An Interview with Kathryn Cowles

Zach Linge

Kathryn Cowles’s second book of poems, Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World, was published by Milkweed Editions in March 2020. Her first book, Eleanor, Eleanor, not your real name, won the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize. Her poems and poem-photographs have been published in Best American Experimental Writing, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Diagram, Free Verse, Georgia Review, New American Writing, Verse, the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-day, and elsewhere, and have been awarded the Larry Levis Academy of American Poets Prize. She earned her doctorate from the University of Utah and is an associate professor of English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where she co-edits the poetry and Beyond Category sections of Seneca Review.

Having recently read her second book, I had the tremendous pleasure of speaking with Kathryn Cowles on two occasions, this past fall. On the second occasion, she kindly permitted me to record our conversation, which I hope will bring you as much joy as it continues to bring me. Please enjoy this interview either in full, as a video, or slightly edited for clarity below.

Zach Linge

Poems and video used with permission of the author.

Zach Linge: Hi and welcome and thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me about Maps and Transcripts!

Kathryn Cowles: Happy to do it. Happy to be here.

ZL: I think a good place to start would be to acknowledge the occasion upon which this book was published. A book that attempts to make some sort of sense of, or at least ascribe language to, physical happenings and objects in the world was released at a time of pandemic. This is your second book, so I imagine you have experience with publishing outside of global crisis. I’m wondering if we could learn a bit about what it's been like to go on this journey at this moment.

KC: Yeah! You know, I had a big book tour planned. I'm a pretty shy person, so it was really hard for me to make all the arrangements, and make all the plans, and offer my services to people's classrooms, and say I was going to be “happy to come read at your school.” That sort of self-promotion does not come naturally to me at all, but I did it because I really, really wanted to get behind the book and do everything I could for it.

Then the New York state lockdown happened two days after the book release, before I even had a chance to do a single event, so every single event got canceled. At first, I was just grateful that everyone was okay. We didn't know at the time how it spread, or what we were looking at. I had my kids and my family, and I was just happy that everyone was safe. I didn't even really have a chance to be sad about it so much as to just—it felt surreal. Anyway, getting a book out into the world feels a little surreal and so it was just a different version of surreal.

But an astonishing thing that happened was—you know, a lot of people didn't go to AWP, and I decided not to go because I had this horror story in my mind of getting stranded and not being able to fly back to my kids or something like that—the city of San Antonio going into lockdown. And so I didn't go, but like the online book fair stuff was so cool. Everyone was helping each other and was promoting each other. Everyone was tweeting about “you should read this, here's why, here's what I would be doing if I was at AWP, here's the table I'd be going to.”

A beautiful thing about the literary community is that so many people deeply sympathized with what it would be like to have a book come out at this time, so that everybody kind of threw their weight in. A lot of people committed to spending as much money as they would have spent at AWP on books, which was a really wonderful thing. That's what I did. I just bought everybody's book online. All the presses gave big discounts. In the midst of this horrible thing, there are all of these strange coming-together moments.

I just had students in my multimedia art class give their end-of-the-semester reading, and usually it's pretty well attended on campus. Because we did it over Zoom, there were all of these parents and friends from all over the country. There's something really gorgeous about our new spaces for coming together that we didn't have before. So, even though a lot of terrible, terrible things have come out of all of this, there have been some exciting and beautiful things to come out of it, too. I think I almost didn't miss the book tour stuff because so, so much wonderful and supportive stuff was happening in the meantime.

ZL: Yeah! So, you were able to get alternative forms of support.

KC: Yeah, absolutely. It wasn't readings—I did visit a ton of classes, actually, but they were just virtual classes. There's this weird intimacy, it's a little bit Foucauldian, of staring people in the face while you're visiting a class. It's like the ultimate form of the democratic workshop circle: everybody's really looking at each other. Someone falls asleep, we’re all gonna notice. I would prefer to be in person, but I’ve had fun with class visits. I haven't done a lot of readings. That's one thing that's been kind of a bummer, but when I’ve done readings, I've been able to make them really inclusive.

I'm a little bit hard of hearing, and so I have great sympathy for people who can't hear at all or who don't hear very well, particularly over Zoom, and so I've been able to do a lot of readings where I'll hold up pictures of the poem and then kind of peek around and read it alongside. So, that's another thing that I can do over zoom that's a little bit harder in a lot of reading spaces, unless you get a big screen or something. It's a little more organic over Zoom, and who would have guessed that anything would be more organic over Zoom?

ZL: That reminds me about one of the things that kept coming up when I was reading this book, which is: there is a recurrent interest or investment in a notion of the originary. What I see as the book’s two primary metaphors—the maps and the transcripts—approach or try to deal with the translatability of experience or of the originary. I was wondering if you might be able to talk in a little bit about some of the general origins or inspirations for these metaphors and considerations.

KC: Part of the reason I started writing the book was because I was being torn from these beloved places where I had lived, or where I had been able to stay. I love to travel, and I love to write when I’m traveling. Even when I was the poorest that I've been, in graduate school, I managed to find ways to get myself somewhere and live there, whether it was through working on somebody's land or watching their animals so that I could hang out there. So, there have been lots of places that I’ve gone to, where I just can't stay, where I'm not able to stay. Or, because of the academic job market, you don't get to choose where you live, and you kind of get pulled into these places that are not home. Part of the impetus for writing the book was trying to get those places down.

I was feeling like I really wanted to hold on to these things, to these places, to these dear things, and to get them on the page. How do you do that? How do you take a mountain and put it onto your page? How do you take a bird and put it onto your page? So, I think for a lot of the poems with different names, like “recipe,” or “transcript,” or “maps,” I was coming at it from different angles. How do I get that thing in the world to stick to my page? And, if it doesn't work when I try to write a map poem of it, will it work if I try to transcribe it? And what does it mean to transcribe a mountain or to transcribe a bird sound? So, I was coming at it from a number of angles and trying to hold on to this thing that exists in the world, this originary thing that I want my poem to point back to so specifically that it becomes the world.

I think of Marianne Moore, when she talks about real toads in her poems, or Jack Spicer, when he says he wants to get the real moon. He wants the moon in his poem to have the clouds go in front of it in a way that has nothing to do with the poem and everything to do with the fact that it's the real moon. How do you get a real thing to be on your page? I wanted to do that. I kind of knew I couldn't do it, but I wanted to try anyway. So, the whole book is trying get that stuff, to hold on to it in a way that felt like I had it. In the end, I couldn't, and that's the nature of life, you know? Every time I start a poetic project, I'm always trying to do something that in the end I discover, lo and behold, I can't. It’s impossible. And then I end up doing something else instead.

ZL: That's such a deeply moving central drama for the manuscript: that yearning toward an effective transcription that proves ultimately impossible. You've almost brought me to tears just talking about it. It reminds me of something Marjorie Perloff wrote, which is that poetry should move toward the specific and away from the essential. I'm paraphrasing here, so I might have to describe it in a little bit more detail.

What I'm hearing you say, and what I seem to remember Perloff saying is we can't just have “bird.” “Bird” doesn't exist. We need an experience of bird, like the actuality of that lived experience transcribed on the page. So, romantic notions of an all-encompassing lyric “I” are obviously pretty gone by that standard. We're looking toward specific experiences. So, I think of a map from your book that is literally a picture with the things-as-categories written over the picture. Perhaps you could talk about that relationship. Or alternatively: one of the things you've mentioned is going to the exact same location for an extended period of time to try to get different senses of that place. Any comments on those experiences?