“I started writing these poems after reading an article in Smithsonian magazine about a family that lived alone in the Russian taiga for 40 years with no outside contact.”
Tracing the New Stars (Rock & Sling, Issue 11.1, 2016)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your chapbook?
Here’s the opening poem. I feel it does the best job of setting things up for the reader.
Where No Crumb Can Save You
In the stories, children wander the woods alone,
falling to the trap of sin. There are ways
to survive. You cannot let the witch
lure you with her house of sweets.
You cannot fear the wolf. I am the girl who
plies the forest with darkness as her ally.
I dig the traps with my own hands, bare. I
am ready to wrestle the lion, just as the Book
prepared me. To emerge unscathed after I’ve
shared its bed.
Why did you choose this poem?
In many ways, Tracing the New Stars exists in its own world, and this first poem introduces many of the themes and concepts that shape that world. There’s a convergence of fairy tale and biblical story. There’s wilderness and solitude, sin and survival. And the poem also introduces the central protagonist, the girl who is the speaker in many (though not all) of the poems.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook? What’s your chapbook about?
I started writing these poems after reading an article in Smithsonian magazine about a family that lived alone in the Russian taiga for 40 years with no outside contact. They fled civilization in 1936 to avoid religious persecution and never went back. Tracing the New Stars is about this family, but it’s my own version of them. I’m drawn to religious outliers, these offshoot sects that strive to maintain what they consider a pure or true faith. So the chapbook is about survival, faith, isolation, but also about seeing in the world in a new and original way, outside the influence of culture or civilization or anyone else’s ideas.
Can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The dream poems came first; “She Dreams her own Undoing” was one of the early poems. In that article I mentioned, a journalist said that the family’s primary form of entertainment was to tell one another their dreams, and that sparked this whole project. What would they dream about? Could they dream of things they’d never seen or experienced? I decided a person living this extremely meager life might dream about shoes, and also about the constant threats to their survival—here, the potential destruction of the garden, their food source. And because their religious beliefs infuse everything they do, the dreams might cross a line into sin that they dare not cross in their waking lives.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
Tracing the New Stars is actually a small selection of poems from a full-length collection I’ve been working on. So when choosing the poems, I was drawing from a larger pool, which meant I had to think about which poems would work together on a smaller scale, without feeling like there were gaps in the story. The title was initially suggested by a friend, the poet Maya Jewel Zeller, who really helped me to revise these poems and craft the book. The “new stars” are from the poem “Satellite,” and since the poems are about a family that’s sort of stuck in time, the word “tracing” gets at the fact that the characters are observing progress without participating in it.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“The Children Learn the Alphabet” is clearly not like the others. In the larger manuscript, it’s one of three poems with the same title, and one of many that are lyric rather than narrative. I wanted to include one in the chapbook to give a feel for something different going on, but in retrospect, I wonder if having only one makes it seem out of place.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like?
I think my experience was outside the norm, since the chapbook was published as part of a literary journal. Initially, I sent a handful (maybe five) of these poems to Rock & Sling for consideration, and the editor there, Thom Caraway, wrote to me asking if I could send more. They were intrigued by the poems and interested in a broader sense of the story I was working with. It was Thom’s idea to feature the poems as a mini chapbook.
What was your biggest challenge in writing these poems?
Because I was writing about real people, I struggled quite a bit with the idea of appropriation. I didn’t want to presume to speak for others, and I didn’t want to steal their experience or try to write a story that isn’t mine to tell. I tried to draw on what I found most intriguing about their story and craft a narrative inspired by that.
Kathryn Smith’s poems have been nominated for Best American Poetry and the Pushcart Prize and have appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Bellingham Review, Southern Indiana Review, Redivider, Third Coast, Ruminate, Cleaver Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Spokane, WA.