A Writer’s Insight: Kevin Prufer

Kevin Prufer’s poem, “In Small Spaces,” appears in the spring 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Prufer read the poem in our audio gallery here; read more about the inspiration behind the poem and current projects, as well as his favorite type of gin, below.

Kathleen Boland: What inspired “In Small Spaces”?

Kevin Prufer: I was doing the dishes one evening and happened to glance up at the television. On TV was a true-crime program about a voyeur who had crawled from his apartment to his neighbor’s apartment simply by removing the ceiling tiles and squeezing above the walls. I couldn’t get that image out of my mind—both the literal thought of someone doing that to someone else (I think he ended up murdering the woman on the program, though I left that out in my poem) and the metaphorical, the idea of a violent figure moving, unseen, from one realm into another, whose motivations are mysterious. It seemed like a particularly chilling and meaningful way of thinking about the divine.

KB: As a woman, this poem was pretty terrifying to read. The voyeurism depicted is gendered, not just that the victim is a woman, but that details of her are feminized; the man’s obsession with her pink toenails, for instance. What commentary, if any, were you aiming for with these choices?

KP: Yes, I was aware of the creepily gendered subtext. But isn’t that version of God—the God who lives above our ceiling tiles and watches our every move—frequently gendered, too? Personally, I’ve always found the idea of an all-seeing, all-loving, all-knowing God frightening . . . when I thought about it (which I did, a lot, when I was a boy). But it’s important that the news story about the man coming down from the ceiling is, in many ways, buried in the larger narrative involving the speaker in the poem—a guy who begins by watching the TV program, then descends into imagining what might really be happening inside the voyeur’s head, etc. That is, the larger creepiness of the poem is the speaker who can’t help but use the terrifying story he’s watching on TV to try to understand something frightening, sexualized, and invasive about the way we think about the divine.

KB: Halfway through the poem, the narrator’s bottle of gin begins to admonish the speaker: “Don’t think about the man in the rafters, / says my bottle of gin” and then, “Stop it, / says my bottle of gin, you’re inventing things.” How does this bottle of gin speak to the themes of gaze and surveillance in the poem? Of its meditation on God?

KP: Well, I imagined the speaker slowly getting drunk here—the bottle of gin offering him some escape from anxious thoughts, suggesting that oblivion might be an alternative. But, really, there’s no escaping an image—try not thinking about a blue elephant, after all. Or a creepy man hiding in your rafters.

KB: Along with Martha Collins, you edited an anthology of poetry in translation, Into English, forthcoming from Graywolf Press later this year. What is your experience with poetry in translation, especially when translated into English? Did you make any discoveries or realizations of the genre or language while working on this project?

KP: We invited twenty-five very experienced translators to each select a poem that has been translated into English at least three times. We’re reprinting all three translations alongside both the original poem and an essay on what the various versions tell us about the art of translation, poetry, and literary history.

I’ve worked a great deal with translators and have also translated some German poetry into English (and vice versa), but I am by no means the expert that Martha and our contributors are. For me, it was fascinating editing the essays, reading the versions of the poems, and thinking about how encountering different versions at once can lead to a prismatic and far deeper understanding of a poem. Working with these translators certainly deepened my sense of the enormous number of choices translators make—considering poetic music, image, diction, white space, tone, nuance, colloquialism. What does one favor? What does one suppress? How does one translate the experience of a poem?

KB: What are you working on now?

KP: I have a book coming out next year called How He Loved Them, a new collection of poems, quite a few of which appeared in The Southern Review. We’re in the final editing process of that, though I’ve mostly moved on to newer work—a poetry collection I’m tentatively calling The Art of Fiction; “In Small Spaces” will be included in that manuscript.

And I continue to work on the Unsung Masters Series, a book series I curate with Wayne Miller devoted to bringing great, out-of-print, little-known writers to new readers. Each volume includes not just a healthy selection of the writer’s work, but also features essays on the writer, interviews with people who may have known her, photographs, ephemera, reviews, etc. The next volume is on the mid-twentieth-century Colorado poet Belle Turnbull, and the editors will be David Rothman and Jeffrey Villines.

KB: And finally, what’s your favorite brand of gin?

KP: My favorite brand of gin is Cabernet Sauvignon.

Kevin Prufer is the author of six collections of poems, the most recent of which is Churches. With Martha Collins, he is currently editing Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries, which Graywolf Press will publish this year. In 2018, Four Way Books will release his next poetry book, How He Loved Them.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review.

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