An Interview with Kathryn Cowles
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?
KC: It's funny to pair those two together because they're kind of opposing gestures from the same project. I remember writing a poem when I was an undergraduate. My father wrote a textbook about language theory, so he was really into Derrida and would talk about the distance between the actual thing in the world and then the word that we use to talk about the thing in the world. I found this to be terrible. I was so haunted by this. I just thought it was awful. How? How can it be that I could say, “I love you,” and I can't make a person understand really what I mean by that? How can that be?
So, I wrote a poem that had something like that in it, like, “I want my words to be things. I wrap my mouth around your ear and say ‘ear.’” The idea was that it doesn't quite overlap, right? They're very close to each other, the word “ear” is very close to the actual ear in that moment, but they're not exactly the same. It was an attempt that didn't work. So, that’s something that I’ve thought a lot about—like, how do I get the word and the thing to kind of overlap with each other?
I think by the time I did that picture poem, I was being a little cheeky with it, but also interested in the idea. How do I get this world and record it? How do I get this moment, this scene that I see? And what am I looking at? And then putting the words over the tops of things. How do I write my way beyond just the gesture oof water? “Water, water, boat, boat,” you know, and that sort of thing. How do I write this lake down? How do I get this lake onto my page in this scene?
I was reading Larry Eigner, who had cerebral palsy and couldn't very often leave this one room where he would type up most of his poems. He had this one scene before him, but he wrote poem after poem after poem. Every single one of them is light and airy, and Eigner has enough in that one view to fill page after page after page. Also, I was looking at Cézanne painting the same mountain over and over and over again from the same spot, where the light would shift slightly, and the painting would look pretty similar to the previous painting, but not quite. Or Monet painting the same cathedral, the same lilies, every single day, day in and day out. I wondered if I could do it.
I didn't think that I could, because I get bored with myself so quickly, and it's very hard for my brain to be patient enough to stick with myself for a long time, but I thought I would try it for a couple weeks. So, I picked a bench with this overview of the lake, right by where I teach, and I went there every day for—the idea was—two weeks, and I would sit down. I would snap a kind of mundane photo of exactly the same scene, with a couple of trees and a boathouse, and then the lake behind it, and then I would write a poem.
I found after two weeks that I had to keep doing it, that I really wanted to keep doing it. I wasn't getting bored with myself because I wasn't writing about myself. I was writing about the lake that I kept looking at over and over again, and it would change. The number of ways that I described this surface of the lake, just the lake, just the water on the surface, because it would be just different every day, it would make me think of something else. It would change its shirt, you know, or get ready to go out, or something like that, and you could see it.
Or there would be people doing stuff. There were all kinds of animals that I tracked. There was a red-tailed hawk at first, and then it kind of disappeared. I thought it lived there, and then it just wasn't there anymore. And then there was a robin that I discovered had been there the whole time, and I hadn't noticed. And then there were swallows, and there were lots of herons, and all these different things kept happening. The bumblebees came in. A hive of bumblebees must have moved in somewhere, because suddenly there were bumblebees everywhere, and they were bouncing around on flowers and rubbing their bodies up against them. The flowers would change. Everything would change.
I found that I had to be there for it. I had to see what would happen next. It was like my soap opera. So, I would go every day, and I would sit there until I got a poem, until I wrote a poem. It was a really lovely practice of attention, of just paying attention to things. I wrote a lot of terrible poems because you just can't write a good poem every day, but I wrote some poems that I really liked, too.
One of the main things I learned was that it's enough. Whatever I'm looking at is enough for the poem as long as I'm looking out. I also found that every poem would turn itself. There would be a moment where things shifted. The looking itself turned into a thinking: that looking can be a kind of thinking. That’s what happened with the poems. They would suddenly hinge, and I wasn't really in charge of it. I was just trying to follow it, to notice, to pay enough attention, to notice the hinge, and then continue through with it. It was a really wonderful project. I did it for a whole year, although there were, as I told you before, winter months where the poems were very short and very cold.
ZL: You talk about attention in a way that reminds me of a monograph by Andrew Epstein called Attention Equals Life about the New York School poets. We've talked previously about some of our beloveds in that school. James Schuyler comes to mind as someone whose speakers pay attention to the world in such a way that the scene is the poet and the speaker. The poem, the world itself, continues to shift based on how we look at it.
Additionally, because you mentioned Derrida and this idea of, “How do I get the world and the thing to overlap with each other,” I'm thinking about all of the poets and scholars and philosophers who deal with these questions. The first one that comes to mind is in the Phaedrus, a little story where Socrates talks about the god Theuth discovering the alphabet and Thamus being like, “Hey, now. Watch out. As soon as you start to write things down, we're going to forget everything.” I’m curious, in addition to people you've mentioned, if there are any perhaps theory-based influences that you had in mind while writing this book.
KC: The person I was thinking of immediately was Gertrude Stein, who's someone who really influenced the way that I think of sentences, how sentences can work. I love that you can start at the beginning of something that she writes—I'm thinking about her portraits—that she'll be trying to describe someone, and time will pass in the poem the way it passes in life. Years have passed, but you're still in the same sentence, and all that has changed is these tiny shifts as you move along. But then suddenly you get to the end and everything has changed. It's that. It's contiguous. It's like: this thing touches this thing, touches this thing, and everything is just a little bit different, and then everything is completelydifferent.
I remember reading Lyn Hejinian’s The Language of Inquiry. She has something in there called “Two Stein Talks,” and she talks about Stein in the smartest way I’ve ever heard anyone talk about Stein. She talks about Stein as being a different kind of realism. I've always loved that, because we're taught that realism is this thing that's deeply conventional and traditional. It's not. It's not actually real. You think about realism in film. It's just its own set of conventions. Why can't realism be something that feels like life, that feels lifelike more, that really feels like real life more than other things?
I feel like that's something that Stein does. It's about as far as you can get from conventional realism and yet, when you start with “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” or with “Picasso,” in the portrait… “He was working, he was working then, there he was working, sometimes he was working, some of the time, all of the time, all of the people were following him some of the time…” The realism is at the level of the syntax, and it matches what life is like, that everything doesn't change all at once but changes incrementally. You're moving along, and then suddenly everything's different. I learned about how to think with sentences from reading a lot of Stein, both her creative work and her lectures.
You mentioned the New York School, and I love Schuyler so much. One of my teachers once said there are poets who want to be famous and there are poets who want to be loved. Schuyler wants to be loved. I was like then I am in this Schuyler camp. I want to be loved. Obviously, it doesn't work across the board, but it's true with him there's just something so exuberant and open-armed about his writing that I love. It's Steiny and it's realism.
I think it's “Dining out with Doug and Frank,” or, “Doug and Something Dining Out,” a multi-page poem. He starts out by talking about Doug and Frank, or whoever the two guys are, and then he just runs, just takes off, the poem takes off and starts noticing things, and looking at things, and thinking about things, and connecting them to things, and it's just an absolute delight to be thinking alongside James Schuyler, and just looking at the world through his eyes, and with his brain, and you just feel so happy to be there, and then at the end he says something like, “Oh, and back to Doug. Doug is the tall one,” or something like that. Back to the beginning.
It's so delightful because you didn't even miss that the poem was supposed to be about this totally other thing. You were traveling along with him and thinking along with him. It is realist in that it operates the way that brains work. That's how my brain works, anyway. I just start thinking about things and chronology doesn't matter, and I just kind of bounce from this thing to another thing, and something reminds me of something else, and I start telling a story, and then I bounce to something else. So, it feels realist even though it has none of the conventions of traditional realist texts.
ZL: It drops a lot of the expected apparatuses. We don't see in Schuyler, as you're mentioning, the sort of linearity that we might expect from a poem that begins in situ the way that so many of his do. Those sentence-based syntactical decisions, exactly as you're saying, reflect the way the mind works!
One thing that I notice in Maps and Transcripts is the tension or play between the forthright declamatory versus lyric espousings, especially with regard to repetition, to words as objects or as containing meaning. I don't know what the question is behind that. Let me pause. I’m that awful person in the audience saying, “This is more of a statement than a question.” As you're talking about the way Schuyler plays along those lines, one thing I'm wondering is when these these craft-based, sentence-based decisions happen most. Is it in the moment of attention? Is it partly that recollected-in-tranquility experience? Is it highly revisionary?
KC: It's definitely not recollected in tranquility. When my partner and I went to go live in Greece, we had no money, but we had just enough money to get over there and live off chickpeas and cook with our hot plate, then get ourselves back. I was reading for my doctoral exams, reading the Iliad and then looking at the actual coastline, and being like, “Where the hell would all the boats go? They couldn't possibly fit on this whole island.”
I was writing like crazy. I was filling notebook after notebook. In fact, I had a whole notebook that I lost that was all maps and transcripts. Maybe a quarter of the book or so of notebooks I just lost. A whole bunch of poems. Oh, well. I couldn't recreate these because they were very much written in the moment, whereas [my partner] Geoff was reading, too, and sitting in olive trees, and looking at the Aegean. But then he came back and, six months later, he wrote all his poems. So, it's a different mode of writing and a different relationship to writing.
I think it's different for everyone. For me, it is very experiential. I almost never write long after the fact about something that happened to me. That's just not how it comes out. I've tried to do that before, and it tends not to go well for me. I know not to trust myself when I write a poem where I know its epiphany before I get to it—when I’m writing along, and I'm like, “Oh, here's what I'm going to write, and then I'm going to arc it toward this thing, and then I'm going to discover this fact in the middle of the poem.” Some people can do that, but for me, it just comes off as fake. Because it's fake. It's a fake epiphany, and I do not do well in the fake epiphanic mode. My epiphanies have to be real, and if they're not, then the poem is really bad. Even if the ideas are good, the poem turns out really bad. I have to write in the moment.
I do a lot of thinking that leads to the writing. A lot of things that I obsess over, and obsess over, and obsess over. A year later, that's what I start writing a book about. There is a lot of thinking happening—not a poem, but a poem-sort-of-thinking. I don't think about, “Here's what I'm going to write this poem about,” and feel it brewing, and think it through, and think it through, and then recollect it in tranquility. I have to be somewhere looking at something in order to channel that and get something to come out on the page.
ZL: Frequently the addressee is undifferentiated from the speaker seeing the world and experiencing that world in language. Then there are these exceptions, these “Oh Brenda”s that pop in. So, these experiences come up in the moment of writing? This consideration of another person, this desire to bring someone in, comes up in the moment of writing?
KC: Sometimes they're postcards. The Brenda one was a postcard. I wrote it to my friend, the poet Brenda Sieczkowski. I was just writing to her, and it came out in poem form, so I wrote down a copy for myself and sent the postcard off to her. So, that that is part of it. There's another one for a friend, actually the poet Craig Arnold. My dearest friend in the world is Rebecca Lindenberg, and she and Craig were partners. He disappeared while hiking on a volcano, and it was a really shocking, horrible thing to have happen. I remember that poem is addressed to a “you.” I think it is. I stepped out of the woods, because I was taking pictures, and then I was like, “I just want to take a picture.”
Part of the problem with Craig’s disappearance is they couldn't find remains. They pretty much knew where they were, but they couldn't actually find them. So, we all have these miracle scenarios in our heads, where he got his head hit and then he went to live with the mountain people over a few years, and then he comes back, or something like that. So, there was this kind of notion of, maybe if I take a picture that's not a fancy picture, but a picture that invites something to be in it, a kind of a blank picture that needs something else to complete it, then I can invite this “you” to come back out of the woods, into the picture.
Again, it was a failed enterprise from the beginning, but a kind of yearning for a friend, and especially for a friend for my friend. I knew Craig pretty well, but I really know Rebecca well, so I think that was the impetus for it. But I don't go to the “you” very often, which is funny because when I write songs, I almost always write using “you.” So, I think I just go to different forms, different bits of art, different kinds of art to write in a “you” form. I've been working on a collage project lately that I wrote for a former student, who's a good friend of mine. I wrote with her in mind, but I still don't use the “you” in that. It's kind of there underneath the surface.
ZL: One thing that comes to mind from Craig Arnold's Shells is the importance of capturing the specificity of the lived moment and rendering narrative in such a way that it's comprised of detail after detail after detail, sandwiched in relationship. So, there’s the fact of the world, and then there's a situatedness in the speaker's relationships with others.
Something that comes up a lot in your book is lists, the importance of lists. Maybe that's just a catch-all term for looking at the world and trying to write down the parts of it, but as with Shells, in your collection there’s that tension between observing the fact of the world and making sense of it in relation to oneself and one's relationship with others.
KC: Yeah, that's it. In my mind, if I'm trying to describe something using a list, there's that idea that if I just had enough numbers in it, that I would get the thing. Enough data points, then I would be able to hold the thing. It reminds me of how I used to think about mythological systems. I was teaching Ovid in a “Great Works” class at my first academic position, and I remember describing the mythological system there as often a trying to throw stories at this big invisible shape, so that we could understand the shape by watching how they fell around the outside of the shape. That's what it feels like to me. How do I describe this thing that's not actually seeable, but it's almost as though, if you have enough data points, then you'll be able to see a thing that's unseeable. So, I think lists veer toward that. It’s back to that experience, or idea, that ultimately the thing I'm describing is not there.
Those long prose poems began as glossary poems. Initially, they were called “Glossary:” and then “transcript,” or “map,” or “postcard,” or something like that. I ended up changing the titles because my editor said, “Kathryn, you can't name all the poems the same thing.” So, I said, “Oh, okay,” and I went and renamed. There were so many “map” poems. There were so many “transcript” forms initially. Titles are hard for me to come up with, sometimes. I went through and renamed a bunch of things that were originally glossaries or postcards.
Part of the idea is that it's not the thing—the postcard that you send is not the thing that you saw. It's an earlier image of the thing that you saw, and you say, “The thing I saw was really similar to this.” It's a kind of a pointing to the thing that you saw, but not actually it. The idea of an inadequate summary of the thing that I actually saw is really interesting to me, so I feel like that's what poems do a lot. They are not the thing; they're a postcard after the fact of the thing that you saw.
There’s that Emerson quote about language as fossil poetry. Language is this leftover residue, and the poetry was this active thing. Your words actually used to mean things, but they solidified, and that made them less lively. The real poet, Emerson says, kind of shakes them back into being and makes them active again. I think I believed that for a long time. I believed that meant actually making the thing come into presence, taking the signified and bringing it present, re-presenting it. Then, it turns out, I think, that's not what it means. It means making it alive again, making the experience alive again in the moment, but not exactly the same experience, not the original experience, but a copy of it. A copy, but a kind of new thing, simultaneously.
ZL: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about this book! I'm so glad we got the chance to meet, and I look forward to seeing what's coming next, whenever it comes next.
KC: Me too! We’ll see what that is.
ZACH LINGE's poems appear in AGNI, Best New Poets, Poetry, New England Review, and elsewhere. Linge is the recipient of scholarships to The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and lives in Tallahassee, where they serve as Editor in Chief of the Southeast Review.