Welcome to our inaugural “Behind the Byline” column, in which we share conversations with current NER writers in all genres. This month, NER‘s poetry editor Rick Barot speaks with poet Joanna Klink.
What details feed, nurture, or transmute into a poet’s singular voice? Klink shares a few thoughts with us on her process of composition, landscape’s role in her poetry, and what she’s been reading lately.
RB: At several pages in length, “Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy” would be considered a long poem by many. Can you talk about the process of composing the poem?
JK: Well, the poem was a throwaway; I didn’t expect it to turn into anything. I was trying to take account of my life from the time I started graduate school in Baltimore until now, a sweep of twenty years that included studying and moving constantly between cities—so much dislocation, and losses I could never have foreseen. I tend to be suspicious of poems that lean too much on autobiography, so I assumed it wouldn’t really work, and perhaps that freed me up to keep writing past the first few pages. I wrote it in one sitting, but incorporated two fragments from poems I’d written over a decade ago. It felt as if I were looking for some kind of pattern, gathering up moments that were lived then (terribly) passed over or discarded.
RB: “Excerpts” is the title poem of your upcoming book, your fourth collection. How do you see the book in relation to your earlier books?
JK: My most recent book Raptus was about the aftermath of a relationship . . . I have always tried to write myself out of solitude. But this new book is explicitly, maybe relentlessly, about that—about feeling alone and always newly unmoored, casting around for connections to other people and presences that might have force in them, and purpose. Excerpts might also be similar to my second book Circadian in some respects. It pays attention to natural cycles and systems that are vanishing, that can no longer help to hold us together as human beings.
RB: You teach at the University of Montana and have lived in Missoula for a number of years. How has living in such a distinctly beautiful place affected your poetry?
JK: Missoula is truly the best place I’ve lived, with its arid white light, and mountains rising up into every distance. I’m happy I can be here. It’s possible that my poems would be even bleaker if I lived somewhere else.
I was drawing on natural landscapes in my poems before I arrived in Missoula, but now, I don’t know, I worry about it sometimes. There’s a line in my new book about the “eerie flute-call of the elk,” and that’s something you can hear in Montana, but how many people in the world can relate to that? I don’t want imagery to ever get in the way of what I’m trying to say.
RB: Who are you passionately reading these days?
JK: I just finished Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and am wondering how many months it will be before the next novel in the Neapolitan series is translated. And Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and now I’ve launched into Buddenbrooks . . . great families in decline. And Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, which was almost too heartbreaking to read, and Alice Oswald’s Memorial. Now I’m starting Thomas Sayers Ellis’ Skin, Inc. and Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me. I read poetry so slowly, but novels I will race through—I love losing myself in those worlds and not having to resurface. At least for a while.
Joanna Klink is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Raptus. Her new book, Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy, is forthcoming from Penguin in April. New England Review is proud to present this book’s title poem in NER 35.4.