Ashley Smith Keyfitz is the author of various chapbooks & the forthcoming collection Park of Unwired Asking from Xexoxial Editions (2017). She was a founding editor of the press Little Red Leaves & lives in Austin where steps on many legos, ferments anything, and designs websites for the government.
CH: What first got you interested in poetry? What is your first memory of poetry?
ASK: In first grade, I had a poem about an autumn tree being like fire published in Highlights Magazine. So that was basically my breakthrough publication. And it’s easy to like anything you’re recognized for. But even then, I really loved poems — as if they were these mysterious, incandescent launching pads for something. You weren’t trapped in poems they way you were stories — rather they pitched you into this incantatory, deeper field. At least I thought, and I sort of still do. I like novels, but when I read them there is a tiny part of me that resents that the story is trying to trick me into its narrative — as if the narrative wants to smooth over other possibilities and act like this were the only way. I remember also having the Random House anthology of poetry and really loving it. The first poem in it is Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” But I was also fond of some really great poems by Christina Rossetti in that anthology. I’ll copy one here because who reads Rossetti these days?–and so good. The poet Elizabeth Willis has a fascinating essay about the noir Kiss Me Deadly and Christina Rossetti’s poems against the atomic age (who wouldn’t want to remember now that that movie begins with the recently belated, but at that time gloriously young, Cloris Leachman running in front of the protagonist’s car wearing nothing but a trench coat and telling him she is named after Christina Rossetti), but I feel like many of Rossetti’s poems are protest poems:
Flint An emerald is as green as grass, A ruby red as blood: A sapphire lies as blue as heaven: But flint lies in the mud. A diamond is a brilliant stone, To catch the world’s desire: An opal holds a fiery spark: But flint holds fire.
Before that though, I remember my mom singing songs to my sister and me to put us to sleep & I really liked puzzle songs like “I Gave My Love A Cherry.” I also grew up close to a dance hall & I would spend a lot of time, while my mom was working at a pottery shop, writing songs I thought I could sell to, like, Lyle Lovett or Robert Earl Keen. I don’t remember if they bought any. But later, in middle school, I did sell “seductive” or “romantic” poems to people to give to the objects of their affections.
CH: When did you first begin to identify as a writer? as a poet?
ASK: The answer to this seems to be something between — I never have or I never stopped. Because I don’t have day job that gives me an official writer title, I feel somewhat outside that moniker. But I also remember at one point when I was a teenager looking at the many notebooks I had filled over the years and thinking, these are basically me. And also, what am I supposed to do with all these notebooks? In this way, writing can sort of externalize what feels like the immensity of an inner life — and I had this sense growing up that women, like women in real life, weren’t known to have inner lives. I don’t know why.
But writing was a kind of evidence against this — like material evidence of a fuller, more complex existence than would fit in the snapshot of femininity I felt like I was going to be forced to step into and was sad about. To write then, is in many ways a resistance of erasure — resistance of being tucked quietly into bed. Returning to Kiss Me Deadly for a second — in Cloris Leachman’s exchange with the protagonist Mike Hammer she alludes to a poem by her namesake, Rossetti:
Christina: “If we don’t make it … ”
Hammer: “We will.”
Christina: “If we don’t …. remember me.”
The poem she alludes to is–surprise!–Rossetti’s “Remember Me” — which is itself a weird meditation between burial and disclosure, departure and endurance — which is memorable in its resistance to giving up any options. A really great contemporary corollary to this is Taylor’s Swift’s “Wildest Dreams”– the chorus of which goes “Say you’ll remember me.” But there’s a sort of sci-fi implosion of time that happens in as much as the ground she’s requesting to be remembered in is not on the ground of what happened — but in the feral, potential-infused ground of “your wildest dreams.” This juncture between presence, remembrance and holding open the door toward something more is where writing lives for me. So I guess my answer then to when I began to identify as a poet is — in my wildest dreams.
CH: How did decide to embark on getting an MFA? What made you choose Texas State?
ASK: When I was in high school, I started working at a native plant propagation house during the day & taking community college classes at night. I had 4 particularly great teachers. The first was a math teacher who was really insistent that I was great at math. Somehow that was important to my poetics, but it’s hard to explain. The second, Kimberly Saunders, was also a poetry student in the MFA program at Tx State. She was such a fantastic teacher, an amazing, statuesque angel of encouragement and intelligence, and still is. I remember complaining when reading a Hawthorne story once that it took forever to wade through his super floral prose — and her saying that maybe we are just so attached to the sound bite of the moment that we’ve lost to ability to stay with the language, to hold complexity, to let it teach us what it’s trying to say. That changed the way I read.
When I transferred to Tx State later, I was lucky enough to take a class with Austin’s own Annie Hartnett. At the time she was an MFA fiction student and dancer. She’s now a dancer and activist and badass. I love her. In her class, when she got to the end of James Joyce’s The Dead, she cried. That gesture of showing students that it’s okay to love the work you’re studying — to be moved by it is a huge gift. Both teachers were women I admired — so that’s how I was introduced to the idea that an MFA existed. Later I took classes with Kathleen Peirce. That seemed essential to me. Kathleen is such an intense thinker and teacher. She would say things in her classes about how we live in a world that is always trying to get us to become harder, less sensitive, tougher — but the object of her class was to increase tenderness, sensitivity, vulnerability as an act of resistance. These are still ideas essential to my politics and poetics and sense of self.
After college I moved to the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico and worked at a coffee roasting house and with the World Birding Centers. I loved that, but I came to a point where I just wanted time to read & learn more and an MFA seemed like a possible way to do that. I applied to a bunch of schools — but in the end Tx State made the most financial sense. I only hesitated to go back because I had already been there. And there is part of me that regrets not expanding my Alma Mater — but I’ve come to realize that the quality of education that was open to me at a state school was really as good as what is available at the most prestigious or ivy league programs. So I thought — poetry is not about getting rich; I can go to Tx State, learn, and get my cognate in Tech Comm as backup. I guess it turned out to be an okay idea as I have fended off living in a ditch eating berries by working in IT since then.
CH: Looking back, what was the greatest gift of the MFA? Its greatest drawback?
ASK: Time / time.
CH: How did you decide become a founding editor for Little Red Leaves press? How has that experience shaped your own work?
ASK: So one of my first roommates in college was the poet CJ (Chris) Martin. I was riding a tram to school one day and he was wearing this very brightly colored crocheted hat. Tx State is full of bros — so it was unusual to see a regular guy wearing this humble but intense thing. When we got off the bus I said something like — I like your hat, and he said “Thanks, my Grandma made it.” Later when I moved up for my MFA, Chris had moved to Buffalo with the poet Julia Drescher to pursue a PhD. He quit and they both moved back to central Texas and started a double-sided book arts press and online journal. I basically asked if I could build the web journal as a way of fulfilling class project requirements toward my degree and they said yes.
Later, when we would solicit work, sometimes poets would send us entire chapbooks. Sometimes books that had gone out of print. Suddenly it made sense to start an online imprint for these works & we settled on a distribution model where you could download a PDF for free or order a print-on-demand copy of the book at cost. Each of the books we printed were intensely important to me. I learned so much. An element of the book I’m working on now was stolen from an LRLe-edition– Susan Gevirtz’s Prosthesis::Cesarea. The first section of Gevirtz’s book deals with the idea of art as prosthetic memory & ventriloquism & eighteenth century concepts of witchcraft. Here’s a quote:
Led to the definition of engastriloque: a. 1728, Hutchinson, Witchcraft: There are also many that can form Words and Voices in their Stomach, which shall seem to come from others rather than the Person that speaks them. Such people are called Engastriloques. ... There was a compact between the engastriloque and the exorcist… b. To cast the voice c. A wench, practicing her diabolical witchcraft. Some have questioned whether it can be done lawfully or no. Speaking from the bottom of the belly is a thing as strange as anything in witchcraft.
Gevirtz’s book questions these ideas of proper form, writing as memory, the voice that exists outside the body — and pushes against concepts of what’s natural. One of the ways she does this is by scattering these cast voices — basically backwards printed text on the page opposing the poem. The way a sort of residue of the poem is left on the opposite page, and yet exceeds it, is fascinating to me. So I’m stealing this idea and expanding it for the book I’m working on now where a majority of the poems will have something I’m calling transposition erasures on the opposite page (from the original poem). This makes the book so much more spatial to me — or understands the poems as migratory — signalling what can’t be moved or fully put down. It witches it.
Here’s a link to Gevirtz’s book: http://littleredleaves.com/ebooks/catalog/susan-gevirtz-prosthesiscaesarea
So yeah — I dropped working on the journal after my son was born for various reasons. But editing is pretty much one of the best things I’ve done. I would like to get back to it. So grateful to all the people who carry the work of publishing forward.
CH: I understand you have a manuscript in progress that should be forthcoming from Xexoxial Editions this year. Tell us a little about Park of Unwired Asking.
ASK: I started the book when my son was a baby and his father left. I was driving into the next town to work each day and driving back to pick up the baby in the dark after work. It seemed impossible to have time to write. But then, the cards seemed so stacked against being able to write from the space I was in — I became really interested in trying to find a form that might make it possible. Like if I could find a way to go on writing, I could find a way to go on. So I gave up the end of the line — or rather, I started using a spaced period as a way of preserving what the line does, but in a responsive format. This seemed necessary to me, b/c if I was going to be able to write into digital space, it was going to require a form with the flexibility to be accessed from my phone & my work computer or a laptop or the computer at the library — and typed in stolen moments between editing projects and while a baby slept on one arm and while feeding the dog and while washing diapers and while waiting for my car at the worst mechanics or bailing someone out of jail. And it would need to be able to move from a cloud doc to a blog post to a print format to a digital journal (that would be accessed by a person on a phone or a tablet or an ancient PC) and somehow survive.
So what is the lyric of that? I don’t think of the poems in the book as prose poems (which people sometimes refer to them as) but I think of them as lyrics in a form capable of migration, and responsiveness, and survival. In this process, I latched onto the figure of the pigeon as corollary inspiration — as a creature capable of adapting to the environment it finds itself in and exceeding that space. At the beginning of this project, when I was trying to write each day in April, one day I could only come up with the phrase “pigeon of tears” — that was it. “No one wants to read about the pigeon of tears.” I wrote. But I was wrong. Pigeons have a huge fan club. I would say Pattie McCarthy, Danielle Pafunda, Jessica Smith, Sarah Campbell, and Michelle Detorie were really encouraging to me at this time & I hugely appreciate that as well as the inspiration their writing gives me. And working in a group with you and Lisa Moore and Desiree Morales and Tina Posner has made everything since then possible. Other than that the book is also about money and survival and edible plants.
CH: What was your process in selecting the poems for this manuscript? How did you find a publisher?
ASK: My process for selecting poems for the manuscript was just to put all the poems I had that didn’t suck into the manuscript. And then the try to arrange them into some kind way that felt alive.
I was extremely lucky in that mEIKAL aND had edited a special issue of Truck I got to be a part of and I had shown him what I had of a manuscript at that time and he said he would be interested in publishing it through Xexoxial Editions. That was huge for me. Xexoxial has such a deep experimental catalog– it feels amazing to think of being a part of that. Like, I get to have the same publisher as Rachel Blau DuPlessis — who’s been so central to my work since like . . .forever. And mEIKAL has also been really patient and helpful in letting me do weird things.
CH: How do you find time to write amid your full-time employment and your role as a parent? How do you nurture yourself as a writer?
ASK: I don’t. That’s why these interview questions are late 😉
CH: Who are some of your favorite poets?
By way of answering that I want to turn back a second to a point Willis brings up in talking about the Rossetti poem: “Kiss Me Deadly ﬁgures poetry generally and Rossetti’s poetry speciﬁcally as a hermetic ﬁeld of information in danger of disappearing unless someone (whether the implausible Hammer or the incredulous viewer) is called upon to remember it –or, as Ruskin writes, ‘to learn it by heart.’”
There is an essay by Cole Swensen where she talks about the free verse line emerging as the chosen line of the city’s flaneur — and how as the urban perambulator would not know what was behind the increasingly tall downtown buildings — that each corner turned was a surprise — so too did the modern poetic line mimic this state of wandering and discovery. But in shedding rhyme, the poem lost a bit of the memorability rhyme adds to verse. And yet, free verse maintained an edge — a sense of something behind where each line ended. One might say back then there was a sense of the depth behind things, and idea that an unconscious controlled our real actions. And that slowly as technology changed, this sense of depth dissolved until now we can look into the vast digitized space of the internet as an externalized unconscious we gaze upon to know ourselves.
These layers are external and crack in the digital fragile. I think my own work probably reflects the realities of this (whether I like it or not). While country music, in particular, is a huge influence on my work, I think of my poems as more collaged, pixilated, carrying moments of infrasound & resisting recitation. A sort of hillbilly glitch work. But idk recently I’ve heard people saying, during the turn to globalized technological present, poetry became more forgettable. It’s definitely become less memorized, less ‘learned by heart.’ But last night at a reading I heard Sequoia Maner perform her poems for Muhammad Ali from memory and it was so impressive, so electric — how she was able to link through her voice the freestyle poetry of Muhammad Ali’s own past, voices cracking through “the prismatic grey radio,” our cellphone cameras turned to cops, a poetic lineage traceable through hiphop to here & the fragility of the body. So, yeah, while children aren’t required to recite Frost or poetic battle hymns in the classroom any longer, and while rhyme has often dissolved into the tiniest folds of the poem, there’s a pretty badass tradition preserved elsewhere –in the recursive grooves of the slam circuit and hiphop and the in poets who put their bodies on the line in presenting their work without a screen — as if what exists on a piece of paper can be taken away, but what is known by heart goes with you, as vulnerably as the body does. I feel like my own work comes from such a different place, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Which is to say there is so much great poetry right now, it’s redic & amazing.
Some writers other than the ones I already mentioned throughout I’ve been really into recently are Susan Briante, erica lewis (who has a new book), Layli Long Soldier, Allison Cobb, Raquel Salas-Rivera, Rob Stanton, Wendy Trevino, Jeff Sirkin, Sarah Mangold, and Rosa Alcala, whose new book I’m especially looking forward to.
- What is the last book of poetry you’ve read?
It’s been a sadly long time since I read a book from cover to cover. I think the last book I read the whole thing of was josé felipe alvergue’s GIST : RIFT : DRIFT : BLOOM from Further Other Book Works. It’s a gorgeous book.