Smile Politely

Natalie Mesnard interviews Exchange Reader Kara Van de Graaf

The Visiting Writers Series | Mike ‘n Molly’s | April 13 | 5:30 | FREE

As part of the annual Boneyard Arts Festival, the University of Illinois will hold its first Visiting Writers Reading, featuring students from the PhD in Creative Writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and special guest Frank Montesonti, as well as students from UIUC’s MFA in Creative Writing program.

One of our readers, Kara Van de Graaf, was nice enough to trade a few emails with Natalie Mesnard leading up to this Saturday’s reading.

Natalie Mesnard: If you had to, how would you describe your aesthetic? From where do your poems originate?

Kara Van de Graaf: Most days, I feel like my aesthetic is a moving target. In many ways, I feel like your question about defining aesthetic is one of the central questions a writer tries to answer throughout her career. I read – and write – to try to figure out the bounds and limits of what I find moving about language, to find out what language can do. I try new things. I make mistakes. I surprise myself, often, by responding strongly to ways of using words that had never occurred to me before. In this way, I suppose I consider every poem I write a new “description” of my aesthetic, or at least a potential one.

That’s also one answer to your second question about the origin of my poems. I write towards my own aesthetic, but I also write to connect to others, to be part of community. My poems come out of a genuine desire to use language to understand myself and other people, to think about my own place in the world. And, to think about what possibilities language opens up for myself and others to occupy those places.

Mesnard: What¹s it like studying for a PhD in Creative Writing? How is it different from pursuing an MFA?

Van de Graaf: I love my PhD program, but it’s definitely a different animal than the MFA. Many MFAs revolve, primarily, around craft and studio-based courses, but the PhD program at UW-Milwaukee requires significant critical and theoretical coursework as well. Luckily, my time in the MFA at University of Pittsburgh allowed me to take some literature and theory courses, and I developed initial research interests in contemporary poetry, pedagogy, and new media. My PhD has given me the opportunity to explore those interests in greater depth and to cultivate a body of scholarly work while I continue maturing as a writer.

In fact, I’ve come to see those pursuits as inextricably linked. Interweaving my scholarly interests with my creative endeavors has been a central part of the work of the PhD for me. It’s required me to be even more self-directed than the MFA, as I find ways to carve out an identity that allows these various interests to intersect.

Mesnard: What are some of your creative influences? Who inspires you?

Van de Graaf: Oh, I have bookshelves full! This is corny, but the longer I write, the more I realize how profoundly my teachers have influenced my approach to writing. Many times, I don’t realize the full extent of that influence until long after I have moved on from those initial classes. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with the inimitable Marianne Boruch as an undergraduate at Purdue University. I still feel the echoes of her guidance in my writing, especially the value she placed on restraint. And, as a reader, I find her poems to be constantly surprising. That’s something I hope – one day – to be able to accomplish in my own work, too. Similarly, my dissertation chair, Rebecca Dunham, has taught me so much about the scope of a “book” of poems. Her example, both as a teacher and a writer, has really shaped my sense of the possibilities available for a longer poetic project.

Mesnard: Do you enjoy your position as Poetry Editor for Cream City Review? How do you interact with the process of selecting work?

Van de Graaf: I find being a poetry editor for Cream City to be a really rewarding process. Reading and selecting work for the magazine keeps me in touch with what’s happening in the poetry community on the ground. Additionally, it’s really gratifying to find work out there that you genuinely connect with, that feels new and exciting. I’m proud to be able to help support emerging writers on our pages.

Generally, the selection process at CCR goes like this: We have three poetry editors who do most of the selecting for the individual issues, and we also have a terrific team of assistant poetry editors who (also) read through the slush and forward us work they’re enthusiastic about. Every few months, the poetry editors get together to discuss submissions that we want to propose for the issue. We drink lots of coffee and alternately enthuse about poems we’re excited about and argue about specific aesthetic choices in others.  Amazingly, we also manage to make decisions sometimes, too.

Mesnard: What kinds of poems are you working on right now?

Van de Graaf: Thanks for asking. Right now, I’m drafting poems toward the completion of my manuscript, titled Dear Satellite. The book explores contemporary and historical issues surrounding female identities, particularly via examining the ways that the female body has been used as an aesthetic object at different moments in time and space. In this work, I am experimenting with the juxtaposition of scenes of the domestic with poems of travel and exploration or historical persona in order to re-envision contemporary understandings of gender, sexuality, and fidelity through other lenses. Each new draft of the project teaches me something about where else I might take the book and sparks ideas for new poems as well. 


For more information about the Visiting Writers Series, go here.

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