Interview with Tricia Knoll

WG: Almost any discussion of a writers development eventually comes around to the idea of finding a voice, but I think that in your poetry voice takes on an even more important function. Can you discuss the idea of voice with reference to your work?

TK: The origins of poetry rest in song. Rhyme and meter help a troubadour remember the next lines of a ballad. That oral tradition. My voice is unreliable. Bits of words drop out due to spasmodic dysphonia. (I have some tricks for doing okay at a poetry reading, relying on the quirkiness of my voice to contribute angst and energy.) But, I read poetry silently. I have had many mentors tell me to read my poetry out loud as part of an editing process, that the best poets do this. I don't. I think my writing out loud (if that makes sense) and that was true long before I developed a voice disability. I have different selves (feminist, leftist, lover of living things and the sciences of living things, gardener, athlete, etc.), and I nurture the expression of all those selves. I suspect people who have read a lot of my work would say that I have a fairly consistent "voice."

WG: On the subject of voice, did your poem, "You Suspect There is Something Wrong with Me" (published in this issue of Wordgathering) spring from an actual experience? What motivated you to write it?

TK: The poem describes exactly how I start any poetry reading. I wrote it for Wordgathering because I feel at home with the journal. What's wrong with my voice doesn't hurt; it's not cancer; I'm not afraid. All three of those perceptions seem reasonable given the way I sound. I ask the audience to go forward with me rather than worrying about me or feeling sorry for me. It sometimes takes people with spasmodic dysphonia a while to get a diagnosis. One member of the national association described the disability by saying, "It sounds like I'm afraid when I talk to my cat." I talked with a psychiatrist a few times about whether I was sort of shutting down to people. What's wrong is a neurological disconnect between my brain and my vocal chords. There are some short-term treatment options now (botox) which I found to not work well for me. Some people are having a surgery. So, this is the experience I've lived in relationship to being a poet with a wonky voice. Today my voice is particularly scratchy, spasmodic. Yesterday was better (I think.) I do sing to myself. I "hear" every sound I believe I'm saying, even the ones other people don't so sometimes it's hard to remember that my voice isn't perfect. People always try to be kind; it's the endless occasions of "what did you say?" that are sometimes frustrating. I know they want to know what I said. I get tired of repeating myself. And, those electronic phone interfaces never work for me. In every-day limited-contact situations (at the grocery store, for example) some people seem to assume there is more wrong with me than my voice. I have taken to not being worried about being the little old lady who is not all there. Retreating into silence allows me to observe and process how I think other people are reacting to me in situations where I am the stranger. Is silence a disguise? (I've written many poems about silence.) I'll confess to wishing I knew sign language. I'm studying tai chi and have been struck with how it acts as a kind of sign language for my meditation.

WG: Thinking about that poem and about your most recent book, How I Learned to Become White, how do you think your poetry has changed from when you first began writing? Do you feel you are the same writer you were when you started?

TK: My writing has changed some. I've avidly studied craft through workshops with wonderful teachers such as Andrea Hollander, Naomi Shihab Nye, Joan Logghe, and Kim Stafford. I try to attend as many generative workshops as I can, organized by amazing poets Penelope Scambly-Shott and Paulann Petersen and many others. This is about honing, sharpening the knife. As if I'm sculpting.

That said, what I write about is what is in my life at any given time. My chapbook Urban Wild (Finishing Line Press) focuses on how people and wildlife interact in urban habitat. Next I was selling a weekend rental beach house I had owned for 25 years in Manzanita, Oregon and I pulled together poetry of that place to say good-bye to Oregon's northern coast in Ocean's Laughter (Kelsay Books). Broadfork Farm (The Poetry Box) is a series of love poems for the people and creatures of a small organic farm in Trout Lake, Washington where I farmed on and off for seven years. I spent almost three years assembling the poems in How I Learned To Be White (Antrim House) — reflections on how my ancestry, childhood, education and more contributed to my understanding of white privilege and the climate we know today concerning race in America.

I owe a debt of gratitude to The Feral Poets (Pattie Palmer-Baker, Cathy Cain, Carolyn Martin, and Shawn Aveningo-Sanders) who met at my house once a month for three years as a critique group for their recommendations on specific poems. Now I'm attending a critique group in Middlebury, Vermont – the Otter Creek Poets. These folks influence my writing for the better.

I'm reading more poetry these days than I was when I first began writing. I have books by Hayden Carruth, Ruth Stone, translations of several Chinese poets, W. S. Merwyn, David Graham, Kim Stafford, an anthology of mindfulness poems and others on the table next to my bed. Although that list looks male-heavy, my poetry library is probably 80% poetry by female poets.

Most of what I'm writing today is tinted with changing perceptions of having moved from Oregon (where I lived for 45 years) to a small town in Vermont in 2018. I live with a big dog and a little dog and hold silence for longer than ever before. In January 2019 I participated in Tupelo Press' 30-30 challenge: to write 30 poems in 30 days. I witnessed to silence and snow. Writing eco-poetry and poetry of place comfort me.

WG: Can you give us a sample of one of your poems from Urban Wild that address the interactions of human beings wildlife in urban environments?

TK: This is one of my favorites from Urban Wild. It takes place in a pioneer cemetery that is well-known in Portland, Oregon.

Night Feeders

The cop's cruiser patrols east.
Saturday night may turn
to drunks and domestics.
Wet streets, tire slosh, midnight traffic.
Three youths in bandanas and black jackets,
a man in a motorized wheelchair with a whole earth flag.
She pinches her thigh, tight blue pants on slick seat,
a fat test before her next fitness challenge.
Voodoo Doughnuts is open all night.
Coffee. Maple bars. Or carrots and broccoli in her bag.

Sunken graves, tipped stones,
the pioneer graveyard promises this man only an owl
gives a hoot at a lean January moon
hung in wisps of shredded cloud.
At the service center they call him William. He rustles in his pack, hauls out a tarp
and tucks a slab of hand-me-out carrot cake from St. Andrews
in the lip of plastic beside his knife sharpened
to shine – talismans against wary night with bite.
One yank on knitted cap under sweatshirt hood.
Blankets from his cart, not too damp, unfold on tarp.
He rolls up like a cigar and closes down
hooded eyes against jungle blood.
He'll be gone before the jogger's Jack Russell
sniffs crumbs of sweet cake. The great horned owl waits
atop a Douglas fir, glad to be rid of a mob
of crows at the golf course. He shifts
at crackle of tarp and plastic
near the mausoleum's wrought-iron fence.
He hears a siren, a man snoring. He swivel-blinks
for vole, mouse, the low belows of graveyards
calling forth launch, float on silent wing
to feed on this, the end of day.

WG: It is interesting how this one poem seems to contain the seeds of so many of the themes that you explore in your poetry. One of those that you have mentioned is eco-poetry. As you know, that is something of a trendy genre right now, but clearly, as "Night Feeders" suggests, it is something you have been invested in for quite a while. What do you mean by eco-poetry? How does this connect with your idea of poetry of place?

TK: Last fall I was on a panel at the University of Vermont that delved into the relationship between science and the arts to communicate responses to climate crisis. I've had time to think about poetry's role. Responding to nature has been a staple of poetry for centuries. Eco-poetry accepts a certain human responsibility for what is happening to the environment or places that we love.

Science provides details about what is happening in our world, what can be done to remedy adverse changes, and a vocabulary for describing impacts and future scenarios as modeled. By convention science avoids emotion. Eco-poetics takes facts and translates those into how we feel about what we know. It relies on how our senses feel, taste, touch, and smell change through the lens of experience. Perhaps childhood; perhaps aging. Eco-poets bring to light worry at the fringes, the nightmares that haunt us. Poets may focus on laments or the stories we wish we did not have to tell our children, the stuff of thought at the visceral and tactile level. Image and metaphor join with the ancient song-saga techniques of rhyme and meter to evoke nostalgia, outrage, or empathy to complement intellectual awareness of climate crisis.

Poetry of place explores locales that we know. The hometown you return to remembering wide swathes of forest that have turned to mini-malls and subdivisions. Summer wildfires unlike anything that your neighbors have experienced in over 50 years on living in one place. How you remember Glacier National Park when the glaciers were robust and what you feel when you realize the glaciers are melting. These monster storms.

This winter Vermonters endured a Polar Vortex, a slip-sliding of the pressure zones that installed severe cold over the region for longer than normal. We're told to expect this to happen more frequently.

I wrote this poem letting the vortex who I feminized speak for herself:

Pola Vortex

I am the witch's tit.
You people never get me right. My bitch bra is made of silver, not brass. I make mirrors and hand you froth. I go by many names, but call me Pola. The lusty wind diva. Cringe all you like.
Be warned: Jail break! I am no longer stuck to the cloverleaf of north. I swoop down to kick ass on your sad little towns, clog your straight-arrow roads, shiver your timbers, and kill your weak. ICE? You ain't seen nothing yet. I lock you homebound.
I rub you raw. Push me with plows? I keep coming. I'm higher than your kites, clouds, skyscrapers and drones. My slip shows — flakey lace. White and quite long-wear-you-down. Hah! I'm a swirling hurl-a-girl layback spin, skating your way every chance I get on ice-sharp blades. Flashing my flowing skirts — silver thaw and midnight blue.
You ignored me. You favored rant-chants about warming. While the sea beneath me went soft. We are going to dance, you and me. Like it or not, I lead. Buckle up your boots. Snowshoes. All-wheel drive and all-weather coats.
You don't have time to tame me. I'm counter-clockwise. Pola revolutionary.
Fools unlocked the gate. I'm no more stay-at-home dame. Good times Pola Mama. You get what you deserve.

WG: I want to stick with this idea of poetry of place for a bit longer and talk about it in terms of craft. How do you invest your poetry with a sense of place? How do you approach your writing of a poem of place and what lets you know if you have succeeded?

TK: I have an insatiable appetite for knowing the names of things: the trees that surround my house, the insects that crawl on my armchair, the wildflowers in the woods. I haven't managed to track down every name for everything that interests me, but knowing more each day makes me feel solid, rooted. I am not separate where I am. The more I understand how place changes or even manipulates me, the more comfortable I am. I know that the work of writing may take me into places that are less comfortable, but I know where I am starting.

Having only lived in Vermont for one year, I still ask questions like why all the barns are red or hay is mowed into circular bales. I see that the long, cold winters have an epiphany — when evaporating steam rises from the sugar shacks. It's a natural metaphor for celebration, an uplifting of the patient reserve of surviving a winter, ready to fling imagination into the sky. Winter seems earthbound. Everything bows under the weight of snow or seems dirty from the over-lingering of plowed slush.

I am thinking of a poem I wrote as I was on a fishing boat pulling out of Juneau's harbor, heading into an inland sea dead to cell phones and internet. A friend was going into hospice. I do not have to be on that boat again to remember the feelings I had. My thoughts were in the color of the water, the mist in the air, the sense of disconnection. That was a poem of only that place and time.

As for craft, I want to get details right — both in terms of description and affect. I am now sitting under a bitternut hickory tree, not just a large shade tree. It's "short lived" as hickories go…only two hundred years. An arborist said it's about 150 years old now. I am even more short-lived.

Succeeded? I have many "poems of place" that have never been published; some have been submitted to journals. I still feel good about those poems. It comes down to being able to say I know where I was or am in relationship to a world of impermanence. That seems like succeeding when it feels true.

WG: Perhaps "succeeded" was not the best choice of words. I was not really asking about publication, but about your own feeling that you have achieved what you want with a poem, so let me back up and approach it from another angle. Can you describe what your process of writing a poem is like? How do you know when the poem is finished?

TK: I start with one idea; usually one word or an image. I write around it and into it. The political poetry I write mostly starts in anger or pain. Narrative pieces start with a story I remember that seems important.

Usually I overwrite; I'm wordy. One writing teacher referred to bleeders and gushers. Bleeders have to push out each word slowly. Gushers leak all over the page. I'm a gusher. If I get stuck, I go pull weeds.

Next I prune. I save what I've done and pick it up again the next day. And then the day after until I'm satisfied. That's succeeding, feeling good about it. I take problem poems to a critique group I'm in, the Otter Creek Poets in Middlebury, Vermont, and the other poets offer wonderful suggestions. When poems come back with rejections, I look at them before I send them out again.

Some poems suggest an edit in a few weeks or months. I'm not sure any poem is every really done; I love fiddling; but often if they are published, I move on. I seem to write at least 200 poems each year and many, many more haiku. The haiku are how I journal my life. I may capture a seasonal image I want to use later in a poem. I really enjoy writing and editing. I call it playing and am grateful that I can play in this way.

WG: Now that your last book, How I Became White, has been out for a while, do you have plans for a new book? What have you been working on lately?

TK: I have a manuscript One Bent Twig which has been making the rounds but hasn't been picked up yet. I'm one of those people who talk to trees, feels something in my feet through root communication, and who is thrilled by the science describing trees mutuality with fungi and each other. I suppose it is time to re-edit that manuscript.

Now I'm working on poems about Vermont moods with the fresh eyes of a newcomer and the old eyes of a senior. That includes enduring winter and mud season, living alone, relishing the taste of maple, and finding myself with some family nearby and two patient dogs. I've been reading poetry by Vermont poets: Ruth Stone, David Budbill, Hayden Carruth, Sydney Lea, Grace Paley, some Frost and more for settling into this place. I also write poems about current politics and events which find homes in online news/poetry blogs and journals.

And the haiku practice, my journal. Two recent:

mixing bowl ads
in-line online
with news on white supremacy

two little brown bats
handshakes
grabbing moths

WG: I want to wish you good luck with the One Bent Twig manuscript and it will be interesting to see how your future poems respond to the reading of Vermont poets. Before closing, do you have anything you'd like to add to what you have said already?

TK: I wish when I was younger and I wanted to write poetry that I had taken the time to do it more often than I did. And taken the time to read more poetry then.