10 Questions for Christopher Kondrich
Your back is your voice it speaks volumes.
It is telling me I cannot see what I hear coming from in front of you.
From in front of the circle of backs yours is a part of.
What is happening?
Is there a body?
Is it attached to these sounds of a body in pain?
—from “Ownership of Sight”, Fall 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 3)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The first poem I wrote and successfully published (in Seneca Review back in 2008) was a lyric sequence called “Elegy for Digressions with Charlie Chaplin.” A friend of mine had gotten me into Chaplin films and I recall wanting to write into the silence. The poem itself isn’t, I don’t think, very good, but I remember getting the issue of Seneca Review and being completely transformed by the Thalia Field piece that was also in the issue. Her work really opened the possibilities of poetry up for me, so much so that I wanted to name my daughter after her. Luckily, my partner agreed.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Susan Howe, Li-Young Lee, Dan Beachy-Quick, Tracy K. Smith, and Vijay Seshadri are all poets I adore, who have certainly had an influence. But I think the poet who looms the largest over my work is Jorie Graham. I’m a bit obsessed. She’s the poet who I read most fervently, most passionately, with absolute awe. Her poems help me connect to my own experiences, to the world around me. They help me consider the world more deeply, more rewardingly. I will never forget reading Swarm or Never for the first time. Those days are etched in my mind.
What inspired you to write this piece?
“Ownership of Sight” was written after “Ownership of Words,” which recently appeared in The Antioch Review. I was writing several of these poems that are monologic in nature, that are trying to give voice to the feeling that someone else has a kind of ownership over something essential to one’s being. Having someone standing in front of the speaker blocking the speaker from directly engaging with another human being who is in great physical distress was a scenario that I couldn’t shake. The voice of this speaker was something I woke up with one day.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I am terrified and baffled by this country we live in. We don’t listen to each other. We abuse one another. We disrespect and disregard one another. There are many who only care about their own power and privilege. What are our lives for if not to help one another? It’s this real place, with real inequity and real pain. . . I try to help as much as I can, in any way I can. But sometimes the poems are all I can do. They’re inspired by living in this country insofar as they are a response to the reverberations of anguish.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
This might seem peculiar, but I actually listen to the same song on repeat while writing. There’s something about the repetition that helps me sink down into the writing space. For the years I was writing many of the poems in Valuing, which Jericho Brown just selected for the National Poetry Series and is forthcoming next year from University of Georgia Press, that song was “Song for the Unification of Europe,” composed by Zbigniew Preisner for the soundtrack to Kieślowski’s Blue. That song is so mournful and dramatic it made me cry while I was writing. Now, for the new poems, I listen on repeat to Víkingur Ólafsson play one of Philip Glass’ piano works.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Before I sit down and listen to the same song on repeat, I usually spend time on the PennSound website listening to poets read their work. There’s a kind of kinetic energy to the human voice as it moves through the music of a poem that I find enthralling and motivating. I then read aloud whatever it is I’m working on—it usually takes me several sessions to complete a draft—so that I can situate myself within my own voice.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I usually read new poems to my partner Michelle who is extraordinarily generous and supportive. I’ve also been lucky enough over the years to befriend some of the most amazing poets on the planet who are also really insightful and thoughtful readers. Robert Yerachmiel Sniderman, Joe Lennon, and Susannah Nevison immediately spring to mind. I don’t know what I would do without them, without that connection, without them sending me their new work in reply. This sense of exchange, of community means so much to me.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I could not possibly admire the paintings of Agnes Martin any more than I do. How she was able to depict perception, inspiration, the natural world—it’s unbelievable and uncanny. And how she was able to channel the forces that she felt flowing through her, how she was able to do so with the clearest of minds. I wish I could do that, regardless of the medium.
What are you working on currently?
I’m working on a third full-length poetry collection, one that is concerned with the intersection of violence, cruelty, empathy and faith. “Ownership of Sight” will definitely be included.
What are you reading right now?
Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen, which I’ve read several times now and each time I am more and more convinced that it is a truly special book. My jaw drops just thinking about how she fuses, overlaps and explores the intersection of language and the visual to represent grief and how she has to live through it. Similarly, I’m overwhelmed by Forrest Gander’s Be With. So many lines from that collection haunt me. I’m also reading Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich. It’s entirely comprised of interviews in monologue form with survivors of the nuclear catastrophe, so it has me thinking more about the human voice and how the page can be a kind of netting to capture it.
CHRISTOPHER KONDRICH is the author of Contrapuntal. He is the winner of the Iowa Review Award for Poetry, and The Paris-American Reading Series Prize. His new poetry appears or is forthcoming in the Antioch Review, Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Poetry Northwest, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Third Coast, Typo and Web Conjunctions. He is an associate editor of 32 Poems.