Jun '03 [Home]


On Becoming and Not Becoming a Poet:  A Conversation with Phyllis Koestenbaum

by Cate Gable

Text Referemces

The Party Train, A Collection of North American Prose Poetry, Edited by Robert Alexander, Mark Vinz and C. W. Truesdale, New Rivers Press, 1995.

Doris Day and Kitschy Melodies, Phyllis Koestenbaum, La Questa Press, 2001.

Criminal Sonnets, Phyllis Koestenbaum, Jacaranda Press/Writer's Center Editions, 1998.

oh I can't she says, Phyllis Koestenbaum, Christopher's Books, 1980.

Associated Writing Programs, Annual Conference, Psychological Aspects of Prose Poems:  Impulse and Practice, 2003.

Stealing the Language:  The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, Alicia Ostriker, Beacon Press, 1986.

~ . ~ . ~


"The Birthday Girl"

This happens a lot in restaurants. At the sushi bar, to my right, there are two men and a girl between them. The girl says she wants two scoops of ice cream:  red bean and green tea. It's her birthday. The server says you can't order two scoops, only one scoop, so the girl says OK, then she'll have one scoop and one scoop. . . .

"Cassandra and Irene"

I vowed I would not have ugly, pendulous breasts like my mother's under her ripped nightgowns and housecoats but I do. Here's one reason for her anger:  I didn't leave the writing colony to take care of her when she came home from the hospital. . . .

"Young Armless Man in the Barbecue Restaurant"

The hostess seats a girl and a young man in a short-sleeve sport shirt with one arm missing below the shoulder. I'm at the next table with my husband and son, Andy's Barbecue Restaurant, an early evening in July, chewing a boneless rib eye, gulping a dark beer ordered from the cocktail waitress, a nervous woman almost over the hill, whose high heel sandals click back and forth from the bar to the dining room joined to the bar by an open arch. . . .
~ . ~ . ~

. .

Phyllis Koestenbaum is a poet deeply committed to the authentic. She has taken as her medium the prose poem, and, in her hands, this form is an exquisitely crafted environment for the exploration of the human psyche and condition. She uses herself and her life as material for constructing musical, dreamlike interludes.
       In Part One of our ranging conversation, we talk about her struggle to become a poet and to find or re-find her natural voice. We discuss editing, titling and the construction of a 'poetic environment.' In Part Two of our conversation, we continue our exploration of identity, talk about the process of writing and revising, about who's in the 'poetry club,' and what the role of the poet is in current culture. [Scheduled for Jul/Aug '03.]
       Phyllis is funny, frank about herself and others, and generous. She is also a fine poet who deserves a broader readership, beginning with the three poems reprinted here from
Doris Day and Kitschy Melodies (La Questa Press, 2001).

­­Cate Gable

CG: You might expect that we'd start by talking about the controversy about the prose poem.

PK: I don't care about that.

CG: I'd like to start by talking about identity and relationship. I'd like to query you a bit on you, the person, Phyllis Koestenbaum, you, the poet of Doris Day and Kitschy Melodies, the poem as an entity that you're interacting with (you talk about it as an entity) and as a location as well, the characters in the poems and the audience. There's this whole 'family of identity.' That's where I'd like to start.

PK: I think everything—as I think about it—everything has been connected to my feeling like a person that's been 'lesser than.'

Everything I have or have not been has been in relationship to the people who I felt inferior to in some way—whether I actually felt that or was treated that way. My relationship with my brother, my relationship with my mother—two very central figures ion in my life. In my relationship with my father, those issues really didn't come up, though my father was the strongest of those three and the most difficult.

But I always felt, certainly at home, that my brother had a role that he had to fulfill that was in the world. And I had a role, but it was a silent role. That it was in the house. I was a big problem to my family. Certainly for my mother. I was not at all like anyone she had ever encountered. My father, who had this Ph.D. and studied Romantic poetry; his interests couldn't be discounted, although they weren't paid strict attention to. He earned a living as an English teacher, but not as a writer or a scholar.

CG: Your brother was your only sibling? Older or younger?

PK: My brother was my only sibling. He's older, and he was trained for medicine. He actually turned out to be a psychoanalyst, which was his way of satisfying my parents—and also satisfying himself. It was a good compromise for him, although I think that at some points he didn't want anything to do with medicine.

I never thought about anything that I might want to be other than to get married and have children. That was really my role, even though I wrote, as you mentioned you did, from a very early age.

CG: In second grade, I decided I was going to be a poet.

the thrill of language and forming something almost musical

PK: Yes, I knew. I knew that I was going to be a writer, I'd say, at age eight, which was about what, third or fourth grade? It's third grade. Yes, I think that's the age—I've heard that before—something seems to happen to girls, psychologically.

CG: Something developmental.

PK: Yes, I don't know whether that's when they really separate from their mothers. I don't know. I did a lot of reading from a very early age. But I was very silent about all the things that really mattered to me. They were not matters for discussion in my house at all. Really nothing was for discussion, in fact.

CG: I have a theory that, as a child who feels alienated in a family structure—which it sounds like you may have—one of the ways to have a friend to talk to is to be a writer and establish or to split off another 'person.'

PK: That's very possible, but it was certainly not understood that way. It was the thrill of language and forming something almost musical that gave me pleasure. It was not only forming some sort of relationship with myself but, I think more important, it was forming a relationship with other writers I read. I wanted to be one of those writers very, very much. I didn't think of a writer as a person, only as what the writer had produced. And that's what I wanted to have a relationship with. Those words just really were so thrilling to me.

CG: Did that relationship of 'lesser than' still exist in that world of writers?

PK: Absolutely! That has gone on. It goes on and on (laughs). It became competition much later on when I was in college. That was where everything, the ferment and the foment, began. It was the first time that there was an effort made to dissuade me, to move me from what was really my natural voice. Then immediately it became clear that I wasn't going to be able to compete—certainly not with those writers I loved, although there was still the wish to join them, but only some of them. I began to form clear affiliations.

CG: Who did you like? You have mentioned Walt Whitman.

Lyricism tied into emotionalism, expressivity, being female.
And that was really no good.

PK: Whitman was one from very early and Faulkner later on in the college years and, believe it or not, T.S. Eliot. There's so much elliptical movement in my own work and there, of course, is in his as well. The early Emily Dickinson, when I was very young; but the poems that we read in those days were the sweet ones… (recites "I never saw the sea") and I liked them very much. I don't think I loved them, I think I liked them. Whitman was stronger for me and Millay, the intensity of Millay.

CG: The rawness in her.

PK: Of course. But who could be more intense than Dickinson? But I didn't read that Dickinson. I didn't really read Dickinson until many years later in graduate school at San Francisco State.

CG: Although, of course, "I'm Nobody—Who Are You?" might have been relevant.

PK: Yes, I should have known that there was more there. But Millay and Sara Teasdale—the lyricism, I like that lyricism. I've always had a lyrical desire, although I don't think I indicate that very strongly.

CG: You talk about your poems as being "anti-lyrical."

PK: I've suppressed the lyricism and that started in college. It started when I was really much too lyrical and I was damned for it. Lyricism tied into emotionalism, expressivity, being female. It was never spoken of that way, but it was clearly that. And that was really no good. Then of course I had Adrienne Rich in my class and she was not really lyrical, but her poems were so very well contained. They were what a woman should be writing, what a girl should be writing. They really were. Interestingly enough, of course, I think she's always retained her sense of form; she can't get rid of all of that, she has it still.

Using the "I"—which is what I also wanted to do—that's what I got from Millay. That was what was so important in those lyrical poets, Teasdale and Millay, mostly Millay.

CG: How is that "I" separate from the poet? Is the "I" you? Is the poet the "I"? How do these identities work for you in the poem?

Difficulty with self-expression leads me to work in forms.
It's a way to avoid being myself.

PK: I think the "I" is and isn't me.

CG: In your AWP [Associated Writing Programs] essay about "Birthday Girl," [^] you talk about the poet as if she were a third person:  "The poet, with a companion in the sushi bar, yet, alone, by entering the small scene on the right, is no longer alone."

PK: She really is separate. It's possible that what happens in the writing is, rather than the full expression of self, a leaving of self. I just thought about that now. And that's why the self is really not important. Even in the poem it's difficult for me to express the self—although some of the poems are indeed very confessional. But my difficulty with self-expression leads me to work in forms. It's a way to avoid being myself. I don't think I've ever been very comfortable with myself. And even in the prose poems in which some would say—you know, they're prose—but they're very formal.

CG: I see that and I appreciate the AWP essay where you discuss your technique. The poems are obviously well crafted.

PK: They are. People have said well, you know, it's just stream of consciousness. Oh, I wish! (laughs) I wish I could be that free. But I can't be. I'm just not. I think I actually move away from self in the best realized poems, maybe ones in which the new self has been created. Of course, it has some connection to the material of my life, but I do think it's a separate creation.

CG: Is it a crafted 'beingness'?

PK: It is a crafted being. It is. And I think it's too bad in a way. I wish that were not so because I'd have a lot less difficulty in my writing than I do. I'm very prolific, but I have a lot of difficulty completing poems. And it's not just perfectionism.

CG: What are you afraid of? Or is it fear? What holds you?

It takes a while for the scene to be established.
Once it is, that's really where I am.

PK: I don't think it's quite fear. It's partially wanting to dig deeper and deeper. It's a perfectionism, but not the way you would think of perfectionism.

CG: Perhaps not in craft but in emotions?

PK: It is that but they both have to work together. I do think that I'm trying to create an emotionally accurate self and environment for the self. The scene is really important to me.

CG: "Environment for the self" is a great phrase. Is that the poem? Does the poem provide that, as you would create a mise en scène for a theatre piece?

PK: It may be, but of course the way I get there is through real life scenes. I haven't thought about this before. This is just really new! I'm actually thinking of a poem I've been working on for about ten years. I thought I'd finished it and I may have. I don't know. Indeed, in that poem there is a central scene. And I'm thinking that in all the poems, maybe even in the sonnets but particularly in the prose poems, there are 'scenes.'

The writer Lydia Davis, is someone I've been reading for many, many years. She writes prose poems—she calls them actually 'stories'; she sees them as fiction and stories—she responded very favorably to my work. She started to think about why my poetry worked for her. And what she said is that I start out in a very ordinary way in this paragraph form with nothing unusual happening (although she's drawn in) and then in the middle of the poem something happens. I'm wondering if what happens is the 'scene,' the central scene of some sort, either a real scene or an environment that I've created. That happens particularly in the last poem, "Birthday Girl." [^]

It takes a while for the scene to be established. But then once it's established, that's really where I am. And then, in a way the rest of the poem stays there. I almost never reach some sort of epiphany, although there's often something that would seem like an epiphany. The first poem in Doris Day and Kitschy Melodies is epiphany-like. It used to be called "Admission of Failure," and now it's "The Young Armless Man." But I couldn't open a book with a poem called "Admission of Failure"!

It was so hard to complete that poem. The only way I could complete it was to say, "I can't do this. I can't do it." And unfortunately, sadly, I almost never feel that a poem is finished. And someone mentioned—who was it? Kafka maybe—I adore Kafka, Kafka didn't do a lot of revising. He would work on a poem—and some of the major ones he wrote actually in one sitting—he would start working in the middle of the night because he had this job.

CG: I don't know Kafka's poems.

PK: They're called 'parables', though I don't like to call them that. They're small fictions. He wrote "The Judgment," for instance, in one sitting, in an eight-hour stretch. He didn't do a lot of revision, and, as a matter of fact, many of the works he considered fragments which may have been completed by Max Brod, his literary executor and publisher. He would just leave them. He didn't go on with them. So, I'm thinking that there was an affinity, maybe, between us. I'd love that. I'd love to find someone who had the same trouble.

I recognize that I can't do any more.
I've set something up that I can't solve.

I get to the point where I feel that's as far as I can take it, but that doesn't mean that I'm finished. If I really begin murking in there, it's not going to be finished.

CG: Maybe a poem can't be finished.

PK: It can't be finished. And so at a certain point I recognize that I can't do any more. I simply can't and it isn't even because I've taken it as far as I can. It's just that I've set something up that I can't solve. I mean, I could solve it and I often do by settling. Settling for something less. I say, "OK, I'm not going to solve it that way. I'll just do it this way. It's easy and it's good enough." But the truth is, it may be better than if I'd murked around some more.

CG: Can you point to something that isn't 'solved,' as an example?

PK: Maybe "Vietnam Son." I chopped off a lot at the end. I don't think it's one of the better poems in the collection, but I wanted to include it and I couldn't get the ending right. Sometimes the only way I can get an ending is to go into dream, use dream imagery. Even if I'm writing about something that took place ten years ago, I will take the dream that I've just had and use that. I did that in "Vietnam Son." I think I cut off from that poem some of the dream imagery which was of being on the train and passing various neighborhoods. I thought that wasn't really relevant. The poem worked well enough to my satisfaction. I have a publisher who is a wonderful woman. She loved the book, but she was pretty tough and she never would have let anything go in that she was not satisfied with. She went over every poem. There was not much she had to do and there was not much she wanted to do, but there were some places—usually technical stuff—maybe syntax or something. But, you know, when you start fiddling with syntax, where do you go? (laughs)

CG: And punctuation.

PK: Punctuation! Punctuation is so… Well, when you're getting into that, you're getting into the material of the poem.

CG: I'd like to talk about your titles because I see from your acknowledgments that your titles have changed a lot.

I had the poems arranged in alphabetical order.
"Admission of Failure" was always first.

PK: Oh, that was a very significant stage. Before I could finish the book, I had to re-title the poems and figure out a structure and that took several years, two or three years. The poems were all finished. I actually sent them to an editor. I had never done that before. It made me feel very flawed and useless…

CG: You mean, without the titles?

PK: No, the poems were essentially as they are. They were pretty much completed and I wanted someone to read them and tell me whether the structure was working. I had the poems titled and arranged in alphabetical order. That's the way I kept them. So that's why "Admission of Failure" was always first.

I sent them to her in this order and she had a very difficult time. She ended up doing some philosophical, metaphysical arrangement that just didn't work for me, but, as a result of trying to figure out what she was talking about—she had chronological, she had temporal, she had… it was pretty amazing!—I completely redid the structure of the book and didn't do alphabetical order anymore.

I realized that there were people in these poems so I went through the manuscript and re-titled the poems. Some were already titled with the names of people. So, in the end, I actually kept the alphabetical order with just a few changes here and there. "Birthday Girl" was called "Two Scoops and Two Dishes," so it was close to the end—

CG: —And it stayed at the end.

PK: Yes, it was one that I really felt needed to be at the end.

CG: Well, I wanted to ask about all these identity names: Alexander Pope, Walt Whitman, Doris Lessing, Grace Kelly, Proust, Ulysses. Where do they come from exactly?

PK: From the poems. I went to each poem and I realized that I didn't know what these poems were about. I knew that I'd completed them as much as I could, but I didn't know what they were about. But then it seemed to me—I was interested in the fact—that in each poem there was really often a central figure who was either in literature or in art or in music or popular culture.

CG: "Ulysses," then, is about a lover returning. There's a kind of identity puzzle going on in each poem.

PK: That's right. Yes, it solves a puzzle. But, you know, I'm such a believer in the unconscious that when I really am desperate, the unconscious usually comes in to help me out. And it did here. The unconscious helped with the titles. And once I got the titles of the poems, then I could get the order. And there was very little tweaking I had to do. The order essentially is the alphabetical order that was there originally.

CG: So the structure was there—

PK: —but in a funny way. Why would that work? That doesn't make any sense at all. It is really hokey and not the way I'd probably ever do that again, but it worked. It absolutely worked and this editor helped in the sense that one thing she did tell me was, "Pay attention to the music." In other words, one poem should follow another musically and it seemed to me that they did in this order.

(Cate Gable is a poet, writer and environmental consultant. Her first book, Strategic Action Planning NOW!, was published by St. Lucie Press. Her manuscript, Chère Alice:  Two Lives, a sequence of letter poems to Alice B.Toklas, is a finalist in the 2003 Four Way Books Levis Prize publication contest. She lives in Berkeley, California, the Pacific Northwest, and in Paris.)