Katy Dycus in conversation with poet, Kathryn Nuernberger. She’ll be performing on March 11th at Inner Moonlight, our poetry reading series.
BOA Editions Ltd. (2020)
Katy Dycus: What inspired the title of your forthcoming poetry collection RUE? The name seems to refer to both the plant native to the Balkan Peninsula and to the verb, to bitterly regret something.
Kathryn Nuernberger: The title is meant to evoke the sequence of poems that describe the botany, history, and folklore surrounding plants historically used for the birth control and also, since the book is also about feminist fury in the face of patriarchal hegemonies, to evoke the idea of that someone (maybe a husband or a boss or that guy on the street or that other guy at the bar or a senator or doctor or supreme court justice) will come to “rue the day.” I also chose rue as a the titular plant because it is a plant that can be used for birth control, but it can also be used as a medicine or a culinary herb, it has been used in amulets to prevent the evil eye, and in spells to see a person’s true nature, among a host of other marvels. It is a plant that doesn’t exist for any one particular reason, as none of us exists for any one reason, other than to be fully itself alive in the world.
KD: RUE features plants that were historically used for birth control and interweaves them with poems about key figures from the history of botany and ecology, as well as more personal narratives about family and love. How did you come to explore these intersecting themes?
KN: When I was living the loneliest version of my life on a small farm in rural Missouri I developed a habit of going for a walk in the fields behind my house every morning. I’d give myself the challenge to meet a new plant, harvest it sustainably for food or medicine or a bouquet, and then do some research and writing about it. I soon learned that a great many of the plants in my field were abortifacients, which eased my sense of isolation; I felt surrounded by and connected to at least this kind of radical group of friends who shared my frustrations and indignations.
That research also took me deeply into the history of science – I became interested in the stories of other people like me who seemed to find their most meaningful connections in the green world as opposed to the human, though for the most part those human scientists disappointed me in the end with the limitations of their understanding and how permeated their work was with racism, imperialism, colonialism, and sexism. As I have at times been just so disappointed in my own work and my own self. RUE is a book about telling the truth about anger and though a lot of that anger is directed outward, a lot of it was also directed inward. It wasn’t until I came to other side of the wringer this furious muse was running me through that I began to be able to imagine and write about participating in human connections and friendships and love again.
KD: Your poem “Translations” remarks on different shades of green, as well as the ways we register color. How should a poet use color?
KN: In that poem I was particularly interested in the ways that the visible spectrum has posed a number of challenges to philosophers who contend with what perception is, whether we can trust our perceptions, and how we can trust that we are actually sharing experiences of perceptions with other perceiving humans. “Translations” is a conversation about perceiving color that is really a conversation about whether inner and outer worlds are different and if they are different, whether a person can perceive that difference. I wrote the poem in the months after I had a miscarriage, when I was feeling a very confusing and sad blur about where I ended and other beings began – thinking about how humans perceive color was a way of thinking through how to live with grief, loss, and mortality.
But I have no guidelines for how a poet should use color. Poets should follow their bliss!
KD: Many of your poems point to the natural world around us, to the prairies, to the forest, to the homes that snails build. How are we like the living things around us? What have they to teach us?
KN: I would say that we aren’t like the living things around us so much as we are part of them and they are part of us. We are all beings sharing ecosystems, eating and being eaten by each other, fracking or not fracking each other’s groundwater, pollinating or fertilizing or spraying poison on the blooms that will become someone or other’s foods. I try to avoid thinking about non-human beings as metaphors for human ones – I fear it is disrespectful to all parties and I also find it is a missed opportunity that prevents me from perceiving the fullness of being. I do try to imagine how it feels to be other beings – a bobtail squid, for example, has a colony of bioluminescent bacteria behind its eyes that it can use to camouflage itself to the moonlight filtering through the water. That process of imagining does bring me into greater awareness of the various relationships that are in closer proximity to this body of mine – my symbioses with various bacteria living in my mouth and gut and brain, my responsibilities to and impacts on my human loves, the places the water I’m drinking passed through to reach me.
KD: You often investigate the intimate relationship between parent and child, as in your poem “Toad,” which feels at once tender and painful. How do you strike that balance?
KN: I find parenting to be a balance between tenderness and pain. I’ve written elsewhere about the terrifying realization when my child was first born that the best case scenario for the two of us is that I would see her watching me die, as opposed to the worst case scenario, which was that I would lose her first. That feeling of constant precariousness has subsided since those first post-partum months after a frightening and medically-complicated delivery, but there are other tensions too. In “Toad” I explore feeling pulled between a child’s desires and needs and the parent’s desires/needs/responsibilities/obligations, which is a sensation that is often intensified by this sexist culture for people in the mother role. I think the balance you have described finding in this poem may be a consequence of my desire to tell the most complete truth I can about an experience, which often means articulating parts that are taboo alongside more socially acceptable material. Another interpretation is that I am chronic ditherer and dithering in poetry can be understood and appreciated as “balance” unlike the way it is totally “annoying” in daily life. I do love how everything is made better in poetry, most especially ugly feelings.
Kathryn Nuernberger will perform on March 11th with also poet Jenny Molberg, at Inner Moonlight, The Wild Detectives monthly poetry reading series. More info here.
Katy Dycus Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Katy now lives in Madrid, Spain. When she isn't teaching, hiking, or laughing with friends, she's probably writing for the anthropology journal Mammoth Trumpet. Or looking for the perfect avocado.