Poet in the Mirror: Kate Gaskin
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This week, Kate Gaskin—author of the award winning Forever War (from YesYes Books)—shares the struggles of knowing when your book is ready, her “rocky and strange” grad school journey, and a great bit of advice: “prioritize musicality.”
On Rejection & Revision
Kate Gaskin: Forever War was rejected about ten times over the course of the year it took to find a home. That ended when it won YesYes Book’s Pamet River Prize. It was also a finalist for the National Poetry Series, though that version of the manuscript was very different from the one YesYes saw. Like many poets, I started sending out my manuscript before it was ready, mostly because I was so excited to finally have a manuscript at all. I was lucky to find a home for Forever War so relatively quickly because it’s very normal for first books of poetry to take a long time to find a publisher. The prize process that many emerging poets feel they need to use in order to secure a first book is not great because it’s so expensive and tedious, but I do understand that small presses need to raise revenue somehow.
On Becoming “Professional”
Any small amount of money I make from poetry I immediately put back into reading fees, contest fees, and other writing-related expenses like writing retreats, conferences, and childcare. So if a professional endeavor is one that makes money, poetry is more like a hobby for me, but one that is all-consuming. I did decide at some point that I enjoyed writing poetry so much I wanted to be much more immersed in it, which is why I just started a PhD with a creative writing focus. My road toward trying to professionalize my relationship with writing has been rocky and strange. I’ve been a military spouse for 16 years, and the constant moving has made finding nearby graduate programs and local writing communities difficult or even at times impossible. Luckily, we’ve been stationed at Offutt Air Force Base outside Omaha, Nebraska several times because that’s where my spouse’s platform (the kind of plane he flies) is located. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is just an hour away, and it has a fantastic creative writing program. Over the course of about ten years, I applied there three times, finally getting in on my third try. Because I’m attached to my family via my spouse’s job, UNL was really my only option, and I’m lucky that it’s such a good program. And I’m lucky that they finally let me in haha. I suppose ultimately my definition of poetry as a professional endeavor—as it applies specifically to me—is building a life that is dedicated to the art of poetry, as a writer of it, but also as someone who exists in a community of writers. The PhD is one part of that. The poetry editing work I do for The Adroit Journal is another part of that. Editing goes a long way to making me feel integrated into the poetry community by volunteering my time to feature and celebrate other poets’ work.
On The Most Surprising Thing About Publication
Well, obviously I didn’t see the pandemic coming. Up until the end of February / beginning of March, my major concern was trying to hustle to set up a modest reading tour. My strengths are not in organizing, so I was proud that I had managed to secure a handful of readings in the Midwest where I live and the Southeast where I grew up. The pandemic and the social unrest of this past summer, when my book was released, changed all of that, of course. I don’t know how to feel about it at this point. My book is so small and unimportant compared to the events of 2020, and it feels little and lost out there. I don’t think it would have ever made a big splash, but I could have at least celebrated the work it took to write it. Instead, I’ve been in survival mode, trying to make it through the first year of a PhD program while my 9-year-old can’t go to school in a normal or consistent way. I’m finding the best way to look at the aftermath of a debut like this is to realize what really matters, which is the writing work itself, and while I am not in a season of my life where I can devote a lot of time to writing, I have tried to immerse myself in poetry in other ways, through reading and through my studies and by feeling grateful when I can make time to write. I think my best work is in front of me, and that’s exciting.
On Re-Energizing (Even During a Pandemic!)
Right now writing is all elbow grease and shouldering through. It’s difficult to produce anything when every single moment of my day is filled with never-ending urgent tasks. What I’m doing to protect my love for writing, and my energy for it, is honestly to not write a lot and to not beat myself up about it either. Instead, I am reading, reading, reading. I’m trying to fill in some gaps I have in 20th century poetry, and I’m reading books curated by my professors, and I’m learning about philosophy and theory. I’m practicing gratitude for my family’s health. I’m trying to allow myself to drop some balls here and there. I would never describe myself as a perfectionist, but I do generally try very, very hard to excel at the things that matter to me. I’m trying to give myself grace right now to just be instead of excel. I’m trying to protect myself from myself, I guess. It’s the kindest thing I can do.
On Advice for Emerging Poets
My biggest piece of advice is to try to practice as much patience as possible. This is something I struggle with myself. Because I didn’t start writing poetry—at least not seriously and consistently—until my 30s, I felt very, very behind some imaginary timeline. Now that I’m on the other side of my first book, it’s easy for me to say to be patient, but I think what I mean when I say that is you have to trust that your process will take the time it takes. The poems need a certain amount of time to come into being, into their final-ish and best forms. You can’t rush that process because the process itself is the most important part. Also, don’t struggle against the material you feel most called to explore. It’s possible that it might not be sexy or trendy or flashy, but whatever you obsess over, whatever it is that you spend your life’s energy on, no matter how small or unimportant it might seem, that’s where your best poems will come from. Maybe this is advice only for myself, but it’s important that I heed it. Maybe it will help other emerging poets too. As far as what I wish I knew between my book’s first draft and final draft, it’s that on the other side of a book you still have to prove to yourself that you can write. Every time I sit down to a blank page I feel like I’ve never written a poem before.
I’m not a write everyday kind of writer. I just don’t have the stamina for it. I need time to process. I need time to shuffle around my house in the morning with a cup of coffee. I need time to read without feeling like what I’m reading has to lead directly to writing. Sometimes I’m amazed I’ve been able to write anything at all. Craft advice I stand by is to pay attention to the poetic line—especially how it breaks—, to prioritize musicality, and to write towards asking questions rather than answering them.
Kate Gaskin is the author of Forever War, winner of the Pamet River Prize (YesYes Books 2020). Her poems have appeared in journals such as Guernica, Pleiades, Poetry Northwest, 32 Poems, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, Blackbird, and The Rumpus, and her work has been anthologized in the 2019 Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is a recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship in poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, as well as a fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. She edits poetry for The Adroit Journal. Currently, she is a PhD student in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Winniebell Xinyu Zong
Winniebell Xinyu Zong is the winner of Columbia Journal's Womxn’s History Month Special Issue in poetry, the Associate Editor of Pleiades Magazine and Frontier Poetry, and the EiC of Touchstone Literary Magazine. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barren Magazine, Meridian, and Poetry Daily, among others. You can find her online at winniebellxzong.com and on Twitter & Instagram @winniebell_zong.