Nostalgia for the Criminal Past: Poet Kathleen Winter Looks Back

Nostalgia for the Criminal Past

Nostalgia for the Criminal Past is poet Kathleen Winter’s first book.  I contacted her and asked if she’d be willing to discuss the ways in which she shaped and developed the themes and ideas of her book into an award-winning volume, especially in terms of  memory, connection, separation, and time.

Kat lives in Northern California with her husband. She is currently what those of us in the teaching profession call, ‘a road’s scholar’ meaning she teaches at two or more institutions and spends a good deal of time in her car. (Two hours in traffic to get to her gig in San Francisco.)  Right now, she teaches literature and composition at the University of San Francisco and Napa Valley College.

When I open our conversation, she reveals that she worked on the individual poems in Nostalgia for a number of years prior to starting her MFA at Arizona State in 2008.  She actually had about two-thirds of the manuscript drafted by the time she arrived.

“Putting it together, the whole time, I re-read and re-wrote the poems.  Constantly.  I sent it out steadily prior to its acceptance for publication. I can’t even remember how many contests I paid for, or how many rejections I got.  I kept track at the time, and when I’d get it back, I’d cross that place off the list, swap out a few of the weaker poems for newer stuff, and then send it out again.” This went on for two years.

When she received word the book had been chosen as the winner of the 2011 Elixir Press Antivenom Poetry Prize, she was understandably, “surprised and excited.”

“Getting the call was really joyful.  I remember imagining what it would be like to get the book accepted.  When it finally happened, it was wonderful.  The editor, Dana Curtis called, and told me I’d won.  It was morning.  I’d been back home for a couple of weeks after finishing my master’s degree. The editor told me Deborah Bogen selected it as the winning manuscript.  I remember I called my husband to tell him.”

Although many writers think that getting a book published assists one in terms of landing a coveted teaching gig, Winter found that wasn’t the case. For six months after she finished her MFA, she worked part-time in a bookstore as well as in a café as a coffee barista while she tried to find teaching work.  Her current job “fell into [her] lap” through a friend, just prior to the fall semester in 2011.  Nostalgia came out a few  months later,  in March 2012.

In the book, Winter focuses on “silos of time,” and our sense of memory.  Still, she felt wary of her choice of theme.  “When I wrote the book, I was just writing poem by poem.  The challenge for me was to turn the poems into a more cohesive manuscript.  So I tried to find a way in, tinkering and looking for patterns.”  She read her work and noticed to what sorts of things tended to draw her in.  “I am a poem by poem poet.  I tend to write based on an image, phrase, or a snatch of something that occurs to me.  As I read my work, I saw interests I didn’t know I had.  My concern for my environment, not necessarily in an eco-political way, but instead in a most basic, what’s around me kind of way.  I noticed my surroundings affected me.  Interiors (physical or natural surroundings) were important.  As far as nostalgia as a theme, I was a bit skeptical of it because I was afraid it might be dismissed as clichéd.  Other poets might not like it.”  She paused and laughed, thinking back on it. “[Poets are] smart, impatient critters.” However, she found herself circling back to the idea.  She saw another collection, built around a sense of ‘anti-nostalgia,’ focusing on the negative side of the notion.  “I think I stood up for nostalgia in the title poem as a reaction to that. When I ended up wanting to start the book with that poem, I realized that its title worked as a title to the manuscript as a whole.  To me, nostalgia and déjà vu are connected, I don’t know why.  I find both compelling and appealing.”

Knowing that she lived in Arizona to complete her graduate degree while her husband and dog returned home (to Northern California) in 2009, I asked if that separation influenced the book.

“That’s a really good question.  I’ve never thought about it, but I’d have to say looking back, that being away from both my beloveds (my husband, and Finnegan, her 14-year-old-dog) definitely influenced me.”  She noted that in the 20+ years she’s known her husband, she’d never lived apart from him, other than for one year when she was working in LA and he wasn’t.  “Certainly being estranged from him [in terms of distance] infused the ideas and themes and issues, particularly in the final section of the book.”

Winter’s favorite poet is Sylvia Plath.  Her favorite collection?  “Ariel.  She’s just so powerful to me.  The forcefulness of her voice.  Her incredible technical skill. The sounds and rhythms she uses.  Her elegant, memorable phrases and surprising images. Her wit, her humor. She blows me away.”

Other collections on her ‘must read’ list? Selected Poems by Thomas Lux.  She admires his technical skill and use of form, calling him, “a bitingly sarcastic virtuoso.” She also mentions The End of Beauty by Jorie Graham. “I love her confident tone and seriousness.”  She notes that her own work is “more playful” and she learns from seasoned poets whose approach is different from hers.  She mentions Louise Glück’s collection, Meadowlands. “The book looks back at a marriage; at its failings, and also wondrous times of closeness.” She laughs and says, “I suppose I should mention someone contemporary. Alexandra Teague.  Her book, Mortal Geography, came out in 2009.  Winter says she admires its “emotional power and seamless use of form. The first poem is the best poem about teaching, ever.”

I ask her what advice or encouragement she has for young poets. “I would say, for me, the best thing to do is read. That’s what I tell my students. Read more. That’s what inspires me.  And always carry paper so you can write that word or phrase down.”  We discuss the frustration of forgetting that elusive, yet perfect line or phrase.

She continues, “And don’t give up.  If you’ve been [writing] for a while and feel frustrated, remind yourself to keep at it.  You’ll get better.  Slow, imperceptible improvement is happening.”

Winter’s second manuscript is written and already circulating in much the same way that she handled Nostalgia.  Besides teaching, that is what she most wants to see happen in the next year or so. “I’d like to get another book out.”

***

Kathleen Winter’s poems have appeared in AGNI, The New Republic, Field, The Cincinnati Review and other journals. Her awards include the 2011 Elixir Press Antivenom Poetry Prize, as well as fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, Virginia G. Piper Center, and the Prague Summer Program. She is a graduate of the University of Texas, Austin; Boston College; the University of California, Davis, School of Law; and the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University.

Nostalgia for the Criminal Past is for sale on Amazon, Small Press Distribution, and the Elixir Press website.

© 2013  Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved

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