Poet Mackenzie Kozak reflects on poetry’s gift of greater self-awareness

NEW PERSPECTIVE: “To me, [poetry is] more about the act of moving someone from one space into another space, to startle them out of their regular way of seeing the world,” says poet Mackenzie Kozak. “I think that is ultimately what builds awareness about ourselves and our environment.” Photo by K.M. Fuller

Local poet Mackenzie Kozak knows her experimental approach to poetry — focusing more on image than linear narration — isn’t always the most accessible. But she takes comfort in the words of fellow poet David Biespiel, who was also Kozak’s former professor at Wake Forest University.

“He talks about how ‘successful poets are in the pursuit of finding the utterance that is most theirs,’” Kozak explains.

“I have been in enough poetry workshops to know that my style as a writer is not always what is most popular,” she continues. “But I am trying to find the utterance that is most mine.”

An associate editor at Orison Books and Asheville Poetry Review, Kozak recently spoke with Xpress about her approach to poetry, its function as a form of interrogation and the importance of hearing language read aloud.

Along with the conversation is her poem “evening at sandy mush bald.”

evening at sandy mush bald
for t.k.

you tell me the climb to the cabin
is steeper than you remember,
but you remember the dusk-filled range,
hardly visible when we reach it,
all the blood to my foot, and remember
how ink is always your own, the door
lunging open, and no heat until something
is fed. how this time differs from another
frigid mountain years before when you
saw slipknots as you held me, to keep
a seam from splitting in the draining sun.
now you are speaking, and the words travel
across a bridge of breath appearing in smoke.
now you are tender with me, braving the wind
to gather wood. it is hard to imagine a life
next to the life of some other. sometimes
you are describing a campground you loved
as a child, and i see you again as if seeing
the grayson ponies appear out of air, assembled
delight. and remember the morning was sharp
with frost, you were gathered around me,
and you rose to heat the stove, the wind settling
slightly over the hills, and i wanted to tell you
what startles me about hearing your sounds
in sleep, slight hums, you are gold, and our lamps
that bless us, we are making our way down
the slope, i don’t have to tell you this is it.

Xpress: What inspired this particular piece?

Kozak: I set out to write a love poem, which is something a little bit different for me — to write from a place of gratitude rather than pain. And I was writing this soon after my husband and I had visited the Cabins at Sandy Mush Bald, which are these lovely, rustic cabins about 40 minutes from Asheville. There’s a 3-mile hike up to the cabins, and we got a late start that winter afternoon, so we arrived at the top when it was getting dark. The only heat source in the cabin is a wood stove, and I was feeling immense gratitude for my partner, who kept the cabin warm.

I think poets and readers alike can appreciate and recognize how painful experiences can command more of our attention than our joyous moments sometimes do. Within your own writing, what is it about darkness that more readily appeals to you?

Kozak: I think darkness or suffering feels like more of a reflective space for me where I want to interrogate it and sit with the energy that goes toward naming it. And I appreciate the way darkness has a rawness or depth to it, a feeling of getting to the wound of something.

In my poetry, I tend toward image rather than narrative — though this poem is a bit of an exception. And so translating my suffering into image helps me look at it in a different way or make discoveries about myself. When I’m feeling joyful, I notice I want to be present in the world and be in community, or I want to be attentive in a way that is active rather than meditative.

What ultimately determines your approach to a given poem? Did you set out to write “evening at sandy mush bald” with a more narrative shape, or was it more by chance? 

This poem was intentionally narrative because I wanted to write about love without ambiguity. It was sort of an exercise for myself. Usually, I am drawn toward image because it allows the reader to make their own connections or to respond emotionally without feeling like I led them there. That’s the kind of experience I appreciate most as a reader: to have an active part in interpreting what a poem means for me, and to walk away with an emotion rather than an understanding of exactly what took place.

But I also realize there is benefit to narrative writing. There’s a lyric by musician Joanna Newsom that says, “Never get so attached to a poem/You forget truth that lacks lyricism,” and I think that’s what I was doing with this poem — trying to write in a way that was true rather than obscure or lyrical.

Yes! I think it’s great that you bring up the importance of emotional understanding. I worry sometimes that readers who are less exposed to poetry avoid it because they believe there’s some hidden message the poet is intentionally obscuring, and it frustrates them. Your thoughts? 

I understand that perspective, and I think it’s a common experience for many: the feeling of “not knowing the secret code” to a poem. I think I see a benefit to multiple kinds of experiences with poetry. I believe there is space for poetry that feels more straightforward and clear, and poetry that takes effort to sit with and parse through.

Personally, I’m not as interested in poetry that requires one specific reaction or response from the reader — that’s why I care most about writing in a way that lends itself to an emotional response, and this emotional response can look different for different people. To me, it’s more about the act of moving someone from one space into another space, to startle them out of their regular way of seeing the world. I think that is ultimately what builds awareness about ourselves and our environment.

Given Asheville’s strong literary scene, it’s not all that difficult to find a poetry reading in town. Can you speak to the two ways poetry is most often experienced: either by reading it alone on the page or listening to it at a public event. And how, if at all, do the two ways influence your thoughts and approach within your own writing?  

I am usually taking pauses to read my poems out loud while I am writing them. I think a great deal about sound, and sometimes I’m drawn to word choices because of sound before I consider meaning or intention. But I appreciate being both a reader and a listener — sometimes I crave the experience of the writer’s voice, or reading the words aloud with my own voice, and sometimes I enjoy the silence of my own mind as it takes in the poem.

Is there a local poet whose recent or forthcoming collection has you particularly excited and why? 

Diamond Forde‘s Mother Body is a stunning meditation on mothering, origin and survival. I’m also looking forward to Testament, a forthcoming collection from Luke Hankins, and unalone, a forthcoming collection from Jessica Jacobs.

Lastly, who are the four poets on your Mount Rushmore? 

Lucie Brock-Broido, Naomi Shihab Nye, Joanna Klink and Robert Hass.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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One thought on “Poet Mackenzie Kozak reflects on poetry’s gift of greater self-awareness

  1. So interesting and intriguing… I value poetry, both writing and reading it. I love your thoughts here and the intimacy of the poem, beautiful thoughts expressed so wonderfully. God bless you always and I wish you all the best with your words – Regina McIntosh

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