1. How did you discover you were a poet?
For me, this question has a two-pronged answer. My mom read to my brother and me a lot when we were kids. Shel Silverstein and super old-school books of children’s verse. But I actually started writing songs before I started writing poems; my dad and brother are both musicians, and I started singing and playing music at a young age. Then, when I was in sixth grade, our English teacher had us keep daily journals for class credit. I realized verse came more naturally to me than traditional diary entries, and she encouraged me to continue with it. I was published for the first time that year, as one of ten featured sixth-graders in an anthology of middle school poets.
I kept writing throughout college, and focused heavily on poetry throughout my undergrad, but in my twenties I gravitated back toward songwriting for a long time. So it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I started to reenter the local poetry scene in Grand Rapids, MI, that I finally began to call myself, and see myself as, a poet. I think there’s a distinction between thinking of oneself as someone who writes poetry, and referring to oneself as a poet. I was definitely conscious of crossing that line, and it still feels momentous to me.
2. Where is your favorite place to write?
Best case scenario: on a porch, on my computer, with a power outlet nearby and a beer or coffee at my elbow. Barring that, at my dining room table. Barring that, in my notes app outside the bar/restaurant where undoubtedly I’m supposed to be engaged in social interaction or spectating of some kind, but have slunk off to furiously tap my phone screen before the spirit abandons me. I just moved to New York to start graduate school, and I’ve been trying to revive my old habit of writing in a physical journal with an actual pen. To be honest, it does nothing for me beyond satisfying some obscure, romantic fantasy. My phone is much lighter-weight and easier to hold on the subway.
3. What role do you believe poets should play in today’s society?
Every role. I believe poets today should and do exist in every stratum of the social fabric. It’s not just that we must by necessity pursue all manner of jobs and professions out of a scarcity of funding for the arts; the idea of poets as some sort of lofty and academically-sanctioned artist class is absurd and anachronistic. I’m privileged to be able to afford graduate study, but most of the poets I know are primary school teachers, bartenders, house painters, cigarette coupon peddlers, software programmers, nannies, insurance representatives, and Shipt drivers. We’re everywhere, and the more spheres we infiltrate, the better. Poetry demands perceptiveness, empathy, and a precision of expression that benefits everyone.
4. Who is someone you consider inspirational to your life/work and why?
There are a few people I should mention. My undergraduate advisor, Annie Boutelle, who is an amazing poet in her own right, and was so consistently delighted to be engaging with the art form that it was a constant pleasure to be under her tutelage. My friend and college classmate Alysse Kathleen McCanna, who is currently a PhD candidate at OSU in Stillwater, OK, and my Poetry Mom/Fairy Gradmother. I couldn’t have weathered the graduate school application process without her, and whenever I feel at a loss with anything poetry-related, I know she’ll come to my rescue. Her first chapbook, Pentimento, won the Gold Line Press competition and will be out this fall. She is absolutely killing it right now and I’m so excited for her. I also have to give a shout-out to my mom. When she applied to art school years ago and didn’t get in, she went to BU and studied Russian instead. She left before completing her degree, met my dad, and had me and my brother. She may not be an acclaimed painter, but her artistic sensibilities colored every aspect of our childhood, whether in the form of food, art projects, and costumes, or just repeated encouragement to think creatively. It reminds me that failure can lead to its own successes, and that I command my own ability to thrive. She’s still the first person I call for help resolving a problem, and I sometimes think about poems that way; as solutions to problems that don’t have other, easier answers.
5. How does your personal story influence the themes and content of your writing?
A lot of my poetry is loosely or literally autobiographical, and confessional in nature. Sylvia Plath was a formative influence when I began writing poetry as a teenager; it’s definitely a style I was drawn to early on. I’ve lately begun pulling my past and my family into my poetry in new ways, and having returned to the east coast where I was raised, I’m eager to continue reaching into the roots of my family for inspiration. My dad’s side of the family is of Mennonite heritage, and I’ve lately become fascinated with the history of anabaptist religions and our family in particular. On my mom’s side, there are all sorts of mysteries, schisms, and unusual family structures. I hope incorporate these things further into my writing as I dive into the MFA. That having been said, my first semester workshop will focus on writing persona poems, so I’m also excited to get out of the self and write in more varied voices.
6. What fictional character do you most relate to and why?
Wow, this is kind of a tough one. Inasmuch as I’m a queer, single woman with no children, my pool of easily relatable roll models in mainstream fiction and pop culture is rather small. And, inasmuch as I’m in a state of upheaval and transition at the moment, I think my answer would be different if you asked me again tomorrow, and different still the next day. But today I’m going to go back to basics and say Max from “Where the Wild Things Are.” Though I’ve outgrown the age of being sent to my room, I often grow frustrated with myself for making careless mistakes and have to place myself on time out. Fantasy and the ability to reset mentally via imaginative escape have always been intrinsic parts of my character. And like Max, I’m reminded each time that my given and chosen family are here to nourish me when each tantrum is over, for which I remain eternally grateful.
KT Herr is Punch Drunk Press’s second Featured Woman Poet this August! She is or was: queer; poet; songwriter; grilled cheese enthusiast; Smith College alumna; advisory board member for Write616; poetry editor for The 3288 Review; host of WYCE’s Electric Poetry; preliminary judge for the 2017 Dyer-Ives Poetry Prize; amateur fisherwoman; Retort Slam Team finalist; Pushcart nominee; MFA candidate in poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. Her poems have appeared in Pilgrimage Magazine, Francis House, and Grand Rapids Grassroots: Anthology of Activism. Her nonfiction is forthcoming from Goat’s Milk Magazine. She lives in Yonkers with someone else’s cat.
Featured image From KT Herr