10 Questions for Kathryn Petruccelli
- By Edward Clifford
Early August. The sun serious
about itself, the breeze moody
as an infant, hushing its breath
to a whisper, watching, then lifting
all it had into a burst of joy.
—from "Prophet," Volume 64, Issue 1 (Spring 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote:
I’m assuming you don’t want to hear about the middle school stuff that involved rainbows and much angst. (An early grasp on paradox?) But when I was about 30, I discovered the then-flourishing world of poetry slam and wrote a piece about trying to be more Zen while finding all the good writing fodder in edgier circumstances. Slam was great for my voice at the time, and I enjoyed the idea of speaking for three minutes without anyone interrupting. I won a slam contest with the poem and then I started my own slam. Running that slam and starting to be seen by others as a poet, was big factor in how I moved more seriously into poetry.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I was a long-time student of Ellen Bass back when she held on-going workshops in her Santa Cruz living room. That's where I originally met Danusha Laméris, and later on she’d become another mentor and a big influence.
When Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things came out, I carried the book around with me for a solid 18 months. Tragically, I ended up accidently leaving my first copy in an IKEA. When I saw Limón read in person, I tried to explain my uber-dedication to the book by relating the story to her about the IKEA, but the there-are-people-behind-me-in-the-book-signing-line-I-have-to-tell-this-story-quickly version didn’t really translate well. She was unimpressed and maybe a little concerned for me. All that to say, the poems of Bright Dead Things were a critical influence.
What other professions have you worked in?
I once had job dressing as a giant bag of popcorn and handing out samples in a supermarket in Queens, New York. I was quite good at it. I’m not sure what that says about me.
One of the things I’m up to these days is tour guiding for the Emily Dickinson Museum. It’s a nice blend of skills for me in that I get to tell stories, talk about poetry, and root it all in the specifics of place.
International education and teaching would be the general category into which the majority of my work history falls. I was in admin for an international exchange program that brought Eastern European graduate students to U.S. universities. Then, I got my degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages, and a certificate in international student advising. I’ve mainly taught adults, with some notable exceptions, like a year teaching secondary school kids in Hungary and gigs teaching poetry to high schoolers through California Poets in the Schools and Mass Poetry. I’ve also served some time doing university freshman comp classes, and at one point taught beginning American Sign Language to babies and families through a hospital’s parent education department.
I love language. I love learning foreign languages; I love the history of words.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I grew up with Fame, Footloose, and Flashdance. I wanted to be on stage, preferably as a dancer.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I can remember a few things about writing “Prophet.” I was picking my son up from an outdoor/woodsy summer camp when I literally saw a leaf fall from a huge oak and panicked in the understanding that even as it was the height of summer, summer was getting ready to wane. I’m very affected by weather and landscape. I’m not a fan of winter.
I also remember writing the phrase “ . . . that's higher/than it looks, and it looks pretty high.” and feeling conscious of the voicy-ness there as something I’d adopted from work I was reading at the time.
In general, I’d say the poem is asking a question that many of my poems ask, namely, what will it take for us—those within the human species—to understand how to live in the moment, to get out of our own way and live life that way it should be lived?
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Place, in general, is often my obsession. Displacement and feeling out of place are themes that populate the majority of poems in my current manuscript.
The ocean—if that’s a place—is one I return to repeatedly in my writing. Prior to this last decade of my life, I’ve always lived near an ocean. Being separated from it, specifically from the California coastline I called home for many years, has birthed an almost desperate outpouring, a granting of a god-like or oracle status to the ocean in my poems. And with the climate crisis and the health of the ocean front and center these days, my leanings have only been compounded.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Tea. A lot of pacing and talking to myself.
I start with the small, concrete details in front of me and usually the bigger, abstract issues on my mind follow. It’s the approach I push in teaching my online workshops as well.
And I read (or listen). Pretty simple. Reading as the catapult into the page. I’m big on word banks, so if I read something I love, I make a list of all the amazing words I want to steal and then try to puzzle them into a poem.
Or if I’m lacking for lines or images to get going with, I might take it a step further and use the scaffolding of a poem to write my own. In other words, I look at what that poet did, for example, first line: describe a landscape, next line: build a metaphor, next: ask a question, etc., and I follow that like a set of instructions or a recipe.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Sometimes it’s my husband. I also have a friend I exchange poems with—someone I met in a past writing group. I’m definitely in the market for a new writing group, though.
What are you working on currently?
I’m peddling a completed manuscript and what feels like continually rearranging it to build different story arcs.
I’m also writing new work. A good deal of what’s arriving has centered around a female perspective on a violent world. I’m playing with certain ideas of what’s “allowed” in writing. I’ve been warned away from including bodily fluids, in particular tears, in poems by several (male) writers/editors. Consequently, the defiant teenager in me is in there going “Oh yeah?” The world in the state it’s in and no tears? I’m still learning my way around the patriarchy.
Also, and always, my work is in collaboration with the natural world.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading the latest issue of Copper Nickel along with rereading Natalie Diaz’ Post-Colonial Love Poem and Jericho Brown’s The Tradition. I’m away from home and those are the books that asked to come with me this time. I like the mash-up of Diaz’ inventive rhapsody of language with Brown’s economy and precision.
I’ve also been recently rereading Danusha Laméris’ work because I’m going to get to sit in conversation with her when she presents as part of the Smith College Poetry Series in April—something I’m wildly excited about.
Outside of poetry, I’m reading a Barbara Kingsolver novel. I read for character ahead of plot. People are endlessly fascinating and the study of them in art always gives me hope that I can figure out just one more little piece of the human psyche or glean a new idea about how to be even a wee bit better at this life thing.
KATHRYN PETRUCCELLI holds an MA in teaching English language learners and harbors obsessions over place, words, and the ocean. Her poetry and prose have appeared in places like the Southern Review, New Ohio Review, Rattle, Tinderbox, SWWIM, Sweet Lit, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, and others. She’s been a Best of the Net nominee and a finalist for the Omnidawn Poetry Broadside Contest. Kathryn teaches workshops for adults and teens that center around contemporary poets, a love of language, and the emotional literacy needed to weave a better future.