Indeed, Korfhage has all the power of the poets that preceded her, but it is in her delicate attention to delivering her version of the human condition that she stands on her own. We Aren't Who We Are and This World Isn't Either is really the wild tale of a unique life filled with sorrows and beautiful things. Korfhage is able to transport you right into the moment, standing there with her next to a casket, where her grandfather sleeps with a White Owl Cigar in his breast pocket (Joe II) — or in Manila where she, at fifteen, walks with her love Paqui around the American Military Cemetary (On The Outskirts of Manila). Above all, her work makes you think about life — not just hers, but your own, along with all of the little things within that make it real.
We Aren't Who We Are — And This World Isn't Either
Read Christine Korfhage's Divorce, reprinted with permission by CavanKerry Press.
We Aren't Who We Are tells the story of my childhood spent traveling around the world, my mother's illness, my father's frequent absences, an intense first love—and how all of this affected my adult life. The poems also deal with a search for meaning, and the healing power of both therapy and poetry.
I didn't have a goal for the book because I didn't set out to write a book. From the moment when the lines in my journal began to break (the poem “Rhyme” describes this moment) my only goal was to write that poem. And then another. And another. I was on a language quest. No matter how long it took, I wanted to find the initiating phrase or image, then follow it, losing and finding, writing and rewriting, immersing myself in the work of getting at and telling the truth, until the words on the page no longer needed me and could stand their own. A poem. Only after writing many many poems did I begin to see that I was writing the story of my life.
You were born in Albany, NY – but grew up in different countries. Your poetry certainly reveals this, with poems like “Divorce,” where you tell the reader you lived in Manila. Location, to me is another character in your poetry. How does geography inspire you?
When I was eight years old my father's job required that we move from Albany to a small village on the coast of Spain. Of course I missed my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends back home, but I loved the adventure of living in a different country, and I embraced the people, culture, and language wholeheartedly. Learning to speak in a “foreign tongue”--the way those words felt in my mouth—was thrilling to me, not to mention how it felt to be understood when I let those words out. The sights, smells, food, customs (bull fights!), so unlike anything I'd known, made a huge and lasting impression on me. It was the same wherever we lived. Perhaps as a way of orienting myself to each new place, it became my habit to observe the world around me in a way that made it part of who I am. It's only natural that this would come out in my writing.
It's interesting that you mention the poem “Divorce.” It took me years to write it. Early on I had written a very minor poem praising Srta. Martinez, my high school Spanish teacher in Manila. That little poem was the best I could do at the time. Yet I knew that there was a much deeper and more complex story under that poem—if only I could get to it. The idea of the larger poem gnawed at me and from time to time I'd try to write it, but I always failed. I was sure that poem existed inside me, and it hurt to think that it was beyond my reach. Finally, just before We Aren't Who We Are was accepted for publication, I tried again, and this time the larger poem yielded. The experience confirmed to me that artistic and psychological readiness go hand in hand, and where they intersect determines the poem I'm capable of writing.
When reading your poetry, I can't help but feel like a lucky fly on the wall, listening in to the secrets of a life that isn't mine. You give the reader a true sense of who you are—everything you remember and feel is placed before us, big and wide. It seems you are very able to confront your ghosts. Can you elaborate on how you execute your vivid method of writing?
We all have “iconic” memories—images and bits of conversations from the past that bubble up again and again. One of the reasons they stay with us, I think, is that they're loaded with meaning. As a writer, I try to mine those memories. Often, I fail. But when I'm successful, what they yield is gold. Once a poem is underway, it's a 24 hour thing--a labor of love. I may not always be at the computer or sitting with pen and paper, but wherever I go, that poem is with me. Little by little it takes shape. When I get stuck, I look forward to going to sleep at night so I can give my conscious mind a rest and let my unconscious take over. As I immerse myself in this creative act, details surface, connections, leaps to the unexpected are made. The poem unfolds. The heart opens. For me, poems can't be rushed. They have to be dug for and this takes time.
The late poet, Stanley Kunitz, spoke about making our stories important, turning them into legends. He said, “The truth's a great adventure. Might as well tell it.” Kunitz was talking about emotional truth, not necessarily literal truth, though my poems do tend to stay close to the actual narrative. There are poems in We Aren't Who We Are that contain material which at first I shied away from using (“oh, no, not that!”), but then I'd remind myself that what matters is the poem. If something works, it stays in. If not, it comes out. The poem knows best. Writing poems is part of my effort to heed the message of the Oracle of Delphi: “Know Thyself.” And reading and writing poetry has taught me that on the deepest level what is true for one human being is often true for all.
You started writing in your late 40's—after having kept journals. What sparked the necessity for poetry? Did you always have the urge to write.
Journal writing allowed me to make contact with myself and to reflect on my thoughts. After I entered therapy I'd often start a session by reading an entry, and then sometimes my therapist would read a poem from one of the many books he kept in his office. Once he encouraged me to try writing a poem, but I resisted. Like many people, I thought poets were people born with poetry genes, and I didn't have them. Then in spite of myself, one day while writing in my journal, I began a poem. Perhaps, like Maxine Kumin said, I didn't start writing poems because I wanted to, but because I had to.
Those first poems were urgent and very poorly made. It didn't matter. As my attention turned to this practice there were moments when I felt unified. Most remarkably, as scenes, images, and bits of conversations that had haunted me since childhood found their way into my work, they no longer invaded my thoughts. I think the reason for this is that poetry goes deeper than journal writing. And the finished poem is a made object that exists outside the poet.
Liz Rosenberg said your writing is colloquial, like the great writers Sharon Olds and Marie Howe. When you started writing poetry, did you write what felt natural or did you study the form and style of other poets?
My early poems were vague. I tried to be poetic. I often rushed to the end. It took a lot of reading and writing for me to be able to sustain my focus--to hang in there and let the poem lead me rather than run away from it. Gradually, I began to sound like myself.
Reading and writing, reading and writing--it's the only way, I think. And it's important to read not just contemporary poets, but poets from the past. At first I was intimidated to go to the past, but once I learned to let my favorite modern poets lead me back it was easier and I enjoyed it. For instance, I love Jane Kenyon's work. Through her poetry I learned that she loved Keats, so I read Keats. Jane also loved Akhmatova, who loved Pushkin, so I followed those threads, too. Similarly, Marie Howe's poems led me to Stanley Kunitz, who held my hand while I read Baudelaire and William Blake. On and on.
We can see your life blossom throughout your book. What is the one thing that life has taught you, or what is it that has made you strong through the years, despite struggles and darkness.
I've learned that life is full of possibilities. And out of the darkest times can come unexpected beauty and self-renewal. Therapy has been a great help to me. And poetry.
Robert Bly has said:
My feeling is that poetry is also a healing process, and then when a
person tries to write poetry with depth or beauty, he will find himself
guided along paths which will heal him, and this is more important,
actually, than any of the poetry he writes.
What is your advice for emerging writers, or for writers who haven't yet found their own voice?
Don't be in a hurry to send your poems out. Getting poems published won't improve your life, at least not on a deep level. It won't help you “Know yourself.” But writing will. So read and write, and read and write, and read and write. It's hard work, but good hard--one of the most valuable things that you can do. Please don't cheat yourself by trying to enter the marketplace too soon. What's the hurry? Wait. Wait until you have a strong body of work. You're worth it.