Interview by Caitlin McCann, Originally appeared in StorySouth, Back Issue #41
Kathleen Driskell’s most recent book, Next Door to the Dead, is a Kentucky Voices selection published by The University Press of Kentucky. In this collection of poetry, Driskell reflects upon the experience of living next door to a graveyard. A graveyard she was initially led to believe was full, essentially inactive. She quickly discovered the opposite was true when one afternoon she had to bring in groceries while a funeral was being held next door—a moment she recounts in “Living Next to the Dead Acre.” Then there are also the teenagers who think themselves to be bold and cool to creep around a cemetery in the middle of the night, which she writes about in “What Haunts” But Driskell does not stay on our plane of existence for very long. The poems shift into the perspectives of the graveyard’s inhabitants, thus creating a community that would not otherwise exist. Each neighbor’s resurrected voice is distinct, relatable, and poignant. Driskell’s ability to make the 167-year-old death of a mother and her infant in “Markers” feel fresh and personal is astounding. Driskell writes of her neighbors with such tenderness and reverence. She is able to transcend the book’s focused location to deftly speak on themes and societal issues like love, war, fried chicken, and the female mummy in “Tchaenhotep: Mummy at the Kentucky Science Center” who is doomed to be the subject of the male gaze. Driskell’s voice as a poet is admirable—there is strength in its quietude, and it is this subtle strength that allows Next Door to the Dead to resonate long after you have read the last poem.
CAITLIN McCANN: The epitaphs are my favorite part of Next Door to the Dead. They’re so poignant, and they just do so much in so few lines. I’m obsessed. I am really interested to know the writing process behind these shorter ones. Did you have to do a lot of cutting and rewriting to achieve that brevity? Did you use original epitaphs as a jumping off point? Were these written for the actual residents in the graveyard or did you toss in some fictional residents? There are some poems in the collection that have a subtle humor, like “Epitaph: Dear Departed Dave, He Chased a Bear into a Cave” and “Epitaph: For Colonel Sanders.” Was it a conscious move to balance the book’s darker subject matter by bringing in poems that play around with elements of humor?
KATHLEEN DRISKELL: Ah, I’m so glad you like them. The epitaph poems were the last batch I worked on for this collection, but I’d begun thinking about writing them as soon as I realized all my graveyard poems might be adding up to a book. In my mind, Next Door to the Dead isn’t about death. It’s about love living in the midst of death and so I wanted to bring lots of different colors into the book.
One of the other things I wanted to achieve with the well-known epitaphs was to contemporize them—though the book is filled with poems that reach back in time, I didn’t want it to feel as it was all set in the past. After all, the past, even the ancient past, always lives in the present, as Faulkner rightly tells us.
Though ultimately not all of the epitaph poems turned out to be humorous, my initial reason for writing them was to lighten the book. I think that happens best with the more well-known epitaphs I borrowed from the world, such as “Jesus Called and Wanda Answered” and “Dear Departed Dave.” Once I got going and found other holes to fill in the book, I made up some epitaphs. I thought a poem about Harland Sanders could be funny, for instance, and could be placed strategically in the book to provide a bit of relief for the reader, so I let it be goofy and over-written—but I think the companion poem “At Harland Sanders’ Grave,” the poem about his wife, Claudia, is the far better of the two, as it gives, I hope, the reader something to mull below the surface. No pun intended.
Some of the epitaphs just went to dark places and I couldn’t quite pull them back, so I accepted them for what they were: “Epitaph: He Never Killed a Man Who Didn’t Need Killing,” for instance, is a poem I wrote about the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Beyond the concern of varying the tone throughout the book, I also wanted to intersperse some short poems to allow the reader to catch breath after long dark poems. Some poets are known for writing a certain kind of poem and often that means a certain length of poem, but I like to ask the content for its form and length. And when collecting a book, differing rhythms and lengths are tools to use when ordering. Short poems seem to me to have more temporal space around them and can change up the pacing, providing needed variation in the music that runs through the entire book. I hope.
In terms of craft, yes, absolutely, short poems are more difficult to write than long poems, for me and likely most everyone else. “Cemetery Irony” came to me instantly, but I fiddled and fiddled with the other epitaph poems. It’s ridiculous how long I pondered where the commas should go. Or sometimes one word seemed off just a bit. In a longer poem that word might take cover, but in a short poem, especially, each word has a spotlight shining on it. And I spent an inordinate amount of time deciding which word would fall at the ends and beginnings of lines, because those positions carry even more weight than usual in a short poem.
On the other hand, in the epitaphs I didn’t have to worry too much about titles, which always have to do a ton of work at the top, and carry more burden in a short poem. No problem there. Most of those decisions were already made for me.
McCANN: What finally made you sit down and start writing about this graveyard? Was there a specific grave that moved you, an inciting incident? Did your mind just become too full with ideas? Or did you just immediately sit down and start writing about your neighbors?
DRISKELL: The poem early in the book “Living Next to the Dead Acre,” really is based on a series of events that happened when we first took possession of the church. At the real estate closing, the preacher we bought it from told us all the burial sites were full, so you can imagine my surprise coming home from a quick trip to the grocery a few weeks later to find a hearse in my driveway. Over the past twenty years, there have been about a dozen new burials, and though I’m never spooked by this—that’s just not in my sensibility—it always gives me a start to look out my laundry room window to see gravediggers dragging their shovels across the cemetery.
My earlier book Seed Across Snow is, though less obviously, about the ironies of living, particularly as an unbeliever, in an old church and there are a couple of poems about the graveyard in it, but not as many as I felt called to write. Then, a few years ago, a young man, a member of a family living down the road, stopped on the highway to help a woman change a tire and he was hit by a semi passing by. We weren’t close to his family, but “D’s” brother and sister were classmates of our two kids, rode the school bus with them every day, and that’s how we learned that D had been hit, was in a coma, then, sadly, taken off life support.
It never occurred to me that D would be buried next door, but the day he died I looked out the window to see a grave was being dug and instantly chilled knowing it was for him. Because D was so young, in his early twenties, and his death was sudden, and my children weren’t much younger than him, the whole ordeal kind of settled into my bones in a way other burials hadn’t. The other interments were of elderly, filling ancient lone spots in a family plot, seeming inevitable, but we all know when a young person dies it feels unnatural.
It seemed so darkly odd to go on with my vacuuming the day of his graveside service, to clean out a closet, the refrigerator, all things one might do on a Saturday, all things his mother might have been doing on that Saturday if not for a freak accident. But I instantly understood it was a metaphor, too, a metaphor that Dickinson understood long before me.
What I hadn’t understood that day is that a young person’s grave is a hub of activity. Unlike the grave of an elderly person who might be the last surviving member of his or her generation, in the days, weeks—years—after the burial, there was a steady pilgrimage of young people and family members to D’s grave. And odd things were constantly left there. On my way to the mailbox, I’d notice something blowing in the wind and realize it was a new Mylar balloon wishing D, I suppose, a Happy New Year’s. At my bedroom window at night, I can see a solar light blinking at his grave. Stuffed animals. A UK Wildcats pennant.
Well, you know, poetry doesn’t solve, but it does soothe, and though, of course, I understand my discomfort is trivial compared to the deep deep pain of the D’s family, death is always something shared. Looking for some solace, I sat down to write and a few days later had drafted “The Mower,” and then “Consolation,” and then other poems just began to pour out of me.
People often ask me if it feels oppressive to live next to a graveyard. I’ve tried to answer that question in Next Door to the Dead, to say that living here I do feel a palpable weight upon me, but that weight isn’t a burden, it’s ballast. It would be difficult to live here and not always be aware that my life and the lives of those I love so dearly are temporal and fleeting and the unexpected is just that, something we won’t be prepared for. I feel like I need to weight each day with things and actions that are meaningful. I’m not successful most of the time, but that feeling stays ever present with me and I’m grateful for it.
McCANN: Did you do you any research about the residents in the graveyard, or did you draw your own conclusions about their lives and deaths? Did you feel any type of pressure or duty to “get it right” since these people existed at one point in time?
DRISKELL: A few years ago a descendant of one of the founding church families was kind enough to give me a book of records he had collected, old church minutes, burial records, things of that sort. It wasn’t until then I realized the nubby rocks in the far overgrown corner of the graveyard are the markers of a slave family. Thinking about them brought me “At the Grave of the Girl Slave,” “Border State,” and “Epitaph: For Uncle Joe, the Slave,” but clearly those poems are founded in my own imaginings. As far as I know there isn’t any other specific information about that family, which is a great evil, especially if one feels, as I do, that an afterlife is only achieved by keeping alive the stories of others who have gone before.
Somehow, maybe because the graveyard is such a reality in my life, I’m not always comfortable writing about the factual lives of those buried there. “The Mower” does mention some artifacts found on the D’s grave, but the poem itself conflates the story of another death I wanted to write about as well, someone who isn’t buried next door.
Other truths have made their way into my poems. You could find the six small headstones mentioned in “In Praise,” in the cemetery next door, but you won’t find the name “Sarah Blakemore” on any headstone there. In “Markers,” I write of a father burying the ashes of his daughter who was killed in a car accident, and that happened, but it would be audacious to think I could rightfully depict his grief. All I can do is bear witness to it.
McCANN: Did you make regular visits to the graveyard while working on this collection? Did field trips to the graves become part of your writing process?
DRISKELL: Well, I often do walk there, that’s true, but I don’t have to step through the gate to have it in my thoughts. The graveyard is about ten feet from my bedroom window. I have a clothes line that hangs on the galley porch, where I can look out over the cemetery as I pin sheets to dry. I have a border garden of iris and peonies planted along the picket fence separating our yard from the cemetery. Our dogs bark and paw at the doors each time they sense a visitor walking there. That cemetery is just a fact of my day-to-day life.
McCANN: What’s up next for you? I know you have Blue Etiquette coming out this year with Red Hen Press. Does your new book extend beyond your home and neighbors, or does it extend beyond that?
DRISKELL: Blue Etiquette is inspired in large part by Emily Post’s first edition of Etiquette, often called the “blue book of etiquette” because it was originally published with a blue linen cover. Some years ago, I picked up a copy in a used book store and became completely obsessed with Post’s advice to the American upper crust to help them properly manage their domestic servants. I soon realized my family could be found in the pages of that book, but we weren’t doing the hiring, we were doing the cooking and cleaning. I’d been wanting to write about class in America, and have admired and felt moved by the work poems of Philip Levine, so I set out to write some of my own poems that explore the working, particularly the working lives of women, which I don’t see often explored.
Post was actually quite a good imaginative writer, and created a slew of archetypal characters to model good and bad behavior: the Worldly’s, the Gilding’s, the Oldlineage’s, as well as the frightfully ignorant Young Marrieds. I have appropriated some of them and plunked them down into my poems—but I’ve given them lives as elites ruling over the coal and horse and Bourbon country of Kentucky, and I’ve created characters, based on my people, family and whatnot, as foils.
And back to the subject of mortality, there are poems in the new book about mourning I’ve written in response to Post’s rules on funereal etiquette. Some are for my father, some are for co-workers, and I’ve included a poem for my dear friend Claudia Emerson, to whom Blue Etiquette is dedicated.
Award-winning poet and teacher Kathleen Driskell is Professor of Creative Writing and serves as the Associate Program Director of Spalding University’s low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program in Louisville, Kentucky. In 2013, she was awarded the honor of Outstanding Faculty Member by the trustees of Spalding University. Her newest collection of poetry Blue Etiquette was published by Red Hen Press in 2016. Next Door to the Dead, was published as a Kentucky Voices Selection, by the University Press of Kentucky in 2015. Kathleen lives outside Louisville with her husband and two children in an old country church built before The American Civil War.