Kristin Robertson published her collection, Surgical Wing, with Alice James Books in May of 2017. It is available for purchase here. Kristin and I attended the Creative Writing Program at Georgia State University simultaneously, and I was lucky enough to see some of the poems in her collection early in their development across several workshops. I’ve loved Kristin’s poems ever since I encountered them in workshop: dark, alluring, fully invoking whatever mythos she seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of, and, above all, expertly crafted.
Hank: I’d like to ask some questions about the forms used in your collection. If Surgical Wing is to be believed, you see the world in perfectly balanced couplets. When in the writing process does a poem become couplets for you, and when did you, as a writer, discover the couplet? Is the couplet a form particular to Wing, or do you think you’ve found your style with the couplet? Are the poems you’re currently writing in couplets?
Kristin: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the book. I started writing in couplets less for the effect of the two lines together and more for the breath, for the white space. I find line breaks more exciting and meaningful when I write in couplets. I also enjoy reading poems in couplets, so maybe I was trying to write what I like to read. They work for the collection to suggest pairs of wings and, yes, a balance—life and death, love and loss, all of that. These days, if I write a draft in couplets, I will rework it in a few ways to see how the poem changes. I guess you could say I’m practicing some conscious uncoupling…
Hank: The other form used frequently in Wing are sonnets (do you think of them as sonnets, by the way?) all with the title “Clinical Trial: Human with Wings.” They bookend each section wonderfully; can you talk a bit about how these poems came to you as a writer? Was the manuscript pretty much complete before you started writing these, or did these poems develop naturally along with the whole collection?
Kristin: There’s something so satisfying about the fourteen-line poem and the vestigial sonnet form. In addition to the series, “Red-Winged Blackbirds” is an English sonnet. There are a few blank verse poems in the book as well. I always saw the “Clinical Trial” poems working together as a series, and they were published as one before the book came out, but I wrote them at different times while working on the manuscript. As I was putting it together, I suspected these persona poems, written from the point of view of human beings who undergo plastic surgery to get wings, were going to be a departure from the rest of the book. In the end, though, they do the work of introducing this convergence of human poems and bird poems.
Hank: There’s a distrust, I think, of men in this collection; or maybe an interest in men one ought not to trust? Browning’s Duke from “My Last Duchess,” for instance, makes an appearance in “Audubon Ate His Birds,” Hitchcock and his birds haunt your letter to Tippi Hedren, and a sadistic, knot-obsessed lover occupies the mind of the speaker in “Blue Herons.” Do you think these poems address a particular concern to an audience in 2016, or as Susan Chira called it, the year feminism lost, or are these poems about something older than the duke’s inability to stoop? Does the responsibility of the poet somehow change when “feminism loses”?
Kristin: I wouldn’t say the book is about a distrust of men, but I do try to explore the deep gulf of understanding between the sexes. The manuscript was accepted for publication back in 2015, though what you’re talking about with regard to feminism still holds true. We have been fighting the same fights for a long time. If Surgical Wing is particularly relevant in a conversation with regard to politics, I would say it’s the health care crisis.
Kristin: Does the poet have a responsibility to change? I don’t think so. Others have spoken so eloquently about how every poem written today is political. To be vulnerable to wonder is a political act. But you actually ask the question a bit differently: Does the responsibility of the poet change? What a poet writes won’t change necessarily, but the role of the poet might. People are reading poetry—perhaps more now than they have in decades. Take a look at the list of books coming out this year and in 2018 that are either directly or indirectly responsive to issues involving race, immigration, sexuality, the opioid epidemic. It’s an unbelievable time to be a reader of poetry.
Hank: Two poems seem related to me, and possibly both could be read as ars poetica. Both poems involve a creative process other than writing, and describe that process in a way, I think, that can teach us about writing: ceramics in “Loon” and photography in “Nampa–Sha.” I ask mainly because the line “We settled into desks, scattered like floating driftwood,/ and again etched feathers into clay with X-Acto knives” so perfectly conveys your precise use of language throughout the collection—do these poems describe your writing process? Can you talk a bit about that process in more general terms?
Kristin: Separating poets into two broad camps with regard to revision—those who don’t revise enough and those who revise too much—I am definitely in the latter. Like a sculptor who chisels and shapes a lump of clay until only a tiny nub remains, I kill so many poems by cutting and editing until they lose their spark, their lifeblood. I imagine the other side doesn’t fare much better, though. Revision is a necessary scythe.
Kristin: I’m pretty organized in some areas of writing and publishing, but my process for keeping track of drafts needs work. I have had to use Submittable several times to recover an earlier draft of a poem, which might answer a follow-up question about whether I revise poems after I have submitted them to journals. When is a poem finished? Pretty much never.
Hank: “Haint Ceilings” seems to me to be the perfect gothic poem—the speaker is occupied in a domestic task, remembering the suicides she’s witnessed before the poem reveals what’s really haunting the speaker. How we perceive, describe, and protect ourselves from horror is a generative subject for you as a writer. Is this obsession particular to you, or to Southern writers, or are we writers in general just a bunch of morbid folk?
Kristin: A few folks have talked about the book having hints of the Southern Gothic and magical realism, which is pretty damn cool. It is a haunted book. Only when I was ordering the manuscript did I see the missing girl, who appears in poems like “Audubon Ate His Birds,” “Leaving Coins on the Mouths of Cadavers at Emory Hospital, a Defense,” “Hyoid Bone,” and “Clinical Trial, Day 7,” both as a universal speaker for the book and also as a ghost, a girl like James Wright’s Jenny whispering over our left shoulder, “Take care now, / Be patient, and live.” One of my editors and I discussed whether to include “Haint Ceilings.” It fits in the section, and in the end I opted for a bird in the hand, but right now I’m working on more poems about growing up in the South and Southern myths. So, to answer your last question: yes, yes, and yes.
Hank: A maybe slightly related question: you occasionally switch to the second person: “Haint Ceilings,” “Swan Song,” and “You’re About to Fold a Paper Airplane” all use the second person pronoun. What makes a poem a second person poem for you? Second person poems feel, to me, directive and slightly disassociated from the narrative. Is the second person especially helpful when writing in a Gothic mode, or is there something else that makes you switch perspective?
Kristin: There’s such controversy over that second person pronoun. I understand the argument about the “you” taking the place of a first-person speaker and the author’s reasons for avoiding the “I.” The second person can be useful as long as it doesn’t feel lazy. These three poems are directives, as you point out. I do think you’re right about the disassociation, too. I will make you the subject of my poem on occasion, but I have replaced the second person in drafts as well, more than likely to the benefit of the poems.
Hank: “Loon,” “Scar,” and “Bonfire” all deal with the speaker as a child: do you find a young speaker to be a generative subject for your poems? “Scar” and “Bonfire” seem to reflect on your childhood as a memory, and “Loon” exists more completely in an art classroom. All three, however, as Dr. Bottoms would say, are dynamite poems. Do you plan on exploring your childhood more in future collections?
Kristin: Thanks—maybe I should! I don’t set out to write about my childhood, but it creeps in. Years ago when writers started bristling at the idea of confessional poetry and fighting that label, there was a lot of shifting away from writing about the personal life, childhood in particular. Some poets never stopped, and I admire them for it. These days I say to hell with the fear of being called a confessional poet. The current state of this world necessitates the claiming of one’s individual, human experience and telling about it.
Hank: Finally, I just want to say congratulations on publishing this collection with such a prestigious press. I found myself engrossed and researching birds and awful dudes. So, my final question—you’ve done birds and surgery. What’s next? Is your next collection going to be themed around some central idea or life event? I remember Louise Glück telling our creative writing class not to worry about the collection as we wrote poems, that poems from a single mind will naturally coalesce into a collection—as I look over my work, I wonder if she underestimated how scatterbrained I was. Do you worry about the big picture when you write poems? When did you start with Wing, and what are you working on now?
Kristin: I guess if you set out to write a project book and you research something to that end, then you would have the bigger picture in mind, but I don’t think about it when writing individual poems. I usually don’t even think about the bigger picture of the poem itself. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. I like discovering similarities in a bunch of poems from one author. In a creative writing workshop, I’ll sometimes ask the students to submit poems anonymously, and they’re surprised when I can identify who wrote each poem. Poets all have tells. They’re what make a reader fall in love and keep coming back to more of their work.
Kristin: Right now, I’m mostly reading. I started writing the poems in Surgical Wing in earnest when I began the PhD program, but some of the poems are revisions and reimagined pieces from years before that. As a writer who isn’t especially prolific, I don’t expect to put together a new collection anytime soon. I read somewhere that an accomplished poet—I can’t remember now who it was—writes four poems per year, so that’s my current benchmark: one poem per season, one per chamber of the heart, one per section of a waffle.
Kristin Robertson is the author of Surgical Wing (Alice James Books, 2017). Her poetry appears recently in The Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, Pleiades, Poetry Northwest, and Prairie Schooner, among other journals. She has received a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and a Lucille Clifton Memorial Scholarship to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Conference. She holds degrees from the University of Tennessee, the University of New Orleans, and Georgia State University. Kristin lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
Hank Backer teaches English at the University of Tennessee. He recently graduated from Georgia State University’s creative writing program, where he worked as an assistant editor for Five Points and a poetry editor for New South. He’s been previously published in Red Paint Hill, Loose Change, Sixty Six: A Journal of Sonnet Studies, and The Rectangle.