In Conversation with Kasey Perkins

Forthcoming from Finish Line Press in January of 2019, When the Dead Get Mail is Kasey Perkins’ potent debut poetry collection. Perkins completed her MFA in poetry from the University of Missouri - St. Louis in 2014; she currently teaches writing and foodways at Washington University in St. Louis. Overall, her poetry and book reviews have appeared in the Chattahoochee Review, Chariton Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, the Wisconsin Review, and many more. She contributed to LUMINA Volume IX in 2010.

To mark the event of her chapbook’s forthcoming release, LUMINA blog contributor Colleen Ennen connected with her for an engaging conversation about poetry, publishing, cheese, suspicious neighbors, MFAs, and her first chapbook.

This interview has been edited for time and clarity.

Colleen Ennen: First, I’d just like to say: congratulations! You must be incredibly excited. The book comes out in January, right?

Kasey Perkins: Yeah, January 2019. And excited’s an understatement?

CE: Maybe ebullient? We can get out our thesaurus.

KP: Yeah, any words under that at all. Elated? Still maybe in a state of shock? Although I think I got the acceptance letter back in April?

CE: What are your release day or general publication celebration plans?

KP: Oh god. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. I’ve mostly just been thinking about getting through presales. Probably the nicest martini I can get my hands on, and like one big exhale. I’m going to need it.

CE: How has presale been going?

KP: It’s been going surprisingly well. It’s sort of funny: you go through an MFA program—or even if you don’t go through an MFA program—you dream about getting the acceptance letter for years and years, and—this is probably naïve—you think you’re going to get that [letter], and then everything is going to be just pure excitement and happiness. And it is. But it’s also just an incredible amount of work, because, you know, once you have the acceptance, you have to actually sell it. It has reminded me somewhat forcibly of trying to sell Girl Scout cookies as a kid, except my chapbook isn’t edible, so I feel like I’m at a distinct disadvantage.

CE: Because Girl Scout cookies kind of sell themselves.

KP: They do.

CE: Since we’re talking about your experience working with Finishing Line Press: what has it been like? Did you go through rounds of edits with them?

KP: You know, the nice thing about Finishing Line is that they’ve let me do whatever edits I personally want and haven’t asked too much of me. They seem to have accepted it as is. They told me to take a few weeks and go through [the manuscript], figure out if there was anything I wanted to throw out or any little edits I wanted to make. And I did that. They’ve given me a surprising degree of control over the book, particularly with the cover.

CE: I was going to ask you about the cover. It caught my eye.

KP: That’s deeply comforting. They sent me an email saying, “Send us a photo that you would like to use for your cover art and then our people will go and do whatever with it.” So, I was skimming through their website and checking out a lot of the covers. And the covers for this particular press—a lot of them are just that, actually—they just look like photographs. Which is fine. It just didn’t feel like something that matched my book and personality and what I really wanted. And so, being the miserable control freak that I can occasionally be, I decided: “I’ll just design this myself and pretend that I know what I’m doing.”

I actually—my neighbor’s probably still wondering what my deal was—I actually wandered next door because my neighbors have an old-fashioned mailbox at the foot of their driveway. So, I wandered next door with my really nice camera with the long telescopic lens, and they were out mowing their lawn or something, and I said, “Hey, strange question: could I possibly take a bunch of photographs of your mailbox from various angles, you know, just because.” And there was kind of an eyebrow raise, but they said, “Yeah, sure, have fun, I guess.”

So, I’m out there in the middle of the summer just taking pictures of a random mailbox. I brought them in, stuck them on the computer, and it went from just a nice high-quality, realistic image of a mailbox to the kind of animated, sketchy one on here. And then, I was agonizing over [every detail]: “Do I just slap a color bar on there and put a title on it?” But a friend of mine said, “You know what covers I really like? The ones over at Wave Books that have all those stylized letters on their covers.” And I don’t know what I’d do without that friend because I’d forgotten about them. I decided, “I’m just going to put crazy letters in the mailbox.” And when I was finished I really liked it. I emailed it to [Finishing Line] and they said, “Yeah, if that’s the one you want, great.”

CE: Do your neighbors know that you’re a writer? It could explain away some of your eccentricities.

KP: I did tell them it was for a book I had coming out. I don’t recall her asking what kind of book. They could still be in the dark.

CE: I know a number of the poems have been previously published—in LUMINA, for example—so when was it that you looked around you at the volume of work that you had and thought: “I might have a collection here somewhere”? And when you were doing the nitty-gritty work of pulling the collection together, how did you decide what to include or exclude, and how to order them?

KP: Ordering is so hard I had someone—I think it was an advisor or maybe it was a grad student—say: “You should just throw all your poems down a staircase and how they land is how they land,” which I was sorely tempted to do. But didn’t.

After my undergrad, I had a book-length collection already because I’ve been super into poetry for some time now. That’s not to say it’s a really high-quality collection, but I did do a creative thesis before I even got into an MFA program. So, I had that collection. And then after thesis, you know, you graduate with a full-length book. Actually, the title poem from that full-length book is in this collection; it’s the poem “Flowers from Saturn.”

So, I had the full-length book and I was shopping it around. I got a couple of responses along the lines of, “Almost, but not quite.” I was looking at all of the poems in there, and some of the ones that were a little more intense—like the [three] “Sign” poems in the collection—were ones I had been recently performing in St. Louis at slam scenes. I thought I could gather those and make a smaller version of the book, maybe more inspired by slam. I used to do a lot of slam in college and I haven’t done it as much since then. I don’t know if it’s like this in your MFA, but it was sort of frowned upon in mine.

I took some of the slam-ish ones that felt a little more like the original writer version of me and put them in a chapbook. Then as far as ordering goes: Bloodlines felt like a natural start because it starts with babies and creation and childhood, which flowed naturally into that poem about fathers. I stuck all the Sign poems in a row because that made sense. I remember staring at it and thinking, Wow, this chapbook is getting really heavy, so I stuck that poem about pork rinds right in the middle.

CE: I love the poem about pork rinds. I have frequently been confronted with them in my life and wondered what on earth was up with them.

KP: In truth, I really don’t like them. Just like in the poem: I was watching TV one night and thinking, I don’t understand this phenomenon. So I thought that in the midst of all the heavy stuff, I’d toss some pork rinds in there, you know, for range.

I definitely wanted Snowman to be the last [poem]. Someone who was kind enough to write a blurb for my book referenced that one as a hopeful end to the book. I do realize a lot of it is kind of heavy and kind of tense, and that’s not exactly who I am as a person; it’s almost the opposite of what I’m like in person. So I put something happy at the end so that—and I don’t mean this in a negative way—so that the book doesn’t feel like you just binged a bunch of Sylvia Plath poems.

CE: Which are beautiful, but best taken in controlled doses for me.

KP: Yeah! It’s like: Sharon Olds is one of my favorite writers, but I can only read three or four of her poems at a time. And with a chapbook—a smaller thing—I wanted to bounce between a lot of different things and styles. The person who put the blurb on the back said that Snowman was a “metaphoric vision of Perkins’ path.” That made me really happy. Because the MFA nerd in me put that poem at the end, since a lot of the poems are heavy a lot of these talk about painful autobiographical things, but I’m certainly a happier person now, so I want that reflected at the end.

CE: I was intrigued by the speakers, and the use of the “you” perspective in this collection. Why did you choose to use direct address, and work repeatedly in the second person? How do you think that operates on your poems?

KP: You know, I don’t think I noticed myself doing this until I just now ran a CTRL+F on the manuscript. I am blown away by the amount of second person.

In terms of the way they work in poetry, I would imagine a lot of that “you” comes from my background as a performance poet. There’s something very enrapturing—captivating—about being onstage and having [the piece] memorized, and looking at a whole room crowded with strangers and saying: “You.” There’s something very connecting about it. I think audiences really respond to that.

I don’t think that any of the poems in this collection—except maybe Fondue—are actually a “you” pointed at the audience. Usually, it’s directed at someone in a poem, although I’d say there are a couple of recurring “you”s in this: some family members, and definitely my husband. Poor man.

I will say one thing about the use of second person. There’s a huge difference between writing a poem with “you”s in it and maybe workshopping it, and realizing it’s going to be in book form, and other people are going to read the “you”s, and other people might figure out that they are in fact the “you.” Particularly in a poem like Bloodlines, which uses names. We’ll see how that goes.

CE: Speaking of workshops and MFAs…

KP: I’ve always characterized it as one of the most personal, and in some ways selfish, things you can do for yourself. Also delightful, mind you, delightful, and I am lucky to have done one. But it’s definitely a couple of years that you take to do something you really love, and not a lot of people get to do that.

CE: I agree. When some of my friends were having their mid-twenties crisis and bailing to backpack around East Asia, I decided: “I need to do an MFA.”

KP: The MFA is the school equivalent of that. Actually, this probably appears in some of the poems, but the entire time I was in an MFA I felt this disconcerting sense of economic class betrayal, as someone who grew up very poor and very working class. It was odd—and granted, I had two outside jobs—but there’s this institution that’s paying me to sit around and write poems. You know?

CE: You brought up a sense of class consciousness and where you come from. One of the things I really loved about your poems was that they felt very Midwestern to me—they felt like where I come from—but also just as important as geography was the way they engaged with socioeconomic realities. Is that something you are consciously putting into your poems, or is this something that you find when you look at your poems after completing a draft?

KP: Class: definitely. Midwestern: no, actually. I might have to parse through these again to see what crops up that is Midwestern-y. But class I would say, absolutely. I’m from a very rural place, so moving to St. Louis was incredible. You know, I’m thinking: Oh my god, they have two McDonalds in the same suburb, this is incredible. It was a constant culture shock, and then [the] MFA compounded it. There were a couple people there who also held jobs, and then there were a lot of people who were floating off savings or had trust-funds. They were always surprised by how much I worked. Actually, this is the first time in my life I’ve only had one job; it’s incredible. Before that, it was always multiple jobs.

So, that definitely pops up in the poems a lot. I don’t think I could—at least not the autobiographical ones—divorce any memory from a sense of class. It just permeates through almost every memory I have. I didn’t realize that until I got to college myself and had a chance to be around people who weren’t from a poorer section of the rural Midwest. It was new and interesting to me. It’s definitely one of my favorite things to talk about as a college professor now, too: talking to students who are at that point in their life where they are going through the realization that not everyone has money. I have joked on several occasions that my classes have become a referendum on classism.

And St. Louis has been an entirely different experience of economic class for me. I probably come from a very—almost cliché at this point—The Glass Castle or Winter’s Bone style of white, rural, lower-income, working-class background. When we moved to St. Louis, the first place we moved to was Ferguson, and we lived there from 2012 to 2015. The poem St. Louis: North County comes from the thought [about encountering urban poverty]: “These are experiences I am familiar with, but in a totally different setting and with totally different stakes.” I loved living there. I’ve always felt more comfortable in those parts of St. Louis than down where the place I work now is located, and that’s because of economic class.

CE: You chose When the Dead Get Mail as the titular poem. What was the thought process for that?

KP: In the least cool, most flippant answer: yeah, I just liked the title. But I did sit back and look at the Table of Contents. Bloodlines starts with birth, but it also starts with death, and St. Louis: North County poem is about dying parts of the city that I’ve come to love. There’s a poem where a little girl is playing darts with somebody and later goes off somewhere else and kills someone, there’s the title poem, there are people languishing in jail, which I would say is a different kind of death. Once I saw all that, I thought, “Oops, we have the classic death-themed chapbook. Maybe When the Dead Get Mail is a good title for it.”

I’m also tired of getting mailers for dead people, I’m not going to lie.

CE: Fair. Very fair.

When the Dead Get Mail is a forthcoming chapbook from Finishing Line Press. The chapbook is clever and cultured, and much warmer and more human than you might expect to find in poetry which plays in Latin, and dances with Turkish history and the Lotus Sutra. Perkins’ collection keeps its heart beating through pain, and pregnancy, and poverty, and tulips, and childhood, and parenthood, and pork rinds, and politics, and games of darts, and womanhood, and promotional mailers addressed to a dead and absent member of the household. Look for it after the new year.

For more about Kasey and her work, check out www.kaseyperkins.com