Keetje Kuipers, the poet behind Beautiful in the Mouth, recently visited the KQED studios to record an episode of The Writers' Block, which will be released next week (listen to her episode). Until then, get to know her a little better with this Q+A, in which she talks about living in the wilderness for seven months and why you shouldn't be surprised if she bursts into a drunken aria.
You find inspiration in the wilderness and spent seven whole months without internet or even a phone in Oregon's Rogue River Valley for a residency. What's it like being cut off from the world like that?
Keetje Kuipers: In my everyday life in San Francisco, my mind wanders a lot, and that means that it often wanders onto the internet or the phone and spends quite a lot of time there. I feel guilty about the time that I "waste," and I'm constantly chastising myself when one simple email turns into two hours trolling the interwebs for a roasted pork recipe I'll probably never make. However, when I lived in the wilderness and my mind wandered, it did so in a way that I didn't feel bad about. I'd start out writing in my journal, then be distracted by a bug on the porch railing, so I'd go to find my bug book and instead come across a recipe for canning apple pie filling, so then I'd head down to the garden to pick some apples and while there discover that the strawberries needed weeding, and then weeding them I'd come across a snake, and ultimately I'd dash back up to the house to write a poem about it, re-discovering my abandoned journal on the porch and starting the process all over again. It felt good to wander in this way, and I never allowed myself to feel guilty about it. Everything about that life felt enriching, especially artistically enriching, in a way that going out for brunch or watching a video on YouTube just doesn't. Call me anti-social, but that kind of time and mental space was a luxury that I don't imagine I'll ever have again.
You've spoken about being interested in "identities at war with each other." Can you talk a little about those battles within yourself and how they manifest in your work?
KK: In my first collection, I was very interested in crafting a single, cohesive voice for the poems -- a narrator that my reader could follow through the arc of the book. But the truth is that none of us is a single voice -- we're one person with our families, another with our friends, co-workers, strangers, lovers. I'm particularly interested in how the many voices that a woman might employ in her life -- daughter, mother, sister, wife, and sexual object -- face each other. How do we each reconcile the conflicting narratives and desires of these players in our interior lives? How do those different personas blame (or ultimately forgive) each other for the difficult choices we have to make in our lives, for those moments when we have to sacrifice one vision of ourselves for another? My second book, which I'm just now finishing work on, is deeply invested in these examinations, and my poems pit these speakers against one another. In these new poems, the "you" and the "I" are essentially the same person in one body, trying to find a way to reconcile all that guilt and blame and frustration for the mistakes we make in our lives.
Having called places like Montana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Oregon, New York, and California home, it seems as though you've lived many different lives. If you had to imagine your past incarnation, where would you have been and what would you have been doing?
KK: It's honestly very difficult for me to imagine myself as a woman in a previous life without picturing someone very thwarted and frustrated. The kind of freedom I've been able to express in my life -- the freedom to move freely around the world and the country, to try out different versions of my identity as outdoorswoman or city slicker, to live and travel alone without a partner or a family to guide me -- would have been unimaginable for a woman just a couple of generations ago. If I've had previous lives, and if I have essentially maintained the same core self during those lives, I must have been a man.
You're on stage at a karaoke bar. What are you singing?
KK: "I Touch Myself." My college a cappella group did a version of it. If that's not an option, then definitely something country..."Gun Powder and Lead"? Yes.
You've worked in a wide range of fields, from being a midnight baker and Google employee to a publisher's assistant and an Off-Off-Broadway actress. What's a talent or hobby of yours that most don't know about?
KK: I began college as a music major, and invested a lot of time and energy pursuing classical vocal training. If you get enough drinks in me, I'll sing you an Italian aria.
What's the first book that made you fall in love with language?
KK: As a child I was, of course, a total bookworm. And instead of going to the library, I would pick through my parents' bookshelves for reading material. My father had started out as a graduate student in the Literature department (though that's not where he ended up), and I remember devouring the complete works of George Orwell, Henry James, and Somerset Maugham. However, when I came across Steinbeck, that's really when I fell in love with language and literature. I read all of his books, and it must have been when I read To a God Unknown that I encountered a kind of recognizable poetry for the first time in my life.
If your life was adapted to film, who would play you?
KK: Oh, please let it be Anne Hathaway, circa 2004 -- you know, before she lost the padding that made her so darn sexy. Curvy Anne, not skinny Anne.
If you could invite 3 people (dead/alive/fictional) to your dinner party, who would they be and why?
KK: First, Wallace Stegner -- he wrote women (strong, feisty women!) better than anyone else I've ever read. And he wrote romantic partnership in a way that I respect, with an eye toward hard work and sacrifice. Second, Margery Davis Boyden -- she was the most inspirational woman I ever had the pleasure of getting to know. She designed and helped build the cabin in the wilderness where I lived, and her life adventures -- talk about reinventing yourself! -- continue to make me see the world as a place of infinite possibility. She also crafted a life-long partnership which I greatly admired for the way in which it provided her opportunities to grow and change as a woman, wife, and mother, and to augment those identities dramatically. Finally, Susan Burling Ward, from Stegner's Angle of Repose -- she is the most compelling character I've ever encountered in fiction, and she reminds me very much of Margery. These three people would have an awful lot to say to each other about making a life as a woman, a writer, an artist, a parent, and a partner.
If you could live inside one movie, which would it be?
KK: "A Room with a View." The entire film takes place in the summer, and mostly in Italy. There's opera and kissing. The only downer would be the corsets.
Look for Keetje Kuipers' episode of The Writers' Block next Wednesday, June 29, 2011 at kqed.org/writersblock. And be sure not to miss each episode as it becomes available by subscribing to The Writers' Block podcast!