An Interview with Poet Nancy Krygowski
On embracing your inner weirdo and finding beauty in the rust
In anticipation of her reading at Penn State Behrend, part of Behrend's Smith Creative Writers Reading Series, I met with poet Nancy Krygowski via Zoom (where we were periodically joined by her cat Lucy) to discuss the craft of poetry. Her reading, which is free and open to the public, will be held in the Metzgar Center on Thursday, March 30 th at 6 p.m.
Nancy Krygowski is the author of The Woman in the Corner (University of Pittsburgh Press), named one of the top 100 (or so) books of poetry for 2020 by Library Journal. Her first book Velocity, won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. She is a recipient of a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship, a Pittsburgh Foundation Grant, and residencies at Jentel, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Foundation, Ragdale, and Virginia Center of Creative Arts. She is an instructor in Carlow University's Madwomen in the Attic writing program, in addition to serving as Co-Editor of the Pitt Poetry Series.
Carolyn Hogg (CG): Could you describe your relationship to writing and how it's changed over time?
Nancy Krygowski (NK): My relationship to writing has changed a bunch and changes all the time, but I initially became a writer because I'm the youngest of six kids, and when you're the youngest of six kids, at least in my case, it's like your parents forget that you exist. I became really close with my oldest brother, and he broke my heart by moving away when I was 12. I would write him these long, I'm sure insanely boring, 14-page letters about my 12-year-old life because he was the person who had listened to me. And eventually, not that he necessarily got tired of the letters, but he thought I could use a journal, so he bought me one and I became an avid journaler. And that was around the same time I was discovering poetry at the library.
So, I would write poems, but I never, ever showed anybody. I was a closet writer. In college, I hung out with writers, but I always thought of myself as an editor or a reader of their work. Then I started a master's program at the University of New Hampshire, studying composition and rhetoric. Teaching writing was my passion, but I was still secretly writing poems. I loved the work of Charles Simic, a Pulitzer prize winning poet who recently died and who was a professor there. I don't know how I did this because I'm pretty introverted and shy, but I went into his office one day and asked, 'Hey, can I be in a workshop?' I just wanted to sit in on one. I showed him some poems, and he said sure.
Everything changed after that. I became a pretty bad student in my other classes and began focusing on writing poems. I don't think a lot of people talk about this, but I was always unsure about how writing fit into my life, I think because I grew up working class. I had a very practical approach to life: you have to have a job, you have to make money, and poetry isn't a way to make money. I loved being around creativity, but I didn't think of it as a way to make my living. I didn't necessarily want to teach creative writing—again, my attitude towards work was focused on more 'practical' skills. So poetry got shoved to the background, and I wrote in spurts. But after I finished my second master's degree, I remember someone asking me if I'd sent out my manuscript yet. And I thought, 'Me? I could send out a manuscript?' Honestly, I thought published writers were the 'other' people. But it got me thinking about working on the book. When my first book won a pretty prestigious prize, I was flabbergasted. Publication was weird for me. Everybody wants to get published, but for me it was sort of a 'coming out.' Somebody sent me the first pre-publication review of my book, and it was a really good review. But I went into a panic because the person said something like, 'Can she do it again?' It felt like a huge amount of pressure. The sense that people could now read and judge me and expect something of me freaked me out. I was constantly second-guessing myself, so I decided to retreat and focus on my career and my family.
It took many years, but when I realized I had questions to explore, emotions I needed to understand, I got back to my writing work. It was a long haul, but I eventually published The Woman in the Corner. And after that book came out, my attitude towards writing drastically changed. I began thinking, who cares? Now, I worry a lot less about people's expectations and judgments. I just want writing to be the complicated, meaningful fun it is. Corny as it may sound, I trust the deepest, smartest, creative part of my brain more now, and I want to let it speak. The circumstances of my life have changed a lot, and the writing has come and gone, but now poetry—mine and other people's—is in the foreground of my life.
CH: As someone who also feels the need to retreat in both a writerly sense and in other aspects of my life, I'm wondering how you've gotten to the point where you can finally say, 'Who cares?'
NK: Even when I was in the 6 th grade and writing these bad, bad, poems in my journal, I was doing it because I needed to examine the world, deeply feel the world, and puzzle out its intricacies. I needed to write down what I was seeing, feeling, and thinking to establish my existence in the world. Having fun with language was a way to do that. But my writing wasn't for an audience then. After publishing my first book and feeling the pressure of my writing being public, I got some advice from Terrance Hayes, a good friend and one of my co-editors for the Pitt Poetry Series. He said that when he's writing a poem, even though his audience is so massive, the only people he imagines in his head are the four people he thinks will get it. That helped give me perspective.
My poems are not just about writing for myself, but in some ways they are primarily for me and for my small group of people who I think will get it. If the poems speak to other people—and I really hope they do—that's amazing, but I feel like the impulse now is to create way more loosely and with this small audience in my head. But to clarify, the 'not caring' that helps free my writing, and that I suggest might free others' writing, isn't lazy writing—it's more about leaning far into yourself, your loves and vulnerabilities and discovering what you need to say, not being afraid to say what you want to say, and exploring what you want to explore—but with a deep knowledge of poetic craft and with the knowledge that drafts will go through lots of revision. I can be a pretty obsessive reviser.
CH: After listening to your readings, it sounds like many of your poems incorporate real-life experiences, such as being on crutches for several weeks, riding the bus, or having conversations with specific people. And yet, all these poems feel accessible—like these personal moments have been transformed beyond your own relationship to them. Could you talk a bit about how this transformation happens? How do you get away from yourself in your writing?
NK: I teach poetry and work as an editor so I'm constantly reading and deciding what works and what doesn't. You have to have a reason for the poetic choices you make, even if sometimes that's just your smart intuition. There's got to be a so what? Why are you telling the story? Why include this detail or that one? I talk to my students about the true detail versus the emotionally true detail. Certain details might be true to your life, but they won't resonate in a bigger way—they're just not important or they won't conjure up the right mood, the most precise image. So how do you choose the emotionally true details that will hopefully resonate for other people? Sometimes you just know, but it can be hard to judge. It's about figuring out how to write your personal content in a way that ripples out to other people. For me, that usually means exploring emotions or relationships that, I hope, many people can relate to. And, I always hold this quote from poet Galway Kinnell, closely: "Go so deep into yourself that you speak for everyone." Though I'm pretty sure we can't speak for everyone, I do believe the way to make connections to others is through deep honesty and vulnerability.
I can't say that I exactly understand why I feel something is important when I first start a poem, but I can feel it—there's an underlayer that's begging to surface. Sometimes I have to write and write and write before I get to what that underlayer is. It's like a mining process. You have to trust your gut, but you also have to trust your revision eye and your first readers.
CH: What's your biggest challenge when you write? Alternatively, what comes easily to you?
NK: Just making myself do it is challenging—making time, making it a priority. I'm not a person who writes on a schedule. I would like to be that person, but I'm notoriously bad with time. However, when I force myself to make time to write, I'm amazed by the fact that nearly always something worth keeping comes out. It might only be a line or a few words, but it's there if I sit down and do it. What comes easy is allowing other peoples' poems to kickstart me. I fundamentally believe that poems exist to be in conversation with. We're all creating this huge dialogue about what it means to be human. Reading poems opens up this dialogue to me. Poems ask me to participate. Poems are instigators, they provoke other poems. Reading to get started writing always works for me. I have my favorite authors, who I go back to time and time again, like Laura Kasischke or Gerald Stern. But there are people—usually people who are a lot wilder in their writing than I am, like Lucy Brock-Broido or Diane Seuss—who create a pathway, and if I'm feeling stuck or like I don't have anything to say, I can guarantee they'll get me started. I guess I don't think writing is hard—I think making the writing better is hard.
CH: In one of your readings, you said some of your poems are inspired by sound. Could you talk about this a bit?
NK: From early on, I've been intrigued with the natural music of language, and I really love music—all kinds. For me, it's easy to hear the stresses and rhymes in regular language. I don't love overly-rhyming poems, but I love when we can pull music out of regular language. like to play with that. And I'm always reading aloud as I'm writing. The sounds in what I hear propel me forward.
People often talk about seeing something that inspires a poem, but for me, I often hear my own thoughts or something someone else says and hear the rhythm of the speech, the subtle assonance or consonance in it. I haven't been riding the bus since the pandemic and since I switched jobs, but I loved listening to people on the bus. I'd have my notebook there and jot things down. So many poems would come from listening to other people.
CH: In one of your readings from 2020, you said that poems give us a chance to think about love. How are love and poetry connected to you?
NK: I believe that whenever you pay attention to something, you're giving it love. I think it's important where we place our attention. Poetry slows you down, and it gives the gift of your attention. You put your eyes and ears somewhere, and I believe that is a kind of love. Even if
you're putting your eyes or ears to something that's sad or difficult or even violent, you're sending some kind of love there. Poetry, and maybe all writing, is about connection and letting people be in dialogue with each other. That is absolutely the baseline for me. Writing is most meaningful for me when I use it to connect with others and show that we can be connected in important ways. Bottom line, my poems try to explore what the human heart does and doesn't do and what it wants. It's about zooming in. I'm in love with the world. It's complicated, of course, but I love it all. I love people and love having that opportunity to make those kinds of connections.
CH: We read your poem "Weed Whacker" for one of our classes, and while I found the poem itself to be resonant, I was also struck by the bio you wrote for Rattle. You wrote about the special value of returning to the Rust Belt after living in idyllic places with too-obvious beauty. You said, 'I missed having to search for beauty, missed, also, how emptiness breeds, needs creation.' Could you expand on this notion of emptiness? How does having to search for beauty in everyday life impact the ways you observe and write?
NK: I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio—it's like a miniature Pittsburgh. Because of the steel mills closing, the city died at the same time I was really coming alive. People moved away, the population hugely dropped, and businesses closed. And that became the landscape of the start of my adulthood, all that emptiness, that desolation. But it was in that desolation where I met these wonderful people at Youngstown State University, some of whom I'm still close with, who were creating paintings and music and writing stories and poems. It felt like there was an overwhelming desire to create amidst this sense of emptiness. People were finding the beauty in the void.
When I left Youngstown, I moved to coastal New England and then San Francisco where beauty is everywhere, stunning, and so obvious. Everyone knows the fog hugging the Golden Gate bridge is breathtaking. Everyone knows the waves crashing against the pristine light house is sublime. In Youngstown the beauty was not obvious—you had to hunt for it. I fell in love with the post-industrial landscape, with rusting factories and broken bottles and abandoned houses. When I ended up moving back to this part of the world, it was challenging, but I felt like this was my land. Like Youngstown, Pittsburgh had that same dying industrial-wasteland feel. I think there's something about living with lack that, with a certain temperament, gives you the impetus to redefine beauty. I feel lucky to have that desire and to be able to find beauty in what others might find ugly. I still feel drawn to ruins, remains, voids, desolation. And I hope this comes across in my poems.
CH: Is there any other advice you might offer young writers?
NK: Maybe this doesn't pertain to everybody, but I wish it did: you have to allow yourself to be your specific, weird self. You have to embrace your weirdo-ness. The kind weirdos of the world are the people I feel most drawn to, and the writing I love the most often has a quirky yet thoroughly human voice. Not quirky in that they're trying to be quirky, but more so: 'This is how I uniquely feel language and see the world.' You must have faith in your strangeness. As an editor, I see many writers trying to sound like poets they admire. But what I am looking for and what I love is when somebody fully embodies their quirky, weirdo self. Diane Seuss is a great example of this. She's down-to-earth, accessible, but wild-voiced.
CH: What was the process of finding your own voice and getting away from the voices of authors you admire?
NK: When I was studying with Charles Simic, I was writing short surreal-ish, heavily metaphoric poems like his because I really, really loved his work. But I had this realization that he was this older guy who'd lived an entirely different life than me, and there were things I needed to explore in my poetry that couldn't happen in that form. Especially because, writing as a woman and as a feminist, I felt the need to speak more directly and more vulnerably than those short, surreal poems allowed. That was a big realization for me. The poets I admire still help me push my craft decisions and provide different ways for approaching content, but I find that what I choose to explore is more firmly rooted in my life's questions, what I need to understand.
CH: What are you working on now?
NK: Talking about quirky, this is huge leap for me, and it sounds a little insane, but the pandemic was, and still is, a strange time. I was working from home, staring out my window for hours and hours a day, and this white and tawny brown pigeon showed up. I'd never seen anything like it, and I fell in love. It's crazy, and I know it. But I'm fully embracing my own craziness, and so I have a series of poems that are either about or summon the voice of this pigeon. This is a huge stretch for me because I don't do persona poems, and I'm a person who famously hates pigeons. I like birds, but not pigeons. I have no idea what's going to happen with the poems, but once again, it's really a matter of having fun and trusting my poetic brain.
Carolyn Hogg is a senior in the BFA Creative Writing Program at Penn State Behrend.