Megan Kaminski’s first book of poetry, Desiring Map, revels in landscapes and ecosystems — both natural and manmade — as well as the disturbances that assault them. Her poems are often characterized as quiet, but they’re wrought with a subtle violence, such as where, according to poet Dan Thomas-Glass, the “jet set’s excesses and the bleak horizontals of the mid-country clash to great effect.” Joshua Clover calls Desiring Map, “a book that approaches us cannily, drenched in form, never word-spent and never without cocktails; a 21st century pleasure with a keen eye on the terrain and something to say.” Since I first encountered Megan’s poetry, I’ve been drawn to the intelligence, the linguistic precision, and the fascination with systems — ecological, financial, neural — that inform her writing. Megan teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas and also curates The Taproom Reading Series in Lawrence, recently named one of the top 10 reading series in the Midwest. Megan and I corresponded via email about Desiring Map, in a conversation that touched on “our very weedy human appetites,” the slippery boundaries of “I,” catastrophe theory, and admiration for “unflinching and unapologetic” female writers.
The Millions: The idea of place is central to so many of your poems in Desiring Map. From the prairie to the coast to the Florida wetlands, your language revels in site-specific spaces. Could you talk more about the role of landscape in your poems, as well as the ways that desire is evoked by environment? And also, having lived in many diverse locations, ranging from exotic (Casablanca) and cosmopolitan (Paris, LA, NYC), to the prairie (Kansas), could you speak to the ways that your physical environment informs, invades, and influences your writing?
Megan Kaminski: Yes, place and especially the “natural world” (and we can talk about how we want to define that) is very important to my creative project, and it’s a tricky thing to write about in certain ways. As a writer, sitting at my desk or at a table typing away on my computer and looking out the window, I am always looking at the landscape — here in the town where I live in Kansas, or in Oregon looking out at the ocean or the gorge, or in Paris looking down on the tree-lined street — and of course its beauty inspires me, but there are problems with writing from that perspective. I’m wary of the tradition of the poet who stands outside of the natural world, observing it with some sort of special authority and then seeing it primarily as a site for personal transformation. I’m not interested in the kind of poetry that Evelyn Reilly describes as the “aesthetic use of nature as mirror for human narcissism.” I think that sort of rendering of landscape — as background or as subservient to human demands and desires — does real violence to the natural world, a world which we surely exist in, rather than outside of. That said, I am very interested in our very weedy human appetites, such as longing and desire.
Along with that exploration of human possibility in nature came questions of subjectivity in the questioning of the lyric “I.” This questioning played out in the form of a slippery subject, an “I” that is fixed momentarily in a time/space, but then becomes quickly dislodged. I’m not willing, or perhaps even able, to abandon the lyric “I” in my poems — at least without taking on a subject voice that has its own equally problematic implications — but I am very interested in challenging and chipping away at the “I”’s authority. It’s this beautiful thing, the way pronouns work — the ease in which a person can slip into and out of the subject position. The “I” in my work that isn’t necessarily the “I” of Megan Kaminski/poet.
TM: Could you talk more about the way that words function as landscape in your poems? There seems like an overlap between word and place for you, linguistic terrain and landscape. One specific passage that comes to mind is, “I put the words on the page / pulled from beneath skin / for what passes as something / simplified and promoted bilaterally / we exist for many reasons / concentrated on small pieces / of production and landscape.”
MK: I think that sense of overlap starts with the sense of landscape becoming language — the movement from the world to the text. But there is also a sense in which language becomes landscape, too. I am very much interested in the dissolution of these boundaries between language and the outside world. And this all also very much relates to neural patternings, which also become landscape in the book (and vice versa). Much of this has to do with the nature of cognition on a very basic level. If all human thought occurs in language, then we are constantly dissolving in and out of language. I experience the prairie — I see it before me, around me; I perceive it with all my senses — and while this is happening my brain is also processing it all. The prairie is taken into my neural pathways and taken into language — it translates and dissolves into my body, my thoughts, my tongue when I speak it. And at the same time, when I write about and talk about the prairie, it spills out of me into the world.
TM: There’s a subtlety and quietness to your writing that’s dually menacing and alluring. Like in the second poem of “Across the Ruins:”
Tracks carve through Florida florid wetlands
wilderness breaks down my estuarial intent
he fell in love with the s-curve of her neck to spine
could explain the reappearance of other things too
do we all dream of swash-buckling adventures
and text anxiety mothers sharpening knives.
I admire how the domestic and wild as well as the textual and physical are in dialogue here and elsewhere throughout your work. What are the crucial tensions that pervade and inform your work?
MK: I am definitely interested in the tensions between wildness and cultivation, both in the natural world and in our own human natures. I just proposed a course for next year entitled “Weedy Appetites and Feral Longings.” (Actually, that’s my own secret title for the course — I was afraid it would be confusing to students, so I officially called it “Literary Wildness and Incivility.”) Anyway, that is a long way of saying that I am continuing to think about what it means to be wild and uncivil, specifically as a rejection of cultivation.
One of the texts that weighs heavily in my imaginative considering is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which presents a kind of feral domesticity. There is, at least at the beginning of the novel, very much a sense of a domesticity that entails keeping a home spiritually and emotionally for one’s family in the face of loss. Even though Sylvie is obviously a horrible housekeeper in the traditional sense of keeping things clean and tidy, there is a sense of care and looking after. Of course, that all kind-of falls apart — but there is that seed of an idea. And maybe this is part of the reason why I keep being interested in and coming back to this tension.
There is something beautiful about providing a home and comfort, something beautiful about the domestic arts. But there is also this sense of having been mastered, of women being responsible and unrecognized for performing all sorts of affective labor, of performing domesticity as a way of submitting. This is all complex and tricky, though, because I do think that mothering (as well as other sorts of care-taking) is important work — that kindness and nurturing has its own value. I’m more interested in gentleness, though, than in gentility.
And, of course, I am also interested in cultivation and wildness in the natural world. Weeds and feral animals cannot come into being without humans. Weeds were just plants before their growth became counter to productive agriculture, and animals have to have been domesticated at some point in order to become feral. So conceptually, weeds and feral animals reclaim the wild. I am also interested very much in the greening, both planned and unplanned, of Detroit and other post-industrial spaces around the world.
TM: In Desiring Maps, your long poem, “Carry Catastrophe” is made all the more delectable because it’s such an unlikely elegy for the financial markets. Could you talk more about its roots in catastrophe theory and the economic crisis?
MK: In some ways it might seem conceptually strange to have a long poem about the economic crisis in a book that is largely concerned with a revision of the pastoral genre and of human possibility within nature. I think these things are all very much connected. The first poems in the book came out of my research and thinking about enclosures, both contemporary and historic. John Clare’s enclosure elegies were a source of inspiration, as were readings about contemporary enclosures and forms of resistance to this privatizing of the commons in Africa and South and Central America. Also playing into this were contemporary works like Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic (which in some ways revisits and revises Virgil’s pastoral mode) and Stephen Collis’s The Commons.
I am very much interested in poetry as a sort of linguistic/creative commons and also as a method to think about the world, so it seemed essential to me to include a consideration of the economic crisis. And, yes, it is in some ways an elegy for the financial markets and perhaps late capitalism as well. As Joshua Clover said in a recent interview, “Late capitalism is terrible and ruins people’s lives but it also produces astonishing, beautiful things.” “Carry Catastrophe” is certainly filled with the beautiful stuff of late capitalism, but it also has a sense of impending collapse. The use of the imperative, which had more of a sense of imploring and seducing earlier in the book, becomes a little tyrannical here.
As for catastrophe theory, I’m sure that a mathematician could explain it better than I can, but I will give it a try. An early version of “Carry Catastrophe” was published as a chapbook by Grey Book Press, and in this version the cover depicts what is called a “cusp catastrophe.” The classic example of a cusp catastrophe, or at least the example that I was offered by a mathematician once, is that of a stressed dog who smoothly transitions from obedient to angry when subjected to moderate stress. However, with higher stress levels, the model changes, and there is a “fold point” where the dog becomes angry and will remain irretrievably angry even if the stress level is reduced (on the old model we would expect him to become obedient again). That’s the basic thought behind it — the sense that once something/someone — people/the economic system — gets pushed far enough, his/her/its behavior is suddenly and permanently changed.
TM: You also write essays, and were just on a panel of women who write creative nonfiction for a literary conference in Seattle. You read your essay “Chatterbox Confessions” (forthcoming on Puerto del Sol), where you out yourself as a reformed chatterbox. You discussed how women are conditioned to be more aware of dominating conversations than men are, and also how the personal essay as a form has been less open to women (or, at least that comparably fewer women essay writers have been acknowledged). You cite Chris Kraus when you speculate, “Perhaps it isn’t that women lack the ability to coolly analyze and reflect on their personal experiences, the issue is instead discomfort on the part of readers and critics when they do so.” Could you speak more about this and strategic ways for women writers to approach this?
MK: Wow — I’m definitely still working through this one myself. In some ways I think that writing is tricky business. In general, it is considered to be completely open to women. There are so many women writing and so many readers picking up their work. On the other hand, though, many major awards and prestigious publications are still very much dominated by men — and, in my opinion at least, this does not reflect talent in the actual literary landscape. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young wrote a terrific piece, “Numbers Trouble,” which does a better job of exploring this subject than I could do here.
When I think about these issues, I keep going back to Deborah Tannen’s assertion that “there is no unmarked woman” — that every decision that a woman makes about how she presents herself is one that marks her, that conveys something about her. And I think this carries over into writing as well. One of my good friends is a very successful novelist. I was with her when she was approached by another (male) writer who was attempting to deride her work: “Aren’t all your books about the same thing?” My friend asked him what he meant by that. He replied without missing a beat — “Well, aren’t they all about women?”
Seriously, how many times have you heard books dealing almost exclusively with men — and there are a lot of them, referred to as “men’s fiction.” But if a woman writes about women — who, by the way, make up half of the world’s population — then that is a choice and the writing often gets ghettoized into categories like “women’s writing” or “chick lit.”
I also think that there are parts of our society (and in academia and in the literary community, too) that are still very conservative. There are some men and women who are still very uncomfortable with strong women and women’s voices that are unflinching and unapologetic. For me, though, these are some of the most vibrant and interesting writers. I’m thinking of some recent books that I have read that really stuck with me — Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Elissa Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, Roxane Gay’s numerous essays (on her blog and other journals), and Lidia Yuknavitch’s gorgeous and brave essay, “Explicit Violence.”
TM: You’re very active within the literary community — you run a reading series, The Taproom Reading Series in Lawrence, Kansas, you teach at the University of Kansas, and you recently finished a month-long stint as guest editor at Adam Robinson’s Every Day Genius. Basically, you have your hands many pots. Would you talk more about poets, presses, and ideas that deserve more attention, and give us some pointers on who should be on our radar?
MK: Sure. I’m going to apologize in advance because I am sure that I am leaving a lot of people out, but here are a few people and presses who are on my mind right now.
I’ve been reading a few Oakland poets recently — and their work has really been sticking with me. I’m in love with Kathryn Pringle’s latest, fault tree (Omnidawn 2012), and also (perhaps, especially) her first book, RIGHT NEW BIOLOGY (Factory School, 2009). I’m working on a poetry manuscript and also some scholarly work about the body and the city/an ecopoetics of the city and so loved thinking about these things as I have been reading RIGHT NEW BIOLOGY. I am also very much enamored by Tiff Dressen’s chapbooks Messages and Because Icarus-children. And Juliana Spahr’s work continues to be some of the most important writing in terms of shaping my sense of possibilities both in terms of poetry and in terms of seeing/living in the world. I’m teaching her book Well Then There Now (Black Sparrow 2011) in my poetry workshop next semester, and I am super enjoying revisiting it in preparation for that class.
I’m also really into Jordan Stempleman’s latest, No, Not Today (Magic Helicopter 2012). Jordan just read at a house reading in Kansas City, and I was reminded of how much I love his work. I don’t know where or when the new work he read that night is coming out in book form, but I am certainly looking forward to it.
Also: Evie Shockley, Erín Moure, Bhanu Kapil, Carmen Giménez Smith, Joshua Clover, Lisa Robertson, Joseph Massey, Dan Thomas-Glass, Hanna Andrews, Ji Yoon Lee, Gina Myers, Chus Pato, Jen Tynes, Danielle Pafunda, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Mike Sikkema, Sampson Starkweather, Shanna Compton, CA Conrad, Bruce Covey, Kate Greenstreet, Michelle Naka Pierce — the list could go on and on.
As far as presses go, I would be remiss not to mention my own much beloved publisher, Coconut Books. I love the new books that they released this fall — from Jenny Boully, Emily Toder, Hanna Andrews, and Christie Ann Reynolds. I’m also a big fan of Dorothy, Bloof Books, Birds LLC, Letter Machine, Ugly Duckling, Omnidawn — really, there are so many wonderful small presses putting out great work.
The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I’m getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many “best of the year” lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst).
So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort?
We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year’s pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The “10 best books of 2012” list is so small next to this.
And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we’ve asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks.
With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2012 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex.
Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction.
Rob Delaney, comedian and writer.
Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World.
Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings.
Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia.
David Vann, author of Dirt.
Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Bill Morris, author of All Souls’ Day, staff writer for The Millions.
Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull.
David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate.
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth.
Chris Ware, author of Building Stories.
Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee.
Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate.
Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.
Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights.
Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds.
Ed Park, author of Personal Days.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen.
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings.
Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins.
Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City.
Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at Ftrain.com.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions.
Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Alix Ohlin, author of Inside.
Lars Iyer, author of Exodus.
Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues.
Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends.
Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River.
Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence.
Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes.
Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood.
Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis.
Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions.
Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True.
Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory.
Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine.
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New this week is Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House. Also hitting bookshelves are Heroines by Kate Zambreno, The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham, and more posthumously published work by Kurt Vonnegut. In non-fiction, there’s There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Chinua Achebe and Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winner Timothy Egan’s biography of Edward Curtis.