profiles in poetics: Kathy Burkett

Kathy Burkett


Kathy Burkett is a multiplicitous lensed poet. A creator that enjoys “the thought of nothing”. This poet “creates creatures,” whether this be through language, doll making, or music. She explains that her “best work is a combination of more than one mode of creativity.” Similar to that of many brilliant creative women that are merely “struggling to find a way to be heard”. She elaborates, “Yes, it is important to express ‘women’s’ concerns, and it is important to write from a female point of view, but I think writers of both sexes need to reach beyond those labels and write about things that go deeper than the skin.”

Burkett, who began writing about her experience with depression, expands her introspection around the idea of “nothing”. She states, “I don’t think that human lives ultimately have some great cosmic meaning beyond what we are while we’re walking around. Maybe that energy goes somewhere, floats off into the universe, but so does the energy of a dead toaster.” Instead, living “better, not necessarily longer” is of value. Burkett divulges to us, “I like the idea of nothing. I guess that makes the above response total overkill? Hey, it’s all a cosmic joke that we’ll never get anyway, right?”

Kathy Burkett plays kazoo for adoring audiences of odd dolls and kooky stuffed critters in Florida. She howls with her hound dogs and goes for long walks on her treadmill where the scenery never changes and she ends up exactly where she started.

1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

I first considered writing seriously in the third grade. We had assignments to finish stories, and then we had to read them aloud to the class. I wasn’t a pretty girl, but I found that my writing was something that got me positive attention from classmates. They would laugh & really react to my stories, so I realized that my creativity could be appreciated, even if I wasn’t pretty or popular. Of course, I have always been a book nut. My mom talks about finding me with a flashlight under the covers reading at night. That was before they made those nifty booklights!

Some of my favorite writers now are Russell Edson and Mark Strand. I found poetry as a teenager—things like Emily Dickinson and Carl Sandburg. From there, I found writers like Borges and Paz, and then I started reading small press publications. I think that my favorite writers changed as I discovered what was out there. I am always amazed when you say the word “poetry” and people think you’re talking about Robert Frost. I think most of the public isn’t aware of contemporary poetry, except maybe through slam poetry.

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Russell Edson was a huge inspiration to me. When I first read his prose poems, I realized that I’d been searching for poetry that broke boundaries and really escaped reality. Emily Dickinson was an early influence, because she opened the door to the world of poetry for me, and I could really relate to her writing. She seemed simultaneously removed from, yet part of the world, and that was something I really related to.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

My writing has become less biographical and more imaginative, I think. I started out writing about my depression, which has been something that’s always been a huge part of my life. I find that in the last five or so years, I’ve wanted to get outside of my own skin and really create an alternate world.

4.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I can’t think of major influences immediately, though I will say that the Bizarro genre has given me a fresh view of writing, though I myself am not a Bizarro writer.  I admire the way they don’t care about conventions and really strive for weirdness.

5.)    What are your plans for the future?

That’s a tricky question. I’ve had horrible luck in both my life and my writing as far as plans go. I find they don’t work for me. I think any plans I might have change from day to day. I have become very disillusioned about getting poetry published by “legitimate” presses, so I’ve not been submitting as much. I will say that I do intend to send out some of my picture book manuscripts in the not-too-distant future, though that market is dwindling too.

6.)    What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

It really saddens me that this is a question that still needs to be asked, but it does! I hate the fact that writing is still dominated by men. I have never considered myself to be a “women’s writer,” though I do occasionally write about body image and other gender-related topics, though I feel that that the majority of my work isn’t about being female—it’s about being human and struggling with existence period.  I have always felt free in my work to adopt both male and female personas.  As far as women writers in general, I think we need more women who break boundaries.  Yes, it is important to express “women’s” concerns, and it is important to write from a female point of view, but I think writers of both sexes need to reach beyond those labels and write about things that go deeper than the skin.

7.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Well, I am currently reading short stories by Kelly Link, and I must say that she has really impressed me as somebody who’s pushing boundaries and really using her creativity to break molds. Also, there are numerous female poets in the small presses that are wonderful. I love the way that Juliet Cook writes poetry from a strong female perspective. I admire her imagery and her fearlessness. I think that many of the promising women writers of the future are currently unknown. I think they are struggling to find a way to be heard. I think that through creativity and technology, we will be aware of them sooner rather than later, which is encouraging.

8.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

This is a really difficult question for me, as I’ve never fit neatly into any box. I’m not academic enough to be an academic, but not quite gritty enough in my early work to fit into that camp, either. Also, while my earlier work focused on depression, I’ve taken a turn for the surreal, though I’m not really a surrealist either. I guess the word “floater” would work. I’m like a shape-shifting cloud floating by. Sometimes I’m grey and rainy, and other times fluffy white and wispy.

9.)    Your poem “Mad Scientist,” published in O Sweet Flowery Roses, raises questions concerning our conception of light and time and the participation of technology within this scheme. One line in particular conjures this question, “The mysterious power of stars and the odd coldness of technological progress.” How do you believe the “coldness” of technology has influence our experience of living and do you believe this to be positive or negative?

I have really mixed feelings about technology. I was one of those people who didn’t really want a computer in the beginning. I spent my first year of college really fighting getting and using a computer, but in the end, it really did become a necessity to get one if I wanted to further my education.  In the end, I think it’s like anything else—technology has positives and negatives. I think in some ways, it helps to bring people together. I even met my husband of eight years online. It helps people with similar interests communicate even though they’re miles apart. I also have an online Etsy shop, which allows me to share creations with people I’d never be able to come into contact with otherwise. On the other hand, I do find that it’s easy to spend too much time online, and I personally find that I ultimately feel unfulfilled if I don’t spend enough time off the computer. Also, I don’t like the fact that many people are kept out of this “progress,” because they simply don’t have the financial resources to buy the necessary new gadgets. My husband and I don’t have smart phones, and the outdated cell phones that we do have are only used for emergencies. When I tell many people this, they look at me like I have two heads or something. But I don’t think all of us need to be accessible to everybody 24 hours of the day. I have been out with friends, and they are checking their e-mail and Facebook at dinner. Is it really necessary? Do we really need to have personal conversations at the grocery store?  Of course, all those phones and phone plans cost quite a bit, too. I worry that new technology becomes something people THINK they need rather than something that they actually need. I worry about the people who will be left behind. I was laid off from my job over a year ago, and things like smart phones are a luxury I simply can’t afford. I think more and more people will be put in that situation. What if I lost the ability to afford online access at home? It seems that most job applications are online these days. Yes, libraries offer free access, but that’s small consolation to people left out of the loop. I do worry about technology making us even more a world of the haves versus the have nots.  Also, technology is great when it works. But it inevitably breaks down, and I worry that a lot of people are too eager to toss paper away in this wonderful world of progress. What happens when suddenly you can’t access all that stuff you stored on a microchip? Like anything, I think it’s a balancing act, and it’s a very tricky one.

10.) How does accessing various modes of creativity such as your music, writing, doll making, and collage facilitate your ability to externalize the internal and do you gravitate to certain activities depending on your creative intent?

I used to think I should choose one thing over the others. I used to say, “I’m really a writer, but I also sing and make dolls and art.” That didn’t seem right, though. Why all the clamor over labels all the time? I really enjoy all the different activities that I do. Doll making really lets me “externalize the internal,” as you say, in a really tangible, tactile way that I really enjoy. There’s a visual and childlike aspect to it that I don’t get from any other art form that I do. Everything else often feels so heavy and serious. Doll making is a real escape for me, and I like the idea of creating creatures. Of course, when I’m making a doll/creature, I usually find myself creating stories about it, and that often leads to writing—whether in the form of poems, stories or (more recently) songs.  I find that when I want to escape, I gravitate toward doll making to bring a sense of fun or feeling childlike into my life. Singing is similar to writing in the feelings it gives me, though it also has a more physical component. Singing my own words is particularly satisfying to me, as it gives me an outlet for two forms of creativity simultaneously. Singing, though it’s a physical activity, really gives me a transcendent feeling. Of course, so does writing.

The combination of collage art with my writing was something that was really satisfying for me. When I created my books PIECES OF SISSY LEE, BROKEN POEMS, and FORTUNE COOKIE SECRETS, the words and images worked so well together. I really had the feeling that I was completely expressing my own vision in those works. Sometimes I think that my best work is a combination of more than one mode of creativity. Currently, my husband and I are toying with the idea of doing recordings of my poems with music. I think I should mention here the huge influence of the band Algebra Suicide on my work. Their combination of poetry and music really influenced me in my teenage years and beyond. Also, the work of Laurie Anderson is a huge influence. I really think that combining different methods of creativity is something that’s important to me artistically. I don’t necessarily think it’s better or worse than other, more “pure” type artists; it’s just the way I feel most comfortable doing things.

11.) Another one of your poems featured in O Sweet Flowery Roses, “Vacuuming the Void,” addresses what you consider to be the void, the absence of something, the singular sustained thought of nothing. Here, “Sir Real has the unfortunate task of vacuuming the void on a constant basis. Any small particle that enters the void has to be removed promptly so that the void’s emptiness remains unblemished.” Can you elaborate on your conception of this space that both exists and at the same time not because of the negation of participating elements?

I have to say that this poem is a special one for me. I am not a religious person, yet I am acutely aware of the existence of things that we cannot see. I’m also really hung up on certain ideas of Existentialism. I don’t think that human lives ultimately have some great cosmic meaning beyond what we are while we’re walking around. Maybe that energy goes somewhere, floats off into the universe, but so does the energy of a dead toaster. I guess I like playing with the idea of nothing (which is still something, kind of) and the idea that we’re not as important as we like to think we are. I really don’t understand why people fear the idea of not existing so much. I fear pain, the pain of dying and suffering, but I don’t fear actually being dead. Why would I? I won’t know it, and I won’t feel it. I fear pain, but I don’t fear actual death. I guess I dread the dying part, but not the death part. I really don’t understand these people who want their consciousness to exist forever. To me, that sounds really, really dreadful. Why do you want to live for hundreds of years? What makes you so important? I think we’d be better off trying to figure out how to make life better, not necessarily longer.

In poems like these, I guess it’s kind of like expanding upon the feeling I get when standing on the edge of the ocean on a deserted beach. We’re so small! We’re not important! And that’s OK. We are important to ourselves, yes, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we’re important to the universe as a whole on some grand scale. I guess I find that idea comforting, while many others find it terrifying.

I stopped eating meat when I was 18 years old, because I couldn’t see why it was necessary for someone in an industrialized country to eat another living thing. We have plenty of alternatives. Animals feel pain and have feelings. Why should they die to keep me alive? Some people will argue that it’s natural, but really not much that we do is natural anymore. We piss in toilets; we drive to the grocery store to get our food. It’s just not necessary to kill animals for food in our “modern” society. Again, I think this mentality goes back to our feeling of being important—that we’re more important than the animals are. I don’t think so. Most dogs I’ve met are more loyal and better companions than most people.

I guess that was a really long way of saying that I like the idea of nothing. I guess that makes the above response total overkill? Hey, it’s all a cosmic joke that we’ll never get anyway, right?

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