Art Talk with NEA Literature Fellow Kiki Petrosino

By Rebecca Sutton
Headshot of woman with curly short black hair, big black glasses and large dangly earrings

Poet and NEA Literature Fellow Kiki Petrosino. Photo courtesy of Kiki Petrosino

In many ways, NEA Creative Writing Fellow Kiki Petrosino’s latest book, White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia, is deeply personal, exploring the genealogy and legacy of her African-American ancestors in Virginia. At the same time, she grapples with the messy history of slavery and discrimination in America, and of the sometimes difficult, often abiding choices that families of every stripe have to make. It’s part of Petrosino’s unique ability as a poet to capture the expansive within the intimate, the ungainly within precise poetic forms.

To research White Blood, which will be published on May 5 by Sarabande Press, Petrosino consulted with historians and archivists, and delved into primary source material, giving her a rich background to imagine and honor her ancestors. It marks the fourth full-length book for Petrosino, who also teaches poetry at the University of Virginia. We recently spoke with Petrosino about White Blood, how she pushes herself creatively, and how writing helps her make sense of her world.

NEA: How did you first fall in love with poetry?

KIKI PETROSINO: I think that it happened during my early childhood during a time when my mom was a stay-at-home mom. My parents were both public school teachers, but in my early childhood my mom took a break from teaching and she stayed home with my sister and me. That meant that my dad had to take on extra teaching, so he would teach in the public schools in Baltimore for the whole instructional day and then at night he would adjunct at different community colleges. But the other quirk about our family is that only my mom drove—she was the only one who had a driver's license. So that meant that my dad would have to be picked up and dropped off at his various teaching jobs.

I definitely remember leaving the house at night to go get my dad from one of the community college campuses in the Baltimore area. We would be in our pajamas and she would bundle us up into our coats and put us in the car. While we were doing that, we were always listening to the radio. Music was a huge part of my upbringing because of my mother's great love of all kinds of music. On those particular drives, we would often be listening to top 40 stations. The music at that time was a lot of '80s pop, a lot of George Michael and Prince and Dire Straits. We would have little conversations in the car about what the songs were about, how the singers were feeling, what kind of emotion was imparted through the music and what was the storyline. I really credit those times of active listening with the beginnings of me forming a sensibility as a poet.

NEA: Do you still consider music to be an influence on your work?

PETROSINO: Definitely. I'm more of a music enthusiast at this point than a performer myself, although I did spend several years as a choir nerd in high school and also in my undergraduate days, so singing was important to me during my coming of age. I think that I write as much by ear as by sight or as by intellect. I've been interested in the properties of sound that a word may have, and when I'm writing a new piece I do read the piece aloud to myself until it sounds right. So there's something about the musicality of poetry that keeps me in that genre.

NEA: White Blood is coming out soon, and I know it explores ancestors of yours who were slaves. You've talked about literacy before regarding the book, and I was wondering what it was like to bring your ancestors to life using this tool—literacy—that they weren't permitted to have.

PETROSINO: When I talk about those ancestors, I talk about them as being enslaved rather than slaves. I talk about them being enslaved since they each had identities beyond the circumstances of their enslavement. I also talk about them being enslaved and free because I have ancestors that had both circumstances in their lives. There are also ancestors who might have been "free" and thus not enslaved by any particular estate, but they may have been married to a person who was enslaved. So the whole complex fabric of that period of American history became clearer to me in one sense in researching the book, but then it also became so much more complex to understand the kind of ways that enslavement and white supremacy attempted to proscribe their lives.

Because I was sensitive to the fact that my ancestors in large part didn't have the skills that I have of reading and writing, I didn't want to create poems in which I, as the poet, am attempting to speak on their behalf or to speak as them. I really wanted to preserve the silences that I found in the historical record rather than create a voice for them. I felt like that was my job—to point out the fact that we don't have these voices directly, at least not in written language. It made me think too about what my definition of literacy is. Prior to writing this book, I thought about literacy as the ability to read and write, maybe even also to enjoy those processes of reading and writing.

But the more that I researched my ancestors' lives, I realized that they didn't have that literacy as I defined it, but they were very literate of the landscape that they worked as farmers and laborers. They could read the land, they could read the weather, they were literate of the social and political environments around them. They took great pains to keep their families together at a time when it was quite common for families to be separated through sale or gift and through war. So as I was going on this journey, I realized that my ancestors had left plenty for me to read: they left the land that they had owned, they left the burial grounds where they had buried their loved ones, they left their names. That was a lot in itself even though at the beginning of the project, I didn't understand that. I came to an understanding of it by the end.

NEA: You mentioned that when you started researching and writing White Blood, it opened up new questions. I was wondering whether it's more typical for you that writing brings you closer to some sort of understanding of a topic, or whether it unlocks new intellectual and artistic paths that you need to explore?

PETROSINO: I think it's a combination of both. What poetry allows and affords is the ability to express and explore a theme, but in a form. In order to write a book like this, I needed to identify a suite of forms that I thought would effectively convey my sense of the theme. So in all of my books, I utilize a variety of poetic forms. In this book I use erasure poetry, I use different aspects of documentary poetry, triolets (a Medieval French form), and there are even a couple of villanelles in there. So every discovery that you make, you're learning something about the subject itself. But then there's the poet sensibility that comes in and says, "How does it feel to know this thing? How does this knowledge actually feel in the mind?" Sometimes the knowledge feels circular—something like a villanelle that has a repeated structure can help express that. Or sometimes the knowledge feels very spiky and incomplete, and therefore a form with visual and sonic silence might be the way that you would want to go.

NEA: Do you find that experimenting with different forms pushes you creatively as well to new places?

PETROSINO: Definitely. Part of the joy of writing poetry for me is the joy of experimenting with forms that I've never tried before. That does push me in different directions. You can also invent forms in poetry—you can come up with something that works for the occasion of that poem. Form—that container—paradoxically is generative. It makes language come out, it makes you innovate with language and get away from your habitual way of describing things. It makes it feel new, and that's what I want to pursue in my writing.

NEA: Is there a particular form that you love best?

PETROSINO: No, I would say that I am a pretty prolific lover of all different kinds of forms. In fact, if I started to develop a preference for one type of poem or another, I would take that as a sign that maybe I should start trying to use a different form.

NEA: White Blood is in many ways a personal book about your heritage and your history. I was wondering how the writing and research process for the book has helped you make sense of your world and yourself.

PETROSINO: The book starts with the personal, but I hope that it opens out into a larger consideration of the ways that the history of this country continues to impact our current day.

When I think about my own life as a professor at a wonderful university and all the privileges that I enjoy, the reason that I enjoy those is because of the literacy that I've been able to develop through my education. Well how did I get an education? That becomes a multigenerational story that's about my parents, and what they insisted upon having for me as far as an education. It goes back to my grandmother, who was from a rural county in central Virginia, but who left home at the age of 12 because her Negro-only school only went to sixth grade. She wanted to go to seventh grade, so she left home and moved to DC by herself so that she could continue her education. These decisions and choices that were made multiple generations ago have an impact on where I am, and on who I am today. So I understand myself much better now as the product of a lot of really hard choices that my ancestors made, and a lot of hard work that they performed in order to keep the family together and to move the family forward in America.

My story is not atypical for many families—not just African American families but immigrant families. The other side of my family is all from Italy, and their story has some resonance with the African-American side of my family. They worked hard to get educations and good jobs. [The book] is more about the kinds of journeys that families and individuals have taken in this country.

NEA: Switching gears, you’re also a professor at the University of Virginia. What’s the most important thing you try and teach your students?

PETROSINO: It comes back to this issue of literacy. I spent the first nine years of my professor career teaching at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky, and my students there came from a variety of backgrounds. It wasn't always as racially diverse as other places, but there was a lot of social and economic diversity among my students. The kinds of knowledge that my students had was knowledge that wasn't always validated by academia. They knew about their landscapes, they knew about their families and their family history, some of them were young parents or they were veterans, they were working full-time and trying to get an education. I wanted to emphasize to them that they already know many things and that their knowledge is valuable. We need their knowledge, we need them to create art, we need them to engage in research practices, but to create work that is meaningful for them. It can be easy I think to feel like, "Well, because I haven't read all of these canonical works, I must be lacking something and I won't be able to write my poems until I know enough about literature with a capital L." My take is quite different. My take is yeah, those things are very enriching for a creative practice, but you already know a lot. Let's start with what you know.

NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?

PETROSINO: I write multiple drafts using a laptop. I don't write every day. I'm very much a writer in fits and starts, I might write three to five poems in a week and then there might be a month where I'm not writing anything. So I kind of go by inspiration really. For this book, in addition to the research that I was delving into, I also took some trips to Virginia with my mom. She was my supervisor essentially. So as we were looking over all these ancestral material, those personal interactions [at historical sites] led us to have certain experiences which then led to poems. Travel is really, really important to me in general. I've been lucky to travel to many countries in the world. I have climbed up the Great Wall of China on two different occasions; I've been to Europe many times. I hope that some day I'll be able to put that passport in my luggage again and embark on a new experience. Ideally what I like to do is experience a new place, read something new, hear something I've never heard before, and then in time that becomes the basis for a possible new piece.

NEA: This is obviously a very strange and unsettling time. I was wondering if you've been reading or writing anything in particular that might be bringing you comfort?

PETROSINO: I'm in the middle of teaching my spring classes. We've all moved to online instruction, but I've kept my reading list the same. One of the books that I had ordered for this semester is Katie Ford's Colosseum. It's an elegy for New Orleans that she wrote post-Hurricane Katrina. The poems therefore are poems about disaster and poems about ruin, but there's also this wonderful redemptive glimmer in that book about the persistence of relationships, about the persistence of love among people even in the face of great disaster, and the fact that the things that we experience now are part of a larger history that then becomes part of a shared heritage among humans. That has been reassuring to know—that the pain that we feel is pain that is shared not just among us ourselves now, but among all the people who have lived. That's been a source of comfort I think.

NEA: Is there anything else that you wish I had asked, or that you would like me to know?

PETROSINO: I very much took the opportunity of writing [White Blood] as a chance to learn something, and to sort of relearn things that I already knew. There is a double sonnet crown in the beginning of White Blood that talks about my undergraduate time at the University of Virginia, which is where I now teach. So my life has kind of come full circle. I started writing that sonnet sequence after the events in Charlottesville in 2017. I wanted to remember what it felt like to be a student of color at UVA in the late '90s, early 2000s. I had a wonderful experience and loved it, but there was also stuff that I didn't let myself think about as far as race goes. After 2017 happened, I was still in Louisville. I felt like it was urgent for me to write about Charlottesville, my experience of Charlottesville, and the questions that the place asks of itself. I started writing that work even before I knew that there would be a job here to apply to. Now it's become even more urgent to have artists with connections to places like Charlottesville be part of those overarching discussions.

NEA: That raises another question—how you do view the role of artists in terms of national social conversations?

PETROSINO: Artists are public intellectuals, and we can have an important place in these larger social discussions. I think that poetry out of all the literary genres is the one most misunderstood as a solitary pursuit, as some kind of weird word game between the poet and the page. It is true that at some point, the poet does have to sit down by themselves to write. But why do we write poetry? A poet writes poetry because they are longing to be understood, and that search for mutual understanding is essential to the larger discussions that we need to have as a society. In the past ten years, we've seen a really exciting group of young American poets, many of them of color, many of them of queer identity, many of immigrant identity come to the fore. Their books of poetry have become bestsellers among audiences, because young people want to read about those experiences and share those experiences. I think that that is really wonderful, and a very exciting change. I just am here to participate to the extent that I can, and to cheer on all of my poet colleagues who are writing right now about hard things.