Before anyone learned the word coronavirus, Kathryn Smith was writing about seeing death on social media and the things in our world that make it hard to breathe. In her second poetry collection, Self-Portrait with Cephalopod, she meditates on the intimacy between beauty and mortality. This intimacy becomes especially pronounced with the advent of climate crisis. Smith’s poems describe Washington state wildfires that fill the air with smoke, a quarantined chicken that succumbs to a mystery disease, and mammograms that ring of apocalypse. In the midst of deaths both large and small, human and invertebrate, Self-Portrait with Cephalopod seeks connection between all parts of the natural world, no matter how fragile.
Self-Portrait with Cephalopod was awarded the Jake Adam York Prize, selected by francine j. harris. It follows Smith’s first poetry collection Book of Exodus and chapbook Chosen Companions of the Goblin. Smith also makes collage and visual art. I spoke to her by email in January.
Ana Quiring: There’s a growing body of climate change literature and academic study on climate change. Do you see your book in conversation with other texts on this subject? Is there prevailing wisdom that you wanted to reinforce or interrogate?
Kathryn Smith: I hope my book has a part in that conversation. Issues surrounding climate change show up in my work because it’s something I’m incredibly aware of as a person — how to acknowledge my complicity in the deterioration of the environment, how to reduce my impact, and how to do these things while living in the world, living my life. But I think I have to leave it up to readers to decide how and if these poems fit into a larger conversation in literature.
One recurrent theme in the poems is how to know, or how to classify, what counts as toxic. Do you think poems are a good medium for taxonomy, or for talking about toxicity?
I think poetry is an excellent medium for taxonomy. Poetry, for me, is largely about figuring things out. It’s also about pushing the boundaries of language, and engaging with the idea of meaning-making. As for determining what’s toxic, that might just be a personal obsession–exploring where beauty and danger overlap.
I love the way these poems can feel like a glass case in a natural history museum, a catalogue of dead and beautiful things. How much do you feel like your poems are a curation of things that already exist? Or are they alchemically new?
Thank you for saying that! I love the idea of these poems as creatures in a curio cabinet, so I am really honored by that description.
I am big on observation and close examination. I think the newness comes not in what’s there, but in what we perceive. Part of that comes from what I’m able to uncover and show the reader, or maybe by arranging the artifacts in a different or surprising way. And part of the newness comes from the perspective that each reader brings to the poems.
Oppressive wildfires and local news are recurrent themes in the book. How much is the climate catastrophe you explore in the book specific to your community or microclimate, and how much is it global?
Even when climate catastrophes are localized, they’re part of a global trend. I live in the West, so wildfire literally permeates my experience, but of course fires aren’t specific to the Western U.S. These sorts of disasters are happening everywhere. If I lived elsewhere, I might focus more on hurricanes or other atmospheric phenomena, but the overall feeling is the same–the building sense of dread that our planet is veering closer and closer to the brink of collapse.
The word “Anthropocene”has become widely known as a fairly new word to describe climate apocalypse, and it shows up in the first poem in the book. If the events we’re living through require new vocabularies, how does poetry help with that? What other words do you rely on or invent to this end?
Poetry, as a medium, is very elastic. There’s space for experimentation with language. I think about how language is a human tool for making meaning, or for conveying the meaning of our experience to other humans, but in some ways, poetry is trying to dismantle or question that meaning. Poetry tries to get back to the experience itself. I realize that I haven’t answered your question about the term “Anthropocene.” I guess my point is that language is changing all the time, and I love that there is room in poetry to explore that change.
Do you see any of these poems taking on new resonance for you in light of the pandemic? So much of the book is a meditation on death and catastrophe, but I’m also thinking about the predominance of bats, and how certain animals become associated with infection or danger. How can new crises change a poem?
Yes, absolutely. There are a couple of poems that reference plague, and initially I was referring to, you know, The Plague, but living through our own modern plague can change how those poems are read, I think, or add layers of meaning. In the wildfire poems we talked about before, there are various references to smoke making it difficult to breathe, and now Covid-19 has created a whole new fear of breathing, of the dangers we face just by breathing.
You talked already about the intimate relationship you obsess over between danger and beauty, which is something I noticed too. Do you see this axiom at play in the descriptions of human bodies, especially feminine bodies? I’m thinking about the image of the mammogram, as well as wondering if there is a queer resonance in perceiving danger in the beauty of the female body.
In a less overt way, yes. I’m thinking about the poem “Independence Day,” where these girls at the lake seem so at ease in their bathing suits, jumping into the water, and the speaker, even though she’s among them, knows she’s experiencing something different. I’m aware of how in many spaces, simply being a woman, having a female body, is dangerous (though I want to acknowledge that for me, as a white woman, that danger is minimal compared with the dangers faced by bodies of color). And queerness can put a person at risk, too. There’s a lot in these poems about the struggle of simply having a body. And then on top of that, the societal expectations that come with having a female body–and the heteronormative expectations in particular. The poem “Most of Us Aren’t Beautiful, Though Some Learn How” speaks to that, too–the danger of trying to conform to someone else’s idea of beauty when it’s not who you are versus the risks a person has to take to be one’s authentic (and in my case, queer) self. I didn’t really understand my own beauty until I started to claim my queerness.
Several of the poems, notably “Situs Inversus,” describe the process of dissection. Do you see that process at work more metaphorically as well? Are you dissecting something when you write a poem about it? Do poems require dissection to be read thoroughly?
As I said earlier, I like to examine things closely, to dig beneath the surface. And that’s evident throughout the book. I guess I’m dissecting the world, trying to understand it, or the human experience, trying to find something good and hopeful that makes all the disaster and death worth enduring. As for whether poems require dissection, I say no. Yes, poems often have many layers of meaning, and reading a poem closely can reveal more of those layers. But it’s possible to take something apart to the point of not being able to put it back together. You can start looking for things that aren’t there. If a poem elicits an emotional response, you don’t need to pull it apart to figure out why.
I was wondering if you could talk about your title image of the Cephalopod. What makes that creature the mascot for the collection?
I don’t see her as a mascot so much as a representation of all the nonhuman animals that populate the collection. I chose to call the book Self-Portrait with Cephalopod because I think the title poem, “Self-Portrait with Cephalopod and Digitalis Purpurea,” has ripples that extend into the rest of the book–both in the recurring images of squid and octopuses, but also in its themes. To me, the title speaks to exploration of self, feeling uncomfortable in one’s own skin, and to the human relationship to the rest of the natural world.
One recurrent mode for these poems is the “Psalm Formula.” You repurpose language from the Bible and Christian practice in often contradictory or doomed ways. How does faith practice, or lack thereof, shape the collection?
I think it gets back to that idea of meaning-making or unmaking with language. If you use so-called “biblical language” in an unexpected (or unintended) context, is it still biblical? Isn’t all language just language? I’m being sort of philosophical here, I guess, but what I mean is, language that makes meaning in one context can mean something entirely different in the next. The language of the Christian tradition has steeped a lot of my own experience, but I’m no theologian, so I’m trying to use that language in regular human contexts–and in particular, in the grit and decay of the Anthropocene–to see if it holds, or as a way of trying to inject some hope into spaces that often feel hopeless.
How collaborative is the experience of writing poetry for you?
I think this ties in with your question about whether the poems are a curation of things that already exist. We all absorb and rework our experiences, the things we consume. Sometimes I intentionally engage with another poet or news story or documentary, and sometimes I do it unintentionally, without realizing or remembering where I’ve heard something before. Humans are social creatures (or at least we were before the pandemic); we exist in community. Everything we do is collaborative. If we’re not collaborating with one another, we’re collaborating with the earth, with resources, with other creatures. The stereotype of the solitary writer, locked away in a room, toiling and suffering in isolation–that’s a myth. Or at least the idea that such a life is necessary to produce art is a myth. This book wouldn’t exist without other poets.
You referenced the speaker of your previous poems. Is that mechanism of the speaker an important feature for you? Do you feel a degree of personal distance from the poems? To ask a poetry 101 question, who is the speaker of these poems?
I don’t know that there’s one consistent speaker. Some of the poems are definitely written in persona–like I’m writing from the voice of a character. The way I most often think of it is that the speaker is sort of like the version of the self who appears in dreams. It’s me, but not me. The me of another multiverse. I think teachers of poetry emphasize the idea of “the speaker” to keep students from assuming that everything in a poem is factual. Poems are concerned with conveying truth, but not necessarily with sticking to facts. But in terms of distance, no; I feel deeply personally connected to these poems.
Many of your poems concern the noise and oppressiveness of social media and internet news. What role do you envision for poetry itself on social media? Or do your poems try to reverse the modes of attention that social media requires?
Oh, man, I am not the person to ask about social media. I think all the poets are on Twitter. That’s what I’ve heard, anyway. I’m not on Twitter. I do have an Instagram account because I also make visual art. And because I have cats. I use it to promote my poetry, too, but I find that kind of thing hard to do and it always feels a bit gross. But anyway, I guess I’m trying to ask us to think about how we engage with the world. How we gather information. How we participate. Sometimes, the internet is just noise. But sometimes we treat things as noise when we should be paying attention. And the ways we consume information, the speed with which we’re asked to consume it, make it hard to sort the noise from the cries for help. By the time we realize we should have paid attention to something, the news cycle has moved on. The world has moved on.
Ana Quiring is a PhD candidate in English at Washington University in St. Louis. She writes about twentieth century literatures and feminisms and tweets @AnaQuiring.