Caroline Kessler is a poet, editor, and community builder. Her poetry and prose has been published or is forthcoming in The McNeese Review, The Susquehanna Review, Sundog Lit, Profane, Rivet, Superstition Review, among others. She is the co-creator of The 18 Somethings Project, a virtual writing adventure. She has taught at the Yiddish Book Center and Washington University in St. Louis, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing. Originally from outside Baltimore, she is living in Jaffa, where she is a 2017-18 Dorot Fellow in Israel and at work on a collection of lyric essays, The Geography Problem.
Sutra Press: You are currently in Israel as a recipient of the Dorot Fellowship. Would you like to share any of your experiences?
Caroline Kessler:The time here has been very rich so far—full of many components of the fellowship and my own learning. I’m writing a lot, learning Hebrew, volunteering at an after-school program with children of Eritrean refugees, and immersing myself in contact improvisation and other forms of movement. I’ve also planned and facilitated two day-long seminars—one on the Occupation and one on Intentional Communities—and those have allowed for deep-dive learning into the social-political realities of Israel/Palestine.
SP: How does your religious background influence your writing?
CK: I grew up in an interfaith home—my mother was raised Catholic, and my father was raised Jewish. They decided to raise me and my younger brother in the Jewish tradition, while celebrating holidays like Easter and Christmas as well. We attended a Reform synagogue and Hebrew school, which became a very rich and relevant place for me starting around the time of my bat mitzvah, when I was twelve, turning thirteen. I felt a deep connection to Friday night prayer services, the music, and the liturgy, which continues to this day. At the same time, I felt a tension, the duality of having parents from different religious backgrounds…albeit backgrounds that share a lot in terms of monotheism and ritual. My journey through faith / doubt / ritual is an ongoing one, and often emerges in the form of particular questions in my writing.
SP: What inspired you to write this chapbook, Ritual in Blue?
CK: The chapbook emerged from my thesis, which I finished in May 2017, as part of my MFA program in creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis. The chapbook is a distillation of the thesis, a clarification of many of the ideas, subjects, and themes present in the work I created over two years, living in St. Louis, writing, teaching, and building a Jewish community there. In winnowing down the thesis, I felt I was creating an entirely new project, a ritual of seeing how poems might fit together and talk to each other across the manuscript.
SP: Can you tell us about your writing process? Do you practice any personal or creative rituals?
CK: I’m a devout practitioner of Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” from The Artist’s Way. These are three long-hand pages written each morning, more of a meditation than an attempt to create something new. I think of it is as “clearing the channel” and never write anything else before I do them. I also use “ten-minute writes” a lot, which I started with the help of my friend and collaborator, Janet Frishberg. She introduced me to this practice, which involves freewriting for ten minutes on a specific prompt. We often trade these writings and share only positive feedback (sometimes a few notes, sometimes in-depth). This is a really generative ritual and sometimes lines make their way into my prose and poetry.
SP: Three of the poems included are after photographs by Sally Mann. Which photos inspired them and how?
CK:I’ve been drawn to Sally Mann’s photographs for the last ten years, returning to them again and again, sometimes just to look at them, and sometimes to write through them. I prefer not to say which photographs inspired the poems, as I don’t want to map the poems directly onto the photos, as if to say this poem is a representation of this photograph. They aren’t. Her work is rich with narrative and invented ritual, and feels like a wonderful jumping-off point when I’m starting a poem. There is something incredibly vibrant and alive in her children, and anyone she captures as a subject, that is how I’m hoping to capture the people who populate my poems.
SP: What’s your golden thread?
CK: Storytelling in all its forms.
SP: What’s your labyrinth?
CK: The heart temple.
SP: What are you working on now?
CK: A collection of lyric essays tentatively titled The Geography Problem and a series of poems entirely about Chava (Eve).
SP: The majority of the poems within Ritual in Blue incorporate italics. Do they represent a unified concept throughout the chapbook?
CK: The italics are other voices: the ones in your head, your inner critic, your spirit-guide, an ad on YouTube, an overheard shouting match on the street. Sometimes the voices are audible and sometimes they’re barely a whisper.