Monday, February 21, 2011

Keetje Kuipers

Keetje Kuipers is a native of the Northwest. She earned her B.A. at Swarthmore College and her M.F.A. at the University of Oregon. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Oregon Literary Arts, and Soapstone. In 2007 she completed her tenure as the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident, which provided her with seven months of solitude in Oregon's Rogue River Valley. She used her time there to complete work on her book, Beautiful in the Mouth, which was awarded the 2009 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and was published in March 2010 by BOA Editions. It contains poems previously published in Willow Springs, Prairie Schooner, West Branch, and AGNI, among others. You can also listen to her read her work—which has been nominated five years in a row for the Pushcart Prize—at the online audio archive From the Fishouse. Keetje has taught writing at the University of Montana and is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She divides her time between San Francisco and Missoula, Montana, where she lives with her dog, Bishop, and does her best to catch a few fish.


If I have any romantic notions left,
please let me abandon them here
on the dashboard of your Subaru
beside this container of gas station
potato salad and bottle of sunscreen.
Otherwise, my heart is a sugar packet
waiting to be shaken open by some
other man’s hand. Let there be another town
after this one, a town with an improbable Western
name—Wisdom, Last Chance—where we can get
a room and a six-pack, where the fireworks
end early, say nine o’clock, before it’s really
gotten dark enough to see them because
everyone has to work in the morning.
I’m not asking for love anymore.
I don’t care if I never see a sailboat again.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This poem was written while I was the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident, and I actually spent that 4th of July alone, completely off the grid, in a cabin two hours down a dirt road from the nearest town. I drank that six-pack by myself, barbecued a whole chicken, and then shot the gun off my porch in lieu of fireworks. However, I'd spent the weekend before the 4th with my then-boyfriend in a little town in eastern Oregon, and that was the experience I was trying to talk about in this poem… I think I actually wrote it in the car as I was driving back to the cabin. Sometimes I'm able to figure something out or admit something in a poem that I'm not ready to be privy to yet in my actual life. That was the case with this poem: that relationship was loveless and doomed, and I knew that fact in the part of my brain and heart that were allowed to express themselves in a poem. However, at that point, they weren't thoughts or feelings that I could admit to anywhere other than on the page.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Most of my poems undergo countless revisions, and generally take months (if not years) to come into their final form. However, I will occasionally write a poem that's finished the moment it first hits the page, and those are generally my strongest poems. This was one of them--I don't think I changed more than a few words.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I believe in inspiration as a trigger or a catalyst. I can't sit down on any given day and write a good poem just because I want to. I do need to be moved in some way, by a feeling, an experience, or an image. But I also believe in writing as a daily practice and a craft, and like any skill, those hours of practice pay off in moments of seemingly effortless accomplishment. This poem didn't demand a lot of sweat and tears in the twenty minutes I took to write it, but I could never have written it without all the sweat and tears I poured onto the page in the previous years. Good craft demands that we continue to practice and learn and expand our skill set, but it's very rewarding when some of what we've practiced becomes, for a moment or two, second nature on the page.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

I wrote the poem in the summer of 2007 and decided to wait until the fall submission period to send it out. I got it in the mail to magazines in October of that year and heard back from Willow Springs right away. They published it in their Spring 2008 issue.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

When I first started sending out to magazines, I didn't have much of an understanding of how publication worked, so I approached it in a very regimented fashion: I kept a spreadsheet of which poems had been sent where and I mailed off batches of four or five poems to fifteen or twenty magazines every four months. I kept myself on a schedule so that I wouldn't quit, no matter how many rejections poured in (and boy, they did). This meant that I wasn't usually sending new work off right away--I was producing new material and revising old material simultaneously, and as the older poems were polished up, they would be entered into my submission queue. I didn't send out anything that hadn't been thoroughly vetted by both myself and my small community of writers who I counted on for good editing. I think all that ended around the time I sent off "Fourth of July." Now I'm more comfortable with the idea of publishing a poem that might still go through a number of revisions before appearing in a book. I don't mind the idea that drafts of my poems (good drafts, ones that have had careful attention and revision, but drafts all the same) are appearing in journals and magazines. In some ways, it gives me a lot of pleasure to think that I'm sharing that process with a wider audience, and that people may have the opportunity to encounter a single poem in widely varying incarnations by the time it appears in a book.

Is this a narrative poem?

It's a lyric. It's concerned with sound and music, and a very fleeting point in emotional time. Because I often write in my head as I'm driving or hiking, sound and musicality are very present and motivating factors as I compose. Because I also consider almost all of my work as coming out of the elegiac tradition, I think of many of my poems, like this one, as songs of longing and loss and unquenchable desire. For a while, I was reading a lot of Lacan, and he says that desire comes out of the imbalance between what we perceive--language and images--and what actually is: la réelle. He argues that this constant state of imbalance or vertigo, rather than eros or sexual desire, is our main motivator, and that it's impossible to satisfy because we don't actually know what it is we're longing for. So this longing is displaced--trying to fill the void of desire, we long for everything else instead: the six-pack, the motel room, the town with an improbable Western name. Whether articulating lust or lamentation, the source is always longing. It is this kind of longing that I'm attempting to articulate in constructing an "elegy" like "Fourth of July." So, no, this is not a narrative poem.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

The summer I was living in the cabin I really only had contact with the outside world through my P.O. box in town, which I'd check on every week or two. I sent poems to friends, and it was intensely pleasurable to receive their letters, comments, and own poems in response. After I returned to civilization, I kept up that correspondence with a few of my friends, like the poet Natalie Diaz. However, these days, I'm back in a workshop setting at Stanford as a Stegner Fellow, and that experience is both more and less intimate than the exchange of letters. While I have this built-in community of peers who I can bring my new work to now, I still rely on my most trusted readers--those who've been reading my work for years and have an understanding of where it's come from and where it's trying to go--to nurture my work and give it a smack on the butt when necessary. I'm currently reading The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, which is the collection of letters that James Wright and Leslie Marmon Silko exchanged. It reminds me of how important correspondence can be for a poet in that it gives the poem time to change and the space and distance in which to do so.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

What's interesting to me about this poem is that it's essentially a poem of denial, where the speaker is clearly lying to herself. While denial is not a huge theme in my book Beautiful in the Mouth (in which "Fourth of July" appears), it has ended up becoming a major part of the current manuscript I'm working on, which is titled The Keys to the Jail. I see this poem as the bridge or the entry point to that work. My current poems are interested in the various shows we put on for ourselves, the voices and personas that sometimes give us confidence and that other times give us a good dressing down. But because those personas are only a small sliver of who we are, they're ultimately very unreliable narrators to employ in a poem. But I'm enjoying listening to their voices, trying to hear what they have to say, and ultimately pitting one against the other. In my earlier work, I was searching for my one authentic voice, now I've happily realized there's no such thing.

What is American about this poem?

Being from the West, my ideas of what's "American" have a lot to do with frontier mentality, manifest destiny, water rights, and the historical appropriation of land. So when I'm using landscapes to talk about loss, which I often do, I'm generally examining a landscape that someone thinks they own, that has been laid claim to multiple times, that has numerous names, that has been "conquered" and coaxed and loved and beaten half to death with a saw or a plow. The speaker in "Fourth of July" is thinking along those same lines: She wants to get somewhere that's hers, a place and a love she can name and call her own. She believes that nothing more than a devoted work ethic and a shunning of frivolous pleasures like sailboats and late night fireworks and romance can get her there. This speaker is utterly delusional and utterly American, and her poem is trying to live the dream.


  1. Many thanks must to go a poet when the poet is being utterly honest. What might seem lightheartedly done belies the profound human sadness in this poem.

  2. Keetje, I love this poem more every time I read it. Brian, thanks for always picking such great poems.

  3. One of the most interesting of your many fine features. Thank you.

  4. One thing left out of Keetje's articulate discussion of her work is that with all she knows of it and herself, she doesn't mention that this is also a poem that could only be written by someone young. For me, who am old, that is part of its attraction. If only I could write something as perceptive from my present place! Beautiful work.

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