PictureRegarding, or Disregarding, the Non-Human World: An Interview with Melissa Kwasny 

Interview conducted by Stevie Edwards

Melissa Kwasny is the author of five books of poetry: Pictograph, The Nine SensesReading Novalis in Montana (all from Milkweed Editions), Thistle (Lost Horse Press), and The Archival Birds (Bear Star Press). Reading Novalis in Montana was named in The Huffington Post as one of the top ten books of 2009, and Thistle won the Idaho Prize. Her collection of essays, Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision, was published by Lynx House Press in 2013. Kwasny also has made substantial contributions to the field as the editor of the anthology Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950 (Wesleyan University Press) and co-editor, with M.L. Smoker of an anthology of poems in defense of human rights, I Go to the Ruined Place.  

Kwasny’s poetry shows exceptional formal range and mastery. While the tightly controlled lines of her early collections demonstrate a keen knowledge of craft, her latest two collections, The Nine Senses and Pictograph, take on a more fluid prose form. This push against the traditional boundaries of the poetic line provides her a wider canvas to explore the ideas held within her dazzling imagery. It’s hard to imagine a writer more gifted with imagery than Kwasny, who deftly immerses readers within the physicality of her poems and then invites us to look around from many angles. Her poems manage to be both gorgeously visceral and intellectually curious, even philosophical, achieving a sophisticated balance between what is felt and what is thought. With Pictograph, Kwasny turns toward the etched images in caves (our earliest recordings of written language) to help open fundamental questions about what it means to be human, how we relate to those who have come before us, and how we relate to land and place.

Much of Kwasny’s place-driven writing is inextricably linked to the landscape, peoples, and histories that make up Montana, where she is a resident. Kwasny teaches at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, and is currently a visiting writer in the University of Montana’s MFA program. We were very lucky to have Kwasny take the time to visit the University of North Texas this March as a part of our Visiting Writers Series. 

Stevie Edwards: In your most recent poetry collection, Pictograph (and also, in your second-most recent collection, The Nine Senses), you’ve chosen to write each piece as a prose poem. Can you talk a bit about why you were drawn to that form? Did you set out to write a book of prose poems, or did something in the process draw you toward the form?

Melissa Kwasny: In my third book of poems, Reading Novalis in Montana, I began experimenting with a line longer and freer than I had used in my two previous books, The Archival Birds and Thistle, which were written in tightly controlled, Imagist-influenced couplets, tercets, and quatrains. Although I do believe that, as Pound wrote, the image should be enough, I was seeking a form that would allow me ample room for images and ideas, many of them gleaned from my reading in the history, philosophy, and poetics of the human-nature relationship.

Specifically, I was exploring what has led us to our current way of regarding, or disregarding, the non-human world. I was reading the Romantics, including Novalis, as well as works from American Indian writers.

Gradually, my lines became longer, less strict—I needed more fluidity, to be able to move between the natural images I encountered and statements generated by, not interpreted from, them. The longer line helped, but I still felt the images weren’t able to breathe fully. They seemed too dense, cornered, unconnected. I wanted my consciousness to be able to grow with them; I wanted the images to cluster within the matrix of my understanding, to dialogue with the world, not just my world but through me the world they inhabit. I wanted to be able to move from image to statement organically, not necessarily rationally, and then to proceed to the next image or statement without the artificial stop of a line break. I hope this makes sense. I needed a more associative form.

I was thrilled when I discovered the prose poems of René Char, which were doing just what I was searching for. Char is a poet who is both grounded in the real and particular and the visionary, the super real (as Breton defined surrealism), the supernatural, in other words. Char trusts the invisible connective tissue of consciousness. One, of course, has to then construct the poem in an entirely new way. One concentrates on the rhythm between sentences, on the movement rather than the stops the line break determines.

SE: As the book title suggests, you’ve written a series of poems engaging with pictographs (the earliest known forms of writing, in which a pictorial image represents a word or phrase). What first interested you in this subject matter?

MK: To have gathered from the air a live tradition: this line from Pound’s Cantos struck me the first time I read it. I am sure he was speaking of the languages he heard on the streets of Europe where he was living and at the same time, the language of the dead who surrounded him—including Dante, Virgil, the Provencal troubadours, whom he translated—language which was echoed in the speech of the public square. That the voices of the dead are actually heard in our speech is something I became aware of in reading Robert Pogue Harrison’s Dominion of the Dead; whether we hear them in the phrases we learned from our direct ancestors or in the inherited speech of our language itself, it is one way that the dead speak to us.

In Montana, where I live, many of the indigenous languages are gone (although there is an ongoing heroic effort to bring them back). Yet there is the sense of a very live tradition in the air, especially at sacred sites, such as pictograph and petroglyph sites, that I am deeply interested in. The most ancient voices in America belong, of course, to the indigenous people who lived here, who have a history of continuous occupation and intimate knowledge of this earth-place for tens of thousands of years. What can we learn from them?

The graves of those before us are everywhere. And, if one knows where to look, the rocks and creeks and prairies are marked with the presence of a distinctive past. In an essay that appeared in my book Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision, entitled “The Imaginal Book of Cave Paintings,” I quote N. Scott Momaday, who says, when asked for a definition of sacred land, that it is land made sacred by human ceremony. It is a land ceremonialized. These sites still resonate, whether they are former buffalo jumps, caves and outcroppings where visions were sought, or sweat lodge circles. I believe that the pictographs, which can be found in almost every one of the states in this country, can lead us back to an alternate knowledge of what America is, and we, if we are attentive, can draw that past into our lives.

SE: Within poems like “Pictograph: The Red Deer Place” and “Invisible Petroglyph,” you seem to be turning to the ancient and natural worlds to make sense of a very personal grief. How did these threads come together for you as a writer?

MK: Regarding the difference between personal and collective grief, the question seems to be how much can we bear? I mean, how narrow do we draw our circles? I was just thinking about this today, about personal grief and collective grief. Certainly the history of America, if one is truthful, contains enormous amounts of collective grief: the legacy of slavery and indigenous genocide is something one cannot help but see and feel. The rivers and trees and mountains have absorbed it, as our bodies do. Native people, as well as descendants of slaves, suffer historical trauma. Many people have written about this. But whether or not your ancestors were traumatized in the past, if you are sensitive, you will feel that collective grief, too, as an American.

Then, there is the violence we perpetuate on the earth and our newly felt grief about it. In a poem, “Ground for a New Goddess