Featured Poet: Karen Kovacik

Interview by-Natalie Solmer

When thinking about who would be our feature poet for this special Indianapolis issue, I thought of Karen Kovacik right away. I first met her when I was completing my MFA at Butler University. She teaches creative writing at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, but she agreed to be one of my thesis advisors. It was a good match for me because we have similar aesthetics, and she was able to offer me valuable insights into my own work. Shortly after my working with her, she took on the role of Indiana’s Poet Laureate from 2012-2014. I attended some of the events she created for the sharing and celebration of poetry throughout the state those couple of years, and I admired her efforts. I was very happy when she agreed to an interview with me for this issue of The Indianapolis Review. She also contributed 3 new poems for this issue! You can read those by following the links at the bottom of the page.

Karen Kovacik is a poet and translator of contemporary Polish poetry. Her books include Metropolis Burning, with many evocations of cities at war; Beyond the Velvet Curtain, winner of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize; and Nixon and I. Her translation of Agnieszka Kuciak’s Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets Who Don’t Exist,  longlisted for the 2014 National Translation Award, is available from White Pine Press, and in 2016, White Pine published Scattering the Dark: An Anthology of Polish Women Poets, edited and selected by her. She’s Professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), where she teaches creative writing and American poetry. Her work has been honored with the Charity Randall Citation from the International Poetry Forum, a Fulbright Research Grant to Poland, and a Fellowship in Literary Translation from the National Endowment for the Arts. (Bio taken from Kovacik’s website.)

Karen and I corresponded via email recently:

NS: How did your interest in poetry arise? How old were you when you knew that you were a poet?

KK: I was fortunate that even in elementary school, we studied poetry. My second-grade teacher Mrs. Callahan had us reciting James Whitcomb Riley and Eugene Field from memory—48 kids in unison! In third grade I remember reading Ogden Nash, Carl Sandburg, and Eve Merriam, and unlike other genres of writing (though of course I didn’t know that word), poetry had the quality of a riddle, and I became hooked. Mrs. Hyland, my sixth grade teacher, taught us how to perform poetry aloud without it being singsongy yet still honoring the line endings. When I graduated from college, I began reading and writing poetry more seriously and sending work out.

NS: Similarly, how did you become interested in translation, in particular the translation of Polish poetry? I know that you have Polish roots. One of your earlier books, Metropolis Burning, touches on this, and includes many gorgeous poems such as, “If my grandfather had not emigrated from Silesia.” As you and I have spoken about, I can relate to much of this, as my family history is similar. Did your grandparents or parents speak Polish to you? 

KK: Let me answer the last part of your question first: I heard Polish as a child because my grandfather and mother would speak it. I learned to count to ten in the language, and my mom taught me the song “Siwy koń” [Silver horse]. But beyond that, I didn’t learn the language maybe because of the anti-Polish sentiment when I was growing up. Instead, I learned Spanish in high school and majored in that language in college. It was by reading multiple translations of poets like Pablo Neruda and Alfonsina Storni that I first became intrigued with the close study that make possible the alchemy of turning one language into another. In my early twenties I fell in love with the poet and translator Daniel Bourne, visiting him in Warsaw during Martial Law, and that trip prompted me to study Polish at Indiana University. In the mid-Eighties, we lived in Warsaw on Dan’s Fulbright, an experience that gave rise to a few of the poems in Metropolis Burning. Dan often asked me to read and comment on his translations, and in 1989, when I felt more fluent in the language, I began translating from the Polish myself.

NS: Your most recent book of translation is Jacek Dehnel’s Aperture, which was a finalist for the 2019 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. What drew you to Dehnel’s work?

KK: Several things. First, I was impressed by his formal variety (he’s known for combining contemporary subject matter in traditional stanzaic patterns and poetic meter—the thirteen-syllable line in Poland—but he also writes free verse and prose poems). I find that combination of currency and tradition bracing and inspiring. Second, he has what Adrienne Rich said about Elizabeth Bishop: that he has the “eye of the outsider” as a gay man in homophobic Poland in the sense that he actively challenges efforts to curtails LGBTQ+ rights in Poland, speaks out about violence toward minoritized groups, and even renounced his baptism in the Catholic Church because of that institution’s collusion with the nationalist regime to demonize gays, lesbians, and trans people.

The English poet and critic Sasha Dugdale, reviewing the book, noted the preponderance of poems about seeing and perception: “The more we read of Dehnel’s work, the more we understand that a quick brush and “razor-sharp glance” are at the heart of his poetic mission. He’s a watcher, a flaneur. . . . Dehnel excels in the details of life: the lacquered surface, the hairdryers on their hooks, the smell of charcoal and varnished floors in the empty school in summer. This detail serves. . ., like the medieval symbols of vanitas, to remind us of the transience of our own lives.”

NS: Before that, you edited (and translated many of the works in) Scattering The Darkan anthology of Polish women poets. You have spoken about amplifying voices that are subverting some of Poland’s literary traditions like “the idea of Poland’s ‘poetry of witness,’ its bardic nationalism, the ways in which women have been cast by male writers, such as mother, monster, and muse.” I know that you stay connected to contemporary Polish poets and visit the country often, and I was wondering if you have any thoughts about the current state of contemporary Polish poetry. Are you seeing a shift in these traditions?

KK: Not much. At the same time, numerous poets from Scattering the Dark have had individual collections published in English translation since 2016, and that has been gratifying. Two poets whose work was featured in the anthology, Julia Fiedorczuk and Marta Podgórnik, have won the prestigious Szymborska Prize. And at the most recent Miłosz Festival in Kraków, I was gratified to see a panel devoted to the influence of Anna Świrszczyńska, a poet born in 1909 who worked as insurrectionary nurse during the Warsaw Uprising. I’m not claiming credit for these successes, of course, but my aim with the anthology was to create a kind of alternative canon that demonstrated the importance of the 31 poets I included as working subversively within Polish tradition and not merely functioning as “outliers.”

NS:  I read in an interview you did with Atticus Review that you have been working on a new book of your own poetry. Alongside the interview, Atticus also published five of your poems–all of which I adored, especially “My Mother Contemplates What to Wear in Her Casket,” which features a speaker with a strong voice. I also have to note that I was excited to see the speaker’s comment about Leona. I also had an Auntie Leona! Another poem of note, “To My Last Period,” follows in the literary tradition of Lucille Clifton’s bold statements to and about her body. Yet it stands out in its use of your signature style–imaginative and lyrical, yet startlingly clear language. Do you have any updates to give us on a collection of your latest poetry?

KK: Only that the collection, Portable City, has been a finalist or semifinalist numerous times. That said, my work has changed slightly over the years: has become, I think, more spare, more chiseled, as I age. Less truly seems to be more.

NS: You served as Indiana’s Poet Laureate from 2012-2014. I particularly enjoyed attending one of the readings you put on at the ‘Borderlands’ of Indiana. What were some insights that you had about the poetry community in Indiana and Indianapolis?

KK: I enjoyed putting on the Borderlands Project readings on each of Indiana’s state lines: with one in Madison on the Ohio River, another at the University of Notre Dame, a third at Earlham College in Richmond, and the fourth at the art museum in Terre Haute. Each featured poets from our state and the neighboring one—poetry summits of sorts. Growing up in the Region, I felt honestly a bit removed from Indiana because all of our media came from Chicago. So being the state’s Poet Laureate bonded me to the land and our poetic traditions in a new way.I found out poetry lives everywhere: in schools, literary festivals, parks, libraries, clubs, and churches. For me, I was glad those two years to be out of the academy and meeting people from all walks of life who happened to be poets.

NS: I feel like Indianapolis isn’t exactly known for being a literary hub or even for being a very desirable place to live, and it’s like this secret that most people don’t know about. People who live here know that there are so many wonderful places to go for inspiration, for poetry, for art, and for recreation in and around Indianapolis. Do you have any you would like to share?

KK: My latest inspiration is our new rapid transit bus, the Red Line, which I take to and from work at IUPUI. I’ve received a marriage proposal (!) on the bus, saw a man extract his own tooth, and have eavesdropped on numerous conversations.

But I’m a big walker, and I find that daily practice a kind of meditation that allows me to come up with ideas, but also to edit and memorize poems.

And if you haven’t done the full moon paddle on Eagle Creek, I highly recommend it. A tiny poem I wrote about that is embedded in the sidewalk outside the Central Library in downtown Indy.

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