“To be in the middle of a Laura Kasischke poem is to occupy the intersection between the physical and the unseen … the known and the imagined,” said Boston College professor Suzanne Matson in her introduction to the prize winning poet who spoke at the latest Lowell Humanities Series last night.
“Though the poetry produces a world made strange, de-familiarized and sometimes disturbing, all in these provocative ways, it also produces emotions and intuitions that are instantly recognizable,” Matson said.
Kasischke has published 10 novels, nine books of poetry, and several collections of short stories. Three of her novels have been made into feature films, including Life Before Her Eyes, starring Uma Thurman.
Her 2011 poetry collection Space, In Chains was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. She has received several Pushcart Prizes as well as two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and she teaches English at the University of Michigan.
She recited poems from several of her anthologies, including “Do Not Leave Baby Unattended” and “The Cause of All My Suffering” from Fire & Flower and “Swan Logic” from Space, In Chains, among others.
The first poem Kasischke read focused on her son. When he was very small and she was away from him, she would read this poem—“Do Not Leave Baby Unattended”—to herself, superstitiously, she said. The poem was inspired by infant products that warn parents to not leave their child alone with the toy, she said.
“Now he’s a freshman in college,” she said. “I thought I had worries back then. The theme of this poem is still true, apparently, in my life.”
Later, she read “Stolen Shoes,” which was about a woman who she suspected had stolen a pair of her shoes at the gym. The shoes were old and ratty, and the theft seemed deeply insulting, Kasischke said.
“I couldn’t help but write a poem about that because it was such a mystery and I became so consumed with self-pity and rage,” she said. “Nothing was ever the same for me at the gym again.”
Kasischke started writing at a very young age. Except for a distant journalist great-uncle, there were not any writers in her family—her mother was a teacher and her father was a mailman. Her mother often read children’s books to her, which piqued her interest, she said.
“I was an only child and I think I was really noisy as a baby, so as soon as I developed an interest that meant that I would be quiet in another room I got a lot of positive feedback for that,” she said.
After getting her master’s in fine arts at Michigan, Kasischke spent several years writing poems that did not get published. She worked a series of jobs that did not look like they would lead to careers.
“I really think I became a better writer maybe because of that,” she said. “At some point I just thought to myself, ‘Oh it doesn’t matter, I just love to do this’ … And then it got better because I had taken the pressure of myself. I knew I was going to do it whether I got the affirmations or not.”
In order to write as much as she does, Kasischke tries to write each day. At this point, she has developed the habit of writing each day and feels compelled to do it every day, even if she is not satisfied with what she is writing. It adds up if you write every day and if you live long enough, she said.
“It’s very important to not be a perfectionist if you want to be a writer at all,” she said. “It’s more important to leave the world with your writing than three of the most beautiful lines every penned. You need to write the bad stuff too and hopefully the good stuff comes out.”