Another lovely treat for and from Lobster & Canary, to start our 2014: an interview with poet Sandra Kasturi about her latest collection, Come Late To The Love Of Birds, recently published by Tightrope Books, which also put out her debut collection, The Animal Bridegroom. Click here to purchase the book. (Full disclosure: Sandra is co-owner of ChiZine Publications, which published my two novels; I received a free advance copy of Come Late To The Love Of Birds).
Sandra is a Bram Stoker Award-winning editor. CZP won the British Fantasy Award last year and has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award. She identifies closely with speculative fiction, the new fabulism. Her work is among the best these hybrid genres have produced in recent years, and is part of the renaissance within fantastical poetry, along with that of --among others--our fellow CZP author, Helen Marshall, as well as by Sonya Taaffe, Theodora Goss, and the many talents gathered by Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica Wick at Goblin Fruit, by Mike Allen at Mythic Delirium, and by Erzebet Yellowboy at Cabinet des Fees.
I see Come Late (and Animal Bridegroom), along with the work of Marshall and the others I list here, as part of an important endeavor within English-language poetry much more generally: a revitalization of the Romantic mode, building on Blakean and Wordsworthian tropes and the dreams of Coleridge and Shelley with sharp-throated words for modern times, not least with a deft ear for the nuances of gender and the demands of a post-colonialist world. Marianne Moore as one bridging figure, Jorie Graham another? As I read Sandra's work, I find myself reaching for volumes by Sharon Olds, by Clayton Eshleman, by Albert Goldbarth, by Charles Simic. By Alice Oswald, by Sarah Lindsay, by Laura Kasischke, by Seamus Heaney. Past time for “fantastical poetry” (and isn’t all poetry fantastical, the changing of words into the world and back again?) to stake its claim more forcefully in today’s poetry landscape. I hope Come Late garners the praise it deserves among the readers of Olds, Simic, Heaney et al.
Question One. The title of your latest collection comes from a passage you read decades ago by J.A. Baker: “I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision.” And actually you first read the lines as quoted in a Judith Van Gieson novel; lines that you savored for years, waiting for the chance to use in a recipe of your own. Tell us more about the origins of the poems as a cycle: the intertextual tracing, the widening of your own vision to include birds, your desire to widen vision for others (arguably the greatest gift of poetry).Kasturi: Firstly, thanks so much for having me on Lobster & Canary! And you are very kind in your praise indeed. My god, to be mentioned in the same breath as Heaney, etc! Swoon.
I was so struck by that quotation when I saw it in Van Gieson's book, The Raptor (a mystery novel, incidentally), that I looked up Baker's book, The Peregrine, which is where the lines are originally from, and bought a copy from Abe Books. I think it's out of print now? Anyway, The Peregrine is itself an odd thing, and not much is actually known about Baker himself. He wrote this naturalist's study, but it actually reads like poetry. His passages are so eloquent and beautiful, I can't even describe them. I'm not a huge non-fiction reader unless I'm doing research for something specific, but that's a book that I'd go back to, just for the beauty of its language. I think it should be on all poets' must-read list! I mean, he's even mesmerizing when he's talking statistics! But that's not the question.
I often think in titles, so "come late to the love of birds" was just something ringing in my head for a long time, and I thought it would be a good title for a book. And then it just seemed like I was writing poems that involved birds in some way, without really planning to. It all coalesced when I wrote the first poem in the book, "Roc" although of course I didn't really think of it as an opening poem for anything--it was just a thing I wrote and workshopped in my poetry group. So when I was thinking about my next poetry book, it all came together, and I went, "Hey, that might be a cool thing to do." I went through my newer poems and picked out the ones that seemed like they would fit in the books--poems literally about birds, or about flight, or space travel. Which was when I realized I had nowhere nearly enough and I'd better get off my ass!
The thing is--as you start thinking about themes for your writing and pulling a book together, you start looking at the actual things your poems are about. So I would really notice birds in a way I hadn't before. I would notice their funny little personalities, and how some of them would get cross with each other and squabble in our backyard. When we were in Rhode Island, I saw this hawk in the botanical gardens there--which resulted in the poem "One Red Thought." The movement of birds is like poetry.
Incidentally, Helen Marshall liked the title of my book so much, that she developed the very naughty habit of writing all these awesome poems which were perfect for my book, so I will obviously have to write poems for her next book now. Heh.
Question Two. I came early to the love of birds: I started birdwatching when I was nine years old. So, I am enthralled by your trenchant sketches of birds as (in your words) “poetry made flesh,” nodding as I see old friends so well depicted. Since your “conversion,” besides seeing birds for the first time, have you also found them in literature where you previously had not noticed them? I am thinking of, to name just a few in a flock: Ted Hughes...Mary Oliver...the sublime Walton Ford (devious homage to the magnificent Audubon)...Emily Dickinson...Birds Drawn For John Gould by Edward Lear...Bartram’s Travels Through North & South Carolina, etc. and Wilson’s American Ornithology...White’s Natural History of Selborne...da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds...from our medieval forebears, The Parliament of Fowls...
Kasturi: I think I notice them more in mythology and folklore or fairy tales. You find them in Grimm and Andersen, and the Greek myths of course. Weirdly, I don't really read a lot of poetry, but the stuff I love, I love a lot. People like Anne Carson, Anne Sexton, Laura Lush, David Clink, Helen Marshall of course.
But I remember the birds in the Mary Poppins books best, I think. P.L. Travers was such a weird and funny writer! I love her so much. She anthropomorphized birds (and animals) of course, but I'll always remember Mary Poppins arguing with the cheeky starlings.
And you know I grew up loving dinosaurs--all those in-school claymation "documentaries"! How I loved them. I'm still sad brontosaurus doesn't really exist. And later: Ray Harryhausen! Bliss. So when the theories about how dinosaurs evolved into birds, it all seemed to make a kind of exquisite sense.
Question Three. Let’s talk prosody for a moment. When you compose a poem such as “The Flowering Tide” (“Palelemon sunstreaks arc wide amid snow- / falls of cherryblossoms that shiver through chills/ or warmth, fickle gusts of vernal air that blow/ from the east.”), do you have the meter already in your head before the words come, or do the words tumble out, challenging you to order their rhythm? Here is another passage that spurred this question, from “Poets and Other Birds of Prey”: “Such exsanguinations had to be effected personally:/ flesh rendered by others/ was, even at the very moment of death,/ already too old to be touched./ You were fastidious.” Or likewise this, from “Cardinal”: “Look two cardinals perch on a still-bare tree,/ one red, one brown, watching, sharp-eyed; the least/ movement sends them skyward, winging free/ across the slow evening.”
Kasturi: I must confess that with "The Flowering Tide" it was terribly contrived. I had this "Sonnet a Week" project that I was doing where I was trying to write, yes, a sonnet a week. Because I'm not really a formal verse person, so I wanted to see if I could do it. One week I couldn't think of anything, but I wanted to write a spring poem, so I asked my friend, writer Jason Taniguchi, to give me the end-rhyming words. So he did, but very naughtily gave me only winter words! Which you can see if you look at the last word of each line. But I like restrictions when writing--I think sometimes the more severe the straitjacket, the cleverer you are forced to be. So it expanded the way I thought and the way I wrote, which I think is good. I sort of trailed off before the year was out though--so really, it ended up averaging out to a sonnet every two weeks, I think.
"Cardinal" of course is also a sonnet. I wrote it for my great-uncle after he died and read it at his funeral. Again, the severity of restrictions involved in a form like the sonnet I think lend themselves beautifully when a tremendous amount of emotion is involved with what you are doing. It keeps you from veering off into hysteria or maudlin thoughts. Allows you to say things and makes it easier to handle all the unhappiness and despair you feel when you lose someone you love greatly.
As for "Poets and Other Birds of Prey"--my god, I wrote that a loooong time ago. It might actually be the oldest poem in the book. I know I absolutely did not think about meter then; I do it far more now. Some things seem to lend themselves naturally to certain rhythms, and you usually know from the first couple of lines what it's going to be. I've had things change from very formal verse to free verse, because I was trying to force the form and it wasn't working. And I've done it the other way round too--realized that it was a hodgepodge mess and it needed more stricture and then gone off into the formal vein.
Isn't "stricture" a wonderful word? It sounds like a poison, or something you'd add to a chemical solution to give colourful results.
[Second Half Of Interview To Come Next Sunday]