‘A poem is a unicycle’

A conversation on poetry, politics and post-truth

IN LATE 2020, Barbara Kingsolver published How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons), her first poetry collection in almost twenty years. Many of these poems operate as spare and elegant suggestions for navigating the various ruptures, changes, remakings and accommodations of a life. Griffith Review is delighted to extract three here, along with some of Kingsolver’s thoughts on the potential of this form, the impetus for this new work, the year that was and what she’s doing next.

Ashley Hay: There’s a lovely combination of gentle instruction, sharp observation and humour in the ‘How to’ poems – what was the impetus for this series in particular?

Barbara Kingsolver: I wonder if we can ever really name the seed from which a piece of writing grew, or if we’re just applying backward logic to convince ourselves we’re in control of the process. I do think of myself as a very intentional writer, almost scientific about mapping themes and plots, and still there’s so much that happens subconsciously, before I see it coming. This is especially true of poems, which tend to land in my lap half-­formed without much warning. I’d written a handful of these – ‘How to be hopeful’, ‘How to have a child’, ‘How to fly’ – before I noticed the trend. Then I was attracted to the whimsy of it: collected instructions for things nobody actually wants to do. How (not) to shear a sheep, get a divorce, do absolutely nothing, give thanks for a broken leg, etc. I loved the challenge of balancing the practical with the ridiculous, posing as a savant with the blissful ignorance of a child, embracing the unknowable and the wondrous. Really, isn’t that what we all want? For someone to tell us how to be alive.

AH: Your writing encompasses work as an essayist (both thoughtful and advocating), a novelist and a polemicist. What spaces does poetry give you as a writer that these other forms haven’t provided?

BK: I love poetry for its close, elegant focus. Pure language, the execution of a perfect moment, an explosive meeting of two previously unacquainted thoughts. I like to think of different forms – novel, essay, short story, journalism – as so many vehicles at my disposal in my writing garage. I size up the package I want to deliver, then decide what to drive. A novel is a station wagon; you can stuff a lot of big themes in there, whole families of characters, and take them for a long ride, even picking up hitchhikers along the way. A poem is a unicycle. It can convey only a small parcel, exquisitely balanced. And delivering that package is not even the point, it turns out. Just climbing up there and holding it all in motion is the wow.

AH: And does poetry itself have a different potential as a form? Can it do work that other words can’t do?

BK: Absolutely. I probably feel sturdiest as a novelist, so I had a crisis of confidence when my publisher first gave me the green light to revise and organise a ream of my recent poems into a book. Not about ordering the shape of it – that’s probably my forte. (Trained as a scientist; book alphabetiser; possibly a little over the top as an organiser.) And revision, ditto. Rewriting is my favourite part of writing.

My problem was that some of these are formal poems: couplets, sestinas, shaped poems, even a villanelle. I love formal poetry: Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare and Shelley all make my first string. I wrote a hundred sonnets in my twenties to teach myself discipline, so I still tend to think in iambic pentameter, and even my loosely constructed poems are often veiled sonnets, with that dramatic turn in the final line or couplet. I love the challenges of constraint. But when I thought about presenting this work to readers, I panicked. I mean, who am I to write a villanelle? And rhyme? Won’t modern readers find that corny? What if we’ve all been too conditioned by Dr Seuss to accept end rhymes as appropriate for adult consumption? I started backpaddling in my revisions, trying to disguise the shape of the shaped poems, swallowing rhymes, breaking up the metre and form of the sestinas.

Luckily, I had a wonderful poetry editor at Faber (my UK publisher), Lavinia Singer, and several other professional poet friends who held my hand and talked me down from the ledge. They used almost the same words you did in this question: don’t be afraid to let your poems do what only poetry can, and go the places that poetry alone gets to go. That advice helped me embrace and improve the work, marrying form and content, engaging the joy of language. Poetry is a cradle that rocks us in the mother tongue. 

AH: Am I right in thinking this is your first book of poetry? If so, is that an odd experience for someone so well-­versed (as it were) in publishing in other forms?

BK: You’re completely forgiven for not knowing this is my second poetry collection. The first, Another America, was published by a small press (Seal) in 1992. The poems reflect my involvement with refugees and the human-­rights crisis on the US-­Mexican border, where I lived at the time. The book is bilingual, with each poem appearing in English and Spanish on facing pages, translated by my colleague Rebeca Cartes. It was early in my career, and the book didn’t have a huge circulation. But the warm reception to How to Fly seems to have nudged the publisher that now holds the rights to that first collection, which they’ve asked me to review and update for re-­release next year.

I’ve written poems all my life, and published them intermittently in poetry journals, but mostly they tend to collect quietly in a drawer while my readers eagerly await something else – mostly the next novel. I wasn’t sure anyone wanted the poems I had accumulated in recent years, but my publishers persuaded me to give it a shot. This book was a happy surprise.

AH: In the strange world of post-­truth, how has the value of words changed, and the potential view of a writer’s worth?

BK: I have to believe that words still matter, and, more importantly, that most people still have a moral, legal and physical attachment to truth. People are still teaching their kids to read, and to tell the truth, so the fundamentals haven’t left us. These are unprecedented times, with economic and biological systems under enormous strain, creating privation and frustration for a lot of people. Denying reality is very tempting. I get that. We’ve all done it, at some level. (One more drink won’t hurt me. That guy is not my president.) We’re still pretending we won’t have to pay the terrible environmental bill, when it comes due. But it’s due. What I see around me is a lot of denying and a lot of yelling (mostly from young people) about paying up, both at the same time. It’s messy, but also exciting. Complacency rarely breeds greatness. But urgent necessity – as we all know – breeds invention. 

AH: These poems read like beautiful resources – things that can be returned to or drawn on in times of need, like talismans or touchpoints. Have your own ideas or definitions of resources, and resilience, changed throughout the interesting year that was 2020?

BK: I’m so glad you think so. In 2019, when I considered what sort of book I should launch next into this disrupted and scary world, I realised I’d been relying on poetry as medicine for the soul. It wakes up and quiets the mind, both at once. It crosses barriers and breaks down arguments using pure emotion, reminding us of our common humanity. I thought, if I could do that for other people, I could be of some use. So this is the relief package I prepared to send out into 2020. Little did I know what a year it would be.

AH: What happens next?

BK: A novel. I’m more than halfway through a first draft. I’ll be the first to agree it’s been a terrible year for humans. I’ve lost people I loved. My heart aches for all the lost jobs, the fear, the workers on the frontlines. I’m also proud of how we’ve all worked to innovate, adapt and make more from less. And here’s a confession: writers are professional introverts. A year or more of solitary, undistracted quiet is kind of a dream come true.

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