profiles in poetics: Kristi Maxwell

Photo on 2013-01-14 at 12.04Kristi Maxwell


Kristi Maxwell is a writer “very interested in the textual body as an analogue to other bodies in the world.” Our communication assembles the forward bend of our bones. She proliferates, “writing is saturated with one’s positionality, the forms our textual bodies take seem consciously or unconsciously meaningful and even performative.” This refraction “challenges the fiction of wholeness and the individual,” meaning why of course hell yes I am not a universal. We are integrated alternative bodies presented in whole “available” form.

The mind and body is expressive and accumulated in the tango of self; “we exist, we struggle, we manifest and play with this presentation.” If anything, she argues, “perhaps the scandal is that the body is the site of origination.” The binary of mind and body structure is bedeviled. Instead, “Intimacy has flexibility because it is porous rather than set … [and this] accounts for its relationship to vulnerability.” We receive, “spaces as testing grounds for each other,” we ask for reciprocation; the reciprocation of other.

Kristi Maxwell is the author of Re- (Ahsahta Press, 2011), Hush Sessions (Saturnalia Books, 2009), Realm Sixty-four (Ahsahta, 2008), and the chapbook Elswhere & Wise (Dancing Girl Press, 2008). Her fourth book, That Our Eyes Be Rigged, is forthcoming from Saturnalia in 2014. She lives and writes in Knoxville, Tennessee.


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 have an amazing mom: she took me to the library; she read books to my sisters and me; she transcribed my first books, which I dictated to her before I could spell. I guess I didn’t become a writer: I’ve just always been one, and my mom recognized that in me and helped me cultivate it. I am a writer who has desired to become (also) other things: oceanographer, painter, archeologist, cartoonist, teacher, journalist.

In terms of poetry, in high school, e.e. cummings was my favorite—this was somewhat by default: his poems were among the few 20th century collections sold at my local bookstore, but I adored him (even his prose: my AOL screen name in the ‘90s was DelectableMTN, taken from The Enormous Room)—his playfulness, the energy behind his language, the sheer textual quality reinforcing the physical aspects of words, his ability to balance tenderness and irreverence. A lot of these same things describe the work of the poets I discovered later and who have meant so much to me: Harryette Mullen, Susan Howe, Gertrude Stein, Morgan Lucas Schuldt, Anne Carson, Tan Lin, C.D. Wright, Thalia Field, Tyrone Williams, Jack Spicer.

Even earlier was Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose section 8 from The Wreck of the Deutschland I have tattooed on my back. My speech therapist from when I was a little girl had me repeat his lines back to her to help me learn to form sounds. You really have to get your mouth around those dense word-clots of his so they make for good practice. Let’s see: Antoine Saint-Exupery, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and Anaïs Nin also mattered a lot to me.

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

The poet Wendy Cannella introduced me to the poems of Yehuda Amichai when we were in Slovenia together in the summer of 2001—that had a profound impact on me. Ashley VanDoorn, who was a year ahead of me in undergrad at the University of Tennessee and who invited me to the poetry circles she hosted in her apartment, has always been immensely important to my writing and my high valuation of community. My teachers—Art Smith, Marilyn Kallet, Richard Jackson, Jane Miller, Boyer Rickel, Tenney Nathanson, Beth Ash, Lisa Hogeland, Don Bogen—have all played significant parts in my creative life.

3.)      How has your own work changed over time and why? I think I’ve finally learned how to just relax into it. A lot of the early anxiety is gone.

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

Yes: I’ve been expanded by all of them.

5.)      What are your plans for the future? I’ve got big plans! I just made a summer projects list that includes working on articles about the poems of Evie Shockley and Morgan Lucas Schuldt, drafting a sci-fi novel, brainstorming a television series with poet Drew Krewer, writing away on a weird thing I started in April, returning to some lyric essays I’ve been approaching (and reconfiguring my approach to) since last year, translating, returning to PLAN/K, my manuscript that had been picked up for publication by the now defunct Mud Luscious Press and that I can return to with some new ideas since it won’t be coming out with them after all. And those are only my writing plans! I also have plans that involve quarries and swimming and plants and loving and impromptu dance parties and patio-sitting.

6.)      Who are promising women writers to look at in the future? Many of the promising women writers I expect I’ll be looking to in the future, luckily, we have access to now, too. My Tucson cohort: Frankie Rollins, Kristen Nelson, Stephanie Balzer, Hannah Ensor, Meagan Lehr, Annie Guthrie, Renee Angle, Deborah Brandon, Julia Gordon Saterstrom, Dot Devota, Johanna Skibsrud, Lisa O’Neill. I’m consistently excited by the writing of Emily Kendel Frey, Lynn Xu, Laura Sims, and Megan Martin. I’m excited to see what my former student Lisa Summe does. I was floored by some pieces Liz Latty read to me last summer. Oh my! There are so many promising women writers whose words we should latch our eyes onto—I could go on and on.

7.)      If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be? Hmm. I don’t really know—I feel like “writer” is pretty flexible.

8.)      The following passages are from a section of work titled: “TO INSIST ON THE ‘SOMENESS’ OF EVERY ASSEMBLAGE”. We enter into a dialogue as language enters cognition. We have an assumption of language as it is interpreted by the receiver. “The day invented your voice / someone heard … what is the lace verb / or the last verb instead? … your body is where?” The provocation is an invitation of one speaker to another. We read, “is the universal ever not not / flawed? is the flaw ever not / universal?” In this context do you believe we are ever able write the body on to the page, thus inflecting the hierarchy of the mind over the body? Or does this merely place us into universals that are the way in which we identify to others lacking specificity?  _____________ I am very interested in the textual body as an analogue to other bodies in the world. Because writing is saturated with one’s positionality, the forms our textual bodies take seem consciously or unconsciously meaningful and even performative. I remember the first time I read Jennifer Martenson’s xq28—a text whose words exist only in the space of footnotes—and thinking about how compellingly the textual body she puts forth comments on erased lesbian bodies and subjects. I’ve been thinking about this in the context of other writers, too—for instance, how the neologisms and portmanteaux in Morgan Lucas Schuldt’s work (poems most certainly bound to his very real experience of moving through the world with cystic fibrosis) seem to challenge the fiction of wholeness and the individual: I like the model of interdependency and proliferation his poems put forth. I’m wary of the notion of universalism because difference has a tendency to get quashed under its weight.

9.)      Continuing the discussion of mind over body, the following passage delineates: “I mistake stillness for death / I shake a little body / I nudge a bigger body / until I am satisfied / The spirit real and sexual realm collide / mentally bump and rub / A thought is always scandalous / as it steals from the body.” Body and mind here are in opposition. The mind conquers in every turn and steals from expression. How does language allow us to communicate if we cannot speak with our bodies? The “sexual realm,” is that what you see as body? How can we unite these terms in language, or do you see them as disparate entities?  ­­­­_____________ I do not see the mind and body as “in opposition;” here, the thought steals away (in the sense of slinks) from its originary site (the body)—perhaps the scandal is that the body is the site of origination. The body can of course include the sexual realm, but it is not limited to it. For me, thinking (and “the mind”) is an extension of the body; I remember first encountering the so-called French feminist theorists and feeling liberated by their rejection of the mind-body binary. It helps me to think about my relationship with language as an interspecies one: I am a body, language is bodies—we are in collaboration; my challenge to myself is to make myself available, to enact (to borrow from Donna Haraway) a response-ability. I am piercing through language—also absorbing it; it is piercing me, also absorbing the structures of my body and mind. This is perhaps why play exists, but also struggle: one of the things we manage as writers, I think, is the tension between our desire to master language and our inability to ultimately do so. We always say more than we mean to say.

10.)   Intimacy and vulnerability assume a position as the poem develops: “we may be always threatened / I regret making myself vulnerable / yet I do it again / I gape, I gap, gab and gab / I fail to gap gab instead / You are asked to figure out / a definition of intimacy.” And later,  “clothes make us out as what we are / one possibility / an intersection of forms / Each turtle holds a partial truth.” Wherein we knot in relationship, “What a scene! / Later we wee     ded / the poem / by which logic it holds / to memorize is to wed.” Memorization internalizes the processing of logic into the body; the brain. Do you believe intimacy to be clothed or unclothed?  “Wed,” as you say, is the body in language our ability to remember? And if this is so, can we ever define intimacy? Does our attempt to define intimacy tether us further from the close we wish to accept?  ­­­­_____________ I do not know if we can define intimacy, but I trust that we can experience it.

11.)   In the section titled: “EVERY TIME I WANT TO WRITE YOU, / I’M GOING TO WRITE A LINE INSTEAD:” the poem reads, “Name three empty things / A person can’t really be empty / so a person doesn’t count / Of course I do not believe that / people don’t count.” This is juxtaposed to, “What’s worth a fight / The struggle to feel one’s worth.” And the ending, “There is a point at which a person allows another person / to see her in a way she doesn’t like to be seen / This is how I explain trust / How a person gauges something he might otherwise misread / I have brushed my hair and my teeth.” In intimacy we form our own language. We understand each other in ways that if addressed in public discourse, would slip under the radar of the norms of communication. In trust we are able to open to intimacy. How do you see social media as supporting this unequivocal happening or transforming it? Intimacy is displayed over a larger scope as acquaintances are able to chime in, regard, or comment. Do you perceive this to be different than a normal house gathering or do you think the system is flawed? Does the action of listening to someone’s body and voice change the way our bodies are a part of the conversation?  ­­­­_____________ Making ourselves available to connect (and to connection) regardless the outlet seems to foster intimacy—putting oneself in a position to note (which always implies engagement): to pay attention, to listen, and to respond. I do think we are expanded by listening—by paying attention—we hold something of another person inside us and by responding, we give something of ourselves: intimacy perhaps depends on reciprocal alterity, which Joan Retallack so wonderfully discusses in Poethical Wager: the recognition of self in other and other in self. Thinking on this question, I recall phrases that are specific to my exchanges with particular friends—I recall gestures that are specific, semi-private movements that signify: we develop textual and physical languages to honor our intimacies. It is marvelous: the mutual recognition that sustains connection. I’m thinking of phrases and gestures that attach me to certain communities despite distance and time: I’m thinking of creating shared meanings—this seems different from knowing, which can become rather inflexible. Intimacy has flexibility because it is porous rather than set. One can of course know in intimacy (and know intimately), but intimacy makes room for uncertainty, too, and for change: this accounts for its relationship to vulnerability. In intimacy, we offer our spaces as testing grounds for each other. There’s a lot to pilfer there! But we will not pilfer, we will ask for…