Joanna Klink is the author of They Are Sleeping (University of Georgia Press, 2000), Circadian (Penguin, 2007), Raptus (Penguin, 2010), and Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy (Penguin, 2015). Her poems have appeared in many anthologies, most recently The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century Poetry. She has received awards and fellowships from The Rona Jaffe Foundation, Jeannette Haien Ballard, Civitella Ranieri, and The American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Hi, Joanna! Thanks again for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions. Let’s start simple: What’s a book that you’ve recently read (or re-read) that has stayed with you?
JK: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart. I have been slowly working my way through Bowen’s novels. I love being in the presence of her sentences. She is psychologically astute—the further she drops into her characters’ minds, the more desperate, patterned, and luminous they seem. And Bowen is a phenomenal writer on the level of perception… The Death of the Heart for example includes a long, merciless description of springtime.
How did you find your way into writing—is there a specific moment you can recall that acted as a sort of epiphany?
JK: When four of my father’s physics colleagues, people I had known since childhood, were shot and killed by a physics graduate student in Iowa City in 1991, I was auditing an undergraduate poetry workshop with Heather McHugh. In the weeks that followed the shootings, she brought elegies to class. Reading elegies out loud for three hours at a time—that helped clarify for me what restoration might look like, in language. Not consolation. But being brought back to one’s senses and one’s capacity for grief.
You, of course, have an MFA from Iowa and a PhD in the humanities from Johns Hopkins. As you may know, many of our readers are secondary or undergraduate students still debating whether to formally pursue writing. We were wondering if you might talk a bit about what influenced your decision to pursue the literary arts to this degree, and whether you might have any advice for these students as they try to decide if the field is for them.
JK: My mother was one of the first women admitted for graduate work to the English Department at Johns Hopkins. She fled after getting her master’s degree—the few women on scholarship were quietly, routinely harassed by the male faculty. She went on to teach Chaucer and Shakespeare at the high school I attended in Iowa City. So I grew up in a family that read, but I also grew up with a mother whose intelligence and fluency with reading and writing—whose voice—went unrecognized in the academy. I was affected by that.
I’m a realist; I understand the constraints, particularly economic and social, on anyone—at any age—who wants to make art or devote him or herself to the humanities. I don’t have advice really. I just think there has to be an explicit decision to choose that life.
Let’s turn to your stellar collection Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy, out from Penguin in March of last year. First of all, congratulations—the book is a gorgeous, lyric journey, and has been received as one. It impressively bridges the self and the outside world, and strikes, by necessity perhaps, a chord as personal as it is brave. Is there a particularly personal poem from the collection, and, if so, what made you write it—and then share it?
JK: I wrote “Novenary” after weeks of insomnia (I have a new appreciation for anyone who deals with that particular physical terror on a regular basis). I wrote “Stillways” after becoming unexpectedly pregnant then having a miscarriage. I wrote “Report on Fire” after living in Portland for a few months and becoming accustomed to people who were homeless—I wrote it because I was appalled at myself. This is starting to sound like a checklist of things human beings go through. I’m always looking for some strand of emotional clarity, some precise counter-pressure to disarray.
Many of the poems center heavily on feelings of chaos and confusion in a world that seems to solely appreciate order. In this way, the poems themselves reinforce the sensation of being alone. Do you find there is a certain poeticism in isolation, or is it too paralyzing to be romantic?
JK: My own experience of isolation (solitude is what we call it when it’s not debilitating, maybe) is not romantic. I mostly don’t like it. But it forces me to articulate more exactly what I love about the world, and how much my relationships matter, as a guiding way out.
One of the most intriguing structural elements of the collection has to be the titling of the poems. Many of the poems either share titles or do not possess them at all (such as the “Aubade”s) while others share titles that are employed and re-employed throughout (such as those poems titled “The Graves”). How did this structure come about—did the titling carry through from original drafts, or was it brought in once the book came together and the poems began to speak more loudly to each other?
JK: The “Aubade” poems are a sequence, so three poems interlaced with silence. I wrote “The Graves” poems at the same time. I was thinking of our bodies, our isolated bodies, as graves. They were meant as calls toward life, toward vitality, in the face of disease, inertia, hopelessness, the warming of our planet.
From odes to autumn nights in “Aubade (Who lives where summer ends)” to wanderings in an ethereal forest (3 Bewildered Landscapes), it is clear that surroundings influence your poetry. Do you have any writing rituals or habits that you feel influence your work?
JK: I like to take walks and hikes, but as many of my friends have pointed out, I tend to not notice things happening right in front of my eyes. No, I don’t think these walks influence my work. I wrote “3 Bewildered Landscapes” on a backcountry camping trip that turned into a disaster because we weren’t paying attention and missed a crucial turn. It was written out of a distinctly unlovely forest delirium.
To conclude, Ann Lauterbach wrote in her piece “Use This Word in a Sentence: ‘Experimental’” that “it is the pressure of experience, the fact of attention to experience, which leads to real—that is, authentic—experimentation; a willingness to adapt to contexts, in order to derive not so much new meanings as new ways of interpreting the unpredictable.” This seems to get at the work the collection does, at least in part—interpreting the unpredictable. Do you believe writers should, as the saying goes, stick to “writing what you know”?
JK: That’s an incisive quote. Perhaps some of my poems are trying to be at home inside what’s unpredictable. There is always a tension between my limited point of view (including ignorance) and my will to see beyond what’s available to my senses.
I don’t know if writers should or shouldn’t do anything, anymore! As I get older I know less and less.