A Writer’s Insight: Kai Carlson-Wee

Kai Carlson-Wee’s “Pike” appears in the winter 2018 issue of The Southern Review. Here, he discusses the value of creating liminal spaces within poems, his motivations for traveling and making art, and the ways in which poetry might evolve in the twenty-first century.

Garrett Hazelwood: “Pike” is told from the perspective of a woman, presumably near the end of her life, lying in a hospital bed and remembering her past. What was the impetus for this poem? How did you come to inhabit this particular POV?

Kai Carlson-Wee: My grandmother lived to be a hundred years old and died after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. She lived her last years in an old folks’ home, and, every time I went to visit, she’d recall certain memories. Sometimes she remembered who I was, sometimes she didn’t, but she was always excited to talk. She had a box of photographs she would take out of the closet to help her remember. One of the photos was of her children sitting in a small red fishing boat at the lake. This would occasionally trigger memories of her own childhood, images of the Midwest, vague comments about her parents. When she was very young, she was sent to live with relatives, and her memories of her biological mother and father were from a childhood perspective, isolated there. It seemed as if, as her recent memories faded, her long-term memories became more vivid and present. I wrote “Pike” because I wanted to capture a moment between her and her father, even as the reality of time warped and blurred. I was trying to imagine what this was like for her—existing without time or a narrative sense of life. I left the speaker out of the poem because I wanted the memory to take center stage and seem as real as the present moment.


GH: Many of the poems you write tend toward lyric, narrative storytelling and manage to convey a tremendous amount of information in relatively few lines. In “Pike,” I was struck by the fact that your character is in a liminal space between not only the past and present, and life and death, but also between the room she’s confined to and the world she can glimpse through her window. How do you see these kinds of layerings or palimpsests contributing to the creation of narrative?

KCW: I’ve always been interested in liminal spaces. There’s an energy there, a quality of anticipation mixed with grief. When you’re writing about a fixed place, either in terms of a physical place or a place in time, you start to limit your ability to invent reality. You become confined to the realism of the narrative, to the literal interpretation. There’s nothing wrong with realism, but one of the great powers poetry has is an ability to create reality outside of time. When you read a poem with a sharp metaphor or a wild association, there’s an energy created between two known things, or between two things that can be imagined, and this energy is completely unique and has the quality of the in-between. It works to suggest deeper layers of significance. When I go traveling without a fixed agenda—when I’m hopping trains or hiking off-trail in the mountains—I feel a similar kind of energy. The world reveals a larger aspect to me, a deeper meaning, and it feeds something essential in my spirit. In my twenties I went through a few serious depressions and the only two things that really helped me heal my mind were traveling and poetry. I don’t know the neurological reasons for this kind of healing, but I know it has something to do with existing in that liminal space, the sense of motion between two points, or as Kerouac wrote: “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”


GH: Much of your work is focused on experiences that happen in wild spaces, on the road, and outside of city limits. Now that you’re teaching at Stanford and living in San Francisco, have you found there’s been a shift in the thematic concerns of your writing? In the time you’ve spent in the Bay Area these past few years, what have been the most surprising changes or influences you’ve seen creeping into your work?

KCW: Not really. I mean, I love my students and the teaching is very rewarding, but I don’t view it as part of my identity. I didn’t get into writing to teach. I got into writing because I felt it was the only way I could translate the weight of my emotions. At times, I also felt like my actual brain would explode if I didn’t write something down. It was a way of coping with depression and surviving. There’s a depth you can get to in poetry that you just can’t feel with other mediums. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a quieter, more profound sense of meaning. It can stick with you and wedge itself into your guts. Music comes close, but with poetry it’s a more personal, spiritual thing. It’s like going to church without all the bullshit and fakery of religion. Most of my poems are built around nonfiction experiences, but they all stem from a Romantic need to transcend those experiences, to get beyond the physical world. I don’t think this need is contingent on where I’m living at the moment—sometimes being away from a place makes you write about it with more clarity—but being in San Francisco has definitely affected my imagery. I used to write about soy fields more. Now I write about fog and endless oceans. Sometimes they mean the same thing.


GH: From train hopping and hitchhiking to a stint as a professional Rollerblader to surfing in waters north of the Arctic Circle, you’ve lived quite the adventurous and wide-ranging life. Are you still managing to sneak off on the occasional adventure? Any exciting trips on the horizon?

KCW: Yeah, adventures are pretty important to me. Partly because of the “liminal space” thing we talked about earlier, but also because of depression and time. I mean, there’s a limited amount of time we all have to exist in this world. If we’re lucky, let’s say it’s like ninety-some years. We can take vitamins and exercise to try to extend things, but we can’t outrun the inevitable dark horse riding beside us. When you go on adventures and experience things in new ways, whether it be by traveling to a foreign country, going on a road trip, hanging with strangers, or whatever, there’s a way in which time slows down and you feel like a day can last a week, a month can last a year, et cetera. When I was depressed I became obsessed with outrunning my depression by traveling and slowing down time. If I stayed stagnant for too long I could feel the days slipping past and the depression cycle starting up again. I would freak out and start traveling. I quit jobs, commitments, relationships, anything. I would simply buy a ticket somewhere new and just leave. It was probably a hard time to be my friend, but this “adventuring” kept me more sane than all the medications I was taking. I think part of my impetus to travel now and to write so much about traveling is because I’m terrified of becoming depressed again. I never want to go back there. Also, I mean, life is just so fucking amazing and there are so many wild places and strange combinations of things—miracles, coincidences, unscripted moments of fate. People tend to forget how insane this whole existence is. I forget constantly; every day I forget. But traveling helps me feel more alive, and it helps me remember.


GH: You’ve gotten a lot of attention at conferences and film festivals recently for your award-winning documentary Riding the Highline and for the other poetry films you’ve made. What kinds of possibilities have you found open up when you pair film with poetry? Has the process for you been one in which you weave the two forms together after having created them separately? Or is there a sort of symbiosis in the composition process, where you find that what you can capture with the camera winds up pushing the words down avenues they otherwise might not have taken, and vice versa?

KCW: I think poetry and film were made for each other. They both allow for linear development, line breaks, deep tonal resonances, musicality, et cetera. The twentieth century has adapted the popularity of the novel to film, but I think the twenty-first century will see more development of the poem to film. People are already having less and less patience for long-form narratives, and are starting to respond to shorter forms in ways they never have. We’re seeing this on social media, obviously, but we’re also seeing an increased popularity in poetry. It’s becoming a little bit cooler to be a poet. I see this in my students, but also in public figures like James Franco and Jim Jarmusch. Poetry is suddenly on the radar. But I think the equation here is partly about brevity and partly about the logic of poetry. When you combine it with film, there’s a way in which the poem starts manifesting itself in the world, like, appearing spontaneously in symbols. I usually work in a documentary style, and, as I’m out looking for images, I’m drawn to things that reflect the emotional tone in the poem. Since it’s never quite literal, this creates a slant rhyme sort of feeling and pushes the meaning in new directions. Sometimes I don’t know where the rhyme is until I’m logging footage and editing and I see something emerge, some little moment, a gesture or something, and I’ll feel the connection to the poem. I mean, we’re living in this era of fake news and Twitter right now, and I think people are interested in a more poetic logic. We’re looking for metaphor, depth of feeling.


GH: I understand your debut collection, Rail, is due to be released in April by BOA Editions. Can you tell us a bit about it? Now that it’s nearly out, have you started on any new projects that we should keep an eye out for?

KCW: Rail is about the years I was traveling. I started the book in 2006, when I graduated from college, and I finished it last December. Most of the book is set on the road and is about freight trains, America, love, death, and spiritual journeys. I wrote the book as a “verse novella,” so there’s a linear progression of time, recurring characters, plot, symbolism, and things you would typically find in a novel. It’s meant to be read from start to finish. Themes are repeated and there’s a metrical pattern I used in the background to mimic the sound of a train. Anapestic, mostly. I don’t know what people are going to think of the book, but I put a lot of my life into the poems and I’m both thrilled and terrified to have it in the world. It feels like a secret I’ve been keeping to myself all these years, nurturing privately, and now it’s out there for anyone to see. It’s not that I’m worried about being judged, it’s that I don’t have this secret anymore, and it’s a sad feeling. I honestly wasn’t expecting to feel like that. I thought I would be elated, but the feeling is more melancholic. But yeah, I’ve got some new things on the horizon. Lately, I’ve been working on a few poetry videos based on Rail, and I’m also starting a book of nonfiction about a few specific adventures from those years. When I tell these stories people can’t believe they’re real, which I take as a sign I should probably write them down.

Kai Carlson-Wee is the author of Rail, due out this month from BOA. His photography has been featured in Narrative, and his award-winning poetry film, Riding the Highline, has been screened at film festivals across the country. A former Stegner Fellow, he lives in San Francisco and teaches poetry at Stanford University.

Garrett Hazelwood is the editorial assistant at The Southern Review. He was the 2017 recipient of the Kent Gramm MFA Award for Literary Nonfiction and his work was recently anthologized in Eclectica Magazine’s twentieth anniversary anthology of speculative fiction. He’s currently writing a novel and at work on a book-length essay about the usefulness of pain.

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