NW: For context, I’ve just watched a documentary on The Carpenters & am listening to them while writing this. I was wondering while reading your collection when it became just that: a collection. The poems fit alongside one another so well that it’s hard to imagine them without each other. Do you always keep your poems close to each other, or was it only through making a decision to create a pamphlet that you decided to bring them together?
FK: A cluster of poems in the collection (Annie, A 33 Year Old Man Is Obsessed With Me, Father, The Goddess) were written within a very short period of my life—the summer and autumn of 2014, when I had just graduated high school and was moving to another country. I was just realizing that the poems I was writing had a similar style and voice connecting them, so I started to compile them into Word documents together but not really thinking about getting them published as a collection. I tend to have documents with a few poems in them at a time that I think work well together, and then sometimes merge or switch out poems from those smaller documents as I edit them. I didn’t even decide that I wanted to publish those poems, plus newer ones I had written, as a pamphlet until around early 2016, when I was submitting IT FELT LIKE WORSHIP to a few different places and testing the waters to see if anyone would even be willing to publish it. And the collection I’m working on now has been largely the same way, with smaller collections of poems merging and growing as I continue to write and edit until what feels like a cohesive collection has been born.
NW: The way narration works is very interesting—it’s not always obvious who a poem is addressing (if anyone in the literal sense of the word). This is what makes the opening poem linger afterwards, the intimacy of the address to Annie. The first poem is great because there are so many images in which are refused later in the poem in different contexts, like, the “angel wings,” or “cheap ice cream.” Is this why this poem comes first? Is address something you think about when writing your poems?
FK: The notable thing about Annie, and the reason why that poem opens the collection, is that it is the only poem in the entire collection that is very clearly (in my mind) addressed to a real, singular, tangible person—my friend Annie. That poem is maybe the most honest, direct poem I’ve ever written just because every image in it can be traced to something real and physical that happened. I think because the images in it are so real and therefore visceral to me, and the events of that poem were a huge deal in my life at the time, I use those images in other poems as a sort of base and build on them. I put Sitting In Front Of Our Lockers In High School (a poem I wrote maybe a year after I wrote Annie, after I had distanced myself from high school and my life during it) next to Annie because of the recurring “angel wings” image that now meant something else to me but was rooted in the events and images in Annie. Later in the collection I have the poem Wedding Cake (“meat without salt/men without anger”) next to the poem Bones (“i am my own pestle eating the dust/of my self/butcher & lamb/a piece of meat/salted”), even though I wrote those poems a few months apart from one another, because the image of salted meat felt so significant. But I also didn’t purposely write those poems with the same image—it was very subconscious and a sign to me that these poems should become a collection.
NW: With regards to the themes which are explored and connected in so many great ways within the piece, I wondered of their relevance to your own life (if any) - I think particularly the religious imagery had this effect on me. It made me wonder what role religion has played in your life, if any, and how you feel about incorporating it?
FK: My relationship with religion is complicated by the fact that I’m still living within a religious world—my family is Greek Orthodox, and I go to church pretty regularly. There are a lot of aspects of this religion that disgust me, like how if you’re menstruating you can’t get communion, you’re not supposed to marry outside of the religion, etc. The trappings this religion have surrounded me my entire life. And like Catholic guilt there’s Greek Orthodox guilt. I went to a Greek Orthodox summer camp once and spent hours in the bathroom in the basement of the chapel just crying and crying. It’s something that permeates me profoundly and I don’t think I could ignore it in my writing. But I still feel bad—for lack of a better word, and also I think “bad” sums it up in a really childlike, black-and-white sense—when I write about religion, like I could get in trouble. Poems like Father and Being Adam/Being Eve were hard to write not because the ideas for them were hard to develop but because I lived, and still live, in an environment where you shouldn’t say anything bad about the church, because the church is your community and your life.
NW: I remember reading in a review of your work that you invoke within your work an “America” of “deep fried candy.” Maybe I’ve misremembered it. This being said, it is hard to read your writing without thinking about America and how it has been presented in poetry. Do you feel a weight, or responsibility, around writing about your “America” in this day and age? Do you think that when a poet writes about America (or a creative explores their own country as a theme) that there is an obligation to be critical? Did you write these poems with a particular “America” you wanted to invoke or did it arise?
FK: Most of these poems were written while I was living in England. I had never been out of America for so long, so it was easy to write about my experience of living in America while I was distanced from it. I think the way I write about America is affected most by the fact that I’m Greek American, and the way my parents and my grandparents are hesitant and often unwilling to consider themselves American—my mom is always saying, like, “Ugh, those Americans.” So I’ve never felt 100 percent American but also never 100 percent Greek. I’m critical of America mostly because of my upbringing, but I also attribute a lot of it to being from Chicago, which has made me aware of a lot of deeply embedded flaws in America that I probably wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise. Living in England, and also traveling throughout Greece for a month this summer, didn’t necessarily make me feel like being more or less critical of America, but I noticed issues of segregation, injustice, intolerance in those places because my eyes had been opened to those glaring flaws by living in America. The motif of “deep fried Oreos” comes up in a lot of my poems because I remember the first time I saw them at the Mall of America as a distinctly disturbing moment in my life, something so sickly and pallid that it was hard to look at, and harder to imagine to swallow. And living in America is sometimes like being forced to swallow.
NW: One of the main ideas I got from the work, and which I really “felt” was this anxiety around gender. Or how difficult it is to turn from a girl into a woman and I think the pamphlet inhabits the space between both of these things. One of the blurbs for your chapbook says that you “bridge girlhood and womanhood with beautiful imagery, attempting to balance loss of power.” Whereas, I feel like in the pamphlet the reader is sucked into that world of the in-between, toing and froing inside it, with no indication of which direction they are being pulled into (girl or woman). I’m thinking of your lines, such as, “the goddess of being hit to hard” and also the end of the first poem “we’d never admit it, Annie but it felt like worship.” So much of the female experience is self-punishment for enjoying the things that we know we shouldn’t enjoy (& also which reinforce negative stereotypes e.g., the woman who is asking for it. As someone who has written about BDSM it’s something I think about a lot). So my question to you would be, in what ways do you personally draw the line between what you want and what society wants? Not that it’s possible to do that but I suppose I’m wondering if you are writing this poetry to compensate it in some way?
FK: Identifying as a woman in the world is a lot like not existing at all sometimes. I never know what I should do or what I should say, what I will get in trouble for or what will be deemed acceptable behavior, so that I often end up not doing or saying anything. It’s so hard for me to draw that line, to identify who I really am, if that is anyone at all. I remember seeing a post on Tumblr that was like, “Virgos come back as a different person every time you see them.” I’m guilty of that, and I don’t know if that’s because I’m a Virgo or because I’m a non-cis-man in a patriarchal space. Something that I think about a lot, and something I think you can see in poems like This Is Hardcore (“my heart is/a trailer park/i’ll let anything/in”) and Not Mine (“but i/’m just how/u made me”), is this constant, constant lack of sureness and therefore a lack of self. And in the poem Swan I write: “contorting my bones/a swan nestled in itself”—our bodies doing the impossible, the unnatural; they’re soft, unformed, weak. Do I like being hit during sex? Do I like who I am? Do I know who I am? I don’t know if I do, and that’s such a loss of power that I struggle with throughout this collection and still/now/always.
NW: I think I would also want to ask what project you are (if any) currently working on? If there are themes you are not done yet exploring and if so what these are?
FK: I’m trying to complete a full-length collection of poems, tentatively titled Bittering. They’re more playful in form and maybe more daring than the poems in IFLW, but I think some of the themes are definitely similar: Trying to understand my own mind, trying to feel at home in my own body. Thinking about my family, my family history—my great-grandmother who had my Greek name (Euphrosyne, meaning “gleefulness” or “delighfulness”) died during childbirth. And the saint who we were named for disguised herself as a man to live as a monk. I’m writing about Princess Diana and thinking about Claudia Rankine’s quote from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: “From behind a screen of smoke my grandmother says, We should all change our names when we don’t like what we see in the mirror.” Trying to figure out what I see in the mirror, why I don’t like it, what my name is/what I should change it to.
NW: Also what’s with these wedding cakes getting punched and knifed?
FK: When we moved into the house I lived in when I was younger, there were these holes punched and kicked into the walls and doors. And while we lived there, more holes got punched and kicked in. I was thinking of the home as a soft wedding cake, so easily damaged. And like Lisa Simpson in that episode where she destroys the cake that says “Happy Labor Day Lenny” out of pure hunger—my favorite scene in TV show history, maybe.
NW: ALSO: I feel like you must have had such a backlog of inspiration that went behind these poems. I wondered if there are films or music I could listen to which might add some more context to which I could bring to my reading of your work? Like footnotes I guess?
FK: My poem This Is Hardcore was indirectly influenced by the Pulp song/music video by the same name—the heavy, cinematic element of it and of being a fake, an actor in your own life even in the most intimate moments, and nothing is pure. I have a playlist I constantly listen to while writing that’s simply titled with the seashell emoji, which I picked because all the songs are kinda hazy and distant and make me feel like I should be half-sleeping at the beach, and being put in that mood improves my writing somehow. Some of the songs on that playlist are First Love / Late Spring by Mitski, Playground Love by Air (from The Virgin Suicides soundtrack), Spit on a Stranger by Pavement, Lost by Chance the Rapper, Velvet Ring by Big Thief, Nancy From Now On by Father John Misty, Yesterday by Noname, God Bless The Child by Billie Holiday, and I Can Dream, Can’t I by The Carpenters. The Carpenters are so great to listen to while writing because their lyrics, and Karen’s voice itself, are so celestial and poetic that it’s impossible not to be moved by them/it/her. I also listen to a lot of Dory Previn while writing (especially Beware of Young Girls, Did Jesus Have A Baby Sister, Lady With The Braid, With My Daddy In The Attic, Lemon Haired Ladies) because she’s such a bitter woman but also so gentle and forgiving and sensitive.
NW: I think Americana definitely hit me the hardest. I’m so glad you wrote that poem. Was there a particular idea behind it? Also the idea of a girl throwing up and walking on that sea—where did that come from? I think poetry is great because sometimes you get to see yourself in someone else writing. There’s that moment of recognition and connection which is forged. The thing is I never expected to recognise the part of myself which I saw in Americana and it made me feel powerful.
FK: I was on vacation with my family in Florida and it was so hot and I couldn’t sleep one night and heard the sounds of the dryer and the air conditioner and thought for sure someone was going to murder me. I felt so trapped and was thinking of all the institutions that make me feel that way, mostly religion and men. Which are so intertwined. And I was thinking about all the times men have treated me like dirt or did things to me that I didn’t know if I wanted or not and I stood there and did nothing. I think the reasons I called it Americana were that I was in Florida, which feels like an absurd and concentrated form of the rest of America, and that I was thinking about American Girl dolls and being an American Girl doll. But I’m also glad that you recognized yourself in it, and I love that through a loss of personal power there is still power to be regained somehow.
NW: Also I wondered (well I think we’ve had a similar conversation before) that if you associated yourself with a body of water, would it be the sea? I’ve recently come to the realisation that I am a well. Jokes. I would also here refer to a lyric in Jamila Woods song LSD in which the chorus is “you wanna love me/ better love the lake.” I heard that and was like, yeah.
FK: I just listened to that song for the first time and it was amazing. She’s from Chicago so I’m 99% sure she’s referencing Lake Michigan and the highway that goes along the lake, Lake Shore Drive (LSD). I love the lake but I prefer the sea, with all its salt. It burns and it can hurt, it’s rough and horrifying and sad, it’s filled with writhing things, it has its moods, but it demands respect. The ocean is my role model. Also, doesn’t being depressed feel like drowning in an ocean more than anything else? Like the ocean is within you and you’re drowning in yourself. That’s how it feels to me.
Get a copy of IT FELT LIKE WORSHIP here.
Francesca Kritikos is from Chicago. Her poetry has been published in Bunny Mag, Peach Mag, Hobart, Hotdog Mag, and more. Her first chapbook of poems, IT FELT LIKE WORSHIP, was published by Sad Spell Press in June 2017. She tweets @sappho1996.