now. I think this is a university that is poised to do good in the world—not just because of the violence that happened in 2017. UVA has been moving across two centuries to get to this point, right? It’s poised to make people think about what America and what American education can be. I’m really happy and proud to be here.

LC: You can’t choose how a book is received, but say you could—what are the implications you hope for White Blood to have, say, for readers who find themselves in a similar position as you did as an undergraduate?

KP: I guess my advice for that younger self would have been, You’re on a journey and your journey is your own. Yes. You come from this very complex legacy, and you are going to have to think about that and think about what that means. But you shouldn’t be afraid of that history. The questions and answers exist for you to think about when you’re ready.

Don’t be afraid of inquiry. Don’t be afraid of the questions that come from the deep past. Don’t be afraid of thinking of yourself as tied to those histories. We want to think critically about where we can go from that history in order to make the world we live in a better one, for all of us.

LC: One last question—what are the books or poems that had to be written in order to make White Blood possible?

KP: I would definitely say Ronald Johnson’s Radi os, a book from the early eighties that lifts erasure poems from the first four books of Paradise Lost. I borrowed his method for my erasures. Tracy K. Smith is a poet who’s really important to me, especially her book Wade in the Water, and her work with records and research. She’s been very inspirational.

And then Terrance Hayes, of course, with his American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, which totally revives and refreshes the sonnet form. There are so many contemporary poets of color doing work with the sonnet—it’s a very vibrant form.


Lucy Catlett

Lucy Catlett is a native of Virginia and received her BA in English and poetry writing from the University of Virginia. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Foundationalist, The Hampden-Sydney Review, Adroit and Arcade Echoes. She’s an outdoor educator living in the Mountain West.

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