Like so much of the poetry we read, we connect to the words that resonate with our souls, and I found Kirsten Dierking’s poems at a time in my life when I needed them. I had just had my first baby, and a friend from my poetry book club mentioned she has heard Kirsten Dierking read a beautiful poem about a baby and lilacs at a poetry reading. She told me that although she couldn’t remember the last line exactly, that I had to read it. Like the impatient person that I am, I went home googled, and found information about Kirsten Dierking’s poems, but just wasn’t sure how to find that poem. So in the age of technology, I emailed her. She quickly responded telling me the poem was in her book Tether, and was titled “Lilacs”. When I got her book, “Lilacs” was everything my friend Kathy had promised. “Breathe deep, it goes so fast.” was the simple and perfect last line to the poem. As I read the rest of her collection, I caught myself sending her poems to my writer friends, one of which was the “The Gray Cat” that I emailed to Susan Solomon. We both recognized her perfect description of the cat in the poem, and so the idea for this interview was born.
Kirsten Dierking is the author of three books of poetry: Tether, Northern Oracle and One Red Eye. Her poems have been read numerous times on the radio program The Writer’s Almanac, and have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, American Places. She is the recipient of a 2010 McKnight Artist Fellowship, a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant for literature, a Loft Literary Center Career Initiative Grant, a SASE/Jerome Grant, and a writing residency at the Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts. Kirsten currently teaches humanities courses at Anoka-Ramsey Community College. In 2009, she received the Building Bridges Award in Education from the Islamic Resource Group of Minnesota, and in 2011, she received the NEA’s Excellence in the Academy Award for the Art of Teaching.
Sleet: Tether, your third book of poetry, was published in 2013. How long were you working on this collection of poems?
Kirsten Dierking:I worked on the poems for about five years.
Sleet: Are there any poems that you feel especially proud of or more surprised by than others?
KD: I think the poem I am most proud of is the Thunder poem, partly because I usually write short poems and this is a long poem—although it's a long poem made up of ten short parts! But it begins with something my husband said about thunder, and then goes through different thoughts and scenarios about thunder and storms, but ends up back with my husband. I liked the freedom of meandering through different ideas on the same subject, but having it come around in a circle. I like the last lines of Darkness, Distance, Nightfall, where I say I want to live forever, because it felt both honest and, as I say in the poem, a little shameful—one of those things you think, but you're a little scared to admit out loud. I'm proud of the line where I set down the cat "her quicksilver body sluicing like water/through the channel of my letting-go hands", because when I wrote that, I thought yes, that is exactly what it's like to set down a cat.
Sleet: Are there any poems in particular that you wrestled with?
KD: I think so much with poetry, you're trying to put into words, actions or images or feelings that defy description—I think sometimes you think you've got it pretty close to right, but then sometimes you feel like you get it really right. I'm glad for those moments, because most of the time, I have to work hard to try to get those moments into words. That's more of my wrestling process—I will have a poem mostly done, but then I struggle with one image, or one feeling I just can't get into words in the way I want. Sometimes I have to settle for getting it "mostly right."
Sleet: In Tether, you have a gift for embodying and portraying the natural and aspects of nature as well. In two poems that I love, Lilacs and The Forest, this is especially true. What is it about the natural that you find particularly inspiring?
KD: I both walk and run in the woods, through wetlands, and around lakes several times a week, in all seasons. Maybe it's because I'm an introvert, but being out in the undemanding quiet of nature is enormously soothing and restorative to me. And maybe it's the poet in me that is always looking at little details, but there is so much to see each day—constant change, no two days are alike, and yet, the way nature and the season cycle, it's also familiar and comforting and similar. There are the couple weeks when the baby turtles hatch and I have to help a few off a hot, paved trail, there are the trails I can only hike in winter when the tall grass and underbrush is gone—different turtles, different snow on trails, but also the same cycles coming around each year, comforting like old friends. That's what I find inspiring—it makes me feel like time passing is okay, and time passing—the way it passes in a rush, then sometimes seems to slow, almost stall—is something I was very focused on in this book.
Sleet: Are there any poets or writers, who write on nature or otherwise, that you find influence or speak to your body of work?
KD: Influences—I love Linda Pastan's spare poems that often notice little moments in nature, and she gets those moments and feelings so right. I love Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey poem. I love Ray Carver's poem What the Doctor Said because in a poem about finding out he's going to die, there is this miraculous, blessed image of a waterfall right in the middle of it - the sacred quality of nature. And I love animal poems. Mark Doty's poem New Dog, for instance. I think what I find most moving and comforting, and again maybe this is my introvert personality, is the interactions we have with animals and nature where we don't have to speak, where we just sense that we're all part of the same big picture. Not co-existing with animals and nature, or above them, but just one aspect of the same natural world. Wordsworth gets at this beautifully when he talks about a spirit or energy "Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky" and that "rolls through all things." For me, the challenge is to get those unspoken intuitive feelings into words.
Sleet: I am fascinated with the process of putting together a collection of poems. What strategies did you use in putting Tether together?
KD: Well, first I just write poems, and see what direction they are going, and generally, a theme tends to emerge. I think this happens naturally a lot of the time, just because this is where you are at in your life when you're writing, this is what interests you, this is what you can't stop thinking about right now. Then when I have enough for a book, I look at how the poems should go together—some don't go at all, they're real outliers, so they get left out. My first book was very easy to order because it was a narrative, the poems told a story, so they needed to go chronologically. The second book was quite easy as well; there were distinct sections in my mind that addressed different topics.
Sleet: How do you decide which poems needed to be close together and which needed greater separation?
KD: Tether was hard because all the poems felt very closely related, and I had to try to put them into sort of micro-categories. For instance, the first section has poems that have sleep imagery. But almost all the poems have this overall theme of how we experience time passing, and a large majority of them have nature images, particularly water imagery.
Sleet: Tether is not your first book. How do you feel it is like your other books, including One Red Eye, your first book?
KD: One Red Eye is about my experience as a rape victim in college, and although I feel like I'm done writing about that particular experience, the effects of that assault crop up in both Northern Oracle and Tether. In One Red Eye, I write about being attacked when I was asleep in bed, and that later on, I have great difficulty sleeping and "crave good sleep." And then in Tether, there is that whole first section where sleep imagery shows up in the poems—even though I was not at all consciously trying to write about sleep at the time. I suppose that obsession with finding "good sleep" is just part of who I am now and it comes out when I write.
Sleet: How is this book different?
KD: I think Tether is different in that it's less narrative and more reflective, more imagistic. It has some longer poems, which is kind of unusual for me. I think in my earlier books I was trying to say something or communicate more precise, concrete ideas. The first two books had, at least in my mind, more of a traditional progression and resolution. The last section of Tether is about being okay with the things in life you will never fully resolve, and I think the whole book is more of an open question.
Sleet: Can you describe your creative process, or any habits you have picked up over the years that help you hone your craft?
KD: I get lost in thought easily, I'm a daydreamer about things I see and read, and I'm always trying to find connections between ideas and events. This is where a lot of my poems start. One thing I've learned when I find one of those connections is to stop and write it down, or else I lose it by the time I get to the computer. I get a lot of ideas out running, but sometimes I have a good idea when I'm still three miles from home, and I have to run all the way home repeating the line or thought or in my head so I don't forget—and this takes awhile, because I'm a slow runner! I have little jottings on scrap paper all over the place of ideas, interesting images, fragments of conversation, etc. Most often I get the idea or feeling first and then try to find the right language. Sometimes it happens the other way, sometimes the image is there and I know there's some reason I find it important, so I start with that and work my way through language to find its meaning.
I do think writing is work. There is that fun part when you sit down and brainstorm out your first drafts, but then doing serious revision—that to me is often just plain old work. I make myself do it with the same commitment I make myself get in my car and go to my teaching job. I make myself sit down and write even when I'm uninspired. A lot of what I learned in grad school helped—tips like letting the work sit for awhile before you revise, being ruthless about cutting out what might be a beautiful line or image, but isn't really necessary to the poem.
Sleet: In 1994 you graduated from Hamline University. Did you get an MFA?
KD: I actually received a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, with a concentration or major in Creative Writing. Hamline didn't start their MFA program until the year after I was done. But it was much the same writing program.
Sleet: How do you feel this has helped you in your life as a writer and in the process of becoming a published writer?
KD: It helped enormously, and I don't think I would have ever published anything without that program. The professors made me a much, much better writer. They shared their own experiences in the publishing world; I had no idea how that worked. And my classmates, several of them became life-long friends, and we all provided each other with a network of support. I think that is really necessary—writers get a lot of rejection, you need those friends who understand exactly what you're going through because they're going through it as well. My current writing group, the group that keeps me connected to poetry long-term (even when I'm taking a "poetry sabbatical") is made up of almost all Hamline grads. So that program was indispensable to me at the start of my writing career, and has been a continuing benefit and influence in my writing life for a couple decades now.
Sleet: As a teacher myself, I know how consuming the profession can be. Since you teach, how do you balance the time you give to your students and the time you spend with your own writing?
KD: Teaching is consuming, and, to be honest, the more I teach, the less I write. I teach the humanities, looking at all the creative arts, and I tend to put all my own creative thinking into coming up with effective lessons plans, or interesting discussions, or writing engaging online lectures. When I am done with that for the day, my creativity is often used up! However, because my classes deal in the progression of human ideas and creativity, they do spark my own thinking, and in Tether, I can see my humanities classes in that book—there are references to Hobbes, Freud, Equiano, Constable, Jacques-Louis David.
Sleet: Who are you reading right now? Are there any poets, writers, or pieces that you would recommend to our readership?
KD: Please read Linda Pastan! Her book Carnival Evening is a great place to start. I have always loved Lucille Clifton, Raymond Carver, Mark Doty. Please read Minnesota poets, there are so many incredible poets here. Right now I'm reading, or re-reading a book of Finnish-American writing called Sampo, The Magic Mill in preparation for the national Finnish Festival (FinnFest) that is happening in Minneapolis this summer—lots of excellent, local Finnish poets in there like Diane Jarvi and Sheila Packa. As for non-poetry, well, I suppose to be more respectable I should just say I recently read and recommend Amanda Foreman's Whitbread prize-winning biography, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, as well as Great Expectations (which I had somehow never actually read). But in the interest of full disclosure, I also just read and enjoyed World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, and I spent weeks last summer reading all the Game of Thrones books.
Sleet: Have you any other news, or further information that you'd like to share with our readers including a website, blog, or forthcoming publications?
KD: I have a chapbook of poems drawn from Northern Oracle and Tether that is coming out in a chapbook anthology published by Silver Birch Press in Los Angeles. I also have an article about sexual assault on campus coming out in the higher education journal Thought & Action—I wrote it in conjunction with Laura Gray-Rosendale, an Arizona professor who just published a memoir about sexual assault called College Girl. One of my poems that was read on The Writer's Almanac was translated into Italian for an Italian journal called Sagarana—that was very cool! You can find it here: http://www.sagarana.net/anteprima.php?quale=869
My own website is www.dierking.net—please send me an email, I am always glad to hear from readers and other writers!
Mary Wlodarski is a lover of all things animal, and lives in Minnesota with her two horses and miniature dachshund. She completed her MFA from Hamline University in the spring of 2013. Her current project is a collection of horse poems titled Speak Horse. She has had poetry published in the St. Paul Almanac, Sleet, Versus Literary Magazine, Shark Reef, and Spry.