Today, contributor Okla Elliott interviews writer and poet Kelly Cherry. I'm traveling and will be back in about 10 days. My thanks to both Kelly and Okla. Enjoy!
An Embarrassment of Riches
by Okla Elliott
Kelly Cherry  is the author of more than twenty-five books and chapbooks—including novels, story collections, nonfiction (essays, memoir, and criticism), translations, and eight full-length collections of poetry. For her short fiction, she has been included in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, and has received an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, and has won the PEN/Syndicated Fiction Prize three times. Her poetry has been widely anthologized and has earned her the James G. Hanes Poetry Prize—and, most recently, she has been named the Poet Laureate of Virginia. Despite this impressive list of publications and awards, and for reasons I don’t fully comprehend, her recognition has not reached the level of, for example, Margaret Atwood (to mention another woman writer of her generation who also writes in every genre, is likewise prolific, and who ranks among my favorite writers). Obviously, Cherry is well appreciated and has many avid fans, but as one of those fans, I can never quite forgive the world for not offering her even more acclaim and readers.
I first encountered Cherry’s work while I was an undergrad, sometime in 2001, if memory serves. I was living in North Carolina at the time and reading Fred Chappell and David R. Slavitt with something like an obsessive’s necessity. Being the spunky kid I was, I approached Chappell and Slavitt to do interviews with them, and both were kind enough to accept my request. Those encounters led to future professional interactions with both and a lasting friendship with Slavitt. It also led to both men separately suggesting that I read Kelly Cherry. I went to the university bookstore and found The New Pleiade: Seven American Poets , which included Chappell, Cherry, and Slavitt, as well as R.H.W. Dillard, Brendan Galvin, George Garrett, and Henry Taylor. These seven writers had been friends for years, shared certain writerly predilections, and were all authors at LSU Press (which put out the anthology).
I was immediately struck by Cherry’s poems, which I loved, but I was also struck by certain personal affinities she and I shared. (I am, I must admit, that sort of reader who is always trying to find myself in the work and lives of the authors I admire.) At the time, I was nearing completion of my BA in philosophy and German, and so I was pleased to learn that Cherry had done graduate work in philosophy at the University of Virginia. And her interests include more than philosophy, ranging from Russian literature to Latin American politics to scientific research and more. And here again, I was struck by our overlap in interests, given that I have traveled to Russia out of an abiding interest in Russian literature, spent months in Latin America studying the language and culture, and was a physics major when I first entered college. Without lingering too much on these similarities of interest, suffice it to say that I began reading her work with an eagerness that has been richly rewarded.
Kelly Cherry has published with big NYC presses as well as prestigious university and small presses, and she has had a glorious career by any sane measure—awards, teaching gigs at top universities, grants and writers’ residencies, and so forth. Her career is one most writers will never approach. If anything, Cherry suffers an embarrassment of riches. Had she published only books of poetry, I think she would be more lauded as a poet than she is today; had she published only short story collections and novels, she would be more lauded as a fiction writer than she is today; had she resisted the urge to write critical essays and to do translations, her creative work would get more attention; and so on. The issue here is not, I think, that she should have limited her intellectual and creative energies in such an unnatural way, but rather that the literary and academic worlds need to adapt themselves to her model—not she to theirs.
I hope you enjoy reading the following interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it, and I also hope that if you haven’t yet explored Cherry’s work, you will now.
Okla Elliott: You’re hard to pigeonhole as a writer, given that you’ve done fiction (both long and short), nonfiction (both creative and critical), poetry (both formalist and free verse), and translations. In what ways have each of these various enterprises informed the others? Do you think of yourself as having a dominant or primary genre, or do they all have an equal draw for you?
Kelly Cherry: I think of the genres as concentric circles, with poetry at the center. None is more important than the others, but poetry is the focal point, the heart. I’m also on record as saying that poetry reveals the actual world, fiction reveals the world of relationship, and nonfiction reveals the perceiving mind. And I’ve also said that the poem is about the line, the short story about the sentence, the essay about the paragraph, and the novel about the scene. These formulations are useful to me and I’m happy to offer them to students, but of course each of the genres differs from the others only in degree, and there are plenty of writers who delight in working at the borders. Yet emphasizing the differences makes transitioning from one to another easier for me.
I really love working in all these genres; I stay busy.
OE: Your poem “Lt. Col. Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova” brings together two currents I’ve found in your work—the Soviet Union (and/or Russia) and science. You have written variously on these topics, ranging from poems about Einstein to a science expedition in Siberia (once again merging the two currents) to a story about an American woman in love with a Latvian man (back when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union), and other works as well, such as the chapbook Songs for a Soviet Composer. Why and how do these two themes intertwine for you? Why the fascination with them, either together or separately?
KC: I did meet a Latvian man—in Moscow to hear rehearsals of a symphony he’d composed—and we tried to get married. (I should mention that the story you refer to, “Where the Winged Horses Take off into the Wild Blue Yonder From,” which is now in The Woman Who  [Boson Books, 2010] is not autobiographical; much in it has been changed or reimagined.) In 1965 nobody took us seriously; in 1975 they had us under surveillance, threatened him, woke me in the middle of the night with intimidating phone calls. This narrative can be found in my memoir The Exiled Heart  (LSU, 1991). I was in Moscow in the first place because I love Russian literature. I wanted to see where my favorite writers lived and the people and places about which they had written. I had no fondness for the Soviet Union and was philosophically opposed to Communism; that just happened to be where the country was at that time.
Similarly, I’ve always been interested in science and in college took quite a number of courses in science and math. Sputnik went up and my parents developed the idea that I should become a scientist. That didn’t work out; I already knew I wanted to study philosophy and write, but I gave my parents’ notion a shot. Of course, I was interested in science the way writers are interested in pretty much anything: as something to write about. Sometimes I think those first three years of college were a complete and sad waste of time: I wasn’t learning anything I really wanted to learn. Sometimes I think that’s just as well: If I didn’t learn much about science and math, I learned to appreciate the methods and accomplishments of science and math, and that has meant a lot to me.
Currently I am working on two poetry manuscripts, one a book-length poem about a scientist, the other a collection of shorter poems about math and science.
OE: You mentioned philosophy as an early interest, and I know you studied philosophy at the graduate level and have written a collection of poems, The Retreats of Thought , where you think through various philosophical problems in the sonnet form. In what ways do you see philosophy and literature interacting—in general and in your own work? And which philosophers have most influenced your thinking and writing?
KC: I don’t think anyone’s ever before asked me exactly this, Okla, and I’m delighted you’ve brought it up.
The philosophers who probably influenced me most were David Hume and Charles Sanders Peirce. I was doing research for a dissertation on Peirce’s epistemology when I dropped out of the program (not for academic reasons). Hume was a wonderful writer and clear thinker. I found Peirce’s ideas of firstness, secondness, and thirdness fruitful and useful and admired his views on scientific method. I did not read Peirce as a semiotician, as I understand literature teachers often do, though I do like some of his formulations about the nature of language.
Another influence was Augustine. Not because of his religion but because his Confessions, when I came to write The Exiled Heart, struck me as the perfect model of a memoir. I also found his thinking about time fascinating, as reflected in two of the sonnets in The Retreats of Thought.
It is harder for me to explain how I see “philosophy and literature interacting,” because I have always seen them as interacting. I like novels of ideas. I’m partial to German and Russian literature, despite loving many books neither German nor Russian, because they discuss ideas. The American dread of boredom seems to me to stem from a fear of thinking. (Thank god for Moby-Dick.) The novel I most would like to have written is The Magic Mountain, unless it is War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment. Or an ancient Greek tragedy!
In any case, philosophy seems to me inherent in life, inescapable. Every day one makes dozens of decisions, and the process of dealing with them is philosophy. My brother once told me the only question that interested him was How. I replied that the only question that interests me is Why. (Of course he then nodded with big-brother sagacity and male superiority and said that Why is a ridiculous question. And I suppose that from some points of view it can be a useless question, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting, at least not to me.) (You now have an idea of what kind of family I grew up in, and maybe it was that environment that made me want to study philosophy.)
To return to my brother, it was a book he gave me for my fourteenth birthday that made me want to major in philosophy. I confess I am no longer much interested in analytic philosophy. I had a fair amount of that in grad school and can appreciate the hold it has on some people, but writing sentences or lines all day long inclines me away from it.
Finally, so far as poetry goes, how can philosophy not be a part of it? Well, yes, I know some poets strive hard not to ask philosophical questions, but to the degree that they succeed, in my opinion, the poem fails.
OE: You’ve openly identified as a southern writer in essays and in interviews, yet you’ve written about (and/or lived in) the Midwest, Russia, Europe, England, The Philippines, and South America, in addition to working with traditionally southern themes. What does it mean for you to be a southern writer? What advantages or disadvantages do think that category has created for you?
KC: Of course I want my work to be gladly received everywhere. Who doesn’t want that? But I do admire the way Southern readers celebrate Southern writers. Southern readers are wonderfully and helpfully loyal to their writers. I admit I’m not especially Southern all things considered, but I am Southern in some specific ways. I was born in the South, spent part of my childhood in the Bible Belt, and my parents told stories about their families, who lived in the Deep South. I have a finished manuscript of short stories set in the South; I haven’t sent it out yet.
OE: You’ve published books with big NYC presses, university presses, and small presses—and you’ve done this over the course of a few decades now. How have you seen publishing change during your career? Which aspects are better and which are worse? (For example, what are your opinions about Kindles, online publishing, the proliferation of MFA and PhD programs in creative writing, etc?)
KC: Let’s see. I go where I have to go to get published. The dreadfulness of the contemporary publishing world dates back to the mid-sixties, but it was really around 1980 that corporate pressure drove the big houses into the smash or crash syndrome: books had to be hugely popular or were not worth promoting. Popular usually means less than serious, less than artistic. I know: lovers of genres will take issue with this, but I’m not denying that A Canticle for Leibowitz is a wonderful book. I’m saying that artistic merit is not what big publishers look for, nor can most big publishers today assess artistic merit, and certainly their sales divisions cannot. Nor can most big publishers even afford decent copy editors these days—or maybe they think grammar and punctuation don’t matter anymore. Now, I’m not dead against big houses—I wish one would take on my work and promote the hell out of it, because, like every writer, I would like more readers. But perhaps I know too much now: I know their promises are often empty, I know what matters to them is money, I know really excellent editors are rare and perhaps especially rare in a big-publishing environment hostile to the care and attention excellent editors want to provide.
The big publishing houses are primarily interested in young writers, but those young writers who fail to sell enough copies are then out on their collective ear. Is that any way to treat young talent?
University presses these days pretty consistently publish the best work. A majority of the writers I admire publish with them or with small publishers. I cherish the relationships I have with university presses.
Yes, I think MFA programs create certain problems, but I attended one and will always be grateful for the teachers who gave me time and interest and encouragement.
My husband has a Kindle and loves it. But he also reads real books. He reads whenever and wherever he can. I prefer holding a book in my hands but have no objection to somebody else’s preference for an eReader.
I don’t know what the future will be. I can’t guess at forthcoming technological advances. I do think we are in danger of a world in which every writer has to write, print, publish, promote, and maybe even write the reviews of his/her book. Just thinking about it exhausts me. As one friend has suggested, a serious, candid critic with a broad education who reads across big/small publishing lines might make a significant change in our culture. Let’s hope one such arises.
OE: There is constant debate over the best way(s) to become or improve oneself as a writer, with people variously championing or pooh-poohing MFAs and/or PhDs in creative writing. I, for example, have advised nearly every undergraduate writer I have taught to study abroad for a year and to take a wide range of classes from anthropology to philosophy to foreign literatures. What advice have you given or what advice would you give a young writer today?
KC: I second the advice you give to students, Okla. I also think students should know something about science and mathematics and history, and of course, they must be readers. Being a reader is more important than attending school, but it does help to attend school. I also encourage students to try their hand at different genres and forms and to make good friends who care about your writing, because there will be times when those friends will be lifesavers. And learn to revise. And learn to wait. Revising and waiting become easier as one ages.
OE: I know it is unfair to ask writers to assess their own work, but I am going to do it anyway. Which of your books do you think are your best and why? Also, a slightly different question: Which ones hold the nearest and dearest place in your heart?
KC: Like most writers, I think, I’m always most excited about what I am currently working on. I think my best fiction books are Augusta Played , In the Wink of an Eye, and We Can Still Be Friends (the title of which should have been either “American Minuet” or “Dancing with Ava Martel,” both of which were rejected by the editor). My favorites--because they were fun to write--are Augusta Played, In the Wink of an Eye, and The Society of Friends. Currently I have my completed story manuscript and am at work on the last story collection in my trilogy of story collections set in Madison, Wisconsin. A novel is in (slow) progress.
My best poetry books are probably God's Loud Hand , Rising Venus, and The Retreats of Thought. But I think “Questions and Answers” in Natural Theology and “Requiem” in Death and Transfiguration are two of the best poems. Another collection is scheduled to appear in 2013 and two others are well underway. Right now those “two others” are my favorites (i.e., I am enjoying the process). The collection I most often read from these days is Hazard and Prospect: New and Selected Poems . In that book I assembled the poems according to theme and I’m glad I made that choice. But if I ever have a second opportunity to do a new and selected, I’ll construct the book chronologically, just to observe the difference. I think there would be a difference.
I feel fortunate and grateful to have had some of my nonfiction published in four books to date. I can’t really choose among those. The most recent was Girl in a Library: On Women Writers & the Writing Life . I am working on a nonfiction book about male writers (not to say that male and female writers are opposed but simply to carry through the structural composition). I have ideas for three more nonfiction books after that, but whether I can get to them remains to be seen.
The difficulty with this question is, of course, that time may change my response to it. But here, anyway, is how I assess my work at this particular point in my life.