by Erin Malone | Contributing Writer
Born and raised in Eastern Washington and a longtime resident of Seattle, Kathleen Flenniken is a well known voice in Northwest poetry. She’s the author of three collections, including Post Romantic, published in the fall of 2020 by the University of Washington Press. Plume, also from UW Press (2012), won the Washington State Book Award and was a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America; and her debut collection Famous (University of Nebraska Press, 2006) was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association. Other accolades include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Artist Trust, a Pushcart Prize, and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize for Poetry. She served as Washington State Poet Laureate from 2012–2014.
I first met Kathleen through her work with Floating Bridge Press in the mid-aughts; later, we were colleagues in Seattle Arts & Lectures Writers in the Schools program. She’s both a mentor and friend to me. Over the course of several weeks in the spring of 2021, we had a conversation about her new collection via Google Docs.
Post Romantic explores and weaves together the politics of country and self. In clear, straightforward yet nuanced poems, she reexamines the past with what she calls “a cooler eye on everything.” Recently, her poem “Married Love” from the collection was featured on On Being.
Erin Malone: Kathleen, I’ve been immersed in your new book, page-flagging and penciling notes, and it occurred to me to reread the galley I’d been given by UW Press some time ago for review. I discovered that almost all the lines I marked in that version were the same. That I was drawn to the same lines and images when reading the book a year after first seeing it, I think points to the strength of the work and your voice.
Certain lines echo as the themes of the book emerge. For example in “Letter to Rilke,” which is several pages long, the speaker is remembering a long road trip in childhood. They drive through plateaus and canyons carved by ancient cataclysmic floods:
But the floods were still an arcane discredited
theory. And because we didn’t know,
we couldn’t see. We skittered across
the massive landscape completely ignorant,
inhaling my father’s cigar smoke.
Later in the same poem: “I’m trying to marry then and now: // . . . How uneasily I love America.” And after that: “I mistook the gold landscape / for a golden age.”
Can you talk a little about this poem and how it developed? It appears early on in the book and I’m curious if it was also one of the first that you wrote for the collection.
Kathleen Flenniken: “Letter to Rilke” was a poem I struggled to write for a long time. There was a big hole in the manuscript where it should go. After years I still hadn’t mastered a central poem about the push-pull I feel toward America, my knee-jerk nostalgia for a better time that I know wasn’t better, the yes it was, no it wasn’t tension I can’t seem to shake. My inspiration was Theodore Roethke’s “North American Sequence,” which inhabits intimate memory and yet feels sweeping in time and place. I laid out the images I wanted to include in my poem, but I couldn’t find the voice and had to put it aside.
I started reading Rilke’s Duino Elegies over and over, in different translations, and got kind of obsessed for a while. I realized I was talking to Rilke in my head. Why not just get the poem down in a letter to Rilke? That relieved me of self-consciously “finding” a voice. And because the Duino Elegies were so much in my mind, and yet just beyond my understanding, they helped me keep going with the poem even when I wasn’t sure what I was doing.
I still took some wrong turns, changed the address from Rilke to America for a while, out of a desire to make it more accessible, and didn’t change it back until my friend and reader, poet Holly Hughes, asked me to reconsider. She helped me see what was in front of me.
The lines you mention touch three ideas I think about a lot. First, that we can feel but can’t truly see what we don’t understand. I’m fascinated by the Missoula Floods, but even more by how long it took for the floods to be accepted as fact by geologists and the rest of us, even when the physical evidence was vast and overwhelming. That’s childhood in a nutshell to me, being in the vicinity of truth without taking it in. I don’t believe much in the wisdom of children, though I do recognize wisdom in their metaphors and art. Children believe what they’re told to believe and only later, sometimes never, they reassess.
That too is an idea I think about a lot—why is it so hard for me to reassess my love of country? America was never the democracy for all of us that I wanted to believe. So why can’t I face the facts and disconnect myself emotionally? Marrying then and now, that’s a ploy to be sensible, to recognize in my childhood self the simplification and wishful thinking, to overlay some hard truth, and to acknowledge that I’m chained to this country by love. Which is a lot like living inside a long marriage. The line “I’m trying to marry then and now” also serves as a bridge to the other side of this collection—the poems about marriage and family.
I’ve been writing about mistaking landscape for country, or “the gold landscape for a golden age,” since my second collection. In Plume, I wrote basically the same thing: “I’ve confused the landscape for my country / and my country for the landscape.” I’m gripped by the landscape of the Northwest, where I’ve lived all my life. I love it like a mother. America is an abstract idea, so I understand why I’ve substituted canyons and mountains for government, and think I’m not alone in confusing the two. I’m sure it hobbles me emotionally, though.
EM: I appreciate all the layers here. I do think of the book in terms of its layers: childhood experience, marriage, and growing older, all within this larger question of postwar American idealism and reconciling that. It makes sense to me that you chose to not section the book—the way it reaches and shifts forward and backward in time seems more natural without those breaks.
KF: I really enjoy, and enjoy agonizing, over organizing poems into a collection. I knew from the beginning I didn’t want sections for this book for the reasons you say—I wanted it to bounce between memories and the present, and between the news and the nation, and the domestic and personal.
EM: I like knowing that “Letters to Rilke” was not a directing force for the collection, but instead a unifying one, and that it took its own necessary time. For all that, it feels seamless. And the way your angels nod to his lines—how differently we’d read this under the other title!
“Being in the vicinity of truth without taking it in”—that does capture Rilke. That we’re distracted by the dailiness of living and can’t transcend that minutia for the fullness of being. In “The Eighth Elegy,” in the translation I have by Stephen Mitchell: “And we: spectators, always, everywhere, / turned toward the world of objects, never outward.”
KF: Rilke is able to name human weakness with tenderness. He walked me back from wanting to lay blame in my poems.
EM: I noticed that everywhere here—leaning in to look closely at the past and exposing its faults, and deepening our understanding without accusation. It’s a gentle lead, almost parental, drawing out our childhood selves to examine what we’ve done. We’re allowed to be uncomfortable and to learn from that.
We’ve talked about the post-romantic view of allegiance to country; I want to ask about the other kinds of desire and commitment in the book. “Long marriage is predicted by patterns / of call and response,” you write in “Night Train from Salzburg,” a sectional poem like “Letter to Rilke” that moves between a young couple’s journey thirty years ago and their life now:
One sees a goldfinch out the window and comments.
The other responds with an interested, Oh!
One suggests an article in the newspaper
and the other is pleased because she missed it,
and says so. Not passion, the experts say.
Not probing each other’s depths.
Just human birdsong.
“Human birdsong,” in the ohs and hmms: background noise in a comfortable home life. Contrast that with “giddum giddum,” the noise of the train on its tracks as the young couple journeys somewhere new, one sleeping easily, one awake all night, tuned to a rhythm of expectation. So much is being examined in this poem, about your own identity and joining with another person, and the inevitable restlessness that happens when you’ve been with someone for a long time. Can you talk about that, and how it connects to the book’s larger themes of safety and illusion?
KF: “Night Train to Salzburg” is located in the present, but spends most of its time remembering a night more than thirty-five years ago when the speaker realized she had chosen a husband. I’ve heard it described as romantic and also as anti-romantic. Though the poem is addressed to the husband, its real focus is that young “I,” the one who faced her unlit future, who longed for a partner to share it, and decided: this guy. I think I wanted to forgive her and thank her, in equal measure.
The lines you quote owe their existence to a talk by Stephanie Coontz, who wrote a fascinating social history called Marriage, a History. To me those lines are the heart of the poem. I’d say the idea of “birdsong” proves that I made my huge, life-shaping decision based on some wrong considerations. Marriage turned out to be a force outside passion and longing, and its longevity was predetermined by an accumulation of humdrum factors like breakfast conversation.
I’m glad you name safety and illusion as themes that run throughout the book. Even as I knew better, I sought the safety implied in marriage, in the illusion of a true blue America. Maybe I can reevaluate my memories, because safety isn’t as important as it was once. I’m older, death looks pretty inescapable from here. It’s not in my power to protect my children, who are adults. Marriage is an ingrained, comforting habit. I can cast a cooler eye on everything.
EM: Earlier you mentioned the overlap of ideas between your second book, Plume, which is both history and criticism of the Hanford Nuclear Facility where your father (and later, you) worked, and Post Romantic. Both collections explore innocence, faith, and the betrayal of trust. I’d like to know what connections you see between your first book, Famous, and Post Romantic, and if you were aware of the older poems as you were writing the new.
KF: I am always aware of my older poems as I write new ones. It’s a bit of a nuisance and can shut me down pretty quickly to think I’m repeating myself. But I’m still drawn to writing about domestic life, which is the central concern of Famous; it’s my stomping grounds.
My aim in Famous was to take commonplace moments and enlarge them. I wasn’t doing that consciously, so much as choosing subjects I felt comfortable and confident exploring. In Plume, I was doing the opposite: taking a huge subject—the most contaminated waste site in our hemisphere—and making it smaller and human scale. I could turn it into something personal because it was about my hometown, friends, and family.
Post Romantic does a bit of both. Most of the poems are based in personal memory, whether they are historic moments, like Chernobyl or the election of Barack Obama or Donald Trump, or the night my dad invited a visiting Black scientist to be our dinner guest when I was thirteen. The book includes poems about family life that would fit right into Famous. But I think, or I hope, retrospect adds something new. It provides distance, and from a distance I can see the shapes of those memories and how they point to, or are shadowed by, my identity. I was keenly aware of my social and national identities as I put this collection together.
EM: Yes, in the poem “A Child’s Book of America,” you write that “America is a religion,” and it’s illustrated as a “white church / and wide streets,” and “gabled roofs.” Strikingly, the speaker of the poem envies “a blond girl gazing from a hilltop / at her American town below.” Throughout Post Romantic, you’re pressing on white America’s pervasive mythology about race and class, and its unwillingness to see past itself. In the poem about the scientist, you’re thirteen, and that age is key. Adolescent embarrassment for your parents and naive exoticism of your guest is distilled into one scene that’s emblematic, I think, in the way it shows white America attempting to build bridges but not without self-congratulation. The scientist sends vases as a thank you gift:
They graced the table for the rest of my parents’ lives.
When Mother arranged bouquets, she’d step back
and sometimes say his name from memory—
his Blackness softly implied.
Given what you said about reevaluating memories, and that “safety” isn’t as important as it once was, will you talk about how writing this poem made you feel?
KF: I just found my first draft of “1973,” and it is dated September 2005. I worked on the poem, off and on, right up until the galleys were finalized last summer. I wanted to capture what “open minded” thinking looked and felt like in a white family, in a white town, in the 1970s. It forced me to look at myself, as well as my parents. I have always liked implicating myself in my poems, and if I was going to expose my parents, I had to be willing to expose myself too. That was actually the most gratifying part of writing the poem for me—controlling the revelations and the self-congratulation—and thinking about what has changed in America and what has not.
But the subject of race is more painful than any I’ve ever touched. When I share the poem I can’t control how it’s heard by an audience or received on the page. And beyond that, while I can portray myself and my parents in the early 1970s, learning about, or maybe more accurately sampling, the Black experience, I can’t see or control what my poem reveals about me now, in this moment. I feel as naked in this poem as in any I’ve ever published, which is kind of crazy.
EM: That makes sense, the risk and exposure. Writing our (white) perceptions of race and culture isn’t something most white writers are doing. Generally I think there’s a lot of shame, and fear, around entering the conversation and about telling some hard truths, and maybe getting it wrong in the process. Again, this poem to me feels like that parental lead I was talking about earlier. It’s asking us to look and question, and offering grace at the same time.
KF: I think it’s not my place to offer grace in this instance. Maybe that’s why the poem is so painful to have out in the world, because instead it seems like I’m asking for it.
EM: Right—I wasn’t clear there. The person who’s offering grace is the scientist, which is the problem, that he bears the weight of that. So as difficult as it may be, that tension and acknowledgement is crucial, I think.
And I admire how you take this up again in the poem “Hospitality,” in which your friend who works with refugees shows compassion by listening and is welcomed. The book is this ongoing search for empathy between people—a call and response—which is why it’s so compelling. To be seen by another is among our deepest human needs.
EM: Besides the writers we’ve already talked about, who else were you reading while this book came into focus, and who are you reading now?
KF: “1973” was definitely informed by the work of Martha Collins, who has written three collections on the history of white identity in America. I can hook Christopher Howell, Terrance Hayes, Spencer Reece, C. D. Wright, Laura Kasischke, Sharon Bryan, Albert Goldbarth, to particular poems or strategies in the book, but there were lots of influences.
The last few years I’ve been part of a poetry book club and our conversations have enriched my reading and writing life. Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake and Nobody, Karen Solie’s The Road In Is Not the Same as the Road Out, Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia, Igor Bottero’s The Blind Plain, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Lucille Clifton’s How to Carry Water, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, Audre Lorde’s Coal, Louise Gluck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, Adam Zagajewski’s Asymmetry, have been special favorites. New books I’m excited about—Toi Derricotte’s New and Selected, Sy Hoahwah’s Ancestral Demon of a Grieving Bride, and Leanne Dunic’s One and Half of You.
The work of the poets in my writing group, and my poet friends, absolutely influences and inspires mine.
EM: That brings me to my last question: are you shaping or working toward a new manuscript now? The pandemic seems to have slowed some of us, and fueled others.
KF: I think it was harder to shape Post Romantic into a collection because I had this preconceived idea of what it would or should be. Even having the title so early, which seemed like a gift at the time, put pressure on me to fit my poems underneath. This time, I’m trying hard not to impose any expectations until far later in the process, which means I’ve got at least a couple more years of wandering off leash in front of me. The poems are coming slow, but a friend once noticed, “You always say you’re not writing, meanwhile you’re writing.”
Erin Malone is the author of two collections: Hover (Tebot Bach), and a chapbook, What Sound Does It Make (Concrete Wolf). Her new manuscript, Site of Disappearance, has been a finalist for the National Poetry Series, the Alice James Award, Persea’s Editor’s Choice Award, and was selected by Susan Howe to receive the Robert Creeley Memorial Award from Marsh Hawk Press. It’s still looking for its forever home. A teacher and a bookseller in Seattle, she served as editor of Poetry Northwest from 2016–2020. Find her at: www.erinmalone.net.