Interviewed by Jen Schomburg Kanke
Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of Rag & Bone, which won the 2010 Elixir Press Prize. She is an associate professor of English at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as Poetry Editor for Pleiades. New poems have recently appeared in West Branch, 32 Poems, Nimrod, and on Versedaily.com.
Q: What is your relationship with rejection like?
A: I cannot tell when my poems are done or when they are good or when they are drawing flies. I love them or hate them deeply and irrationally and sporadically. I think editors do me the tremendous service of keeping my embarrassments from going public. I am very
grateful for rejection and I also hate it and it makes my stomach hurt.
Q: What kind of child were you?
A: I had messy hair and I wore jams with splashes of various clashing neon colors and high tops with not-neon but still boldly-colored interlocking geometric figures. I kept my Crayola caddy in rainbow order. I liked to sing “Lamb of God” very loudly while building block houses for my Strawberry Shortcake dolls. I did figure skating routines on roller blades to U2 songs and choreographed water ballets to the instrumental pieces on The Little Mermaid sound track. I wrote a romance novel about Rene, who was in love with a Redcoat and a Yankee during the Revolution and married the one who got his eye shot out by a musket. I confessed my sins at regular intervals, much like I am doing now.
Q: Jealousy seems toplay a bit of a role in many of your poems. Which poet’s childhood do you most envy?
A: I definitely envy the Bronte sisters their dark, isolated childhoods and their deep friendship with other literary geniuses who happened to be each other. Their play consisted of creating these amazing, complex imaginary kingdoms of Angria, Gondol, and other nations in the Glass Town Federation. Moreover, they had the tremendous good sense to make themselves the geniis of these worlds. Also, there was a lot of psychological torment and very cold winters. What more could a person want out of childhood?
Q: Name a writer who is currently making you jealous.
A: Mary Ruefle is not making me jealous exactly, but I wish she would stop being so brilliant that I am forced to conclude literature is now finished and it’s time to take up pottery.
Q: The writer—dead or alive—you’d most like to bury in the literary basement.
A: I promised you I’d say “fuck Wordsworth” somewhere in this interview.
Q: What is the question you wish people would ask about your work?
A: I really don’t like it when people ask questions about my work. I mean, I do like it because it shows they’re interested and the poems have mattered, so, hey people, ask away. But I feel bad, because I don’t have answers. If I could have said it better or more clearly or more completely in the poem, I would have. And I don’t feel like I
say things clearly or completely in conversation at all. Unless I have written out the conversation in advance, which I have been known to do and which never has the desired effects.
Q: What poem’s speaker would you most trust to chicken sit?
A: “Song of Myself” Whitman would probably do the best job keeping up with egg collecting. I think Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner would be the most edifying, especially for the roosters.
Q: Your work is known for embracing the macabre in the quotidian and some of your images are quite cinematic. If one of your poems were made into a movie, which one would you want it to be and who would you want to direct it?
A: I would like to see them all made into a Jacques Cousteau documentary. Especially the ones that aren’t already about the sea.
Q: A lot of people credit Wallace Stevens for pushing contemporary poetry into the realm of the imagination, yet he once said that “The real world is just the base of poetry, but is the base.” With that in mind, where do you prefer to live: Imagination, Reality, or Reality TV?
A: I don’t know how to answer this question—I’m sometimes accused of living outside of reality, because I can’t be bothered to call a spider exterminator or because I don’t have a cell phone. Because I say things like phone calls make me nervous, or touch screens make me angry, or I will be dead in my grave before I put the forks in the dishwasher prong-side up. I mean if reality is touching the food
part of silverware and swiping my finger sideways across a screen thirty times in a row with increasing force and frustration just to hire a poison expert because I can’t live with itchy bumps on my butt any longer, then I definitely pick imagination. But, if I’m being honest, my real choice is flakiness because I have low self-esteem, as evidenced by my foregone conclusion that the exterminator doesn’t like me. I mean I can’t even work this phone for God’s sake.
I like Reality TV, because you get to bask in your smug superiority over some poor dope who can’t sew a proper avant-garde reinvention of the little black dress that will make a bajillion dollars. Or, in true Reality TV spirit, I’ll confess that I’ve replaced my interest in Project Runway with obsessive devotion to Craft Wars, where I harshly judge a middle-aged woman with an unfortunate haircut covering a doghouse in hot pink glitter. I would have known better than to use spray glue – you’ve got to dilute Elmer’s with a little water and paint it on or that glitter is going to end up all over your kitchen floor.
Of course basking in smug superiority is probably a cause (or maybe an effect?) of the poor self-esteem that makes my genii work in Angria so very appealing.
Dear Wallace Stevens, I’m sorry about the last three paragraphs. Your answer was better.
Q: You’ve been at Pleiades for a little over a year now, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned or insight you’ve had?
A: Poets get better. I started editing when I was young, so I imagined everyone who submitted was older and more accomplished than me. I read submissions in Reality TV mode; I was smug, superior, and totally overcompensating for my own feelings of inadequacy as a writer. I’m sorry everyone everywhere who I ever read. But now that I’ve been editing for a while I recognize names of people I rejected when I was at other magazines and sometimes we’re publishing these people or coming very close to publishing these people. And I realized it’s because poets never finish becoming poets. Which is very encouraging to me, because I often write bad poems, and I’m also getting better all the time.
About the Interviewer: Jennifer Schomburg Kanke is a PhD student at Florida State University and currently serves as Poetry Editor of The Southeast Review. Previously, she worked for nine years in higher education administration doing anything from shuffling paperwork to organizing the homecoming parade at a large state university. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fugue, The Laurel Review, Rattle, and Earth’s Daughters.