Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Merie Kirby Discusses The Dog Runs On

The Dog Runs On

Author: Merie Kirby

Publisher: Finishing Line Press

Publication date: 2014

When the kind girl grows up by Merie Kirby

There were the fairy tales, of courses, the fire-hot
shoes, the pecked out eyes, the sliced off
tongue, the horrifying stew, the finger flying
through the air – that world where sweet words
are rewarded and bullies end up with a mouth
full of burning ashes, a world made more make-believe
by the headlines that she can now read
over my shoulder, or in line at the grocery store.
It began, I think, with last December’s news stories
about the shootings – children her age, teachers,
and her questions about what happened
to the man who killed them – and then
about the children harassed for who they were,
who they loved, desperate for escape.
She asks, in the car, at night, in the dark
between restaurant and home,
Have any kids died or killed themselves this week?
and later her worried father draws me aside
Where did that come from?
I remember what it was like trying to make
peace with the unkind world, trying to resist
knowing it, confronted continually with evidence
that fair may only be another word for pretty.

*   *   *   *   *

Merie Kirby is the author of The Dog Runs On (Finishing Line Press, 2014) and The Thumbelina Poems (forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks). Her poems have been published in Willow Review, Midwest Poetry Review, and Avocet, and in September 2014 she participated in the 30/30 Project for Tupelo Press.

Her writing in collaboration with composers has been performed at various venues in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. In 2014 she was the recipient of a North Dakota Council on the Arts Individual Artist Grant. She teaches at the University of North Dakota. Merie's website: writecraftthink.blogspot.com

*   *   *   *   *

[This interview was conducted via email in May 2015.]

NCL: Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook The Dog Runs On.

MK: I think it is fair to say the collection is concerned with innocence and experience (which felt very present during my introduction to parenting), how they seep into each other, how to confront the harsh world without losing wonder, and without denying the harshness or ignoring it. In fact, the first poem includes an allusion to William Blake, where the speaker thinks about how she and her child are “crawling on the floor being nice tigers looking for socks / but one day we will be burning in the forest of the night / burning with questions about all that is harsh in the green world” (“How she came to know the animals”). I have found that being a parent gives you plenty of opportunities to contemplate thorny questions like whether it is mean for birds to eat worms, and whether it is awful or wondrous that a worm can break in half to survive the bird’s attack…which later seem so easy in comparison to questions about school shootings and child suicides.

NCL: How did you arrive at the title?

MK: The poem that gives the chapbook its title is “The dog bolts into traffic,” one of the oldest poems in the collection - the poem is itself a dog that has kept running! In the poem, the speaker observes a dog so determined to continue its trajectory that it runs right into a busy street, suffers a very near miss, and then continues on course. On a concrete level, that dog breaks my heart. But on a metaphorical level, I want to be like that dog, to keep running.

NCL: The bulk of poems in the chapbook are themed around motherhood/daughterhood, raising children in contemporary American society. What are some of the other themes, metaphors, and other elements of craft that you used to unify your chapbook? What is your favorite poem in the book or one that is important to you?

MK:It’s safe to say that my poems largely fit snugly into the lyric tradition, whether in free verse or prose poem format. Motherhood, daughterhood, and parenting are definitely strong themes in the book. Other prominent themes would be story and fairy tales, the animal world and our intersections with it, persistence, and witnessing/remembering - from watching a child soldier recount something horrifying to sharing a friend’s grief.

It’s hard to pick a favorite poem, isn’t it? One is definitely “When the kind girl grows up,” but another poem in the chapbook that is important to me is “5am tattoo.” For me, this poem captures the way I find it possible to maintain my kindness, to not lose my footing in worry and fear.

5am tattoo

It is early. I’ve risen from the little wooden boat
that floated me through darkness.

Two weeks before the solstice
daylight continues to expand,

filling the world minute by minute with more sun.
Now, five am, the birds sing the promise of the day.

Their calls trill through trees,
like brooks in the mountains just at the tree line.

Two more white poppies
have opened their taffeta skirts in the night.

More leaves have been stuffed into the birdhouse
now occupied by squirrels, squatters who gnawed the opening larger.

Mosquitoes navigate their crooked, blurred flights.
The fridge burrs on, a plane rumbles over the neighborhood,

the man next door opens, closes, locks his door
and thuds down his steps to the sidewalk.

Some mornings it seems the boat
has been moored to the same dock all night.

Other mornings it is as if our boat, left unpiloted,
has run aground on unfamiliar sand. Climbing out

I find everything is known but unfamiliar.
A landscape I know from the map, the journals of others,

the visions that came while I rocked
in the bottom of the boat on dark currents.

18th century sailors got tattoos in Tahiti, to prove
they had been there, that island paradise

the only place they could get that kind of mark.
I want to show that I have been here,

to this island of morning.
How will I be marked?

NCL: Are some of these poems about your own child? Who is your favorite author who has written about his or her children and/or your favorite book or poem?

MK: I think perhaps it might be most true to say that my own child is a catalyst for some of these poems. Like most writers, I reserve the right to revise reality if it makes the poem better, yet still true. (My grandmother once told me a story, then demanded I not use it in a poem, then waved her hand and said, “You’ll probably change it anyway. Go ahead.”) There are so many poets writing amazing - moving, honest, thrilling - poems about the parent/child relationship, but there is one poem in particular that I first read long before becoming a parent, which has become richer for me over time, as I have made the same shift as the speaker in that poem, from daughter to mother, from Persephone to Demeter: “The Pomegranate,” by Eavan Boland.

NCL: What are your thoughts on the question Emily Bazelon poses in her 2008 Slate essay “Is this Tantrum on the record,” about the ethics of writing about one’s children: What are the ground rules for writing about your kids?

MK: Now that my daughter is nine, she has a lot of say when it comes to things like social media, where the sharing is more immediate. But a poem, which may not be widely read until years after it is first written, is a little different. In The Dog Runs On, there are poems from her infancy and poems from just two years ago - she tends to have a nostalgic feel about those, and to be curious about them rather than defensive or embarrassed. In perhaps the most complimentary gesture possible, she took to school her copy of the chapbook (which she has illustrated) to share with her friends. But the ground rules are always evolving, and it is a conversation we return to frequently.

NCL: Diane Green wrote in a 2007 Rhizomes essay “Exploring Border Country: the Use of Myth and Fairy Tale in Gillian Clarke’s Poem Sequence, ‘The King of Britain’s Daughter’”:
[M]yth ... is such a familiar tool in the work of female poets writing in the latter part of the twentieth-century, particularly in its feminist revisionary role, as advocated by Adrienne Rich, and especially where nationality is an issue.
And in Contemporary Poetry: Poets and Poetry since 1990, Ian Brinton writes:
[A]n interest in myth and fairytale is a recognisable attempt to remove the poet’s self from a lyric expression into an embodied narrative. Traditional fairytales have a residual power of rethinking the roles of women and the ways they are represented within society.
Could you speak a bit about your use of myth and fairytale in your poems and your response to one or both of the quotes?

MK: I have been an avid reader since a very young age, but perhaps my most obsessive reading love was my grandfather’s 1932 edition of the Brothers Grimm tales - the translations were not too cleaned up, some of them were pretty horrifying, and I loved them all. So fairy tales (and myth and ballet stories and nursery rhymes) do creep into my poems - sometimes in a revisionary sense, sometimes for the usual version to be repudiated, and often as a way of taking a critical look at those roles and representations of women. One of the poems in The Dog Runs On that does this in a more overt way is “When the kind girl grows up,” where the title refers to the English tale of “Diamonds and Toads” (sometimes called “The Kind Girl and the Unkind Girl”) - a dichotomy that fascinates me, because growing up seems almost designed to turn you into an unkind girl! That one is followed by a couple of poems that continue the exploration of the kind girl in the unkind world: “Sunday Morning,” “When I think of genocide,” and “Fear.”

Red Bird Chapbooks will be publishing my next chapbook, The Thumbelina Poems, which has more to do with Ian Britton’s idea of moving from “a lyric expression into an embodied narrative” and examining the roles Thumbelina is given in that story. In the original story she is perpetually cast into the role of potential bride; I wanted to pull out her opportunities for agency, for response, and for meaning beyond what Hans Christian Andersen offered her. In my poems she is not always a kind girl, in fact she corrects the speaker at one point, who points out that “The wishes of others were winds that blew her life. / They birthed her, unmoored her, snatched her, and courted her” and Thumbelina is very firm in pointing out that when she was able to, when she needed to, she could act in her own interests at the expense of others: “Be fair, she says, the leashed butterfly still haunts me, / how it must have tired and fallen into the river to be taken by fish” (“The wishes of others”).

NCL: What are you working on now?

MK: Most immediately, I’m writing a poem a day in June with friends. Later this summer I’ll be working on revising poems from last fall and shaping two manuscripts. One will be a chapbook and the other a full-length manuscript; the full-length one is coming together from poems that run a gamut of themes, while the chapbook is more likely to come from the trove of mothering poems. Although lately it’s been a lot of monsters and ocean creatures showing up, so we’ll see. And we just got a new puppy, so that is another project (an extremely fluffy and adorable project) in the works.

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