Poet Of The Week

Kathleen Radigan

     January 6–12, 2020

Kathleen Radigan holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MFA from Boston University. Her work has been published by PANK Blog, Carve, New Ohio Review, the Antigonish Review, the Belladonna* Series and the Academy of American Poets, among others. Her chapbook The Frustrated Ones is forthcoming this spring from dancing girl press. Radigan received an Olin Fellowship from Wesleyan in 2016 to study banshees and other ghosts in Ireland, and a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship in Poetry for travel to Italy in 2018. This past fall, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Cynthia Cruz’s The Language of Desire workshop. Currently she teaches writing to gifted New York public high school students.

Augur

 

The storm blows down

a hundred-year-old pine

just inches from the house.

Now, out the kitchen window,

my mother looks over

its hulk trunk, lichen-swollen.

The threat passed over,

left contrails on her breasts.

When they noticed,

doctors sank gloved hands

inside her skin and pulled

out the tumor,

a dove from a hat.

Her slippers all night

through the kitchen.

The countertop shines

in the dark like a deer’s eye.

She pounds chicken

with murderous force.

Parts meat with a knife

and gut-glossed hands.

Pulls heart from carcass,

keeps a wishbone

for after.

 

Tell us about the making of this poem.

My mom’s cancer medicine gave her insomnia for the first time. I wrote that poem while listening to her shuffle through the house at an hour I’d never known her to be awake before. It sounded unnerving, like she was walking on a tightrope between worlds.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve been writing more conversational poems since reading Dorothea Lasky’s beautiful book Milk last fall. I’m also working on a kids’ book and a screenplay for an animated short about a little witch. Switching between media keeps me feeling creative. I’ve been writing standup, too, and performing a bit at Bushwick open mics. I love to watch comedians. The tricks I cop are often also applicable to poetry-writing—to be game, to wring drama from pauses, to distill a line until it pops.

What’s a good day for you?

Wake up, walk to a coffee shop, get a donut and write, go to yoga, take a long walk in the sun, meet up with friends, sit in a park where dogs are running around off their leashes, eat a good dinner that I didn’t have to cook, drink margaritas, sit outside barefoot, look at the stars, stay up late talking.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

After grad school, I got a job teaching writing at a college-prep nonprofit that aims to close the school segregation gap in New York City. A bunch of friends’ leases were up around the same time so we all got an apartment together.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I moved to Bushwick last March, and hope to stay here for a long time. I love living in close proximity to art and music and comedy and community, catching up with my friends behind the deli counter, and composting on Sundays at the community garden. I love the orange cats who live on my street, the music floating out windows, the sidewalks vibrating when trains pass. Of course, I haven’t been here long so I can’t speak firsthand to how the neighborhood has changed, but clearly the changes—bigger bike lanes, condos—are intended to benefit white newcomers like me rather than longtime residents. From reading and talking with my students, it’s clear how violently rezoning and gentrification have ruptured the communities here. I want to be a good resident and neighbor, and am learning as much as I can about local history so that I can participate in elections and hopefully, in doing so, help preserve the safety and belonging of longtime Bushwick residents. This neighborhood has brought me so much joy.

I grew up in a woodsy area of Rhode Island, where I got to run through fields making up stories and characters and weird tunes. It was a really peaceful place to grow up. I loved playing by myself and I still do.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

I’m not sure if this is a defining Brooklyn experience, but the other day I was on the M train talking to a Spanish-speaking baby. As we were going over the Manhattan Bridge, he stared me down, pointed at the skyline out the window and said, “Es un experimento.” When I looked confused his mom jumped in: “He’s saying, ‘It’s an experiment.’” I said “Sí,” and realized that the baby was right. I now think all industrial life is an experiment.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Tracy K. Smith and Dorothea Lasky are two of my all-time favorite poets—Tracy’s poems are electric and achy. They fill me with awe. Dorothea’s change colors and swirl through a choir of beautiful, brutal voices. She observes the movements of the self with such wonder and comic candor. Their poems snap me back whenever I feel out of sync with the world.

I’m also a huge fan of the comedian Julio Torres—he isn’t branded as a poet but I think he’s a good one. He speaks on behalf of toys and furniture and shards of plastic, weaving playfulness with abstraction. And he’s an Aquarius like me.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

My Dad has always taken my writing seriously and evaluated it honestly. He used to read me Philip Larkin and Yeats and Emily Dickinson before bed, and still sends me clippings and links to writing he loves. Because of his enthusiastic support, I’ve grown up believing that it’s possible to be a writer.

A high-school English teacher, Marion Wrye, taught me how to edit. We used to meet at a diner and talk through poems for hours. She has a wonderful lyrical ear, and a talent for cutting fat off a line.

In college, I was lucky enough to work with Erica Hunt, a great poet and an activist who was incredibly generous with her time and attention. She taught me how to break a line, and exposed me to Language poetry which blasted open my idea of what poems can do.

In grad school, I got to work with Robert Pinsky, who was so much fun to talk with about poetry. He believes that poems should enrich regular people’s lives, a belief I really admire, and he has an instinctive ear for language. Karl Kirchwey was also a mentor at BU—his generous attention taught me to choose words carefully. The brilliance and sincerity of my BU cohort challenged me to write without fear, and to keep practicing art even during a scary political climate. I feel so lucky to have learned from these people.

Tell us about your last book(s) and poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I’ve been into the poem “The Tooth” by Heather Christle, which is weird and sort of sublime. I also just read the book Letters to a Stranger by Thomas James, a gorgeous homage to Ariel. His voice is less angry than Plath’s but just as clean—bursting with pain and praise. My favorite poem from it is “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh.” I read it like twenty times and texted a link to a lot of people.

What are some books or poems that you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I’ve been meaning to read all of Borges’s short stories. I’ve also somehow never read Virginia Woolf.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I’m too obsessive to dabble—I can only ever read books one at a time, and prefer to have copies in my hands. I usually order a bunch of books at once on my Brooklyn Public Library app, and read them in the order in which they arrive. I’m bad about taking notes because the process rips me out of the story, but I’m trying to be better with regard to looking up words I don’t know. I recently reread Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” and learned the word “lucency.” It’s a technical term for an area that appears dark on an X-ray. I am in love with it. Sometimes I whisper it to myself.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’d like to step into more voices that are clearly not my own. I’ve been thinking a lot about how the use of formal, impersonal speech enables people to do terrible things to each other. I’d love to play with courtroom jargon, and the language of “following procedure” that people in power so often use to justify acts of evil.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I like to write in coffee shops that are a little bit dark, and I also take iPhone notes wherever I am. I read a lot on the train.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love hanging out at House of Yes, Mood Ring, Molasses Books. Prospect Park has special significance for me—my great-grandmother used to roll my grandma and her brother there in a wagon when they were kids, before the Depression hit. I love listening to my grandma talk about the Brooklyn of her childhood. In city parks, public and private spaces melt together. People are playing games, breaking up, doing aerial yoga, making out, smoking, having business meetings. I also love the Ditmas Park area—when I dog-sat for a pit bull last spring, the two of us would walk down lanes of old, colorful houses feeling tough and hot.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate your face in conversation

light-smudged from bay windows,

greased with day-smells.

And what you say, I won’t remember.

For every word raises

the tongue: A god flickering in you.

Why Brooklyn?

I love it here.