I knew I was going to like the poet Kate Kingston the minute she shared this story during our first dinner together at Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming:
“When my youngest son was a teenager, he told me me, ‘No one over thirty can snowboard.’ I said, ‘Do you want to make a bet?’ We did. I won. I was in my forties, and by the time I was fifty I gave up skiing and have been snowboarding ever since. Why? It’s more poetic. More in tune with the mountain.”
I met Kate in April at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts where we were both writers in residence for a month. Kate is not only a talented poet, but she also has a zest for life that is contagious. She is always up for an adventure, whether it’s snowboarding, skiing, riding horses, traveling to Spain or Mexico, or teaching Spanish to a room of rowdy high school students. We were hard-pressed to keep up with Kate’s bottomless well of energy.
Playfulness is an essential part of the creative process. In order to work well, we must also play well, as our residency at Brush Creek continually reminded us. (My own creative work always flourished after a long hike or a game of basketball.)
The sense of wonder and freedom we once knew as a child can be hard to rediscover. Playfulness is literally schooled out of us. Physical education and the arts are the first things to go when education funding is cut. And as adults, we wear our busy schedules like a badge of honor, as though the fullness of our calendar has a direct correlation to our own self worth.
But as artists, we must play in order to survive. Without it, there can be no receptivity, empathy, or happy accidents during the creative process. Play puts us in a state of readiness for the act of making our best work. I thought of this each time I saw Kate Kingston cross-country ski by my studio window. What may look like “goofing off” to an outsider is actually a critical part of the creative process. The boundary between life and art is really non-existent. Kate’s gliding through snow beside the gushing creek was its own form of poetry.
One snowy night during her open studio, Kate revealed more details about her writing process. So many people think that poems just appear, fully formed, she said, but they actually require a lot of gestation, work, and revision (as well as play). Stacks of paperback journals covered a table in Kate’s studio. These notebooks, where she records daily encounters, observations, and thoughts, serve as inspiration for her poetry. Kate read a sample page from her journal—a description of an afternoon spent skiing in Colorado. The prose was vigorous, astute, and surprisingly eloquent for a journal entry.
Many writers use daily journals and diaries as inspiration for their prose and poetry. (The writer David Sedaris has been keeping a diary obsessively since 1977 and has described its importance to his own writing process: “That’s how I start the day — by writing about the day before,” he recently told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.) Like Sedaris, Kate also begins each day with free writing.
The notebook excerpt Kate read to us that night contained the seeds of future poems; already she was making creative connections and recording scenes with language and imagery that were original and unexpected.
This process has its advantages—it allows an artist to capture a moment while the experience is still fresh and unfiltered. It is awareness in a raw state, before the critical mind can interfere. When a writer like Kingston or Sedaris returns to those journal pages days, weeks, even months later, there will be a sense of distance between the writer and the words on the page (a writer needs distance as much as freshness, after all). Kate’s writing process creates a special convergence between raw experience, intellect, critical judgment, and intuition.
Originally from Wisconsin, Kate has called Colorado home for many years now, and her work resonates with landscapes, stories, and images from the American West. Her adopted home suits her, for she brings an outsider’s eye to the lives of Native Americans, Hispanic women, mothers, daughters, bullfighters, and hardscrabble pioneer women. Spain and Mexico also feature prominently in her work, as does her love for the Spanish language.
Wyoming is like no other place I’ve been: the big sky, the snow-blindness, the antelope and elk, the desolate state highways that close for days on end when snow and wind turn roads into deathtraps for truck drivers. New Englanders have a reputation for self-sufficiency and independence, but until you’ve stood in the middle of a desolate Wyoming prairie with the biting, icy wind freezing your face and hands, you can’t imagine the courage and self-reliance those early Western settlers possessed.
It is observations like these that Kingston captures beautifully in her writing. Kate’s poems vibrate with history, but also future possibilities. She understands that awareness is everything in artistic practice, just as it is in daily life. To inhabit the lives of others through imagination is one of poetry’s special traits, and as readers, we’re privileged to experience the world through the eyes of Kate Kingston.
Enjoy your Sunday.
Shaking the Kaleidoscope
I cannot recall violence,
only cigar smoke
and the ruined air of traffic,
filling my nostrils, cannot
the way the shell cracks
between my teeth,
or myself dropping
from a metal
bar chipping my front
tooth on happiness,
the stain of blood in sand,
nothing like the matador
gored in the groin,
so that my lament rises
up next to Lorca
and smells of wet ashes.
I cannot recall the sound
of the trolley, its chime
diminished by cathedral bells
nor the prints my knees
left in sand when my mother
lifted me to the car,
cannot recall the taste of honey
nor the voice of the vendor
selling split melons,
nothing like the pigeon,
guttural warble echoing inside
the jojoba, iridescent neck
collecting sunlight, not unlike
this street woman asking
me for pesetas, her shoes
as silent as the voice
that refuses. Not violence
to refuse a woman a handful
of coins for her story
spelled out in the sad leather
of her everyday shoes.
I cannot recall violence,
but one morning my son’s face
turned blue. I forced
my own breath into his lungs,
cannot recall the sound of waves
claiming shore or the way
his feet toed-in, only the cadence
of silence, nothing like
the chain of mountain peaks
suffering from lack of rain.
I cannot recall the way a knife
slices coconut into quarter-moon
wedges, cannot recall cleats
biting into cobblestone, nor the bull
lifting his horns to the groin,
the matador spilling onto sand,
nothing like the pomegranate
or the blue face of a child
when his lungs will not pull air,
nothing like exhaust filling
my nostrils or pesetas
dropping into an open palm.
I cannot recall the taste
on my tongue when I was saved
by the skin-of-my-teeth, nothing
like a-nick-in-time, the sharp
rasp of tooth against metal
punctuating sand with red, nothing
like the matador lighting his cigar,
the infirmary bed vibrating
under his weight, nothing like
the word Olé etched in sand as bells
shake the sky from its reverie
of white distance, nothing like
the dog with no collar sniffing
my left foot, the dog who stole
the eyes of the beggar woman. Pesetas
are not like violence, they make no
sound unless you drop them
into a cup, nothing like the girl pulling
a balloon by the string. Her father
calls, Marí, ven aquí, and the balloon
rises to the cathedral spire.
I cannot recall violence,
how it wears a red hat and stands
on the corner selling news,
lives on the beach in corrugated
cardboard, changes its name
to Passion and stays out
long after midnight, cannot recall
violence, but by the crack
of my teeth on metal, I knew
the world resonated with chipped
porcelain, that I would go crazy,
have fun with it, shake it up,
and return to the sound of cathedral
bells slicing sky into bite size
pieces, nothing like the woman
on the corner of Canal and Recreo
peeling mangos into ripe moons
that resonate on my tongue.
Riding the Blue Bus
Granada, Alicante, Molina de Segura, Spanish towns
strung like rosary beads in my mother’s hand. Albacete,
all the ahs of Spain roll off my tongue like the Hail Mary
my mother repeated, her fingers tender on each bead. Molina
de Segura, I look for the windmill of safety as radio crackle
infiltrates the Eagle’s song, This could be heaven or this could
be hell, all the way from Baja to Murcia. Welcome to the Hotel
California, repeats itself like the phrase Now and at the hour
of our death, which I should never mention while traveling,
nor should I mention the scorpion that raised its spear-like
tail, sensing my bare foot. Fortuna Archena. Good fortune,
and a chain of arches, how names conjure shapes as we travel
through lemon orchards, their yellow eyes surrounding the bus.
The radio turns to the Monkeys, I’m a Believer, and I know
I am. Windmills revolve, change wind to electric. Now Simon
and Garfunkel harmonize, I am leaving. I am leaving. The windmills
stay behind touring acres of sky, tender blue cielo. Tierno
como un beso, the Bimbo bread sign reads. Tender as a kiss,
I translate. Now we pass Yecla, Jumilla, like the names of sisters,
then Mula, and I think of burlap sacks bulging with oranges
slung over the mula’s spine. I think of my mother’s hips bracing
laundry, grocery bags, the everyday weight of children. But I
am a woman made of chalk and pencils, who carries a notebook
filled with names of Spanish towns, a woman who listens
to the bus radio blow static in one window and out the other.
History of My Body
Once this body went into treason, the flat-chested girl
pushed Willie Wall into the thorn bush, and never
stopped riding her pogo stick up and down the driveway
until her brother broke it. The history of this body
is the angel in snow working her arms and legs in long
slashes. The history of this body is like breaking up
a jigsaw puzzle, then letting the pieces float in the river.
Have I told you I’m the hero of this body? I’m as
fluid as water spilling into the boat. I could save you,
but first, you almost have to drown. Once a botfly
laid eggs in this thigh. Hatched larvae trekked
pink stripes across my skin, newborn veins radiating
from the mother egg. The history of this body
has a housefly in its ear, buzz ricocheting like geometric
lace. Take this history back to the tonsillectomy,
back to ice cream in its swollen throat, back to the way
these lips enter a room full of men. Take this ear,
a barrage of spider veins trapping sound. History
of my body inhales secondary smoke from my father’s cigar,
inhales primary perfume from my mother’s neck, inhales
the broken leaves of autumn crushed beneath my boot.
That pile of minuscule hands pries at the lawn
until I sweep them into a heap and plow through
like a sorceress with conical hat and faithful broom.
This body remembers trick-or-treat, its Snicker bars
and bruised apples. This body remembers the way dried leaves
scratch the skin when I somersault into the pile
of tattooed veins—oak, elm, maple—then wrap myself
in a sarong of silver water. Inside this body, flies buzz,
this body with cake on its tongue.
I Cannot Name this Place
I live in the plaza of pigeons—orange necks, turquoise
feathers, pink claws tracking the grey rasp of cobblestone.
I live with cathedral bells, how they harbor the voices
of saints, the mewing of kittens. Wind enters like a rumor
tugging at the pages of my notebook, reminds me
of the swamp where I buried my feet in black mulch
up to my calves while a snapping turtle buried her eggs
in sand. I care about winter and my own mother hooked up
to the machine of morphine good-byes, but it is my daughter
who paces the floorboards. I want to circle the plaza,
walk into sunshine and traffic on Calle de Insurgentes, smell
acres of corn roasting. I want to taste licorice and wear
taffeta. I want the sound of engines to stomp out the ashes
of a memory where my daughter wrestles, her throat gripped
by that crazed boy who dragged her up a flight of stairs
by her neck. Her cousin saved her, ran to her own mother
and said, Jason’s hurting her, while I was out alpine skiing
the slopes, blue Utah sun in my hair. Now she has become
the asphalt I dream on, that warm place under the plaza bench
where I store my cigarettes and empty bottle, the place
where pigeons never enter. Their cooing fills me with stones.
Sometimes you slip when you swing out over the lake,
your fingers clenching a frayed rope, your legs dangling.
The cold splash. Water up your nose. Or on the frozen pond
you slip on the tail of crack-the-whip, your figure skates
gliding out from under. Sometimes you slip when you balance
just so on the kitchen stool reaching for the cinnamon
rolls Aunt Ila tucked behind the saucers, or you slip when
you cross the metal pole in the closet, hand over hand,
you slip and land in a pile of rubber boots with metal clasps
that jangle and scratch the back of your legs.
Sometimes you slip when you cross the monkey bars, your front tooth
cracking on metal as you fall, or when you follow
your brother and Eugene up Big Hill, you slip and gravel
bites into your knees, so they know you are there,
but they let you climb with them anyway, if you carry the bottles
of Coke in your pack and don’t tell anyone.
Sometimes you slip when you walk from the church to the rectory
with a basket of donuts for the priest, you slip
leaving streaks of pink frosting in the blades of grass. Sometimes
you slip when Bobby holds your hand
and roller skates around the rink, you slip and feel the wooden floor
heave and buckle under his laughter as he reaches
with both hands to pull you up, or when you drive the icy roads
of Wisconsin with your new license, you slip and the Chevy
spins into white powder. Sometimes you slip when you descend
the backstairs with a suitcase headed for college
or when you walk down the aisle, everyone in town watching
the back of your head. Sometimes you slip when you pull
your daughter across a white field on her new sled or when
you lean over the edge of a canoe on Silver Lake, you slip
in over your head and almost drown from laughing so hard,
water up your nose.
Sometimes you slip when the trail up to Devil’s Causeway
is muddy, you slip and fall all the way back to the trailhead,
to your red Subaru parked in the shade of a willow. Sometimes
you tumble past your car back to the highway.
You hear blue jays recite your name backwards in the juniper,
but you keep rumbling with gravity. You roll back
into town, and spin recklessly around a curve, tumbling
down Main. You pass Jimmy just home from Vietnam,
and your mother clothes-pinning sheets in the sun.
You tumble past your brothers playing baseball
behind the Point Brewery and your sister whispering secrets
in front of Woolworths. The scent of greasy
burgers wafts from the open door. You reach out to grab
old friends, but their fingers come off in your grip,
and now you are somersaulting down Iverson Hill.
The momentum reaches a crescendo. You are a musical
note piercing the sound barrier. Gravity has you in the thick
of its fingers. Dawn sheds graffiti on your battered
limbs as you somersault over the Wisconsin Street Bridge
and come to a halt Sunday morning on the freshly
poured sidewalk of Saint Stephen’s Church. Father McGinley
blesses you with holy water. Sister Veronica washes
your wounds. You leave an imprint of your face in concrete.
About Kate KingstonKate Kingston’s most recent book of poems, Shaking the Kaleidoscope, published by Lost Horse Press, 2012, was a finalist in the 2011 Idaho Prize for Poetry. Previous collections of her poetry include In My Dreams Neruda, El Río de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio, and Unwritten Letters. Kingston has been awarded fellowships from Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, the Colorado Council on the Arts, the Harwood Museum, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and Fundación Valparaíso in Mojácar, Spain, among others. She is the recipient of the W.D Snodgrass Award for Poetic Endeavor and Excellence awarded by Kathleen Snodgrass. She was also a finalist in the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and the Arts and Letters Rumi Prize for Poetry and has received several Push Cart Prize nominations. Her poems can be found in the Atlanta Review, Ellipsis, Great River Review, Hawai’i Review, Hunger Mountain, Margie, Nimrod, the Pinch, Rattle, Runes, and Sugar House Review. Kingston received her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Norwich University.
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All poems © Kate Kingston. These poems appear in Shaking the Kaleidoscope, published by Lost Horse Press (2012), and were reprinted with permission from the author and Lost Horse Press. All Rights Reserved. “History of My Body” originally appeared in Rattle. “Shaking the Kaleidoscope” was originally published in Nimrod International Journal. “Gravity” was first published in Margie and Words and Images.