Patricia Killelea is Passages North’s new poetry editor and NMU’s newest creative writing and Native American literature professor. A transplant from the West Coast, Killelea holds a PhD in Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis and an MA in creative writing (poetry), also from UC Davis. Here, Patricia talks poetry-making, her writings’ interactions with music, language and video, Native American poetries and poetics, her new collection Counterglow (April 2016) and her reflections on Passages North’s poetic uniqueness with first-year poetry MFA students and new associate poetry editors, deziree a. brown, Karl Schroeder, and Sara Ryan.
Passages North: What intersections/connections do you see between your Native Studies courses/research and your creative work?
Patricia Killelea: My research in Native American Studies has focused on diverse Indigenous philosophies surrounding the materiality of language (both in the air and on the page), the relationship between selected Native American poetries and historical-critical discourses surrounding avant-gardism and “experimental literatures,” as well as some of the theoretical tensions that can arise when applying Postmodernist and Poststructuralist literary frameworks in the analysis of Native American poetries. As a mixed-heritage Xicana poet, much of my creative work is grounded in traditional Nahuatl approaches to poetics—xochitl, in cuicatl—in addition to processing colonial violence within the context of my own family and communities.
My scholarly work, specifically work I’ve done with reading Diné poets Orlando White and Sherwin Bitsui, has been very influential since it got me thinking about the connection between the body, the breath, spoken language, and the page. Poetry-making, for me, is grounded in the oral, and it started out that way for all cultures in the beginning. The study of a wide range of poetics—from Audre Lorde and Charles Bernstein to Gloria Anzaldúa and Oscar Wilde—means that I’ve come to question my own writing process quite a bit, though that doesn’t mean I have any fixed answers. I’m still very comfortable with the chaotic mystery at the heart of poetry, and as my favorite poet, Paul Celan, says, “give your say this meaning: give it the shade.” Even as I theorize and enter critical discourse, I don’t feel the need to understand every single thing about the poetry I write and read. I’m not looking for understanding, but rather a thoughtful encounter with language, which means different things depending on (among other things) my mood, my aesthetics, my weird ways of living.
PN: You produce videos to accompany your poetry, like “poetry music videos”, you said. They’re beautiful and chilling! How does this intersection of creative mediums fuel your work/challenge you?
PK: I carry a video camera with me wherever I go—I think of it as my visual notebook. For a long time I theorized my poetry mostly in terms of sound and silence, but the more I started thinking about the relationship between my body and language, the more I wanted to create a multi-sensorial experience. We don’t experience language merely through sound or even visually on the page, but everywhere we go. I walk through the woods and I’m reminded of a story told to me by Oneida beadwork artist Karen Ann Hoffman, or I’m watching my bandmate Aubrey Hess cradle a jug of wine and it reminds me of thirst and insatiable longing. I think in terms of interwoven networks between words and images, sounds and movement and so my video poems are an attempt-in-progress to capture both my associative writing process as well as to situate my poetry in the actual, physical world of things.
PN: Your new poetry collection is coming out in April 2016! Could you tell us a little bit about that book, and what you think is on the horizon for you and your writing?
PK: My new poetry collection, Counterglow, is coming out from MANGO Publications and it’s very different from my first collection, Other Suns, which was more narrative and lyrical in the traditional sense. While writing the small, strange poems in Counterglow, I became more interested in the meditative qualities that come with structural spareness, and the work is much darker and less opaque, which feels like a more accurate representation of my own thinking and feeling process at this point in my life. Difficult emotions and experiences can create a mental fog, and I use language to wade through; so there are still traces of that fog in the collection. Counterglow is also a deeper engagement with language and poetry-making itself than my first book. I actively resisted making pretty poetry objects for easy consumption and, instead, I wanted to think about the ways in which violence, depression and spiritual hunger actually affect the way I use language. That said, despite the dark content of the work, Counterglow is ultimately grounded in fierce love and the path of the red and black ink.
As for what’s “on the horizon” for my writing, I’ve been working on the poems for my third collection and I’m surprised to see that I’m suddenly revisiting the long line. The time I’ve spent working with spare forms has changed my orientation towards filling in space with language, and now when I turn toward longer lines it’s with a more refined sense of responsibility and control—something I didn’t have when I was first starting out as a poet. Since moving to the Upper Peninsula, my work is grappling with what it means to learn the rhythms of lands and waters that are new to me, and how transformations in space/place affect my relationship with language. I’m also beginning what is sure to be a lifelong study of Anishinaabemowin since I now live on Anishinaabe lands and it’s difficult to understand a place unless you understand the language that originally arose from that place. The little work I’ve done so far in that arena has also encouraged a more verb-centric approach to my own poem-making, so we’ll see where that goes.
PN: Do you find any overlap between your musical work and your writing?
PK: My musical work spans a number of worlds: I play bass in an all-female pagan black metal band called Modraniht, and I also have a solo project called Cycle of Crone. Both projects are linked with feminism and decolonization. Modraniht’s lyrical content and philosophical underpinnings seek to honor the dark feminine archetypes in Celtic, Germanic, and Norse cultures. I’m half Irish (“Killelea” means “church in a meadow”), and the work I’ve done with Modraniht has been very healing in that it’s brought me back to revisiting those old pagan stories and spiritual practices related to that part of my heritage. Also, collaborating in an all-female band in a male-dominated scene like black metal has been both challenging and empowering.
Cycle of Crone is my solo project, but it’s also feminist, and takes its cue from the figure of the “crone” in Celtic oral tradition as well as darker feminine spiritual figures from indigenous Mexican oral traditions, such as Coatlicue and La Llorona. Cycle of Crone is much more connected to my own work as a poet in that I work with language, voice, and rhythm in an effort to create hypnotic, minimalist soundscapes that (hopefully) create a bridge to personal and collective knowledge. Cycle of Crone is very much grounded in what Anzaldúa calls “the Coatlicue state,” which once again intersects with my poetic work on the page.
PN: As the new poetry editor for Passages North, what are you appreciating the most from the pieces you’ve read?
PK: I appreciate (most of all) the range of styles in the poetry submitted to Passages North so far. I don’t like to read the same kind of poem over and over, so when I’m reading through submissions and something interesting happens in terms of language or content I find myself leaning in closer. As a reader, I want to feel like I’ve just had an encounter with another being and with language itself—I don’t want a little quip to consume and then move on with my life. It’s very easy to write a beautiful poem or a quirky poem but it’s impossible to forge emotional and intellectual complexity and earnestness. The best pieces I’ve encountered since working with the journal are taking on difficult or interesting themes and using language that disorients me in pleasurable and/or disturbing ways.