An Interview with Kara Candito

Interview conducted by Justin Bigos

Justin Bigos: In the poem “Notes for a Novice Flâneur,” from your debut collection, Taste of Cherry, the speaker says, “Try to think of all this as a seduction.” This imperative captures both the adventurousness and vulnerability of the voices in the book, who are often aware of the distanced, cinematic qualities of lust and loss, as well as the immediate bluntness of the stuff itself. Can you talk a bit about this tension in the book?

Kara Candito: First of all, life in New York City, where I wrote or started to write many of the poems in Taste of Cherry, forced me to develop a self-preserving strategy of distancing myself from daily experience. Until I lived there, I was one of those people who shamelessly absorbed the energy of those around her. After a few months of crying or getting worked up over dumb quotidian stuff, because some guy on the street called me a “dumb bitch,” or hit me with his bicycle and then demanded that I pay for the cable that broke when he collided with my arm (true story), or shouted “get the fuck out of the way,” then pushed me out of the subway door, I had to make an unofficial decision to do my best to move through daily life without getting too attached to the permeable me of it. Enter the flâneur. In most places in the U.S., people who enjoy a certain amount of privilege or material comfort spend time in public space when they want to, not because the bedroom that they share with a roommate is smaller than most suburban bathrooms. So, whether it’s Paris or New York and regardless of the weather or the hour, the city becomes an extension of one’s private space, which is shared with millions of others. Once I was able to, for the most part, disassociate myself from the self that had to take up space and therefore piss off others, I became a kind of professional observer, constantly cropping and mediating the scene, and applying artificial lighting until I achieved the desired affect.

This psychic distancing mirrored the kind of double-consciousness that I developed as a woman in her mid-to-late twenties, grappling with the adventurousness/vulnerability binary that comes along with consciously breaking the rules (of social, sexual, cultural, and familial decorum) and living with the consequences. What people have seen as the cinematic performativity or, at times, sensationalism of the poems was, for me, an enactment of the ways in which women at this life stage can perform power, through graphic myth-making or the quest for pleasure-for-pleasure’s sake, without its gendered consequences. Naturally, none of these fantasies can sustain itself in the real world, for men or women, but especially not for women. But these quests, both experiential and literary, seem to me as authentic as their inevitable failures.

The collection’s latent focus might be described as an obsession with strategies of representing how women acquire or perform power, and how to poetically represent self, other, and context in ways that honor their complexity.

JB: That’s a fascinating answer, and I like that you unabashedly connect the poems to your own life. While many of your poems do have an autobiographical feel, especially as they accumulate, the poems in the middle section of Taste of Cherry, titled “Portraits,” are written in various personae, including a burlesque dancer inspired by the short-lived HBO show Carnivale, two characters from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and the main character of Margaret Atwood’s The Hand Maid’s Tale. Can you talk a bit about the persona poem, and why you are drawn to it?

KC: In a sense, I see every voice-driven poem as a kind of persona poem, a linguistic performance that privileges certain things and minimalizes or conceals others. While the premises of many of the poems in Taste of Cherry stemmed from autobiography, I don’t see the poems as autobiographical, as much as psychologically or emotionally mimetic. In terms of voice, the “Portraits” section of Taste of Cherry helped me to expand the affective aperture of the collection by masquerading in costumes that let me speak to its concerns or obsessions of different voices.

I think that I was drawn to the voices of Atwood’s handmaid, Cady Compson, a burlesque dancer, and a subversive teenage boy because they enabled me to project my interests onto a new screen.  How do women deal with the consequences of sex, desire, and repression/oppression? How does male desire get translated into violence? Of course, the danger of inhabiting a voice that’s dramatically other is that you might under-imagine or over-simplify. The payoff seems to me worth the risk, however. I remember writing “Epic Poem Concerning the Poet’s Coming of Age as Attis” (in which I revisited early adolescence from the perspective of a boy) in the course of a few days, and inhabiting the voice to such an extent that I knew how he sounded, what he thought, hoped, and feared. I’m proud of that poem because, like most of the poems I write that I think are worthwhile, it was a process of exploration. Writing it meant breaking down imaginative and psychic barriers.

The persona poem form, when it’s working, permits this radical restructuring of the world and the self’s role in it. In some of the poems in my second collection, Spectator, I inhabit the voice of Lorca. These persona poems are like conversations with Lorca that allow me to explore obsessions with death and violence in a “safe way,” and to silence the voice of the workshop, which equates emotion in poetry with sentimentality or melodrama. Speaking through Lorca, inhabiting a different language, I can fess up to caring about shit, to fantasizing about my own annihilation and/or non-existence. I haven’t yet been able to write into that as a naked first-person speaker, although the Lorca persona poems have given me an entry point.

JB: It’s interesting that you have experienced the poetry workshop as unfairly suspicious of emotion in poems. I have experienced that too, but also the workshop that seems to demand that poems reveal some emotional or vulnerable quality. As someone who teaches poetry workshops, are you able to maneuver between those two extremes in the classroom?

KC: That’s a great question. First of all, I think that “the workshop” (by which I mean “the workshop” in general, while simultaneously acknowledging that there is no one “workshop”) mentality has evolved since my MFA years in the early 2000s, when postmodernism was still very much suspicious of subjectivity and, by default, specific emotional engagement. I remember being blasted for writing what was, in retrospect, a melodramatic poem, by someone who was amped up on a particular reading of Perloff. I think that “the workshop” pendulum has since swung back towards more emotional engagement. I do, however, see “the workshop’s” attitude towards emotion, especially within the context of a lyric poem or a lyric-narrative, as being either simplifying or limited. Whether it’s a image-driven descriptive meditation, or a dialectical argument, or a lyric/narrative hybrid, I think that “the workshop” wants to see a neat relationship between image, context, and emotional response. When emotional response gets too messy, plural, or urgent, “the workshop” can pull back and call foul. It’s probably best to explain via example. I remember reading Lynda Hull’s “Aubade” during a summer workshop with Tracy K. Smith. The premise of the poem is an aubade without a lover; an insomniac speaker surveying her surroundings and experiencing an alone-in-the-early-morning ache for human connection. At some point, Tracy said that “the workshop” would have been adamant about cutting the poem’s final line: “Answer me. What am I to make of these signs?” I couldn’t agree more. The final line leaps from image to rhetorical urgency. It insists, rather than backs off at the last minute. In doing so, it raises the temperature of the poem just enough to make some readers uncomfortable or resistant.

As an instructor, I see this dynamic quite frequently. I try to direct “the workshop” conversation towards what a poem seems to be doing, what it seems to want to do or be capable of, and the possible gaps between the two. Sometimes poems want to make the reader uncomfortable in a way that corresponds to context or emotional response. Often, in an undergraduate workshop, I think that poems want to move right for the emotional vulnerability moment without first establishing a contract with the reader, and creating a connection between speaker and reader. So, I use the universal/specific binary during workshop discussions, and ask students to describe which of the two they see in a poem and where. I think that strong poems have to strike a balance between the two, but that sometimes, as in the case of Lynda Hull, a poet who is dear to my poetry heart, the reader arrives at the universal by investing her/himself in the speakers’ subjective realities. And sometimes the inverse is the case.

JB: The title of Taste of Cherry is inspired by the film of the same name by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, and there are many references to film throughout the book. As I said earlier, the book’s speakers often see themselves from a kind of cinematic distance, as if their lives are a kind of performance. If cinema was indeed the art form of the 20th century, is it still? Either way, what can poetry offer that film cannot?

KC: I want to defer to O’Hara here: “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too.”

But seriously, I’m going to sound like a child of the ‘80s, but all of the new (or newish) technology, be it Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo, personal blogging, Instagram, Pinterest (someone explain this one to me, please), etc, has made each of us the stars of our own heavily edited and hyperreal movies. I think that poetry has, in one way or another, begun to respond to the life-as-movie phenomenon of the 21st century. I think poetry can function to expose the absurdity of contemporary life in all of its voyeurism and constructedness, while still acknowledging and affirming a kind of integrity or authenticity that an Instagram filter clouds.

JB: But how does poetry do this, and why is it more “authentic” than Instagram? I know I’m pushing you a bit here, so feel free to tell me I’m a jerk.

KC: You’re a big, tall jerk, Justin. You’re a huge jerk. No, seriously, what I mean to say is probably really simple and obvious: poetry is language. Language requires more active engagement than most film. Often, students say that reading is boring. But what I think they mean is it’s tiring. It doesn’t let you just turn on and receive. You have to parse and participate and make your own connections between signifier and signified and all of that stuff. In this sense, I especially admire contemporary poetry that harnesses language in cinematic ways. For example, I’ve been reading Lynn Melnick’s If I Say I Should Have Hope, and one thing that these poems do is level the cinematic montage into a few compact sentences. For example, the opening lines of “Blackout”:

What’s left but booze and pin-up,
a generator humming that called your car to park.

We’re finished with beauty:
inner beauty, sloppy beauty, my beauty.

Once upon a time you fashioned a collapse
and called it us, what we would have called living

had there been less cocaine.

The speaker fashions “a collapse” of image, time and cultural referent, and then attaches this collapse to the language of fairy tales. The reader has to parse the images and the different linguistic registers. It’s an active process of revelation for me, one that isn’t accessible via cinema, or the internet. This is language doing what it can do, and the reader responding to what it does actively, drawing connections