Three sisters in the form of a conceit, branch from one another like the limbs of a tree. Three personifications of nature speak from the depths of allegory, rewriting themselves and in the process, reveal our entanglements with the more-than-human world. American poet Megan Kaminski’s stunning new book Gentlewomen (Noemi Press, 2020) poeticises an imagined yet familiar world, transforming our orientations to nature, to cultural history and to the lyrical site of the self. There are many voices in this book of poetry: a cold lake promises to ‘devour with satin tongue’, a sister puts her ear to the ground and ‘listens for the softening of earth’ and snow cover asks to stay a little longer in order to melt ‘white iridescent in blue hours’. But housed within a poetics of care, compassion and connection to the natural world, there are devastations, exposing anthropogenic and commodified views of land. The scarring traces of humanity’s outputs permeate the breadth of this luminous collection as poisoned water flows downstream, wet-lands are drained for subdivision, and hands reach ‘across quarantine zones’. In this interview, Megan Kaminski and I discuss her new book Gentlewomen, her expansive approach to lyric poetry, and the multitude of rich theoretical and poetic influences that interweave her work.
Sophie Finlay: I’d like to start by talking about the genesis of Gentlewomen. Can you tell me how the idea for the book came about?
Megan Kaminski: I guess it all started with Nature. As someone who teaches poetry, I’m always bumping up against allegorical depictions of Nature – and historically, particularly in the English and American poetry tradition, Nature is depicted as a woman who always has stuff (mostly not good) done to her, who is spoken of and to but seldom gets the chance to speak. I saw parallels there to contemporary laws and material conditions that police women’s bodies, words, and actions and continue to deprive them of agency. I was in my 20s and an adjunct instructor, with many of the precarities associated with that position, when I started thinking towards this book, and this all resonated on a personal level. I felt a tension between who I was expected to be within the academic institution, within the institution of marriage, within family structures, and how I was perceived when I spoke and acted authentically, in my attempts to align with values of justice, care, and compassion. Out of that tension, which I started to think of as the tension between gentility and actual gentleness, came the title and conceit for the book. What would happen if Nature was given the chance to speak? How gentle would she really be?
Through research, thinking, and writing, I moved out from my initial connections into a larger consideration of the kinds of resilience that are required of earth’s most vulnerable populations in order to survive – and a recognition of the tolls that labor takes on them. And into frustration with societal values of rugged individualism and the ways they place the onus on individuals to fix things that should be a collective priority. Specifically, I was thinking about the more-than-human world – the plants and animals whose habitats are destroyed and threatened by human activities and their after-effects. And I was also thinking about the labor, and especially affective labor, that is required (and mostly unrecognised) of women on a daily basis – particularly women who provide daily care for children, elders, and others in their community (as opposed to wealthy women with the means to outsource that labor). I wanted to write about care and reciprocity that expands notions of community and kinship. I wanted to write the messy tough exhausting love of resilience.
I was working with my editor Sarah Gzmeski to finalise the book manuscript this spring when COVID came to the US and, shortly after, protests against a brutal string of police murders of Black citizens. I had thought that the book was pretty much complete, but I found myself writing back into the poems as new resonances arose out of the US government’s utter failure to come to the aid of its citizens and the massive transfer of capital from the poorest people living in the US to the wealthiest corporations and individuals. It feels like the Trump presidency has brought the horrors of late capitalism, white supremacy, and environmental exploitation into a glaring spotlight – and that crisis point is very much the moment of the book.
SF: The events of 2020 have certainly exposed the devastating and interlocking oppressions of capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy. Your work speaks ever more urgently to these crises including the trauma resulting from an exploitative and extractive relationship to the environment. What possibility do you think there is for healing in a broken, diminishing world, and what role does poetry play?
MK: I think there is room for healing – and as well as the need for resistance and revolution. These aren’t separate things. The scale of oppressive systems can be overwhelming, and sometimes it’s hard to see a starting point. However, I think in shifting our own daily orientations towards values of interdependence, kinship, and care, we can find a starting place internally from which to move towards larger change. In her book Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown cites Grace Lee Boggs’s quote, ‘Transform yourself to transform the world,’ and continues: ‘This doesn’t mean to get lost in the self, but to see our own lives and work and relationships as a front line, a place we can practice justice, liberation, and alignment with each other and the planet.’ This idea of practice is so important. I think that personal practices, creative practices, and social practices are essential for healing and working towards our collective liberation. I thoroughly believe that when we move into right relation with each other on the personal and community levels, and with an expanded notion of kinship that extends beyond blood relations to other human and more-than-human persons, our responsibilities and connections orient us towards collective liberation.
I think that poetry can be a modality for reflection, inquiry, and imagining the world otherwise. In the very act of reading these poems, we inhabit another voice, another breath, another body. Perhaps poetry has always functioned this way, as invitation to take on another. There’s an enchanting and, I think, transformative vertigo in this simultaneity of being both fully embodied and in making way within that embodiment for another. I don’t think poetry is in any way a substitute for direct action – I don’t think poems can free us – but I do think they can give us ways to see and imagine the world differently. I think that is a very valuable thing.