Six Questions editor Christine Mallon caught up with Rachel McKibbens recently to ask her about her poems in Scoundrel Time, all of which will appear this fall in blud. What follows is a sneak-peak into that volume.
- Scoundrel Time: In “the last time,” the tight lines and the space on the page keep the speaker’s deeper darkness at bay, yet they demand a trained focus on a tempered darkness that the speaker references. How would you describe the darkness present in these crisp lines and their relation to the poem’s shape and space on the page?
Rachel McKibbens: The poem’s sparsity was important to me because of where it falls in my book, blud. All of the work here in Scoundrel Time is from this book, which chronicles my early life as a survivor of domestic violence and also as a young girl living with bipolar disorder and PTSD, so the poems build up to this small moment that is, despite its size, a massive epiphany. Anyone who struggles with suicidal ideation for so long might miss a moment like that—when you are just going about your day, and the simple tasks remain simple, and you’re not trying to unhitch yourself from the world.
- ST: In “dead radio apostle,” the space just beyond where the lines end seems to be nearly as important as what is contained within them. What lurks near and beneath this poem that puts birth and motherhood in conversation with space, distance, and the slippage in the speaker’s sensibility?
RM: I wanted the spacing of the poem to resemble the quick, staccato breaths a panicked woman would give during labor. In Lamaze class, you are taught to find a focal point in the birthing room, then concentrate on it for hours as you take long, drawn out breaths, inhaling through your nose, exhaling from your mouth. This technique is meant to distance the woman from the unfathomable pain drilling through her. It requires a discipline that not all of us can maintain.
The speaker of the poem is delivering her own mother, purging the years of violence from her body, so the delivery cannot be formal or painless; there should not be any sense of technique. There isn’t a line longer than five words; the white space coupled with the line breaks is designed to simulate breathlessness and that floating feeling that comes with dissociation.
- ST: What is the relation between the dark, fantastical filter through which your speakers contemplate/experience the elements of everyday life and the convergence of seemingly incongruent components like the volatility, beauty, darkness, and restraint in “dead radio apostle”?
RM: I don’t really consider it a filter since surrealism and violence are irreconcilable concepts for me. If anything, it is a survivor’s lens—dissociation via imagination, magic as the vehicle for truth. From the moment I was born, my life has been comprised of volatility and darkness and uncertainty. I am the daughter of a schizophrenic mother and physically violent father. Why must I adhere to a language that demands I stay in that world? Consider, also, the cultural aspects of magical realism Black and brown writers engage in while storytelling—we receive our surroundings differently, our vision is not the same as our colonizers’, therefore it is crucial to liberate our language as an alternative to white realism.
- ST: In your poetry, excess and noise are (delightfully) cut out. The speaker in “fusillade for my mother’s brain” takes aim at anything “candied in false memory” regarding the mother figure. The language is distilled, powerful, and sharp—is this tightness important in the sense that it prevents the events, emotions, and ideas from being “candied in false memory”?
RM: I needed the poem to feel and sound like a barrage of rusted nails, each line cutting deeper than the previous. This is an attempted take-down of my mother’s brain. The United States is a country that has no idea how to talk about mental illness—it is constantly inventing new ways to language it, so I thought I’d pick up the baton and express what it feels like to be a child constantly wintered by it. I feel this poem is most effective in this focused and distilled presentation. Baroque or ornate language would only serve to obfuscate what I want to be clear. The memories I conjure forward are never gauzy or romanticized; they don’t need to be coaxed. They are constantly present, clear and potent, still.
- ST: The speakers in your poems do not look away when the mind’s most haunting and disturbing ideas surface—what haunts the speaker’s search for a time when her mother was “only mine” in “swell”?
RM: The mythology around motherhood will always fascinate me. I was a young mother who grew up without a mother. I’d always yearned for maternal influence. It didn’t take long for me to recognize that women don’t become mothers because they’ve carried a child in their wombs. They become mothers because they work at it every day. They nurture with intention. I feel as though I will always be searching for her, whether in my poems or in a crowd.
- ST: Ideas of motherhood, nurturing, and violence or fear are often intermingled—what is the “hungry fire” that fuels their combination in “glutton” and how does it connect them all?
A mother is the most dangerous animal, and isn’t that the most nurturing thing there can be? To truly love something you have to be willing to kill for it. So what do you do when the very thing that hunts your children is something they have inherited from you?