An Interview with Kate Bolton Bonnici, 2020 Winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry
Nov 06, 2020
Kate Bolton Bonnici grew up in rural Alabama and holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, UC Riverside, and UCLA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, the Southern Humanities Review, Image, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. She teaches early modern English literature and creative writing at UCLA. Bonnici’s collection Night Burial is the winner of the 2020 Colorado Prize for Poetry. After working on Night Burial as an editor and the cover designer, managing editor Jess Turner reached out to Bonnici to talk more about her poetry, writing processes, and more.
Jess Turner: Reading through the manuscript of Night Burial for the first time, I knew it would be one of the great honors of my experience as an editor to get to join the production team for this book. I use the word “honor” because the collection offers a grief so genuine—so raw and true—that to be trusted with handling that burning emotion in your poetry felt like a generous gift. Along these lines, how does it feel to offer this collection to eyes other than your own? In other words, how, as a poet and a person, does it feel to release a collection of such emotional urgency?
Kate Bolton Bonnici: Jess, you are so very kind! Working with the Center for Literary Publishing has been a dream. I cried when I learned that Kiki Petrosino had chosen this book, and I tremble with thanksgiving every time I remember it’s really happening.
At the acute levels of self/ego (did I write the right words?!) and of obligation (are my offerings enough?), I’m a nervous wreck about the release of the book! But the deeper, more necessary emotion combines gratitude with a sense of respite. Night Burial addresses and cries out for absent beloveds—mother, family in Alabama and elsewhere, children close by but developing their separate selves, husband who walks his own path of maternal passing. These are my household gods, personal and yet part of larger lyric impulses, twining solitude with community, disruption with participation, death’s particularized intimacies with the rituals of ordinary time. And this is what I imagine: as a book that is read, each address summons new communion, new remembering, choral and so shared. As a book held in others’ hands, the poems find their location—a true lararium fixed for good and for real.
JT: I am very interested in the ways in which grief asks poetry to “misbehave”: syntax morphs, punctuation drops out, lacunas and caesuras enter and disrupt a traditional narrative logic. Many of the poems in Night Burial bare themselves so concisely—a few lines hovering and fragmented in the white space on the page. Could you speak to this formal fragmentation?
KBB: The central event of this book is my mother’s cancer, which is a bodily misbehavior at the cellular level. Cells morph and mutate and disrupt larger systems. Michel Serres calls sickness “a noise that mixes up messages in the circuits of the organism.” The mixed-up keeps up its short-circuiting tumult long after quiet should have come. And then there is grief itself, as you say, “hovering and fragmented.” Yes! Grief grabs at the ruptures from which we just can’t move on (birth being one of them). We must lament, rent our gowns, tear our hair. Even when a death is as good as it can be, when there’s care in the room, when we hold hands with the dying, the breath still leaves—and here enters the lacuna, the caesura, the negative space. The transition from breath to no breath—terrible and slight—is unspeakable even as we speak it, and this contradiction demands and creates associative adhesions. I think this is some of what the poems take on.
JT: Night Burial explores motherhood—not only through the speaker’s loss of her mother, but through the speaker’s own experience as a mother. Did you have any revelations or realizations about motherhood after or while writing this collection?
KBB: This book actually began in poems to my daughters, poems that I scribbled while they were sleeping or that I composed and tried to keep in my head driving to daycare. It grew into a book to and for my mother and her death from ovarian cancer, which means death from corruption of the cell type that enabled my being and enabled my daughters’ beings. Mothering is Janus-faced in its simultaneous looking to ancestors and to descendants. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is like Hecate at the three-way crossroads, channeling the blood and milk of one’s own birth, the blood and milk one offers in the birth of another, and the blood and mini-Cokes and liquid morphine accompanying the birth into death. These fluids mix love with tears and ferocity. And they don’t wash out. Thank God for that.
JT: The speaker in Night Burial offers us flashes of memory—floating images and dialogue—that connect to her mother. Can you speak to the role of memory in this project? What kind of shape does memory take in a collection that is grieving?
KBB: Giorgio Agamben writes that “[t]he archetypal movement of water is the spiral.” For me, this is also the movement or shape of memory. It turns, it returns, not unchanged. My memories, sometimes jotted in a journal and sometimes not, revolve as scraps of sound or image. Inflecting the process is the fact that my mother died while I was writing a dissertation on early modern English literature and so reading centuries-dead writers who were still very alive for me. Take the poem “For this daie your daughter hathe bene bothe alive and deade,” which is after Lady Jane Lumley’s mid-1500s translation of Iphigenia at Aulis. Lumley would have been in her teens and just married. The quote comes from the messenger’s report to Iphigenia’s mother, telling Clytemnestra that her daughter has been sacrificed and that mid-sacrifice Iphigenia’s body transformed into that of a deer. “For this daie your daughter hathe bene bothe alive and deade,” the messenger says, and Clytemnestra must rely on his translation of an event she didn’t see. For me, “bothe alive and deade” conveys hospice and the later writing-remembering: a stumbling procession toward dying, an ongoing becoming dead that is not linear but helical, a vortex that continues in its becoming even after biological death, after the last breath we can’t follow, the last heartbeat.
JT: Do you have a writing routine or process, and if so, what does that look like? Was there a specific or unique process for writing the poems in Night Burial? What is the best advice you have received as a writer?
KBB: I write most attentively in the very early morning. (Dawn seems the open gate of possibility. This is potent reading time too.) Movement also helps me conjure thoughts into being, so I sometimes run or walk (or drive, when I’ve had a longer commute) my way into poems. And I always keep notebooks nearby for poem drafts, journal entries, notes on academic articles or Tarot cards or lesson plans—this way it’ll all bleed in.
For Night Burial, forms gave me a vessel into which to pour my longing. Abecedarians and their ghosts, both ancient and pedagogical, flicker through the book along with folklore and fairy tales and myth. The poem “In your absence there are no mortal banquets,” which is a line from the Homeric Hymn to Hestia, was one of the first things I wrote after my mother died. Though it may not look like it, the poem’s architecture is based on a sonnet corona. It functions like a chain, linking the present (mother dead and buried) back to her living voice. When I got to her little quip at the end, I knew the poem was done.
I’ve worked with thoughtful, generous teachers who have advised me on everything from process to perseverance, but sometimes their most needed advice has been just: read this. When poets and teachers recommend other works, those works expand our writing universes and our life universes, crafting constellations of nourishing connection. Anna Maria Hong introduced me to Evie Shockley’s the new black, Juan Felipe Herrera to Jorie Graham’s Sea Change and Lorna Dee Cervantes’s Drive, Katie Ford to D.A. Powell’s Chronic, Allison Hedge Coke to Joan Naviyuk Kane’s Hyperboreal, Fred D’Aguiar to Solmaz Sharif’s Look and Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons, Anthony McCann to Hoa Nguyen’s Red Juice and Jack Spicer’s collected works, My Vocabulary Did This to Me. Nalo Hopkinson introduced me to Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch and Jeremy Love’s Bayou, Heidi Brayman to Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Barbara Fuchs to Richard Crashaw’s Steps to the Temple, Arthur Little to John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Lowell Gallagher to Michel Serres’s Rome, and Chris Chism to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini and Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales. Read (or listen to performed work), write, write more, then read again (especially when fear and doubt creep in, as they do). This is what sustains. This is the bread of the writing life.
JT: When did you start writing poetry? Was there a particular poem that inspired you? Which poets are inspiring you now?
KBB: I took a constitutional law course with the late Derrick Bell, Jr., who once let me submit a poem as a response to course materials. This taught me that the poem is not just a created object, but a method of thought. I did not write poetry again until I was pregnant with my second daughter. During that pregnancy, I knew: now, poems. My mom and my aunt went to the bookstore and sent me Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work and Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains. Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars came out that year, and when I read “The Weather in Space,” I felt like the poem answered what I didn’t know my heart had been asking. Carmen Giménez Smith’s Goodbye, Flicker was the first collection I ever taught in full, and it still shapes my thinking. So many incandescent poets inspire and challenge and console. Through their work I feel the living ache and glow of the world. From my recent reading: Kiki Petrosino’s White Blood, H.D.’s Trilogy, Kazim Ali’s Silver Road, and A.E. Stallings’s translation of Lucretius’s De rerum natura.
JT: Do you have any interests or ideas that you might like to pursue through poetry in the future?
KBB: Yes, the study of Renaissance witch trials through a feminist archival poetics. I’ve begun using critical poetry as a scholarly method to investigate 16th– and 17th-century English pamphlets on witchcraft, witch beliefs, and witch trials. This critical-creative praxis braids source-texts, scholarship, and art. I write into the presences and absences of the archive through poetic forms like the Petrarchan sonnet, turning the love poem’s gaze to the subjects of witch fear—old, poor, infirm women—and the sestina, which tags the stakes by performing witch pamphlets’ repeated phrases. I also work with a nonce form that evokes stichomythia, the dialogic method of classical and early modern tragedy where speakers address one another across the hemistich, dividing and joining the split line. (An excerpt from the project appears in the journal Synapsis and another will be published in CounterText in December!)
JT: Considering both contemporary times—the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the looming 2020 election, climate change, etc.—and other times of strife and hardship, are you able to find hope in poetry? In other words, could you speak to what, if anything, poetry can offer us in times of suffering? And conversely: What, if anything, poetry can offer us in times of joy?
KBB: We are living through a global health catastrophe, bound up with devastating economic precarity and 400+ years of racism stemming from settler colonialism and perpetuated every day in pervasive structures of violence and oppression. A stacked judiciary poses grave risks to our fundamental rights and protections, and an urgent election looms. All this as our planet races toward fire and storm and degradation. And still, poetry—.
Poetry is the lived, the dreamed, the complicit, the dire, and the celebrated, because its language as music sculpts experience and gives flesh to modes of knowing and being—continually animated through re/reading and teaching. In Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes’s poem “onomasticon (or, I sing the names of our dead),” the poet writes: “I sing march, & the earth will tremble out a eulogy, a prayer, a promise / I sing how, & why, & when, & your name will wind my palm into a fist, & / I will hold it high.” This is what poetry does, in gladness and in sorrow. Poems say their names. Poems sing their names. Poems invoke. Poems cry into being. Poems mourn and hold up, haunt and hold accountable. Poems record, remember, render incarnate. Poems speak back. Poems look and don’t look away and make us do the same. As the psalmists called out millennia ago, for succor and in praise, so the promise that is the work of poems remains.
JT: Speaking of joy, where are you finding it? Would you share with us a recent moment of contentment?
KBB: A couple nights before my mom died, she wanted to watch basketball. (She was a huge Duke Blue Devils fan.) We positioned her wheelchair in front of the TV. She didn’t put on her glasses, but just sat there, eyes closed, holding her emesis basin in her lap, listening to the sounds of the game—commentary, shoes squeaking on the court, crowd noise—until she was too weak to sit up any longer. She smiled the whole time. This is what I want—to hold close even the smallest pleasures because they are crucial and glorious. I find joy in Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights, Stile Antico’s Music for Compline, Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed. Joy when my 8-year-old teaches me how to knit and my 11-year-old just wants to talk and my nearly 98-year-old grandmother sends me a text. Joy, my bloodhound’s greeting. The daily, the numinous.
Jess Turner is a poet from Pittsburgh. Currently, she is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University, where she was awarded the 2020 Academy of American Poets Prize. She is the managing editor for Colorado Review, and has previously worked with Autumn House Press. Her own poems can be found in Pleiades, RHINO Poetry, Salt Hill Journal, Ruminate Magazine, and New Delta Review, among others. You can find her by water or in the mountains.