Interview with Claire Kinnane, Spring 2010
In Capital Letters: What authors, books, poems, stories do you return to again and again?
Claire Kinnane: Selected Poems by E. E. Cummings, Book of Longing and Let Us Compare Mythologies by Leonard Cohen, and because I want to teach middle school English, Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shell Silversein.
ICL: What have you read most recently that has inspired you?
CK: Floodplain, Jenny Molberg's poetry thesis. I read it on the ferry on the way to Martha's Vineyard and had to stop reading twice to write poems of my own.
ICL: How did you come to writing? When and how did you realize you wanted to pursue this medium?
CK: In second-grade we had to write a short story. I had already begun reading Shell Silverstein poems and loved them. My teacher let me write a short collection of poems—a tribute to my dog, a tribute to some seashells I found the previous summer. I wanted to write poems. And my poetic sensibility seemed to begin with the ode. I try to remind myself of that what I feel blocked—I began writing tributes and I should always be able to find something to exalt, even if it's something small like the crystal in my window which hangs on a string.
ICL: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process? The most surprising? The most challenging?
CK: Due to chronic pain and nerve damage in my right arm, I have to use voice recognition software to write everything, use the Internet, edit my thesis etc. I'm grateful to assistive technology because it's allowed me to write independently but it's also a pain in the neck. Many times the program I use misunderstands me. Other times, I feel like writing while listening to music which I can't do because the program would start "writing" the lyrics or whatever it "hears." I can't write manually so that means I can't take a notebook to the park and write with my own hand on paper. I really miss doing that. I have learned, however, how much writing I can forge in my head without any paper or computer at all. I wrote almost my entire application packet of poems to American University while lying on my bed in the dark. I thought of each line in my head, broke the lines, remembered them, and then recited them into my microphone. Poetry is so endemic to who I am that I will always think in poems, so as long as my brain is working, I will find a way to "write."
ICL: What have you learned while being part of this MFA program? How has it influenced your writing?
CK: So much! As a poet I have learned to make my poetry more subtle in content and more specific and tactile in language. Thank you David and Kyle. As for nonfiction—I never wrote creative nonfiction before I took a workshop with Richard McCann. He taught me that to write well means only and exactly to write truthfully and that in fact is the hardest thing to do. It's hard to admit certain truths to ourselves and it's so tempting to create comparisons when telling the exact event is the more powerful thing to do. Richard taught me to be candid and brave. My workshops here have been invaluable to me.
ICL: You began the program with the intention of writing a poetry thesis. Tell us about your process of discovering nonfiction and your desire to write a nonfiction thesis.
CK: I love writing poems but I've written poems my whole life. I wanted to do something different and I wanted my MFA to signify an accomplishment in something new. My experience with anorexia in the eighth grade is something I've never written about in poetry. The story was too big for a poem. Also, I was afraid for a long time if I wrote about anorexia that I would summon it from within my depths and I would start having anorexic thoughts again. I avoided it for years and years. While taking Richard's class I realized that my experience is a pretty interesting story and I believed, with his help and the help of the workshop, I could write it. My anorexia didn't "come back." I just fell in love with creative nonfiction.
ICL: How do you think your writing has been informed by your personal history?
CK: It's only informed by my personal history! Everything I write is true. I'm fascinated by fiction writing because I've never been able to do it.
ICL: If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be?
CK: I'm going to use this question as an excuse to recite a few lines of a Leonard Cohen song which I've decided has my favorite lyrics of all songs. I also think it captures my mentality: "I sing this from the other side of darkness and despair/with a love so vast and shattered it can reach you everywhere/to the heart with no companion/to the soul without a king/to the prima ballerina/who cannot dance to anything." That's from "Heart with No Companion."
ICL: Tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.
CK: I took a couple dance lessons last year. Hip-hop and ballet. I love dancing even though I'm not very good at it. The thing that keeps me from dancing is that I don't know where I would dance or who I would dance for. In college, I would pretend I was a ballet dancer and danced in front of my mirror at night listening to Leonard Cohen. I didn't stretch beforehand because I don't know anything about dance or exercise and I strained a tendon in my right foot. I hobbled around campus for months. Now when I pretend to be a ballet dancer, I'm more careful.
ICL: What projects are you working on right now?
CK: I just finished putting together my poetry manuscript and I would like to try to get my thesis published as well.
ICL: If you weren't focused on writing, what would you be doing?
CK: Teaching creative writing. I'm going to teach writing to middle school kids at a summer program and next week I have an interview at a private school for a ninth-grade teaching job. I need to be around kids. If I had a job in which I was surrounded by grown-ups I would be so depressed every day. Just when you think a 10-year-old is not going to blow your mind with an intellectual concept he or she does. One of my students had the idea to write a dialogue between a letter and a word. Whoa! After the lesson we played with bubbles.
Poems by Claire Kinnane
WHAT I KEEP
All my days are one-of-those-days when I don't have a pen
but three plastic tubes full of honey which I bought for $.50 each
for three friends who no longer speak to me. Lost the friends,
kept the honey in the front zipper of my backpack.
A woman sits facing the window
on the top floor of Barnes & Noble. She says into a cell phone
her husband waved a gun in front of her and her children
and she wants a restraining order.
A boy my age sits between us and laughs out loud
every couple minutes as he turns pages of a fashion magazine.
He scribbles on a yellow notepad, looks up at me, smiles
but I don't want to start anything, pretend he doesn't exist.
I read an interview with Charles Simic in which he complains
people have lost their sense of wonder. I disagree;
I wonder what the boy finds so funny even though I don't ask
and if the woman is still in love, deep down, despite the gun.
I could eat the honey myself, finally puncture
the plastic tubes. But that would be a violent act
of loneliness. I want to empty them into your tea,
over your toast. Whoever you are.
He leans against the kitchen sink, teal green towel flung over his shoulder. Legs crossed, arms crossed, too; he is expert. Cool. My dad can read the wet face of a pancake like a sailor reads the sky. He knows, by the silent volcanic puffs on that liquid pockmarked moon just how brown it is underneath. "One more minute," he says. "Tango!" I declare. My soft right hand clasps his calloused left. He takes two dramatic steps, I take four, till the room stops. We pause. Swing around. Walk to the sink. Stop. We do this till the pancakes whisper flip us now. He never lets them burn. He never says This room is absurdly small for this dance.