How It’s Made: Kathryn Cowles’ Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World
We’re so happy to have had the chance to look under the hood of Kathryn Cowels’ second and newest collection from Milkweed Books, Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World, of which Mary Ruefle says, “The luckiest readers [of this collection] will wind up in a rocking chair on a porch, seeing the world as if for the first time.” With our How It’s Made series, we endeavor to take away some of that ever-present mystery of how a collection comes to being.
What were the most joyful moments of Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World’s journey to publication?
Kathryn Cowles: Here’s the shorter answer: At one point, I had a brilliant editor cut a third of the poems out of my then-bloated manuscript (see question 3 below). You might think I would be devastated, but I knew immediately the rightness of the thing, and I felt the most peculiar, lightheaded, concentrated joy, almost like a giddy headache, like when you chop off all your long hair into a brand-new short-haired you and suddenly feel more like yourself, but less weighed down.
And here’s the longer answer: Every time I start a project, I always think that I’m actually going to do the thing I set out to do. With my first book, Eleanor, Eleanor, not your real name, I truly thought I’d find a way via poem to hold onto the people in my life who kept slipping away from me, disappearing altogether or just drifting off. And I tried and tried, and they slipped and slipped, and I held onto something, sure, but something very different from what I had meant to catch. And yet that something mattered. With Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World, I had a similar holding-onto project in mind, but the thing I was trying to hold onto, to transcribe, to get to stick to my page, was place. I was being torn away from places I love as I followed the academic job market to places I sometimes didn’t love. So I was looking for a way to transcribe the loved places, to map them out, to catch them if I could. The joyful part about it is that although I failed utterly at catching the world in my book, the world didn’t seem to mind, and neither did the book. And after writing it, my connection to my loved places was stronger than ever, processed through the kind of freedom that comes from letting go of the illusion of control, letting go of my sense of having a say. The world goes on world-ing whether or not I write it down. And so I learned a thing about what poetry can and can’t do. And that it matters, but never the way I think it will. That it rescues something, but never the thing I think it will. It rescues mostly just me. This revelation came near the end of the writing process, and it gave me a real feeling of relief from loss and, I would even say, of joy.
What were the toughest moments you faced while getting the collection to the world and what have you taken away from them?
One great frustration was the slowness of it all. The time span between the beginning of the writing of this book and its publication has been more than a decade. It has changed quite a bit in that time, has gone through editings and incarnations, has shed dozens of old poems and taken on dozens of new poems. But the process has been necessarily slow, even after acceptance. In the meantime, I started a project after reading a lot of Larry Eigner, who was born with cerebral palsy and was confined much of his life to a single location. And yet he wrote day in and day out about the same scenery as if it was completely new, completely unprecedented, and his poems are revelatory. I was also thinking about Paul Cézanne, who would paint the same piece of landscape over and over again, making it over and over every day. So I decided as an exercise to sit on the same bench above Seneca Lake every day for two weeks and see if I could still write something new every day. Two weeks turned into two months, which turned into two seasons, then a whole year, and I was still writing. Also, I was working on a whole other book of exphrastic poems about fictional art works made by the Eleanor character from my first book. So I had this back-up of book projects going into my tenure leave and a corresponding desire not to write more poems, not to end up with another slow book on my hands, which was a frustrating impulse. The upside is that this has led me to branch out in ways I’ve always wanted to but never had time because of the ticking academic clock or the job market. For instance, I apprenticed myself to a couple of audio engineers to learn how to record my own music myself for the first time after years of songwriting. And I’ve been doing a lot more hybrid and multi-media art (including the artwork on the cover of the book and on the cover of my songs on Soundcloud). So one thing I’ve learned is that writing poems is just one of many avenues for my creative energy, and sometimes doing new things causes sudden proliferations of creativity.
An author never really works alone—without whose support would the book not have made it across the finish line?
So many people made the book possible, but I have a story about the most pivotal one. My partner called me once in the middle of the work day to tell me I had received a hand-written letter from one L. Glück on Yale stationary. So I ran home immediately and discovered that, though my book was a finalist for the Barnard Prize, judged by Lousie Glück, I hadn’t won. But her letter contained such specific comments on my manuscript and an encouragement to get in touch with her (along with her home phone number, which I was too terrified to call), that I was buoyed for weeks. I’d never met Louise before, but I soon learned she was coming to a nearby city for a reading. So I attended the reading and introduced myself, despite being a fairly shy person, and not only did she remember who I was, but to my great astonishment, she offered to help me edit the manuscript. I was so shocked that I got lost trying to find my car after the reading and had to ask the campus security to drive me around looking for it. I drove to Cambridge, MA, four separate times to edit and arrange the book with Louise, who is the best editor I have ever met. The first time we met, I left with a book that was a full third lighter. I was so thrilled I could barely speak. I had long known something needed to be done—the book had been a finalist a few times but just couldn’t seem to pass the finish line. But I couldn’t do it on my own. I needed someone to help me shake the manuscript till the extra pieces fell out. My poet friends, who are wonderful readers and who also helped me enormously in the editing process, had trouble cutting whole poems out because the poems are so clearly in my voice, and I think it felt to them like cutting pieces of my voice out. But Louise didn’t really know me and so didn’t feel bad cutting big pieces out, which was exactly what the manuscript needed. I will forever be grateful to her. I learned so much about editing, but also about generosity to people at earlier stages of their careers, about extraordinary service in the name of poetry.
What did you learn about writing and poetry over the journey of these poems, many of them engaging with image and photo?
One thing I learned is that it is good for me to have no idea how to do the thing I want to do. Once I start writing poems I already know how to write, I end up just rewriting poems I’ve already written, only not quite as well. It’s only when I try something completely new, with the distinct possibly of profound failure, that I find I am able to write my way into a better kind of thinking. Sometimes this takes the form of incorporating other media, like images or collage. Sometimes it means going old-school and writing a sonnet. I’m always telling my students you don’t have to write any particular way unless there’s a way that scares you. Then you have to write that way. I try to take this advice myself.
What was the favorite piece of media or art you consumed while writing these poems?
I’m really interested in how many different ways there are for talking about the same thing, and how unusual forms impact content. To document a single hill, for instance, there might be 10 different kinds of maps, each emphasizing a different aspect of the hill—like topographical height, or road configurations, or the locations of streams and other water, of electrical cords or sewage lines or railroad infrastructure or houses/buildings, or tracking animal flight patterns, or the weather. So when I was writing this book, I was reading a lot of texts that tried to find a different answer to the question of form—“permission-giving texts,” as I tell my students. Eleni Sikelianos’s The Body Clock was one. In it, she tries to understand time in relation to a pregnant body, a body growing another body, a sort of struggle at the edge of poetry and visual art to say a thing she doesn’t know how to say in the old ways. But I was also interested in visual artists who were making letters feel physical and literal again (sort of like how painters like Jackson Pollock make paint feel physical and literal again). I’m interested in letters as objects, so I was studying the work of people like the Russian Futurists, with their poster print lettering, or Christopher Wool, with his gigantic sentences crammed onto the space of a canvas, or Brian Dettmer, with his extraordinary collages made of out of carving into the sides of books, or Mary Ruefle, with her white-out erasures of old books. Although I’m pretty good at InDesign, I like the aesthetics of cut and paste because it makes letters feel real, and that really makes its way into the book.
What’s your one sentence piece of advice for poets currently putting a collection together?
Be generous and tolerant with yourself and your poems while writing a book, but be ruthless while editing it.
Kathryn Cowles is the author of Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World and Eleanor, Eleanor, Not Your Real Name, winner of the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize. She earned her doctorate from the University of Utah and is an associate professor of English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
Praise for Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World
“Where are you? Where do you think you are? How do you know? Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World will quite possibly change your mind, or that part of your mind that thinks it knows, or relies on any- thing in print. Come take a journey from an island in Greece—by boat and plane and step—to Ohio, only to walk out into a field of wildflowers you thought you knew, but didn’t. The luckiest readers will wind up in a rocking chair on a porch, seeing the world as if for the first time.”
“The careful measure of this world against all other versions, measured by birds, by boats, by the sea . . . Kathryn Cowles explores the ways that acute, engaged attention is, in itself, a unit of measure, delivering us up to a world the size of a world. She covers a lot of territory, and always with an intimacy that makes us present, in her images and in her imaginary, both always mapping the world as a way of participating it in more closely—a stunning text that sweeps the reader along on its travels.”
“Kathryn Cowles’s new book is an extraordinary exploration of the heart of human existence. Interrogat- ing our relationship to place, the environment, religion, history, memory, love, and more, she employs a myriad of forms and approaches. The language here is a symphonic arc at once dissonant and harmonic, experimental and narrative, a perfect blend of opposites seeking always to open a road, a liminal zipper into possibility. Part alchemical formula, part cartographer’s process, part prophecy, part fairy tale, Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World weaves spell after spell, poems and images spooling out as coordinates, compass points, leading into a lyric, playful but deep probing of what might be recovered and turned to a redemptive purpose.”
“Kathryn Cowles’s beautiful new work is threaded with sites of everyday transformation—where a land- scape becomes an image or a bird song becomes a sequence of hyphenated phonemes or a flash of con- sciousness becomes a poem. In text and image, Cowles shows us how to see and hear through the intersti- tial spaces we’ve been so thoroughly trained to overlook. Tracking an intimate call-and- response between the poet and her surroundings, these poems reveal a practice of tender attention as generous and fully alive as the worlds they map.”