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Kathy Nilsson

April 2020

Interview by Carolle Morini

Kathy Nilsson, photo courtesy of Claes Nilsson
Kathy Nilsson, photo courtesy of Claes Nilsson.

I first met Kathy Nilsson in the poet Lucie Brock-Broido’s poetry workshop in the early 2000s and I have been a fan of Nilsson’s poems ever since. From Poetry Foundation, "Nilsson earned a BA in English Literature from Mount Holyoke College and an MFA in poetry from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and The New York State Writers Institute. Her poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Boston Review, Poetry Daily, Columbia, Volt, and other literary journals. Her chapbook, The Abattoir, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2008. Her manuscript, Black Lemons, was a finalist in the Tupelo First Book Award. The manuscript The Infant Scholar was selected for Honorable Mention in the Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition sponsored by the National Federation of State Poetry Societies and was published by Tupelo Press in 2015. She is a recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s Robert H. Winner Award." We conducted this interview by email in March 2020.

Q: Do you remember when you first learned about poetry? 

KATHY NILSSON: My parents read poetry to me from children’s books. I studied English Literature at Mount Holyoke but it never occurred to me to write poetry. Only when I took Lucie Brock-Broido’s workshop in 1990 did it dawn on me that beautiful books by living poets sold at the Grolier Bookstore should be read and not just held as gifts. 

Q: I understand you grew up in the Worcester area like the poet Stanley Kunitz. Did growing up there influence your writing in any specific way? Did you learn about Kunitz in school? Was he considered a local celebrity? 

KN: I knew nothing about Kunitz until I went to a reading of his at Harvard long after I left home. His sadness as a kid was easy for me to place in Worcester because I had been sad as a child there. 

Q: Is there a particular author you studied as an undergrad at Mount Holyoke College that you were influenced by? 

KN: Poetry by Dickinson, Hopkins, Keats, Shakespeare, Milton and Plath (images of a red heart blooming through a coat—tulips like dangerous animals behind bars) made a deep impression on me. T.S. Eliot baffled me until I met Lucie.

Q: Would you like to talk about the MFA program at Bennington Writing Seminars? Any teachers you worked with that helped form the poet you are?  

KN: I liked my teachers at Bennington—April Bernard, Liam Rector, Ed Ochester and Thomas Sayers Ellis.We were steeped in writing for two weeks which felt good when my son was little because I didn’t get out much. I loved summer as much as winter out in that bucolic setting. 

Q: What is it about the medium you like? Or what is it about creating that you enjoy or simply cannot seem to get rid of? 

KN: If I could I’d write a little novel, but it goes against my instincts to think in narrative lines. Writing poetry was a revelation. Marianne Moore said she wrote it on a clipboard while doing the wash. All of a sudden my interest in books on lobsters, Egyptian mummies, weather, eclipses, Brigitte Bardot and the Dictionary of International Slurs among others, all came together.

I started out as a painter at the Art Students’ League in New York so I understand Elizabeth Bishop’s real wish to be an artist and declaring it wasn’t by choice she wrote poetry, something like that. When a poetry critic told me the moment she realized she wasn’t a poet was when reading a line in a biography of one of the great poets in which he described his life as “the continuum of a dream” I burst into tears.

Q: What I admire about your writing is your use of subtle dark humor. Sometimes humor balances out the horrors of life. What do you think? 

KN: My mother was very loose with the term “horse’s ass” while she was off paying a bill—while in the same department store my father would be looking for wands for his magic show. He used to say he’d retire to go on the road and saw my mother in half. Their first Christmas card before I was born was a cartoon with my father’s head superimposed on a stick figure of a magician—and my mother’s head superimposed on a silver platter. 

Q: A fair number of animals make appearances in your poems. Do you think that some animals encapsulate and/or express particular emotions?

KN: In a way animals have it all over us humans in terms of endearment and sense. The longer I live with dogs and marvel from a distance at horses, donkeys, pigs, goats, ducks, the more I kind of wish I’d grown up in Romania where animals are still the mainstay of people’s lives. The older I get, the more I worry about them.

Q: I know you are a well read and curious person. I always like to know what you are reading. Who are some of the authors you read most recently? Any particular literary journals you like to read? 

KN: On my table I keep books of poetry by Paul Celan, Wallace Stevens, Lucie Brock-Broido, Frank Stanford, Thomas James, Louise Gluck, Sylvia Plath, Franz Wright. I read poetry in the morning. Afternoons and evenings, I read fiction—Clarice Lispector, Bruno Schulz, Adalbert Stifter, Gerald Murnane. I love little novels—A Pale View of the Hills and Never Let Me Go (Ishiguro), November (Flaubert), The Left-Handed Woman (Handke), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Bauby), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Jackson). I like reading literary journals to see what’s out there.

Q: Are there any books that you re-read? Any particular reason why?

KN: Trollope I read every day—all his novels—over and over—many times—so I can live in that century.

Q: I have often listened to the poems you recorded for the Poetry Magazine and Poetry Foundation website. How was that experience? I find I understand the poem better when I hear the author read it. What do you think is added to the work when hearing the voice of the poet? 

The Abattoir, Finishing Line Press, Georgetown Kentucky, 2008, from website
The Abattoir, Finishing Line Press, Georgetown Kentucky, 2008, from website.

KN: I loved recording the podcast for Poetry Magazine. In a soundproof booth at WBUR I felt like Lady Gaga. Christian Wiman and Don Share had such different takes on my work it opened my eyes to the possibilities. I remember submitting those poems thinking—this is the best I can do—if they don’t take these they won’t take any, ever. Their insightful discussion of my poems made me feel ordained as a writer. I do love hearing the voice that goes with a writer—it’s like seeing inside them, being inside someone else’s head.

Q: The cover of The Infant Scholar makes me laugh and also it makes me want to cry—the baby is so adorable and also vulnerable. What made you think of this title and how did you decide on the cover? 

KN: The baby on the cover of The Infant Scholar is my husband, Claes, from Sweden. He is one of the infant scholars, along with Richard Howard and Helen Vendler. I love smart babies and those who show vulnerability in their facial expressions. Claes’s baby picture plus the beauty of an old Swedish photograph—I had a visceral reaction to it. So did editors at Tupelo Press.

Q: Anything you would like to add about this collection of poems? 

KN: The Infant Scholar took me 25 years to write, assemble and publish. It’s a good thing I wasn’t in a rush. Lucie kept reminding me about the importance of the first book.

Q: What is the best writing advice you received? Is there any advice you found to be simply unrealistic?

KN: What I remember most is Lucie Brock-Broido nipping me in the bud, telling me to put everything into a poem—no holding back—give yourself away, she would say. And her definition: a poem is an egg with horses in it (or a blue egg with two purple horses, as in the case of a toy my son John pulled out of a gumball machine at a supermarket one day many years ago which just might still be floating around Lucie’s office at Columbia University).

Q: If you were not a poet what would you be? 

KN: If I were not writing poetry I might be incarcerated in one of the American prisons—or I’d be back tending sheep and counting them at night which is what I assume I was doing before I ever wrote a poem.

Q: Any upcoming projects you would like to tell the readers about? 

KN: I’m finishing a second manuscript and sending out poems to literary journals. For the first time, after 30 years, I feel to some extent that finally I know what I’m doing. Writing for me is like taking a little black square of cloth and making a skirt for the Metropolitan Museum, or putting down equations and having them all come out right without really trying, or cutting whole trees out of a piece of gold foil from a chocolate bar. There’s something very mysterious about a finely written poem. Something that almost seems to have nothing to do with the author.

Q: Any last words?

KN: The best line of poetry ever: The world is gone. I must carry you—by Paul Celan.