Writer Kate Kingston lives in Trinidad, Colorado (Photo by Ron Thompson)
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.
Kate Kingston during her residency at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts in Saratoga, Wyoming. A small-world coincidence: the cowboy who took us riding turned out to be a former high school student of Kate’s from Colorado. (Photo courtesy Kate Kingston)
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.
Michelle riding a horse during her residency at Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming. The hat was on loan from Kate! (Photo by Eun Young Lee)
Kate reading her poems to the other artists in residence during her open studio at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. Composer Eun Young Lee looks on. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)
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.
Kate uses a journal like this one to record her daily encounters, observations, and thoughts, which serve as inspiration for her poetry (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)
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.
For today’s Sunday Poem feature, I have five poems from Kate’s latest collection, Shaking the Kaleidoscope (Lost Horse Press, 2012), to share.
Enjoy your Sunday.
The artists in residence at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts in April of 2013. From left to right: Visual artist Roger Feldman, composer Jeffrey Roberts, painter Anne Connell, poet Kate Kingston, interdisciplinary artist Corwin Levi, writer Michelle Aldredge, composer Eun Young Lee, and painter Sarah Fagan (Photo by Beth Nelson)
The main entrance to Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)
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.