Poet Kara Candito has been described as “a sure, authoritative voice,” “ferociously witty and intensely lyrical.” Winner of the 2008 Prairie Schooner Book Prize, she has been awarded scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and the Florida State University College of Arts and Sciences Foundation. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland and is currently a PhD candidate and instructor at Florida State University. Her first book, Taste the Cherry, is filled with poems “poised and raw, hard-knuckled and siren-sweet.” Here, she speaks about the writing life, the academic life, and the life of a poet having published what Stephen Dunn calls “a remarkable first collection.”
Jill Crammond Wickham: You have been called “a poetic voice born to our landscape fully formed.” In fact, from your bio, it looks as though you may be one of the few who checked “poet” in the what is your dream career? box in high school and never looked back. How long have you been writing and when did you know you wanted to do this for a living?
Kara Candito: I started writing poetry when I was ten. Every year, the fifth graders at my elementary school made a holiday section for the local newspaper. I wrote a silly Christmas poem with underlined words and a corresponding word search. I remember spending hours on the line-breaks, though at the time I had no idea what they were called.
I was lucky to attend a small liberal arts college with a very supportive creative writing department. Working with Jane Satterfield and Lia Purpura, who are both amazing writers, really affirmed my desire to pursue poetry as a craft.
Can you talk about your progress from undergrad, to grad, to doctoral studies? How do you feel academia has influenced/ furthered your writing/publishing?
In college, I majored in creative writing and philosophy. I’ve always been a bit of a nerd, so I really enjoy literature and literary theory. I did my MFA at University of Maryland, which has a strong literature program. Sometimes, I think that academic courses have influenced my work more than writing workshops, which is strange to me because many of my friends who are poets don’t feel that academics have had a significant influence on their writing. At Florida State University, where I’m finishing my PhD in English/Creative Writing, I chose to minor in literary theory. I’ve found that theory gives me a language for talking about poetry. Teaching has given me the chance to personalize this language and to cultivate my own set of values as a poet. As far as publishing goes, I think that being in academia has allowed me to work with other poets and learn from their experiences. I definitely don’t think that academia is the only career for a poet. In fact, some of my favorite contemporary poets are carpenters, clothing store managers, or social workers. I guess that academia fulfills my mania for dissection, which is an important element in my poetry, so it feels like a healthy relationship.
Are you involved in the literary community outside of academia? If so, in what ways, and how does this further your goals as a poet?
When I lived in New York City and worked in the publishing industry, I enrolled in poetry workshops at the Writer’s House and the 92nd St. Y. It was great to meet other writers who weren’t academics, and to discover how and why so many people arrive at poetry. I’ve also attended the Bread Loaf Writers Conference as a writer and a scholar. Meeting other emerging writers and talking obsessively about poetry and fiction for eleven days was incredibly inspirational. I also got the chance to hear some of my poetry crushes read. Brigit Peegen Kelly’s reading was so magical that it made half of the poets in the audience cry.
Your first poetry book, Taste of Cherry, was recently released. Can you speak about the experience of having your first book published? Do you remember the moment you held the final, finished copy in your hands? Who did you give the first copy to?
The whole experience has been really surreal. One afternoon in early August, I came home to discover a box from University of Nebraska Press sitting on my doormat. For some reason, I grabbed the box and dumped it in my closet, where my partner wouldn’t see it. It took two or three days for me to actually open the box, and another day for me to open a copy of the book and start reading. It’s strange and thrilling to see something that had been so private for so long “out in the world,” though it’s taken a while to get used to it. I was going to give the first copy to my professor, Erin Belieu, whose insight really helped to shape the book, but the press had already sent her a copy, so I gave it to two of my friends at FSU, who are married and both poets!
According to the “Events” listing on your website, you have quite a busy schedule! From Florida to Massachusetts, back to Florida, then off to Maryland. How do you balance a book tour, writing and teaching?
A lot of poets have told me that readings are the best way to introduce and promote your work. Aside from teaching, I’ve always been afraid of public speaking, so I wasn’t looking forward to doing so many readings, though I’ve been getting over my phobia and learning to enjoy them. It’s really a privilege to be able to present your poems the way that you hear them in your head. Balancing traveling for readings with teaching, writing and looking for a job has been a challenge, though travel is definitely a stimulant for my writing. I love walking around new cities or revisiting places where I’ve lived. People-watching in airports is definitely one of my favorite sports.
Your poems offer a variety of images and settings, from the edge of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to the hills of Oaxaca to a VH1 Best Power Ballads Countdown and a month-long David Lynch film marathon. How does pop-culture inform your work? What would you say is the greatest influence on your work?
I don’t think many contemporary poets can write outside of pop culture. I definitely don’t feel like I’ve been given a choice in the matter. I’m also obsessed with anything that has to do with excess, and pop culture is a perpetual goldmine of human indulgence.
When I read about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I was floored. In the time it took to read an article, I went from envisioning the ocean as a vast, final frontier to picturing a gigantic mass of plastic soup churning in the Pacific Ocean. Our relationship with the planet seems stuck in the perpetual infatuation stage of a love affair, when it’s all about consuming someone until that sense of wonder and newness is ruined. Hence, the tragic mess we’ve made of Earth.
David Lynch’s films have been generative for me as a writer because he gets at something dark and primal about the way we experience the world by manipulating our visual understanding of reality. I can only hope to achieve this kind of defamiliarization through poetic language.
I definitely identify with poets like Frank O’Hara, who cast a wide net of associations in their work.
In your daily life, where might you find a poem?
In an overheard conversation, or a strange image. Last summer, I saw an eight-foot wooden cross fastened to the back of a tow truck on I-10. I’m still trying to write that poem.
Could you give us a glimpse of your writing process? When is a poem finished? How do you polish your language to get such gorgeous lines as
…Maybe this is no place for ceremony.
Maybe this is the only place for it—here, where everything
we waste aches with phantom music, the sexual squeals
of toothless eels writhing beneath the waves.
I usually write three or four drafts for me to discover the real subject of a poem. From that point, it takes me anywhere from two to thirty more drafts to find the musical pulse of a poem. At University of Maryland, I worked with Stan Plumly, who taught us to value musicality above all else in poetry. Once the rhythm of a poem emerges, the content seems to follow and then it’s a matter of making the whole thing feel inevitable. I don’t know if I ever feel that a poem is finished. I’m always moving things around and adding and subtracting. When I was revising the poems in Taste of Cherry, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and realize that I’d been revising a poem in my dream. It was really maddening. When I’m going through an intense period of writing, I definitely don’t have the power to turn off the poetry machine.
Who are your major poetic influences?
Federico García Lorca, Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara, Larry Levis, Lynda Hull, and Anne Carson have had the biggest impact on my approach to poetry.
What poets are you currently reading?
Mark Bibbins’, The Dance of No Hard Feelings, Myronn Hardy’s Approaching the Center and Olena Kalytiak Davis’ On the Kitchen Table From Which Everything Has Been Hastily Removed.
Final Question… What are your plans for the future? What comes after the PhD? What comes after the 1st book? Better yet, when can we expect the 2nd book?
I wish I knew for sure! Right now, I’m in the process of applying to visiting writer and teaching positions at colleges and universities. Luckily, I started working on the poems in my second collection before Taste of Cherry was accepted for publication, so the manuscript began to take shape before all of the static of publication and reviews. One of my mentors told me that positive reviews can be just as debilitating as negative reviews, because they make you want to fall back on the same poetic strategies, rather than discovering fresh ones to suit your new concerns as a writer. I think that’s sound advice. My next collection explores the interconnectedness of identity and myth. These poems inhabit a wider range of voices, from Lorca, to a Roman emperor’s eunuch, to Babar the elephant, though the tone is still intense. I’ve finally realized that I’m incapable of writing “quiet” poems! Hopefully, I’ll have a revised version of the second manuscript ready next spring.
Taste of Cherry is available directly from University of Nebraska Press and from Amazon.
Interview by Jill Crammond Wickham.
Poets’ Quarterly | October 2009.