Contributors’ Corner: Tim Kahl

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Welcome to “Contributors’ Corner,” where each week we open the floor to one of our contributors to the journal. This week, we hear from Tim Kahl, whose poems “The Patron Saint of All Lost Causes” and “Starring: A Town at War” appear in 3.1.

TIM KAHL is the author of Possessing Yourself (CW Books, 2009) and The Century of Travel (CW Books, 2012). His work has been published in Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Notre Dame Review, The Journal, and many other journals in the US. He appears as Victor Schnickelfritz at the poetry and poetics blog The Great American Pinup and the poetry video blog Linebreak Studios. He is also editor of Bald Trickster Press and Clade Song. He is the vice president and events coordinator of The Sacramento Poetry Center. He also has public installations in Nevada City and in Sacramento: {In Scarcity We Bare The Teeth}. He currently houses his father’s literary estate—one volume: Robert Gerstmann’s book of photos of Chile, 1932.

Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?

There are a number of pivotal moments that I can think of where I have realized that I can do something (as a writer) that previously I may have discounted. This series of instances of “giving yourself permission” was initiated when Lawrence R. Smith, the editor of Caliban Online gave me permission to write back in graduate school. Prior to that instance I was working in a medical research lab at the University of Michigan. Smith pushed me toward surrealism and to contemplate the world of the difficult and the visionary, not just one of immediate comprehension. Entry into that world came much later when I started to host readings at The Sacramento Poetry Center. There I started to learn about what it took to reach an audience immediately and other aspects of poetry that reflected the value of performance and that moved poetry closer to song. I’m still grappling with the paradox of these polarities today—how one can resist immediacy for the sake of taking a live/readerly audience to a place that is more contemplative/cerebral and at the same time not just abandoning them to journey through their own minds while being read aloud to, in other words, to have an immediate impact the way songs do.

What are you reading?

I read mostly nonfiction books and articles. A lot of newspapers recently too. It takes me into the larger world in a way that poetry doesn’t always do. Currently, I am reading David Cay Johnston’s The Fine Print and Susan Crawford’s Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the Gilded Age. A lot of poetry collections by individuals leave me wanting—especially the prize-winning ones. It seems we in the literary world have created a specific kind of target with the prize-winning book that every poet is trying to dial up when they put together a manuscript. The collection is of a singular style, a singular “voice” that coheres in a semi-transparent arc from front cover to back. Any divergence from this standard is met with incredulity by so many who participate in this publishing game. I read a book like Canadian poet Ken Babstock’s Airstream Land Yacht (a book that has various styles running through it) and think it probably couldn’t have been published in the US, at least not on a major or university press. Of course, I blame a lot of this on the narrow-minded notions that book marketers have about full-length collections. The idea is that books need to have a specific target audience (and this is what drives them to maddening coherence and safety). I think it is pretty apparent from looking at how other major media are developing that marketing for a single outlet is outdated. Audiences are too fragmented … and don’t even get me started on fiction. There’s even more money in the pot there that drives the decision-making … to the point that they begin to resemble the horrific major motion picture industry, which seems to only occasionally stumble into interesting scripts and films.

Can you tell us what prompted your poems in HFR?

The two pieces “The Patron Saint of All Lost Causes” and “Starring: A Town at War” came from two very distinct places.

“The Patron Saint of All Lost Causes” is a piece that was gleaned from reading obituaries in the local paper of record The Sacramento Bee. I love obituaries because they provide details from ordinary lives that are not spectacular but were meaningful enough to have them be “life markers” in the last public statement about a person’s life. It also confirms for me that most people measure the importance of their lives by what they do in the non-profit sector. Their triumphs come from family life and civic organizations. But there is also something very distinctly sad about this to go along with the poignancy. When one of the crowning achievements of a life is second place in a bass angler’s tournament, one wonders about the level of despair and inadequacy that may have existed for that life. I wanted to posit a character who took care of the mental lives of these people whose grand efforts go largely unnoticed and and unacknowledged. The patron saint of all lost causes takes up that task without any of the machinery of formal religion to rely on. The implication is that we have the ability (with a little extra-terrestrial help) to forge meaningful and moral lives by ourselves without necessarily embodying any religious symbolism—like crucifixes. Perhaps I am also wondering if there isn’t the capacity to become a patron saint of all lost causes lurking within each of us.

“Starring: A Town at War” was written in the run-up to the war in Iraq. The entire proceedings of that war seemed to be like watching a grand pageant, like it was a parade put on for the benefit of some viewing audience. It seemed to be elaborately staged in that way that always strikes me as painful. I began to wonder if the machinations leading to World War II (a war the US seemed to have much more passion in conducting because there were real moral principles—as opposed to the half-baked ones that were propped up after the fact with Iraq—and not just economic ones) would seem to have been similarly staged given what we know about the stock images from the Forties. And, too, I wondered about how the “show” was playing for children, especially those dreamy children who might hang upside down and think outwardly about the world in the limited manner that they could. The final image came from a real life moment when I was changing my son’s diaper and found a string peeking out of his rectum. I kept pulling on the string until the other end finally emerged. I wondered how that damned thing had gotten there. Like the aftermath of war, its presence and effect in the present was hard to explain.

What’s next? What are you working on?

I write in about four or five different modes these days. Sometimes I write in a very straightforward slice-of-life manner. Sometimes I write pieces strictly for performance. I’m also interested in reflecting the absurdity of our current era. It saddens me, and I think revealing its absurdity provides a kind of trash can liner where I can neatly encapsulate the more toxic elements and contain them in that way. I’m also interested in pieces that aim specifically for sound and surreal image in a way that really “sings” on the page and that almost completely suspends sense—a kind of sounding poem. I’m also interested in song, in writing and performing them a cappella or with live or recorded musical accompaniment, especially as they inform the translation work I’ve done of Brazilian poets where the boundary between poem and song is a lot less defined than it is in the US. In the US songwriters and poets seem to belong to two distinct tribes. I don’t really write to specific subjects or themes (unless I or others give me/myself a prompt). I trust that themes arise from the shape of the life one leads and from the disturbances that one is required to navigate.

Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?

The political is an important topic for poetry. It is particularly important in North America where much of the poetry that is praised in compendiums and tomes is of a more insular nature. But how to be “political”? Is it enough to trot out positions on current political topics and dress them up in the debating language of the day? Critics (most of them in the academy) tend to discount such displays as amateurish. I’m not sure that such critics don’t misunderstand such an approach for its lack of technical merit as opposed to how such an approach speaks to its intended audience (which is generally not critics in academia … do they feel slighted?). But the strident does become tedious after a while. One might as well listen to talk shows on the radio if that is going to be what your poetic diet consists of. Protester chic, however, may win the day especially as twenty- and thirty-somethings get older and understand their disenfranchisement even more. The overtly political may be the driving force that brings people to poetry. But I suspect that there will always be others who come to poetry for other reasons than to assert themselves or their thinking in public space. Poems that sort out feelings about actions and objects in the world aren’t necessarily apolitical. Nor are poems that exist solely to assert more aesthetic concerns. They shouldn’t be thrown out of the tent of meaningful poetry because they don’t specifically articulate a position on the burning questions of the day. Predilections and tendencies that are aired are political statements too. A salient question remains though. Is documenting the shape of one’s personal life adequate to the political moment one is living in? Or is more required? Perhaps the ultimate aim is to integrate the overtly political into the stuff of daily existence, to illustrate that that they are inextricable. This is not always easy to do (and it’s not always necessary to make a big pronouncement in service of that goal). Poetry that illustrates how political decisions are wedged into the quotidian serve a dual purpose—they chronicle and document our lives in this cultural moment and they provide insight into how our ideas about how the world should be organized. These organizational/political ideas can be (maybe should be) emphasized by the decisions that infiltrate our lives. The personal as political is oddly more effective than the guy who (through his bullhorn) is asking you to move back because he’s backing in his diatribe.

Read Tim’s poems in HFR 3.1 here.

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