One of the many awards that noted American poet Judith Skillman has received is from the Academy of American Poets (for Storm), while Red Town and Prisoner of the Swifts were Washington State Book Award finalists. Her poems have been included in such journals as Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and FIELD; also, her collaborative translations in various journals. She’s in Best Indie Verse of New England as well. Her latest full poetry collection is Kafka’s Shadow and you can visit her here.
How did you decide on Franz Kafka for your new poetry collection?
I read “Metamorphosis” again and was very taken with it. After a span of thirty years since the last reading, the story took on new dimensions. Then I read “The Stoker,” “The Judgment,” and “Letter to His Father,” as these have been reissued in a new edition titled The Sons (Schocken Books, Inc., 1989). After a visit to San Francisco, I wrote “Kafka’s Wound” and continued to find myself thinking and writing about Kafka. It took awhile before I realized the series might become a collection.
What are some of the most interesting things about him you discovered?
I learned that his relationship with his father was extremely complicated, and that helped my understanding of his work. In addition, he suffered greatly from intense sensitivities as well as, of course, the chronic illness of consumption/tuberculosis. His passion to write, his insomnia, and the hours he kept made me feel some identification with him, and I continued to read more of his letters. In this regard the book Franz Kafka: Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors was invaluable (transl. Richard and Clara Winston, Schocken Books, NY, 1977).
I was surprised to find that Kafka felt such self contempt that he viewed himself as a son who should be sacrificed, as in the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. At the point I learned this I’d written a couple poems on that very subject, and experienced the sense of an encounter with the author, apart from space-time.
The Notes section in the back of Kafka’s Shadow (3 pages) share some of the scholarship necessary for such an ambitious collection. How long did it take to write the book?
Kafka’s Shadow took about three years to complete. As mentioned earlier, the book Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors provided inspiration when coupled with his stories and, especially, “Letter to His Father.” The interest and support of my writing groups and colleagues, in particular Christianne Balk, provided impetus to continue.
When and how did you begin your interest in translations? What classes did you take in languages?
My interest in translation began when I went to the University of Washington in 1994-95, ostensibly to get a PhD in Comparative Literature. That journey didn’t work out, but in the process I fell in love with the theory and art of translation. I have taken French and lived in Paris for three months—just long enough to become a Francophile.
You have been nominated for the Pushcart, Best of the Web. Please share how you came to be a poet? What other kinds of writing do you do?
I began writing in a journal in high school, but even before that, I had an elementary school teacher who taught poetry. And while my parents were both scientific (PhD’s in physics and math), they were also avid readers and lovers of music and all the arts. They took us to plays and concerts. I think the years of voracious reading likely determined my interest in literature.
I have written fiction and non-fiction as well. A ‘how to’: Broken Lines—The Art & Craft of Poetry is the most serious effort I’ve made so far in non-fiction. There are many projects I would like to pursue, but the reality is one has to pick and choose.
Which poets have influenced you the most?
There are so many! In particular I like the associative poets, among them Celan, Vallejo, Transtromer, René Char, and Franz Wright. I taught a “Great American Poets” course for several quarters and fell again for Williams, Bishop, Dickinson, Plath, Stevens, Eliot, Pound, et al. I also feel a great affinity for Jack Gilbert’s work.
Roethke, Beth Bentley, Nelson Bentley, Stafford, Wagoner—all the Northwest poets. Milosz, Levine, Edith Sodergran, Adrienne Rich, Cavafy, Lucille Clifton. Wakoski, and all the beat poets. The thing is to continue reading, knowing one will never plumb the extant canon of virtuoso poetry.
How do you decide the number of stanzas, length of lines in your poems: what is your progression, steps, in composing?
Generally a poem begins as a fragment and then gathers steam. There are times when the form pours out with the poem, (a poem pours out fully formed) but those are rare and far between. I like to follow David Wagoner’s advice—take of your censorial hat when you write, let it sit, and then go back to the piece with your editorial hat.
To write anything at all one must be in a receptive frame of mind, and not add judgments as to whether the would be poem is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The formal arrangement can come later. Exceptions abound, however. If you want to write a sonnet, villanelle or other set form, then you have to be intentional: count beats and employ rhyme and/or half rhymes.
What is your usual writing schedule for the day?
I don’t adhere to a strict schedule. There are days when I revise, and days when I explore other forms of art, such as painting. Writing requires wide reading as well—it all takes time—so flexibility is key.
Simply maintaining the body, house, and extended family takes longer as I get older, so there are periods when writing happens only in the mind, with ideas. If that kind of ‘air creativity’ becomes more serious it might take the form of note-taking, marginalia, and/or soft research. When I feel the need to stop what I’m doing and write, I take that seriously.
Have you begun working on another collection?
Yes! I have a collection seeking a publisher. It has been a finalist at a few contests. Time will tell. Writing poems includes so many aspects; publishing so many facets. I feel lucky and blessed to be have been given the chance to write.