Thursday, November 15, 2012

An interview with writer Kerry O'Connor

Hello Real Toads,   
Bring two English teachers together with some coffee and jellybeans, and the sky is the limit!  Kerry and I (Susan Chast) enjoyed talking –via email and chat—about her poetry and the skies she loves.  What follows is different from the famous interview she did with Sherry Blue Sky two years ago, so you may want to explore that one as well at Poets United "The Life of a Poet - Kerry O'Connor"

Kerry maintains two blogs: Skylover, her collection of Indie Poetry, and the newer Skywriting, her Experimental Phase.  At both she guides us to this profile information with its luscious love poem:

Kerry O'Connor

KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

I have fallen in love with the sky
And made a secret pact with the moon,
I lift my face for the wind’s kiss
And fall asleep to the sea’s tune.
I write love-letters to the stars
And caress the tallest tree,
I embrace bright shafts of sunlight
And love the rain that falls on me.

KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, is the red area on the map to the left.  As Wikipedia describes it:
“It is called the garden province and is the home of the Zulu nation. Two natural areas: the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Located in the southeast of the country, the province has a long shoreline on the Indian Ocean. It borders three other provinces and the countries of Mozambique, Swaziland, and Lesotho. Its capital is Pietermaritzburg, and its largest city is Durban.” 

KwaZulu-Natal is a land of contrasts—mountains, savanna, valleys, preserves, country, city, seashore—name it and you can find it in this southwestern province of South Africa.  
Above: Upland savanna,  Pietermaritzburg


Kerry’s house is in the town Ladysmith in the Ukhahlamba area of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa:

File:View of Ladysmith KwaZulu-Natal South Africa.jpg
Here is a View of Ladysmith KwaZulu-Natal South Africa from a hill above the city
by Michael Gundelfinger  (Creative Commons)

Susan: Thank you for the pictures, Kerry.  In what way do you connect with the spirit of Africa?

Kerry: The spirit of Africa is in the landscape, wildlife and in the people. There is an endurance, good humour and strength which abounds across all cultures and socio-economic group. This country has so many setbacks but somehow we make it work for us.

Susan:  Have you ever lived elsewhere? 

Kerry: I have travelled in the UK, Europe and the US but have never lived anywhere else.  I am African by birth, though my culture is more that of my Anglo-Irish ancestors.  South Africa is an amazingly eclectic society, and we enjoy all that this diversity has to offer, while retaining our own way of life.

Susan: One of your poems that is very African in spirit is “When Cows Come Home” from your blog Skywriting. 

Kerry: I don't think the spirit of Africa is the cows - they are an important part of African culture though, so have become something of a motif in my poetry.

Susan: The wonderfully vivid imagery in When Cows Come Home” reveals a yearly journey of rebirth with ibis and sky and grass and graves and cradle.  It’s one of the poems I’d like you to talk about to distinguish your two poetry blogs:  Skywriting and Skylover. 

Kerry: “When Cows Come Home” is an older poem of mine, which I have never been entirely happy with but it seems to have potential so I have never quite discarded it either. I wrote the basic outline while driving home from out of town one evening - the sky was amber, and the cows were going home under the thorn trees, and there really are graves close to the main road which goes through an informal settlement about ten kilometres from where I live. It was a scene which stuck in my mind vividly and I wanted to bring it to readers in other parts of the world who might never see this particularly African sight.
I removed it from Skylover, rewrote parts of it again and republished it on Skywriting, specifically because it is an on-going experiment, and as I had asked for critique, to which I wanted to reply and that is the blog I used for conversational feedback. Sometimes the difference between these blogs is purely practical, though I have a specific voice which belongs on Skylover.  

Susan:  How would you describe Skylover’s “specific voice”?

Kerry: I find it difficult to describe the poetic voice, which I feel has become my style. There is a touch of cynicism, humour but also an underlying belief in our abilities—our propensity for hope, creativity, joy amid all the grief we encounter, the struggling. People often use the word “beautiful” and I hope that even in a darker poem, some beauty may be found.

Susan: And the poem “Pax: In Hiding” from Skylover?  You wrote it as part of the Blog for Peace Day on 4 November 2012.

Kerry:  I thought the biggest part of the challenge in writing 'Poetry for Peace' was to avoid cliché. I think of Peace as an illusive ideal that we search for, we even know where it lives in human consciousness, but never seem able to attain it. Therefore, in writing the poem I turned that idea around by personifying peace and had people aggressively trying to break her door down, or sending armed peace-keepers to protect her. Really, the ironies were already there.

Susan: In this narrative poem, you both personify and mythologize Peace/Pax so it seems like a Wise One on a mountain.  The aggressive forces demand “Give Peace a Chance” but they will do none of the changing.  Pax retreats to nature and responds, “In another Lifetime.”  What would those seeking peace need to do to coax her out of hiding?

Kerry:  I believe a state of permanent peace is contrary to man's collective character—that we work towards its attainment at all is to our credit.  The most important approach towards a workable peace is teaching our children tolerance and respect for the traditions and cultures of other people.

Susan: Agreed!  It would be a huge step forward if the next generations were better prepared than previous ones.  I know we do a lot of that in our classrooms—it’s not easy. 
Which of your poems do you feel particularly reveals YOU?

Kerry:   You do realize that I am at great pains not to reveal the real me. Haha!   I take from personal experience, certainly, but am seldom factual in my use of it. There is one piece, however, which was a deliberate self-portrait:  

Qué el agua me dio ~ A SELF-PORTRAIT

A June morning –
Hot bath on a cold day.
The sunlight fell in dappled gold across
My marbled legs.
I marvelled at the smooth translucence
Of water,
How it moulded to my shape
And lapped at my painted toenails
Puddled in the dent of navel and left trails like tears
Between my breasts.
The droplets on my arms sparkled
Like the rain of summer
But it was a winter’s morning –

A day to take stock of the years laid waste,
To count all the bathtubs, bathplugs of my life
To judge what time had done to the girl’s body I had once owned
And never noticed.
On another birth day in June
The water gave me the gift of beauty
In the sheen of wet skin, wet hair lying sleek on white shoulders.

Susan: I love this poem!  The morning and the bath are vivid, how they reveal the changed figure is stunning.  I like at the end that you see beauty in the girl, in the woman, and in the birthright from parents.   Your poetry says a lot about you even though you avoid directly speaking of the personal.    
Your blogs also feature Quotes from Poets at the bottom of each page and “Firefly Jar.”  I love the idea of your firefly jar, little lives and lights that fly in and catch your attention.  How do you use this?

Kerry:  Please bear in mind that the words I have collected do not belong to me. I have borrowed them from many sources. I keep them because I feel the power they have as a kind of intellectual energy. 

Susan: "Intellectual energy”—I  like that.
Kerry: Here's a line from 'The Emperor of Ice Cream' by Wallace Stevens. Of all the lines of the poem this one is the most semantically challenging to my mind: 

“Let be be the finale of seem”

I understand it to mean this: Accept that what seems to be is. And I like that way of thinking, and admire the way it was said. Let be be the finale of seem. 

Susan:  Are you able to "accept that what seems to be is"?
Kerry: Although I would like to “dwell in possibility” like Emily Dickinson, I cannot escape the realities of any situation. I keep the quote to remind myself to let be be.   

Susan:  What else is in the Firefly Jar?

Kerry: I have also saved many fragments written by poets who have become my friends on-line. These lines (from a longer poem) were written by a poet who went by the name Nounverber, whom I met in 2009. He no longer writes poetry, but we have kept in touch over the years and he has given permission for me to share them. There is so little recognition for contemporary poets, and I suppose on-line poets are especially vulnerable to obscurity. I think it is a great shame that our work is ignored, when we are an emerging school of 21st century poets: on-line is where it's all happening.  

"Here lies a poet - bankrupt of his native
        tongue, rich in regrets of the world - with white blank lines of debt,
        at peace & empty-handed, now mistaken for dead sleeping in the
        grass under shadows of God."

Susan:  Beautiful. Was this in your mind when you founded Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads?

Kerry:  IGWRT began as a closed community of poets at the instigation of Rob Lloyd (who was also the creator of Poets United) but it didn't work so well with just the inner circle and fell into disuse after a few months. I asked Rob if he would mind if I took it over in about July 2011.
Although I have been blogging since 2009, I found it difficult to maintain outside interest in my solo project, or to communicate with other bloggers. I was a member of other inter-active poetry websites like Poetfreak and Writers Cafe, which were very much more interactive, but had other problems, one of which was too many people vying for attention on the same space. Cliques emerged, and there were many upsets and con stories which ruined the positive atmosphere.
I wanted to find a happy medium: a small interactive site, closely monitored but shared by enthusiastic people who would be willing to contribute in a meaningful way to a group writing project.  I think the site has taken shape over the last 18 months. I kept my expectations flexible, and I am very happy with where we are at present. Our success to date, and our continuation as a group does not depend on one person, certainly not me. I am the present coordinator, but any number of people could step into my shoes at a moment's notice, and the site would not lose its momentum. 

Susan:  I think the site would continue but would lose a lot without you.  You have introduced me to many poetic forms, poets and photographers.  Your energy and enthusiasm are contagious. 

Kerry: The most important part is the poets working together, as has become the main focus of RT (Real Toads). I think of so many famous poets who were friends, and inspired one another to reach for more in their writing.  My friend Nounverber, who I quote from above, for example, had a huge impact on my writing.  I was scribbling before he began to comment on my work—back in 2009—and I simply worked harder to write to his higher standards.  The feedback is as important as the writing exercise itself.

Susan: While preparing for this interview, I re-read your comments on my own work and the personal challenge you set for me.  You cut to the heart of my intent with fine insight and also draw out the details—the toads—that are essential to it.  I like the variety of prompts. I find I am wholly guided by them for days and even weeks before I find one in me beyond the prompt.  What is the role of prompts and challenges in your writing? 

Kerry: I have mixed feelings about using prompts. I value the inspiration and the challenge of writing prompts and the benefit of a link which insures that one's work will be read, but I think that some of my best work has been a product of my own ideas, or need to write about a certain subject.  Prompts are a big help during busy times, and I like to keep my hand in otherwise I can go weeks between writing anything.   Encounter,” the gorilla poem I wrote this weekend, would never have written if not for Hannah's prompt, and already it seems to have touched a lot of people who have read it.

Susan: “Encounter” is definitely in your voice.  You are skilled at making these surprise topics speak for you. 

Kerry: Prompts keep me in practice, a very important part of any writer's development.  Writing is an art and a skill.
Susan:  I like what you say about poetry in your poem “Thrown to the Wind ~ A Triptych”:
To write poetry is to find the voice
Of the cool white wind as it stirs
I sometimes read your love poems  “Fields Left Unsown” and “Night's Rest,” as commentary on the process of writing.   These poems are extremely sensual, and writing is too.

 Kerry:  I prefer sensual imagery to erotic, because poetry is appreciated through the senses. I focus on touch, texture, sounds—the sort of the things one sees when eyes are closed.

Susan:  I love that: "sees when eyes are closed"!  No wonder I find your relationship to poetry in your love poems.   I want you to answer my favorite of Izy’s questions from her interview with me:

If an alien lands on earth and asks you what poetry is...which poem of yours would you share with the visitor and why that poem?”

Kerry:  I'd want a poem that would teach an alien something of the human condition. Perhaps my latest gorilla poem Encounter would do the trick, since it might describe the way we encounter anything foreign.   A warning that they shouldn't expect too much of us.  We can't even live in harmony with the creatures on our own planet without encroaching on their territory or exterminating them—aliens don't stand a chance.
Susan:  Haha!  Good answer.

Kerry:  Get back in your spaceship and save yourselves. Haha!

Susan: Last question.  Do you find writing more fun or more work? 

Kerry:  I do not find writing to be work, and I wouldn't classify it as fun either, which would suggest I see it as a leisure activity.  Writing is just something I do. There was a long time when it was something I thought about but didn't do. I had to overcome a sort of possibility barrier and almost force my first poems out of my pen. Now I find it comes quite naturally to my way of thinking about the human condition, creativity and visualization.


Rick.Daddario said...

aloha Susan and Kerry - thank you for opening this window into your worlds.

i find it brilliant and curious how many overlappings are possible between individuals on opposite sides of the planet. a testament to the closeness i suspect—that we are all connected at some level.

maybe even with alien beings. definitely with gorillas and the lost beautiful web poets—and other beings—of our time.

thank you. aloha.

Margaret said...

Just what I needed with my morning coffee. Susan, thank you for this lovely insight into Kerry's interesting mind and beautiful Africa. I can see why IGWRT's is a success, as leader, Kerry brings wisdom and sensitivity to our group. I truly feel blessed to be a humble part of this poetry garden.