Interview: Kathleen Driskell

Interview: Kathleen Driskell

“I’ve had a lot of different experiences with graveyards,” says Kathleen Driskell. As a child growing up in rural Peewee Valley outside of Louisville, she often hopped a fence to visit an old Confederate cemetery near her home. “My mother and father argued all the time, and to get away from them I would go over there, and I remember reading—riding my bike over there and reading.”

Back then, the young Driskell had no idea that she would grow up to become a national bestselling poet, the author of acclaimed poetry collections including Seed Across Snow. Nor could she have known that her childhood graveyard experience would help prepare her for another one, just outside her kitchen window, that would turn her to the page to contemplate loss and mortality—and what we leave behind. These themes are woven throughout her latest collection, Next Door to the Dead, published in late 2015 by the University Press of Kentucky. Inspired by her years living in an old country church adjacent to a crumbling graveyard, Driskell considers the lives of the dead and their families, creating a book that is steeped in mystery and deep beauty.

She recently spoke to Appalachian Heritage about crafting the book, a forthcoming poetry collection centered on manners and blue-collar service, and her life in the classroom at Spalding University.

JASON HOWARD: You and your husband live in a pre-Civil War era country church that you all converted into a house and has figured into your writing. What attracted you all to this house?

KATHLEEN DRISKELL: It was a Lutheran church…there was some kind of schism. And so somebody got mad and said, “We’re not going to that [church],” and I think it was a little too progressive for them. This was the more conservative church…And then it changed hands. There were a lot of rumors about what it was. We’ve had some of the old neighbors who said, “Yeah, I remember when the snake handlers were there, and the Pentecostals were there.” But they would talk about how they would put their speakers out in the trees, and have services so that everyone could hear for miles around. And then we bought it from a conservative Christian—they were called Public Baptist. We saw a for sale sign on it. We were looking for another property. And we were like reading the map or whatever and Terry said, “Let’s look and this!” And I’m like, “Oh god, no! What are you talking about?” So he’d crawled under the house before I could stop him. And he came back out and said, “We’re buying it!”

When we moved in, it had been empty for about three or four years I think. [It was] just old and creaky and dark in here. There were condoms and beer cans and cigarette wrappers all over the place. So [teenagers] had been partying here. And then there was a room where there was a pentagram by the pulpit. It was not a really feel-good place.

JH: There’s a graveyard next door, but when you all bought the place, someone—the preacher, the realtor, whoever—said that it was no longer in use.

KD: The preacher told me. I asked him flat out, and he said that it was full up and it’s been full up. You know, I think that I just asked because I was curious. I don’t know that [it] would have made any difference to me. I just don’t think about graveyards that way. Since I’ve written this book and people have been talking to me about it, I never really have thought about them as being spooky places.

And the graveyard was really grown over for years and years and years. When we first moved in a lot of the headstones, the really ancient ones, were knocked over, and we would see kids over there all the time. We were just tormented by teenagers for the first ten years. [They would go there and] smoke, drink, get drunk, knock things over. And then when we moved in we sort of became the enemy because we’d say, “Hey! Get out of there! What are you kids doing?” We were like the old men on the lawn…even though that’s not the way we thought about ourselves.

JH: How did you find out that the graveyard was still in use?

KD: Well the first time—I wrote about this in a poem in Next Door to the Dead—we had just moved in, we’d only been here a couple months. I was coming home from the grocery store—I was trying to get ice cream in, you know. And Wyatt [Driskell’s son] was little. When I came home everybody had blocked the [driveway] and there were cars all over the place. And there was a hearse. [laughs] And I was like, “Holy mother of god!” You know, I was trying to be pretty respectful but the dogs were barking cause I was home. People were moving back and forth in their dark coats. I guess maybe there have been maybe eight or nine burials there since we’ve moved in. But it’s always surprising.

JH: Your new poetry collection was inspired by this graveyard. How did you start writing the book?

KD: The reason I started writing the book was because one of the graves out there was from a neighbor’s son who was twenty-three. On his way home—just had a baby, [a] girlfriend, [was] getting married—some young woman had a flat tire. He helped her [and] got hit by a semi that was going by. [He was in a coma], and the way I found out that he’d died was because I looked up from the laundry room window and two gravediggers were coming, dragging shovels. They do it the old fashioned way over there. That’s the first time I’ve seen gravediggers over there. It was just—I mean I don’t want to make it sound too arty, but it was just this metaphor, you know, the gravediggers are coming. And I knew exactly what it meant. And then, not only that [but] it’s just different when a young person dies. [The graves here] are mostly elderly people, and they were maybe the last of their families that were going to be buried here. And then you hardly see [their families] again. But just watching his service, and the young people just heaving and hanging on each other.

JH: It’s a different kind of grief.

KD: It is. And they’re young so they don’t go away. They keep coming. So over the years there’s been this sort of steady parade. And then there’s a Wildcats flag [on the grave]. There’s a little Christmas tree that lit up. There’s always something different.

That’s how [the book] got organized. I might have been writing poems about the graveyard…but that was really when I started to cohese around the idea [of ] what it meant to have old graves and new graves, and graves of people who were elderly and people who were very young.

JH: Did the poems start coming fast after you got the idea?

KD: I’m not a really fast writer, but this book came faster than any book that I’ve done. So once I start thinking about it, they came pretty quickly. It’s interesting—it’s almost like, you know when you’re writing, you’ll hear poets talk about how writing in the form of the sonnet really is freeing? Having that form frees you? It feels kind of like the half, the three-quarter acre of the graveyard was very freeing, because I soon found that I could write about whatever I wanted even though I was writing about a really small plot of ground there. So in Next Door to the Dead I have domestic violence poems, I have a lot of anti-war poems…a lot of relationship poems, poems about mothering, that sort of thing. I have poems that are pretty historical. It kind of freed me to do whatever I wanted to do.

JH: That makes me think of your poem “Tchaenhotep: Mummy at the Kentucky Science Center,” which is in the book.

KD: Well, that poem I have been trying to write for about twenty-five years. Seriously. And it wasn’t until I started writing this book that I was able to write it. I found a way into it.

JH: And you have Colonel Sanders and his wife, who obviously aren’t buried here.

KD: No.

JH: But you were able to transcend [this particular] place—

KD: Yeah, that was a pretty pointed strategy in the book because I didn’t want it to be macabre, really I wanted people to be surprised by it. So I started looking for epitaphs and things…and then I would take whatever the epitaph was and make a poem from it, like [my poem] “Dear Departed Dave.” I wanted the book to lighten in certain places. I mean, obviously it’s still about death and mortality and all that, but I still wanted to lighten it.

JH: How were you able to do that, to find humor in [what is] for most people a heavy, heavy subject?

KD: I think that people—we have jokes about death all the time, and we have tons of euphemisms that are
kind of funny. I was going to go through this vein of euphemisms, you know like “pushing up daisies.” But I also…wanted it to be about—Silas [House] said something one time I’ll never forget. Someone
was asking him about writing and death, and he said, “When we’re writing about death we’re really writing about love.” And when he said that I thought that is so true. And so I don’t think it’s a book about death. I think it’s a book about love, or trying to find love.

I mean, I just have a different view—maybe because I’ve thought about this all the time because I look out the window and see it all the time. It weights me, but it’s not like a burden, it’s more like a ballast, if that makes sense. If you sit there and you look and you watch people come in and out of the graveyard, you think about your own kids, and your family members, and the people you love, and how you want to treat them that day…

The way that I think about Judeo-Christian ideals and tenets is…in metaphor. I think about the young woman bringing her daughter to visit [her father’s] grave out there. And I think that’s like heaven. You know, heaven’s not in a cloud with somebody [holding] a little notepad saying you get in or you get out. Heaven is what you leave in the mind of others. And also you know, you think about, like, hell. You can leave hell in the mind of others, too. I’m looking out [at the graveyard], and I want to be as good as I can, leave good memories for my children, try to be heroic if I can in my little ways, try to treat other people kindly, so that there’s a little piece of heaven left in their minds about me. And that’s why writing is so important, too. Really we’re talking about leaving stories.

JH: I love that you include animals in the book, and one image and metaphor that you keep coming back to is birds. Do they have a particular resonance with you?

KD: I’m really aware [of ] birds there—I don’t know if it’s because in the wintertime you can see them in the trees or whatever. We see a lot of hawks out here, we see a lot of vultures, buzzards out here. I’m interested in birds. I really didn’t realize that there were that many birds in the book until [a] reader pointed it out to me. It kind of makes sense to me…you’ve got birds lifting, taking flight. I remember reading [about] burial rites in Tibetan culture, where they take you to the top of the mountain and leave you there and the buzzards eat you and raise you up to heaven.

JH: That’s a great image.

KD: Isn’t it? I know. You get lifted up. And there’s some of that in that poem “Praise”…with the deer at the side of the road being lifted up in that way. That was kind of on my mind, too. I mean I knew there were birds, but I didn’t know there were zillions and zillions of birds in there.

JH: You have another poetry collection, Blue Etiquette, which will be published by Red Hen Press this fall. What’s that book about?

KD: I seem to have obsessions about things, [which] helps me organize and start a project, and I can move out from there. I found a copy…in an old bookstore of Emily Post’s Book of Etiquette, and sometimes it’s called the Blue Book of Etiquette because it [had] a blue linen cover when it was first published. I just became fascinated…by the funeral rites in it and how to hold a home funeral. But then I started moving into the servants…and I realized that my folks would have been the servants she was talking about managing…So I’ve written some poems that kind of riff off that. I’ve written poems about silverware, like an oyster fork, or a fruit knife. We didn’t have such things in my house when I was growing up.

When I was working my way through school—I was first generation—I got a job at The Seelbach [Louisville’s legendary hotel] when it reopened in 1982, and it had a four-star restaurant. The guy…who was our maître d…wanted to make sure that we were really schooled. He actually came from Provence where he’d been in the hotel business, and so he taught me a lot about wine, he taught me about the mother sauces. And not too long after that I was a captain there. So I do know a lot about manners, but I learned it from being trained to serve other people. And so that was kind of a fascinating idea.

I have restaurant poems in there, I have working class poems, I have a poem about the summer before I went to school [when] I worked mowing fairways at a golf club in Oldham County.

Emily Post [was] a really great writer—she’s really entertaining. I have poems that are kind of done in her [voice]. [She] created these archetypes like the worldlies, and the young marrieds, and the know-nothings, and she uses [and] moves them around in her book to say what you should and shouldn’t do. You know, the guildings, the old lineages. And so I created…poems around those characters.

JH: Some of those poems are connected to your ancestors back in West Virginia. You were raised in Oldham County [outside of Louisville], but did you grow up hearing a lot of stories about the mountains?

KD: Even after my family moved down here, we would go back to my grandmother’s house and they would just tell stories. That’s what the women did in the family…And so the men would be watching football, and we’d [all] be eating pie, and I would be under the table listening to it. But I have this really amazing image—like when someone would come in from West Virginia—and someone would talk about something that happened, and inevitably someone would go get the box. It was a cardboard box, all ripped up, and it was full of photographs. And they would just sift through it—

JH: Probably at the dining table—

KD: —at the dining table. And they would bring out a photograph. I mean, it’s no wonder I’m a poet and I think about images first, you know. And they would look at a photograph, and then the stories would come. And so at least once a year we would go back…and stay there, because my great-grandfather [lived on] Black Panther Mountain and had some land there. So, yeah, lots of stories came from there.

JH: You’ve taught for a number of years at Spalding University, where you serve as Professor of Creative Writing and Associate Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing program, which has been consistently ranked as one of the best in the country. What do you think sets Spalding’s program apart from others, and why should writers consider applying and attending?

KD: Our teaching philosophy is to emotionally support our students, and that’s something that’s been established from the very beginning. My pedagogical core is the same—I’ve always believed that you need to be constructive and supportive.

And that doesn’t mean we don’t tell each other the truth—it just means we take the time to figure out how the truth can be received. [Creative writing programs] can be kind of cruel places. Particularly in graduate school, there’s a lot of competition for not too much attention, and so people feel better about their own work by knocking people down. And that’s just not something that we or I have ever believed in, because I know that when someone is really cruel to you in a workshop, your ears shut down…and so the learning stops. It’s not that we’re just being nice to be nice, but it’s because it’s the best way to teach and the best way to receive.

We have a really wide, diverse faculty, [and] I think we’re always trying to make the program exciting by doing new things. And I think this is true of a lot of low-res programs, but particular to us, there are a lot of older students there. It’s getting younger, but our average student is about forty-two. So these are people who have wanted to do this thing all their lives. Most of us [running the program] are writers and have MFAs, too. So we know—I know what it means, I know what it costs, and I know what it means to take this time away from your life, your family, your retirement funds or whatever. It’s not cheap. But it’s so important. I just think we’re makers. You know, I think writing is one of the ways that’s really accessible to a lot of us, whether we end up being great novelists or not.

What I always [tell] prospective students is the only reason they [should] get an MFA with us is because [they] can’t imagine not doing it. And that’s the only kind of student I want there. Sometimes they slip by me, and they’re doing it just to be credentialed to teach college, which is a huge mistake because the market is so tight. And I never lie to prospective students about that…That’s not the reason to come. [It’s about wanting] to study in a great community of writers.

JH: I’ve heard that you’re working on a novel.

KD: I am. [It’s about] a young, adolescent coming of age, living in a church, whose parents were nonbelievers, who had been transplanted from someplace else, and came into the Bible Belt. I want to write a book about tolerance—not only the tolerance of religious people towards nonbelievers, but tolerance of nonbelievers toward the religious, because I think that nonbelievers often are a bit arrogant about faith…

But within a span of about a year some really horrible things happened right within this mile here. My neighbor was coming across the street to get her mail and a car hit her and dragged her…She survived, but she has some brain damage. Two teenage boys…skipped school, grabbed a canoe, went
in Floyd’s Fork [which runs behind here] and they were both drowned. We saw helicopters going over one night and found out later that some John had picked up a prostitute, slit her throat, and dumped her on the highway back here. And she crawled up the hill, and crawled into [a] car, and they found her the next day and she lived! A house burned down. Just all kinds of crazy stuff.

JH: That’s a lot.

KD: It is a lot. And so I started thinking, you know, maybe there’s something to this. So it’s kind of about…what haunts us, and what is truly haunting.

Jason Howard is the author of A Few Honest Words and co-author of Something's Rising, both works of literary journalism. His essays, features, and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, The Louisville Review, The Nation, Sojourners, on NPR, and in other publications and venues. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is editor of Appalachian Heritage.

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