It is easy, I think, to get subsumed by the local, the collective, the known. Living in the Denver Metro area, surrounded by dozens of amazing poets who all live within a 25 mile radius of me, I tend to think of them as my — as the — poetry world. And that world is big enough. Reading them and getting to know the poets they read – a collective, local canon – that can sustain me. And then I go to AWP, and I’m surrounded by thousands of poets, but still I seek out my friends, the ones who live far away, the poets I know and love, and my world feels both bigger and smaller and very satisfying. But it can also fee claustrophobic, clinging to who and what I know, finding my understand of aesthetics verified in the work of the poets I love and even in the work I don’t like from the poets I love.
So my favorite part — and the scariest part — of AWP is the stranger. It can be hard to meet strangers because so much of AWP is having someone to meet somewhere. “Hey, how are you? I’d love to catch up but I’m on my way to meet…” And once again I gird myself in the known. Because it is safe. Because middle school was rough. Because to be alone in the poetry universe means to be slightly unhinged. Disconnected.
I met Kierstin Bridger on the plane back to Denver from Seattle. We were seated in the same row, separated by a professional recruiter. I saw at least three poets I know board and take their seats somewhere behind me. I settled in with a copy of Versal and imagined that I’d spend the 3+ hour flight reading. But the professional recruiter was chatty and soon engaged both Kierstin and me in conversation, and I met a poet stranger. And the conversation turned – as most conversations among poets do – to poets we like and poets we read. But instead of each of us establishing the boundaries of our own community as I think often happens (not as an intentional act of exclusion but as an unintentional act of self-identification), we noticed the alignments of our communities, the overlapping, the striations that result when communities move along each other.
Kierstin lives in Ridgeway, CO and is getting her MFA at the low residency program at Pacific University in Oregon. She doesn’t have a book out yet, but it’s only a matter of time, and her poems can be found all over in little and big lit mags like Memoir (and) and Pilgrimage. She writes like a scientist looking into a microscope. Or like a detective at a crime scene, honing in on the small details and sussing from them what they can tell us. But unlike a scientist or a detective, she forces no conclusions. She doesn’t treat them as evidence secondary to the big claim or epiphany or discovery. They tell their own stories, and she lets them.
Take the following three stanzas from her poem “Because Now There Are School Shootings”:
They must exist,
immune from ice,
singing ridge line songs
through several sets of teeth.
They must wear a bear tooth
on their necks,
a dominance amulet,
and unexpected predators
to most but me.
Kierstin creates a terrible, terrifying creature, primarily because it is a phantom anchored in the real world by “bear tooth” and “dominance amulet.” The details she lights on, like “immune to ice” and “several sets of teeth” are janus-like in what they reveal and hide. And the best thing Kierstin does is let the hidden stay hidden. She doesn’t force a truth.
And then these lines from her poem “Dinner Party”: “as we tried to dance off / the aphrodisiac’s damage.” I’m not going to get into the lovely aural things these lines are doing. Instead I want to end here. On this image. Because it says what I’ve been trying to say about the known. The attraction of it. The damage.