Extra, extra! Slam poets, drag queens, and the birds and the bees—an interview with Karyna McGlynn
“Nurture your obsessions”—Poet Karyna McGlynn talks about her new book, Hothouse, where she finds her inspiration, and offers some tips and tricks for new writers.
Karyna McGlynn is the author of Hothouse (Sarabande Books 2017), I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl (Sarabande Books 2009), and several chapbooks, including The 9-Day Queen Gets Lost on Her Way to the Execution (Willow Springs Editions 2016). Her poems have recently appeared in The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, Georgia Review, Witness, and The Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day. Karyna holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Michigan, and earned her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston where she served as Managing Editor for Gulf Coast. Her honors include the Verlaine Prize, the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, the Hopwood Award, and the Diane Middlebrook Fellowship in Poetry at the University of Wisconsin. Karyna recently taught in the Creative Writing department at Oberlin College and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Literature & Languages at Christian Brothers University. Find her online at www.karynamcglynn.com.
Last year you published your second book, Hothouse. What was most challenging for you while you were going through the writing/editing/production process?
The hardest part for me is trying to figure out which poems are speaking to each other and how they might come together to form something I could plausibly call a “collection.” I often feel like my poems are too thematically or stylistically diverse to live comfortably together. I wasn’t really able to conceptualize the book or figure out what should go in it until I knew what the title was. Once I came up with the title Hothouse and started thinking of the book as a series of rooms (which I was inspired to do while reading Bill Bryson’s At Homewith Grey Gardens playing in the background), the poems pretty quickly snapped in to place—both in terms of sequence and revisions. This, by the way, is exactly what happened when I put together my first book. I hope I’ve learned my lesson: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing until I have a title! It’s funny that it took so long for me to figure this out since I’m always telling my students, “If you don’t have a good title, it probably means you have no idea what your thesis is.”
In both Hothouse and I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, I noticed a lot of your poems incorporate very unique formatting choices. To what extent does form follow function in your poetry, and what value do you think that adds to a particular piece?
I’m pretty much obsessed with typography, lineation, enjambment, and white space. I would get even crazier if I thought people would like it. (As you might imagine, I aesthetically swooned when I started reading Douglas Kearney.) I’ve always loved finding ways to write poems in columns and boxes. I think it has something to do with how maximalist my style is. As a student recently told me, my poems are “very extra;” I think the formatting is a way of harnessing some of that “extra” energy and making it manageable. In terms of value it’s a mixed bag. Personally, I think there’s something interesting about forcing an “excessive” female voice inside the boundaries of a specific shape or lineation. It excites me (like a corset!), but I know it frustrates some readers, who are like, “Which way is this supposed to be read?!” And then I’m like, “Stop trying to ‘solve’ my poetry with your gender binaries!” And perhaps it’s also worth noting that I grew up in the slam poetry and drag communities in Austin. I love performing the drag of my gurlesque poetry, and I sometimes think the formatting is a way of costuming and performing on the page instead of the stage.
What was most influential for you in finding your voice as a writer?
It’s a six-way tie: Sharon Olds, drag queens, TCM, Frank Stanford, the Austin Poetry Slam in the 90s, and Robert Lowell.
Where do you find the most inspiration for your poetry? Or, where do you do your best writing?
If I’m ever feeling uninspired I go to an art museum and force myself to write a loosely ekphrastic poem in every single gallery. That usually produces some good work, or at least gets the faucet flowing again. It sounds cheesy, but my students are a big source of inspiration, as are my writer friends and stand-up comics. I spend a lot of time trying to spin embarrassments, regrets, and fears into something surreally and sonically interesting.
Just for kicks, why should people writefewer poems about bees?
Ha! Bee poems don’t bother me so much anymore, but Zach Martin and I were the editors of the literary magazine Gulf Coast at a time when there was a lot of news circulating about how bees were disappearing. While I totally agreed that this was an alarming trend (and still do), I remember getting very irritated by the huge uptick in the number of self-satisfied and baleful bee poems we received at the magazine. The more pervasive obsession for poets is birds. Too many bird poems! I’m guilty, too! At this point I just want poets to stop putting birds on their book covers.
Do you have any final comments for aspiring writers?
1) Nurture your obsessions via your writing and research (as long as you aren’t obsessed with birds).
2) Don’t be so precious about (and protective of) your early work. Just perform it and send it out. It’s probably terrible, but so what? The practice of submitting and sharing your work publicly will make you better. Just write more stuff. Write until the gold falls out of your mouth.
3) Find a group of writer friends who are better than you. Organize regular writing, editing, and submission sessions with them.
4) Try to win a poetry slam! It’s very educational. I’ve seen young writers improve ten-fold after participating in a few slams. It makes you much more aware of audience, compression, refrain, internal rhyme, rhythm, organization, ambiguity, and sensory engagement. Also, it’s fun (even when it’s terrible).
5) Read more contemporary writers, obviously. Imitate the ones you like mercilessly. (Don’t worry; you’ll still eventually develop a “voice of your own.”)
6) Write in a journal (with a pen) during hypnogogic states—right before bed, or right when you wake up.
7) Be weirder!
8) Don’t “aspire” to be a writer; just be one.
Interview by Kristin Rawlings