Interview conducted by Ellie Tipton, Managing Editor of Poet Lore, for Holly Karapetkova, 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee.
Sometimes the moss in a tree
is just moss.
Sometimes it is a body
swinging from a rope.
How you tell the difference
is by getting close enough to see.
Or by waiting for the sun to rise
high enough to clear
the shadows stuck
to your own feet.
The boy is just a boy,
not a big-eyed monster.
The river’s cold and the wind
colder. This is how it works:
I hit him and he screams.
This is how it plays out:
I wring him like a dishcloth
and the truth gushes forth—
the only truth
that will make it out of here alive.
ET: Thank you for this piece, Holly. I think it is interesting that you are taking on the topic of racial violence as a white writer. It seems that there are many white writers who would avoid this subject all together for various reasons, yet, white writers are being asked more and more to examine whiteness and the privileges it provides. Can you speak about how you entered this conversation?
HK: Well, for many years I was afraid to write about race. I thought I would put my foot in my mouth (or worse) in trying to approach the issue from the position of privilege. But the more I immersed myself in the work of writers of color and the more I began to understand the deep wounds of racism, the more I realized how race had dominated my life, too. The recognition that I had also been traumatized by racism (in that it had dehumanized me and made me into something hateful to myself) gave me permission to enter the conversation. I also realized at some point that white silence can be as harmful as saying the wrong thing—it implies that racism doesn’t concern white people, which is absurd since white people are the ones who have (in the past and present) propagated and benefitted from it.
I’ve spent quite a few years and written many failed poems in trying to figure out how to approach whiteness, in part because of how slippery and insidious it is. I don’t think we can afford to forget about the physical violence at the center of American racism, and in this poem I am trying to confront my own complicity in racial violence.
ET: That’s fascinating, thank you. Can you describe your process for this poem?
HK: I was visiting my parents near Charleston, South Carolina, a city with incredible beauty and charm (antebellum houses facing the sea, old cobblestone streets) but one that also has a deeply disturbing history. Somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of all slaves entering the U.S. came through Charleston. Once you know this fact, it’s difficult to see the beauty without also seeing the violence behind it.
I went for a walk in the early morning, and the sun was rising, casting long shadows through the moss-draped trees. It was lovely, but I’d recently viewed the lynching postcards on Withoutsanctuary.com , and I couldn’t help but see bodies hanging from every branch. The first draft of the poem was written in my head on that walk, and though the poem underwent quite a bit of cutting and revision (including some helpful editorial changes suggested by Poet Lore’s Executive Editor, Jody Bolz), the initial impulse remained intact throughout the revision process.
ET: As a former writing teacher, I think a lot about asking why a piece needs to be written. While the timeliness of this piece is fairly obvious, I’m interested to hear from you why you felt that this poem is urgent? What about it called to you to bring it into the world?
HK: I grew up in the South in a very racialized environment; I never participated in racial violence or outward expressions of hatred, but I continue to be haunted by the more subtle forms of racism and discrimination I was co-opted into before I was even aware of what was happening. Toni Morrison discusses racism as a cause of psychosis, and I have appropriately spent much of my adult life obsessed with the ways that whiteness works-- in both historical and contemporary contexts. I’ve been writing poems about my psychosis for quite a few years now, and I have approached it from a variety of angles. Sometimes, I confront the abstract idea of whiteness, and sometimes, (like in this piece) I confront the physical, bodily violence that accompanies it.
I, like most writers, write about my personal obsessions, but in this case, my personal obsession is also one of the central traumas plaguing our country. I believe that until we (and by “we” I mean white folks but also the nation as a whole) confront the brutal and unethical nature of our past we won’t be able to heal as individuals and as a society. This poem is about getting close to that past and questioning the high cost of some of our power structures, which is the first step in rectifying our patterns of behavior.
ET: In relation to getting close to the past, the concept of Time in this poem seems blurred. In other words, it feels as though this poem references the past, but the events in the poem seem ongoing. How do think about Time in this poem?
HK: Yes—this is a great assessment of the way the poem works. I feel I have spent my entire life trying to shake the racist legacy that I inherited from my Southern childhood, and my personal experiences are (I believe) very much representative of what we are living through as a country: though it feels some days like we are making progress, this poem is about how our past is constantly returning to haunt us. Many of the conversations surrounding our recent presidential election, not to mention the recurring violence to which Black Lives Matters and other groups are responding, make clear how far we have to go in dealing with our past.
ET: Finally, what do you hope that your readers will come away with after reading this poem?
HK: While the title and some of the imagery place this poem in a very particular social context, it is also about human violence and power more broadly. I am fascinated by the ways we are able to lie to ourselves, to accept the narratives presented to us even when they contradict our lived experience and common sense—for example, when those narratives ask us to see another human being as inhuman. I am also fascinated by the ways that “truth” is presented to justify the behavior and desires of those in power. I hope this poem will call readers to examine the particulars of racialized violence but also the abuse of power and “truth” in other ways.
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issue where Holly’s poem appears here.
issue where Holly’s poem appears here.