Kiki Petrosino is the author of two collections: Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013) and Fort Red Border (2009), both published by Sarabande Books. She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Louisville, and co-edits Transom (http://www.transomjournal.com), an independent on-line poetry journal.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, Fort Red Border (2009), was the culmination of a four-year project that I began as a graduate student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. My latest book, Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013), was written in a much shorter timespan and entirely outside the workshop environment. So: while I had shown versions of almost every poem in my debut collection to other readers as part of my workshop time, the poems in Hymn belong to a much more private experience. This is how I write now: privately. On my own time, and not "in time" for a workshop session. It feels right. As a young poet, participating in workshop trained me to read carefully and to comment in substantive ways about poetry. It was an invaluable experience that prepared me for my current writing life, one in which I have to rely on my own "toolbox" of composition and revision.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I've always written poetry. For me, it's a genre that's able to accommodate a variety of forms and modes. While I do write the occasional lyric essay, poetry is the art form that best satisfies my storytelling impulses and my need to craft compelling images.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
All of this depends on the project. I tend to write in short series of 10-15 poems that share a form, addressee, occasion, or some combination of these. Both the concept and the poems seem to build organically as the project develops. It's difficult for me to sit down and say, "OK, I need to insert a poem into the series that does X." The poem will just refuse to follow my agenda. Sometimes all I have to do is formulate the title at the top of a blank page--as I would do while composing the "Valentine" series in my first book--and the poem spins itself from that. There has to be some kind of generative "hook" for the poems to latch onto. But I can't tell the poems what to do.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
See question 3.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
The act of reading aloud is integral to my writing process. For me, a poem doesn't become truly "real" until I've shared it with an audience. I love hearing an audience laugh or sigh at particular lines. It helps my ear. And while I'm writing, I always read my work-in-progress aloud to myself. It's FUN.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I've studied critical theory as part of my graduate work (I hold an MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago), but I wouldn't say that those conversations are exactly running through my mind during the composition process. At the same time, as a woman writer of color, I'm definitely interested in the formation of identity. The speakers in my poems tend to be female, and alienated in some way from the larger community. This alienation doesn't have to be traumatic for it to be generative of language. On the contrary, I like to think of my speakers as sensitive, observant instruments. They speak of grievance, maybe...but are not, themselves, aggrieved. They're having fun. They're singing. It's OK.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The writer is a public intellectual. I know we're in a cultural moment that values other, non-literary, vocations, so we don't always hear from the "writer qua writer" in the public sphere. The stereotype is that the writer works within an ivory tower, or from a lonely garrett room, disconnected from the hustle going on right outside the window. But just open any book--a novel, a collection of short stories, a book of poetry. You find a deep engagement with language there. Contrary to the stereotype, writers are trying desperately to be heard and understood by the audience. Their creations enter the stream of pubic discourse and have the potential to open minds. I value every opportunity to interact personally with readers--not only readers of my work, but just People Who Read.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have had very positive experiences working with editors. Sarah Gorham, President and Editor-in-Chief of Sarabande Books, has worked with me since 2007 on shaping my books for an audience. Her touch is light, and her advice is always given with the best interests of the poem or project in mind. I couldn't ask for a better guide when it comes to preparing my manuscripts to meet the world.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best piece of advice I've heard is this: "Be a good friend to your friends, and a good colleague to your colleagues." Over the years, I've interpreted this as an argument against the hyper-competitive loops we poets can sometimes lose ourselves in. Example: when you hear that a friend has won a contest, a prize, or a book contract, you should be the first to send a message of congratulations. Not the second in line--really strive to be the first one. By reaching out with that kind of goodwill, you will receive that blessing back. Simply put: it makes you a better person to be generous. Even when you do feel envy, behave with kindness to those around you. Say the word, "congratulations." Feel your heart and your soul grow larger.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I tend to write in fits and starts that do NOT match up with any sort of daily routine. During the summer, I might be able to write a few lines in the morning and work from there into a finished piece. But during the school year, when I have a full teaching schedule, the stanzas arrive as they will. I keep revising a poem until it stops bothering me, which might take a few "days," or writing sessions. I can go for very long periods of time without writing anything, though I'm always reading one or two books for "fun," i.e., aside from teaching prep. As long as I'm feeding my imagination, I feel pretty OK about my writing life.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;