Across the oceans in China, Ms. Susan Kinsolving sits patiently in the High School library at Keystone Academy, at home amongst the books that line the numerous shelves that surround her. As she sits on traditional inspired Chinese lounge chairs, her perfectly coiffed golden hair glistens in the sun that peeks through the floor to ceiling windows. Her demeanor is calm, and she delightfully recounts her experiences and encounters with many members of the community during her week on campus.
A collector of words, integrating rhythms and melodies is at the forefront of her artistic practice. The American poet spent her formative years relocating to various cities across the United States, accumulating memories that would later inform much of her creative work. As a child, she developed a fond appreciation for nature, for solitude, and for writing.
In her youth, Ms. Kinsolving spent much of her time reading and collecting words in her journals. The art of writing poetry takes not only practice, but a keenness to develop a sensitivity for language, expression, and particular sensibilities towards beauty. Ms. Kinsolving found beauty amongst forests that acted as her backyard in the great Northeast, and large masses of untouched lands not yet urbanized by human presence. The great American landscapes of her childhood provided fuel for her imagination, and her willingness to immerse herself in nature – literally and figuratively- manifested itself her poetry.
Currently a Poet in Residence at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, Ms. Kinsolving took her first venture across the Atlantic to China as a guest artist at Keystone. During this time, she led creative writing workshops with students, gave a riveting in depth lecture on the birth of American poetry by dissecting the lives and works of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, and read excerpts from her own works for an eager audience.
Her creative work has garnered international attention and praise from critics and publishers alike for Dailies and Rushes (1999) and The White Eyelash (2003). She has appeared in numerous publications such as The New York Times Book Review, Yale Review, The Washington Post and The Paris Review. In addition, Ms. Kinsolving has participated in international fellowships in France, Italy, Switzerland, and Scotland.
The virtues of poetry for Ms. Kinsolving, however, lie in its ability to imbue feelings of a relationship with words. In order to appreciate poetry in its full capacity, one must almost be kinetically bonded with the language used, and for the poetry to infuse in the reader a sense of energy and trust to appreciate the rhythms and melodies in its totality. Ms. Kinsolving’s poetry has a special power of drawing the reader in, and instilling confidence that they too are capable of understanding such complex, nuanced, and sensitive emotions and language.
Even the mundane possess a degree of beauty that can also become beautiful verses of poetry. Her life’s work is emblematic of this creative philosophy she had stood by since childhood, and the repository of words she has collected are amongst some of her greatest contributions to the English language.
Although her poems are written and performed in English, Ms. Kinsolving’s thoughts on translation and the meanings of words in another language are powerful testaments to her understanding of the nature of words and their ebb and flow in new and dynamic environments. “In translation, something is lost in the language, but something is also gained in the new language.”
JUST BEFORE BED (English)
By Susan Kinsolving
Late one night walking across my lawn, I pitched
A large pinecone back at the trees and startles
Some sleeping birds. Out of the branches they came
Flapping, chirping with fright, then flew away
Into the dark disquieted world, deranged as bats
At noon. There’s nothing more to this, only the old
Discomfort of wondering how to be acquainted with
The night without disturbing its peace. And where
Does one go to nest again, or 9perchance) to dream?
During her final days on campus, she delved into an intimate discussion with Keystone’s Marketing and Communications Department. Ms. Kinsolving divulges her thoughts and her opinions of this artistic practice of creating art, the merits and virtues of writing poetry, and gives instructions on how to teach poetry to eager students who are determined to form a relationship with words. The poet does not begin the poem, but rather, in the visionary words of Susan Kinsolving, “The poem begins me.”
In Conversation with Susan Kinsolving:
Expressionism is a modernist movement that seeks to depict emotions and responses in order to evoke a particular idea or mood. Why did you choose poetry as the medium to express your own interactions with the world? Why do you write? How do you write?
Susan Kinsolving: I was alone in many circumstances growing up, as I was an only child and my father was very ambitious. As a family we often traveled due to his work. My mother would make a home for us whenever we moved, but by the time we would become settled in one place, we would move again.
I went to fifteen schools by the time I completed my graduate degree. That type of experience gives you an insecurity but also a sort of resilience, which is kind of a paradox. Poetry became a way of finding expression both for me and from me, in my own writing.
What writer influenced you the most in your own poetry? How did they inform your writing and creative thought process?
Susan Kinsolving: Growing up I had two posters in my room. One was of Thomas Hardy, the great British novelist. I loved Hardy’s poetry…it is remarkable.
The other poster was of a song writer, Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan’s lyrics also fascinated me and the two couldn’t have been more opposites. Emily Dickinson also inspired me from a very young age. In particular though, it was always specific poems rather than poets.
I read The New Yorker often, and still do…it was a weekly publication and they published poems. I would peruse the magazine and looked forward to reading it. I admired the journalism, literacy, and quirky long articles that you wouldn’t find in other places. I am very devoted to that publication.
How can we learn to appreciate the ambiguity or even begin to understand the ambiguity in poetry?
Susan Kinsolving: It’s so interesting to me that we allow the permission of ambiguity…of illusiveness, we allow that to music, we just listen. When we go to an art museum and look at sculptures or paintings, some of which are very abstract, we don’t bother trying to understand what it means. We just enjoy it.
So much of poetry is mis taught because the analysis is preceding the enjoyment. Students begin to think that poetry is work, and that finding the meaning in it is a task. Part of the meaning is going to allude you, because it’s trying to capture what is illusive in our lives.
A good poem has some qualities of illusiveness, just by the virtue of the language being elevated. I think it’s worthwhile to study a poem, but I don’t think it’s necessary. And I think that we need to enjoy poetry.
What’s also so extraordinary about poetry unlike music or painting is that everyone has some access to the language. Everyone has some entrée to the language. It’s probably one of the most democratic, and generous forms of the arts…yet it has a bad reputation of being one of the ones you don’t understand.
How has your idea of poetry changed since you began writing poems? How do you begin a poem?
Susan Kinsolving: The poem begins me.
I find something that activates my imagination. For me, sometimes it’s language. Sometimes it’s an image. For some poets, they see an image and apply language to it. For other poets, they are listening for language and that starts a poem. For me it’s mostly language. Sometimes it’s visual.
As an educator at Hotchkiss, you teach poetry to students and conduct workshops around the world. How do you teach poetry and can anyone become a poet?
Susan Kinsolving: I think the appreciation of poetry can be taught. Some aspects of writing can be taught, but there are certain things that cannot be taught.
One is style. Some students have a gift, and I always tell them, “Don’t squander it. You’re very lucky to have a gift and if you waste it, that’s a shame.”
Other students may not be as gifted, but they be more determined and I’ve seen some of that where they work hard to achieve that, and there are different levels.
I possess a modest gift for poetry, and I know that, but ultimately, it’s still a gift.
Some of the best poets will be found in the primary school here at Keystone. These students are so whimsical and they know how to let go. It’s what Picasso said when someone criticized his work and said that it looked as if a child drew it. He responded, “That is the work of returning to art.”