Thursday, October 20, 2022

“Affirming Life”: An Essay Daily Interview with Kiki Petrosino


When I dared to imagine a writerly future, during the years of my formal education at state schools in Virginia, where I was born and raised, and Arizona, where my African American father’s family moved, from Chicago, in 1968, I foresaw a career resembling Kiki Petrosino’s. Of course, I did not then know (or know of) her; I did not then believe that any other writer shared closely, on surface level, the contours of my own life: one African American parent, one white; study at the University of Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson’s variegated shadow still blankets the grounds (never campus); explorations of all this (identity, family history, the verdant earth of our pulsing commonwealth) in prose polished to gleaming. 

It is an altering thing to encounter someone whose background so neatly (on surface level) mirrors yours, and who has achieved every aspiration, or so it would seem, that you could have thought up for yourself. 

I could have never been Kiki Petrosino, no, though her memoir, Bright, recently out from Sarabande, produced singled tears.

Bright is about so many things mixed people of lightish skin carry (to borrow from Petrosino's language): questions asked, by strangers, of a body that perplexes; the confusion of history in a country that broke (and now sutures, or tries to) along lines of race; reminders to the self of one’s distinct (because live) beauty. It is about much else, however: the grief of her Italian grandfather’s passing, by his own hand; the sharded doubling she encounters when engaging with the life and work of Jefferson (another mirror, then); poetry (for Petrosino has published until now, in book-length work, as a poet) as religiosity, as faith. 

We spoke about Bright during her one day in Charlottesville (where today she teaches at U.Va.) between travels overseas and travels within the country. I can only hope it is a first conversation, not the only. Matthew Morris


Matthew Morris: So, early on, Bright turns (and then remains) densely intertextual, engaging with passages from Dante, Shakespeare, Sarah Manguso, and Seamus Heaney while referencing the alliterative verse of the Old English poets and the Book of Revelation’s “robes” and “crowns.” Then, of course, there is the writing of Jefferson, especially his Notes on the State of Virginia. I was wondering if you could talk about how allusion, reference, and intertextuality operate in your work. What makes those kinds of moves so richly generative for you? Because they seem richly generative…

Kiki Petrosino: For me, I think that the intertextuality you see in the memoir reflects the intertextuality of my life as I’ve lived it. I think that as a person who’s a practitioner of the literary arts, quotations and passages and moments from the things that I’ve read in the past form a kind of embroidery, or they’re sort of stitched throughout the reality that I live as a day-to-day person. And I think anybody who was and is a voracious reader remembers well those seminal works that they may have encountered at a formative period of their literacy; and for me, the pieces that you see cited most often in Bright, for instance Dante and Shakespeare: those were works that I encountered early on in my literary education. And that became part of the tapestry of my imagination. 

I was doing most of the writing of Bright and the revising of it during the height of the pandemic, during which I kept a pretty close quarantine. And I was also in the process of moving, so I felt really distanced from the physicality of my actual collection of books. Some of my books are in my office, which is on the U.Va. grounds. Some of my books were packed into boxes to move, and other books I was maybe teaching from, but I was only teaching online, and so I was also ordering a lot of electronic copies of books and talking to publishers and begging them to slide me a PDF of a book so that I could make sure my students had as much accessibility to books as possible. 

And so because it wasn’t as easy for me to put my hands on my physical books anymore, I relied on my memory of books that were important to me and books that I had read before. I feel like all of those factors combined to give you a sense of how those citations and those references to different texts are braided throughout the work. 

Morris: Yeah, that’s really lovely. I love the idea that these are thinkers that you’ve been thinking with for a long time, or thinking against, depending. And that feeds into my next question about Jefferson. 

He is a complex figure in this book (and shadowy, because he’s been dead for a long time). I didn’t know this, but you write about him defending a mixed-race man in his suit for freedom long before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and you also write a lot about the musicality of his language. 

For all your misgivings toward Jefferson, you treat him with sincere empathy, noting “the solemn register of his losses”—including the loss of his wife, Martha, when she was quite young. How has your relationship to Jefferson changed over time, personally or creatively, and who is he to you now? And do you think you will continue to engage with Jefferson? I know you’ve also written about him in the poetry book White Blood.

Petrosino: So, when it comes to Jefferson, I always begin with fascination and curiosity about him, and if you start from those positions—I’m interested; I’m curious; I’m fascinated—for me as an artist, that is the position from which you can generate new work. And that curiosity and fascination leads you to read and investigate what was visionary and luminous about his intelligence, and it also leads you to confront the aspects of his life and his legacy that were painful, exclusionary, and that did not live up to the vision that he articulated so well in documenting the Declaration. 

So, for me, it is not a matter of, you know, do you like or dislike Jefferson; do you feel this way or that way about his legacy? I kind of feel all of those things at once. And that’s why it’s actually wonderful to live in a place like Virginia, because Virginia is a place, of course, where Jefferson lived, where he wrote, where he thought about so many things. But it’s also a place where the past and the present and the future intersect constantly. Every square inch of ground in Virginia has some kind of past, some kind of story to it. And then it has a present: what’s going on in the present moment, and then how is that going to feed into the future? Because the land itself is complex and has many stories running through it, so too are the people: the people who have come together to make Virginia what it is are complex. 

For me, that’s where I start with Jefferson. 

I think that he will continue to reemerge in my writing and thinking, because every time I read more about him, I find out something that is interesting, that sparks my curiosity about him. And it’s interesting to me how the things about Jefferson that I’m interested in just so happen to match up with aspects of my own literacy formation. 

Of course, he founded the university where I went as an undergraduate and where I teach now, so there’s that concrete connection. But he also was a person who could speak and write across multiple languages, and I like to do that too. When I was at U.Va., I studied Italian. I went to Italy and studied abroad, and I worked in Europe for a while, so I used those language skills. So that is something that we end up having in common. His interest in nature and horticulture and gardening: those are things I’m interested in too. His European travels: I’m also interested in that. 

In looking at the figure of Jefferson, it’s not always that I’m only thinking about his biographical self, let’s say, but I’m also thinking about Jefferson as an occasion to think about the ways in which I learned to read and think about the world around me. And what does that literacy, what does that training both include and exclude? In the research process for this book and for my previous book of poetry, I found myself going into archives and libraries, because I’ve been trained to seek knowledge in repositories that announce themselves in that way. But those libraries and archives don’t contain everything. For example, they don’t contain my family’s oral history about our generational past. In trying to do research about a complicated place like Virginia, you also need to learn a new kind of literacy. You need to be able to read all kinds of different information and to read across different sorts of information. 

Morris: Yeah, thank you. Even reading the physical landscape: I always feel like when I’m in Virginia, it activates my imagination in different ways. I’m so glad you say that, and that makes me think about also, like, Virginia is where Loving v. Virginia happened. 

Petrosino: That’s right, yeah. Which ends up being relevant to my life, because my parents were married, and they were married after Loving v. Virginia. They were married in the state of Maryland, but that Supreme Court case, Loving, that struck down certain sets of laws, “racial integrity” laws, basically said that it’s unconstitutional to discriminate against people that wish to marry on the basis of their race. And so, my parents were married after that groundbreaking Supreme Court decision. 

Morris: Right. Same with mine. 

So, okay, going to questions of mixedness or in-between-ness: the book is billed as a memoir on the cover. On the back, Chet’la Sebree describes it as an essay collection. When I read Bright, I sort of read it continuously, but there are these breaks, these “fairy-tale interludes.” How do you yourself see the book? Do you see it as memoir, as essay collection? Does that matter? Is there being a blending or an ambiguity to the project part of what you’re up to here?  

Petrosino: Well, I see it as a hybrid work. I think that when I think about it now, I see it as a work that is in the realm of memoir. It’s a memoir that takes place in prose, for me, in vignettes of prose. And, probably as a function of the pandemic (and how that lockdown and the anxiety and stress of it affected my own attention span and my own reading practice), I became interested in shorter prose forms. I was able to accomplish the work of this piece by braiding together shorter moments and shorter passages of language. 

Prior to working on this memoir, I had published the occasional essay. I was a poet mostly who would write the occasional work of prose, and usually pretty short-form prose. And so I went back to some of those pieces and tried to find what professors at U.Va. might call the “luminous fragment,” borrowing that term from Modernism, and tried to figure out how I could create a mosaic, or how I could braid together something that would give you a sense of the totality of an experience but not always tell you the causal narrative of that experience. 

And, again, that reflects the way that I view my own life. If I was going to tell you something important about me, I wouldn’t begin with just a story about my birth and go from there; I would probably tell you about an experience I had or a trip that I went on or a story that I heard that was important. And then I might put that next to another story, another account, and that’s just the way that my imagination and my sense of my own life feels to me. 

Morris: Thanks, yeah. The “luminous fragment.” I read one of your short-form essays last night. I think it was in The Iowa Review a while back. It was called “Literacy Narrative.” And you’re thinking about your grandma a lot in that piece. 

Anyway, maybe we can talk about, if you don’t mind, the work you’re doing with faded and with appearing and disappearing text. 

So, you know, you’ve got this one section of Bright where the physical text of your grandfather’s name, Prospero (and the linkage to The Tempest is really interesting) is getting darker as you move down the page, and increasingly visible. And at the very end, you’ve got this section I thought of as being like a round in choir—

Petrosino: Neat. 

Morris: More is getting stacked on top, but there’s this repeated element. And, again, some of the text is easy to read, and some is faded out until we get to that last line about “all she would carry.” 

What I wanted to ask you is, how do you think about these graphic elements in relation to your subject matter? Or how do you think about them generally? What are you doing with them? 

Petrosino: Yeah, okay, so I think about presence and absence a lot. When I think about the legacy of different ancestors in my family, I think about them as both present and absent. There are ancestors who I never met; my life on Earth didn’t overlap with their life on Earth, but their decisions or the circumstances in which they found themselves, the path they either were on already or that they chose, put the family on a certain trajectory. 

One thing that might be interesting for any reader to think about, regardless of whether they’re African American or not: Can you trace back the first example of literacy in your family? Like, who was the first ancestor that knew how to read and write? Where were they from? How long did they live? What was the likely circumstance in which they learned how to read and write? Also, think about: is that ancestor a male ancestor or a female ancestor? If you can only trace back through the patriarchs, who’s the first matriarch that you can document in some way knowing how to read and write? 

For me, for at least one part of my family, it’s not really that long ago: the first example of handwriting that I found is from 1907 for one of my ancestors, and he signed his name. But he signed his name in a way that you could tell he didn’t really know how to write; he was sort of drawing the letters. And I ended up getting that signature tattooed on my arm because it was super important to me to have that example of writing close to me at all times. 

So that ancestor is both absent and present, you know? And in my last book of poetry, I worked with erasure poetry a whole lot. An erasure poem is when you take an existing text, usually that you did not write. What you’re doing as the poet is you’re erasing around all of the words that you want to keep as the poem. I was doing that to show how you might receive a historical record or you might go into a library and get some information, but in fact that piece of information might only leave you with more questions than answers. So, the text is both present and absent in an erasure poem. 

Moving on to Bright, I was also interested in presence and absence, and in the places where I felt some kind of weird, resonant echo with the things I was reading. There’s some echo when my grandfather has the same name as the main character of The Tempest. The presence of that name creates a chime: it’s both present and absent; it’s coincidence, but it also could be symbolic. The fading of text and of gray and black is another way of working with the absences in a certain kind of historical record or thinking about the way that things echo or resonate across pieces of text. 

Morris: Thank you. Yeah, absolutely. Gosh, you’re making me think about, because I’ve done a decent amount of family history research also: I learned a few months ago that my dad’s surname and my surname, Morris, has a linkage to literacy and an ancestor who was taught to read before emancipation, and that really lit a lightbulb for me… 

Sorry, I have a lot of thoughts—

PetrosinoNo, so, like, if you know that there’s an ancestor that learned to read prior to 1865, there’s already a story there of someone making an effort to learn something. And so there was value placed upon literacy, because there was such a risk for them to do that, and it could not have happened in a school the way we think about it. Those are the kinds of things that are fascinating to me, because I have to read between the lines and understand the significance of the story. I have to use all of the context and things I’ve been learning about the history of a particular time and place. 

So that exists, but I also don’t have that story told by that ancestor about how they learned to read. I only have the results, which is—in my family—after this 1907 signature, everyone can read and write. This ancestor’s son became a doctor and went to Hampton and then went to medical school in Chicago and became a doctor in Illinois. After that point, everyone was a doctor or teacher of some kind. 

And so this trajectory happened; there is some story there, and it’s the work of writing, for me, about all of this stuff, to always hold a place for that story that I don’t have but that had to have existed—

Morris: Yeah—

Petrosino—that I know existed. 

Morris: Right, you’re honoring that story. You yourself are part of that story now. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but as a professor of poetry, generational change from before 1907 to now—

Petrosino: Yeah. Because what it does, actually: it is affirming life. By holding space for that story (and not trying to write inside of it, and not trying to forget about it or gloss over it: by holding it) it affirms the reality and it affirms presence. Because the reason the story isn’t there—it could be because the story was taken away from that ancestor, that they weren’t given the education necessary to write their own testimony. But it could also be that that ancestor used agency in moving the family forward in a way, and that’s actually the testimony. You see what I mean? 

Morris: Yeah. 

Petrosino: Yeah. Like, they did leave something; it’s just not what you’re looking for, but it is there. 

Morris: That’s really beautiful, Kiki. Like, affirming life. I don’t think I’d thought about it in quite that way. But it feels true to me. That to think through, to hold those stories is to affirm life. 

So, I think this is kind of related, what we were just talking about, to the “secret flower,” which you write about early in Bright in relation to being in school in Baltimore. And then this idea recurs when you’re writing about the Moon, another rich metaphor in the book, and in fact on the cover as I look at it. 

Anyway, I thought about this idea of a “secret flower” when I was reading your book, and I also thought about your Black grandfather, who would say, “I’m a good color.” And in counterpoint to that, we have Ross Gay on the back of the book talking about the “brutalizing fictions of race.” 

So, do you see those two things as standing in counterpoint or opposition to one another? Or what is the “secret flower” to you? Is it the reverse side of the “brutalizing fictions”? Something else entirely? 

Petrosino: I think that’s probably approaching the right interpretation. I actually think that, for me, writing about having a mixed-race identity—but, it’s like, I also identify as Black—there’s a disparity that I think that those of us who are of an interracial background can experience, which is that there’s a difference or a dissonance between how we feel on the inside about ourselves and our humanity versus when we go out into the world and we hear from others how they perceive us. A lot of it has to do with the physicality of the body: how do we appear or present to the world? 

And many times in my youth and continuing into my, I guess, middle age or whatever, I regularly hear from people what category they think I should be in, how I look to them, what they thought when they first saw me, you know, which brings the body into the conversation in a way that I don’t always consent to. Because this is a body that I either have or inhabit, that I’m connected to in some way, but when I exist in my internal self, when I am using my mind and my imagination, when I’m reading, when I’m being a human being, I don’t think of myself as parts. I think of myself as a unified human being. There’s always something kind of shocking and not altogether pleasant in hearing what other people have to say about what racial category they would put me in based on my appearance. 

And so maybe the “secret flower” is that self that is the internal truth of a self that persists and endures and also needs to be nourished, you know, despite or quite apart from (quite apart from) what the outside world might want to put on a person. You know? 

Morris: Yeah. Thank you. Those interactions never seem to end. 

Petrosino: Right. That’s the other thing I want to say, is that I think it’s really important that when mixed people speak, each person gets to be listened to, because each of our experiences is quite individual, in fact. And that’s why it’s hard to generalize. Not everyone identifies the same way. And not everyone’s encounter with this issue is going to be identical. There’s a lot of variation, and it has to be that way. It is that way. Because we are all different, just as every human being is different. And that sounds tautological or it sounds weirdly paradoxical, but I think that part of my work is to resist this very, very strong impulse in our culture and in our discourse to group people into categories and then to treat those categories as if they’re completely immutable. 

Morris: Part of what’s interesting to me about what you were just saying is that even the categories between the other categories get described as fixed or immutable. That’s exactly what you were just saying, but … monolithic. 

Do you want to talk about the idea of “stifled grief” in the book or is that something you would rather not? 

Petrosino No, we can talk about that if you want to. Sure. Let me open up your email.

Morris: And this is in relation to your Italian grandfather—

Petrosino: Yes. So, you ask, “Is the project for you also about allowing grief its space?” Yes, it is. It goes back to what I was saying before about presence and absence. You know, my grandfather, in completing suicide in the way that he did, removed himself from presence. But yet that particular act—the tragedy of it—has had this resonating presence in my life. But it also, for a very long time, seemed to be something that I shouldn’t talk about, both the action itself, like what happened, but also the way that it affected me. That’s probably because there are societal taboos about speaking about suicide, and also the Roman Catholic Church: it’s maybe one of the worst sins in the traditional teachings of the church. And so, you know, that makes it difficult for people to talk about things that happen. 

These things happen, and these departures cause us to feel grief and mourning. You know, I was just in Italy for a little while, and speaking Italian is a really emotional experience for me. I have reached a level of proficiency with the language that allows me to be in Italy and feel pretty comfortable interacting in Italian. I was able to have long conversations with people about all kinds of things, and the musicality and the sound of the language, also being in Italy and looking around at things: these were constant reminders of the Italian side of my family, in a different but related way to the way that being in rural Virginia is a constant reminder of the African American side of my family, and the Afro-Virginian, we’ll say, side of my family. 

Being in those environments and in those spaces and speaking a language that is present but also evocative of ancestors who are now absent or distant is a complex, resonant, and rich experience for me. I did feel, I think, for many years, that there was no place in my writing for this particular grief, and that I would have to stifle it. That I would have to write about other things or not write about my grandfather. And actually there’s quite a lot of joy when I think about my grandfather’s legacy, when I’m reminded of things, when I see things that he would have liked or when I put together something about the way that he would do things and then I go to Italy and I see people doing things that way. Those are moments of joy for me. And those are the things that I want to focus on. 

Morris: Yeah, I love that, and I could feel that in the book when you write about him, you know, being in the garden—

Petrosino: Yeah. And my African American grandfather also had an amazing garden, and I have memories of walking in the garden with him. I don’t know why grandfathers do this stuff, but it seems like there’s something grandfatherly about having a garden and tending to and having that connection to nature and then allowing the grandchild to be near when those things are going on. That feels important on both sides. 

Morris: Okay, Kiki. This has been really a lovely conversation for me. The book was also really meaningful for me to read, and I’m glad to have met you. 

Petrosino: Me too. The questions were very resonant and thoughtful. Thank you so much. 


Kiki Petrosino is the author of White Blood: a Lyric of Virginia (2020) and three other poetry books, as well as the memoir Bright (2022), all from Sarabande. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. She directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Virginia, where she is a Professor of Poetry. Petrosino is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Fellowship in Creative Writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, the UNT Rilke Prize, & the Spalding Prize, among other honors.

Son of an African American father and a white mother, Matthew Morris most often writes through questions of race, identity, family history, and love. His essays appear in Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, and Mid-American Review, among others. He was born and raised in Virginia and studied nonfiction in the MFA program at the University of Arizona, defending his thesis, “Ghost Hand,” in May of 2021. 

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