Jonathan Koven and I are both suburbanite New Yorkers who found our way to Philadelphia. It’s a funny trajectory, so we laugh a lot here. He was a good sport about me projecting too much onto his work.
MM: So your poetry builds a lot on nature imagery. Why does the natural world anchor so much of your work? Why engage with natural images?
JK: Good question and glad you picked up on that! I think it’s an essential part of human identity. I think it’s a fault to say we are separate from nature because we weren’t born as vegetables. *Laughs* I also tend to think we are most vulnerable when we are within nature. So I think there’s a conversation being had between the earth and the self—as well as a looking inward—that’s revealing and fascinating from a character building perspective. Also, aesthetically, the oddities and the familiarized eccentricities of this planet are comforting, meditative, bizarre, dreamlike, and at times grotesque: the perfect vehicle for language in my opinion. Hope that made sense!
MM: It does! As much sense as poets ever make
JK: Nature is also just beautiful. I’ve always been confounded and amazed by it!
MM: A reasonable reaction. I want to pause here and think about your appeal to a broad idea of “human identity.” I think that’s interesting because your chapbook sees some very personal interactions. Your partner shows up as a character, your brother, your friend, they’re addressed by name. The poems sometimes read like ciphers that can only be unlocked by knowing you and the people they are about. So that’s a very particular emotional world that you’re building in the poems, but you use this imagery that ties us into the tides, the trees growing. What’s the through line for you?
JK: I think that many of the poems read like confessions to the people of my life, but I think that readers can attach their own emotions to these relationships. With this work, many of the poems have grown with me as I’ve grown—being rewritten several times over many years. They’re intimate reflections, but they’re also archetypes. Take “The Sky Rinses My Hands,” for example. It’s about my brother, driving under the moon, but it’s also just about brotherhood—the night drive that lasts your whole lives. It’s about having something that’s complex and simple and it goes on for what seems like forever—I think anyone with a sibling knows that feeling. And with the ocean, there’s also that looming symbol of eternity—the push and pull of waves. I wanted this timeless, reminiscent quality to run throughout the collection since many of the pieces have developed patiently alongside me, as I’ve developed myself. So these poems sort of feel like a reckoning of self in relation to humanity, a looking inward to look outward.
MM: I think that really gets to the heart of a tension that for me, I resolve very differently in my writing, how to balance between internal, personal, particular experience, and the so-called universal or global experience. For me, I tend to resolve that balance by saying, well, what is the universal, who is this universe I’m appealing to? And that leads me to end up digging in deeper into the particular, into the contexts I grew up with and in: Suburban New York, American Jewishness, Jewish religious community, etc. That’s a lot about me to get to a question about YOUR work, but I guess my question is, who and what is this universe you’re aiming for? Why polish off the language that might only be understood by your brother or your lover? Why not keep it?
JK: Damn, brutal question. *laughs* I suppose it’s a question all artists need to face. I think there’s a little bit of an inherent lack that’s made me who I am, an artist. And so if I’m not creating or polishing, then I can get pretty grumpy. Inherent lack, much? Probably. I think there’s definitely a level of NEEDING to express, because that’s who I am. There’s a line in “Exhalations,” that goes: “without readers to know my pleas / I can be / I will / I am / scissors to paper.” I think—I hope—I choose to believe—that someone out there, someone that i’ve never met, reads my poetry and it resonates within them—even if they don’t have a brother or a fiancee. I think there’s a level of trusting that people will empathize with my story, and if not my story, then the music of my words.
MM: Sorry for the brutality, it’s just been on my mind since I’ve read your work. Your work clearly works towards this ideal of universality which I don’t think is a bad thing. But it is a different thing from how I approach writing, and the approach that makes sense to me, so I’m sort of poking and prodding at your ideas to better understand them.
JK: No worries. I also realize my works can be both elusive and have a certain aesthetic to them that people do or don’t immediately attach to. It’s something I’ve grown to accept about my writing and who I write for. With my fiction, I think it speaks to universal themes but not necessarily aimed at a universal audience if that makes sense.
MM: It does make sense. I think a poem of yours that sheds light on this is The Stacks, can we talk about the Stacks? and these breathtaking lines of yours, “I wanted to scream at them, I don’t know what. Wordless, humongous. This beauty, everything I’ve ever cared about-eternally, rhythmically, eventually disproportionately.”
To me, this is writing in general, the wordless humongous scream
JK: The Stacks is an actual place in Long Island, NY, where I grew up—it’s actual name is Northport Power Station. I stopped by there one night with my brother and friends. The enormous smokestacks there took on a grandiose energy in the night’s darkness that really stuck with me, which inspired this poem, which feels to me like a surreal coming-of-age dream sequence. Those lines you pinpointed are definitely a turning point—many of these poems can definitely speak to a writerly-specific suffering. *laughs*
But it’s a human pain everyone feels on a certain level. To let out what’s inside. Some people just have very intricate and colorful things working inside them.
MM: Maybe all of us, even. Another piece of yours I wanted to get into is “To Hold Every Flying And Falling At Once”, which is a love poem, and which also, I feel like, gets at the heart of this question your work deals with, of the self when surrounded, by nature, or in this case, by love. Can you speak about the poem’s themes and how it came to be?
JK: That poem might be my favorite. The rising and falling of the stanzas are meant to reflect the ocean waves, but also the rise and fall of a chest breathing in sleep—which is the setting of this poem. It’s inspired by that last moment before dreams come with my fiancée beside me. It’s very much a love poem but it’s also asking the question of how to truly articulate that? It’s impossible—it cannot be contained. That love is unfathomable, also like the ocean, but steady and reliable. So this poem, like many others, is a kind of surrendering to that. I think that’s a good way of looking at my poems, an exercise in learning to surrender. But not in a bad way.
MM: No, not at all in a bad way. It’s a sense of dissolution of self that’s quite beautiful and peaceful. We don’t really have words for it in English. Obliteration of self, negation of self sounds too violent. It’s a melting away into the other, and it’s what life is about.
MM: Well give the man a cigar, he found the word.
MM: All right, we’re wrapping up, I’m sorry to say. But I’m gonna pick two images from your work, and then you’ll have to choose, okay?
MM: A single mosquito, or a sycamore?
JK: Ooh good one. I’m a sucker for big trees. Give me that sycamore.
MM: A love that will surely pay off in time.
What I wish I’d asked him: What about the danger of nature? What about being surrounded by a city? What about feeling flooded with fear?