Going Beyond Grief: An Interview With Patricia Killelea
In Patricia Killelea's Counterglow, released earlier this year from Urban Farmhouse Press, the light and the dark are not always what they seem. The title itself borrows from the language of stars: a phenomena where interplanetary dust creates a faint light in the night sky directly opposite the sun. Much like the counterglow can only be observed from places without light, Killelea's poems give voice and intentionality to the darkness, using it as a guide to help the speaker navigate through grief and what lies beyond it. Grappling with hungers both spiritual and literal, the poems in Counterglow are both meditative and searching. Through the use of repetition, and the invocation of the land and its inhabitants, language serves as a doubling back, a transmission to those who might seek to move within that space of conscientious darkness. We sat down with Patricia Killelea to talk about going beyond grief and what happens when we make the dark more visible.
Jacqueline Boucher: So much of this collection seems to be wrestling with what roles the light and the dark play inside us. In some places, the dark felt like a refuge. In other places, the light felt almost obscene. Can you talk a bit about the tension at play there?
Patricia Killelea: When I was a child and I learned that starlight takes years to travel to earth, I remember feeling like I couldn't trust the light. It had to do also with the feeling of overexposure, like brightness can be an intrusion, while darkness has these powers of illumination that are largely ignored. For me, the dark has always been sanctuary. In the wintertime, especially here in the North, the long winters are a prime time for drawing inward; but the more you do that, the more you realize how everything is systemic, interconnected, and then you can try mapping out that darkness instead of trying to keep things hidden. Carl Jung once said that, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." In Counterglow, I think I was trying to do some of that. The repetition in a lot of those poems comes from the repetitiveness of shadow work and consciousness expansion. The poems are also a reflection on the ways that language affects and is affected by that process of making the dark more visible— whether it's collective or personal, economic, political, embodied, whatever. Language is always there in the mix, telling stories, playing tricks, shedding light on things.
JB: Pam Uschuk said it best when she said that the poems in this collection were “intimately connected to the land, sky, and water as well as all beings who inhabited them.” As this collection came together, what lessons did you find yourself returning to or leaning on with regard to what the land and its inhabitants can teach us about grief?
PK: Humans are largely pitiful beings, but being out there with the land can keep us humble. The less time you spend with the earth, the less humility you practice, and we folks even start believing that humans are the only ones with a voice. So much of what I've learned about language has come from animals, from snow, from listening deeply to what the earth teaches. I suspect that the point you make, Jacque, about grief in your question is spot on: all of my life, I've been hearing and seeing and participating in the horrible things that humans do to the earth, the water, and other beings, and it's impossible not to feel the weight of that every day. In some ways, I see my work in relation to what Joyelle McSweeney calls the necropastoral, but I like to think it's more than this. What the land teaches is that there will always be a cleansing, a time when the earth will clap back, and new growth. In Counterglow, I found myself coming back to those lessons the land teaches about decay, release, and how to keep going and keep living, even when shit is really hard. One of the poems in there, "The Hungriest Animal," mentions a bird I saw in Tharawal territory in 2017— I looked up and saw a crow that had a perfect bullet hole shot through its wingspan. That bird was still flying, and I could see right through its wing to the blue sky on the other side. It's about going beyond grief.
JB: You’ve worked both as a poet and a multimedia artist (“The Almost-Prayer” and “How it Starts” also appear in video poem form). Can you talk a little about the process of creating the video poem? How do you decide which poems will live good second lives as videos? How does poetry change in the voice versus on the page?
PK: I think people love poetry, but they like hearing it read out loud instead of just seeing it on the page. In 2013, I began experimenting with making video poems and that process continues to renew itself each time I sit down to make another one. In my experience, the pieces that work best for the screen as well as the page are the ones that are a bit on the longer side, less distilled. There has to be enough time elapsed to create an atmosphere, to feel like the video poem has taken you somewhere or gestured toward something bigger than language. Though the video images are a hyper-reality and obviously made objects arranged for a certain affect, the video poems always feel more in touch with "real life" than mere words on the page. I also pick pieces for the multimedia format that are overtly politicized in some way, because those are the pieces that I especially want to work across language barriers since they take on issues related to climate change, economic disparity, technology and isolation, colonization and violence, etc. All of these are worldwide concerns. One of the reasons I appreciate Moving Poems and the video poetry festival circuit so much is because they bring language multimedia artists together across borders. Also, the medium still feels like it hasn't been pwned by academia yet, which makes it magical and I just hope it stays that way.
JB: What are you reading currently that excites you and makes your blood feel alive?
PK: Share of Ink by Edmond Jabès is a little collection I've been rereading, along with The Book of Questions and The Little Book of Unsuspected Subversion. Although the poet whose work influences me the most will always be Paul Celan, Jabès had a very material approach to language that I continue to learn from. I also really liked Franny Choi's Death by Sex Machine. And even though it's not poetry, I recently read (out loud) To Become a Human Being by Chief Leon Shenandoah (with Steve Wall), and it's a book I wish more people would check out. I especially appreciate Chief Shenandoah's thoughts about the importance of laughter. So much bullshit happens all the time that if I didn't keep a good sense of humor about me or hang out with funny people I'd probably just shrivel up somewhere or set everything on fire.
JB: What is your favorite bone?
PK: I'm a big fan of the ossicles. They have my full support.
For more Counterglow, check out our preview of the collection with "Transmission"
Patricia Killelea (Xicana/Irish American) is the author of the poetry collections Counterglow (Urban Farmhouse Press 2019), and Other Suns (Swan Scythe Press 2011). Her work appears in such journals as cream city review, Quarterly West, Barzakh, Waxwing, As/Us, The Common, and Spiritus. She also produces videopoems, which have been featured at Moving Poems, Poetry Film Live, screened and shortlisted for the Ó'Bhéal International Poetry Film Competition, and long-listed for the Rabbit Heart Poetry Film Prize. She is currently Poetry Editor at Passages North, and an Assistant Professor of English at Northern Michigan University.