Victoria Kornick is one of the hardest working poets I know. She seems to juggle a million jobs that she's passionate about, like working as a teaching artist in New York City schools. Last year she was my co- web & public relations editor here at ONSQU, as well as an adjunct at NYU, and Goldwater Fellow, where she worked with long-term hospital residents. In her post-MFA life, she co-hosts the Franklin Electric Reading Series with friends, including our own assistant poetry editor, Jessie Modi. Victoria also writes some of the best poetry around — a poetic clarity that veers almost into prose. When we were both in Rachel Zucker's class last year, I was lucky enough to hear the beginnings of Victoria's poem "Migraine Season," which was just published in At Length magazine. You'll want to read the poem before checking out this interview.
"Something terrible has to happen. I tell my student to complete the sentence: This is a problem because… I give her an example from the last story she wrote: we’re at a wedding reception. The tables have collapsed and guests are eating from the floor. There’s cake everywhere. This could be a problem if, say, I’m very thirsty. All the glasses have broken and I walk table to table asking for a drink. Who will help me?
from Migraine Season
We talked about her newly published poem, Sally Mann's influence, writing about the people you know, and unexpectedly, about rats / the apocalypse.
— Laura Creste
LC: How did Migraine Season come to be? How long did it take you to write, and at what point did it feel finished to you?
VK: Migraine Season was the only password-protected document I've ever created. At first, the poem terrified me and I didn’t want anyone to know about it. I was doing a lot of things I felt I wasn’t supposed to do: I was a poet and I was writing prose. I was dating a guy who didn’t want me to write about him. I was saying things that I had never said aloud.
The poem started as disconnected fragments that came together around feminism. I went to UVA, and this was right after the Rolling Stone article came out last fall. Everyone seemed to be interested in what was happening in Charlottesville, but we didn’t all agree about what that was. At the same time, I was reading Dept. of Speculation and Empathy Exams. Seeing how Jenny Offill and Leslie Jamison wrote about intimacy opened a door for me. I wanted to make a poem that included all the things that scared me and covered my world like a migraine aura.
I had been working on Migraine Season for about six months, and thought I was getting close to the end of it, when I read Sally Mann’s piece in the New York Times Magazine last spring. In it, she told the story of a man who became obsessed with her family and terrorized them. Mann helped me realize that my own experience being stalked was a necessary part of the story I was telling. After I wrote that section, the poem felt like it had found its final shape.
LC: How is important is Sally Mann to your artistic practice? What about her interests you?
VK: I have trouble describing how much I admire Sally Mann and am grateful for her work. She photographs the body, intimacy, vulnerability, place—she makes images of everything I would want to write. You can see the process in her work, how patient she is and how her mind develops the ideas in her projects. I would love to write like that.
Also, Sally Mann taught me that good art challenges people. It’s ok not to be liked.
LC: The part in Migraine Season about your stalker seems so central to the poem. Have you written about that time in your life before? Is that a subject you resist going towards; is there any subject you find yourself trying not to write about?
VK: I've tried to write about it before, but I felt like I had to make it into a mystery or a metaphor -- something it wasn't. The feeling of vulnerability from that time came into a lot of my other poems, so I don't think I was resisting it, I just didn't know how to write it yet.
LC: Also because you're writing about real people in your life (as we've often talked about) I understand the impulse to obfuscate. How has the separation between "life" and "art" evolved for you over time?
VK: "Life" and "art" were never too far apart for me. I loved studying nonfiction in college, where I could write "I said" or "Laura asked" and have that mean my real words or yours. I've moved toward that kind of transparency in my poetry, though I don't know that I'm there yet. When I wrote Migraine Season, I wanted to remind readers (and myself) how much my perspective and voice are filtering every event and quotation. The men in the poem don't say "I." Their speech is my memory of their speech, which I think is the most honest thing I could do in telling the story. Plus, changing the power dynamic by taking away the male "I" was pretty great.
Also, on the subject of the art / life division, studying with Rachel Zucker and reading her books inspired a significant shift in my work. I started including a lot more in my poems and letting them take up more room. I'm hoping that as my art / life boundary evolves (or collapses further), the process of writing and the people who contribute to my poems -- as readers, influences, or subjects -- will become more and more visible. That might look like collaboration, or work that holds its friction and mistakes, or a little of both.
LC: Using people's real names in poems can feel so warm - especially the way someone like Frank O'Hara does it. Do the New York school poets have any influence on your writing? I'm asking because you live and write in New York, and Frank O'Hara and company still seem to loom large here. But I can also imagine you not feeling particularly connected to these male writers from the 50s.
VK: The end of one O'Hara poem, “How to Get There”, runs through my head a lot:
and we drift into the clear sky enthralled by our disappointment
never to be alone again
never to be loved
sailing through space: didn't I have you once for my self? West Side?
for a couple of hours, but I am not that person
It's kind of bleak for O'Hara, and for me, but it makes me think of walking in New York -- that alone and not-alone feeling. I'm very influenced by poets who've written in the places I've spent time: Frank O'Hara and Alice Notley here, James Wright in Minnesota, and Rita Dove, Lisa Spaar, and Charles Wright in Virginia. The rest of the New York School don't come into my head as often as O'Hara does, though their work is so pervasive that it probably affects me more than I realize.
LC: I've never read that O'Hara poem before, that's beautiful.
What's the best thing you've witnessed living in this city? And the worst?
VK: For worst, I'm going to go with the last night I lived in the Upper West Side. I had a beautiful apartment on a very, very quiet block my first year in the city. A friend who lived in the neighborhood had come over after work that night, and we were reminiscing about our time there and feeling nostalgic.
Everything in the apartment was in boxes or already gone, so we sat on the stoop of the building. I said that it was strange how we'd never sat here after dark before. We stared at the buildings across the street, which were lovely brownstones, and I wondered if moving to Brooklyn was a mistake.
Then there was a rustling, and we saw a rat, then several rats, then, as I remember it, thousands, running down the sidewalk, home to their roosts, which must have all been under my building. It was like starlings, a murmuration, but with rats. We went inside and stayed there until they had settled for the night. I remember feeling completely cured of nostalgia.
The best thing I've seen was the home/headquarters of MetroCard Man. My roommate and I decided to buy a tandem bike, and we found a guy on Craigslist who was willing to part with his. When we met him, we discovered that he was MetroCard Man, a robot-maker and survivalist who wears a suit of MetroCards to parades. His house was incredible, with end-of-the-world inventions, MetroCard suits -- and a tank top -- and robots filling shelves to the ceiling.
LC: That rat story gives me chills. And I have something horrifying to tell you. In The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, she quotes a scientist who hypothesizes that if we drive ourselves to extinction, the rats may inherit the earth. They're resilient in the same way that we (and cockroaches) are. Ugh.
Switching gears from doomsday, could you tell me about life after the MFA? How are you making it work, living and writing in this unreasonable city that we're all in love with? Do you have a community of writers outside the structure of a writing program? And how has your experience been with freelancing?
VK: Perhaps, in an unexpected synthesis of my two New York stories, living amongst the rats of the Upper West Side has prepared me for the world post-apocalypse.
To turn from the end-of-days to the end of graduate school, I didn't fall in love with New York until my second year here, and I wasn't sure if I would live in the city after graduating. But I loved what I was doing -- I work as a teaching artist in the school system -- and I was excited about what I had started writing last spring, so I'm glad I decided to stay. In terms of making it work, I've had other part-time and freelance jobs this year, some great and some not so great. I wanted to find a few things that would be sustaining, and that took a lot of trial and error and emailing.
Having a community of writers here -- classmates, teachers, and friends from NYU and Virginia -- has been really important to my writing, and to my overall happiness. Starting the reading series (Franklin Electric) with writer friends from UVA has been amazing, and the sort of thing I couldn't have predicted I'd be doing a year ago. I guess what I'm saying is, who knows what will happen for any of us between the MFA and the rat-apocalypse, but it's been a good experience for me so far.
Victoria Kornick is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. She holds an MFA from New York University, where she was a Rona Jaffe and Goldwater fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue, Los Angeles Review of Books - Voluble, No Tokens Journal, and Print Oriented Bastards. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.