Kyle McCord: Something Courageous
It's not often that you laugh aloud while reading and then have to explain to your friends that you just stumbled upon a line of poetry about Pikachu fanfiction. That's the unique experience of enjoying the work of Kyle McCord: you’ll ponder hypothetical time travel, the intelligence of dolphins, or the surprisingly affable companionship of Satan. McCord writes poems with paradoxes, pairing humor and pop culture references that lead to deep questioning and feelings of longing. Kyle McCord is the author of four books of poetry including “You Are Indeed an Elk, But This is Not the Forest You Were Born to Graze” (Gold Wake, Forthcoming 2015). He has work featured in Boston Review, Cream City Review, Ploughshares and many other literary publications. He graduated from the MFA Program at University of Massachusetts-Amherst and teaches at the University of North Texas in Denton. This interview was conducted over the phone by Jake Stone, poetry reader for WTR.
Jake: Just to start us off, we have a little tradition with interviews where we have the previous interviewee leave a question for the next one. Gabriella Gonzales left this: do you have any writing rituals?
Kyle: I have to write poems with a V9 pen. Preferably in a moleskin. Those are about the only requirements. I've traveled so many places and written in such odd locations—hostels, museums, lobbies of theaters—that I don't keep too much constant!
Jake: Do you think an author's age and level of experience is important? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages young writers have, especially in the current market?
Kyle: I was teaching creative writing this past semester and I told my students I didn't write a poem I liked until I was twenty-two or twenty-three. And that was one poem.
And that's not to be discouraging. I still write poems I think suck, but I don't publish those. When I was a young writer in my MFA I felt like I had a lot of anxiety about getting work into the world and that was good, that was healthy. I think a lot of people wouldn't say that to you but I would.
Kyle: There are a lot more opportunities to publish now than there were twenty years ago. It used to be that people would say “You need to have poems in these kinds of places and that's what's going to get you into the world,” but that's not as true anymore and in some ways you can really handicap yourself by saying “I'm only going to publish in these really prestigious journals” because the visibility you're going to get is a lot lower than the folks who are going to be publishing in Ilk or Sixth Finch or iO, the journal I run. I don't think it's something that should keep you up at night but I think it's something worth thinking about. Make sure your poetry is in the right places and not just the places people tell you it should be.
Jake: What is advice you’d give to young writers?
Kyle: Everyone loses a lot before they win. But when you win it feels so good. [laughs] If I was going to say anything to younger writers, I'd say whenever you win just wildly over-celebrate. Because it doesn't happen all that often and when it does, it feels good.
Jake: When you have feelings of self-doubt about your writing, what helps you get past them?
Kyle: What do you think it is that makes people who are younger doubt their writing?
Jake: I always wonder why young people, myself included, are terribly insecure about their writing. Maybe because it's so personal and most of us are still very insecure about ourselves as people.
Kyle: This is going to sound like a very strange thing but one thing to remember is that your poems are not your body. And no matter how good you get or whether you never get good at all, your body continues to be your body and does not change and who you are does not change. That's not to say that what happens in your poetry doesn't matter, it clearly does. But poems for some people become like children in a healthy and unhealthy way. We become obsessive, and sometimes our desire for what the poem should be becomes so overwhelming that we crowd out the poem's ability to live its own life on the page. And what's most wonderful about poetry is that poetry will resist that. Poetry will resist the urges for you to fully manifest yourself in it— in some ways because it's impossible. It's language; you're being filtered through a medium
Jake: As a poetry reader at WTR, I've noticed that I often have an easier time connecting to poems we receive that seem to have more of an autobiographical basis. However, it's a difficult balance. Sometimes we receive poems I think are too personal to the writer and I end up feeling alienated from the piece. How do you go about writing a piece that has deep personal meaning and real feeling, but is still relatable to an outside audience?
Kyle: We refer to what you're talking about at iO as an “emotional crux.” I use that because I don't want to use the word “heart.” Because I think that's the wrong word. There are a lot of poems—maybe they're not even autobiographical—but they've got some guts and they have an urge to make you feel something. If a poem doesn't make me feel something, then I'm not that interested. I think the primary goal is to try to write something that's got an emotional crux but isn't trying to blare some emotion into or at someone. Often times, the more passive or light your touch, the more effective the poem. If there's a single emotion or single feeling you desperately feel like you need to express— don't put it in a poem. [laughs] Not immediately anyway. Find some way to articulate it and think about it and think about all the ways it could be reconsidered and then turn that into a poem. Something processed. Because that's what you want to present to the world. Not some sort of raw guts but actual courage.
Jake: What was your poetry like five or ten years ago compared to the poetry you write now? Are there poems you could write now that you couldn't have written back then, maybe more interestingly vice versa?
Kyle: That last question is one I've considered a lot recently. So I'm twenty-nine now and I'm thinking back to when I was twenty-four. When I was twenty-four my first book was out and my second one was coming out. My first book is something I could not write now. It's a voice I still possess, but it is very different. And I definitely couldn't write the second book anymore. The thing is I don't feel like I could rewrite anything that I've written now. Once you have some space and can make something of it, it becomes something you can't return to. Now all the things I've done I've learned something from. I know a lot of the choices I make now that seem intrinsic to me are actually just manifestations of “Oh I fucked that up one time. Now I won't do that.” I think that's fine. I think that's probably good or else I would just constantly be in retrograde. With younger writers, it belies a concern with forward momentum. I think it's very hard in poetry to be perceptive of when you are getting better but the answer is if you are writing you are getting better. It's just how much better you're getting [laughs]. I think that's what most people are worried about. I think most people, myself included, would like to be a lot better than they are.
Jake: I think that's something that artists in all fields struggle with. You always want to be better than the level you're at. Your taste is always a little above what your ability is.
Kyle: That's a good description I'd say that's definitely true.
Jake: Eventually you kind of meet the line, but somehow it gets off again. I don't even know how that happens. Like you do something you're satisfied with, but then your taste does this big jump forward and the cycle repeats.
Kyle: If you feel strongly that your poems from three years ago suck then you've probably done something right.[(laughs] Because you should think that; you should feel that you could write something better. If you get to a point where you're like “I could write nothing better than this,”, then that's when you're in real trouble. But that's not really true; nobody should believe that about themselves.
Jake: If you weren't a poet or a professor or an editor, who or what do you think you'd be? What sort of careers did you imagine yourself having when you were growing up?
Kyle: Did you ever imagine you were going to be a poet?
Jake: Uh. No. I still don't even imagine that.
Kyle: After you said that, there was such a vague air of disappointment that surrounded the statement. It reminded me of something that happened when I was in high school. They would bring in these speakers and one time they brought in a guy who was at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He was a fiction writer and he was Australian and he gave us this whole spiel about his book. I'm sure it would have interested me now, but at the time I was thoroughly disenchanted. At the end he asked a question which I think he must have regretted asking afterward, “Who here wants to be a writer?” and no one raised their hand—not a single person in the room. And I remember thinking afterward, “This man is a fool. Why did he think we'd want to do that job?”That thought is obviously funny to me now. I thought that I wanted to go to law school. I actually even took my LSATS and applied to law school as a back-up. But once I got into poetry there was no turning back. Especially once I got into my MFA program. I said to myself: “Okay I can do this and I'm going to put every ounce of my energy into this so I can do what I've always wanted to do.” That’s to teach people to love poetry. I still want to do that and I am still doing that and I think that's a good thing. I think it's really hard to know if it's something you can chase in the long run, because there are so many people who fall away from this profession because it's really hard. I looked at a list recently of the most competitive jobs in the country. Musicians are number four and creative writers are number two. Number one is choreographers. Choreographers have us beat, but other than that nobody has a harder time than creative writers. But if you really believe in yourself and really think you can do it and you are willing to work really, really hard, it's worth your time and it's worth your effort. It's the best job in the world.
Jake: To wrap things up, can you leave a question for our next interviewee?
Kyle: "What does writing or art make happen for you?"