Interview with Poet Keetje Kuipers

April 23, 2015 0 Comments Interviews 4036 Views

Below, you will find an interview with the summer issue’s featured poet Keetje Kuipers, author of Beautiful in the Mouth and the recent Keys to the Jail. We will have a review of her most recent collection in the coming weeks. She is speaking to us today about ecology, accountability, community, and inspiration. We hope you enjoy!

What is the first ecological experience you can remember?

My brother was born when I was almost five years old, and I remember that my dad and I started spending a lot more time together outdoors after his birth. I understand now that this was to give my mom and my brother some space and some quiet, but what I remember feeling then was a sense of specialness about those experiences encountering the natural world with my dad. We lived in Minnesota at the time, on a large pond, and my memories from those few years we lived there are of digging worms at night by flashlight and dumping them into a yellow and red coffee can (we would use them the next day to fish for sunfish in the pond), of watching my dad shovel a giant snapping turtle into a wheelbarrow and cart it back down to the pond from where it had wandered onto our suburban street, of cattails and pussy willows, of long walks under falling leaves, of the thin stand of birches between our house and the pond where I would play at my budding ideas of “wilderness,” of birds calling and my dad telling me what kinds of birds they were, of riding my bike through the local apple orchard in the fall, and, perhaps most vividly, of hunting frogs. My dad had these spears that were, I think, specifically for hunting frogs, and I recall standing in the cattails while he speared one. He took it home and skinned it in our driveway on a brick, and then my mom fried the legs in our big old cast-iron pan. The whole thing left quite an impression on me, and a good one—I loved the idea of finding my food, of being self-sufficient in that way, and of being open to sights and tastes that were out of the ordinary everyday experience for most Americans. I still treasure the strange and wondrous experiences my father gave me of the natural world, and that frog memory makes a brief appearance in the poem “You Loved a Woman Once” in my first book, Beautiful in the Mouth.

Do you have a writing group or community of writers you share your work with? Who are they? What about an audience? Are you speaking to anyone in particular as you write?

Over the years I’ve had many poet friends who have been trusted readers for me. Even before I went to graduate school, I cultivated informal writing groups and made “writing dates” at cafes where a friend and I would sit for hours working on drafts or giving each other writing exercises to fuel new poems. Now, as a full-time professor and mom, I don’t have the luxury of those kinds of excursions very often, but I’ve found writers here at Auburn whose work I respect and who, I think, understand what I’m trying to do with my writing, too. I’ll meet with one of them once a month or so, and we’ll exchange a poem or two. But though I respect their feedback, the actual comments on the poems aren’t what’s so important to me. Instead, it’s the accountability of having something to show for myself when we meet—sometimes I sit down and make myself write a poem the night before just so I don’t show up empty-handed. My audience, honestly, has become my students in many ways, which isn’t to say that I share my work with them—this is a rare occurrence. Instead, I mean that because I read so much of their work and we spend so much time discussing it, I often end up imagining what they might think of a poem I’ve written. I’m also deeply inspired by their fearlessness—they don’t have all the hang-ups and aesthetic glitches that older poets acquire over the years—and so I want to write the kinds of brave poems that can stand up to that sort of intrepid daring-do. These days I’m also trying to write more socially engaged poetry, and so I hope I’m speaking to a wider audience in my writing now.

What do your best poems have in common?

My best poems share a musicality and vulnerability, and they are generally about the size of a sonnet. These “best” poems are also the ones that usually took very little revision—they were born into the world whole. I would say that out of my two collections of poems (maybe 120 poems total there), maybe three or four of them would qualify this way. These poems are also often the ones I’ve written and revised in my head, rather than on the page. If I hold onto a line or image that I want so badly to use and wait until I have formed the poem around it (rather than racing to the page immediately and forcing a poem to exist), then when I finally put pen to paper it comes out mostly finished, and very musical. This musicality, I think, comes from the fact that I’ve had to hold the poem in my head, essentially memorizing it as I write it, and music makes anything easier to remember. Rhyme, meter, alliteration—all of these contribute to the durability of the poem as I compose it off the page.

What kinds of things inspire you to write your poems?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m trying to write more socially and politically engaged poetry right now, so I’m often inspired by the day’s news: what’s happening in Ukraine, Syria, or Ferguson, for instance. But I’m also inspired by my toddler daughter, and I’ve found that it’s an exciting artistic challenge for me to witness where those two things—my child and the wider, often violent, world—intersect. I’m also always looking for inspiration in the novelty of experience. I wrote a poem recently about going to a drag show here in Auburn, and this last week I wrote a poem after a child at the beach offered my daughter a piece of crumbled Styrofoam to snack on (“It’s chicken,” she said, “Eat it.”) I’m on the lookout for the strange, the ominous, the odd. I like moments that are humorous, and then setting them up in a poem that’s quite serious (that Styrofoam-eating moment is in a poem about my dog being terminally ill). I’m also working on a series of poems right now that are “still lifes,” meaning that I pick a few objects and write a poem around them. My friend, the painter Erica Harney (, is composing watercolors from the titles that I give her, and we’re planning to put this project together into a chapbook of paintings and poems. I’ve never worked in this sort of intentional way before, and I think it’s been good for my process—sometimes being forced to produce the work is exactly what you need. And I love a challenge.

What are you reading right now?

I belong to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club (, so I’m often reading whatever awesome new collection of poetry they’ve just landed me in my mailbox. This month it’s Anne Marie Macari’s fantastic Red Deer. I’m also usually carrying around Poetry magazine in my purse, as well as whatever collections I happen to be teaching that week. This meant that for spring break this past week, I took Mark Jarman’s Epistles (for my devotional poetry course) and Ross Gay’s Bringing the Shovel Down (for my Writing Contemporary America course) with me to the beach. I’m also rereading Lisa Olstein’s books in preparation for her visit to Auburn for National Poetry Month. These are all fairly recent books doing wildly different things in terms of theme and form. It’s fun to have a huge stack of books to constantly be pulling from, and I don’t feel bad about all the books I buy that I haven’t had a chance to read (that’s a lot, hundreds probably) as long as I’m reading something new all the time.

About the Author

Photo and bio from author’s website.

Keetje Kuipers is a native of the Northwest. She earned her B.A. at Swarthmore College and her M.F.A. at the University of Oregon, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University from 2009-2011. Keetje was most recently the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College, and is now an Assistant Professor at Auburn University.

In 2007 Keetje was the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident. She used the residency to complete work on her book Beautiful in the Mouth, which was awarded the 2009 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and was published in 2010 by BOA Editions. Her second collection, The Keys to the Jail, is forthcoming from BOA in 2014.
In addition, Keetje has been the recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Oregon Literary Arts. Her poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, West Branch, Painted Bride Quarterly, Willow Springs, and AGNI, among others, and have been nominated seven years in a row for the Pushcart Prize. You can also listen to her read her work at the online audio archiveFrom the Fishouse.
She lives in Auburn, AL and Missoula, MT with her family and her dog, Bishop (named after Elizabeth, of course).

Important Links

Sample Poems


The poems published in the following magazines are from Keetje’s forthcoming second collection, The Keys to the Jail.

The Keys to the Jail, Verse Daily
The Open Spaces, The Ocean, Drought, and Dolores Park, The Offending Adam
The Doctor, Drunken Boat


The following poems are from Keetje’s first collection, Beautiful in the Mouth.

4th of July
Santeria for the City, Blackout, Summer 2003
Waltz of the Midnight Miscarriage

About author

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