Poetry Sunday: Kathi Stafford’s “These Bones” and an interview of the author

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This week’s feature will be in the form of an interview with the poem’s author, Kathi Stafford, by poet Millicent Borges Accardi, whose poem “Swinging Open” was featured on Poetry Sunday here.

  1. Blank Check is your first book, right? How does it feel?

It feels wonderful, to be honest. In March, I was thrilled to hear the amazing Renee Fleming and Placido Domingo perform together at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The book started shipping the same month. Those were two long-held dreams that somehow happened within a few weeks—crazy!

2. Full disclosure, Kathi and I belong to the same writers group Westside Women Writers. In fact, she is one of the founding members. So, can I ask what impact being a part of the WWW has had on your poetry?

WWW has been a great influence in my writing life.  It would be easy to pull out an already-written poem every month. Was it Thomas Hardy who talked about pulling his old work out of a bottom drawer and dusting it off a bit? Anyway, it’s a compelling reason to create new poems every month. And what amazing and brilliant and kind friends. The conversation makes every get-together a treat, plus the thoughtful critiques have helped me so much.

3. For other poets working on their first book, can you describe the steps you took and how it all came about?

First, I looked through all the poems I’d been writing and pulled together the ones that felt related. Second, I worked and worked on order, to see if I could create a good flow. Third, any poems that were too similar or blah were kicked out. Fourth, I really researched and read books from a variety of publishers, to see where I might fit best. Fifth, I started sending out the manuscript to both contests and publishers. Finally, I accepted the fact that publication might or might not happen, and let it go (to quote Elsa in “Frozen”).

4. Where were you when you received the news that your chapbook had been accepted for publication? Did you celebrate?

I got an envelope in the mail from Finishing Line Press, with a written-in note that said, “Good news!” above the return address. I kind of hopped around the room with excitement. Yes, my husband and I celebrated by going to Superba Bread + Food on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice.  I think we had the kale and spinach saag with forbidden rice. How L.A. is that?

5. The title Blank Check, how did that come to be a controlling theme for the book?

It was the magnet that pulled everything else together. To me, it represented the mystery of what might have to be written off later, as well as the unknown, which could bring pain or joy, or both at the same time, as I learned during my time with cancer.

6. How was it to work with Finishing Line Press?

The team there was so helpful. I really appreciate Elizabeth Maines’ lovely cover design, as well as all the support from both Christen Kincaid, the editor, and Leah Maines, the publisher. They were all wonderful to work with as we went through the process.

7. What advice would you have for other new writers either putting a book together or contemplating doing so?

First, set out very clear goals for yourself.  Decide to write a poem every single Tuesday, or to complete your first manuscript by December, or to submit eight poems for publication every month.

Second, figure out what inspires you and dive into that list on a regular basis. Right now, I like Puccini operas, aqua shades, Manet, vegetable gardening, orchids, and canyon hiking. I’ve spent hours in certain rooms and gardens at the Getty. It all helps.

Third, look for a writing buddy or buddies who will keep you on the straight and narrow.

Fourth, find your theme. Or let your theme find you.

Last—and I know I sound like the naggy mom I truly am—remember to get your sleep, spend time with family and friends, eat your broccoli, keep on your spiritual road, and rest when you need to. Never give up, never surrender, as they say in Galaxy Quest.

8. What are some of the pitfalls? Triumphs?

The main pitfall is that right now I can’t even look at the poems because I worked on them for so long. The triumph is simply seeing the result and feeling gratitude from everything I learned from the experience.

10. Now the work. For your poems dealing with cancer amid a backdrop of Southern California and memories of West Texas, can you cite any literary influences?

Wallace Stevens looms large as an early influence, along with e. e. cummings and T. S. Eliot. Later, Anna Akhmatova and Elizabeth Bishop were important for me. I would also add Brenda Hillman, Claudia Rankine, and Sharon Olds from Squaw Valley days, as well as Larry Levine and David St. John.

11. The title poem, “Blank Check”, talks about how it is post-cancer, and you ask, “Will there always be a blank check made out to future scars?” Does it seem as if somewhere there is a debt to be paid?

I think it may be less about debt and more about the unknown costs of the future, the overhang of recurrence. At the same time, I now think about a blank check in terms of the debt I owe to my family and friends who held me up during those rough months. I have unlimited thanks to give all of them—Dan, Eliz, Johnny, Andrew, Nancy, Milt, Deanna, you, Charles, Maja, Sonya, Madeleine, Lois, Susan, Georgia, Howard. The list could go on and on. At first, I thought I would “do” cancer without telling anyone. Now I think, what a terrible idea!

12. You said in the middle of working on this book that all hell broke loose; among many things, you lost your hard drive and had to recreate it. Did you learn something about revision from that process? In other words, did you select different poems, revise in a different way?

Right, on April 15th last year, our house was broken into by three thieves. They stole my computer (along with a thousand other things). Two novels, two screenplays, hundreds of poems from many years—all gone in a flash. I had everything backed up on thumb drives and disks—but they stole those too. They trashed the house—everything we owned was jumbled on the floor. It was like a bonfire that set me back to nothing, except for some poems that still lived on in friends’ emails and a few printouts. What a jigsaw puzzle. The manuscript reminds me of the fountain at the Walt Disney Concert Hall made from broken china—I had to put all these jagged edges back together again. Ironically, I found that losing it all was somewhat freeing. I revised quite differently than my usual plodding style, dropping favorite lines and ripping the wahoolie out of others.

12. You’ve lived in West Texas and Southern California. What impact does landscape have on your poetry?

My family built and managed and sold hotels up and down Route 66 in Texas and Oklahoma.  When I was four years old, I thought everyone lived in hotels like we did at the time. In terms of landscape, I’m influenced by my father, who grew up on a dairy farm and later built and managed those hotels. He always experiences landscape at such a profound level. In Texas, the surrounding plains and the Guadalupe Mountains held their own fierce beauty. And in Southern California, both the urban landscapes, like my drive into work down Lincoln, and the rural gems like Temescal Park, always bring me new topics and imagery for my writing. The people, scents, color, and foliage in both Texas and California are endlessly interesting to me.

Interviewer Millicent Borges Accardi is a Portuguese-American poet and the author of three books—most recently, Only More So (Salmon Poetry). She has received fellowships from CantoMundo, the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD) and the California Arts Council. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie.

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