Kate Gaskin is the author of Forever War, winner of the Pamet River Prize (YesYes Books). Her poems have appeared in journals such as Guernica, Pleiades, Poetry Northwest, 32 Poems, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, Blackbird, and The Rumpus, and her work has been anthologized in the 2019 Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is a recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship in poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, as well as a fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. She edits poetry for The Adroit Journal. Currently, she is a PhD student in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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 was released in May 2020, so it didn’t change my life at all. The pandemic did, however, and of course that, in turn, affected the way I have been able to promote and advocate for Forever War. The other big thing that happened just after my book’s release was that I started a PhD program, and suddenly my 8-year-old child couldn’t consistently go to school anymore. This is all to say that publishing a first book of poetry is probably a humbling experience for many poets, but for me, publishing in this particular time, I’ve had to reevaluate my relationship with writing and publishing. It’s reminded me that the work itself is enough. And it’s reminded me that my journey with writing and publishing has really just begun. I appreciate the opportunity to look forward to what’s next.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Oh, I’ve always loved poetry. Probably since reading Shel Silverstein in grade school. My aunt gave me two books by Mark Doty when I was in high school—Atlantis and Sweet Machine—and that was it for me. I did quite a lot of poetry writing in high school and as an undergraduate, and then afterward I lost my way for a while. In my thirties, after I’d had my kid, I basically experienced a wake-up call, which was that if I wanted to be a poet—and I did—I had to put in the work to make it happen. Up until then, I’d thought I needed to be surrounded by other poets to be validated as a poet. And then I realized that that just hadn’t happened and wasn’t going to happen for a long time, so I started writing. I sometimes wish I wasn’t such a late bloomer, but my path is my path and my timeline is my timeline, and I’ve stopped fighting against it, and that’s helped immensely.
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?
My process is tedious and slow. I write lots of bad poems, especially when I’m at the beginning of trying to articulate something that I don’t have language for yet. Eventually, after writing a million bad poems, I usually experience a breakthrough that gives me the framework through which other less bad poems follow. It’s a slog and disheartening, but what the past has shown me is that if I just keep going, eventually good poems follow. Sometimes first drafts look nothing like final drafts, sometimes I only need to tweak minor parts of first drafts. It all depends on what the poem needs. I don’t take notes when writing. I just sit down and try to write.
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?
Forever War wasn’t a book until I had written “What the War Was, What the War Was Not,” and then suddenly I realized I had a book. Via a combination of combing through my existing work for thematically-related poems and using that specific poem as a lens through which to produce more work, I put Forever War together. I don’t write toward a specific book in the beginning, but I’m usually struggling with thematically related material, so the poems begin talking to each other.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like doing readings, but I haven’t been able to do any in-person since Forever War came out. I had planned a book release party, and my spouse had—unbeknownst to me—arranged for my whole family to fly to Omaha to surprise me, and of course that never happened. I’ve been lucky to participate in a few online readings, but as grateful as I am for those opportunities, I find online readings to be more difficult to enjoy. I’m looking forward to a future in which I’ll get to attend readings again.
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’m always struggling against domesticity in my work. Historically, we make domesticity small and unimportant when women write about it, but of course there are so many women writers today successfully writing about motherhood and home and the small, everyday joys and drudgeries that intersect in domestic spaces. Forever War is a very domestic book in both the literal sense but also in the sense of the word domestic as it’s defined as the interiority of the United States. There is so much war writing told from the perspective of people (usually men) who leave to go fight in wars, but there isn’t as much war writing about what happens to domestic spaces when those people leave and then come back (and leave and come back, and leave and come back, which has been my personal experience.) To be left behind, to be made a supporting character in one’s own life, can make a person feel small and tangential. I think I keep trying to write myself into existence.
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?
Well, good writing brings so much joy and solace to so many people, doesn’t it? Writers also build and enrich communities.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s great! Although it’s rare, anytime a journal’s editor has wanted to make edits to one of my poems, I’ve always walked away with a better poem. I also had an excellent experience working with my editor Stevie Edwards on Forever War. It’s a better, more coherent book because of her.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My former professor John Price once said that you have to do the writing work that’s given to you, even if it’s small, even if it’s not very glamorous. I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. That advice helped me give myself permission to write.
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 don’t have a writing routine. A typical day begins with helping my kid get ready for school. Because of the pandemic, sometimes that rolls into my becoming a third grade teacher for the day. I spend an awful, eye-bleeding amount of time on Zoom. When I’m not actively parenting, attending class, or teaching class, I’m reading for class. So I’ve been in survival mode, trying to fit writing in the tiny cracks between obligations. Right this very moment, however, I’m on an extended winter break before my next semester of the PhD program starts, so I am trying to use this time wisely while, at the same time, not paralyze myself with my own expectations.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I return to books of poems I love. That almost always helps.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Pine trees. Sweet olive. Star jasmine.
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?
Definitely nature. I live in Omaha because my spouse—who is in the Air Force—is stationed here, but I grew up in Alabama, and I am obsessed with Southern landscapes in general, from longleaf pine forests to boggy wetlands. We were stationed in Pensacola for a while, and we lived right on Perdido Bay, and it’s my favorite place in the world. Imagine going out to your backyard each day to check on whatever kinds of wildlife are hanging around. Redfish. Comb jellies. Moon jellyfish. Crabs. Schools of silver mullet. Dolphins. Ospreys. Great blue herons.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I was already writing about being a military spouse before I discovered Jehanne Dubrow’s poems, but her first book on that topic, Stateside, helped me legitimize to myself that this kind of writing is important and worthwhile. There are many, many incredible veterans writing poetry, but Brandon Courtney’s work is just astounding—and he’s my pressmate! Ursula K. LeGuin’s work occupies a permanent place in my head. She was brilliant. An icon. The last work I read that kicked me in the heart in a good way was Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. What an incredible book.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to feel like a permanent, lifelong poet instead of someone just passing through. I haven’t done that yet because it will take a lifetime of work. I’m a busy mother with a young child, but I am also trying to slowly chip away at prioritizing a life in art.
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 would probably be a visual artist. That’s a road not taken.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I felt like I was disappearing. Writing has always been my way back into life.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently finished Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey, and it’s wonderful. I think the last great movie I saw was 1917 in the theater in February right before it became too unsafe to see movies this way (which is such a shame because I love going to the movies). I love any kind of tracking shot that goes on for a long time, so I obviously loved 1917.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on surviving this season of my life, and I’m working on writing more about the particulars of parenting a child with a disability. The great love and great sorrow that happen when your child is in peril.