A Conversation with Keetje Kuipers
BY GABRIELLE BATES
Keetje Kuipers’s newest collection All Its Charms (BOA Editions) has all of what I love about her two previous books—thrilling imagery, taut lines, a collapsing of the personal lyric with social reckoning—but where the speaker’s gaze once fixated on the wildernesses of loneliness and loss, now she’s focused on the terrain of long-term, deeply committed relationships. New identities, mother and wife, are examined within a wide variety of contexts: a small-town drag show, the Arlee Powwow, a hayride, a ferry. The natural world and domestic spaces collide in these poems, revealing the terror and tenderness of both.
Back in the early spring, when it was still cold enough to require coats, we decided to conduct this interview while walking through the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, where what was once 150-acres of Pacific Northwest forest and a private residence has been sculpted into a series of distinct landscape experiences. As we passed through meadows, by bird marshes, and over moss gardens, we discussed life, poems, hunger, beauty, and complicity. Because Keetje’s poems evidence a life rooted to many places and many selves, it felt right to talk to her this way, on the move.
While spending time with Keetje is a somewhat-regular occurrence now that we’ve both relocated from Auburn, Alabama, to the Seattle area, this conversation was marked by a particularly tender candor. I’m always interested in how the addition of a recording device sharpens and deepens conversations, even among those who know each other fairly well.
The morning of our interview, Keetje texted me to warn me she was feeling “super vulnerable” in a melancholy way. As we began to wander the reserve, the melancholy dissipated, but vulnerability endured. I’m grateful for that. Vulnerability is, as you will soon see, precisely what makes this conversation so special.
—Gabrielle Bates, Interviewer
Gabrielle Bates, Interviewer: Your text this morning reminded me of the first time I saw you read in Auburn. You were very pregnant, and you told the crowd that due to all the hormones, your emotions were close to the surface, and that you might cry during the reading. I think that’s actually my earliest memory of you. Do you have an earliest memory of me?
Keetje Kuipers, Poet: I do have a fairly vivid image of you in my mind from that first semester when you were my student. Everything was very long and loose and warm. You sat in the back left hand corner of the classroom. And I remember you were very eager.
KK: [Laughs] Not eager in a bad, off-putting way. You didn’t make me want to hide under my desk during office hours. More like hungry.
KK: Especially as a woman. It might even be the place where we hide our vulnerabilities.
Maybe that easy warmth I’m remembering was something you did to put us all at ease, which is a thing many smart, hungry women do. We make ourselves soft and vulnerable-looking in order to disguise our real vulnerability—ambition.
Your hunger was the place where you showed the real knife blade of your desire. Ambition is such a dirty word in poetry. But hunger is something to be proud of when you claim it. It’s also the most tender spot, like the fontanelle on a baby’s skull. It takes time for the bones to come together and harden over what’s growing there.
Your kind of hunger was something I felt a kinship with because I knew it, too.
GB: In his introduction to your first book, Beautiful in the Mouth, Thomas Lux says of your poems: “Read them at your peril. Read them for your joy.” I’m really interested in the pairing of peril and joy in regards to your work. Does joy feel like a dangerous emotion to you?
KK: Thinking about joy and peril makes me think about love and partnership.
Before marrying my wife, I dated a bunch of nice straight guys, and I was angry at them a lot of the time because I felt like they couldn’t see me. I wanted them to see me as a person, not just a woman. Even though they had different ideas of what a woman was, my gender was still my most defining characteristic and it made me feel claustrophobic, like being inside a really pretty jail cell with flowered curtains over the bars. So there was always a kind of joyless joy in those relationships. Because there was nothing for me to discover, about myself or about them.
KK: The last poem I added to the collection before it went off to press is called “Digging out the Splinter.” Those last poems you find a place for in a book feel like the impulse for what’s going to come next. It’s a poem about marriage, not marriage as romantic bliss but also not as some kind of drudgery we’re resigned to either. For me, writing about marriage feels simultaneously not-sexy-at-all and yet totally transgressive at the same time.
My wife and I didn’t live together, or even live in the same state, until six months after we were married. And because it just keeps happening—because we just keep staying married and keep on living together—I’m learning things I never had a way of knowing before. What does it mean for my identity to change and shift when there’s someone else there to see that change? Or how can I make sure to really see my wife as she becomes a different version of herself at each stage of her life? It’s a completely new experience defined by a sort of infinite education.
Maybe it’s not that joy feels like a dangerous kind of complacency but that having the ability to risk parts of myself is the truly joyful thing. I can be anyone within my marriage. It’s an exciting kind of freedom I’ve never had before.
GB: You’ve lived and made your life in so many different regions of the United States: the East Coast, the West Coast, the Deep South, and yet when you’re in a place, you don’t come across as someone “passing through.” You seem truly invested in being there, in building a life. How would you describe your relationship to place?
KK: I used to have a Carl Phillips quote as a tag at the bottom of my email for years. It was something like “There is a part of me that longs to belong to just one place, but it’s the longing I belong to…”
That has always been true for me. It’s not that I want to find the place that I’m meant to belong to, but that I want to prove that I can belong anywhere, especially when I find myself in a community or landscape that is out of my comfort zone.
Living in Alabama for four years—moving there pregnant and unmarried with super short hair and a Subaru—was a real exercise in opening my mind and my heart. A lot of my colleagues at the university where I taught were liberal transplants from the East Coast, and they seemed to like holding themselves apart from the community around them. But I wanted to meet my neighbors and my students where they were; I wanted to learn from them by being close to them. When I left, it broke my heart to say goodbye to these people who I had come to love and who I had allowed to love me. In a country this big, it’s a gift to be able to grow close to people you might think you share nothing with, to come into each other’s homes and really be together.
Even though I’ve never really felt like I was in that one place where I really belonged, I’ve still wanted each new place to be that place. Everywhere I live I think, “Maybe this is the place where I will belong. Maybe here I’ll find my people, the right kind of trees, the right kind of sound…” Even when those trees are covered in kudzu and the sound is endless cicadas.
KK: I have been defined by a longing for belonging. And maybe that’s a good thing.
KK: But community and landscape are inseparable for me. I like a landscape that feels huge, where I can see across distances, where there aren’t too many other people and we’re just little creatures cupped inside a bowl of dirt together. I like sage and pine and air that smells like it’s about to catch fire. I like it high and I like it dry—the Mountain West of Montana or Eastern Oregon or Wyoming. I like those big dynamics.
In that kind of landscape you have to make an effort to know your neighbors, and you have to rely more on them. You can’t take their presence for granted and you can’t be choosy about who you share your sense of community with.
That’s as close to calling someplace my place as I can get. It has to do with the way the hugeness of the land requires a certain level of self-reliance, too. Because your neighbors might be five miles away.
KK: I like having to figure it out and make decisions on my own.
It becomes this wonderful feedback loop: I have to rely on myself; therefore I am strong and powerful. I am strong and powerful; therefore I can rely on myself.
I feel less lonely in that sort of expansive landscape. And I feel much more beautiful.
Pretty is putting on lipstick. Beautiful is standing in the middle of a stream getting sunburned on the first warmish day of the year while there’s a caddis hatch happening. That’s being in my own skin and feeling joyful about it, because my own skin is a skin that’s capable and confident and completely unhampered by the way pretty wants to take all that power away from me. Or the way that pretty wants to pretend that it’s some kind of power I should spend my time on.
I once had a colleague who greeted every woman he knew with the phrase, “You look pretty today.” The first time he said it to me, I thought, “Oh. Nice. Thanks.” The second time he said it to me, I thought, “That’s kind of odd.” And then, after I’d heard him say it about a hundred times to me and every woman I ever saw him standing next to, I thought, “He can’t see me.” And he couldn’t—he couldn’t see any of us. We were like paper dolls, that thin and transparent to him. It was a horrible feeling to realize that anything of substance I’d ever said to him had been complete white noise.
A photograph of myself where I feel truly beautiful? I’m wearing goggles and neon orange chaps and I’m brandishing a chainsaw. It was my second day as the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident on the Rogue River.
I had some things to learn about myself.
KK: One of the incredible privileges of whiteness is the freedom to turn on and off things like compassion and empathy—even awareness—as easily as flicking a light switch. So as a writer who’s white, it’s not enough for me to simply write poems that engage with race in America. The real task is to write towards the attempt while acknowledging its limitations. I don’t want to write poems that contain an inherent little ‘woke’ pat on the back for myself and leave out all the baggage of my own whiteness. And as a white editor and a literary citizen—well, I’m going to fuck it up sometimes. So when doing the work means getting it wrong, acknowledgment is the first step, and an ongoing conversation is the second. Failure can only be useful if I stay inside it, in both my poems and my life.
Which is why I’m really interested in investigating and acting out complicity in my work these days. It’s not as self-absorbed as shame or guilt—those white lady tear machines—which are pretty reductive examinations of my place in our racist culture. When I think about wanting to engage with my own race or class or gender or sexuality, and where all those identities and markers intersect within myself and with other folks, I think about how I can investigate them from a place that doesn’t center me but at the same time digs into a shared responsibility for the violences we inflict on each other. And those poems can’t be explanations, they have to be enactments, where I don’t get to excuse or footnote or sand down the rough edges of the often-privileged ways I move through this world.
KK: I’ve been trying to write a poem that I think I probably won’t ever write. It’s about men killing women. And when I say men, I mean ‘white men.’ And when I say ‘women,’ I mean people.
I imagine its form with lots of gaps, almost like a Mad-Lib—using silence in the place of images of violence.
GB: Why do you think you’ll never write it?
KK: For me to write that type of poem would be an intellectual exercise, and I don’t work that way. I think that way, and I love talking that way, but I don’t write poems that way.
When I was a theatre major in college we used to say—was it a Stanislavsky quote? I don’t know—we used to say, “The actor must know everything so that the character can know nothing.” That seems really true for me as a poet, too. The writer has to know everything—I have to do all this intellectually rigorous digging around outside the page—so that the poem can know nothing, so that it can stumble around inside itself knocking into walls and making lots of noise that ends up being a different kind of sense-making music.
GB: The back jacket copy of your new book says, “All Its Charms is about much more than the reinvention of the American family—it’s about transformation, desire, and who we can become when we move past who we thought we would be.” I’m really interested in that last part, the idea of the self we project onto our lives v. the idea of the self that is true, and the act of leaving the projection behind.
KK: There was a time where I didn’t allow myself to write what I thought of as a “Keetje poem.”
KK: You just read an early draft of a new poem of mine. I wrote it for a reading I’m giving at Hugo House where we have to present new work on the theme of metamorphosis. The poem is basically a magic spell that involves lighting a body part on fire. It’s not the kind of poem I’ve let myself write a lot in the last few years. It’s not controlled. It’s me allowing myself to trust my voice and my impulses again. Maybe something like the difference between pretty and beautiful.
I’m thinking about Erika Meitner’s work and how there’s a real fearlessness there that feels effortless and accidental. And it’s actually none of those things. It’s crafted and artful and completely intentional. But what she’s going after isn’t a poem that’s been stripped down by craft, but one that’s heftier, weightier, more muscular because of it.
I feel like I’m coming back now to being able to write a meatier poem again. Like I don’t have to strip so much of myself out of it. I can let the craft build the poem up rather than tear it all down.
GB: I’m really excited about that.
KK: Me too.