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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 equa