Kari Flickinger is the author of The Gull and the Bell Tower (Femme Salvé Books, December 2020). Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the SFPA Rhysling Award. She is an alumna of UC Berkeley and The Community of Writers.
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, The Gull and the Bell Tower (Femme Salvé Books, December 2020) is just out. I expect this will not change my life too much, other than I will have some of my words out there mingling with the world in a collected format.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I fell in love with poetry when I was young, and it made my personality make more sense once I had found it. I have written fiction and non-fiction. I had a short fiction piece win a prize when I was attending community college. But poetry is another way of getting at fiction or non-fiction. The persona or the confessional are both just more compressed versions of the novel. Even when a writer focuses on a small moment, there is still a story you’ve got to tell. Most readers will not care how pretty the page or clever the sentiment, or where you broke that line until they connect to the story you’ve got for them. That heart.
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?
I am fabulous at starting projects. Finishing projects can be another matter. I tend to be swept away by ideas. If something is too wide in scope, I might not ever finish because I re-write to the point of complete obscurity. When writing comes fully formed, I try to trust that and fling it as far from me as possible. I can be a destructive force. On the other hand, sometimes a story will sit in my head for years before I figure out what it is supposed to become. At least one of the poems in this book took over ten years to find its shape and clarity. I had to get away from it to make sense of it. I write on everything in my house and bring a notebook (artist sketchbook) everywhere I go. I have a lot of dialogues in the margins of books I am reading.
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?
Even when I present short work, there is a bigger context for it; though that context might only exist in my mind. A lifetime of over-extended coping and hiding from my mental illness has spliced me. Each of those selves has a different aim and a different way of working. Think pop-culture Pessoa, but less defined. Often I get some real-life stimulus, like standing in the aisle at the grocery store trying to decide what loaf of bread to buy, watching people fight in a bar, watching a leaf fall, encountering an aggressive squirrel, sitting in a rocking chair and watching a sunset, or spinning donuts in a parking lot. Then, I take that some poetry place, which can be a bit like being possessed. I cannot see anything around me until the message finds its way. Ugh, that sounds like automatic writing. I promise it’s not ghost things, but like an old-timey telephone switchboard, or muses. Life brings us muses and, as intermediary, a poet might connect the muses to a bigger narrative. I switch off. Or switch on, depending on how you see it. Sometimes it is in a full room. Longer work feels like a puzzle. When the pandemic started, I spent a bit of time putting puzzles together. I like that feeling of bringing the disparate parts into something cohesive. That is a convoluted way to say I do both small pieces and large pieces, and sometimes my aims vary for both.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I have a bit of trepidation at public readings. I had a bad experience a few years ago. Though, I played music when I was young. As a musician, I was solid. I would don this stage persona that was fearless. But, as a poet, that persona is not as easy to maintain. This is like stripping naked on stage, and I am just not entirely comfortable with all the stretch marks—they surprise me when I look down. Zoom has kind of changed this landscape, though. This has brought me back into public reading. I’m not wild about sharing my dirty kitchen, but it doesn’t bother me enough to deep clean it, I guess? I like that I can control the amount of self I show. Nobody must know I am wearing slippers or going without undergarments. No one will call me unstable the next day.
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 write about interpersonal relationships and what could loosely be described as ecopoetry. I write a lot of “warning” poetry. I’m like an alarmist sibling to the reader. I am constantly trying to explore time and timing; how it expands, and contracts based on our innate sense of it. All of life feels like tension and striptease. This might come from my music background. Lately, I have been reading these physics books, and I don’t have the math for it all, but I’m still trying. When it comes down to it, though, our engagement of time is probably all grief processing. Microsoft Word just told me that “striptease” might offend my reader.
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?
I think there’s a balance we’ve got to hit in the new world. It would be impossible to be entirely responsible for every interpretation of our words because a singular individual does not possess that kind of foreknowledge of other perceptions. But sharing your story with another human being means that you sometimes transfer the responsibility of your story to that other person. It is important that all writers be aware, if not mindful of that. I try to engage with a mind for social responsibility, but I usually land on personal responsibility. So many writers are using their voices in more immediate ways to interrogate the structure of society and I admire and raise those voices. It takes all our voices in tandem. Many hands make for light work. Of course, this is optimistic. Because even in that phrase, “light” can be taken so many ways. Some readers might be calmed at the thought of a light like a beacon for justice or a specific god, let there be light, like a warming, a new knowing, or a candle illuminating our steps in the night. But a reader might see that light to represent another prop of linguistic whitewashing, as well. And light means all of these. We need to be aware that our audience in a global community will tack on new and unexpected meanings. Our words mean something. Symbolic language existed before the written word. A friend once told me words do nothing, but that’s bullshit. Some words might not change minds, while others may. Moving forward in a global writing community, we need to leave ourselves open to awareness of the messages we impart. Not that I think we will hit it every time, I have made so many missteps, and I will make more. We cannot use ostracism to treat this disease of willfully misunderstanding one another. And actions should be married with words, where we can. The shifting world is a hard and necessary event; people take time to grow, though we need change as fast as it will come. Writers especially need to be open to expanding our perspective, to listening, and to learning how to do better.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Outside feedback is essential to writing. It is how we interrogate our aims. I am so deeply grateful to the editorial team of Femme Salvé Books, and Animal Heart Press who worked with my book. Their attention has been so deeply kind. I am a meticulous editor, so the manuscript I offered is pretty close to what you will have in your hands.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)
I have a sticky note tacked to a board next to me that says, “don’t rush.” I think it might be an Ellen Bass quotation.
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 suffer from insomnia, so I wake up late. It is not really so much insomnia as I just work better at night. Don’t get me wrong, I have lived every kind of schedule you can imagine, day and night jobs. But, when I am unemployed and living my own schedule, I go to sleep around three. I make tea, put on headphones, and write into the night. I am not good with routine. My head will not let me sit. I shift and change. When I do the same thing for too many days in a row, I lose it a little. I do things like drive around in circles all day, or take up painting, or lay on the floor and try to make dinosaur sounds. Coffee and tea are the closest to routine that I get. I require these.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Science news. A book. I have an unreasonable amount of books; sometimes I just open them to a random page and read from there, out of context. I go for a little walk; before the pandemic, I used to pick up objects on little walks and tell myself stories about trash or nature. I have a lot of weird scraps of paper that were once stranger’s shopping lists. I have a membership to the UC Berkeley botanical garden, so I spend a lot of time there huffing my body up that hill to the rose garden. There is a good view there and the panorama helps me collapse disparate ideas. I used to write at the bar a lot, but the pandemic has ceased that. I miss the camaraderie of drinking people.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Which home? Vanilla reminds me of my mother. Lavender and mold remind me of my home for the last ten years. Sandalwood reminds me of my childhood home. Petrichor reminds me of grade school and college. Clove reminds me of going to goth clubs in my early twenties. Cheap beer reminds me of this dive bar I used to frequent in Sacramento.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Music, science, nature, math, visual art, art history, history, old languages, folklore—all of it. Sometimes it feels like I am just working in assemblage. But we all are. I was watching Laurel Canyon, that documentary about the music scene in L.A. in the sixties, and I began to sob because it occurred to me (in that “I know Simone De Beauvoir and about a million other philosophers got there first” sense of realizing) that everything we are living now is so damn hard—pandemic, unemployment, debt, massive inequalities, and we do not even get to do it for the first time. We do not even get full license to experience what we are experiencing because it has all been done before. What I am thinking has been thought. Maybe I bring it in a new way that will make it resonate, or highlight it, but really, it is all out there—just being ignored. We have the tools to be better, and we have decided not to use so many of them. It is heartbreaking if you really let it get into your skin.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I have a list of teachers that I thank at the end of my book and I would start there. These are people who gave me new avenues or ways into the synthesis of thinking about the writing I take in. And that matters so very much. I come from teacher stock. My grandmother (who the book is dedicated to) was a kindergarten teacher. My father was a P.E. teacher and coach. My mom was a driving instructor. There are more of them all along the lines of my extended family. Teaching is one of the most important things you can do with your life, and it is not valued enough. Some writers that influenced this book: Gertrude Stein, Leonard Cohen, Charles Martin, John Clare, Patti Smith, Marianne Moore, Italo Calvino, Anne Carson, Thomas Kinsella, Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, Lorine Niedecker, Toni Morrison, Leonora Carrington, Theodore Roethke, Rae Armantrout.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to do everything I have not done yet. (Except skydiving. No part of me wants that.) If I am bent to be specific, I have been meaning to get a tattoo for near 20 years now, and every time I have a little extra cash, my plans are foiled by life. It’s gotten to the point where, since I have typed this, something is about to fall apart, just because I brought up getting a tattoo.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I have done so much. I studied voice, sound recording, psychology, therapeutic arts, teaching, literature, grief, research methods. I worked in several credit unions, retail: apparel, crafts, books. I was a beer maiden. Whitewater rafter. I did opinion sampling, marketing, merchandising. I worked in an eyeglass lab, and a healthcare call center. I inked comic books for an ex. Wrote songs for a church. I worked grave shift doing remote monitoring for a security company where I stared at cats a lot. I was a grave shift cook in a diner. As a child, I helped my mom who was a seamstress and baker, so I learned these things, too. I guess if I had been the type to focus and had got a better start, I would have liked to study soundwaves. I took an oceanography class where I got to help with an ongoing study of the water quality in the delta. For a minute I dreamed of studying oceanography and echolocation, you know, to study whale songs. Ultimately, how “poetry” is that answer? So, I guess whale song investigator or Rockstar.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I always wanted to be a writer. I wrote while I did everything else. It has not stopped me from the other activities, it is often only enhanced by them. But I certainly dreamed of doing more physical exploration of my world. I think my dreams have always been bigger than my body could support.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I am obsessed with The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli. Amanda McLeod’s Animal Behavior. Jessica Barksdale’s forthcoming book, Grim Honey. I am currently making my way through John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester, and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. The documentary Laurel Canyon is strange and insightful and delightful. I also adore the new animated Star Trek series, Lower Decks.
19 - What are you currently working on?
Spending quality time with my terribly amazing cat. Painting and reading physics books, sometimes simultaneously (audible). You can follow my website or twitter for updates on finished projects. kariflickinger.com @kariflickinger