“Poems as an outlet for shock and grief”: an Interview with Marianne Kunkel

by Kelsey Conrad

Filed under: Blog, Interviews |

Marianne Kunkel is Editor-in-Chief at Missouri Western State University's national undergraduate journal, The Mochila Review, and has been published in several journals including the Missouri Review, the Notre Dame Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, and Rattle. She is the author of The Laughing Game, and her book of poetry, Hillary, Made Up will come out in September.

Kelsey Conrad: Your book, Hillary, Made Up, is set to release in September.  The book seems political by nature, but one thing that I found particularly interesting is how much it seems to revolve around makeup, and the idea of putting on a face.  When during the writing process did that idea start to emerge, or was it one that you started with?

Marianne Kunkel: I’ve always liked persona poems, and poems that make me laugh, so the kookiness of the project—an entire book from the voices of makeup and hair products to Hillary Clinton—stemmed from the poetry I like to read. The topic of makeup specifically, though, emerged from a more serious place. The morning after the 2016 presidential election, I was scheduled to conference with students at the university where I teach, and something about putting on my makeup felt eerie. For me, I connected the loss of a woman candidate seeking the highest office in American politics with the tightrope of femininity and masculinity she had to walk—I saw in my own application of makeup an intent to hide flaws and to look more approachable and pleasing to the eye, and I felt sad for myself and for Clinton that our professional duties are tied up in this particular artifice. Now, that’s not everyone’s experience with makeup—I celebrate that some find it empowering, an artistic expression, and more. But it was mine that morning, and in Clinton’s recent book What Happened, she expresses her own frustration about the many hours she spent in the campaign makeup chair before meeting with voters. After that morning, I couldn’t shake the poetic potential I saw in makeup; I’d never read many poems about makeup, and certainly not a catalogue of persona poems from the voices of each product. There’s tension in the notion that these little items have such direct access to such a powerful woman, and yet she and many makeup-wearers don’t feel much personal attachment to them; all makeup, after all, is disposable. So I started to think: what would they say about her, about all women? What stories do they know about beauty standards and the history of the beauty industry? Are they fundamentally kind, shallow, jealous, encouraging, or something else? In the end, the poems took on many different attitudes that reflect the dizzying spectrum of feelings that Americans hold toward Clinton. 

KC: What does this book mean to you?  What was the process of writing it like?

MK: This book is about my own grief watching a woman aspire to the highest American political office and lose. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying Clinton’s loss was symbolic of every professional setback I’ve experienced that feels tinged with sexism. Once I formed the idea for the project, the poems came very quickly—almost one a day last summer. One reason for my fast pace was that I knew that time was against me because with the speed of our country’s news cycle, a book about the 2016 election wouldn’t be relevant for too long. But more than that, I found myself hungering to write the poems as an outlet for my shock and grief. I had attended the Women’s March, and soon after got involved in my local chapter that we named Persisterhood, and the poems kept me in a headspace of political activism; the same summer I wrote the poems, I also helped create a local directory of LGBTQ+-friendly businesses and fundraise to plant trees along our city’s parkway. So the writing process led to a more public life of trying to make peace with Clinton’s loss and mobilize with other women to bring good into the world, and that public life in turn led me back to my desk and writing the poems.

KC: Do you think that art is innately political?

MK: I grew up hearing in many wonderful women’s studies courses that “the personal is political,” so, yes, more art than we realize is political. Yet the poets I really admire these days are bringing politics to the forefront of their work. I think, with all the divisiveness and bigotry in our country right now, we need poems that shock us back into our humanity and connection with each other and that remind us of the worth of meaning-making and awe. For me, I dove into the subject of makeup because I saw in our society’s treatment of Clinton an assumption that we know her even as we expect her to disguise herself in makeup, hair products, designer clothes, and gender-coded speech and mannerisms. Clinton’s makeup, for all its direct access to her, is, like us, concealing her as it looks upon her, and that’s what I hope to get across with these poems—that the more disguise we demand of someone, the harder it is for her to deliver herself to us as genuine, which is what’s so frustrating about holding any woman to gender-specific, time-intensive, and often complicated, expensive, and racist beauty standards.

KC: You previously worked as a managing editor here at Prairie Schooner, and are now Editor-in-Chief at Missouri Western State University's national undergraduate journal, The Mochila Review.  Do you think that your experience working at these journals has changed the way that you write and submit your work?

MK: Definitely! I’d be lying to say I don’t get discouraged when my work is rejected, but I try to roll with the punches because I’ve seen just how many submissions journals get and how competitive the publishing market is. Working with literary journals also helps me to see the standard of writing that’s getting published and to know what the styles and trends in content and form are right now; when I was writing the poems for this book, I often went to literary journals I liked to get inspired. Literary journals give readers access to the most current writing—even more than books, which have a longer draft-to-publication timeline. Mostly, my experience working with literary journals has inspired me to keep producing poetry and encouraging others to do the same; it’s invigorating to see how many thousands of writers are coming up with new ideas and new words for old ideas.

KC: Are there any writers that you think have influenced your style or subject matter?

MK: I’ve been on a Bob Hicok kick for the last several years, and the twists and turns in his poems, the quick mood shifts from head to heart, intellect to raw emotion, inspired a lot of the risks in my book. I read Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds with my poetry class the semester before I began writing the book, and his powerful political content gave me courage to write my own. Also, Grace Bauer’s and Julie Kane’s anthology Nasty Women Poets: An Anthology of Subversive Verse, one of the first post-election anthologies to be released, featured a poem from my book and showed me other women writing their way out of that historic election. Other beloved influences include the poetry of Natalie Diaz, Hadara Bar-Nadav, and Nikki Giovanni (whom we brought to our campus last spring!). Also, my book features seven sonnets in Shakespearean sonnet form, so of course Shakespeare was an influence. Finally, a major influence was Clinton herself; I did a lot of research to fill in gaps in my knowledge of her political career and understanding of her personhood—so much research that I ended up writing a four-page “Notes” section that appears in the back of my book.

KC: What's next?  Are there any upcoming projects that you're looking forward to, or are you focused on your book release?

MK: I’m learning that to really send out a book properly into the world, there’s a lot of advance work. Every day this summer I’ve been trying to do one thing to promote my book, while also focusing on new writing and a move to a new house. I’m pleased that most of my marketing efforts are paying off, and that so far I haven’t felt too pushy in my coordination of book readings and pre-order sales; time will tell! My dear friend Johnathan Loesch made the beautiful cover for the book, and he’s been so helpful in brainstorming artistic marketing strategies; right now we’re working on customizing crayons to give away at readings so attendees can color in Johnathan’s black and white sketch of Clinton that’s featured in the back of the book. Also, I had fun working with a graphic design student at my university, Sarah Zahari, on a book trailer. I feel buoyed in my marketing of my book by the fact that the poems point to Clinton’s tireless advocacy and leadership throughout her political career; it’s easy to get excited about bringing attention to her historic achievements, as well as to the wacky and mesmerizing world of makeup.

Kelsey Conrad is a Prairie Schooner intern.