A conversation with Poet Laureate Kimberly Blaeser

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MTT News's picture
Matt Geiger

2015-2016 Wisconsin Poet Laureate Kimberly Blaeser is a Professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she teaches Creative Writing and Native American Literatures. She is the author of three collections of poetry:  Apprenticed to Justice, Absentee Indians and Other Poems, and Trailing You. Blaeser is Anishinaabe, an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, and grew up on the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. She is the editor of Stories Migrating Home: A Collection of Anishinaabe Prose and Traces in Blood, Bone, and Stone: Contemporary Ojibwe Poetry. She is currently at work on a collection of “Picto-Poems,” which combines her photographs and poetry.

MTT: How did you initially become interested in poetry?

Blaeser: This may seem like an odd origin to which to point, but a strong influence in my becoming a writer came from the habit of the oral - my life within a family that performed story, song, poetry as an everyday act. Both my immediate and my extended families at White Earth are filled with talented and colorful storytellers, and I grew up amid people who not only made of the everyday incidents lively stories, but who sang, recited, teased, imitated, read out loud - whose entertainment was often joyful verbal exchanges. The love of language is, in many ways, a gift we inherit.

MTT: Two types of person will read this - people who enjoy poetry, and those who find is inaccessible or daunting. (Karl Ove Knausgaard has this amazing passage in one of his “My Struggle” books about how, no matter how finely he hones his writing skills, poetry will not “let him in,” which he finds alluring.) What would you say to each of those two types of reader?

Blaeser: I might say the same to both: I think poetry can meet us where we are.  The simple descriptive form of haiku, much narrative poetry, and certain prose poems have an accessible quality more welcoming for someone unsure of poetry.  Also, I encourage people who might struggle to “get” poetry to read it out loud, or better yet to listen to the poet perform their work.  The sonic quality of poetry plays a significant role in its effect.  If we think of poetry as like music in this way, the wash of sound itself can communicate. 

Poetry can also involve symbolism, metaphor, play with language, patterns, etc. - but as in any work of literature, the suggestions of the text need not be grasped all at once.  I often discover something new about a poem I have read or heard before.  This means it has a complexity equivalent to experience.  Don’t we always return to encounters of our lives to ferret out meaning, to try to understand or evaluate them?  In the same way, a poem unfolds in relationships - with allusions within the text, with connections to other written works, with gesture toward things in the world. We can follow those paths as we feel comfortable doing.  Take from a poem what you are able in any given moment.  There may be more later, but let that worry you less and intrigue you more!

MTT: Tell us a bit about your voice as a writer:

Blaeser: I would describe my work as eclectic.  Although there is often a lyrical quality to my writing and a focus on nature and spirit, I also have poems of resistance, as well as zany, offbeat poems. My subjects, too, vary: motherhood, Native experience, politics, ecology, contemporary events, historical critiques, autobiographical pieces, vignettes, wry commentary, mythic accounts, etc.  One quality that characterizes some of my work is its multi-voiced nature and its use of Native language as well as English.  Lately, in addition to using things like nursery rhymes or song excerpts as one layer in pieces, I have also begun to write centos, which are poems entirely composed of language from other sources.  Think of a literary quilt or collage. 

Among the descriptors of my writing given by others, the word “incantatory” seems apropos. Much of my work is about the spoken quality of language and sometimes this is influenced by ceremonial and ritualized language.  But again, that is one quality, 

The focus in my writing is often on learning how to be in the world and so there is a quality of search evoked as well. The feeling, I think, is a leaning toward the light.

MTT: Poet Laureate is a pretty amazing designation. Can you tell us a bit about earning that title?

Blaeser: There is a ten-member Poet Laureate Commission that oversees an open search and appointment process every two years.  I was invited to apply and all applicants supplied writing samples, a publication vitae, comments [and] reviews about their work, and a statement about how they saw the role of Poet Laureate and what they might undertake if chosen.  From the initial applications, a group was selected to participate in a personal interview with the commission.  At the interview each candidate was asked the same questions and we were invited to share a poem with the commission and also to do a brief reading from our own work.  That is the selection process, but of course, the factors weighed involved a history of past work in the arts, a record of previous publication, and proven ability to engage with an audience.  So your question really involves my experience as a writer and arts advocate. 

I have been involved in various work with presses, have headed up the planning of several major literary conferences, regularly plan reading events, etc.  But, again, we could follow that path back further to having a certain desire and dedication to writing and the arts and to becoming involved with the communities and organizations that foster my growth as a writer and allow me to share the power of the arts in various settings.  Along the way that means having encountered some pretty amazing teachers, mentors, editors, and fellow writers. 

One of the most significant factors contributing to my being blessed with the post of Wisconsin Poet Laureate, is my having belonged for many years to a writing group called the Word Warriors.   I could go on in great detail about the highs and lows of apprenticing yourself to poetry, but perhaps the key idea is process.  You don’t wake up one morning and find you are a writer, you become a writer by the day in and day out honing of craft and, unfortunately, learning the business end of publication.

MTT: What about poetry, as a form, allows you to say things you might not otherwise be able to say?

Blaeser: Poetry leaves room for what is unsaid or unsayable. 

I am often asked why I turned to poetry.  As I move through my most ordinary days, I often find myself struck by an image, a cadence or turn of language, a quick flash of something seen or understood in a new way - maybe an encounter in nature, the challenge of a particular troubling current event, a new revelation about a person I thought I knew well.  This flash of re-seeing is where poetry starts for me. And I want to invite the reader into the process.

In my own aesthetic I think about both poetry and photography as an act of attention, as a way of seeing and re-seeing. Poetry, I believe gestures beyond itself, beyond mere language.

In talking about the Japanese haiku, R. H. Blyth claims: “A haiku is not a poem, it is not literature; it is a hand beckoning, a door half-opened, a mirror wiped clean.  It is a way of returning to nature;” and Poet Wislawa Szymborska said, “Poets if they are genuine, must keep repeating, ‘I don’t know.’”

For me, art is all about question and gesture. Poets do not simply represent the world - although that, too, is part of it - but on our best days, we wonder. As the language of a poem touches ideas and wanders around our universe, poetry invites a re-seeing of our world and a re-imagining of meaning.

In my own work, for example, I am often inspired by encounters in nature.  I notice the small or simple beauty - the intricate patterns of the “common” loon, the dramatic reflections of clouds on water at evening.  And, in the midst of immense wild places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, we know - not by reason, but by instinct - that this is sacred. We taste our own smallness.  How do you say “human insignificance” in writing and mean “belonging?” There is a space in poetry for this ambiguity, for this complexity of feeling.


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