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"I Am Nightmared Tonight": An Interview with Molly Sutton Kiefer

Molly Sutton Kiefer is the author of the hybrid essay Nestuary (forthcoming, Ricochet Editions) as well as the poetry chapbooks City of Bears and The Recent History of Middle Sand Lake.  She is a member of the Caldera Poetry Collective, poetry editor at Midway Journal and runs Balancing the Tide: Motherhood and the Arts | an Interview Project.

Her poem, "Conjunct," appeared in Issue Fifty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, she talks with interviewer Christina Oddo about sound, a poem's revision-potential, and motherhood.

What role does sound play for you as a writer, and for this specific work? (i.e. “trained tornadoes,” “my eyes peel, creak, crept,” “the endless loop of lullaby, the lop and hop and jiggle”), and how much do you rely on sound in order to find the perfect word to round out an image? (i.e. “I hear cars clasp the slick

I do love onomatopoeia.  (I also love that it was one of the words we tried so hard to get our daughter to say when she was first parroting things back to us—say mama, say fox, say onomatopoeia.)  I love sensual detail in poetry, so anything that can shimmy in my mouth, my ears is ideal.  I associate in things like colors and tones—certain nouns can feel a particular way—or a poem can feel like it belongs in a bathtub with wine, another might be a window slamming shut.  Poems nest and chirrup, poems settle in my stomach.  My father is a musician, my husband is a musician, and I played the violin for a good while; I think there’s something residual there.  Song caught in the ball of my throat.

I can’t help but think of this work in terms of the title. The images threaded through this piece are related through commas. I see these sentences as coordination structures connecting words and phrases together, sometimes with coordinating conjunctions. I think of “woven lashes together” as an overarching image for what the syntax is doing here with the included details. What thread holds the greatest weight for you in terms of connecting these images together?

This poem in particular comes from a collaborative chapbook manuscript called Kept Ghosts: A Choral Aubade and is written by the Caldera Poetry Collective (calderapoetry.com)  Each poet contributed poems on a rotating basis, building from the previous poems’ work—including a phrase or word, always using morning as the common thread.  At the time of writing, my own mornings weren’t of lovers parting but of comforting a fairly newly born baby; it was springtime when the tornadoes come through my part of the country, and the poems I was writing for a solo project were about motherhood and the failures of the body.  So here we have morning and all its colors and movement—with exhaustion can only come this stream of half-lit, flighted eyes.

It’s one of my habits, to build things up with commas.  It’s the way the world seems to pile up in my mind, which doesn’t always help the poem.  Conjunctions and phrases are something I’ve been told to edit down, interestingly enough, and I try, when it serves the poem.

How do you know when a poem is complete? “will hear the word go” holds so much weight, simultaneously feeling complete yet full of possibility.  

I don’t.  It’s impossible.  Generally speaking, I’m the kind of poet who is done, or nearly-done, in the first go, which is something I have really had to grapple with.  When I was in that late-beginner stage, I took so many classes and workshops on revising the poem, desperate for advice on how to move a poem forward.  I didn’t realize it was often nearly-there.  If a poem isn’t nearly-there, I don’t always revise but instead toss it, though I have been working on seeing it through more and more, now that I can have the concept of a manuscript.  I might know I need a particular poem to be there for the arc.

I think we all have our own writing processes, and mine is to hold the poem inside me and let it spurt out when I get the chance to settle at the page.  I’m learning how to scrub away the rough edges, and it helps that I have writerly partners who exchange work, either in group setting, or one-on-one, and know where I’m heading and can help steer me a bit more.  I have one friend who I’ve begun to exchange weekly poems with, and I always have her voice in my head:  “Wait, I don’t get it.  I don’t understand what’s going on.”  Then I have my first poetry professor who follows that up with, “You were there and we weren’t.”  This is often my biggest issue, aside from those pesky commas and conjunctions (and verb tenses)—making assumptions about what the reader might know. 

I like the idea of opening a poem up—of giving this particular poem a feeling of exhaustion and being trapped—in a car, in a house, with the baby and her endless needs—and then leaving the idea of away.

What are you currently reading?

So many good things!  Every day, I’m reading slush for Tinderbox Poetry Journal (tinderboxpoetry.com), and I’m absolutely loving the quality of work we’ve been getting.  I just finished The Empathy Exams and was, like so many people, blown away by how lovely and startling it is.  I’m learning more and more about the hybrid text, the lyric essay, which is something I’m finding my work coming out in more and more.  On my bedside right now is  Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein for a collaborative epistolary project a friend and I are flirting with.  And I read this one a little bit ago, but it still resonates with me, and I think every poet or poetry-enjoyer ought to read it and that is Sarah Vap’s The End of the Sentimental Journey.  So, so good.

What are you currently writing?

I’m shopping around a manuscript called Hush, which examines the intensity of early motherhood—the love, yes, but also the sheer terror.  For the first time, I’ve written love poems about my husband—poems that are observations and ruminations of him as a father, which is one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life.  (And I don’t mean that hyperbolically.)  It’s always been hard to write about him; we’re pretty laid-back, quiet people, so there isn’t often a lot of dramatic tension.  But with two little kids, anything can become drama, (Mom, he’s LOOKING at me!) (I want to take a nap with the nest GRANDMA MADE ME!) which means everything has opportunity to be turned over and held up to light, become a poem.

The manuscript I’m most generating poems toward seeks to answer the question, “What do we tell our children about death?”  Of course, there is no real answer to that, but what I hope the manuscript will do is expand the options.  There will be a sequence about gardening to show that cycle-of-life trope, there will be poems about ghost hunters and The Egyptian Book of the Dead and rituals from societies near and far—and, too, tender poems about the sickness and then passing of my father-in-law.  It feels very real to me, very present and urgent, and I’m just trying to keep up with all the flying-about ideas that want my attention.

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