The Slam: The Slam Master's Rant

The Slam Master's Personal Soapbox made from ones, zeroes, and a home-grown proclivity for pontification.

Talking with Kirsten Kaschock

October 30, 2011

Kirsten Kaschock is a poet and novelist whose first novel, SLEIGHT, tells the story of two sisters and their opposing approaches to the interdisciplinary art form "sleight": a hypnotic combination of dance, architecture, acrobatics, and spoken word. The novel itself uses the structures of sleight to form a lyrical and conceptually gripping whole.

Kirsten is a woman of many degrees -- an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Iowa, another M.F.A. in poetry from Syracuse University, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia -- with the word "thread" tattooed just below her collarbone, because, as she says, "Thread holds everything together and connects everyone." Our assistant editor, Tori, grabbed coffee with Kirsten during her whirlwind book tour to Chicago and asked her about her journey as a young writer.  

TORI TELFER: Tell us about your path to becoming a writer.

KIRSTEN KASCHOCK: I loved writing poetry when I was very young. When I was seven, I wrote the haiku that everybody writes.  Mine got hung up on the wall at my school, and it had a picture of a willow tree, and a teacher called me out of class to tell me how much she liked it. I thought I was in trouble, and then she pointed to the poem and said how much it moved her. I thought, "Wow. Power." I loved to read growing up, but I didn't decide that I wanted to be a writer until much later, after I'd gone to grad school for dance. So even though there was always love and it was always there and I always did it, I didn't think of it as a career until later on.

TT: We're starting a new feature in CICADA called Week in the Life, where a teen artist or writer documents his or her life for a week. What would your "Week in the Life" have been like when you were a teenager?

KK: I think at that time I would have done choreography, probably a video, because I felt as if I could talk about myself more with dance when I was younger than with writing. I hated autobiographical writing -- I didn't journal. I think most writers journal; I never journaled. I have books filled over and over with "I hate my mother," and doodling, but I felt comfortable at different times in my life expressing myself in different ways, so I definitely would have done a dance piece and a video.

TT: Did you study English lit as an undergrad?

KK: Yes.

TT: And where did you go to school?

KK: Yale.

TT: No big deal.

KK: [Laughs] When I was there you had to take three-quarters of your total English coursework in pre-1800 literature. So I know a bit about Shakespeare. It's stuck with me, even though it wasn't my favorite. I like to see how things progress and break -- all the rules that get broken over time.

TT: What did you like to read when you were young? Who inspired you?

KK: Oh, I read all the time. Interestingly enough, I was a sci-fi fanatic. I loved Ursula Le Guin and Madeline L'Engle when I was younger. I read a lot of Japanese poetry in translation, and when I went to Yale I actually started taking Japanese because of that. It was funny because almost everybody else in my Japanese class was there for business or law, and they asked, "Why are you here?" and I was like, "I wanna read haiku!"

TT: That's amazing! They're learning words for "litigation"…

KK: …and me, "Moon!"

TT: What were your M.F.A. experiences like? How was the choreography different from the poetry?

KK: I love the M.F.A.'s because you have two concentrated years to work on your art, as opposed to scholarly pursuits. What's interesting is that they were very similar, the dance and the writing, in certain ways. They ask you to do limitation-based exercises. For example, in the writing, you can only use 50 words -- that's your dictionary -- and you have to write a four-page story using only those 50 words. You hate doing it but it teaches you a lot about repetition and other tools. Choreography was like that, too.

TT: You're clearly interested in many different forms of art. How do some of your other artistic pursuits inform your writing?

KK: Sometimes I try to do things with my writing that I got from my dance background, but that aren't directly translatable. In the first half of my book, you meet each character on their own, and then you meet pairs of them, and then those pairs switch, which is something you could easily do in a dance. Halfway through the book, all the four characters come together at a peak moment, and that's when the most people are "onstage." So not only does the subject matter (I write about dance) come into it, but also the ways in which you compose -- they can bleed together.

TT: So you have a larger toolbox of creative tools. Do you think it's important for young writers to be so interdisciplinary?

KK: Not just interdisciplinary, but multidimensional -- the more you learn, the more you have to put in your book.

TT: If you could time-travel back to your 16-year-old self, is there anything that you would want her to know?

KK: "Don't delete." When you make something, be happy with it, keep it, put it to the side. It might not be what you want today, but don't be afraid it's not going to be good -- whatever it is.

TT: That's wonderful! All young writers tend to make the same big mistakes that they fix later on. When you reflect back on your writing, do you see any pitfalls that you kept falling into?

KK: I tend to reiterate a lot, and sometimes I like that effect, but I can always use the advice that Coco Chanel used to give ("Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.") If I can take a page of writing and remove one sentence or one extraneous word -- less is more for me, always.

TT: Your writing is very conceptual, almost cerebral; it's not slice-of-life Americana fiction or anything.

KK: Yeah, yeah. I'm very drawn to conceptual things, and they don't always need to be highbrow. I love Star Trek. I absolutely adore things that make you think, especially things that aren't possible. My other favorite movie genre is the supernatural, because I'm fascinated by what's right outside of your vision. It's there, and sometimes it's psychological, and sometimes it's a ghost.  Or even an alien.

SLEIGHT is available from Coffee House Press (disclaimer: it's not a YA book, and there are some disturbing elements), and you can catch Kirsten's musings over at her blog.