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Volume 2 | Issue 4 | May 2008 |
Embrace human error. Embrace possibility.
AN INTERVIEW WITH KATE EVANS
Kate Evans is the author of a poetry collection, Like All We Love (Q Press), and a book about lesbian and gay teachers, Negotiating the Self (Routledge). Her poetry, stories and essays have appeared in more than 40 publications, including the North American Review, Seattle Review, Cream City Review, and Santa Monica Review. She has been nominated for the L.A. Times Book Prize, a Lambda Literary Award, and Pushcart Prizes in fiction and creative nonfiction. Currently she is working on a novel. She lives in San Jose, California by way of Seattle, Santa Cruz, and Yokohama, Japan.
About the interviewer
In former issues of thanalonline you may find more details about interviewer Farideh Hasanzadeh-Mostafavi who is a poet and translator from Iran. There is also her photo in the latest issue.
So let us introduce Thanalonline’s readers to a painting by an Iranian famous painter: Master Shakiba whose paintings show Iranian women in the first decades of the 20th century.
This interview is from the book Eternal Voices: Interviews with Poets from All Around the World, which will appear in the next year.
The reasons for my interview with Kate Evans:
1– I like her sincerity as a poet. She doesn’t enforce herself to write poems, essays and novels to show herself as an important academic person. She writes only for a simple reason : to share her experiences with the words to find a meaning for her life.And when others find meaning in her words to enrich their experiences, she appreciate herself as a simple woman; a human.
2– As a teacher she is a real follower of Walt Whitman; doing her best so that her students learn:
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing , searching , receiving, contemplating …
She doesn’t assume teaching as a duty only for earning money. She goes beyond text books. She introduced me and my daughter to her students for exchanging ideas and Information between American and Iranian culture , simply because her kind heart hates politicians’ exchanging of weapons.
3– Love is not only a word for her to write or to speak about it. To respect the roots of love, she appreciates her parents by devoting to them the most precious thing she needs: her time.
In one of her letters to me she wrote: “I’ve been so busy with my new job, running the literary speakers’ series. I’m kind of behind in many things.” And yet : “I have been spending a lot of time with my mother .We are going out together to lunch tomorrow. She’s always so happy to see me — her whole face lights up.”
And in Kate’s blog one may see a beautiful picture of her father and pictures of her great favorite poets.
4– She knows what she is doing with her life ” Before death’s knife provides the answer ,ultimate and appropriate”:
“One of the poems I’ve attached is about, in part, reading about war in the news. And it makes me almost crazy to realize that I write about it as something I read about in the paper, while there are people in the world who write about it as something they have to experience. The inhumanity of people to one another in this world is a form of insanity. Thus, connections like the one we are having right now are a state of grace.
Farideh: What is “the good poem” in your idea? And how can a poet become a better poet?
Kate: There are so many reasons a poem can be “good”– but I guess the core “goodness” of a poem to me connects to Sam Hamill ‘s quote: a good poem moves me. Maybe it moves me because of its humanity, or its acknowledgement of life’s beauty or pain, or because it surprises me with its humor or horror or both. Most poems I love strike to the depths quickly through the economy of words. Also, many poems I love use a personal experience to connect more broadly to others. There is an empathic gesture in many good poems.
How can someone become a better poet? Read poetry. Observe the world. Observe the self’s response to the world. Ask why. Ask questions that have no answers. Listen a lot. Honor ambiguity. Love language. Revel in contradiction. Embrace human error. Embrace possibility.
F: What is your interpretation of this statement: “Egocentricity is a normal characteristic of poets”?
K: I think egocentricity is one side of the coin. The other side is universality or humanitarianism. So I think poets, in a way, foster a bit of both. The egocentricity–or perhaps, a better way for me to say this is subjectivity–is part of the poet’s work because she filters all life experience through herself in order to put it on the page.
But to make a piece a poem (as opposed to a journal entry), it has to transcend the individual and speak to the human condition. Here’s the paradox: The poet gets to the universal through the specific. The poet uses the self to speak to the human condition.
F: In his essay :” Fear of feeling”, Dr. Samuel Hazo says: “There have been numerous poets who have literally ” spilled their guts ” on the page , yet unable of expressing of feeling. There is a world of difference between the expression of private as opposed to personal feeling . Personal feelings involve all of us whereas private feelings are limited to the person who is expressing them.” How do you see your own poetry regarding this statement?
K: I fully agree with the statement. In fact, I think private sentiment constitutes a journal entry, whereas personal feelings that touch on emotion at the human level (that reach beyond the individual) are essential to poems.
And the paradox is that the more specific the images in the poem, or the more specific the story told, the more likelihood that the piece will transcend the private. It seems counter-intuitive. It seems that one would have to speak in sweeping, grand generalizations in order to be universal. It’s hard to get my students to understand this. They want to write using lots of abstractions and generalities. But it’s more often the specificity of image, of concrete language, that evokes emotion.
I definitely work to get at this in my own poetry, although I’m certainly not always successful. I struggle sometimes to find the poem in the experience, as Ellen Bass puts it. That’s what we must do: not just put down the experience, but find the core of poetry within it.
F: How does teaching influence your writing?
K: Teaching keeps me from writing as much as I’d like to! But at the same time, it keeps my writing fresh. The students constantly offer me new insights into what we read and write about. They don’t have many literary “should s” embedded in their minds, thus much of their writing has a sense of freedom to it that is inspiring.
Because I want to be able to give as much as I can to my students, I feel an obligation to keep as current as possible on what’s new in the literary world. This keeps me as multi-faceted as possible, especially since I teach all genres (poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction).
F: All over the world, there is a gap between artists and politicians. They are vastly different in their ideals. It seems in the U.S. this gap is widening. How do you feel about America’s big-stick policy toward third-world countries?
K: I have been greatly grieved by America’s big-stick policy. All the money spent on bombing and killing could be spent on humanitarian efforts in the U.S. and abroad–for health care, education, food. To think we spend money to kill instead of to help and to heal almost makes me crazy. Most U.S. artists I know feel the same–so I agree that there is a gap between many artists and politicians. In fact, California’s poet laureate, Al Young, has said that it is the responsibility of poets to take back language that politicians use to manipulate us.
F: One of American poets with whom I had an interview , told me he fears of replying to my political answers for , Bush’s government , is not indifference to the writers who criticize him and his policy and deprive them of their rights for teaching or publishing or etc…. Please tell me how do you interpret his word?
K: His words point out how this current U.S. administration thrives on fear-based politics. It’s very Orwellian, actually. In our “free” country, our emails and phone calls are tapped by our government. People are “disappeared”–only to be shipped to other countries where they are tortured. Guantanamo is a nightmare. In the name of “peace” our country bombs and kills. What happens, then, is that if our country of “free speech,” people become afraid to dissent for fear of real or imagined reprisals.
And speaking about our political men, I’m curious how do you feel about the Iranian President saying that there are no homosexuals in Iran?
F: Thank you very much for this interesting answer. As for your question regarding homosexuality in Iran ,I must explain: In Iran this case is not very serious. For example me , myself , have been a very active woman. I have worked in high schools, universities, various cities as teacher, librarian and freelance journalist, and I have never seen two lezbian or homosexual in my life. Of course I have heard about it but personally ,I have not seen. Maybe it is unbelievable for you and other Americans but it is true. At the same time the translations of works by homosexual or lesbian poets and writers are published in Iran without prohibition. I have published Lorca’s biography ,full of scenes on his homosexual relationships or Cavafi ‘s poetry have published for many many times . And others without any prohibition. Believe me !
K: Thank you for this, Farideh. It’s so interesting how perhaps not many people are “out of the closet” in Iran–and yet it sounds like things are very open when it comes to literature. And no, I don’t find it unbelievable. Not too long ago here in the U.S., gays and lesbians were much less open than they are now. Our gay rights movement sparked a lot of change that is still evolving to this day. Of course, our federal government isn’t very supportive–they are trying to block same-sex marriage.
In our news here it claims that homosexuals get put to death in Iran. Have you heard this? Of course, here, it can be dangerous to be an out gay person in some places in the U.S. because there are homophobic, angry people who do hurt some gay people (like Matthew Shepard).
F: To tell the truth I have heard such news only from Immigrant Iranians with British or American citizenship. In their feelings towards Iran they are like stepmothers who prefer to find only bad and ugly aspects in their step children and if they can’t find they simply fabricate lies . They are blind to good aspects of this innocent child: homeland.
Let me ask please my next question: In 1949, Muriel Rukeyser wrote : “Poetry is foreign to us ,we don’t let it enter our daily “lives.” Does poetry have an acknowleged place in American life today?
K: I think poetry has a place in the U.S. in a variety of ways. The most visible way right now is spoken word poetry and performance poetry, which are closely connected to the hip hop scene. This is one way young people, in particular, are being brought into the world of poetic expression.
Some of our state and national poet laureates–like Billy Collins, Ted Kooser and Al Young–have done a great job bringing poetry alive to more people, through a variety of poetry projects. I’d love to see more women in these positions, however.
To me, Rukeyser was referring not only to poetry literally, but also to poetic sensibilities. I do think that our culture is dominated by capitalist impulses and images of sanctified violence. In such an environment, it can be difficult to find a place for “poetic logic”–that which might question those in power, and would privilege human relationships, the heart, and peace.
F: What is your interpretation of this line by Delmore Schwartz : “The poet must be both Casanova and St. Anthony”?
K: It makes complete sense–that our poetry must both seduce people and feed them! And in that order. First the seduction to draw people close –and then the devouring. The devouring must be nourishing, however, or people will not be sustained by the work.
F: ” What is behind this outpouring of polished vacuity? Why does a poet like John Ashbery occupy such a central place in the contemporary pantheon of American poetry(and who created such an anointing in the first place ?) while better poets such as Louis Simpson and Philip Booth receive nowhere near the attention they merit?” May I know your answer to this question by Professor Samuel Hazo in his essay on poetry ?
K: Itâ€™s kind of a mystery to me why certain poets get attention over others. I know there are many possible explanations related to poetics, luck, politics, favoritism, skill, gender bias and other biases, academiaâ€™s influenceâ€¦ I think (hope?) there is room for everyone, for all types of poetry. I love Louis Simpsonâ€™s work, for instanceâ€”and I have an appreciation for much of John Ashberyâ€™s work because I do like the way he makes language slippery. I do think, though, that academia tends to support poets who are write more densely. Such poetry gives academics jobsâ€”because people rely on â€śexpertsâ€ť to explain that poetry to them!
F: “Poets are not obliged to address the burning issues of the day, only to work with the language as well as they can, and if Billy Collins feels no compunction to make statements about American foreign policy, so be it. (Indeed given the marginal place that poets hold in our society it is a wonder that any poet ever feels the need to speak about anything at all.) Let us be grateful to him for his quirky poems, which do add to the fabric of our time here below, and let others raise their voices.”
This is Christopher Merrill’s idea. He is a poet who attended Balkan war as a journalist. Please let me know your comment on his statement.
K: I love the generosity in what Merrill says, and I completely agree. I think no topic should be “required” of any poet. At the same time, I would hope that poets don’t avoid topics out of fear or political favor. I believe the best poetry is fearless. I don’t think silence is ever the answer when it comes to objecting to war…unless one is talking about the “negative space” in a poem where the richness is achieved by what is not said.
F: How do you see Lady Death?
K: I see Lady Death as immensely personal. She belongs to each one of us. People who don’t want to accept this fact spend a lot of time trying to make death belong to other people. Perhaps I do see violence in our world as lodged in a deeply psychic space. Those in power who think nothing of dropping a bomb to kill others are in denial about their own mortality.
I also see her as a being who propels creativity. At some level, most creativity is inspired by mortality, I think. We make things because we know at some level our time is limited. Mortality is essential to the creative impulse. And unfortunately, it’s also essential to the destructive impulse. That’s a conundrum I want to think more about. It’s not one to be solved, only to be grappled with.