Poet Kiki Petrosino on “Fort Red Border” + her forthcoming “Hymn for the Black Terrific”

Kiki Petrosino will read with fellow poet Kyle Thompson next Friday, Sept. 21st @JavaBrewing (1707 Bardstown Rd.) as part of the Speak Social reading series. Keep Louisville Literary contacted Ms. Petrosino to discuss her debut collection Fort Red Border (published locally by Sarabande Books in 2009) and recent projects:

Keep Louisville Literary: The title sequence of your book Fort Red Border, places Robert Redford (the name  of which your book title is an anagram) as the paramour of the narrator. I imagine that you chose him, rather than Sean Connery or another distinguished elder actor, as your subject for specific reasons.

Kiki Petrosino: The Redford figure emerged as a kind of “cure” for the loneliness of my particular speaker. In the simplest terms, imagination is a way for her to conjure up some company. In the series, “her” Redford takes on varying shades of reality and unreality, kind of flickering there, between those two states.

KLL: Movie stars often take on characteristics of or seem to embody their most famous roles.  Considering all the dangerous/charming characters Mr. Redford has played, what is the function of his presence in your poems? Is his role in your poem supposed to solicit the collective cultural impression of him?

KP: Actually, that collective familiarity was a constraint that I worked against in writing this series. Rather than rely on the reader to supply what they might already know about “Redford,” I wanted to give this interlocutor characteristics that would speak to the specific condition of my speaker. She’s really the star of that series. It’s her desire to speak, the urgency of her loneliness that gives rise to the poems.

KLL:   Your work consistently references daily modern life in a light hearted banter, even when contemplating broad social concerns and broad swaths of human emotion and experience. Can you tell us about this unique approach?

KP: Daily life is often absurd, strange, and hilarious. There has to be room to express some of that in poetry. I tend to produce poems that leave room for laughter, even when I’m not intending to be funny. When I try to be too serious, I just end up tripping over my clown shoes. 

KLL: In some of your poems, the narrator’s search for answers often begins with an explication of someone else’s emotions. Is this done with the intention to prepare the reader for climax or catharsis, or are you insinuating a history to add depth to the story-in-progress?

KP: I don’t know. It could be that my speakers have a (Good? Bad?) habit of comparing their stories to those of others as a way of processing and/or framing their own emotions. In many ways, the speakers of my poems are outsiders. They feel distanced from the world we might describe as “normal” or “mainstream.” What they know about love and loss comes from their own experiences, yes, but also from listening to other people’s stories.  

KLL: You are a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop; arguably the largest and most well known MFA program in the U.S. Could you tell us how working in that setting, with so many prestigious teachers and talented peers, shaped Fort Red Border?

KP: I wrote many of the poems in my first book while a student at the Workshop. It was an amazing experience from beginning to end, principally because the Workshop brought me into the global community of writers. The years I spent as a graduate student—and, later, as a program assistant at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program—were formative of my poetic sensibilities. But living in Iowa City also taught me a lot about what it means to be a supportive member of an artistic community. Now that I’m an assistant professor at the U of L, I try to emulate the community-building values I learned in Iowa so that my students can also benefit. 

KKL: Finally, can you tell us anything about your collection due out next year from Sarabande?

KP: My new book, Hymn for the Black Terrific, explores the dangers of obsession, particularly those which focus on the female body. The book contains three series of poems that alternately meditate on artistic identity; on issues of race; and on food &eating.

Kiki Petrosino is an Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville, where she teaches literature and creative writing.  Author of a poetry chapbook The Dark is Here (Forklift, Ohio, 2011), and a collection of poems, Fort Red Border (Sarabande Books, 2009), she holds an M.A. from the University of Chicago and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  Kiki also co-edits the electronic poetry journal Transom. You can find her work in Tin House, The Harvard Review, The New York Times and elsewhere.

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