Chains of Responsibility: A Conversation Between Jim Whiteside and Kate Gaskin

Jim Whiteside: I’d like to start by saying how taken with Forever War I am, cover to cover. It’s such a beautiful, aching book of poems, brimming with love and loneliness, complexity and complicity. As I read the poems and think about how they fall beneath the book’s title, it occurs to me that there are multiple simultaneous wars being fought here—American-propagated wars abroad, for sure, but also the speaker’s body at war with itself, the war against depression and loneliness, the fight between humanity and nature, the speaker battling against her own past and present, her whiteness and privilege. How did all of these themes come together under the umbrella of Forever War? What was the writing and assembling process like for this book as a manuscript?

Kate Gaskin: First of all, thank you so much, Jim, for the close attention you’ve paid my book. I’m so grateful! The veil between autobiography and the speaker of most (but not all) of these poems is thin, so as far as the book’s themes coming together, I suppose I was trying to be as honest as possible about the experiences I’ve had as a military spouse, as a mother, as a person who lives with lifelong anxiety and depression, and as a woman whose race and socio-economic class give me very real advantages. As I was writing these poems I struggled with a lot of ethical questions. Do I have the right, as a non-veteran, to write about war, or am I being appropriative of an experience I will never understand? Am I sensationalizing violence? Do these poems add anything new or useful to the already-giant body of war literature? Can I even write about these topics authentically? I still don’t have an answer to most of my questions, but I think that’s indicative of the way poetry often acts as an open-ended interrogation of life’s complexities. As far as assembling these poems into a manuscript, I was lucky to participate in AWP’s Writer to Writer mentorship program a few years ago, and my mentor, Christina Olson, ordered my manuscript for me, which was the most wonderful gift. She saw themes and connections I wasn’t able to spot. I essentially taught myself how to write poetry as I was writing this book, so to have Christina’s experienced eye come in at the end and give me some much-needed practical help was such a relief. 

JW: I think you’ve really succeeded in your goal of being as honest as possible! You’re right to say that there’s a long history of war literature, but I think you’re breaking new ground here. The speaker benefits from her position of closeness to war, and so do we, as readers—it allows her to be unsparingly honest and to balance that honesty with compassion and love. I think of a moment that seems to ring with the most honesty, in “Delta, Echo, Alpha, Romeo”:

…how you parted
the air, how the ocean divides
breath between us. In Doha

you followed the sun
to the Gulf. Not once have I
believed we’ll be spared.

This moment of tenderness, tempered by the speaker’s feeling of complicity. How do you feel like complicity plays a factor in these poems, and how do you manage the balance between these two forces?

KG: As I was writing these poems, I felt a strong responsibility to demonstrate how my speaker (and therefore myself) is complicit in systems of violence. I’m complicit in our military’s overseas wars in at least two ways: via my spouse’s role as an active duty officer in the U.S. Air Force, and via being a citizen of this country and benefitting from its resources, which are procured and protected in part by our robust military presence around the world. I’m also interested in the narratives we’ve created around military service. Especially in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was such hero-worship of the military, so many empty platitudes, so much mindless gratitude. Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk really encapsulates the public’s tendency to deify soldiers without caring about the political realities specific to our recent and ongoing wars. To me, uncritical participation in these narratives is also a kind of complicity, and many—probably most—U.S. citizens are guilty of this. 

The way complicity bumps up against tenderness in my book resulted—I think—from a question I kept struggling with about what it means to love someone who directly participates in these systems of violence. My spouse is very thoughtful about his role in all this, and he engages with his job in critical ways. We absolutely need people like him in military leadership. But, at the end of the day, just because he’s not literally pressing the button to release the bombs doesn’t mean he isn’t as responsible as the person whose job it is to be the button-presser. These chains of responsibility haunt me. Most of us are linked to oppressive systems of one kind or another, but we still fall in love with each other and we make excuses and we compartmentalize our guilt to avoid feeling pain. I guess if I’m going to feel guilt, I want to interrogate it. I don’t want to ignore it.

JW: I’m so glad you bring up narratives and how they’re constructed around certain topics. There’s a line from Layli Long Soldier’s poem “38” that’s been bouncing around my head for a while: “Keep in mind, I am not a historian.” It’s true—poets aren’t historians, exactly, but we are agents of collective and cultural memory. Which brings me to ask—what part does poetry play in all of this? How do poems speak to the present moment in ways that other art forms or forms of record-making simply cannot?

KG: This is a question that smarter and more thoughtful people than I have contemplated, so I will keep my focus narrow and say that I saw a gap in the types of narratives that are perpetuated about military families, especially spouses. I really bristle under the stereotype of the stoic, long-suffering military spouse. There are plenty of those types of narratives out there—not only popular perception, but message boards, blogs, Facebook groups, etc.—and I just never felt entirely comfortable or seen in those spaces. I am whiny, impatient, and fragile—haha. I never did, and don’t do, well with deployments and other hardships specific to military families. I also don’t think I’m alone, and so I wanted to continue to develop and contribute to more complex narratives already begun by other poets who have been military spouses, like Jehanne Dubrow and Elyse Fenton. I also find that because most military spouses are women our perspectives tend to be reductively gendered, and in that way we’re both elevated (we’re the angel in the house) and dismissed (our concerns are domestic and therefore unserious). So I see poetry as a great way to examine stories like mine in a literary, critical, artful way. 

I also think that everything I just wrote sounds pretentious. There are lots of spaces for military spouses to receive support, and I think many of them are genuinely helpful, even if they haven’t been a good fit for me. Maybe I’m just contrarian! Regardless, reading poetry has helped me contextualize my experiences and emotions. It has helped me recalibrate my worldview. It has given me beauty and relief during times of stress. I hope that my book provides the same thing for others. I hope I’m giving forward in that way. 

JW: I’m so glad you’re adding nuance and complexity to those narratives. I think we so often are compelled to write because we aren’t seeing our story being told or represented in the discussion. I’m really interested in the writing process—as a coffee shop writer who’s now stuck at home, I’m having to reconsider my own process on a practical level, but there’s also whether a poem begins with the image, the experience, or something else. What’s your writing process like? How does a poem happen? When do you know a poem is finished?

KG: I tend to write poetry after I read poetry. That’s usually the most helpful jumping off point. When writing is going really well I start with an image or line and then I get into a rhythm where I write by sound and association. When it’s going poorly I stutter along a blank page for a while feeling very frustrated. Lately I haven’t been writing much. It’s a combination of wrapping up a big project (my book) and trying to find footing in my next project. If I’m being very honest with myself, I’m still in the processing stage, so the poems I’m writing these days aren’t very good. I’m trying to remember that it took me years to get to the point where I was able to write most of the poems in Forever War. It just takes time, for most of us writers, and for me especially, to write the best possible versions of our poems. That said, I’m not much of a reviser, which is not to say I don’t revise, just that I don’t tend to revise individual poems over months or years. So I don’t have a big back-catalog of poems to go back to and tinker with. When I’m finished with a poem, I just feel finished with it. It’s kind of nice to have that finality, but it also means that a lot of my poems are duds with no future. I’m a little jealous you’re a coffee shop writer. I wish I could concentrate in public spaces, but I usually need to be alone in my own house, which can be tricky. I’ve written and revised whole poems in the bathroom to try to get some space and quiet time away from my family. 

JW: Whatever works! We all have our hiding away moments of one kind or another. Could you point to a poem in Forever War that was particularly satisfying to finish or get down on the page? Which poem epitomizes the rhythmic and flowing drafting process you described?

KG: Probably the most satisfying poem to write was “What the War Was Not, What the War Was,” the opening poem to my collection. As soon as I wrote it I knew it was the poem that would act as a key to the rest of my manuscript. I also thought it was the kind of poem that could maybe win an award, so I entered it in a few contests, and it won one of The Pinch’s annual writing awards. It was canny to have that feeling. I wish I had that feeling about more of my poems, but I definitely do not. 

My poem “Monarch Season” demonstrates my drafting process pretty well. The whole poem is held together by words like here, air, clear, near, and glare. I’m a big fan of internal rhymes and slant rhymes. There’s something so satisfying about them. I’ve tried to work with forms that have end rhymes—so many failed sonnets, villanelles that never get past the second stanza—but most of these kinds of forms don’t result in viable poems. Maybe someday if I keep working at it.

JW: And yet, there is a real formal consciousness in the book. The book feels so well controlled and paced, and your use of regular, repeated stanzaic forms is a big part of that. I love your use of the couplet, those little units that help expand and provide tension. You’ve also included a couple prescribed forms—”Ghazal for Alabama” and “Permanent Change of Station,” which is a pantoum (and one of my absolute favorite poems in the book). In addition to internal or slant rhymes, what do you feel that these forms bring to the work? How does working with forms that repeat or circle back on themselves help inform your work?

KG: Thank you for saying there’s a formal consciousness apparent! I worry that readers will grow bored of all the couplets and tercets in this book, but I really love playing with white space to increase tension and suggest pacing. I also think stanza breaks create opportunities for breathing room. Poetry can be so dense, so as a reader I appreciate breaks. As for repeating forms, for some reason I’ve just had the most luck with them. One of the realities of military service is repetitive monotony. No matter where we’re stationed, no matter how much time has passed, my spouse is subject to the same cycle of deployments and training trips. Every two to three years (at times, even every year) we move to a new duty station. There we start over with a new house, a new city, new schools for our kid, new jobs for me. Even the very nature of war is cyclical, since there are stretches of apparent peace between conflicts. I also structured Forever War so that the first and last poem feature deployments. So the book itself is a closed loop. 

JW: There’s so much in this book that points to those cycles, the repetitive nature of deployments, constant war. Those opening and closing poems, for sure, point us to that loop, but I’m also intrigued by the sequence towards the book’s middle, “Vietnam War.” Those lines, “Why are there only / two wars in this book / there is never not a war” are so poignant. I’m intrigued by this sequence in the middle of a book about contemporary war and a contemporary relationship and family. How did you conceive of this sequence complementing the others in the collection, as it has such a different tone and speaks to a different time?

KG: The poems in that sequence are among the oldest in the book. I had tried for years to write coherently about my spouse’s deployments, but I kept failing. I didn’t think I had permission to write from my own perspective. I was afraid I would be accused of co-opting an experience that didn’t belong to me. Especially in the 2000s, I was hyper-aware of the pain and suffering many military families were going through. My solution was to write persona poems, and so that no one could assume these poems were autobiographical I set them very obviously during a different war in a previous era. I eventually got over my fear of writing about my personal experiences, in part by reading Look by Solmaz Sharif. In the long poem “Personal Effects,” Sharif writes “How could she say / the things she does not / know…” and “According to most / definitions, I have never / been at war.” These lines effectively gave me permission to write from my own perspective. 

When Christina helped me order my manuscript she put these persona poems, wisely, in the middle, and she suggested that I write a poem that ties them to the rest of my manuscript. That’s where the lines “Why are there only / two wars in this book / there is never not a war” come from. I later stripped each poem of its original title and instead numbered them so that they hopefully read like a true sequence. Originally, these poems were from the perspectives of various family members of unnamed returning service members, but KMA Sullivan, the founding editor of YesYes Books, gently suggested that perhaps the effect of this was chaotic, so I rewrote each poem to be from the same speaker addressed to the same beloved. Ultimately, who knows if this sequence really works, but I’m glad they’re in the book because they’re lively and a little spooky, and in that way maybe they’re even a little fun.

JW: I love hearing about the editing and changing that happens in the production of a book, even after it’s accepted for publication. I’m so glad it sounds like working with the YesYes Books team was a really productive process for you.

I’m also interested in your own role as a Poetry Editor at The Adroit Journal. How has your work as an editor at a literary journal changed the way you see your own work, submissions, etc.?

KG: I’m more critical of myself in the drafting process now! I read so much good work for Adroit. It’s a constant deluge of brilliance. I’m working on turning off my editor goggles when I focus on generating my own stuff. Otherwise, I’ll never write anything again. As for submissions, when I started working for Adroit as a reader, it really underlined for me what I already knew, which is that many journals get way, way more good work in their submissions queue than they can ever publish. That helped me feel better about my own rejections.

JW: That’s such a comfort, once you realize just how much good work there is out there—rejections so often aren’t a marker of quality in the work, but a necessary response given the volume of submissions. I had a really similar experience when I started reading submissions for Adroit. Any other words of encouragement or tips for all the emerging writers out there?

KG: My only advice (and it’s the advice I most needed to hear, and still do even now) is that you have to trust in your own personal writing timeline. I came to poetry slightly older, and I felt—and still do feel sometimes—like I was somehow behind, but I am on the best possible timeline for the work I’m doing. And there is no such thing as being behind. You can only do the work that is yours to do. Eyes on your own paper, you know? One of my former professors John Price, who is a wonderful creative nonfiction writer and naturalist, said in an interview that we have to “accept whatever meager talents we’ve been given, and…apply them in ways that are likely to do the most good—even when we don’t want to,” which is such a humble way to say that we have to learn to work with what we’ve got. Even if that material isn’t glamorous or overtly exciting, we are tasked, as artists, to make something meaningful out of our lives in ways that add goodness to the world. 


Jim Whiteside

Jim Whiteside is the author of a chapbook, Writing Your Name on the Glass (Bull City Press, 2018) and is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. His poems have appeared in The New York Times, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and Boston Review, among others. Originally from Cookeville, Tennessee, he holds an MFA from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and lives in Oakland, California. He tweets at @whiteside_jim.

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