In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Halee Kirkwood

by May 5, 2021

“Haibun for Early Autumn, Haibun for Buses & Sobriety” from Volume 23 follows the speaker along their bus route—images and sounds, thoughts and memories, included. I also ride the bus and every time I read this poem, I feel that distinction of it having a long rolling shot. It feels cinematic to me. Can you tell us about your process in crafting this poem?

This poem came from a prompt by Gretchen Marquette during my time as a 2019-2020 Loft Mentor Series Fellow. The haibun form traditionally includes a flash of descriptive prose, somewhat removed from the speaker’s emotional relationship to the events and images at hand, followed by a haiku illuminating a core abstract spirit of what’s been described. The first flash of prose came to me while walking to my bus stop at 5:30 am — at this time in my life, I was working the dreaded “clopen” shift, where I closed the store I was working at around 9:30 pm and then opened the next day at 7 am. I saw two folks walking arm-in-arm, smiling so wide, at that miserable hour — what poet Carolyn Forche calls the Blue Hour — that time of day when only an (un)lucky few are awake. Mothers and insomniacs, graveyard shift workers and clopeners. The tension between their joy and my exhaustion was, although physically painful, delicious!

There were a cluster of days like this which brought me to the state of transcendental sleep deprivation that a sizeable portion of my poetry comes from. I don’t mean to or want to romanticize insomnia and unbearable, exploitative retail shifts! But there is a sense of fluidity of experience and perception that happens in that state that I thought my take on the haibun was particularly suited to. Also, I had to take three different busses to arrive at this workplace (the 23, the Blue Line, and then the A Line). After recording a few days in September 2019, I came to see these small dramas as little vignettes or tableaus, moments of both pause and kinetic energy.

I’d say my poetry actually has a lot to do with the cyclical nature of time and movement, often in terms of labor and transportation. I’m inspired and a little obsessed with how we get from here to there, and aim for form and structure to reflect that. I played with each haibun being separate entities, and considered spreading them out through the poetry manuscript I was (and still am!) working on, but at this point I really like them clustered together to reflect that state of fluid consciousness, the sense of colliding worlds and economic classes.   

The poem starts on 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis, which we now know and recognize as the memorial site dedicated to George Floyd. You wrote this poem long before this horrific murder occurred, but when reading your poem, it’s challenging not to think about how much this location is different now. What do you think of writing as transforming change? This is a photo by photographer Alex Soth. It features a person's extended arm hovering over a city street with names of victims of police violence written on the street. The arm is wearing a large blue watch on their wrist.

Every poem is written somewhere, and writing in America, I believe it is impossible to write anywhere apolitically, that every square mile is imbued with political and personal violences, current, historical, and future violences. Place-based poetry’s job, then, is to anticipate and remain porous to the significant events which may then color it. I’m not sure if my poetry can exactly influence change in the world, and I know there are more writers out there who are doing a much better job at that then me! I think my goal is more to, as accurately as possible, record the spirit of a place from my perspective as a poor, mixed and light-skinned, queer and visibly femme person actively moving through different layers of society, experiencing extreme contrasts in environment within a day and even within an hour. There are more poems out there responding to the catastrophic, systematic, and site-specific murders of BIPOC that people must read, including Junauda Petrus’ beautiful poem Give The Police Departments to the Grandmother’s, written after the police killing of Philando Castille. There is a vein of trauma running in this city between that pull-off in Falcon Heights and 38th and Chicago, and all other sites of police brutality and race-based violences. Site-specific poetry must work to present these locations as part of a physical continuum and not random flashes of disconnected violence. Writing transforms change by illuminating the interconnectedness of everything. 

Let’s talk about “Rust Belts”, your other poem in Volume 23 which makes me think about flyover states—a region that people, usually white, rich people only see from airplanes as they fly to some destination—Kansas often being referred as one. You’re from the Lake Superior region of MN/WI. What was your decision to use Kansas in a poem that also feels very Minnesotan? How do you see a region as something that shapes a writer? 

This poem comes from a road trip I took to the Gathering of Nations in 2015 — the largest inter-tribal powwow in North America! We’d taken the most amazing route to Albuquerque, through the South Dakota Black Hills, the endless skies of Wyoming, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado — the ancestral and contemporary homes of Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Shoshone, Ute, Apache, Diné, and many more Indigenous nations, to whom I feel so grateful for being caretakers of that beautiful, Western land. Our way back, however, I found less inspiring — we traveled up through Oklahoma and Kansas, on highways that made me feel depressed, dotted with Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO’s, for short) feed lots and junkyards, long drives through the same iteration of economically devastated agricultural communities. 

Yet I had to question myself — this highway eventually flowed north to my beloved Lake Superior home; was it totally worth my disdain? And I was short-sighted to exalt the tribal communities in the West while forgetting the Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, Wichita, Osage, and Pawnee people who call and called Kansas home. Reflecting on this experience a few years later, I needed to express that we can romanticize or villainize any region we want, but both the positive and negative sides of communities, landscapes, and economies are all impacted by the American colonial project, and not inherent in the virtue of the land itself.

This is a photo of Halee Kirkwood. They are wearing a blue shirt and a blue demin jacket, carrying a brown bag. Halee is standing on a sidewalk. The grass is brown and some of it is covered with snow. The trees are bare. It appears to be late spring.Having grown up in a heavily industrialized community, I’m sensitive to the imagery and sensory details of other industrialized communities. When you have a poet’s heart, and you smell taconite pellets or hear train horns all day long, I think one attempts to re-experience the sensory experience of that area, to make it more interesting, even beautiful. In writing “Rust Belts”, I wanted to observe the ways economies and landscapes flow into each other, from a first-person perspective. I want the reader to feel like they’re on that road trip with me. I think Mike Alberti’s short story collection Some People Let You Down observes rural, industrialized communities in a similar way.

This issue was birthed during this pandemic and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities nationwide. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?

I really miss running into friends, family, and acquaintances in the most unexpected places! I miss those intimate, five-minute conversations when you’re both really happy to see each other, but also have to get on your way. I hunger badly for movie theatre popcorn and air conditioning. I miss seeing folks wearing fabulous shades of lipstick! I also really miss teaching in person and taking classes, that first day of class when everyone’s trying to get a read of each other, an aurora of excitement but also hesitation in a physical room. And I also miss going into other people’s houses and seeing how they arrange their furniture, what art they have on the wall, and which of their house plants are thriving and/or dying. I’m really very hungry to see people in person again!

Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?

Well, I think the issue I’m trying to work out most in my writing is the relationship and tension between worldly and personal violences. The main story/family history I fixate on is my father’s heroin overdose, the violence he enacted on my family, and the internal battle I’ll probably always have on whether or not, and how, to forgive him. I’m an abuse survivor, and I think that undercurrent is there in all of my writing, no matter how far from the subject it may seem. I’m obsessed with the weather, and fear it (which isn’t too surprising given the reality of global climate change in our lifetime), but I’m also totally in love with the weather, particularly Midwest weather, which throws so many curveballs day to day, even hour to hour. Travel and transit is another big one for me. When my mother was 19, she traveled on an airplane all the way to Honolulu, by herself, with her newborn (me!), to be with my dad while he was stationed there with the National Guard for a few years. I’ve always been a traveler, to distances near and far, and love to record my observations on the way. There’s also a recurring theme of trespass — doing what you’re not supposed to do, being where you shouldn’t, and getting away with it, and what that means as a queer, Indigenous person. Also, I love obscure plants and rocks, especially what we commonly think of as weeds. So, trauma, forgiveness, weather, travel, and trespass — those are big for me! 

What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?

I’m inspired by so much and so many! Recently, I published an article with the Minnesota Women’s Press about Native women and Two-Spirit writers who I love, and who write so meaningfully about home, about place. I’m inspired by all the phenomenal writers and artists of the Twin Cities, many of whom I’m humbled to call my friends. But when pressed, I’d have to include the following books as being formative in my journey as a writer (a journey which will never end, and a list which by necessity must continue to evolve!): Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg, When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz, The Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke, Thrall by Natasha Trethewey, Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and America Day By Day by Simone de Beauvoir. I think each of these books say something about the nature of radical love for self, other, and place that was essential to my development as a young writer, and my development as a person. Oh, I can’t forget — people are often surprised to hear that I’m kind of a Shakespeare nerd, but I absolutely love reading and watching Shakespeare, my two favorite being King Lear and Richard III. The hubris! The drama! The fall from power — such catharsis!     

I really have to acknowledge my mentor and friend Gretchen Marquette here, who has mentored me both in terms of being a writer, a teaching artist, and a good person out in the word! My writing professors Timothy Ziegenhagen and Cynthia Belmont at my alma mater Northland College were significantly supportive of my dreams as a young, aspiring writer, to whom I’m eternally grateful. My thesis advisor at Hamline, Juliet Patterson, helped me imagine my manuscript in several iterations and pushed me to write the best first-draft of a collection I could, all while reminding me to take care of myself when writing about harsh subject matters. Working with Maggie Smith at the 2018 Hamline University Summer Writing Workshop, she taught me so much about line breaks and enjambment, and working with Ross Gay for the Loft Mentor Series taught me a lot about play, about finding the heart and heat of a poem, and the virtue of reading it aloud many, many times!

I also had a great group of folks who mentored me at Aqueous Magazine, a small, Lake Superior regional literary magazine I had the pleasure of interning for and then being on the editorial board for, people who took me in and invited me to be a part of something where opportunities for young writers were there, but slim. Marissa, Kristin, Sara and Nick, plus Andy and Sean, your kindness and enthusiasm for literature really had a huge impact on me, then and now!   

What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?

I tend to land poems too neatly; I say what I have to say and then sometimes feel the need to rush out of it. Like someone who gives a pretty okay poetry reading and then, after making eye contact with the room, runs off stage, out of the bar and into the anonymity of night — that is how I sometimes end my poems! So I routinely challenge myself to, after writing a full draft of a poem, take the last line and use that for a title for a new poem, which maybe delves into some material I was skirting around in the second draft, and from there usually create some sort of mashed potato hybrid version of those two poems into one franken-poem. I also tend to rely heavily on imagery and sensory detail, and I try to balance that out with more narrative and, sometimes, analysis. 

What projects are you working on right now?

I’m really focused at the moment on publishing my first manuscript, but also trying to nurture the beginnings of a second poetry manuscript in the meantime. I really want to write more specifically about class and labor, and think that will be the focus of my next book-length project. I’m currently writing a poem about a plant called “Love Grass” and a poem about trivial pursuit cards. Maybe there’s a short story collection on the horizon (?), but I’m not making any promises! Finally, I’ve been writing a lot of articles recently for the Minnesota Women’s Press and for the Birchbark Native Arts newsletter, writing profiles and interviews of contemporary artists.

I will be teaching and facilitating a few classes and events at The Loft this coming year, including both a summer adult class on writing place and a youth class on writing climate change. I’ll be moderating the Wordplay Festival panel Tending The Earth with writers Kazim Ali, Diane Wilson, and Moheb Soliman. I’ll also be facilitating a short workshop on submitting writing to literary magazines for the Loft Wordsmith festival this fall — times and dates (and meeting method) TBD! 

This is a photo of writer Halee Kirkwood. They are wearing a black top and posing among green grass with a stone pillar behind them. Halee Kirkwood, a 2019-2020 Loft Mentor Series Fellow, received their MFA from Hamline University. Their work has been published in Lunch Ticket, Muzzle Magazine, The Under Review, Cream City Review, and others. Kirkwood was an inaugural teaching fellow for the 2019 Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writing Conference at Arizona State University, and their mini-chapbook, Exorcising the Catalogue, was published in 2018 with Rinky Dink Press. You can learn more about their work at their website

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