“How do we celebrate the female voices who have come before us? We read them, we learn from them. As women writers, we make an effort to support each other. We continue to not shut up or sit down, unless it is to write.”
Next to Everything that is Breakable (Finishing Line Press, 2017)
Can you tell me a little bit about how you became a writer?
When I was younger, I loved to read. I had books all over the house and would even read multiple at a time. It got to the point where my mother would ask, “Did that really happen, or did you read about it in a book?” I’d lose myself so deeply in these stories that sometimes it felt like the characters’ reality was my own. It wasn’t until 6th or 7th grade that I found writing. I was given a poetry assignment and felt this incredible rush while composing it- something that told me this is what I was meant to do. I went on to study English in college, but stopped writing creatively. It wasn’t until 2015 when I found the Madwomen in the Attic at Carlow University that I started writing again. The workshops reawakened that passion and I began to take myself seriously as a writer. Since then, I’ve consistently participated in classes to perfect my craft, attended writing conventions, been published in nearly thirty journals/literary magazines, and released my debut chapbook. Though I often wish I never would have stopped writing, that break allowed me to live— to travel and experience things I probably wouldn’t have if I kept writing and immediately went on to graduate school or something. Those experiences throughout the years came back to life in the content of many of my poems.
How did you compile Next to Everything that is Breakable? Did you write these poems to be purposefully arranged in a collection, or did they come together serendipitously?
Some of the poems were written back in 2013, while others were new ones that I had written in recent Madwomen workshops. Yet, I noticed a common thread with the theme of fragility. Nearly all of the twenty-six poems had already been composed, it was just a matter of selecting and ordering them.
What was your reasoning for sectioning Next to Everything that is Breakable into three parts?
There are three main elements that echo the underlying theme of fragility in my book: travel and exploration, the human body and its capabilities, and the human condition (love, of the transition from child to woman, etc.)
Travel is a central theme throughout this collection of poems. Would you mind talking about how travel has influenced your writing? Did you write as you traveled, or were these poems reflections you wrote after you returned to America?
There is no way this couldn’t influence my writing. The cities I’ve loved, the mountains I’ve climbed, and the people I’ve met along the way have no doubt influenced my writing, and my life. I simply cannot capture the entire essence of it all, but pieces of them are evident in the pages of this manuscript. After my first international trip, I returned to the States feeling forever changed by my experience. I was on foreign land, eating all these different and strange foods, often unable to speak the language of the people around me, and yet I felt an overwhelming connection to a place and its people like I’d never known before. Traveling (especially alone, and as a woman) has given me so much confidence. It takes guts to follow your heart and venture out from what is familiar, but the reward is indescribable. I continue to discover more of myself and the world we live every time I leave my comfort zone behind.
I find it difficult to write as I am traveling, however, I’ll keep a journal of what I did that day: things I saw, what I ate, people I met, etc. But overstimulation is inevitable, and poetry takes a backseat. I try to capture photographs and fragments, whether it be a line or image, and jot it down in the “Notes” section of my phone so I can remember it, but I don’t typically write while I am traveling. I’m often too preoccupied with emerging myself fully into the wonders and culture of the place I am in. Once I return and reflect, that’s when the writing can take shape.
The poem “Road Maps” describes a time of change. The line “Things I’ve seen from this side of the sun” is particularly poignant as you transition to the realization that “we won’t be looking at rings anymore.” Was writing a cathartic practice when you returned home and realized both your evolution as an individual and the potential disconnect with people who had not shared the same experiences?
Writing is a healing process for me in several ways. As a young girl, I began writing so I could say the things I couldn’t say out loud. To put down on paper fragments of language that somehow made sense of every emotion I felt, or perhaps to help me through whatever it was I was going through at the time. I’ve continued to do that in poems about relationships, my pacemaker surgery, death in my family, etc. In a way, I always feel that disconnect from others, because they aren’t me. They haven’t necessarily experienced what I have. The beauty in writing is that it doesn’t matter. You can transcend a poem’s content to connect through emotions, which are universal. As a reader, I am most interested in pieces that can really strike me and make me feel something. As a writer, I strive to do the same in my work.
The painfulness of love is another theme that permeates your poems. I think you describe this beautifully in the poem “Say It,” when you compare the experience of love with a sunburn. Your poems about love are both biting and genuine. How do you explore with this theme without being cliché? Did you have any hesitations while writing about love?
Almost every writer I know has some worry or hesitation about their work, and often mine is with this topic. I’m not concerned with holding back, so I don’t worry about being vulnerable. I have to be— I owe it to my art. I do worry about being cliché, which is why I try to use metaphor and juxtaposition in a way that’s not been done before, but I find it incredibly difficult sometimes.
Your poems are written from a mature perspective, but at times they seem to reflect on the growing pains of adolescence, specifically in the poem, “Sex in the Bedroom of a Childhood Home.” Your focus on love, death, identity, and independence seems to align with coming-of-age stories; could you say a bit about this?
I’m nearing my late twenties, and I am still struggling to grasp the woman I am becoming and who she really is. I think it’s a delicate place to be; with the world hurling at you and time unrelenting. Life is hard, love is heartbreaking, and that caught-in-between feeling is something I think we can all relate to. I let that seep onto the page.
The final stanza in the poem “Portrait of Your Grandfather, Dying” proves your ability to write intense, emotive moments in a few purposeful words. For this reader, these moments are exceedingly striking because they are concise. You seem to choose words more intentionally than some writers, so I was wondering what your editing process looks like. Do these moments in your poetry come naturally, or do you wrestle with words until they fit perfectly?
There are times I’ll stumble upon the perfect word or killer ending, but it is usually a struggle. There are things I think are working perfectly, but when I bring them to workshop, find that they maybe aren’t serving the purpose I intended in the poem, and need to be revised. Cutting and revising is tough, but the bulk of the work for me is getting the poem first.
Your website bio mentions that you write with the Madwomen in the Attic at Carlow University. Feminism is a prevalent topic in academia; could you discuss what it means to you to be a woman writer? Moreover, do you have any ideas on how women today can celebrate the female voices who have come before us?
It means nothing short of everything. There are still so many challenges we face today- the idea that women feel as though they must write a certain way, or under a pseudonym in order to avoid being labeled. We hesitate to express ourselves fully, or feel like we can’t. Though there have been vast improvements over the years, women still get less representation than men.
How do we celebrate the female voices who have come before us? We read them, we learn from them. As women writers, we make an effort to support each other. We continue to not shut up or sit down, unless it is to write.
Do you have a favorite woman writer who has inspired your personal journey as a reader and writer?
The Madwomen in the Attic, every single one, are my inspiration- but specifically Jan Beatty and Tess Barry. Jan taught me that my voice is powerful and that I should use it. That my work, and the work poetry does, is important. Tess was my mentor and the first person who said, “You want to have a chapbook? Let’s do it.” She physically helped me put together my manuscript and guided me through the entire process. She believed in me until I believed in myself. None of this would have been possible without their support and encouragement.
Who is your favorite author? (And if that is like picking a favorite child, then authors?)
I am constantly inspired by contemporary voices- even in the Pittsburgh Poetry community and the Madwomen alone. The talent I’ve seen in weekly workshops continues to blow me away. Some of my favorite authors (not just poets) are Augusten Burroughs, Cheryl Strayed, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Kim Addonizio.
Where do you like to write? Do you like to listen to music when you write? If yes, what do you listen to?
Although I love music, I can’t listen to it when I write. I need quiet space to focus. I don’t have a typical writing schedule or regimen. In fact, I am the least-disciplined writer I know. I keep the “Notes” section on my phone easily accessible, and I use it to jot down lines or words, images, etc. anything that strikes me. Later, I’ll go through and use those bones as the base to build a poem.
Coffee or tea? 🙂
Coffee, always and all ways!
Kara Knickerbocker is a writer and world traveler from Saegertown, Pennsylvania. The author of Next to Everything that is Breakable (2017), she earned her BA in English from Westminster College in 2012. Her recent poetry and essays appeared in or are forthcoming from: Amaryllis, Coldnoon, and the anthology Voices from the Attic, Vol. XXII, among others. Her poetry collections won first place at the 2016 and 2017 Sigma Tau Delta International English Convention. Knickerbocker lives in Pittsburgh, where she works at Carnegie Mellon University, writes with the Madwomen in the Attic at Carlow University, and co-curates the MadFridays Reading Series.