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“Words Will Take You Anywhere”
An Interview with Kelly Cherry
 
By Pam Kingsbury

 

 
 

In her memoir, Writing the World, Kelly Cherry assures readers that "Words will take you anywhere." Her work (she's published twenty-seven books: six collections of fiction, two memoirs, six collections of poetry, two translations of classical drama, and five chapbooks of poetry) has taken her all over the world, including: Latvia, the Philippines, England, Scotland, Yalta, and most of the United States.  Her work has been translated into: Russian, Latvian, Chinese, Czeck, Spanish, German, Dutch, Swedish, Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukranian. Despite all her traveling, she admits, "My great ambition in life is a screened porch on which to write my poems, which might be a lighthearted metaphor." 

 

Do you feel that you are a Southern writer? Southerner?

I'm certainly a Southerner.  Even though I've lived out of the South - England, New York, the Midwest, and elsewhere - my heritage is Southern and I've never not felt Southern.  I'm also a writer who writes in and sometimes about the South.  I don't mind being called a Southern write - indeed, I enjoy the collegiality of it and admire the way Southern readers cherish and continue the tradition of literature about the South--although I think the term may be misleading if it suggests that I'm a regional writer.  I've written too much set elsewhere to be considered regional, and my early cultural influences were not Southern.

What are those cultural influences?

The ancients, especially Catullus and Sophocles.  Shakespeare, who is every writer's greatest influence.  The Bible writers, who are the greatest influence on every writer in the South.  The Russians, with whom I fell in love very early on.  Thomas Hardy and Thomas Mann.  Joyce may have been a bigger influence than I used to recognize him for. Yeats, Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Frost.  Philosophers.

And I read a great many plays in high school and college.

Those are the writers I grew up on.  We didn't have many children's books in the house - they weren't yet being mass-marketed in paperback, and in any case, my parents felt it was foolish to spend money on books when they could be checked out from a library.  But I have vivid memories of The Poky Little Puppy, The Little Train That Could, Babar the Elephant, and The Ugly Duckling.

What are you currently working on?

I always work on several books at once.  I spend time on one thing, move to another, move to yet another, go back to the first: this lets me spend more conceptual time with each thing than I would have otherwise.  Currently well underway are a couple of collections of poems, a collection of essays about women fiction writers and about being a woman who writes fiction, a memoir, and a group of stories set in the South.  Not every book one writes finds a publisher, of course, and so I can't say that all of these projects will find their way to bookshelves.

You've had many life changes in the last year -- retiring from full time teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, moving to Virginia, marrying -- have you slowed down?

I think I have.  At the same time, I'm getting more writing done.  The time spent on having coffee with my husband in the morning comes not from writing time but from the time that used to go to a faculty meeting or marking papers.

Your husband, Burke Davis III, is also a fiction writer (DWELLING PLACES). What is like living in the house with another writer?

Burke and I talk about ideas for stories and books and read each other's work. He is a marvelous fiction writer and I almost always take his suggestions for revision of my fiction.

What are the nuts and bolts of writing for you?

I write in longhand.  At some point I move to a typewriter or, these days, a computer, but my first drafts are always longhand and I often revert to longhand in later stages when I'm working out a difficult passage or scene.  I don't have a set time for writing; I just squeeze it in whenever I can.  For me, poetry requires more time than fiction.  Once a story or, especially, a novel is begun, there is a narrative thread one can pick up in a spare moment, but poetry demands silence and space, freedom from worry, a concentration that can leave you wrung out and exhausted.

What is your best advice to beginning writers?

Read, write, know tools and techniques, and make good friends who share your passion and will stick by you.

What do you think is the heart of your work?

From an early age, from even before I understood that books were written by people and not simply things that appeared sui generis, and even before I had words to say it with, I had something to say.  It is something that cannot be talked about; it can only be demonstrated, which, of course, is why one turns to art rather than to philosophy, as I might have done.  This need to say what was mine to say preceded anything else in my life.  I think it was my earliest response to life and was a response to what Beethoven made me feel, and who knows, since my parents were playing Beethoven while I was still in the womb, maybe this need even preceded my own life.  That's how it has always felt, anyway.

Is any of your work autobiographical?

All serious fiction begins in autobiography, though the connection may remain hidden from the reader.  Serious fiction is, however, fiction; it proceeds from the real to the imagined.  Often, the better imagined a fiction is, the more likely it is that a reader will mistake it for autobiography.

Readers - among them, other writers - have asked me what arrangements I make for my daughter when I travel to give readings (The Society of Friends); why I went to med school if I'm not practicing (Sick and Full of Burning); if they can tell me about their own recollections of  my ex-husband's father (Augusta Played); if I enjoyed my time in Bolivia (In the Wink of an Eye).  When My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers came out, old friends of my brother called me to say they were sorry to learn he had died.

No daughter.  Couldn’t cut up a frog, much less a person.  Never met my ex-husband's father.  Have never been to Bolivia.  And I'm happy to note for the record that my brother is alive and well and living in Houston.

I have written one autobiography, The Exiled Heart, and some personal essays, a form that makes use of the materials of autobiography and memoir.

 
 

                                           Sappho in Her Study
                                                 Kelly Cherry



                                       The files in the filing cabinet
                                       Are all talking at once.
                                       Mumble jumble, say the files
                                       In the filing cabinet.

                                       The desk, discreet,
                                       Discloses nothing.

                                       Rough drafts live
                                       A roustabout life,
                                       Tumbling from shelves,

                                       While books, published
                                       and smugly replete,
                                       No longer feel the need
                                       To compete.

                                       Stationery sprawls,
                                       Casual as sunbathers.

                                       In the locked drawer,
                                       Love letters lie.



Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press from Rising Venus: Poems, by Kelly Cherry.  Copyright © 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002 by Kelly Cherry.


Selected Books of Kelly Cherry

Rising Venus: Poems, LSU Press, 2002

       read the Southern Scribe Review

 

 

The Society of Friends: Stories, Univ. of Missouri Press, 1999
Death and Transfiguration: Poems, LSU Press, 1997
Writing the World, Univ. of Missouri Press, 1995
Lovers and Agnostics, Carnegie-Mellon Univ. Press, 1995
Time Out of Mind, March Street Press, 1995    (store)
Benjamin John, March Street Press, 1993       (store)
Exiled Heart: A Meditative Autobiography, LSU Press, 1991

© 2002 Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved