Kathryn Smith’s poems have been nominated for Best American Poetry and a Pushcart Prize, and they have appeared in Mid-American Review, Bellingham Review, Southern Indiana Review, Redivider, and elsewhere. Originally from Port Angeles, Washington, she is a graduate of the MFA program at Eastern Washington University and lives in Spokane, Washington. Her poems "There are so many ways to decide what to kill and what to rescue" and "Waking Late to Late Spring" are featured in the Winter 2017 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, January 22, for special savings and discounts.
It seems as though "There are so many ways to decide what to kill and what to rescue" is taken from a real experience. What inspired you to address such an idea?
I have a large garden and enjoy hosting friends in my backyard in the summer. Much of this brief encounter happened as it’s described in the poem: a friend’s son, about five or six years old at the time, saw some ants attacking a worm in the garden. The worm was still alive, though it clearly wouldn’t be for much longer. This boy, a keen observer and avid nature lover, was pretty startled by this scene and asked me, the gardener, if ants ate worms. I struggled a bit with my answer because, yes, sometimes creatures eat other creatures, and it’s gruesome and difficult to explain. His instinct was immediate, though: get those ants off the poor worm.
It was probably a few days later, as I was still reflecting on the incident and the conversation, that I started thinking about the larger struggle at work. In a way, the boy was really asking, “Is this how the world works?” The relationships between animals can seem quite savage when viewed up close. They become even more savage when a child is also watching and asks why. Somehow we side with one creature or the other. How we decide, I think, comes down to how we relate to the creatures in question. Often we connect with the thing that suffers, not the thing inflicting the suffering. Extending that idea further, to the relationship between adults and children, our instinct is of course to protect children, to shield them from what’s savage or what might harm them. But we can’t really protect them, either — not fully. The best we can do is bathe them and tuck them in. Those little bits of ant that stuck beneath his fingernails seemed, to me, to represent how we carry little reminders with us of how we strive and fail, how we harm even when our aim is to save.
The relationship between the boy in the poem and the speaker is not defined. Why did you decide to withhold the nature of their relationship?
I didn’t think that relationship was important to the poem, and to try to spell it out by saying “my friend’s son” seemed like it would bog down the poem. The poem is about the relationships among creatures more than between individuals, so keeping the speaker and the boy generic — two humans generally, rather than specific individuals — felt more in keeping with that focus. I also think that sometimes keeping such relationships vague gives the reader more space to enter the experience, to say, “yes, I know a child who might ask this.”
"Waking Late to a Late Spring" is somewhat anti-pastoral, with a tone that is resigned, defeated, and sad at the end. To me, it wrestles with the idea of having no control over one’s environment. Can you elaborate on that?
I think that’s true — we can’t control nature, or the weather, so much as accept what they give us and try to live with that. To me, this poem also deals with how the outer world can reflect our inner state and lack of control over an emotional or psychological environment as well. Sometimes you long for spring, either actual spring or a metaphorical one, and the seasons (again, actual or metaphorical) simply do not cooperate.
Worms appear in both of these poems. Are there other creatures or objects you’ve noticed appearing throughout your poetry as a whole?
I love worms and ants. I have a lot more ant poems too. Animals and insects feature quite prominently in my poems. I’m drawn to how humanity and animality intersect — how humans both are and are not animal.
What are your writing habits like? Do you follow a regimen?
I am not the most disciplined writer, but I do make a point to work on poems at least twice a week. I have both new work and revisions going on all the time, so if I feel stuck on one thing or I'm short of new ideas, there’s always something else to work on. I try to read as much as I can too because I find that, besides daily observations, a good chunk of my inspiration comes from the words of other poets.