TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.
We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?
I write poems that grab you in that
elevator and urgently tell you about love, death, and the illusive,
ever-shifting meaning of life—while also making you laugh. At least once in a
2 sentences—though I admit that first one
is long. I notice my publisher’s website chose the more economical “Poems That Urgently Remind Us Love
Keeps Us Alive.”
What boundaries did you break in the
writing of this book? Where does that sort of courage come from?
Though most of the poems in I Want To
Tell You were written before the pandemic, I started putting the book
together when I was in lockdown in Montevideo, Uruguay. That made me want a
book with an urgent, direct, at times even manic, voice. One that speaks
directly to the reader. There are no poems about Covid—but there is an “end
times” intensity, I think, I hope, about the book. That decision not to hold
back, not to “play nice” was the breakthrough for me. I got that courage, if
that’s the right word, from my sense in that any moment that I might die, that my
reader might die, and there was no time to lose. And though we all feel less
panicked now that is the universal human situation in this world.
Which poem did you
most enjoy writing? Why? And, which poem gave you the most trouble, and why?
The poem I most enjoyed writing was the title poem, “I Want To Tell You.” It’s the one where I found the direct voice I was looking for:
“I am talking about poetry. / I
am talking about breaking out of the neat little box of humorous lines / rising
to a zing / of
cosmic meaning at the end.”
I felt it put the reader on notice about
what kind of book they were about to read.
The poem that was
the hardest was “I’ll Call This Death Chartreuse, Her
Favorite Color” which is about my sister-in-law who I loved fiercely dying of lung
Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of
your book’s road to publication.
Every book I’ve published has had its own
windy path to publication. This one was less complicated than many. I sent the manuscript
to Ed Ochester, the long-time editor of the Pitt Poetry Series at the
University of Pittsburgh Press. Ed had accepted three previous books from me:
my poetry collection Dog Angel and two of my translations of Uruguayan
poets, The Invisible Bridge by Circe Maia and Love Poems by Idea
Vilariño. And I love being published by Pitt.
Then I heard he was retiring and the press
was searching for a new series editor. I assumed the press would not be accepting
new books during the transition and so put all thought of my manuscript out of
my mind. I was completely surprised when
I got an email saying that I Want To Tell You had been accepted by the
new interim editor, Terrance Hayes, and editorial
team, Nancy Krygowski and Jeffrey McDaniel. I
was in a big Zoom meeting when email arrived and everyone got to see me jumping
around and waving my hands like a crazy person (luckily my mic was muted).
What’s your favorite piece of writing
My former students are always quoting back
to me things I told them, advice I often do not remember giving. The advice I
give myself most often is as much life advice as writing advice: The work is
the reward. It’s to remind myself that the writing is what gives me
pleasure. Not publication. To be honest, publication, especially of a book, is
a bit stressful or, to be even more honest, painful. I always try to be writing
away, doing new work when a book comes out.
My favorite writing advice is “write until
something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?
The surprise was how the book came
together. I pulled together older poems I loved that had not been in a book, then
wrote new work that addressed the same central issues and it just clicked. That
had never happened before. My books are either poetic snapshots in time, like my
first book, World as Dictionary, which I wrote right after my daughter
was born and while a dear friend was dying of a brain tumor. Or are “project”
books like Cinema Muto, which is poems about silent film and the silent
film conference I go to every year in Italy, I Want To Tell You was built around
voice, around the person(a) in the poems speaking to the reader and I was
genuinely surprised how well that worked as the spine of a book.
What was your experience ordering these
I always struggle
with that. Often there is a narrative arc in my poetry books that probably has its
roots in my other life as a fiction writer. I have a friend, the poet (Amy)
Quan Barry who tells her MFA students to just put their poems in book in
alphabetical order by title. So I took that advice—but just as a clean start.
Then I starting moving poems, thinking, Oh this one has to come after that
one. As I did, I realized the structure was more like a personal essay. I
was making an emotional and philosophical argument. I think one of the last
things I decided to do was put the title poem, “I Want To Tell You” first, rather
than last where I would usually place a title poem. The last poem now, “I am
telling you” is more consoling. It ends, “Be
the tree./ Be the book./ Be
the one who loves & is forgiven.
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs
want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might
There are avocados in “I’ll Call This Death Chartreuse, Your Favorite Color” falling from
the tree in my sister-in-law’s yard in Miami. These are the big Florida
avocados, not the smaller Haas ones. They have a brighter, greener taste. I
grew up on them and prefer their taste which is a bit lighter, less oily.
And—plus—they are so big a single avocado makes a big bowl of guacamole.
sister-in-law always used this classic Southern guac recipe which, honestly, is
READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.jlkercheval.com
READ MORE ABOUT THIS PUBLISHER: www.upittpress.org
BUY THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK:
You can order the book directly from the University of Pittsburgh Press through the link below but if you click on BUY on their site, it also gives you the option of ordering it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, Powells, etc.