By Jessica Isgro and Abby MacGregor
Karyna McGlynn is the author of I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize from Sarabande Books, as well as several chapbooks. Her work has appeared in Fence, Salt Hill, Columbia Poetry Review, Copper Nickel, Ninth Letter, Denver Quarterly, and the anthologies Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry and The Spoken Word Revolution Redux. Before receiving her MFA from the University of Michigan, Karyna was a member of five National Poetry Slam teams from Austin, Seattle and Ann Arbor. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Houston, where she recently served as Managing Editor for Gulf Coast.
West Branch: Within the first few pages of your book I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl it's clear that you do a lot of unique work with the structure of your lines. For example, "Sometime in the Night a Naked Man Passes" and "The Poem with Its Teeth Caught in the Carpet" are vastly different in their lineation despite being adjacent to each other. "Sometime in the Night" is fairly straight forward in terms of lines and line breaks, while "The Poem with Its Teeth Caught" visually appears to be comprised of three overlapping columns of text, due to its use of white space and line breaks. "His Cancer Had Calves Milked of Magnesium" is written in distinct columns, another style of line common within the book. How do you decide the lineation style for each poem?
Karyna McGlynn: Popular question! But one I haven't answered in a while, so it's an interesting one to return to. People are generally surprised to learn that the lineation of most of these poems took shape in their early infancy—often in the first drafts. It wasn't something I applied later to weird them up. If anything, I had to simplify and regularize a lot of formatting and lineation. For example, "We Both Dyed With Feria Starlet, I Couldn't Dispossess a Girl" used to be in the shape of giant 'X.' Another poem was supposed to be read from the bottom-up and back down again. (Impossible, by the way! I couldn't get people to do it—even if I put the title on the bottom of the page and an arrow that said "Start Here.") I think it was a wise move to get rid of those flashier forms; they drew too much attention to themselves in a way that felt gimmicky.
It's funny that you mention "The Poem With Its Teeth Caught in the Carpet" because it's one of the "impossible" forms that made it into the final book. I'm basically asking the reader to privilege the three stair-steps of the overlapping columns over their natural tendency to read lines left to right (e.g. to read "against basically bone" before "as I will wake the dog"). I wouldn't budge on that one—it was a frustrated poem that I felt deserved a frustrating format. I knew people probably wouldn't read it the "right" way, but I made sure I liked how it read the other way, too. I did that with all the poems that make use of columns or non-standard lineation—made sure that the eye could satisfyingly read in any direction, even if some of those directions made less narrative or syntactical sense. I remember having some silly notions about "tonal and local blossoms of meaning" and "taking the caesura to its extreme." I suppose there's something to that, but I also remember being surprised that the columns confused people—I really wasn't trying to be avant-garde. The fact is, most of these poems were written in a relatively short period of time—a time when several personal traumas happened to coincide with a big shift in my style. None of my old systems seemed to apply—punctuation and narrative started to fall away. The more fractured my poems became, the more they came out in columns and shapes. I think it's fittingly sad—a desperate attempt to maintain some level of outward control over the increasing chaos of the innards.
WB: Though some of your poems have "taboo" subject matter, they are never alienating or intimidating. "God, I Got Down There to Get Off" is a candid portrayal of discovering female sexuality, while "Amanda Hopper's House" combines sexuality with the violence of abuse and death. Is it difficult to approach these subjects? Do you hope, in part, to create a forum for this kind of content?
KM: My writing has always been inextricably bound up with my fears—even my comedic work springs from some basic terror. It used to sound so clichéd to say things like "write what scares you," but I've noticed more and more women writers in particular engaging in serious discussion about the relationship between creativity and fear. Just yesterday, I happened to hear Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk and was delighted to hear her say what I've always felt—that "fear and creativity are conjoined twins." And the poet Mary Ruefle (one of my all-time idols) calls fear "desire's dark dress, its doppelganger"—a much more elegant version of one of my lines in 1994: "death & sex tickle the same damn spot."
So, you know, it's never hard for me to approach "difficult" subjects; it's the confrontation and resulting documentation/presentation that's tricky. That's when all the little demons show up: Am I being honest with myself? Am I being too honest? Does my act of confession violate someone else's desire for privacy? Am I trying to actually discover something or just titillate? And what if I do want to titillate the reader—is that wrong? By broaching these subjects am I helping liberate the female voice, or am I further enclosing it by retreading the well-worn terrain of the "girl body in danger"? Furthermore, am I thrilling my readers or just grossing them out? For me, it's less about creating a forum and more about engaging in an ever-evolving conversation about female poetics. See, for example, Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg's ongoing work with the Gurlesque, or Sarah Vap's wonderful End of the Sentimental Journey.
WB: As a poet who has worked with both written poetry and slam poetry, how does your experience change between the two mediums? Does your process differ when creating written poetry versus slam? Do some of your poems carry over between the two styles?
KM: Ah, the old Page vs. Stage quandary! In short, yes: my process is different when writing for slam. Writing a slam poem is more deliberate because there's a specific set of rules and considerations. For example, there's the time limit on slam: 3 minutes and 10 seconds. You can go shorter, but the most successful slam poems tend to nose right up past the 3 minute mark—so I know from experience that a slam poem needs to be about two pages. There's also the venue and audience/judges to consider. Slams are populist contests usually held at bars full of drunk people. It is (and I say this lovingly) short attention-span theater. Immediacy is key. The audience has to understand and like your poem after hearing it once (and usually very quickly in "slam delivery"). They don't have the luxury of rereading it slowly, delighting over the mastery of line-breaks, or maintaining the illusion of "the speaker." Therefore successful slam poems tend to be—dare I say it?—less subtle, more overtly political, more exclamatory and repetitive in a way that often works aloud but might seem angst-y, manipulative, or redundant on the page. I don't say any of this to disparage slam poetry—it's an oral art form; these tropes aid memory and accessibility. (See Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy.)
That said, I'm always excited by poems (and poets) that manage to bridge the page-stage divide. It's rare to encounter a single poem that can win a slam and still hold up on the silent page, but there are a handful of poets who manage this balance beautifully—Anis Mojgani, Patricia Smith, and Good Ghost Bill come to mind. I think I've written a couple of fairly successful hybrid poems, but at some point I became more interested in exploring the performative possibilities of the page rather than the literary capacities of the stage. I'm still a total ham though. I love performing my poetry. Poetry and performance are my two great loves.
WB: Do you ever feel that the constraints of slam poetry limit the subject matter you can discuss? Do you feel more freedom when writing for the page? Can writing for the page be limiting in other ways?
KM: I don't think that the constraints of slam poetry limit me in terms of subject matter (slam is a pretty open and supportive forum), but I do think they can be limiting in terms of style. If there's a greater freedom in writing for the page, it's the freedom from length requirements and instant accessibility. When writing for the page I don't ever have to ask myself "will this go over time?" or "how will this score?" The page allows me to experiment with more complex, multivalent forms of storytelling and metaphor-making—often with the aid of visual elements on the page. That said, there's something very liberating about slam because I rarely have to worry whether my tone will be misread because the poem is inseparable from my voice and body language.
WB: Which work are you most proud of to date? Is it a book, chapbook, poem, or performance? As a writer who works in multiple genres, where do you see your work going in the future?
KM: This is a tough one! Sometimes I think it's my chapbook Alabama Steve because I've never read anything quite like it and it has a whole mythos surrounding its creation. Other times I'm very impressed by the texture, syntax, and diction of I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl. It employs a style that I didn't use before and haven't really used since. It's almost as if somebody else wrote it, so I'm able to get swept up in it as a reader. Of course, it would be disingenuous to say I'm not very proud of my current "babies" (i.e. my manuscripts in progress): Hot House and A Week of Kindness. They're as different as can be—one very narrative and confessional, the other a surrealist novel-in-collage based on Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonte—and I think this is what excites me most about moving forward—the ability to continually re-create myself via poetry. I also plan to start publishing my nonfiction. I spoke before about the central role fear plays in my writing, and I think nonfiction is the scariest kind of writing there is. You can't hide behind the mask of "the speaker" in nonfiction.