Monday, September 9, 2013

You Can't Let Things Slip Away From You: The Kerry Trautman interview

Kerry Trautman was one of the first poets I met when I started making my way into Toledo's poetry community. She is a founding member of the Almeda Street Poetry Co-op, which was a small, intimate workshop hosted at our friend Lori's house. We'd bring our own drinks, and sometimes there was food, and there were always wonderful discussions and workshops. I liked Kerry's poems immediately, but I was nervous around her in the way young men are nervous around women who are both smart and beautiful, who have poise. As for me, I was unschooled, learning poetry by reading anthologies and writing all day, whereas Kerry and the rest of the group were mostly students, or former students, of writing, and had a certain conviction and confidence it took me a long time to develop.

A certain conviction is still a hallmark of a Kerry Trautman poem. Her words are carefully placed in well-wrought, deliberate poems, which nonetheless possess an air of ease, space, and delight. I'm often left shell-shocked after a reading of her poems, either with a sheaf of them in my hand, or at an open mic where she's performed, thanks to a combination of efficiency and passion which does exactly what Emily Dickinson tells us a real poem must do: blows the top of your head off. A good poem runs through you like lightning, burnishing your insides and scorching to dust the mean things in your soul. Kerry's poems do this by elevating 'things': daily bread, frisbees, bananas, winter's salted streets, out of the profane and into the sacred. Daily life, with its routines, hard and tender moments, sex, food, and the turning of the seasons, is in the architecture of her best poems. 

Please enjoy this interview, and the poems that follow. 

Are you from Toledo? Where did you go to school? 

I was born in Lima, OH, and my family moved to Toledo when I was nine.  I earned my BA from The University of Toledo in Interdisciplinary Humanities in 1998.  My husband works in Findlay, and after four years of making him commute I finally gave in and moved away from Toledo in late 2002. Despite the fact that my children will only ever remember our home here in Findlay, I still think of Toledo as my hometown, and I miss it the way one might miss a dear cousin with whom they’ve lost touch.

When did you start writing poems?

When I was eight, in the third grade, a poet named Devon McNamara came to visit our school for several weeks or months (I don’t quite recall).  She developed different poetry lessons with each class, and at the end of the project we all brought home this fat, spiral-bound book on colored pages with all of the students’ poems printed inside.  I still have my copy.  I was hooked from the moment she picked-up her first piece of chalk, fascinated that the words that appeared in all of the books I loved on my shelves at home, that those words were made by actual people, by pretty ladies like the one here in my very own classroom, that those words began with a human hand on a pencil.  And that hand could be mine.  Most of her lessons with my class were based on little writing prompts—one was a list poem based on “Hello, Goodbye.”  Like “Hello flowers./Good-bye snowballs.  Hello stars./Good-bye sunshine.”  Things like that.  And what’s funny is I distinctly remember seeing through those prompts, recognizing the gimmick, feeling constrained.  Even though I had no idea what else poetry could be, I just knew there was in fact more.  I sensed that those tricks and teases were only a shaft of light peeking through a door just waiting to be flung fully open.  Years later, I was discussing this story with Roger Ray, my advisor in the UT Honors Department, and he smiled and said he was well aware of that program, that it was funded by the Ohio Arts Council, that Devon McNamara was an old family friend of his, and that she would love to hear how she’d influenced me.  Somehow that sort of legitimized my old childhood feelings.  

I was talking to Jonie McIntire (another local poet, and a friend of mine and Kerry’s) about your poems recently. She mentioned that you started college as a fiction writer but eventually found yourself making poems instead. Is that true?

I started college undeclared.  I seriously considered majoring in fine arts, having loved art classes in high school and taken as many as were offered.  UT’s Center for Visual Arts adjacent to the Toledo Museum of Art was newly constructed at the time, and it was a lovely, exciting place to work.  I took a few drawing and design classes, which I thoroughly enjoyed and miss now, but I wasn’t really talented enough to validate continuing through a BFA, I don’t think.  In high school I had thought about majoring in interior design, but I didn’t realize until I enrolled that UT didn’t actually offer it as a major.  Though I had, of course, always loved writing, I hadn’t considered it as a major, because I hadn’t really considered whether or not I was any good at it.  When I took my first creative writing workshop, sophomore year, with an adjunct professor named John Metz, it became clear to me that I did in fact have some degree of talent.  He was very encouraging, and I began to take my writing more seriously, from a craft standpoint, began to admit it was more than a hobby—it was my first love.  It was like Harry & Sally realizing they were more than just friends all along.  From there I took a fiction workshop with Jane Bradley and poetry workshops with Joel Lipman and Tim Geiger, and I never could choose which genre to focus on.  I remember Joel telling me, basically, “I know you write fiction too, but really you’re a poet.”  And Jane telling me something like, “I know you like to write poetry, but I think you’re a storyteller at heart.”  I still do both to a degree.  The stories come every few years or so, and I recently completed a first draft of a novel.  But poetry is more where I dwell on a day-to-day basis, it’s how my mind translates my world.   I’m sure if I had endless hours of free time I would write more fiction, but poetry is better suited to being created in the small increments I can manage.

Your poems feel so well made, very controlled, very precise, very focused. They are also arousing, full of sensual pleasure and palpable domestic tension. I wonder how many drafts each poem goes through? How much revising do you do? Are you the kind of writer who doesn't do much editing? 

I edit a lot, really.  I try to let myself get the first draft out unrestrained, in one gulp.  Then I go back through it for a half-hour maybe, depending on the circumstances.  But I tinker for days, weeks after that.  I still happen across older poems and can’t stop puttering, changing up line breaks, or compressing shorter poems into prose-poem format, just to see how it affects it, how it looks, how it feels in my mouth as I read.  Once a piece is published I leave it alone, but until then every comma or stanza break is fair game.  It’s like licking my thumb to rub away a toothpaste smudge on my son’s cheek as he runs out for the bus.  I don’t think it’s so much that I’m after some sort of perfection, or that I’m never satisfied, rather it’s that I’m curious about the possibilities for each poem.  I wouldn’t want to regret having decided a poem’s fate too hastily, before giving it a change to explore itself.

What do you look for in a poem? I mean, the poems that move you, or really speak to you, what's going on there? 

I assume you mean in other people’s work? I like to be surprised—to be lead into an experience or idea then suddenly tossed in a new direction that makes me gasp.  A good final line gets me every time.  I am drawn to conversational, plain language.  It feels the most sincere to me, the most honest.  There’s bravery in simplicity. In general I’m turned-off by poems that preach from a blatantly political or religious standpoint, or those that try to rely on obtuse, grandiose language for the sake of itself—those lines where I think, “Ok, that sounds fancy, but what the hell does it mean?”  I want to read or hear about living, breathing, farting, crying, swallowing human beings and the lens through which they view the world and their lives.  A good poem makes me feel like the writer had her hand on my upper arm as she composed it right on the skin of my face.

I'm glad you mentioned Joel Lipman. He's been a mentor to so many of Toledo's poets and certainly an artistic influence on many of us as well. I want to bring him up again because several years ago he warned me against writing poems about 'family'. He said they were hard to do and I gathered from our conversation that the challenge is to create poems that are not too sentimental, so personal that a reader can't approach them, or so revealing that you harm loved ones in the making of them. And when I write poems about my family I find that Joel was right to caution me. You write poems about your family, too. And I'm wondering if you find the family as subject matter challenging? If no, why? And if so, why not? Do you have rules about what's fair game? In general do you think there are off limits subject in poetry that deals with family/loved ones?

I do not write too, too much about my family specifically.  More often some bit of an experience or emotion inspired by a family member might inspire me to begin a poem that, either purposefully or organically, launches off on a different trajectory altogether. Writing poems that appear to be very personal has the potential to become a part of the general problem of people assuming all of a writer's work is autobiographical.  For me, that just isn't the case.  I do have a separate group of poems called "Approximate Biography" that I began many years ago and that I add to as needed.  Any poem I write that does recount a specific memory or defining moment or whatever gets filed away in that group.  Even so, the title includes the word "Approximate," because I have to allow for gaps in my memory, my own subjective twists in perception, my unwillingness to divulge too much.  Still, those are the poems that are the closest to being "true."  Those are the ones about which I have felt some trepidation when they have been published.  The ones that could, I suppose, get me in some trouble.  I do not think it's fair to spill my family members' dirt nor sensationalize every experience that they face.  And I don't think that hinders my work in any real way.  Honestly it's more enjoyable for me to imagine--scenarios, emotional turmoil, love, loss, whatever--rather than to simply recount some "interesting" problem so-and-so might be having.  When I write about my children, it's not psychoanalysis, not expounding on their diary entries, it's more like "so-and-so did such-and-such today and it made me think of -and-that," if that makes any sense. The poems are rarely "about" the children themselves in any distinctly revealing, personal way.

Still, your children are in your poems. I feel a sense of great concern and care when your kids show up in them. Do your kids read your poems, or any poetry? Are they interested in making their own poems?

My children do not read my poems.  Nor do any of them write poetry, though they do journal and enjoy reading and visual art.  When I write about my children I do keep in mind their potential feelings as they read the poems in the future.  The narcissist in me really uses them more as an impetus for writing about myself, anyway.  So any reservations I have about "letting" them someday read my poems stems more from my own vulnerability than from fear of them taking offense. 

I met you at a small workshop called The Almeda St. Poetry Co-op. It was a loose confederacy of poets, of varying skill levels and interests, who I think met on Tuesday nights to talk poetry, and share work and offer critiques, to encourage each other to write, and sometimes we drank and ate too much. How did you get connected with this group? 

I first became aware of the Almeda St. group when I was in a poetry workshop at UT with Joel Lipman.  Adrian Lime was in the same class, and one day he asked me, and Jonie McIntire, to come to an Almeda gathering.  Walking into that Almeda St. house, with those relative strangers, was, first and foremost terrifying, as I am typically painfully shy and reserved, but also it was exhilarating to be essentially walking into a new identity. I remember feeling like I was stepping through the looking glass in a way.  It was the first group of writers that I had ever met, and the first people to know me in the context of my being a writer.  That group, and the broader Toledo poetry "scene" that I became exposed to absolutely shaped my writing life.  Without them, I fear I would not have maintained the confidence to continue writing, reading, and publishing beyond college.

You and I went to the same University, though not at the same time, and took classes with several of the same professors. Do you think the workshop setting was good for your writing? I recently read an editorial that posited workshops are killing creativity in poets, but I found my workshops at school and with our Almeda St. peers to be very constructive. 

My college writing workshops were wonderful.  I know there has been discussion, suspicion about how workshops operate and what kind of writer they supposedly produce, but I doubt the workshop model will ever disappear.  After all, the "better" alternative would be, I presume, one-on-one mentoring, which is not cost-effective for any student or institution.   From the first day of my first workshop I was able to put my until-then solitary habit into perspective.  I was able to compare myself to others who did the same thing I did--compulsively scribbled in notebooks, perhaps meekly showing a line or two to a friend who would declare it "nice."  I was able to--and I know this sounds shitty--see that I was better than some people.  I was able to hear/read bad poems and then learn to articulate what it was that made then bad, so that I could avoid those same pitfalls.  And I could hear a classmate read a lovely poem and tell her to her face precisely what I loved about it.  I suspect that if my education had been solely lecture-based, if I had been presented only with the best published poems by the best writers and had been told "write like this," I would have felt instantly defeated.    After college, I missed the workshop setting and did have to adapt, re-learn to trust my own instincts without regular feedback from peers.  I was fortunate to have the Almeda St. group and the other members of the Toledo poetry community to turn to for advice when needed.  You all sort of weaned me off of the workshops, I suppose.  The support of my fellow local writers continues to inspire me.

I'm curious about this because I wonder if you're a poet who is still ‘inspired’ to write, or are you methodical about writing. Is there a muse or do you do a daily exercise? And is there a difference between the two approaches? Does a bolt of lightning strike from on high and fill you with verse, or you know, do you write methodically, and precisely, out of long experience?

I am not a methodical writer.  I make time for writing nearly every morning, but if the Muse is evasive, so be it.  I do keep writing materials on hand always, and I often jot ideas, lines of poetry, notes for things to work on later.

Do you have any writing rituals or superstitions? 

No, nothing like that, really.

So I'm wondering, are you always ready to write a poem? I mean, is there always a poem on the verge? I was listening to an interview with one of Ruth Stone's daughters the other day, and she described her mother as someone who was always ready to write a poem, and I felt that described my perception of you as a writer of poems, full of them, and always at the ready. 

I wouldn't say that I always feel full of poems just waiting to be written, but I do always feel ready to write when I get the notion.  I try to live with heightened senses, remain perceptive, like a cat with his ears and whiskers twitching, waiting for a signal.  So when an idea occurs to me, or I see something unusual or lovely, I'm sort of stretched and ready to run.  I always have a pen & paper nearby--you can't let things slip away from you.

On a related note, do you ever feel like the poem you're working on has to be written? As if you're being compelled by some inner voice to make the poem, or that the poem demands your complete focus? Or, on the other hand, are you confident enough that you don't feel compelled or controlled at all? Maybe you know your craft so well, the way you do it, that you don't feel that mad rush to finish, but glide into poems with patience and confidence? I don't know, I've said it before you always seem so poised and confident, I think that's why I'm asking you this question. 

I often feel compelled to write a poem, as though it has to be written--not because it's so profound and the world just has to experience it--but more that I have to get it out of my head.  Like an itch I gotta scratch.  So I'll jump into it, crafting somewhat as I go, but revising after that initial draft sort of bursts forth.  That said, they're not always created that way.  Sometimes I have a concept, or a beginning or ending line or something that sort of comes to me "boing," but then piecing the rest together takes significant effort, revision, crafting.  Either way, I don't think of it as an issue of confidence, really, but rather focusing and getting a feel for what the poem wants to be--spotting shapes in the clouds.

I asked you early on what you looked for in a poem. Your answer covered what you respond to when it comes to other poems, but now I want to know what do you expect from your own poems? What do you want to find when you go back through a poem, after you know you've finished it? What happens in a Kerry Trautman poem that makes her say, Ah, yes, this one has done it?

A Kerry Trautman poem. That's a tough one.  While I do recognize that I have a characteristic style, not all of my poems are the same. Some are lighter in tone, more whimsical, I guess, which usually means a quicker rhythm, or even bits of meter here and there, some slant rhyme maybe, shorter lines.   I expect those to sort of dance themselves forward, in one whirl, so the reader is met with the poem's full performance at once.  Some poems, though, are more somber, dreary probably, with longer lines, maybe more stanza breaks for breaths, for swallowing.  I expect these to take a little more time to get where they're going, meandering a bit with moments, images, that build together to create the whole impression felt by the end.  Either way, I like surprising little bits of language. I'd like for readers to think, "I never could have said it that way." And I like when the poem can turn, often right at the end, to become something different that it seemed, from the, outset, that it was likely to become.  If that makes sense.  As if a reader might start reading, thinking, "ah, I see what she's going to say here," but then deflect off into another direction--even if we're just talking at the sentence level, or an image or metaphor that seems obvious but goes someplace else instead. I don't always get there, but I love that, both in what I read and what I write.  I'm pleased when I read an old piece I haven't see in years and I realize that I've forgotten lines, find little surprises in there, images I don't remember, so I can have an experience closer to what my readers might feel, discovering it.  If I find a poem like that, and still find myself nodding, smiling, not grabbing for a pen to edit, I consider that a success.

Was there poetry in your home when you were young? Was literature a part of your childhood, your upbringing? 

There wasn't poetry in the house, growing up.  Lots of books--encyclopedias, travel books from places my parents had been, political stuff, history, but not poetry.  My Dad was always reading, but Sci-fi novels or Scientific magazines.  My mom read the newspaper cover-to-cover, but that's it.  But in general there was this respect of language, this sense that how you speak defines you.  My mom would pull a sharpie out of her purse to correct grammatical errors on signs at our small-town grocery store. My dad loved puns, told these little stories that seemed normal, hooked you in, but then turned out to be jokes.  He would inject bits of German here & there, and my mom Latin, just as little asides, footnotes.  I think what I absorbed was that there is power and fun in the control and manipulation of language. That it was something to be mastered.

And lastly, why did you start writing in the first place? Why did you start writing poems, and why do you keep doing it?

I don't know if I ever would have started dong public readings, discussing my poetry, basically come out as a writer, if it hadn't been for the group I fell into at Sam & Andy's.  Really credit goes to Adrian Lime, I guess.  He approached me after a poetry class that we shared with his now-wife, Jonie McIntire, taught by Joel Lipman.  Adrian asked if I'd be interested in coming to a workshop/discussion group.  That's how I met the Almeda St. poets.  And that's who lead me to Sam & Andy's readings and how I came to meet all of the fantastic local poets who have been so encouraging, supportive, inspiring over the years.

I suspect that without that series of events I never would have been a public poet.  It would have been this thing that I did in journals that never saw the light of day.  Of course there was the encouragement of my instructors at The University of Toledo as well.  The first was John Metz, who taught the first creative writing class I dared to take.  Joel, Jane Bradley, Tim Geiger--each time I enrolled in another writing class, I did so with hesitation.  It seemed...frivolous I suppose.  As though, I better be good at it, or else it was a waste of college credits, of money.  And each time I learned more about the craft and felt like I belonged, like these were my people, the discussions in which I wanted to be engaged.

 I keep writing as a sort of a compulsion, I suppose.  It's sort of how I see the world and how I situate myself within it.  Through words.

A selection of Kerry’s poems:

Be Fruitful

The old woman hired four apricot trees planted in the back yard, near the property line, assured by the nursery manager they would, indeed, bear fruit, though not before a decade’s-worth of soggy April breezes and lonesome bees had whizzed through, uneventfully.  She told herself she did not mind, enjoyed their virginal blossoms nonetheless, pure white as new bedsheets. Someday, someone would thank her.  Someone with baskets full and apron pockets laden with honeyed fruits soft as love and succulent as sex, someone would bite, tilt their face to the blueness of the sunlit sky, gasping within their gut, and bless her unknown name.

Because, Brian

I liked you at first, because your dad fixed a flat on my mom’s Pontiac in his robe, and because of your black jelly bean eyes and big-toothed laugh, and because you almost almost rubbed my thigh.  But I bought off-the-shoulder homecoming velvet for someone else, because of your seaweed smell, because of the taste of our one kiss—wet with salts of sweat and Fritos, because it was October and you were nothing, because we were sixteen.

Two Small Town Girls
[First appeared in Mock Turtle Zine, 2013]

They walked along the storefronts—several boarded-shut, or emptied to dingy linoleum, labeled “for sale,” since a two-years-ago flood. They peered in the antique store and the bridal boutique with a single hopeful shopper fingering the satins, and they wished to slip into those voluminous, shimmery gowns, or lie on the lavender velvet sofa in the thrift store window, or lap the garlicky sauce wafting its warmth from the door of the diner as a man shambled out, full, unsmiling. They ticked their quick feet down the rigid sidewalk, a dry unsettled wind whipping leafy debris against brick walls, sandstone, cinderblock—the trash of the weeks twitching as it landed in cold corners, or stuck between curbs and parked tires, or hurled upward toward the frayed canvas awnings, toward upper apartment windows, toward the networks of suspended iron stairs no one ever has used for escape.

Sunday, Winter

Driving, the city’s winter salt crunched
under my tires, flung in steely storms
against my underbody, my wheel-wells.

The church bells tolled their ten metallic echoes,
like tuning forks teasing the shatter of icy branches.

The last hunched parishioners straggled in,
clenching wool coats against their bellies,
mouthing the woe-filled organ chords,
as those ahead heaved open the oak doors,

and I, in my crusted car, was overcome—
pitying them in the parking lot’s bitter wind,
and myself shivering in the steady blow of
electric heat, wondering what those
stooped followers know that I do not.

Banana Aubade
[First appeared in Alimentum, 2007]

I awoke, having slept on the couch, my cheek
no doubt pocked with pillow texture.
And before I registered even the time
as judged by light’s blue between drape seams,
and before my tongue had time to crave
coffee’s acids on its buds,
I smelled the bananas—

exquisitely ripe.
My body actually sought them out,
finding them nestled in their blue glass bowl.
Their daintily freckled skins,
like a child’s summer cheeks,
blushed bronze enough to enrichen the
gaudy yellow of rawness.

They’d roused me with their
buttered orchid scent,
like sweet liquor in the dark air,
like a sunrise, those sirens
begging to be split, whispering sweetly,
their skin to mine, “today.”

Language Acquisition

As the poet reads
I gasp at the tickle of his words
in my skin like the unexpected bridge
of a song I need to rewind, need to
hear again and now.
His are words whose meanings
I have known for decades,
or thought so, until now,
when he spoke them, breathed them forth like
clouded vapor exhaled into winter air
that became suddenly altostratus.
A stormy dialect I want to hear again
and again until I too can speak it
as if it were my native tongue.

It is like my baby aching with
her constant wants but
lacking language for them—
wanting milk or a taste of whatever
her brother spoonfuls to his mouth,
or wanting to see the photo of her father
framed high on a high shelf,
or to feel the satin ribbon edging of
her blanket cool between her fingertips,
or to be lifted to the open window
where the grassed wind stirs the curtains,
her eyelids fluttering in breeze and bright,
to feel my arms’ wrapness contain her
within the ever-widening world.

Food for the Dead (for John Swaile)
[First appeared in Broadway Bards First, 2010]

Dressing in black for you
and for those you’ve left—
in no need of color today—
I prepare to cook some food you’ll never eat,
but just the rest of us—
the taste on our tongues, you on our brains.
I wonder what to feed
those left behind a dead man.
What flavors should accompany
our recitation of your poems,
our remembrance of your laugh, your sweat,
your anxious stroking of hair from your brow,
with voice booming sweetly?

I remember the last food you made for me:
a white brick of cream cheese,
softened a bit from the warm car ride,
plopped from its silver wrapper
to an oval yellow platter,
topped with a jar’s-worth of jalapeno jelly—
wet green as any summer.
“It isn’t hot,” you assured me,
scraping a glob with a butter knife
onto a golden cracker. 
“It’s sweet,” you said, chewing
and your lips wouldn’t lie, would they? 
And someone handed me
a glass of wine I hadn’t asked for,
and someone else read a poem,
and you held up a finger which meant,
“wait for me to swallow; 
I have something I must say.”
And you scooped me a cracker—
glistening green swirled with creamy white,
like jewels in snow,
and I shoved it, whole, into my mouth,
and damn if it wasn’t sweet after all.   


  1. Really enjoyable interview - insightful and inspiring. Great to hear Kerry having a chance to be expansive on her art. And the good poems speaking for themselves. - Bob Phillips

    1. I know you're a great lover of Kerry's words, Bob. I'm glad you read the interview. Thanks!

  2. Enjoyed reading your interview of Kerry Trautman. I just heard her read a few of her unpublished poems at a recent Broadway Bards event. Roped me right in! - Lori Seubert