Three of Kathryn Smith’s poems,”All God’s Creatures Got a Place in the Choir,” “Cast Your Cares Upon Him,” and “Two Premonitions,” are featured in Issue 71 of the Bellingham Review, out now. Photo by Lisa Maren Thompson.
What would you like to share with our readers about the work you contributed to the Bellingham Review?
“All God’s Creatures Got a Place in the Choir” started with the squirrels. They’re everywhere in Spokane (as I write this, I’m watching my cats stalk them in the back yard), and the sound they make—a really awful strident screeching—seems incongruous to me with their fearful scurrying. It got me listening to other animal sounds in my neighborhood and thinking about how the size of an animal or the size of its voice can be deceptive in relation to the amount of havoc it can wreak. When I was working on this poem, I’d also just watched a PBS documentary called “The Natural History of the Chicken,” and the story about the rooster breeder in Ohio is borrowed from that film.
The intersection between the human and the animal and the ways in which humans acknowledge or avoid our animal selves is a topic I return to again and again. “Cast Your Cares Upon Him” looks at that relationship, too, but in (I think) a very different way. I often feel drawn to stories of people who do the unthinkable—like this woman who threw her child down a river embankment in a Spokane neighborhood—because I think they make us ask ourselves where that line is. What would push me to that kind of action? How many things would have to be wrong, or even just different, in my brain, in my life, in my well-being, before I reached that kind of brink, and went over it? I think the answer has a lot to do with our animal nature, our animal instincts, and they ways in which they conflict and coincide with our human nature.
“Two Premonitions” is a bit different—it has a lot of animal imagery, but it’s not so heavily imbued with that human nature/animal nature conflict. It’s a dream poem, and dreams show up a lot in my work as well. I think a lot about that space between dreaming and waking, when you first wake from a vivid dream and the definition of “reality” feels a bit fuzzy, and it’s easy to believe that our dreams are as real as our waking lives.
Tell us about your writing life.
One of my most important writing practices is that I always try to pay attention. I look for images and ideas and language in everything. When I’m walking or riding the bus, I like to watch and listen to what’s going on around me, rather than read a book or pop in the earbuds (well, except during the “Serial” craze). For me, part of poetry’s purpose is to help make sense of the human condition, and I feel I can do that more effectively in my work if I’m participating in each aspect of my life as much as I can on a sensory level.
I finished my MFA about 10 years ago, and there have been times, both before and after grad school, when I’ve sort of set the writing aside, or I’ve let myself get into a funk where I don’t write for awhile, and then I’m afraid to try because I’m out of practice, and it snowballs. I’m at a point in my life now where several of the necessary elements for maintaining a writing life seem to be in balance—enough time, a fair amount of self-discipline, a community of writers who make me excited to work and who help keep me accountable, and confidence in myself and the work I’m producing. I’d like to think I’ve finally hit my stride, and that my writing life will always feel this fruitful and enriching, but who knows. I hope so.
Which non-writing aspect(s) of your life most influences your writing?
I mentioned a few influences for these poems already–animals, movies, dreams, newspaper articles. I also spend a lot of time in my garden, and I keep chickens and am fascinated by insects, so those things show up, too. My work tends to reflect a Biblical influence as well. The title “Cast Your Cares Upon Him” alludes to a passage from scripture, and I used it for that poem because I wanted to address how difficult it is, especially for those who are on the fringes of society or who deal with severe mental illness or addiction (as I assume this woman did) to let go of what burdens them. And in a way, this woman was acting on faith–she believed a higher power was telling her to throw her son down the embankment, so she did it. She was literally throwing her burdens down.
What is your favorite book (or essay, poem, short story)? Favorite writer(s)?
I have an easier time talking about current favorites than overall favorites. Matthew Zapruder’s Sun Bear and Jennifer Boyden’s The Declarable Future are recent favorites. Both collections/poets express something about the human condition that I really relate to—our struggle to live in the world even as we know the world is being destroyed by the way we live in it. I admire poets who can talk about big issues without being heavy-handed. I was also really impacted by Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” which I think is such an important book in terms of our current national conversation about race.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m always working on several things at once; I’m not a “one project at a time” kind of poet. I have a full-length manuscript and a chapbook that are circulating right now, looking for the right presses. I’ve become really interested in collage poetry and erasure poetry and am having fun exploring the different use of language involved. I’ve also been working on and off on poems inspired by the story of a Russian family that lived completely cut-off from human society for 40 years in a sort of self-imposed religious exile in the Siberian taiga. Forty years, and they only had contact with one another. Can you imagine? I read an article in Smithsonian magazine and started writing poems, mostly persona poems, and now I have more than 30 of them. My hope is to make them into a full-length collection.
Anything else our readers might want to know about you?
Spokane has a really vibrant, encouraging writing community, and there’s been a lot of great collaboration with the visual arts. I feel really lucky to be a part of it. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in local readings, do collaborative work with a local artist, write a poem for a newspaper feature, and have work published in local anthologies. We also have a lot of fun—live “Bad Poetry” contests, where participants are given prompts and have to compose the worst poem possible on the spot; a performance piece involving a poetry-dispensing contraption I built; collecting limericks written to toast (or maybe roast?) outgoing city poet laureate Thom Caraway, and then reading them with other local poets during his farewell reading (oh yeah…while wearing felt chicken masks).
Where can our readers connect with you online?
My website: kathrynsmithpoetry.com.
Poems I’ve written for the season of Advent are collected at theadventpoemproject.wordpress.com.
KATHRYN SMITH has recent work published or forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Florida Review, Bluestem, Cleaver Magazine and Ruminate. She was a 2013 artist resident at Holden Village, and her work has been a finalist for the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize and the Michael Waters Poetry Prize. She has an MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University and lives in Spokane, Washington.