Welcome to The Pitch, a regular series on Partisan in which writers come clean about their works-in-progress and share an exclusive excerpt. This week, Michael Lista talks to Richard Kelly Kemick about letting go, form and how to pluralize "Caribou."
So what are you working on?
RICHARD KELLY KEMICK:
Currently, I am going through my first collection of poems, Caribou Run, one last time before it goes to print. In a lot of ways, my feelings toward the manuscript are similar to how I imagine my mother must have felt when I moved out: rife with anxiety, hoping for the best, and in desperate need of a drink.
I’m also putting the finishing touches on a collection of short fiction that I’ve been working on for a while. I’ve been really fortunate with a couple magazines picking up some of the stories (Maisonneuve just took one for their Spring issue) and am hoping to soon send out the full manuscript.
This all being said, I’ve just started my PhD in September––so the majority of my day is spent staring into the mirror and chastising myself in a low and gruesome murmur.
When did you realize that the book of poems was out of your hands?
That’s a great question. Looking back, I think it might have been at the point when I printed out the manuscript and sent it the publisher. There was a moment at the mailbox when I thought, “If by some stroke of luck they accept it, you realize that you won’t be able to change everything.” Goose Lane has been really great in keeping me intimately involved in the editing process and have responded in calm and measured tones to my 3:15am emails with the subject line MAJOR THEMATIC SHIFTS. But I think it was that point at the mailbox, the manila envelope leaving my hands, that I widened the sphere of the collection and ultimately began to loosen my grip on it.
If I may, allow me to point out that the plural of caribou is the same as the singular. “Look at those caribou fight!” ... “Look at that caribou lose. He's probably a poet.” That is, of course, if you are talking about the animal; the plural of urban dictionary's socially deviant sex position, also named "caribou," is indeed "caribous."
Now to your actual question. I’m not sure when I originally had the idea to write about the caribou migration. When I’m writing poetry (or anything else for that matter) I am writing poems that I would want to read. I enjoy writing about animals so the idea itself wasn’t that new for me. What was new for me was that I wanted to write about a singular subject so that I’d be forced to introduce myself to different poetic forms––forms I wouldn't have normally given a second glance at (talking about you, sestina). Furthermore, I wanted to write about the overlap between science and art, and the migration allowed for that.
Have the stakes of mispluralizing ever been higher? Moving on though: what was it about a unifying subject that forced you to experiment with those different forms?
There are only so many free verse, confessional poems that you can write about caribou before your wife threatens to leave you. I wanted to be able to better align content and form. The idea was that by boxing myself in with a single subject, I’d be frog-marched into attempting this alignment more than I would’ve been if I could’ve simply changed the content and kept the form. In writing this collection, a large amount of my time was spent figuring out in what form was the best to say each poem. What can an ode better illuminate than a tanka? What is gained in pentameter that is lost in alexandrine? (And, of course, vice versa.)
The Raven and the Caribou
Slip low, into the canyon of the big hills,
to find where the bull, his throat
swollen with larvae, has come to die.
With an unantlered crown, his meat
is too corded for birds of prey, too torpid
with testosterone’s still-water lake,
so the ravens gather slowly, a shadow
growing from the sky’s corner.
Exceptionality brings a different kind of failure,
one that has never learned how to sink its skin
into the teeth of loss. The bull is still wheezing
when the unkindness spirals into him, the smothering
of their oil-spill wings. A raven slips its beak
into his neck and pulls out a pendant of blue vein.
If it were possible, would we want to know
how it feels to watch ourselves unravel,
our slow hollowing? Or when an iris
sets into the skull and you understand
that the body is empty as flared nostrils?
The raven ascends, untangling itself
from gravity, and the vein
ribboning into its mouth will pump
all this day and through the next.
RICHARD KELLY KEMICK's poetry, prose, and criticism has been published in literary magazines across Canada and the United States. Caribou Run will be published Spring 2016 by Goose Lane Editions.