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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?