A Country of Influence: A Conversation with Karen Kevorkian




KAREN KEVORKIAN’S THIRD BOOK of poetry, Quivira, is her most experimental in language and the most deeply grounded in Southwestern social space. Originally from San Antonio, Texas, Kevorkian has lived in Los Angeles for over a decade and for extended times in the New Mexico figured in Quivira. The Southwestern and Los Angeles landscape continue to fascinate Kevorkian, and in Quivira that interest extends to colonial history and its perilous imaginings. Two historical documents ground Kevorkian’s imagination in many of the poems in this collection: Narrative of the Coronado Expedition by Pedro de Castañeda de Nájera and the possibly more famous Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. The latter chronicle may be more well known, but it is the former chronicle that provides the title of the book. Castañeda de Nájera’s chronicle recounts Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s 1540 expedition from Mexico through the Southwest. Like many of his Spanish explorer counterparts, he was in quest for gold, a cache that was said to rival the monumental lootings of Hérnan Cortés in the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Treasures were believed to be located in Quivira, one of the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola, in what is today Kansas. When Quivira was reached, however, Coronado found a more ordinary bounty of thatched houses, and fields of corn, beans, and squash. 

The tragic fantasies of history lend the poems in Quivira a melancholy irony. We know that there is no discovery of America, that the Spanish conquerors did not find the fabled cities of their delusions, and that what came to be euphemized as an “encounter” was in essence the workings of a genocide that has not been acknowledged, and from which there has not been any attempt to heal. The poems of Quivira speak of that wound, and they visualize the remains of what has been erased or covered over:

where men strap on leaf blowers yank cords hard
wave wands left and right in priestly benison 

fantasies of Spanish stucco and red tile nod to
European slaughter over transsubstantive mysteries

It is the Mexican leaf blowers that Kevorkian imagines that carry on the ritual bearing of a historically conquered people. The “fantasies” of the conquerors are identified in the legacy of architectural style common in the Southwest. It is in the landscape, architecture, and social geography of the Southwest that Kevorkian locates the sad ruins of history, but also its beauty.

Kevorkian is a poet of observation, or visual effects and images, and of a concentrated visuality. And yet, what she describes and witnesses are not objects or curiosities, à la Marianne Moore. Tension and conflict evoke the history of colonialism present in the New Mexican and Los Angeles landscapes the poet inhabits and the found objects she observes. What T. S. Eliot termed “the historical sense” is on display in “Tin Wings on the Angelito.” This historical sense is not only in the description of the angelito, it also suffuses the atmosphere in which the folkloric figure is propped up:

Face at a window, thuds against the wall, wooden chairbacks lit up
with varnish like syrup

rain finally fallen, air’s odor of shirts seldom washed

 the time for civility and dissemblement, twilight’s threadbare hour

A historically determined landscape, the persistence of a colonized culture, and the conflicts of a tourist imaginary are on the surface of things. “The present moment of the past,” as Eliot defined it, is observed in the culture that is on the margins of tourism, for in the Southwest the culture of colonization is both presented as history and as commodity. Hence the melancholy links to Quivira, the city that never existed, but whose unattainable promises are recovered — through a glass darkly — in the imagination.

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RAMÓN GARCÍA: Let’s start with the title of the book, Quivira. It’s a beautiful word, but I didn’t know what it referred to or what it could mean before I read your book. What is “Quivira” for you? 

KAREN KEVORKIAN: The name “Quivira” is a touchstone, a stand-in for unsatisfied desire. It’s about belief so powerful that it has a life of its own, no matter the absence of evidence to support the belief. The search for wealth, sure, and the certainty it’s possible to make it in this country, but also the need for belief that defines being human, foundational to religion as well as romantic love. In that sense, the book is about the ardor that makes necessary the idea of pilgrimage. It’s about the costs of those beliefs, and since what is wanted is unattainable or fails to satisfy, about what’s accepted in its place.

Were you playing with the contrasts and ironies of myth and historical reality in the made-up city of Quivira?

Sure. The contrasts are right on the surface and the gaps between them contain deadly ironies. The destruction of the people and culture of the Pueblos contrasted with the grand scale and staggering hubris of the expeditions. Marching under the banners of king and Christianity, the fortune hunters felt free to demand whatever they could from the Pueblos, and to do whatever it took to bring the original peoples of the Americas to Christianity, which notoriously did not rule out their brutal domination. But isn’t there always a gap between how a thing is represented and its fact? It depends on who tells the story, and why. To use a Southwestern example, Santa Fe for many years put on a civic fiesta that included a reenactment of the 17th-century Spanish re-entry of New Mexico, an event following their expulsion after the 1680 Pueblo Rebellion. According to news stories, many saw the reenactment as inappropriate glorification of a bloody past, and two years ago that portion of the fiesta was canceled.

In this case it seems like it goes further. It seems like fantasy, almost a fantasy that entered history for a while.

Yes, some portions of the population definitely liked dressing up in conquistador costumes and riding into town on horseback. The past is always romanticized, as has been the antebellum plantation culture of the Old South. But you always ask who an accepted history serves, and the costumed past often focuses on skin color and ethnicity. Not incidentally, those telling the story also often hold economic power, or think they ought to be holding the power, which perhaps gives them a comfortable berth from which to indulge their fantasies.

The Hispanic thing —

Growing up in San Antonio, I observed there that kind of ethnic social and economic sorting-out. A big annual fiesta featured an elaborately costumed king and queen and their court, all white-skinned and prominent in the city. I observed, when I lived there, which was a long time ago, that if you were Mexican and made enough money or achieved in other ways you might be regarded as Spanish. Which I guess was seen as conferring a less immediately problematic origin myth, in that it was untainted by too much neighborly proximity.

Quivira is your third book of poetry. In your previous books the physical and social geography of Los Angeles and the Southwest is also present, but in Quivira you use historical texts — Narrative of the Coronado Expedition by Pedro de Castañeda de Nájera and the possibly more famous Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca — to imagine the borderlands today. What drew you to these historical narratives in particular? 

They were good stories, replete with detail, and they both treated landscapes I knew well. For example, I spent a lot of recreational time on the Gulf Coast, where Cabeza de Vaca was stranded for years. In contrast to my experience, he was writing of constant extreme hunger, even identifying with their seasonal food the tribal groups who kept him — the Blackberry people, the Nut people, and so on. It was important to him to describe what it felt like when the tuna fruit of cactus came into season, how he dug a hole to hold the fruit’s thick and sweet juice. My time in that area was a lot less desperate. Also, I was intrigued that he became a faith healer, so I made that the subject of two poems, letting his voice slip in and out of a contemporary context.

Many of the poems are observational and descriptive, and depict the landscape of Los Angeles, the Southwest, and New Mexico, otherwise known as the borderlands. Is the pastoral an idea you had in mind when you wrote these poems?

It’s undeniable that the epic skies of the Southwest, with their absence of fog and pollution inspire a response in the way the skies of Los Angeles do not. For the last 10 years I’ve driven back and forth between L.A. and Taos, New Mexico, where I’ve held artist fellowships at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. Driving that route displays a lot of non-urbanized landscape, which, with the assist of the Coronado journal, helped me to imagine parts unchanged over the last 500 years. It’s also said that some of Coronado’s route paralleled the old route 66 — an anachronistic detail I loved. The journal’s accounts merged with my experience of the land, and, the way it does, the past entered the present. I wanted that sense of simultaneous occurrence for my poems. You could call my use of landscape a contemporary version of the pastoral.

I especially like the poems set in New Mexico. Were those poems a challenge to write? Did you experience any “anxiety of influence” with any of the great writers and visual artists who have made the state so mythical and iconic? I’m thinking of D. H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, and so many others.

Apart from poetry, I read mostly histories of the Southwest, as well as the genre I call “cowboy mysteries,” which is reliant on cultural and social politics. I went to Lawrence’s ranch, but it wasn’t really a pilgrimage, he being a bit overblown for my taste. I went to Abiquiú, home of O’Keeffe, but wanting to see the setting depicted in the photograph by Ansel Adams. His Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is mostly sky with a foreground frieze of low buildings and weathered wooden crosses catching light. The image is unbearably evocative of the area’s small human presence in an austere landscape. As for other visual art, Taos has three very nice art museums, one of which, the Harwood, has an entire room devoted to the minimalist painter Agnes Martin, who was a Taos resident, containing benches by the sculptor Donald Judd. These spacious mostly white and non-figural paintings by Martin also lead to consideration of the vast high desert space in which they’re located. In such geographic space it’s perhaps reasonable then that I respond strongly to aspects of the built environment, particularly the old small churches and deserted moradas, and their colonial or colonial-influenced altars and wooden carvings of religious figures — though much of this work is now in museums or private collections. I especially like the strangeness of older pieces, such as a life-sized figure of death in a cart and the many gaunt Christs and saints. I like the graveyards. The emotional resonance yielded by physical texture always gets my attention.

You are originally from Texas, you grew up in the borderlands, you’ve called Los Angeles home for many years, and you have strong ties to New Mexico. Do you think of yourself as a Los Angeles poet, a poet of the Southwest, an American poet? Are you drawn to any identity designations in particular?

Typical of many of us, I’ve moved around a lot and feel mostly unclaimed. What I have is pieced together. Similarly, the idea of the poem is a fluid concept. I don’t think of a tradition but the many traditions that come together in one’s work. For me, the task always is to figure out what a poem is, and then what will get the poem to where I want it. I am more affected by a country of influence, rather than by the influence of its specific regions. 

Some years ago, there seemed to be discussions of a “poetry of place.” Is this an idea that you find any currency in?

Oh sure. I don’t think I contradict myself. I like the statement by the poet Larry Levis, that it is the landscape that looks back at you. I also like what the poet Charles Wright wrote, “landscape’s a lever of transcendence.” What the landscape gives back is found in what one notices, how language colors and shapes its depiction, and the context suggested. Lately, confined to my house because of the pandemic, my “place” too often goes no further than the damn trees on the street, which I may be looking at too carefully and with too much emotion.

Like the subject matter of the poems — the borderlands — your language seems to me to be on the border of many North American or English-language schools of poetry or poetry traditions. Though personal, these are not confessional poems, though impersonal (“impersonal” in T. S. Eliot’s sense of the word), they do not aim at the disappearance of the poet, and although experimental the poems are not Language poetry. Where do you locate your language, in terms of poetics? 

I prize resonant images and making connections among those images to non-narratively build the poem. I like a feeling of urgency, which compression of language and syntax as well as other economies contribute to. Over the time of writing, I was reading a lot of work by the poets C. D. Wright, Jean Valentine, Charles Wright, Carl Phillips, Brenda Hillman, and Arthur Sze — some of whose poems have a particularly deft way of referencing the Southwest. Among novelists I read at this time were Roberto Bolaño and Javier Marías, each of whom brings a distinctive personal voice and prosody to a historically freighted context. Earlier influences I can point to include early James Wright (the iconic The Branch Will Not Break) and Galway Kinnell (The Book of Nightmares), who use imagery unpredictably. I also have an abiding love for the poems of the Peruvian César Vallejo, for the same reason. These choices suggest my taste for the strongly lyric, economical, often politically irritated work with a personal component, and an intense, almost surreal, use of imagery. But I continue to read many strong, pissed-off, and lyrically daring poets, who school me in the lyric poem’s infinite variety of form, voice, and subject.

What are you currently working on? What’s next for you?

I’ve been writing about my time in Rome in January to March of last year. Unsurprisingly this has led to some ekphrastic poems, which include some attention to Annunciations, notably the facial expression of the Virgin and the feathers on the wings of the angel.

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Ramón García is the author of two books of poetry The Chronicles (Red Hen Press, 2015) and Other Countries (What Books Press, 2010), and a monograph on the artist Ricardo Valverde (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

 

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