Advanced Work Profile: Kate Powell

monkeys consecrated to the moon

in the tops of trees
they peeled long straws
and pushed them needlewise
through the opal jelly
of cyprian wedding night

threaded them up through
fibrous middle heavens
up through loose black nothing
and into the throbbing cilia
of the fearful virgin moon

she shuddered and gushed
between sips they called to her
in their panicky language
come on you gorgeous thing
won’t you give us a kiss

The following is a conversation with Kate Powell ’14 about writing poetry, songwriting in French, whether or not a poet asks for our forgiveness, and reading as a blood sport.

Daniel: What is your project? And, how is it going so far?

Kate:  I’m producing a collection of po

ems, ideally. It’s going better than I thought it would be. It’s really difficult, even though I’m the only person writing a collection of poetry in the projects class, it’s hard to not compare yourself to other people. It’s definitely beneficial to have other people who are reading and writing a lot in your sphere. Looking at their work, and experiencing a sort of literary jealousy and then seeing what mine is missing by comparison, has been helpful.

DG: What are some challenges you’ve been

confronting over the past four years in your work?

KP: I went through a period of about two years where I wasn’t writing many poems. Instead, I was writing tons of songs. As nice as that was, I am not a music student. So it was a matter of pulling myself out of that when I was really attached to it – and, I think, in some of my favorite poems, there is enough of a sense of interwoven rhythms – or a lot of things going on that suggest an interior sense of musicality. But not necessarily in a narrow sense. As my writing has gotten more lucid, it’s dried up – some of my earliest work was my juiciest, in a way that only a fourteen-year-old girl with TextEdit can be. As a lyricist I give myself that freedom to go a little deeper, because I can count on other things to balance that out. But with words on a page, you have to be really careful.

DG: People who do both, write lyrics and poems, tend to either think that they are completely separate spheres or that they inform each other directly. Where do you see the connections?

KP: Well, I wouldn’t have noticed a lack of musicality in my most recent poetry if I hadn’t been coming from this long pause in writing poems. A lot depends on the songwriter – I love Natalie Merchant as a songwriter, but I find her poetry to be anemic. But, while in Paris, I found a used copy of Leonard Cohen’s collected lyrics, and you can sit there and read those all day. Just because you can write a lyric that might live on in people’s minds, it doesn’t necessarily mean that those skills are completely transferable.

DG: I’ve always had the impression that there is more accountability for poetry.

KP: Certainly, plus I feel like people, we as educated people, are socialized in very different ways when it comes to listening to music and reading poems. I feel like when we listen to music, we have a tendency to enter into a given experience on the side of the song. Whereas we’ve been socialized to be critical of literature, so you can enter a reading experience skeptically and with a little more apprehension. Reading can be a blood sport, and hating something you’ve read can be a mark of a certain type of intelligence, or can be interpreted thus.

DG: That’s a great point. I’m going to keep that with me as someone who studies literature but finds poetry somewhat foreign. I’ve always been more skeptical than I would be with lyrics --

KP: We listen to music, and our foremost attention is to derive pleasure, and I think that is really different from our priorities when we approach poems. In Mark Wunderlich’s class, we read Alex Dimitrov before he came to campus, and there was a long thread in the classroom discussion where people were talking about whether they did or did not forgive the poet – which was so interesting to me, that turn of phrase. “I don’t know if I forgive him for borrowing from great works. I don’t know if I forgive this allusion” and I wonder if poets ever ask to be forgiven. And I know the most iconoclastic rockstars certainly never ask to be forgiven and sometimes hope to be reviled by certain types of people. This desire to be contentious isn’t unique to musicians or performance artists.

DG: Returning to your work: how does your work now compare to your first-year ideas of your own possible advanced work?

KP: When I arrived here, I had a strong feeling I would be doing senior work in French.  And I am. I am writing and recording an album in French, but I was thinking more along the lines of a thesis in French. I never thought I would be in a situation where my peers and teachers would legitimize my music. In terms of poetry – I don’t know, I thought it would be a lot easier than this. I couldn’t predict that my standards, with respect to the mindfulness of my own work, would have risen as much as they have. I haven’t read as much as I thought I’ve read when I got here. During that two-year pause, I was reading more in French than in English. I was reading French translations of Paul Celan, a lot of Henri Michaux. I never thought I would have so much trouble writing personal work because I was so out there with all of the details of my life; I had no desire to keep anything.
     I think after having done battle with my prejudices against women confessional poets (which were really internalized misogynists), I still stand here really hesitant about the things that have come loose. I’m hesitant to dive into that the way I was before. There’s nothing attractive, in my mind, about writing ‘my shitty childhood’ in verse. There are so many interesting things to be done. I wonder if finding one’s voice – if you have to imitate the greats for a while, and do your time. I’ve been working on this persona poem, which is getting longer and longer, and has taken me to a dark place emotionally, because it is about a mentally disturbed artist making damaging art. What I distilled from my petty jealousy of other’s work is that I need characters and personas speaking that are not myself. Meanwhile, I’ve been writing in French, and I find it easier to sidle up to those broad emotional strokes we might feel sometimes but have difficulty pinning down.

DG: There’s this idea out there that one takes on a new persona with another language. Do you attribute your freedoms in the French language to a sort of linguistic persona or something about the language itself?

KP: Yes to both, but I think there’s still a third element. There is a sense of shelter and privacy when you’re writing in a foreign language – from yourself and the experience you’ve been digesting. Marguerite has pointed out to me that I’m prosier in French than I am in English.

DG: What are you planning to take on, both as challenges and inspirations, as you move forward with your projects?

KP: I just need to read more. I need to read more. Every book I finish is a positive contribution to whatever it is that I’m trying to do. So many intelligent people throughout history have spent their lives doing this and it would naïve and disrespectful to start out without spending an enormous amount of time with that work. There will never be enough time to read enough. There will always be areas of literature that get over looked: I think that you can’t escape it, especially as an undergraduate. Also, reading new work is going to be increasingly important.

DG: As in contemporary work?

KP: Yeah, I have a good idea of what young poets at Bennington are doing right now, but as for everything else –

DG: And, of course, ‘young’ is really relative in the literary world.

KP: That’s an important point. It is uncommon to have a first book and working on a second at, say, Alex Dimitrov’s age. It takes a long time to start making work that you’ll always love, or that you’ll always believe was really you. I find in my work, as a musician and as a writer, as my production values increase, there are tracks I don’t listen to, or poems I don’t read any more that are no longer representative of me. You’re always disowning things, and tagging them as ‘juvenilia’. You can spend so much time getting lost in the mire of things you could have done, but you have to put it away. You have to process it into lessons and take them with you.