Our Day in the Labyrinth by Kate Asche
Interview by Linda Michel-Cassidy
Linda Michel-Cassidy: The opening piece in your book of poems, Our Day in the Labyrinth, acts as a sort of instruction manual for the collection. In “Studia Intima,” the speaker offers the definition, in part, “The devotion of time and attention to systematic observation…for the purpose of establishing a contemplative and preliminary broader theory of intimacy…” Tell us a bit about how acts of noticing feed your work, and how precision and detail in seeing/noticing relates to that of writing.
Kate Asche: Printed words appear as small things. Syllables, phonemes, individual letters—smaller still. There is, in my imagining mind at least, a strong harmony between the apparent scale of language on the page, language in the ear, and the apparent scale of the so-called small things of our lives and our world. All of these things are magical things in that, though they present as small, they can bloom in an instant into utterances or artifacts that change our beings at the most fundamental levels.
I suppose I live what some may call a small life. I work a staff job at UC Davis almost full time, and then I do a bit of teaching, journal editing and freelance editing in my writing life, and then I write, usually (I feel I am supposed to be ashamed to admit) in that order. I am married to a photographer who also drives for FedEx, and together we finance the lives of two black cats. My husband and I both work Saturdays, which means there are precisely two, maybe three weeks each year that we can go anywhere further than a two hour drive away, which is a major bummer because we both love to travel. We eat consciously and keep ourselves fit. We try to make engaged, authentic choices. We appear, like many of the writers in my workshops, to be no one spectacular—but of course, appearances aren’t everything.
Carolyn Forché spoke at SummerWords at American River College, a Community College in Sacramento, this past June. She inspired us with her beautiful words and life of witness. At the Q&A, I asked her (on my own behalf and that of my students): Many of us live, or feel that we live, “small” lives, yet we feel compelled to write. What are we to do? She replied: “Poetry emerges quietly at the desk, but it comes from a lived life and reacts to it. No life is small. Don’t limit yourself. Bring your whole experience to bear each time you write. Take yourself seriously.” Ms. Forché also said, earlier that weekend, that “reading and writing poetry expand our capacity for contemplation, which expands our capacity for empathy.”
All of this to say: In my writing practice, I work with the materials at hand. Internally, these are music, in which I have significant formal training and for which I have great passion, as well as a joy in analysis and a deep abiding need and wish to connect—through empathy—in intimacy. Externally, my materials are the place and time in which I live, and the lives and objects that fill that place, as well as the desires, hopes and fears that fill that time. It is only in the life, energy and precision of concrete details that I find a path to synthesizing these things in a way that begins to make some sense to me and to bring me closer to intimations of peace and grace that I do believe I am seeing in this world.
LMC: Your poems describe a number of natural phenomena with great precision, with an artist’s eye. I have an impression of them, yet they never for a moment feel limited to an image, rather, they seem experiential. In “Mollusk” for example, you are describing items found on the beach, but the poem is about a relationship, “I’m thinking about how rough things can appear smooth—when conditions are right—and smooth things can, with enough pounding, be made rough.” Talk a bit about identifying and describing these instances in nature that, when used properly, are more evocative than the emotions themselves.
KA: I love this question so much because it totally calls me out, just like my therapist does over and over (again today, even!). So, I am kind of emotionally stunted. I come from a family full of engineers and medical professionals (though my mother also is a painter, and her mother wrote poetry), and popular stereotypes suggest this may have something to do with it. My default response to lived experience is cognitive first. I habitually—for fun, for stimulation, and out of fear—analyze the world and my experience through multiple mental models simultaneously. I know nothing of systems theory (I just learned from the poet Tim Kahl that there is a set of theories for systems), but I do experience life and the universe systematically, as in, an array of discrete phenomena that exist in dynamic and conditional interconnected relationships that produce potential meanings constantly. I thirst for meaning, for conclusion, for peace in my spirit and body, in the space between me and everything that is not me, and in the larger fabric of existence.
But of course there is no peace, no conclusion (see Emily Dickinson #373 and the contemplative spiritual paths of the world, among others), at least not in the capital-C sense. In a poem, however, it being small in the scale of the universe and an art form that is expressed in time, I feel I can sometimes get to a small-c conclusion, one in the musical sense more than in the cognitive sense—a resolution of some tension into a kind of harmony or, via transformation, into a different kind of tension (something like a key change, to continue to the musical model) that releases the original tension for a while, yet still remains authentic to the complexity of living.
I see in natural objects and occurrences materials that, especially when combined through inquiry and revision with images of other objects and occurrences, present as a sort of code for a particular emotional feeling or truth. Metaphor and music are my decoder rings, and the surprise I feel—when the poem, when my thinking and the thinking of the world, together “click into place”—is both confirmation of the power at work there and the kind of moment, which feels like a physical place, in which I sense I am most alive.
LMC: In “Our Day in the Labyrinth,” a absolute heartbreak of a poem, you move from a visual we can all recall (roses) to “orange spoon sweets the Cretan woman served” (a less-familiar sensory experience) to a deep longing for something (perhaps) impossible:
Her ancient husband carried the white plate out
with both hands, open jar and tiny spoons
tinkling against each other.
It was thick-syruped. It stuck in our throats,
a bitter orange grace.
It was what they could give us,
what they must have thought we needed.
You write a poetic dance around personal emotions and events. Does this strategy make them more accessible or relatable to the reader?
KA: I don’t think of this as a strategy. I don’t even think of it at all, or didn’t until now! If I write a poetic dance around personal emotions and events, it’s because I don’t know any other way. This is a very literal poem. At least, it began in a literal place with me and still feels very literal and direct to me. My husband and I went to Crete. We fought about some stupid thing I can’t remember because we fight about a lot of stupid things. By we, I probably mostly mean I, but of course, one can’t fight alone and so she recruits a partner in crime. And this couple in whose beautiful and tenderly loved pensione we were staying, in the town of Zaros, which has a population of about fifty people mostly well over the age of fifty, they knew what was up. And every morning they fried us eggs with yolks gold-orange like I’ve never seen, and baked from scratch two dozen kinds of bite-sized breads and pastries, and served us spoon sweets (which they also fed us in the afternoon, with coffee, which is the more traditional use of spoon sweets, just for the record). On one of those mornings, we went to Knossos, site of the maybe-mythical King Minos’s famous labyrinth (built by Daedalus, and which was actually a maze—and that is the place I took a sort of liberty in the poem, by calling it a labyrinth, to emphasize the spiritual journey of that architectural form, versus the decision-making requirements and entrapping potential of the maze form—though many users of English do not know this difference, so I get in the reader the connotations of either or both, depending on each reader’s lexicon).
That was all that happened. I probably would never have written about this couple who mentored us for a few days through their steadiness, had I not been given an associative writing prompt in a class taught by the Bay Area poet Thomas Centollella at a Sacramento Poetry Center conference. It was that prompt that drew out of me, among other things that were revised out, the roses that open the poem, and from their perfume I associated to Zaros and followed that through to the end. I saw the time we spent with them in a totally new way as I remembered it in the writing of the poem.
I experience most of my poems as very literal, and, I am told they don’t always come across that way. So I think my writing is just…well, strange, both in what it sees and how it sees. And that strangeness seems right to me, and it seems to resonate with enough readers that I have not been compelled to change it in this respect.
LMC: I’m interested in how you calculate the movements between personal and universal, and between known and unknown. You tend to state very little outright about the “we” of the poem, yet at its end, and on each reread, I was devastated.
KA: In my mind, until now, the “we” was simply my husband and me. Your asking of this question has helped me see that this “we” can also point to other “we’s,” including all of us humans here on our heartbreaking (and heartbroken) earth in desperate need of grace in all its forms. Thank you for helping me to see the poem in a new way—an amazing gift. I suppose it is now clear that I don’t very much calculate the movements in my work between the personal/universal and known/unknown! My analyses are as much intuitional as logical. These intuitions are things I feel much more strongly than I feel most emotions. Perhaps they are my emotions and I just don’t know it. Sometimes these intuitions are supported by a musical architecture that makes them immediately obviously “right” in the poem. Sometimes the intuitive connections and movements come to me without music, even without words, and I must research language and human knowledge until I find the right linguistic and imagistic construction, or the construction whose architecture most closely resembles that of the intuition.
LMC: Several of your poems are quite short, which is not at all to say that they are without impact. What can the poet gain through brevity?
KA: I love short poems. Most recently, I am super inspired by Lia Purpura’s newest book, It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful. These poems are terribly, wonderfully short—short lines and short on the page. And they are heavy with meanings, characterized usually by a primary meaning that falls on the ear and heart first, which is then followed by recognition of secondary and tertiary meanings expanding outward like the proverbial ripples from a stone dropped in water. I am struck anew in reading them that brevity buys the poet some important things: for the writer in process, it buys the ability to see the whole piece in detail at once while working on it. For the writer and the reader, it buys the possibility of a sort of direct-strike emotionally, and I think brevity also buys the reader memorability: a short poem is a touchstone that fits easily in the mind’s pocket, a touchstone that can be brought out and turned over and over again with ease in a fleeting moment…something to keep one from getting too caught up in things, to keep one from drifting away from what matters.
LMC: “Red On Maroon, 1959 (Rothko at the Tate)” while technically an ekphrastic poem, moves a lot faster than many works of this type. First, your description of the mammoth paintings betters those of many visual critics, due to your brevity and precision, “Two paintings. / Square, twice my height. / Stacked red on wounded red.” The speaker then moves through a number of senses, “the way their colors vibrate, / sing pitches to each other,” landing on imagined experiences in the womb, “my napping / body, in her lap,/ my unsleeping ear.”
Many of your poems work in the same way as the Rothkos, in that you are presenting evidence in one form or sensory experience, but the piece is really about something else entirely. Tell us a bit about how you yourself experience those switches, and how your writing evokes this phenomena.
KA: This is another example of a poem I wrote (and still experience) very literally. I had what I think could be called a synesthetic experience (though I don’t think of myself as someone suffering from a disorder of synesthesia) with the Rothkos at the Tate Modern, in that just as I saw them, I also heard aural frequencies in the interactions of the waves of light reflecting off their pigments. As my photographer husband has taught me, our perception of any given color (in terms of light waves) is actually our perception of the absorption, by an object, of all light colors except the one it presents as being. (To say it another way: an object appears green because green is the only range of light waves it does not absorb.) So, it was the visual vibration of the combination of the very few colors Rothko caused to remain perceivable, by the pigments chosen for his paintings, which I was hearing through my eyes in that moment. And the pitches those vibrations added up to, for me, were the distinct pitches I remember my mother’s voice making when she was talking to some other adult over my head as I lay, as a small child (like, 3-7 years), with my head in her lap. I pretended to sleep so she would let me stay there, but really, I was listening to and feeling the sound of her speaking, with my ear against her belly. I had forgotten those moments until I heard those pitches again, there in front of those Rothkos. I spent hours with them. I went back once or twice a week (praise the free British museums!) for the four months I lived in London, to sit before them and hear them hum.
I struggled with this poem. I did not want it to be sweet. The sound of my mother’s voice inside her was alien and captivating and it stunned me, just as the Rothko paintings are—in my experience of them—alien and captivating, and just as I feel stunned when I am before them. They are some of my favorite paintings that I have seen anywhere in the world, because I find them visually beautiful and mostly because they sound like breathing, speaking bodies. They sound like bodies living, bodies that will one day die living in time. So in the end, for me, this poem is a love poem to my mother and her creativity and her and her time-bound body, though I am generally not the kind of writer who would find herself interested in writing such a poem straight-on.
Because I am not a very emotional person, and/or because I am a person who is not always in touch with her emotions, by nature I approach emotional material from the side, or the top or underneath—anywhere but from straight on. In a way, you could say I understand all of life as I understand light waves: I understand that what I see when I look at something is not the thing itself, but rather the singular light it reflects. I also sense in each thing the presence of all it is not. The thing’s singular light *plus* the resonating but invisible presence of everything it isn’t *equals* a space in which the thing, really the what-is of everything, in unfathomable wholeness, resides. I call that space a poem. It’s not so much that I work to evoke such a mode of perception in my poems, but rather, this is the way I perceive, so this is the way I write.
LMC: Which comes first, the image or the words? Or the sensation? Or the memory? Do these events flow naturally into each other, or do you find that you like a little distance between the moment and the poem?
KA: I think I am all over the place on this one. Here are some ways in which I regularly compose new work: I bring a prompt in each week to my workshops and write along with my students (this is where I do almost all my drafting these days) and the prompt invites an image, a memory, an idea onto the page, then another and another. Or: my husband finds an object on one of his runs along the river (salmon skeleton, bird nest, dead butterfly) and brings it home to me. I understand that one day it will speak and so it goes into my strange collection, and one day it does, usually after I have brought it to workshop as a prompt (and probably freaked out my students a little). Or: I find something, or something happens, in our little yard (the wild lily, the cotyledon) and so I take that into my imagination and let it rest there until it is called to by another thing or happening. That’s a key, I think: In poetry, as in the world, nothing is just one thing, and also, a poem doesn’t start—for me at least—until there are at least two things: two images, or two images that have already connected in metaphor, or an image and a sense of linguistic music connected to it, or a word and then another word. Or me, with one idea in my head in a room full of writers writing, and to that idea their energy is added, and another idea forms, and another.
LMC: In terms of form, you utilize a variety of modes. Do you have a favorite formal structure? Do you feel that certain structures are somehow evocative of specific eras or moods?
KA: I don’t consciously have a favorite formal structure. If I did, I would say it is three things.
One: Music. I was a fairly talented clarinet player and had to make a choice early on between my writing and my music, as I understood even at eighteen that I would never be able to serve two different creative masters completely. I also sensed I could more easily make a living that I could, well, live with via the many forms writing takes than I could with music and music teaching. Because I had some advanced training in music theory, and because music is an art of the body as much as the mind, certain shapes, certain architectures (such as the sonata form, or the concepts of modes and of chordal suspension and resolution, and the skill of counterpoint) reside still in my body and I invite them into my poetic speech, sometimes consciously, often instinctively before realizing it.
Two: The sonnet, but not the formal sonnet. (In the collection, “Celibate” is the closest poem to a traditional sonnet.) I like the bones of the sonnet, which are—surprise!—analysis and argument. So I import the classical sonnet’s progression of thought into my poems. Sonnets are the diamonds among the classical essay gemstones: they are the most dense, they sparkle in their small size and from the effort of their extraction, and they cut right into your heart. In my poems, I often consciously employ a structure something like concrete detail / concrete detail / commentary / concrete detail / concrete detail / commentary / concrete detail / concrete detail / thesis (often in the form of a question or something in declarative but incomplete syntax). I love to argue.
Three: Another form, as it were, that I use is concepts of translation. I have done a little translation of work into English from other languages, very poorly. I am more interested in translating sensibilities and rhythms of thought and speech from other writers working in English, so I am in a phase where I am doing a lot of tracing poems (“Wild Lily,” “Highway 1, September,” “Homophonic Translation,” “Tourists” and “Limantour” all come out of this practice). In these tracing poems, I put my own content into the syntax and sensibility of the model poem. It’s a very elementary exercise that never stops yielding energy into my practice!
LMC: And of course, the big question: why poetry?
KA: I started collecting my poetry drafts in a fancy journal (a gift from paternal grandmother) and labeling them with titles, dates and my age at the time of composition when I was seven, which means I was writing before that. I have never known why. Poetry allows me to do a different kind of meaning-making than any other art or cultural form, one that is essential for my spiritual, mental and physical health. Sure, I have dry spells, some of which are welcome rest periods and some of which are unwelcome periods of loss and disconnection within myself. But the latter have not happened in the last four years, since I committed to teaching regular workshops within the community. The workshop table is an essential place of spiritual and creative practice in my life. Many writers say writing, workshops and public readings, etcetera, are their church. Though I would not say this exactly, as I am a person with a relationship to church and experience it differently, I understand what they are describing. Writing with others and writing alone are two kinds of fellowship, of conversing, with all that is beyond us. Writing is also a way of communicating, of communing with, others like us, which is to say other humans. This is why we write: a little bit to be heard, but mostly to be talked balk to—which is to say, to talk with all that we are and are not.
My deepest gratitude and affection to those who take the time to read books and to then start a conversation with their authors about them, about us, about art and spirit and life.