Math Class, was published by Calamari Archive in June 2022. Other creative and critical writing appears in journals such as Annulet, DIAGRAM, La Vague, Black Warrior Review, Full Stop, and The Explicator. She also writes a column for Tarpaulin Sky Magazine called figuring on math and science in art and literature. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. https://kellykrumrie.net/
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Well, Math Class (Calamari Archive, 2022) is my first book, so it’s probably too soon to tell, except, perhaps, I think I could say that I feel a little like I’ve taken a breath, or I feel a little stiller, something like that. In order to write the book, however, I quit my job and started a creative writing PhD program—nine years after my MFA—and this did change my life. I had fallen away from writing almost completely, and I was hardly reading at all. I was teaching middle school and was so tired all the time; I couldn’t think straight. But teaching allowed me to learn a bunch of new things—like math—without which I wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to get back into writing and what to do once I got there. I started this book about two months before beginning my PhD. So maybe the book did change my life.
My recent work feels very different from this. I wrote a book-length series of prose poems/fragments called No Measure (that I’m currently submitting to publishers) right after Math Class, and it’s different in form and content though thematically still touches on scientific language, particularly measurement, scale, and documentation. It’s a kind of love story rendered in the most technical language… I let myself let go of narrative, scene, and fictional conventions and puzzled together bits of language and landscape. Longing pushed back by objectivity.
Lately I’ve turned toward fiction again, and I’ve been writing about infrastructure, sidewalks, radio, sound. Something novel-like is taking shape. I recently described my current projects as Anne Carson’s Eros meets Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This work is much looser than Math Class or No Measure: freer, not quite as constrained.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Oh, I don’t know what’s first. I always oscillated back and forth between poetry and fiction, settling more into fiction. In school, I focused on fiction. My mom likes to tell people about how quickly I read, how I memorized stories and poems and recited them, and at not much older than two, I begged her to teach me to write, and I would cry. I wanted to write my own stories. So, fiction first, I suppose. But even as a teenager I was most curious about language-driven fiction, messy stuff: I was gaga for Faulkner, Joyce, carried Ulysses around in my tennis bag in high school. That’s why the genre line is difficult for me. I’m more interested in language than narrative or character, more interested in how I can make the thing than what the thing is. But—Renee Gladman said something to this effect in a talk recently—fiction provides a fun frame to splash around in. Nonfiction doesn’t speak to me usually, except for criticism.
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 these examples describe my process! I research a lot, a lot. Too much. And I take lots of notes: quotations, phrases, little bits of language, and I make word banks, kind of like a dare to myself to use as many words from the pile as I can. I’d say I’m slow, but most of my writing is pretty short and fragmented, so it doesn’t take too long to get to the end. First drafts appear close to their final shape. I’m careful, and I don’t like revising very much (that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it, though).
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose 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?
Oh, interesting question. It usually begins from something I’ve read, or something someone has shown me: theoretical writing or some kind of fact or work of art. I’m definitely someone who writes short pieces that then combine. I know now that this is probably what will happen. I keep writing the same thing; I get really hung up on stuff. Math Class was first one short story, then another, then… here it is. I’ve written a few prose pieces over the last year about sidewalks and infrastructure. I’m not sure if they’ll accumulate into a book (a pretty strange book that’d be), but I can’t stop.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like attending readings, and I’m happy to do them, but I don’t think they have any real role in my creative process. (Except that it is nice to be around other people.)
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?
Oh, gosh, yeah, this is pretty much all I think about. Math Class includes a list of sources at the end of the book—quotations that helped me shape the individual segments or that I found later and thought were applicable; they add a layer. I often begin with some kind of theoretical idea… For example, in Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford says something about there’s nothing perfectly circular in nature, and I don’t know if that’s true, but I liked thinking about it, and that launched me into the major plot point of Math Class (as well as its form).
What questions am I trying to answer? The question I’ve wondered about the longest is… well, maybe not a question, but a concern: I’ve always, always been super interested in grammar and syntax (I studied linguistics as an undergraduate), so as I’m writing, I’m navigating and playing around with words, phrases, and sentences through that lens. I’m most curious about “syntactic” words (function words, little words) that don’t really mean anything. What if I threw a bunch of them together? Can I make a sentence that way? A story? The past few years, I’ve been wondering most about math (hence this book) and what mathematical language means. With a number, there’s the idea, the sound for the word, the word written, the numeral, the number in an operation or equation, the number representing objects in the world… It’s a weird little thing.
I’m not sure I can answer this question. The question I’m trying to answer is something like: How can I use language in a particular way to manifest this thing that’s kind of outside language? (Which could be said for any writing? Or most of it?)
Currently I’m wondering about how to render sounds and radio waves.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Yikes! I don’t know. Like any other artist: a mirror, a storyteller, a questioner. I think the role should be to be as curious as possible. To learn and share out. To not be siloed.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Neither! I like it, and it’s often very helpful for me. I’ve been lucky to have some really lovely editors who give useful feedback and help me make the work better. Derek White and Garielle Lutz at Calamari gave such close attention to Math Class—really unbelievable attention and generous feedback. And to get sentence-level edits (and explanations!) from Garielle was a dream. But I’ve also published work with no editorial comment or modifications, and that’s fine too. Rarely has it been difficult.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
For writing? Don’t do anything you don’t believe in and have faith in your work.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s easy for me to move that way when I’m working—I do whatever I want, I follow the work, it manifests how it manifests. Sometimes I set up little puzzles for myself but mostly it’s out of my control. That’s what’s fun about all this, right? I’m a very curious person; I like to do and think about lots of different things.
What’s not fun, or what becomes challenging, is naming the thing later if you want to submit it to a journal or press or even workshop it. I had a hard time in MFA school because I was there for fiction, and the program wouldn’t let me take poetry classes. Once in a fiction workshop, a professor said (in front of the whole class) that I should give up on fiction, stop trying, and switch to poetry—which was rude and inappropriate, of course, but also, they wouldn’t let me? Confusing and a little silly, if you ask me. Who cares? I do care—I do think interesting things happen when you put a name to a thing: you might read it differently, you might push and pull in different ways. But for me, I just try to have the confidence to make what I want to make and figure the rest out later (and have faith in it).
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 wrote about this for you! I don’t usually have a writing routine. I definitely do not write every day, or even close. When I have chunks of free time, like summer or when I was in school, I schedule writing time, but I’m flexible about it, and I do best with a long stretch—not quick moments between things or in the car. I write best in the mornings, but I also like to run in the mornings, so I have to be aware of that and alternate. On a day when I might write, I begin with breakfast (I pretty much almost always have fruit and yogurt and coffee), then I putter around and clean and tidy, and then I get to work.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I flip back through notebooks and then start flipping through books. My husband is an engineer, so we have tons of science books around: physics textbooks, fluid dynamics, who knows what else. I like to flip through them and usually something clicks into place. I also walk and run a lot. When I’m stuck in creative writing, I’ll walk. When I’m stuck in critical writing, I’ll run.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Oh, none? I’ve moved a lot—both as a kid and as an adult. Maybe I’m not very scent-forward, sense-wise.
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?
Yes, yes. All of my answers so far probably answer this question. Most lately math and science, but also visual art and film. If I could be anything, I’d be a painter. I’m not sure I can easily articulate how these forms influence my work, but (maybe this is a simple and obvious answer) sometimes I see something and then I try to make a version of it. Several moments in Math Class were made better after studying movement and composition in a handful of films. I also spend a lot of time outside.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Endless—and I’ve been lucky to write about / through many of them in my column for Tarpaulin Sky. But my oldest, tried and true friends are probably Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickinson, and Marianne Moore.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Hmm… I feel like I should have a big answer for this (like skydiving!), but I don’t. I took a ceramics class this winter, wheel throwing, and I was surprisingly (to me) bad at it. I’d like to make plates and bowls I can use, but this feels impossible—or at least something I could only accomplish many, many years from now.
For writing? So much, and most of it I don’t know about yet.
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?
Oh, I said earlier that if I could be anything, I’d like to be a painter. This is true. Maybe I’ll start late, like Grandma Moses. As for official occupation, I was a tennis coach first (my post-college plan was to teach tennis and write), and then I became a teacher (and got another degree in education). I think what I’m best at is teaching. I’ll probably always do that. “Writer,” though I’ve been writing since I was a toddler in tears, feels new to me. I’ve always been it and am freshly now it.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It’s always what I wanted to do. I have no memory of not wanting that. But I wasn’t always sure how, and early on I gave up easy.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Oh, let’s see. I’ve read a couple of great books lately. One I got all bug-eyed about—and I can tell when this is happening because I make noises when I’m reading: I go god! and ah! and oh! and whisper to myself—this most strongly happened with Fleur Jaeggy’s The Water Statues, but also Christine Schutt’s Florida. And Asiya Wadud’s Syncope. I watched a lot of films this winter as I was living in an incredibly cold and lonely place. I think I’ll say the director’s cut of Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World and Platform by Jia Zhangke. Both are funny and sad and slow.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Many things! I have a long list. For critical work, I’m revising a paper on Gertrude Stein and math—maybe this will be my life’s work, or a monograph, because I just keep finding more, and it’s a wild topic, plus she wrote so much. I just saw an exhibit of Mel Bochner’s drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago (very different from his word paintings—lots of geometric shapes, grids), so I might write something about that. This fall, I’m presenting a paper on what I’m calling “mathematical affect” in the work of Pamela Lu, so I should start thinking ahead. And I’m noodling on an essay on syntax and adolescence.
As for creative, for the last year I’ve been working on what I think will be a novel, or a novel-shaped prose thing, about invented languages, radio waves, and sound. This combines all the topics I’ve been dancing around, and I’m excited about it, and I feel like it has a sort of vibrancy I’m trying to harness—I’m putting this project before others (for now). There are also nuns! An excerpt is forthcoming in a sound arts journal this July. Oh, and more writing about sidewalks, since I can’t stop, and I spend a lot of time on them.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;