Kate Bolton Bonnici grew up in Alabama and is a graduate of Harvard, NYU Law, UC Riverside, and UCLA. Her poetry collection, Night Burial, won the 2020 Colorado Prize for Poetry (Center for Literary Publishing, Colorado State University, 2020). Her work has appeared in Arts & Letters, Tupelo Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Image, and elsewhere. She teaches early modern English literature and creative writing at UCLA.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Night Burial is my first book, and I cannot overstate the feeling of having these poems exist in book form, especially because I think of them as offerings for my late mother and also for and in conversation with my daughters and husband and family. My view of elegiac poetry is not quite Spenserian—“My verse your vertues rare shall eternize”—but closer to what Jane Mead described exquisitely in World of Made and Unmade, “The finest strand of deep blue yarn— / spool unspooling.” Poems don’t fully bring back the dead, but they help sustain states of being and becoming.
My current book project emerges from some of the concerns in Night Burial—particularly, the fluid female body—and the intersections of genre, power, knowing, history, affection. In this new work, I look to write poems situated alongside and in collaboration with archival materials on the early modern English witch trials. Still writing to/with the dead, but different, unknown-to-me, sometimes recorded, sometimes missing dead.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Actually, my first writing workshops in college were fiction. After I graduated, I took short-story classes at night and online through various extension programs. It wasn’t until years later, when I was pregnant with my second daughter, that I knew—now, poems. When I dropped the impossibility (for me) of plot and narrative and started seriously reading poets, my sense of linguistic possibility came newly alive.
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 have been in a years-long relationship with form—received and nonce—and these forms have influenced much of my work. I am currently in the midst of a sonnet sequence. I also do a lot of journal- and freewriting, which serve as repositories and prompts for ideas. I revise slowly and often significantly. Each poem and I grow together. I usually handwrite everything first and only type a poem after I have written it out in multiple versions before returning to pen/pencil again. The process is a spiral.
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?
Some poems begin in a fragment, some in experience or observation, many in response to what I am reading and researching. In my first years writing poetry, I concentrated on individual poems, a few of which seemed to cluster together. After my mother died, and my writing constellated around her and the loss of her, the poems that would become Night Burial took shape. My current book project I have thought of as a book from its inception. The central poems began with the shape of a particular desire—I wanted to write into early print moments through the poetic line.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
My first book came out during the COVID pandemic, so no. I gave readings as a student, and I have participated in academic conferences, but the public readings that I am scheduled to give will be over Zoom. I do love to attend other poets’ readings, and I miss that (although I have also heard some wonderful readings via Zoom). Hearing others read their work provokes and sustains my own processes.
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 do usually have percolating questions in my work. I also think that sometimes reaching for what the questions are is itself a crucial component. In Night Burial there’s this refrain where the speaker’s daughter asks her mother, How did you get out of the maze? and then later the speaker asks her own, now dead, mother, Why couldn’t you stay in the maze? and I think for that book, there’s an ongoing concern with encoiled and enmeshed bodies that nurture and are nurtured by one another, even as they are made vulnerable to depletion by what makes them who/what they are.
In my current book project, I write into the archive of printed witch-trial pamphlets published in London in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. My theory and hope is that I can approach these materials simultaneously as literary scholar and as poet (using a nonce form inspired by dramatic stichomythia) and so conjure textual openings, attunements, and assemblages.
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?
Writing is a cultural act, a claim to cultural participation. There are manifold roles for the writer. Case in brilliant point: Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
I am grateful to have a teaching job at the moment, and so pedagogy is one way I see myself engaging in broader conversations. I also think that much of our world moves so quickly—fleeting images, fast-moving feeds—and the poem can register a deliberate, thorough processing that takes time to unpack and inhabit. (Perhaps this is part of my motivation for concentrating now on the sonnet form and what it means to move through the cavernous lyric brevity of half a millennium.)
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I do very much appreciate the input of teachers and friends, especially when writing starts to feel like a lonely venture. Working with Stephanie G’Schwind and the staff at CLP was lovely and educational and made me feel Night Burial was so cared for, so nurtured.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Poetry is not a luxury. – Audre Lorde.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
In my travels from law to poetry to early modern literature, the arc shifted from appellate advocacy to academic dissertating. Increasingly, however, my aim is to complicate generic distinctions. My dissertation, centered at the crossroads of Renaissance scholarship, Lucretian physics, and continental theory, is also interwoven with poems. My new witch work I see as an effort to conduct serious scholarship via a poetic practice.
11 - 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 write best early in the morning, which is a habit I got into when my kids were really little. I tend to write more in the morning and read more in the evening (and I consider reading a component of my writing ritual).
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I can, I try to run or take a walk or do some other exercise to sort of shake my thinking loose. I also change formats—if I am typing, I write by hand. If I am trying to write something specific, I shift gears and give myself a timed freewrite. I will also change genres—from critical prose to poetry or the reverse. Or I just read.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Whatever was bubbling on my grandmother’s stove or baking in her oven. She died at home in late November and her house, where I spent at least some time almost every day until I went to college, will soon be sold. Both of my grandmothers lived into their 90s. Their passing has given me cause for thinking about what our foremothers teach us and what they don’t, what they share, what they keep secret. (I keep returning to Mead’s vision of the “spool unspooling.”)
14 - 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?
I am influenced by the physical landscape of Alabama, in particular longleaf pine forests and their biospheres. I have also taken to writing more while listening to music because in this pandemic I am rarely alone in the room. (Thinking here of Catherine Wagner’s long poem sequence, “Everyone in the room is a representative of the world at large.”)
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The work of my first writing teacher and continual inspiration and aunt, Patricia Foster, is crucial for my writing and my life. Professor Derrick Bell, Jr., reshaped how I understand teaching, the Constitution, and kindness. Rome, by Michel Serres, changed how I think about thinking. Lucretius’ De rerum natura, which I first read in translation as an MFA student, inclines through everything I make.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
17 - 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?
This question is not hypothetical for me. I was a criminal defense/domestic relations lawyer for a number of years before returning to school. While lawyering, I took evening and online writing courses through various extension programs, trying to keep the creative art-making going while I concentrated during the day on the construction and organization of legal arguments.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
From a practical perspective, admission to a funded MFA made the shift possible. From a soul standpoint, over the years I kept needing to think in language through experiences, structures, emotions, and impulses, which I have come to understand means needing to write. Having daughters clarified that necessity.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just finished Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread. I have had trouble watching stuff lately after spending so much time during the day looking at a screen, especially after teaching long classes on Zoom. The last movie I saw in the theater and loved was The Favourite.
20 - What are you currently working on?
In my current poetry book project, I investigate 16th- and 17th-century English printed pamphlets on witchcraft, witch beliefs, and the English witch trials, together with archival materials on medicine, science, religion, and aging. My approach is critical poetry as research method, linking Lucretian conjunctions to a feminist archival poetics. I work through a nonce stichomythic form and more familiar received forms to think/create with these archived ideas and lives and language—and I am daily surprised by where it takes me.