Kimberly Ann Priest on poetry, resistance, and trauma

You are the author of the chapbook White Goat Black Sheep (Finishing Line Press), a collection that Sandra Beasely calls “a set of intimate lyrics” that offer a “fresh discerning edge.” White Goat Black Sheep is a collection of poems that witness the grief and trauma of sexual assault. Talk about your work with poetry of resistance, breaking silences, and gender violence. Talk about the power of such poetic work.

Madeline, I firmly believe in both silence and its opposite, which I will call “voice,” as acts of empowerment. I’m lucky, I think, to have grown up in a remote part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I learned to appreciate absolute silence to get in tune with myself, while also growing up in a family that never suppressed my voice. At age four, my father bought me a sweatshirt brandishing an image of a parrot and “I’m a talker” beneath.

So when you speak of “breaking silence,” I immediately think of forced silence—not an act of personal empowerment and internal healing, but a suppression of one’s voice by an outside will. There is a point to which breaking this sort of silence is my natural disposition. When I contemplate what is important to me about my Judeo-Christian upbringing, it is the reverberating command in the Bible to do justice and defend the oppressed, and this requires advocacy and “voice.”

Ironically, it wasn’t until much later in life, my 30s, that I discovered where I fit into that oppressed category when I had the memories of being sexually violated as a young girl. It also wasn’t until then that I begin to feel the shame of the act. Fortunately, not having learned to be silent about injustice or accept shame, my first inclination was to write about, give voice to the trauma. Out came this chapbook, very much a vocalization of my younger self’s desire to do justice for my little sister who had also been violated.

While writing White Goat Black Sheep, I never thought of the lyrics as resistance to anything. But, upon reflection, I realize how deeply they resonate with that resistance as a young girl tries to name the violent act, protect her sister, and comprehend the damage. According to Gregory Orr’s theories on trauma and poetry, this very act of writing the poems is an attempt to create order out of chaos. Even the images I use in the poetry hark back to language used at the beginning of Genesis where it says that God separated the water above from the water beneath. So, my book functions as both a resistance to trauma’s disordering effect as well as a social disorder—namely the perpetuation of sexual assault.

According to an article published by the World Health Organization this past November, “about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.”  Think about the impact of that number. . . that’s more than one third of the women on our planet who make up at least half of the world’s population. So, if I have my math right, that’s roughly one-sixth of the earth’s population. Which, I would suppose, makes it an issue worth some conversation.

However, in my own writing, I’m hesitant to make this conversation solely about one gender because I think this has so much more to do with power in general rather than male or female power specifically. The counter to that would be the inequity of power between genders, but also between classes and races, intersectional issues that all affect whether or not an individual can successfully resist violation by another individual. Simply put, individuals who possess power by merit of their gender, class, or race inevitably have the advantage over someone who does not.

The speaker in White Goat Black Sheep is acutely aware of the outside forces represented by the “curators” who observe the sisters’ trauma and are, from their perspective, attempting to correct or comprehend the behaviors but who do not enter the trauma and, therefore, cannot add anything positive to the sisters’ story or circumstances. The mother, on the other hand, though often powerless and misguided, attempts to enter the trauma; and this, for me, is why I consider this book both a feminist text and a true act of resistance. As with all of my writing, I am more or less forcing my reader to enter trauma, to come too close for comfort, to produce a measure of grief in the reader that will break their own propensity to be passive and silent on an issue that—having affected at least one-sixth of our global population (not counting violated men)—should not be ignored.

While it’s unrealistic to think that we can ever rid the world of injustice or this particular issue of assault, I think it is both practical and wise to expect the world to grieve its traumas, together—to share pain, tell our stories, wail, hug, connect, bear witness to these tragedies and produce communities that honor victims rather than perpetuate shame. This, if anything, is what I wish to accomplish with my poetry: break the power of silent isolated suffering.

Cynthia Hogue discusses the power and importance of sound in “Sound-Thinking in Lyric Poetry” here. She writes, “The power of poetry’s affect is sonic, which can be freely accessed by all, regardless of language or education. Poetry’s music is experienced at both subliminal and conscious levels, so that there are two or more “soundtracks” that we register when hearing a poem.” Talk about sound in your own work and the work of poems that you admire. What’s the most enjoyable poem you’ve read aloud recently?

Mmmmm, I really like that idea of poetry having more than one “soundtrack.” I think that’s true; the imagistic and linguistic compression forces a reader to experience language in all three parts of our brain: the reptilian, limbic, and neocortex so that, all at once, our heart rate can increase or decrease, our emotions feel stirred to cry or laugh, and our imagination begin to construct a new world where, in my poetry, a girl is gazing at a tree in a river and comparing herself to its isolation and marveling at its fortitude.

These are all “soundtracks.” All ways that the poem is sonically lighting up the parts of our brain and simultaneously stimulating pleasurable and/or distressing physiological responses. I think the best poems reach us in all of these places.

For me, this occurs frequently when I read haiku. The compressed, imagistic language always elicits a deep grief, loneliness, or longing and I like to read it when I need to know that a writer, centuries ago, has also felt my particular longing or grief. There is a beautiful resonance and connection in which the sometimes inexpressible parts of our soul are suddenly united with other voices from people who are, in that moment of reading the poetry, feeling exactly the same.

I think of Afaa Weaver’s poetry when I say this because he has also written about his personal experiences with sexual assault. When I first read “Flying,” I thought I was going to split open. Given that I have had the same experience he is addressing in the poem, this rendering accessed all of me. It was both beautiful and terrifying.

Recently I have also been reading a new poetry book by a friend of mine, Allison Titus, called “The True Book of Animal Homes.” Allison has an incredible talent for addressing human nature via both our physiological similarity with animals, as well as our relationship to them as owners, masters, and hunters etc. Her work is very contemplative and her language is purely sonic and imagistic. I’ve heard her read and the emotional effect is stunning.

Moving from writing to teaching, you have an MFA from New England College and an MA from Central Michigan University. Currently, you teach in Oklahoma. Why teach? What are your favorite moments during a normal teaching day?

Students. I love my students. These days I hear so much damning language directed at Millennials and I have this natural rebel attitude to prove these voices wrong. I think this generation of students is both fragile and poised for positive change. Perhaps the fragility scares older generations that have had more securities than these young adults now do facing homespun terrorism, greater numbers of broken families, economic uncertainty, and political unrest. As someone who has had to fight for her life out of difficult circumstances, and is still doing so, I honor their fragility and their resilience. We have enough critics. They have enough critics. I don’t want to be one of them. I want to be someone that they, and others, can rely on for authentic faith in their abilities and value.

And I believe in the importance of connection and community. The classroom is a small community. When I teach, I’m not simply passing along information—I’m working hard to encourage a group of individual thinkers to realize truth from another point of view. As one of my student’s recently commented, I taught him to have a voice in the classroom. And that is what I think any sort of writing course should be about—whether it creative or academic—to encourage a new generation to have voice, take responsibility for that voice, communicate compassionately and boldly, and listen carefully and considerately to the other voices contributing to any particular conversation.

So I guess the short answer is: I teach because I believe students are valuable and they have a valuable role to play in their communities. My favorite moments in a teaching day are when they take over the classroom with respectful and passionate conversation on a particular topic as a community of independent thinkers, and I can just stand back and watch the fireworks.

What makes a good chapbook? I like it when a chapbook is more of a linked narrative. Many full manuscripts do this as well, but it’s powerful when this more compact form delivers an emotionally dynamic experience because brevity.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? That’s such an interesting question because I’m not sure that any chapbook poets have directly inspired me. Most of the poets that have inspired me have written several full manuscripts that are powerful and thematically cohesive. I think of Jamaal May’s Hum, Tarfia Fazullah’s Seam, and Afaa Weaver’s The Government of Nature. These books, especially Fazullah’s, just keep turning a single narrative with each poem so that the reader sees it from a slightly different angle. I love that. These authors have impacted the way I write my chapbooks.

However, my good friend Zachary Riddle has a chapbook titled Wingless coming out this year from Finishing Line Press. He writes beautiful cohesive narratives with his chapbook poems. I’m a fan :).

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Actually, I don’t “look” for anything. . . I simply write a chapbook. White Goat Black Sheep, for instance, is not a set of standalone poems that address similar themes. They are linked poems titled by Roman numerals I, II, III, IV, V, etc. The poems are written in the voice of a single speaker. They could not function alone. So, the book is essentially one long drama. I have another completed manuscript that is the same, yet to be published. When I write a chapbook, I write a book from start to finish; I don’t put one together.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? Writing standalone poems! The chapbooks come to me so much easier!

What’s next for you? Great question. Not entirely sure. I’ve completed a full manuscript and another chapbook that I’m slowly shopping to contests. So hopefully getting one of those published is next!

Chapbook Bio: Kimberly is the author of White Goat Black Sheep (FLP) and her poetry has appeared in several literary journals including The 3288 Review, Temenos, Borderlands: The Texas Poetry Review, The West Texas Literary Review, Windhover, Ruminate Magazine and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She is an MFA graduate of New England College, an English instructor, and an editor for the Nimrod International Journal.

Number of chapbooks you own: Not a whole lot. Maybe 20.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. I think chapbooks are a great way to process trauma narratives because they are just enough for the reader to absorb the impact, but not too much that it becomes overwhelming. That’s why I write them. With my longer manuscript, I have to give the reader breaks from a difficult topic, but with the chapbook, I can narrow the lens, deliver impact, and then let the reader process the experience.

Also, I think they are a healthy dose of poetry for the reader with a shorter attention span :).

Chapbook Bio: Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of White Goat Black Sheep (FLP) and her poetry has appeared in several literary journals including The 3288 Review, Temenos, Borderlands: The Texas Poetry Review, The West Texas Literary Review, Windhover, Ruminate Magazine and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She is an MFA graduate of New England College, an English instructor, and an editor for the Nimrod International Journal.


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