Kathleen Jones holds an MFA in poetry from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she was a teaching assistant in the Publishing Laboratory and an intern at Lookout Books. She works as a teacher and freelance designer in Wilmington, NC. Her work appeared most recently in Iodine and Gesture, and is forthcoming in Ninth Letter Online and Baldhip.
In this interview with editor Dariel Suarez she talks about the idea of home, about foreignness and longing, and about different concepts of femininity. Also, a few words on the value of an MFA and on the current state of the publishing industry.
Dariel Suarez: “The Cactus Holds Down a Teaching Job” is such a great title. Can you tell us how you came up with it?
Kathleen Jones: Thank you! In the poem, I was playing around with different concepts of femininity and the idea that some women are dismissively described as "prickly." As often happens when I'm writing, the words I was turning around in my head sparked a trip down an internet research rabbit hole and I ended up finding lots of incredible names and nicknames for flowering cacti. I wanted to take the cacti idea as far as I could, so even though I was actually writing a poem about an imagined character who is a schoolteacher with a secret alternate/past life no one knows about, I decided to force readers to think about her as an actual cactus when met with the title. Also, I thought the title was a little bit funny and would provide some levity.
DS: The idea of “home” appears in both your poems in Middle Gray. Can you expand on what “home” means to you in each one of these pieces?
KJ: "The Cactus Holds Down a Teaching Job" is about foreignness: the body taking on the scents of the outside world, a longing for a familiar but distant place, the feeling of being unknown. In this poem, home is a desperate longing. It might not even exist. Even so, and although the poem is fictional, I took some details of the poem from my own reality. For instance, the perfume the character wears at night is the same as my actual perfume, because I thought the list of those ingredients was beautiful.
The treatment of home in "Cold Night" is the opposite. I wanted to write a portrait of my beloved neighborhood in Wilmington, North Carolina. I wrote the first draft while I was taking a class on ekphrasis and thinking a lot about what it means to convey visual art through language, the way the actual visual medium gets both abstracted and distilled upon an attempt to describe it. I started to wonder if I could achieve the same effect when writing about my own apartment, my own neighborhood, and realized that writing about summer during winter could be a good lens for exploring that.
DS: What other themes do you usually like to explore in poetry?
KJ: Oh, you know, death and love.
In seriousness, though, I do write about death and love--don't we all?--and my favorite poem topics are intimacy, relationships, life in the Midwest (where I'm from), life in the South (where I live), queer lives, women's lives, and the characters I invent.
DS: Who would you say are some of your main influences as a poet?
KJ: While I can't claim to write like her, Elizabeth Bishop has been and always will be an enduring influence. I can read her endlessly. Two of the world's perfect poems are "Delphiniums in a Window Box" by Dean Young and "Everything Good between Men and Women" by C.D. Wright. I will die happy if I can eventually achieve a sensory leap half as brilliant as one of Wright's.
Again, it's easier to speak in terms of favorites rather than influences, but additional long-term and current favorites include Adrienne Rich, Tracy K. Smith, Harryette Mullen, Paul Guest, Mary Ruefle, and Eileen Myles. And about a million more.
DS: As an MFA candidate, how beneficial do you believe a graduate education can be for an aspiring writer?
KJ: I don't think it's ideal for everyone, but it was very beneficial to me. I'd been working in retail and part-timing at a non-profit for a few years after college and was really craving the "shelter" of having two or three years of designated time to write. My goals for my time in the MFA program at UNC Wilmington were to write a poetry manuscript, learn from as many great writers as possible, find a writing community strong enough to outlast post-MFA geographic upheavals, and experience life in a new part of the country. If I'd been expecting my program to magically open doors to professional success and glamor and fame, I would have been disappointed, but my goals were realistic and my experience was even better than I hoped. I've made some lifelong friends, and we're committed to reading each other's work, helping each other out professionally, etc. There are plenty of ways to find that community other than entering an MFA program, and I wouldn't recommend attending one without a serious look at the financial commitment, but for me, the rigor and freedom provided by my program were a great fit.
DS: You mention in your bio that you’re a teaching assistant in the Publishing Laboratory. Can you tell us more about what this entails?
KJ: In addition to the many benefits of my program mentioned above, one of the greatest things about the Department of Creative Writing at UNC Wilmington is that we have a Publishing Laboratory. I was a TA in the lab for my second and third years of grad school. We have a lab of computers with the Adobe Creative Suite, printers, and book-binding equipment.
The department offers classes in Books and Publishing, Bookbuilding (a design course), and publishing practicums, in which students get to join the staff of the literary journals Ecotone or Chautauqua and the publishing imprint Lookout Books. TAs in the lab learn to design, print, and bind books, teach others these processes, and are responsible for creating posters, broadsides, and other publicity materials for departmental readings and events. I was also a Lookout intern for two years. I gained experience with copy-editing, design, marketing, social media, and more. I've become a small press evangelist. The publishing climate these days is terrifying but there are so many exciting things happening.
DS: What can readers expect from you in the near future? Where can they find more of your work?
KJ: This summer I have poems coming out in an online issue of Ninth Letter and in Baldhip, a brand-new Canadian journal I'm really excited about. If anyone wants to read more of my poems, I have a couple in the second issue of Gesture Literary Journal, which is available online.