What We Write Will Last Longer Than Our Skins: An Interview with Rachel McKibbens

Leah Umansky

In her poem “Bon Dieu,” Rachel McKibbens writes, “…Because I do not believe/ in coincidence, because I know that every thing/ happens because someone has made it happen,/ we packed up our children and stayed in a hotel.”

This is the kind of fierceness Rachel McKibbens struts in her second book of poems, Into the Dark & Emptying Field, and in her life outside the book as a female poet. She does not fit neatly into any box or label. She is a force of nature and as such, is an element to be reckoned with.

As the poems in her first book Pink Elephant can attest, she is a master at suspense, imagery and storytelling. Her poems push your face up to the screen door. You can see the life, the beauty inside, but you can also smell the violence and the ugliness. When you read Rachel’s poems, you are seeing, you are feeling, but; moreover, you are believing.

However, to really experience the full power of her work, you need to see her read in person, or second-best, view her Ted Talk from this past summer. Her voice is thunderous, in the most magical of ways. I am very fortunate to have met her in “real-life,” and am grateful to say that her words and her genuine spirit have deeply impacted my life as a woman and a poet. (I’m not just saying that because she has fed me pie and ginger-lemon whiskey when I read for her Series).

Leah Umansky: What is your earliest memory concerning poetry?

Rachel McKibbens: I was never read to as a child, but once I learned to read on my own, I consumed every story I could. I remember sitting in the dentist office and finding a poem in Highlights magazine about a casserole bowl. The word ‘bowl’ rhymed with ‘cold’ and that really stuck out for me. I was in third grade at the time. That same year, my class was taught enunciation through nursery rhymes and tongue twisters. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Pure magic.

LU: Last year, I took some of my 10th grade students to Student Day at the Dodge Poetry Festival. We were all absolutely devastated that your first book, Pink Elephant, had sold out. How does being so well-received by teenagers make you feel?

RU: It’s probably a good thing I had no idea what Dodge was when I signed on to be a part of it. I’d heard of it, but there is no way to actually describe what it’s like until you’re pushing through the crowds.

Student Day was life altering. How many chances do you get to read to a packed opera house at 9 am, and on a weekday no less? It was astonishing. Shortly after Student Day began I found out there weren’t any of my books left to sell, so I sat at the book signing table feeling pretty useless, but then students started asking me to pose with them for photos and we started talking and I immediately felt like I belonged there. When they would remark, “I didn’t know you could be like… like YOU and write poems,” there was no need for them to clarify. I understood what they meant. I’m visibly working class. A Latina woman with a tattooed face and knuckles who clearly gives zero fucks about making people feel comfortable. I never went to college. I am un-academic. What am I doing, reading alongside such highly-acclaimed wizards?

I’ve worked with teens for more than a decade. I respect them, immensely, and trust them. And I like to think that, they hear that through my poetry. I opened my set on Student Day with a poem, “For Carol, Who is No One” and in the first five seconds, I call my estranged mother a “muddy old bitch.” Sweet Mary, I will hold that sound those students in the audience made ‘til the day I die. The sound of acknowledgement and acceptance. I needed to ask them, Can I go there? And their collective ooooooos said YES, GO THERE! They understood I wasn’t fluffing up a thing, and I understood that they had my back in that. Opening with that poem was deliberate. The response was going to determine whether I did Set A (the set I wanted to) or Set B (the set your average school official would deem appropriate for high school-aged children.) I was thrilled to do Set A.

LU: That was the poem that made me originally email you! My students could not stop talking about your reading on the NJ Transit train back to Manhattan. I promised I would find that poem for them, and you sent it to me. I included it the following year in my 10th grade poetry unit and students were flabbergasted.

Let’s talk a little bit about Pink Elephant.  Your poem “The Last Time,” is one of the most powerful poems I’ve ever read. Its tone and imagery are haunting. It begins, “I did it alone,/ without leaving.” What was your experience in writing this poem?

RM: “The Last Time,” is the third installment of what I call the “escape trilogy.” It was written after I cut several poems from the manuscript and started writing into it, to make it more cohesive, to tighten up a few areas. I don’t remember writing it. There are about ten  poems in Pink Elephant I don’t recall writing. Being a bipolar writer is tricky like that. I write through my manic episodes. I’ll go on a thirty-page rampage and then stop abruptly and never look at those poems again. I’ll even forget about them.

My brother called me, shortly after Pink Elephant was released and asked, specifically, about “The Last Time.” “Did you really stand over dad with a hammer like that?” and I laughed and said, “NO! Of course not!” I felt strangely grateful that my dad didn’t remember that happening. The act itself was pulled from a different moment—it didn’t happen in that order, but it needed to be written in that way to provide closure to the trilogy—I had to win and I had to win LIKE THAT. For not just the reader, but for myself.

LU: It’s good to feel that in a poem. Staying with the theme of childhood, Pink Elephant focuses on childhood, but also dabbles in the grey areas of marriage and divorce. Personally, I found it therapeutic to write about my own marriage and divorce. What was your experience like in writing Pink Elephant? Was it different than writing Into the Dark and Emptying Field? 

RM: Pink Elephant was in its final revision stage as I was going through my divorce, so it was undoubtedly a chaotic time. I felt it was necessary to include my divorce because it helped build an arc. It went from childhood trauma, to love, to loss, and back to love again. Half of the poems in Into the Dark & Emptying Field were originally in Pink Elephant, but in the end, it was necessary to have the story within Pink Elephant remain intact, to adhere to a linear form. The other poems, while relevant to the theme, didn’t have the personal exactness that Pink Elephant demanded.

The poems of Into the Dark & Emptying Field are more like vignettes. I wanted to interrogate this strange new culture of loneliness that we’ve developed due to the beast that is social media. I also needed the book to feel like a binge, a mini-series of terror. I’m a cinephile. I was raised by movies and television. I like my poetry to reflect that.

Unlike Pink Elephant, which had a distinct antagonist, the monsters of Into the Dark are less obvious, which makes them more threatening. I am interested in the giving and losing and taking of power and our response to such losses and acquisitions.

LU: In “I Forget Who Said…” you write this about your brother: “He isn’t the writer. I am the star of the violence.” Can you elaborate on that? Your word choice is so interesting in that line.

RM: I am the writer, the exhibitionist, and the complete opposite of my brother. Mine is the lens through which the story is seen, so of course my perspective is central. It is not the only story I have to tell, and it is incomplete in the way that all stories are incomplete.

LU: Some of your poems focus on the so-called “unglamorous” side of being a woman, being a mother and being a daughter. I’m thinking specifically of poems like “Let’s Crawl Into That Photograph & Stay There For A While,” “Reading All the Ads in the Back of Magazines,” “Sackett Represent,” and “ The Pacifier.” In the latter, you say:

“That is when I knew the difference/

between women and mothers/

this is when I knew/

what I wanted to be.” 

I love that. I think it is important for women to expose those truths about their roles as women. You do this in your poems in a way that is both stark, and revealing. What are some of your favorite poems about mothers and daughters?

RM: My favorite mother/daughter poems are indeed a commentary on how I grew up. I did not have a mother figure in my life. The women who came and went were only ever in my periphery. Always out of reach. I imagine that is why I love the poem “My Mother’s Body,” by Marie Howe, which is a mother in hindsight. Or there is also Stevie Edwards’ mother in her book Good Grief, where she is an alluded-to presence.

I appreciate when I am aware of the mother’s integral role in the speaker’s life, but more as a ghostly figure, looming, than a corporeal being.

Farrah Field’s fictitious witch mother in Wolf and Pilot is my current favorite. It is the first book that I felt was written in actual blood. The voices of the isolated daughters and the way each poem is washed in uncertainty… that’s me and my mother. That’s us. That is how I lived. My life has always been a fairytale. More Grimm than Mother Goose.

LU: In your new book, Into the Dark and Emptying Field, you write a lot about mythology. What is your relationship to myth and storytelling? As a poet who didn’t grow up a reader, I long for the knowledge your speakers have in their poems about mythology. For example, the poem “Girls of Last Summer, and “The Blood Brothering of Last Winter.”

RM: My characters and speakers have no special knowledge of mythology, though small fairytale elements are invoked. I think it is important that events and/or people that are perceived by others as fantastic or magical happen quite naturally. I believe that we live in a world that is magical and monstrous and ordinary, all at the same time. I also come from a culture where the Chupacabra and La Llorona are not folklore but disciplinary and tutelary entities: a world of saints and the visiting dead and popsicle vendors and mailmen. My mother was a more fantastic and unobtainable creature than any mermaid to me; my father more terrifying than a minotaur.

LU: In both of your books, animals such as dogs, sea animals, peacocks, horses, birds, and bears appear, often. Is this a conscious effort in your writing or do they just show up when summoned?

RM: Images have their own life and are often cloaked in animal skins. Every creature I have conjured as been a personification of something or a person in my life that I have flipped inside-out.

LU: I love that idea—“a person flipped inside-out.”

As a poet and a curator myself, I’ve been interested in fostering a sense of literary community. How has curating you reading series, Poetry & Pie in Rochester, N.Y, affected your life as a poet and as a member of the literary community?

RM: Poetry & Pie Night is more of an answer to the larger community I found myself in. As both a curator of a reading series in New York and as a performer on the national stage, I did not find the kind of spaces I wanted to see. I like the intimacy of a small gathering. I like nods to the Hoot culture of the sixties, the informal writers’ circles and groups that have always existed. Being a curator is not just being a host, but sharing your space and your life. Here, have a slice of pie. Take a seat at a pew. Let’s share some poems.

LU: Yes, indeed. It’s very much about “sharing your space and your life.” Poetry & Pie night welcomes readers and listeners literally into your home. I’m still in awe over how welcomed I felt.

You mentioned social media before and I believe it is an interesting tool for writers. It interests me as it has been so helpful in terms of exposure, and in introducing me to new journals and blogs, but more importantly, it has also helped to establish new relations with other writers, like yourself. 

RM: It is like a hammer. It can be a useful tool or a damaging force depending on how you hold it. I love a world where poetry is viral, where writers are accessible. Like any new platform, it has negative and positive aspects, but it gives a voice to some who would not otherwise be heard. This was true of radio, film and the printing press as well.

LM: In her essay, “The Semiotics of Sex,” Jeanette Winterson says, “It is the poet who goes further than any human scientist.  The poet who with her dredging net must haul up difficult things and return them to the present.” Do you?

RM: But aren’t the “difficult things” always present? We’ve been taught how to see past the difficult. To bury it. It is why we must constantly name and re-name things, why we spell cast, testify, gift and unbury. Poetry is a kind of witchcraft. We have the power to manifest, to call forth, to make what didn’t happen, happen. I think of the griots who delivered stories from town to town, the soothsayers and playwrights and brujas, all the ceremonies and dedications and incantations and proclamations, everything that starts with the word. And how the word gains its power by being spoken and handed to the next person and how what we write will last longer than our skins, our poems are the truest husks of our former selves.

Rachel McKibbens was born in Ahaheim, California. She is a member and co-founder of the Right Coast Writers Brigade. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including World Literature Today, The New York Quarterly, and Bowery Women: Poems. Among other honors, she is a 2007 New York Foundation of the Arts Poetry Fellow, a Pushcart nominee, and the 2009 Women’s Individual World Poetry Slam champion. She has read her work at universities, schools, galleries, and various other venues across the nation. She teaches poetry and creative writing across the country at all levels. An ex-punk rock chola with five children, Rachel lives in upstate New York with writer Jacob Rakovan and their five children. She is the author of Pink Elephant (Cypher Books, 2009) and Into the Dark & Emptying Field (Small Doggies Press, 2013)
Leah Umansky’s first book of poems, Domestic Uncertainties, is out now from BlazeVOX. Her Mad-Men Inspired chapbook, Don Dreams and I Dream is forthcoming from Kattywompus Press in 2014.  She has been a contributing writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG and Tin House, a poetry reviewer for The Rumpus and a live twitterer for the Best American Poetry Blog. She also hosts and curates the COUPLET Reading Series. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY, Thrush Poetry Journal, and The Brooklyn Rail.