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Joanna Klink


Joanna Klink
Half Omen, Half Hope

When everything finally has been wrecked and further shipwrecked,
When their most ardent dream has been made hollow and unrecognizable,
They will feel inside their limbs the missing shade of blue that lingers
Against hills in the cooler hours before dark, and the moss at the foot of the forest
When green starts to leave it. What they take into their privacy (half of his embrace,
Her violence at play) are shadows of acts which have no farewells in them.
Moons unearth them. And when, in their separate dwellings, their bodies
Feel the next season come, they no longer have anyone to whom to tell it.
Clouds of reverie pass outside the window and a strange emptiness
Peers back in. If they love, it is solely to be adored, it is to scatter and gather
Themselves like hard seeds in a field made fallow by a fire someone years ago set.
In the quiet woods, from the highest trees, there is always something
Weightless falling; and he, who must realize that certain losses are irreparable,
Tells himself at night, before the darkest mirror, that vision keeps him whole.


Some Feel Rain

Some feel rain. Some feel the beetle startle
in its ghost-part when the bark
slips. Some feel musk. Asleep against
each other in the whiskey dark, scarcely there.
When it falls apart, some feel the moondark air
drop its motes to the patch-thick slopes of
snow. Tiny blinkings of ice from the oak,
a boot-beat that comes and goes, the line of prayer
you can follow from the dusking wind to the snowy owl
it carries. Some feel sunlight
well up in blood-vessels below the skin
and wish there had been less to lose.
Knowing how it could have been, pale maples
drowsing like a second sleep above our temperaments.
Do I imagine there is any place so safe it can't be
snapped? Some feel the rivers shift,
blue veins through soil, as if the smoke-stacks were a long
dream of exhalation. The lynx lets its paws
skim the ground in snow and showers.
The wildflowers scatter in warm tints until
the second they are plucked. You can wait
to scrape the ankle-burrs, you can wait until Mercury
the early star underdraws the night and its blackest
districts. And wonder. Why others feel
through coal-thick night that deeply-colored garnet
star. Why sparring and pins are all you have.
Why the earth cannot make its way towards you.


The Graves

So here are the strange feelings that flicker
in you or anchor like weights in your eyes.
Turn back and you might undo them,
the way trees seem to float
free of themselves as they root.
A swan can hold itself on the gray ice water
and not waver, an open note upon which minor chords
blur and rest. But it was born dark.
The shore of that lake is littered with glass.
How you came to be who you are
was all unwinding, aimless on a bike,
off to retrieve a parcel that could only be a gift,
or felt, as a child, the sea
weave around your feet, white light rushing in with the surf.
What lived there?

                      -Joy, dispatched from nowhere,
and no need to think about your purpose,
and no fear that the sun gliding down
might burn the earth it feeds. Black habitat of now
in which decimation looks tender.
Sometimes the call of a bird is so clear
it bruises my hands. At night, behind glass,
light empties out then fills a room and the people in it,
hovering around a fire, gorgeous winds of shape
leaning close to each other in laughter.
From this distance, they are a grace,
an ache. The kingdom inside.


-from Raptus, selected by Guest Editor Phillip B. Williams


Joanna Klink earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University. Her collections of poetry include They Are Sleeping (2000), Circadian (2007), Raptus (2010), and Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy (2015). Her work has been included in numerous anthologies, including The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (2011). Of her work, Klink has said: “In poems I am trying to find my bearings through a world that at times feels remote and inchoate and struck blank with noise. I would like to place myself in a field of deep attention, and out of that attention come to feel and regard with more acute understanding what is there. I write to be less hopelessly myself, to sense something more expansive than where I speak from.”
Her honors and awards include a Rona Jaffe Fellowship and the Jeannette Haien Ballard Writer’s Prize, among others. She was the Briggs-Copeland Poet at Harvard University and teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Montana.


A Review of Joanna Klink's Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy by Hannah Rogers, first published at L.A. Review of Books

  … Inside the meadow is the grass,
 rich with darkness. Inside the grass is the wish to be rooted, inside the rain
the wish to dissolve. What you think you live for you may not live for.
One star goes out. One breath lifts inside a crow inside a field.

(Klink, “3 Bewildered Landscapes”)


JOANNA KLINK’S words have what certain connoisseurs would call “good mouthfeel.” A chemical reaction between the words and your mouth produces a sensation worth repeating: you may even find yourself whispering her lines over her pages. This breathless incantation places the reader in Klink’s atmosphere, keenly feeling the poet’s world, at one with the poet’s creation.

It is no accident that Klink’s interest in the sounds language can make may remind readers of the consequence of sound for Samuel Coleridge in poems like “Kubla Khan.” For Klink and Coleridge, sound does not simply serve narrative flow, but surpasses it to create sonic meanings. In many ways, Klink’s poetry takes up Romantic traditions in sociologist Howard Becker’s sense: by establishing her influences, Klink creates a history for her poetry which informs how we read it.

Klink’s poetry can be considered to belong in a Romantic tradition in two primary ways. First, her poems are experiments in observation, recording the way her mind connects ideas vis-à-vis natural objects. The second potential Romantic reading of her work relates to the concerns many Romantic poets held about the changing economic and political structures of their day, especially the loss of the pastoral environs and lifeways to the rise of manufacturing. When Klink takes on subjects like the landscapes and seascapes altered by oil spills in the multi-sectioned poem “Terrebonne Bay,” she continues the Romantic impulse to examine the destruction of the lands in terms of its results for the individual and collective mind. The pollution and human suffering wrought by capitalism during the early Industrial Revolution, appears again in Klink’s work. And once again this degradation, which can be hard to appreciate in the abstract, is aestheticized in poetic sound to bring us a bodily experience of economic and environmental change.

We can think here of Blake’s dark satanic mills or Wordsworth’s attempt to grasp onto a cityscape “bright and glittering in the smokeless air,” offering an idealized recovery from the Industrial Revolution — and compare these visions to Klink’s “sweet crude oil, orange as rust” in “Terrebonne Bay.” Industrial effects are as present for Klink as they were for the early Romantics. In both cases, the poets’ aesthetics, combining sounds, images, and the natural world, work through problems created by capitalist enterprise and social regimes.

Klink’s poetry connects the external natural world to her inner self. Like the Romantics, she is known for deriving emotions from her surroundings, and asking us to let landscapes induce emotive thought. Her three previous books, They Are Sleeping (2000), Circadian (2007), and Raptus (2010) brought us through worlds of gardens, forests, and home spaces in meditative yet arresting terms. Her poems summon us to places newly made with each line, while also establishing a sense of familiarity: the poet has clearly dwelled in these places.

In her new book, Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy, Klink is interested in both our inner and outer worlds. Many of the poems show how we relate to natural habitats and their inhabitants, how we can interfere with nature and how nature interferes with us. Klink also shows us that we impact the world just as we are affected by it, combining Romantic illumination with a warning about the dangers of 21st-century human activity on the places we go to understand ourselves. She brings with her a signature sound. Her distinct diction portrays silent scenes that ring out with the clarity of celestial bells. In deceptively simple constructions, she arranges her moons, her deer, her lakes, and her passerines to bring us new ways of constructing feeling from landscape.

“Toward what island-home am I moving” greets us with language so simple that its cadence comes to us like an a cappella hymn:

And when I shut my eyes there was no one.
Only weeds in drifts of stillness, only
stalks and gliding sky.

Come, black anchor, let us not be harmed.
The deer leafing in the dark.
The old man at the table, unable to remember.
The children whose hunger is just hunger,
and never desire.

In the final section of “3 Bewildered Landscapes,” readers find the speaker walking:

  … for hours in those forests, my legs a canvas of scratches,

trading on the old hopes — we were meant to be lost. But being lost

means not knowing what it means.

The relationship between being geographically lost and a loss of understanding plays through the logic of Klink’s inner-outer world dichotomy. 

One technique Klink uses for creating a relatable internal experience is through poems that directly address someone or something. Klink’s characters are decidedly a matter of deep thought; they spring from introspection. We hear her voicing both the parts of addresser and addressee, offering a way to understand human subjects when the poet turns to address natural objects. Klink’s world is peopled primarily by the “I-thou” relationship, which is crisp and ready and present in images evoking new thoughts about domestic surroundings. She converts our common experience into a shared understanding in poems like “Given”:

I have loved the love
you felt for those gardens
and I would grant you 

the always steadying
presence of seeds.
 I bring to that trouble

between us a bell that
might blur into air. I bring the woods
and a sense of what lives there. 

Like you, I turn to sunlight for
answers. Like you, I am
not sure where it has gone. 

Even with this beloved interlocutor, the inner life is channeled through material conduits, especially nature. The things Klink learns by watching the earth and its inhabitants mirror many Romantic concerns. She joins a lineage of Romantic poets, from William Blake and George Byron through Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop, who searched for an understanding of the mind by observing its reflection on the natural world.

Like Coleridge’s eolian harp and Wordsworth’s ruins, Klink’s poems are reflecting pools for understanding the human mind. At times, her environmental concerns are wrought by specific events, as in “Terrebonne Bay”:

The deep evening-colored rose of the sea
is closing. Sweet crude oil, orange as rust,
finds an open pathway into the marsh.

In this moment, Klink’s smooth world is ruptured by the catastrophe of BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its unstoppable consequences. As the poem winds its way through the sea and lives of sea creatures, it resolves itself into a poetic world that Klink has made for us. Klink’s fascination with sound continues in a world now covered with an oil skim that remains alien in the scene, even as her diction tries to reconcile its presence: “deep evening” evoking “Deepwater.” This sudden turn toward the explicitly political might seem jarring, but for Klink it is a natural outgrowth of her poetics of place. Klink’s commitment to relating the inner self to its environs inevitably comes to a point where interior life is interrupted by the external force of our collective human choices. Klink works out her emotive equation between inner and outer worlds precisely in this moment of interference, so that we can see how we are simultaneously the cause and the effect:

Still, the solutions of despair are weak
if you believe you can touch an undersea reef,
the belly of a small wounded whale.
You have the power to feel it.
The breath of the animal
moving like trust into your arms.

In this fittingly individual and specific moment, Klink offers her readers intimacy with a sea creature in the face of sorrow. She makes the “weak” solution of despair impossible as long as our wonder remains. Indeed the poem’s final movement points us beyond birds bathing,

… where they can
in half-damp shadows that make possible the next free
climb into air

by admitting that even in a state of ruin, our hope can come from the very environments our choices have nearly destroyed:

And overhead the novae explored toward you
along tracks of gas and dust, and the fields of ocean
rose into you, and the crabs broke from their cancer fossils
in masses of tiny flowers and you felt inside you
the islands re-arise, flushed from the thickening
imbalance of the earth. (Is there some
refuge beyond ourselves that is vast enough?
The sea is without grief. As are the days.)

Klink’s poetry extends the Romantic sensibility of understanding the self through the natural world, while exhorting us to think of what is lost — not just for the world but for our ability to know ourselves — when we allow a false dichotomy to be drawn between our needs and the needs of the environment.

       Two reviews of Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy at The Rumpus

                       A review of Raptus at Kenyon Review


An Interview with Joanna Klink by Diana Khoi Nguye, first published by Poetry Northwest

Diana Khoi Nguye: What was your MFA like—as a native to Iowa?

Joanna Klink: It was odd.  Because I grew up in Iowa City, I was constantly bumping into people I knew from high school and grade school and The Preucil School of Music—also my parents’ friends.  Also my parents.  But the Iowa Workshop itself was new to me (the actual Workshop as opposed to the one I’d heard about).  It was intense.  The faculty were insanely talented and set the bar absurdly high…the other students were insanely talented, some of them certifiably crazy…there was constant creative pressure.  We would turn in work every week, but we would also spend hours reading the worksheets from all the workshops, even the fiction workshops.  And when a professor recommended a book in passing, we’d go find it and read it.  So it was exhilarating and stressful, and sometimes I would walk half-stunned out of class to the pedestrian mall by the public library where I spent so much time as a kid and think, What am I doing here.  It was like regressing and having my brain rewired all at once.

DKN: When did you know you wanted to get a PhD? Would you recommend emerging poets to pursue a PhD?

JK: I started my Ph.D. before I went to Iowa—I took a leave of absence from Johns Hopkins to go back to Iowa City for those two years.  I didn’t know I wanted to get a Ph.D.  I just thought I might be happy reading a lot of German poetry, and applied to German Departments without really knowing what I was getting into.

At Hopkins I immediately met Allen Grossman, who was in the English Department, who became my mentor—he was both a poet and a literary critic, with the two vocations effortlessly informing each other.  I was impressed by that.  By the depth of his vision and his conviction that it didn’t make sense to talk about any single poem without understanding something of the—for Grossman, transhistorical—project of writing poems.  (My first seminar with him was called “Poetry:  From Sappho to Celan.”  When I left Hopkins he was teaching poetics courses called “Hard Problems.”)

Because of Grossman, I moved into the Humanities Center and started reading American, English, French poetry…so that by the time I arrived at Iowa, I wanted to do what he did, I wanted to try to carry these traditions and their powers into my own poems and be able to contextualize the poems I was reading in workshops.

As far as recommending Ph.D. programs—I don’t know.  I think a young poet should be in a Ph.D. in Literature if she or he loves reading and discussing texts and wants to be immersed in the history of a genre or idea.  I know many super-talented poets who have started Ph.D. programs and quit because they weren’t getting enough of their own writing done—they were surprised that their creative work wasn’t prioritized there.  Maybe it comes down to whether or not you want to spend most of your time reading books and writing papers and trying out teaching.

DKN: Since you started your PhD first, how did you come to the decision to do a MFA (in the midst of your PhD, no less)?

JK: At Hopkins I was spending time with poets from the Writing Seminars—Dorothy Wang, David Greenberg—and starting to feel at home writing poems.  I wanted to be in the company of writers for a while.

DKN: Did you have any time between your BA and your PhD/MFA? If so, what did you do during this time?

JK: No, I just rushed from degree to degree. It’s not something I recommend. By the time I started my position at The University of Montana, I was brain-dead, physically exhausted, and delirious from adrenaline (I would like to thank every student in my first workshops in January 2000 who did not drop the class). I wish I had taken several years off to work whatever-jobs or travel.

Instead, after Iowa, I moved to Cambridge, because Grossman was on leave and living in Lexington, and my other advisor, Peter Sacks, had moved to Harvard. I was truly cobbling together an existence—I had some finishing grants from Hopkins, but not enough to afford living in Cambridge, so I applied for some positions and ended up with a job in the Widener Library at Harvard, guarding the Gutenberg Bible. I knew nothing about the Gutenberg Bible. Guarding it meant hovering over a button which auto-dialed the Harvard police. Anyway the job saved my life. I finished writing my first book of poems in that tiny over-carpeted underlit room (which, honestly, very few people ever entered) and drafted the last chapters of my dissertation.

DKN: That is so incredible—to guard the Gutenberg Bible! And all it entailed was hovering over a button. Were you ever tempted to press it—after so many hours and days of not pressing it? Conversely, did you every press it due to a real threat?

JK: As far as I know, nobody tried to steal the Bible while I was sitting there.  I did manage to lock myself into Widener by mistake…it was during a Harvard graduation and I was supposed to leave the building by noon and simply forgot.  I had to press the button to get the Harvard police to let me out.

DKN: I’d never want to be locked inside any place—but if I had to choose, a library would be it. Who were your earliest writing crushes?

JK: In college I didn’t read much contemporary American poetry, so at first I loved Rilke, Trakl, Celan.  I loved Keats even though some of it seemed gratuitously weepy (this is obviously idiotic).  T.S. Eliot.

Neruda.  No women.

Then at Hopkins someone steered me toward Niedecker and Bishop, and I couldn’t believe how much force they were able to summon in their voices.  Then I started reading Denise Levertov, Linda Gregg, Jorie Graham, and Louise Glück.  They are still the guiding lights for me.

DKN: As a young person working on her first book, what I always have to ask is: How did you get your first book published?

JK: I sent my first book to contests, mostly first book contests, in that year after graduating from Iowa.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  In retrospect I wish I had waited at least a few more years to submit the manuscript, because I am embarrassed by the extent to which it is just a heap of stray poems, some of them shameless knock-offs, and not a book.  It was taken by Alice James and the University of Georgia Press, and I ended up publishing with Georgia.  (There were fewer poets submitting books at that point, in 1999—so much less competition than there is today.)

But it’s easy for me to say that I wish I had waited, or to advise my own graduate students at Montana to take their time before sending out a book—when in the end I wanted to get a job teaching poetry, and it’s nearly impossible to get a job without having a book.

But some of the really great contemporary books—like Linda Gregg’s Too Bright To See—were written across many years.  You can feel a different order of time in them.  Gregg wrote those poems when she was on a Fulbright in Greece, staring at goats and cypresses, living on next-to-nothing.

DKN: If you could talk to a younger Joanna, say, Joanna in her mid-20s, what would you tell her?

JK: To calm down?  To be less of an egomaniac and to listen more.  To spend more time with people, more time outdoors and on a bike, less time in your head.

Although I’d like to have some of that brazen 20’s ego and conviction now.  As I get older—I’m not as sure as I was before.

DKN: Do you have any advice to young writers who are struggling now?

JK: It is important to keep finding new books, new poems, new essays and stories—to listen when other people recommend books and to get a library card and to spend whatever money and hours you can in bookstores.  You have to put some time into staying inspired, and often one’s own work can start to feel desultory simply because it’s not enough in conversation with other voices.

My colleague and friend, the poet Prageeta Sharma, is constantly mentioning writers I’ve never heard of.  I had read some Walcott, but she pointed me to a poem from White Egrets, and that book is now one of my most treasured books.  My life would be much smaller if it weren’t for her.

It has also helped me so much to have a few trusted readers with whom I exchange work.  They give me immediate frank (the frank part is key) feedback, and keep me from repeating myself or from shooting down an idea before I’ve even given it a chance.  I don’t know.  Being a writer can turn into such a recessed, private, isolating endeavor if you don’t push hard in the opposite direction.

And for those writers in M.F.A. programs—my advice is to allow yourself to openly admire the writing that’s happening around you.  And to risk sounding sloppy and deeply naive, even when you’re about to graduate.

And to pay attention when you find yourself having unusually heated arguments.  All of the faculty who taught me at Iowa were extraordinary (I don’t say this lightly), but my best / most difficult teacher was Dean Young.  I had always loved his work, but when we had a poem in front of us in workshop, we never agreed about it.  We argued every week.  He asked me to explain what it was I loved in Bishop and encouraged me, repeatedly, to stop reading Bishop (I think he literally ran off with the book then slipped some Lorca poems into my mailbox).  The whole thing was infuriating.  Over the years it has become clear to me how much I owe Dean.  He helped me define my poetics and (more importantly) he helped me to loosen my grip on having a poetics.  Like Grossman, he changed my life.

           An interview with Klink at Black Warrior Review



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