Between Worlds: A Q&A With Poet Kiki Petrosino

by
India Gonzalez
5.7.20

In White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia, published this week by Sarabande Books, Kiki Petrosino lives and creates in a liminal space, tackling both the spiritual and the corporeal, the past of her ancestors and her current present, the history of Virginia and the history of herself, as well as her European and African genealogy. She occupies this in-between space with grace but also a bold intent to uncover both ancestral and historical truths, no matter how unsettling. White Blood has been praised by Terrance Hayes as “further evidence of Kiki Petrosino’s limitless, inimitable talent,” and for good reason. Petrosino composes poems that burn and sizzle, that pierce the reader with their masterful crafting and heightened vulnerability; she breaks open and digs into both her personal past, where she “grew like a braid / in bad light,” as well as American society’s “throb-in-throat” past. 

Originally from Baltimore, Petrosino has published three previous poetry collections, all with Sarabande Books: Fort Red Border (2009), Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013), and Witch Wife (2017). She received her BA from the University of Virginia and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Petrosino was a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts fellow, and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Poetry, and Ploughshares. She is currently a professor at the University of Virginia, where she conducts her classes online these days due to the pandemic. When we spoke recently, we touched on interpreting the silence and signatures of her ancestors, using form to control the emotional pacing of poems and collections, and turning to spirituality as a way of reaching toward an answer for lingering poetic questions. 

Before we delve into White Blood, I’m curious: What is your current definition of poetry?
My current definition of poetry—and this is what I tell my students as well—is that a poem is the artifact or the trace that is left behind and created through the poet’s movement of mind over a problem or a situation. We may approach poetry the same way that we may approach philosophy or other forms of critical thought and inquiry—as a way to help us think through problems: ethical, moral, political, social, and even personal problems. How do we contend with our own personal histories, which may have their own contradictions or sites of unsettled feelings? When we think about these problems, language is generated, and what we are left with is a poem, which preserves the movement of the mind over that particular issue. We can then continue to read this preservation after the poet has moved on from that poem. 

Has your definition of poetry changed over the years?
This definition of poetry probably comes from having studied with poets like Gregory Orr, who wrote Poetry as Survival. He talks about the poem as a space to create a raft of language that can help carry you over difficulty. That idea of the poem as a thing that could be woven or created, and has some materiality to it, always stuck with me. But I’ve also always been interested in music, and I feel very strongly about poetry as a musical structure. It exists in time and has elements of rhythm in it. It is composed of sound, so it’s like a piece of music as well. It can be ephemeral too; it can disappear. A poem is mortal, it has to end, but at the same time, you can go back and read it again. 

The cover art and general book design for White Blood are really breathtaking. How did this come together? In particular, what drove your decision to have white blood dripping down a black backdrop and black pages sectioning off the book, mimicking the cover design?
It was actually the people at Sarabande Books who came up with the full design concept. At Sarabande, authors do have input into the type of cover art that we’d like to see. I wanted to focus on the materiality of some of the documents I came across while doing research for this book. I spent time in archives and reading rooms, on the computer too, looking at scans of hand-written documents from up to a couple hundred years ago, and there was something about seeing the movement—it’s just like what I was saying about a poem. You can look at the record of a last will and testament, for example, and you see a clerk’s hand having moved across the page because there’s the handwriting from that long-ago time. Then at the bottom you might see the signature of an ancestor and you realize that person had to sit before that piece of paper and move their hand over the page. In the case of my ancestors, many of them did not have the ability to sign their full names, so they would leave behind a little x where a signature would be. There was something about this idea of a physical trace that I was really interested in with this book. I communicated all of this, which were a cloud of ideas, to the folks at Sarabande, and they were able to identify just the right visual elements. My previous books have worked with the colors of black and white a lot. My second book, Hymn for the Black Terrific, includes a lot of poems that use an interplay between black and white, so it makes sense that at this point I would have a black and white book. 

How did your research for this latest collection begin?
The inspiration for this book probably came around 2015 when my last surviving grandparent passed away. This grandmother is my mother’s mother, and she was born in Washington, D.C., but her family roots are really in this rural county called Louisa County in central Virginia. Louisa County is adjacent to Albemarle County, which is where the University of Virginia is located. So I spent some time thinking about my grandmother’s legacy and her roots in Virginia, and then also remembering that when I went to the University of Virginia as an undergraduate, I never ventured to Louisa County the whole time. I didn’t even go that much into Albemarle County. My whole world was about the university, and I lived a certain kind of life in Virginia that was for some reason separated from these explicit thoughts of history and legacy. It was only after my grandmother passed away that I realized I would have to seek out those stories on my own rather than hearing them from her. I started thinking about what it meant to claim an Afro-Virginian legacy, and how I could tie some of these threads together.   

At the same time this was happening, the disaster in Charlottesville in 2017 occurred. I was already writing some of the poems for White Blood. I was at home watching the footage of the white nationalists marching on the lawn at UVA and hearing about the young woman who had been killed in downtown Charlottesville, and I realized: Now this book is even more urgent. I have to write about not only what my ancestors may have lived through hundreds of years ago in Louisa County, but I also need to come to terms with my own history having gone to that university and feeling a closeness to that place, while also knowing that I, as an African American student, was part of a minority group there. What did that mean then? What does it mean today? I needed to revisit some memories I had allowed myself to not think about in the intermediate years. Now I wanted to think about them.

How did it affect you to look back on those documents and see the x on the signature line instead of the signatures of your ancestors?
Those littles x’s are so poignant, because on one hand you’re seeing the fact that a person did not know how to read and write the way we know how to read and write. On the other hand, having gone to the clerk’s office or to the courthouse to create a will and testament meant that ancestor actually had a piece of land. They had some property or items in their house. They had animals and tools they wanted to pass down, so it’s simultaneously a record of achievement and success. It also shows that the administrative structure of America was able to open up enough postwar so that African Americans could participate. African Americans worked very hard and sacrificed a lot for that to happen, so just looking at one little document that seems quite bureaucratic, like a dry list of something, actually becomes this really vibrant document because there’s all of these overlapping complexities that come out. 

I was able to find a document from 1907 that my great-great-grandfather had signed with his actual name, and the signature was this really strange, bumpy, spiraling signature. It contained a misspelling in one part of it. I realized it was the handwriting of someone who had figured out how to write this one thing. According to the census records, this ancestor didn’t know how to read or write, but late in his life he was able to make this signature, and it’s the earliest example of handwriting from the African American part of my family. I actually got the signature tattooed on my left arm—it was my first tattoo ever [laughter]—so that I could continue looking at the signature and contemplating my own family’s journey into literacy, which I’m the beneficiary of. 

There is a lot of ancestral silence in this book, so we witness the speaker constantly yearning and searching for some deeper understanding of who they come from. Eventually we arrive at four poems, all titled “Message From the Free Smiths of Louisa County,” in which your ancestors talk to you. How did you go about embodying your ancestors in order to write from their perspective, and what was it like to establish their tone and thoughts? 
The way that I interpreted the silence of those ancestors changed over time. At first, when I would go to a record or a database and I would type their names in and nothing would be there, I felt disappointed and frustrated. I felt like the problem had to be because the white power structure somehow missed them, and they were being excluded in some way. That is true, of course, but in learning more about the period of Reconstruction, for example, and in reading through some of the records in Louisa County, you would see the officials saying, “We’re trying to get an accurate account of all the Negro people who live here in this county. We’re trying to find out who they’re married to and if they were previously married. We’re trying to find out all this information, but people are reluctant to come talk to us.” 

I started thinking about that, and suddenly aspects of the silence became purposeful. I started thinking about these ancestors who, in the aftermath of a very bitter war, were living in the South, which had just lost this war. They couldn’t hide their Blackness. All of it was so personal in these small communities that it made sense to me, all of a sudden, that some of them would not want to go to the Freedmen’s Bureau to record their names or talk about exactly how they were living beforehand. There were some ancestors who did, and there are a couple instances in the Freedmen’s Bureau records where you see them seeking help for something, but most of the time I know they were living in that county, but I don’t hear much about them in the records. I think that was because they were protecting themselves and their families, and they were sticking close to home. So I don’t know all of their stories, but the silence is being given to me as proof of their agency over something. I don’t know for sure, but keeping silent is a powerful choice that can be made. 

Creatively, then, what was it like to give voice to their silence?
[Laughter.] That’s a long way of talking about the temptation for a poet, when there is silence, to try to write into it and say, “Well, I don’t know what my ancestor’s voice sounded like, so I’ll try to make that sound.” But the problem is: If you do that, you are filling a silence that was maybe put there on purpose. So what do you do? I tried to create an ancestral voice for those poems separate from any particular identity, and also separate from myself. Those poems take place, for the most part, in a first-person plural. We study a lot in poetry circles about the lyric “I” and how important it is. We’ve theorized it, we’ve dissected it, we know about Whitman’s “I” and all the way down the line. But the “we” is quite mysterious in Anglophone poetry. We don’t know who constitutes the lyric “we.” Poets like Tracy K. Smith in Life on Mars really use “we” to great advantage to talk about cosmic mystery. I wanted to use the “we” to talk about ancestral mystery or historical mystery and have there be this spiritually inflected mystical voice of the ancestors. That was my inspiration and my approach to those poems. 

My ears definitely perked up the first time I came across the title of your latest collection. How did you land on such a provocative phrase? What does “white blood” mean to you, and is there a “black blood” that the reader could be or should be thinking of in comparison?
In America, because of our particular history around race and racism, the idea of blood has been racialized as well. We know that on a scientific level human blood is blood, but in discussions of race, you often hear about somebody’s white blood coming into the family tree, which had previously, presumably, been non-white. Or you hear the opposite, that there was a secret Black ancestor when previously there had only been white blood. My African American family is on my mother’s side, but I’m also half Italian on my father’s side. My background is very much that of a person of mixed ancestry; however, I also recognize that I’m a person of color. By belonging to both worlds, but being between worlds, the issue of physicality, the physical trace of my racial mixture was, and is, always something that people wanted to bring up to me. Even on the African American side of my family, many of those family members were light skinned. However, when I go into the actual family tree history, I don’t find any ancestor of mine who is marked “white.” Everyone is marked either “black” or “mulatto.” Just as there’s this echo of African ancestors who must have come here, but I don’t really know their names, there’s also this continuing echo of white ancestors who interacted with these Black ancestors. I don’t know that story, so there’s a trace, there’s always a trace, and there’s always evidence that these interactions happened, but we don’t really know. The blood that we’re talking about might as well be clear, for all that it tells us. I want to take the term “white blood” and abstract it a little bit for the reader. I want to take it out of this very narrow and constricting discourse of amounts and percentages and think more about the actual clear bonds we have among one other as Americans. We are discovering more and more that we’re all family on some level, if not biologically then culturally, regionally, and locally. 

In “Terrorem” you end on a question. After you recall visiting Thomas Jefferson’s house every night, and crying when you landed in Milan for the first time, you aptly ask: “How much / of my fondness for any place is water, stilled & bound / to darkness?” I feel as though you are asking: What do I make of my affection for Milan or Thomas Jefferson’s house or ‘white blood’ in a more general sense, while simultaneously being bound to my ancestral sorrows, to America’s dark history, to my tears, my ‘water’, the Atlantic slave trade, my Blackness, and the enslaved boy that Jefferson sold to incite terror in the others? I can’t help but feel that this is the thesis of the book in many ways, this unpacking of American history’s ‘white blood’, as well as the speaker’s European lineage and African ancestry. In a way, I see the speaker shining a light on her own dark history, and in the process confronting herself, her mixed existence, the two-ness one ever feels in both the DuBoisian sense and in literally being two races at once. Does this ring true for you at all? Was there a main thesis in mind when you started writing this book?
Wow [laughter]. You understand exactly what I was trying to say. I find myself continually fascinated with Jefferson. I’ve read and close-read Notes on the State of Virginia chapter by chapter. I’ve taken my students to special collections here at UVA, and we’ve leaned our heads over his personal annotated copies, looked at his handwriting, and here I am teaching at the university he founded and where I went as an undergraduate. I recognize that my appreciation of Jefferson is also complicated by the contradictions in his character, and the clearly morally fraught decisions he made, not only with regard to his Black family that he created with Sally Hemings, but also in the way he would treat the enslaved people at Monticello. Yet when I go to Monticello, I’m taken with its beauty. I love the orderliness of it. I love learning all about it. At the same time, the place is haunted with various ghosts that I also feel. 

In that poem I was trying to talk about how it feels to visit a place like that and connect with it on this intellectual level. I connect with the fact that Jefferson could speak or write six languages, and one of them was Italian, which is what I studied and speak, and that is half of my own heritage. I also connect with how he learned to preserve food through cold storage by visiting Milan at one point. I also visited Milan, and lived in Italy for a while. Every time I learn a new fact about Jefferson I kind of want to have a conversation with him where I’m like, “You loved that and I love that too.” But then I think to myself: Don’t I actually have more in common with the people who were kept on that property? Why do I continually turn toward the brightness of this intellectual discourse, rather than turning inward, or considering more deeply my relationship to the enslaved? I try to do that, but it’s so painful that it’s hard. That’s why I left the question open at the end of the poem. How do I properly grieve over these many, many people that I’m descended from—I don’t think I’m descended from anyone from Monticello, but like I said, my ancestors are from the next county over. How do you grieve the silences and the losses that those people experienced when you’ll never know their actual stories? At the same time, as an artist, as someone who values academics, study, and languages, is it okay to still enjoy and celebrate those types of legacies, which often excluded the people I’m descended from? 

In doing this research I learned to recognize that my ancestors did write, but they wrote on the land. They could read, but they read the land and they read nature, and those are literacies that I don’t have. When I would go out into rural Virginia looking for their graves or their property, I was in a place that would be familiar to them but that I didn’t know how to read. I got lost in the woods, and they wouldn’t have. I can write on a piece of paper, but with their farming equipment and with their animals, they wrote on the land. 

In reading your four collections, I found that your speaker is almost always in relation to a beloved of some sort. I use the term “beloved” here as both the object of one’s affection, i.e. Robert Redford in Fort Red Border, but also as someone who is focused on and deeply considered, as is Thomas Jefferson, as you just stated. These relationships, in particular with Redford and Jefferson, define who the speaker is in a way, they come to solidify her Blackness. This brings to mind for me the well-known Zora Neale Hurston quote, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” What definition of Blackness arises for you in writing about the white male beloved?
That’s an amazing question. I don’t know if I’m going to have the best answer for this. I don’t know why these types of definitional questions often take place in terms of contrast. I don’t perceive the elements of my own identity as being opposed to one another. I didn’t grow up at war with myself. When I wrote my first book and I had these imagined poems in which Redford is kind of a muse, I once had someone say, “I’m so surprised that you chose a white male beloved,” as if they expected me to pick Denzel Washington or someone like that. I felt as though the movies I watched and the culture I participated in were for me as well, and not even as well—they were for me as much as they were for any other audience member. I don’t choose these muses. They’re built into America in a way. Jefferson was already here before I ever arrived here. Jefferson is maybe everyone’s beloved in this country. He’s made it so by designing the country the way that he did. When you go to Monticello and you see how he’s envisioned ideal agrarian life with all of its flaws, and then how he went forward with his vision for American democracy, you can see that we’re still living inside of his experiment and the experiment of his contemporaries. We always have to think about Jefferson because we’re living inside of a mechanism that he built. That was already here before I was here, and before I even started writing these poems. 

I noticed that you begin three of your four poetry collections with epigraphs, and each one seems to draw closer and closer to you as the poet. For instance, in Fort Red Border you start off with, “—a thing like me, / but not the thing I asked for, a thing by accident or / design, I am now attached to.” Then in Hymn for the Black Terrific you have, “I scarcely dared to look / to see what it was I was.” Now in White Blood we start off with Lucille Clifton’s words, “pay attention to / what sits inside yourself / and watches you.” The first epigraph feels playful and slightly elusive, the second one is edging closer towards the self, though admittedly looking away from the ‘I’, and this last quote is fully committed to talking about “what sits inside yourself” in an unflinching manner. In reading your books in succession I felt the intimacy between reader and poet grow as I witnessed you advancing in the unveiling of yourself and digging into your blood lineage as a way of answering the question, Who am I? Were you conscious of this buildup from book to book? Do you see it as such? Or are all your collections distinct projects in your mind?
I now see that there’s been some kind of a buildup or some kind of an unveiling, as you say. In the moment of writing any book I always feel that I’m being the most myself that I’ve ever been. The first book I wrote came from poems I was writing during my graduate career at the University of Iowa. My whole education has taken place in predominantly white institutions, and one of the thoughts that was prevalent in poetry at the time I was a graduate student, which was the early 2000s, was this idea that the poet’s job is to focus on craft and to work against being overtly political. For a predominantly white audience that kind of approach made sense at a certain point in time in America. It made room for other questions of craft to be foregrounded. For a student of color at that time—I think it was an unintentional message—the unintentional message was, don’t write too overtly about that aspect of yourself that could be political, which in this country is race, gender, sexuality, and age. The message I got was that you should have an ‘I’ you could slip in and out of, that you could secretly encode questions into without asking the questions directly. Nobody told me to do that, I was already doing it. When I was writing my first book, I would have told you, “This is the most personal book ever. This is the most personal that I’ve ever been. This is the most directly that I can ask these questions.” Now, poetry has changed, I think even ahead of the curve politically. There are more poets of color who are writing directly about their experiences, there’s more room being made in academic settings and on syllabi for women of all backgrounds. Women of colors voices are so strong right now. As my own work has been developing and I realize that I need to write more directly about my own experiences, poetry and society have also been changing. It’s very much been a journey.   

Leslie Jamison called your poetry “a hothouse in winter.” The first poem in White Blood, “Prelude,” showcases this perfectly, with the ancestors laying small explosives as your speaker runs after them. I found that you maintain a smolder throughout the book, as well as your previous ones. You’re careful never to burn down the technique and structure that hold up your poems. When a line of yours elicits a flame of some sort, I still feel your control as the poet. The fire may lick the back of my neck, but it definitely stops there. How do you sustain such high temperature writing over the entirety of a book? And, furthermore, how do you meld airtight formal and linguistic play with such searing emotional heat?
The answer is embedded in your question. The way this book came together was that I had to choose or figure out what the combination of forms were going to be, for example, what can take place in what kind of poem. You’re probably perceiving what form can do to contain some of these fires that the research sets off in the speaker. As I was explaining earlier, if you sit and think for even a little while about the losses and the struggles our ancestors had to go through, it can be devastating to think about, let alone live through. What we’re left with in the historical record are fragments that we need to read into. You have to read between the lines. When you’re doing Black genealogy, you have to look at two names and realize that one of them is spelled a little differently, but it’s probably the same person. When you look through a court record and you see that someone has a complaint against someone else and there’s no answer as to what happened at the end of that story, you have to imagine it.

So how do you do that? Well, you need a container to put that inquiry in. In my writing, whether that container is a loose prose poem, like the opening one that you are talking about, or a fixed form, such as a villanelle, which you see as the message from the ancestors in Louisa County, I needed a container that would allow me to repeat certain things. Repetition and incantation are really important throughout my writing, and those forms ended up being the way that I could control the emotional pacing across poems and across the book.

I must ask you about the last poem in this collection, “Psalm.” This turn to the divine at the end feels so necessary because it applies a balm to the self-lacerations that are the ancestral, familial, and historical truths the speaker has to face throughout the book. Ending on this note felt humane and very regenerative. I also noticed that at the end of Hymn for the Black Terrific you mention the blessedness of the eater, and in Witch Wife you end on “The Lord” as well. Can you speak to your choice to end the majority of your collections thus far on a spiritual note? 
I have to blame my Catholic upbringing and schooling for some of these poetic instances. I talked about my African American grandmother, but my Italian grandmother was and is equally resonant for me, especially in regard to my spiritual education. She had a very vibrant prayer life and I remember her advising me about, depending on what problem I had, which saint to ask for intercession. She would tell me which prayers were favorites of which saints, like which prayer the Virgin Mary would respond to because it would be her favorite prayer. She just knew all this information. 

When you think about racism, slavery, these journeys that ancestors had to take, and the struggle they had to go through, I know that at some point they must have delivered their prayers to some divine force. There’s a point at which the poem ends but the question still remains, and so, what do you do? You offer the poem up. You offer the book up and you make an appeal to some kind of other worldly force that knows more than you do about the situation. I don’t know if I subscribe to all the tenants of Catholicism that I was raised with, however, the language and that action of prayer is something that is still important to me in that it’s a part of me. 

 

India Gonzalez is the Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine. She is a poet, educator, and Sagittarius, as well as a professionally trained dancer, choreographer, and actor.