Quatrain Questions: Kristen Wittman

Kristen Wittman relfects on writing loss and grief in Death Becomes Us for our latest Quatrain Questions interview.

1. This collection reflects upon an experience that is extremely private but is now being shared with the public in your new book; what has the experience of allowing others into this very personal story been like for you?

Every writer who seeks out publication must understand that they are embarking on a journey of self-exposure. The key in sharing one’s experience, whether directly or in metaphor, is to avoid self-immolation. Getting published should not be an exercise in attention-seeking; rather it should be an honest attempt to depict the topic you have chosen as a writer. There’s a delicate balance between hubris and humility, a fine line that must be navigated, if you want your topic to resonate with readers.  In Death Becomes Us, I explore grief and the effects it has on me. I feel I am qualified to do so, having experienced a very deep and personal loss. But we all have experienced grief to a lesser or greater extent. My goal was to create a bridge with my poems to readers who have or are experiencing grief, and struggling to adapt to it. To invite them into a space that values empathy, that recognizes their loss, and treats their grief with respect. Sharing my own very personal story was the means to that end. It was necessary to do so, as otherwise the moral of the story, if you will, would ring hollow.

2. Death Becomes Us also broadens its scope to examine the collective loss of our natural environment under the threat of climate change. What advice would you offer those concerned about the current climate crisis given what you know and have experienced about loss, grief, and moving forward?

We have a (bad) habit of treating the story of humanity as one of easily identifiable progress. We need to get past the myth that we are only better if we can demonstrate measurable improvement – the “bigger, better, best” syndrome. Grief is a powerful tool for this purpose. When you lose something or someone that is very important to you, you grieve. You don’t get past that, there’s no “getting over it”. No matter what happens, that loss will remain. Forever. But life would be intolerable under the constant burden of immediate loss. So we grieve, which is really just learning to live with loss, the same as with a scar from a wound, or a funny bump on a bone that broke. It doesn’t make you a better person to lose something. But it also doesn’t make you a worse person. If we (as a species) are going to navigate climate change, we need to learn the lesson that grief teaches us – that there are ups AND downs, and they need to both be treasured. Or, if not treasured, embraced. That with every loss we ourselves are not failures, and that every gain does not need to be pursued.

3. What changes have your poetics undergone since you published your first collection, Stone Boat, back in 2004?

This is an interesting question, since many of the poems in DBU were written before I wrote Stone Boat.  Since Stone Boat, I have worked at being a student of poetry, reading the classics, reading criticism, and working within the form.  A number of the poems in DBU follow stricter form than free verse – sonnets, rhyming schemes, there’s even a villanelle. I have enjoyed that process, and particularly when writing about grief, found that the restrictions of form gave me space within which to work, to experience grief. I suppose that’s why there’s so much formality around a funeral.

It may be the fact of having been published once already, but I think the major change for me as a writer has been to be consciously aware of the possibility that the poem will be read by others. That has definitely changed me as a writer. I am less interested in using the art form as a means of expressing my personal thoughts, and more interested in seeing if there is a way to draw another person in to the experience, to let them see and feel what I have seen and felt, as a guide towards better understanding. I feel my writing has more purpose now.

4. What do you see as the next step for your poetry?

I have spent a fair bit of time now working within the formal structures of traditional poetry. I see my next project as something else, not exactly informal, but more focussed on the image, and less on the story to be told within the rhyme and rhythm. If it is true that an image speaks a thousand words, I’d like to see how many words it takes to speak an image. Or rather, how few.  A realization, if you will, on the theme of “less is more”.  We’ll see…


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