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"Something as Large and Foreign as Loss" :An Interview with Kate Wyer

Unsaid awarded Kate Wyer the "Joan Scott Memorial Award" and nominated her for a Pushcart. Her work has appeared in Wigleaf, Moonshot, <kill author, The Collagist, PANK, Exquisite Corpse, and others. She attended the Summer Literary Seminars in Lithuania on a fellowship from Fence and studied under Edward Hirsch. Wyer lives in Baltimore and works in the public mental health system of Maryland.

Her story "Land Beast" appears in Issue Forty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, Kate Wyer speaks with interviewer Joseph Scapellato about research, memory and trauma, and what characters hide from themselves.

1. Where did “Land Beast” begin for you, and how did it get to here?

“Land Beast” began with an image. I follow a tumblr of animal pictures, like blue-tongue skinks or red-legged honeycreepers, some dogs, etc. It’s a pleasant way to spend a few minutes. So it was all the more startling when I saw the picture of the female rhino. My mind couldn’t process it for a moment—the strangeness of the animal without its distinctive feature and then the brutality of what remained of her face. The caption described her assault, the death of her calf, her rescue and subsequent rehab at a preserve. It also mentioned she was inseparable from the male rhino at the preserve—a very rare thing for solitary animals. She had a wild look in her eye.  That look wouldn’t leave me alone. 

But my way into telling her story is a little less straightforward. I already had the first stanza or paragraph—I think calling it a stanza actually works a little better. It was going to be the start of something else, but I wasn’t sure what. I knew I liked the sounds that were working within those sentences, but I didn’t know what to do with them until I realized they fit into the rhino’s experience of being out of her element, of being thrown into something as large and foreign as loss. The idea of collapse became really important to me.  Of no longer resisting a fall.  I wanted to play with how water supports you and yet it doesn’t, much like memory.

Opening myself up this way also permitted me further strangeness, like the moon door and jumping blue arcs of current.  Those things allowed me to have the rhino reach for connection.

2. As a reader, I’m enchanted by this piece’s spell of defamiliarization—the narrator, who I read as a rhinoceros, allows us to see beauty, terror, and strangeness in the familiar.  I found many passages to be haunting, especially this one:

We heard them from the air. We knew they were coming. We could smell them. We knew that there would be nowhere without them. Men want to believe there is power in our horns. And there is, there is the power they give them. We are full of the life that makes each cell push another out of the way, build and build until they push off the body. We are full of the life needed to make horns.

My question is, to what extent did this narrator surprise you?  (I’d love to hear about how/when the narrator surprised you the most.)

Seeing the photo once was enough and I wanted retain the initial strength of my reaction.  After working on the story for a few days though, I wanted to see pictures of other rhinos to further some softness in my descriptions. For example, I imagined rhinos to have huge eyelashes, like a giraffe or a horse-- they don’t.  But I found out they do have incredibly soft looking cone-shaped ears. I used The Soul of the Rhino by Mishra Ottaway to rediscover these details. It’s a book about conservation efforts in Nepal and India. I read the book several years ago. I forgot that rhinos kill people. Rereading it, I realized my rhino was going to kill someone.  That was very surprising, but in a terrible way it felt comfortable. Brutality /brutality.  I am able to write violence, even though I can’t stomach it when others do. I am very much a “close my eyes, block my ears” movie watcher.  I realized that her violence would be fed by the larger violence of habitat loss, poverty, colonialism, war.

I also have to say that I surprised myself by speaking as a rhino in the first place!

3. When we read, “It is hard to keep circling around the thing that happened and not say it. But it is also hard to say it. So, I circle some more until it tells itself. I can trust that it will,” I can’t help but think of this as a description of this piece’s meditative modular structure.  Does this passage in some way describe your writing process?  (And/or, how do you usually find the structures for your pieces?)

It does reflect my writing process.  My MFA is in poetry, but I write fiction. Or I write really long poems that look like stories.

I saw the poet Alice Oswald read in New York City a few days after Sandy. It was an incredibly raw time. She read from Memorial, which is her translation of the Iliad, except that it contains only the death scenes of the 200 soldiers killed within that story. Well, it contains their death scenes, with alternating blocks of similes. Oswald had memorized her entire reading, which was about thirty minutes long. I felt relieved, but also punched in the gut, when the similes came. They allowed a break from death, but contained such menace, beauty and loss that they didn’t relieve much intensity.

I knew that I wanted something like that for “Land Beast”. I wanted to have her firmly rooted and also in the sea; to have her pull back from the telling, but in such a way that lets the reader know just how bad things were.

I write some linear pieces, but usually I lose interest in them. I structure my pieces in a way that allows memory and trauma to surface in an organic way. I’m most interested in what characters hide from themselves. That interest is best explored out of time.

4. What other writing projects are you working on right now?

I’m working on expanding “Land Beast” into a novella. The story continues by exploring captivity and how it shapes relationships.

I finished a novella titled Martin. It’s about an old man who puts himself in a dangerous and vulnerable position in order to force himself into a particular woman’s life.  The questions the characters don’t ask move the plot forward.  

5.  As we work our way to the end of winter, what knock-out writing have you been enjoying recently?  Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about? 

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco is an incredible piece of journalism. Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks is major. I’m reading Gravesend by Cole Swenson. I just picked up In My Home There is No More Sorrow: Ten Days in Rwanda by Rick Bass. 

I’m looking forward to Anne Carson’s Red Doc >. Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods. I heard him read from it while he was in Baltimore; it was phenomenal. Anything and everything Mud Luscious Press is releasing. And, I’m going to AWP! I’ll leave plenty of room in my suitcase for books.

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