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Interview with Kathryn Jordan

Kathryn Jordan is a writer, musician, and teacher, living in Berkeley, California. Her poem, “White-Headed Woodpecker” is forthcoming in Chautauqua’s 2021 issue. Her work also appears or is forthcoming in The Sun, New Ohio Review, Comstock Review, Crosswinds, Oberon, Banyan Review and elsewhere, including a few anthologies. She is a past winner of the San Miguel de Allende Poetry Prize, the 2020 Sidney Lanier Poetry Award, a finalist for Tucson Festival of the Book Literary Prize, the New Ohio Review Poetry Contest, and Comstock Review’s Jessie Bryce Niles Chapbook Contest. Her book, Riding Waves, (Finishing Line Press) was published in 2018. One of my poems was nominated for Best of the Net, 2020. She plays front porch music and hikes the East Bay Hills, translating birdsong to poems when possible.

RYAN BLOOM: All right well I'll just go ahead and dive right in. I noticed this phrase in your bio that I absolutely loved, which is the phrase “vocationally promiscuous.” I was wondering if you could unpack that a little bit and just speak to the value of interdisciplinary study in your work.

KATHRYN JORDAN: The first thing that comes to mind is what I learned in improv, which is “first thoughts are best.” And so, in fact, I spent my whole career doing music, but what comes to mind in terms of your question is that I studied theater, I studied music, I have done all kinds of work.

Vocation is also more than work; it's what you’re called to do in your heart. So, you might not get paid for it. For example in improv, I did learn so much that helped me with poetry because you just absolutely surrender your control, or most important, your need to be smart, your need to be clever, your need to be funny, your need to be original. So when all of that gets surrendered in improv, then creativity flows, and you kind of let go to your… some people call it their “Muse” other people would call it their “Jin”—in the ancient times the word “genius” comes from “Jin,” which was a spirit that would actually attend you.

So I like improv study because it gave me that, and it actually helped me be a better improviser in my music because then I didn't get so hung up on being judged—I just tried to trust and be in the moment more. So in my life I've done a lot of music, as I said, and that has actually been incredibly important to my poetry because it just flows through.

And I'm a teacher, and that helps me get a sense of having a voice, you know? Even as a singer, I don't always feel I can share my voice because if I'm in a bad mood, I'm constricted. But if I think I'm teaching something, I'm actually outgoing and confident. So those are ways that I can never really make up my mind: Am I a teacher? Am I a writer? Am I a musician? And I can't seem to be contained with just one, so that's my promiscuity.

RB: I love that.

KJ: Long answer!

RB: What about music and all of your work on the natural world and birding, too? I'd love to hear more about how that connection developed—What that's like for you, that process?

KJ: Thank you. Well as a matter of fact, I just came from birding just now, and I go out there most mornings to the wilderness. It's very near where we live, here in Berkeley, California, and we're lucky —we have the largest regional parks in the nation. They're just like hundreds of square miles just east of here in all different little pockets. We have a pocket near us that's just really wild, and I go there, and I walk. And then, again, it's like this surrender happens.

And if you go birding, and you think you see a bird in a tree, and you don't see it and you’re trying to find it, you don't pick your binoculars up and stare at that tree to look for it. This is the metaphor. You actually have to put your binoculars down and look at the entire area with “soft eyes,” as the Buddhists call it, you know. And the Japanese have a phrase that I love called “still hunting.” So you're just standing there and letting it come to you. And the longer you stand there with birds, the more likely they are to forget you're there because they're like reptiles: they track—as we all learned in Jurassic Park—they track by movement. But it's really true! So if you don't move, they come and they just start flitting around you. And if you don't pick up your binoculars right away, trying to grab the moment like you would with a camera, you actually have more come to you.

So I feel filled by that and taught by that. And I feel sustained by nature and walking outside in the incredible gift of beauty and air and light and refreshment and I don't think I could live without it.

RB: Do you feel like you go out searching for a particular birdsong that you want to hear?

KJ: Yes

RB: Or it's just whatever comes?

KJ: Well I do like to just be receptive, but at certain times of year I know I'm going to hear a bird that I don't hear any other time of year. Like right now, the varied thrush—it’s a beautiful bird, and it's only around here in this kind of March-April-May-time, and it's migrating so I really long to hear it. And it's really unique because it can make two tones at the same time and harmonize with itself. So I just walk there listening to everything. I hear chickadees. I hear ruby-crowned kinglets. I hear all kinds of vireos and stuff, but when I hear that two-tone right there, it's just like enchantment. Like I just get really excited. And I do listen for it.

Just like in my poem, I was trying to find a bird I had seen there years ago, but I knew I couldn't go look for it. But yet, you know, I think everybody's this way: we’re very locationally oriented so that if you had an accident on a certain corner, you’re always going to think of that when you walk by there. If you saw someone and had a great conversation under that tree, whenever you pass that tree you'll remember that, you know. So when I see an unusual bird, I cannot help but think of that bird for the rest of my life when I go by there. And I have been by that area in the mountains many times and never seen that bird again. But if I go near that area, I'm always kind of hoping. So sometimes I look for the bird, but I also like to be receptive to whatever happens.

RB: That’s wonderful, thank you. My next question is a little bit broader, more industry-based but especially because we do publish writers that haven't been published before and also publish a whole section for Young Voices—I was wondering if you could go back to when you were just starting out as a writer and what effect, if any, getting published had on your process and on your work? If it changed something for you? Or if it was always sort of the same?

KJ: That’s a really interesting question, I don't think I've ever even thought about that. I have to think for a second and not blurt something out, but I know that I was really blessed because right away I got published by The Sun magazine, which I revere, and it was just a reader’s right thing. But it was the first thing I submitted anywhere, and it was published, so that made me really excited.

And very soon after that, just very soon and I had not submitted much, it was a year later, I won a literary prize for a poem. And I have to say: both of those experiences just filled me with ecstasy, just really… excitement and affirmation. So it was a confirmation that I'm on the right path in the beginning. Yes, it really did feel good, but it didn't change my writing. It just made me work harder, that's all, because I felt motivated.

RB: And so then on the flip side, how would you encourage somebody sort of struggling with rejection—either if they've faced it for a while or haven't found their first first publication? What kind of advice would you give?

KJ: I’m glad you followed through on that because that's kind of what I wanted to get to when I was answering, which is that I had a great teacher in the beginning, Ellen Bass, and she has become a really profound and important teacher for me. And the first thing she said to us in my first retreat away with her for a week—Someone raised their hand and said, “When should we submit?” And I had already submitted, but someone was really, really beginning—even more than me—but we're all in the same boat. “When should we submit?”

And she says, “Don't submit until you're completely prepared to be rejected every single time.” And I took her at her word. So that's one thing, just don't worry about being accepted. Keep writing because it so feeds you. If you're writing to be accepted, then that's probably something that you should write a poem about, you know, because that's the urgency that you feel to be noticed or the urgency you need to be recognized and affirmed, and that's not the reason that you want to submit your work because you will be disappointed. So you need to write for the really profound reason, just like you need to make music for the profound reasons in your heart.

And the other thing I would say that I did was my husband had a great phrase. He said, and I was already kind of ready to do this, but, “Just increase your failure rate.” And I took that really to heart and I recommend that for anybody. I submit so much.

And when people say, “Well you're getting published a lot!” And, yeah, but you don't see how many rejections I get. I get so many rejections. And so I think that's letting go of rejection and writing for yourself.

And share with others! Share with your loved ones--give people the gift of your poem. Just say, “Don't put it up online, don't do this.” You can be kind with people and say what you need for the safety of your poem. But do let other people read because they can feed you and increase your failure rate.

I just am so excited, I have my first poem in The Sun this April. And then I look back on Submittable: I have 25 rejections to get to that first poem to be published by them and I just haven’t given up. Because it’s not like I need them, it's just like “Well, that would be great and I'll just keep submitting.” And I could be rejected for the rest of my life and I would not stop submitting.

Jack London papered his whole room when he was living in Oakland as a young man writing. He had been to UC Berkeley, and he was living down on the Oakland waterfront. He wallpapered his room in rejection notes, you probably know this story.

RB: Well I was going to ask. I’ve heard some people love to store files of their rejections or yeah paste them on the walls.

KJ: I don't. I delete them. I know one friend who says, “Yeah, I save every rejection” and I just… Nope. It's gone. It's over. You know? I save them in a spreadsheet for maybe a year, so I don't send the same poem back to that magazine, that would be really... I wouldn't do that… but I definitely let them go because it's over if it's rejected. Why would I want to cosset my failure—not failure but you know, where it didn’t work?

RB: Are you working on any new projects these days?

KJ: I'm trying to get my first full-length manuscript published, so I'm really uncertain about that process because every time I write a new poem that I really, really like, I want to go put it in then that collection. So other poems keep getting booted out, and new ones keep coming in, and that’s just driving me a little bit crazy.

RB: What’s the focus of that, if you can share?

KJ: I have to say, I think the focus is just whatever I'm writing. And I can't remember the poet’s name, but he was interviewed by the guy at Rattle, by Tim at Rattle magazine, and he asked him the same question. And he says, “You know, I can’t really figure out my theme. Because I figure that my theme is whatever. You know, if you look in my stuff, you'll find a theme.” So I'm trying not to take on a theme.

My chapbook has a theme, and that was then, that was kind of like my incipient childhood trauma, you know. I was born to parents in a military family—stepfather and father were both in Vietnam—and that formed a lot of trauma, and so that had to be contained in that chapbook. And I think a chapbook has to have a theme. A chapbook that does have a theme, and that was that.

But now I’m just trusting whatever’s happening. And I even tried it—I tried to make sections in my book, and I'm not even sure about that anymore. I just don't worry about it. I change it all the time.

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