Rebecca Renner: In the introduction to the book, Dawn Lundy Martin says she has “long used writing about rape as an example for the unsayable.” But this is the subject matter of your book. It’s even in the title, so you’re not being shy about it. How did you decide on this subject? Was it difficult to write about?
Terri Witek: I see you do not ask about my literal rape—perhaps avoiding a voyeur’s interest. And I’m sure you sense that any backstory quickly loses savor—it would be “sensational, ” and we all know the high, brief life of sensation.
Or that I might resist the question. Perhaps I would—too late now. In any case, the questions you do so respectfully ask are already considering (as Dawn Lundy Martin does in her wonderfully generous selection of and intro to The Rape Kit in the Slope Edition contest) the meta-life of rape. This helps me answer, because one of the things I was most struck by during my rape’s aftermath was the official attention to language: for example, a door at the police station read “Crimes Against Person.” Much of the language surrounding rape is both super-precise and oddly off-mark, this to say, which even in my half-disembodied post-rape state I clocked. To pin the exact amount of time on rape is hard, too, as is precise attention. So it seemed a worthy challenge—difficult, but not for emotional reasons, though emotion is always of there, of course. That I felt compelled to write The Rape Kit at this point in time has something to do with crafting letters to a parole board in Tennessee now every seven years. That letter/revision is a formal exercise with history, context, failure of language, and all the near-misses implied. Like an exercise my friend Teresa Carmody deploys to demo passive vs. active voice: it shows the difference between “I was raped” and “He raped me”. But I’m a poet so let’s say it until we can: rip ripe reap rape. Or as Martin beautifully and oh-so-dryly concludes in her intro to The Rape Kit: “rope or no rope.”
RR: Do you think there are some things that poetry can say that prose cannot?
TW: I wonder if as a prose writer you worry about this— the question can be accompanied, sometimes, by a fear that poetry is higher/better than prose somehow or by the reverse suspicion that prose is somehow more real and poetry more glittery and trickster. But your question is more directly deep-ended, perhaps could I write The Rape Kit as a non-fiction piece about the rapist (one person’s suggestion)? Or, perhaps more to the point, could I write about my rape in autobiographical prose? Others have done this work super-well, but all my instincts are against drawing a certain kind of biographical attention to myself as a “character,” and I’m afraid I’m not adroit enough not to fall into one of many possible traps. I confess to not being formally interested enough, either, perhaps because, as in algebra, I can’t work in a complex enough register. You’ll notice that there’s a lot of prose in The Rape Kit, though. It’s mostly appropriated, some from the official world and some from prose works most deeply and problematically loved—like Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative and Moby Dick. Also news sources like the Stanford rapist Brock Turner’s oh-so-quotable dad. I hope even my own rapist’s quotes pay tribute to prose’s slower unfolding and distribution of linguistic power. This to say I love prose but am impatient as a writer—the close collisions of unlikeness are what get me. I prefer to think of this not as genre plus or minus but that as Mark Strand once notably said in workshop: style is just a matter of our limitations.
RR: The work relies on the interplay of several power structures and symbolic or spatial structures. In other words, it does not rely solely on the language of words, but integrates the language of image and symbol. How did you create the images? What were you commenting on by manipulating these structures?
TW: No pretensions to craft here: I traced the mouth of the same shot glass for the flashlight, the gun barrel, the drain, the skirt—then cut, taped, scanned. I traced the water system of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis for the crime scene. I asked people to help with things I couldn’t do: Boston coder Daniel Quinn made the captchas (such a great word), book designer Lucianna Chixaro Ramos expanded my wobbly ovals into the fog machine. I don’t want to know whose fingerprints she used for one page—it was a stranger rape (as they say) after all.
As to their function, the images are also about pace—no words were few enough to do what they do. Images are an expandable language too, of course—and a map can be a slow language if you want to see who was where in the house. That the crime is ancient and the answer is eventually water can be read there too. But you can also turn those pages quickly. I wanted everything to have differently timed material use—to be part of the kit.
RR: Elaborate on some of your inspirations for this book. Who or what were your influences? Did other poets inspire you? Other art mediums?
TW: Ovid, super predictably, just like every poet or transformer fan who wants to change one thing into another! Arethusa is a fresh water nymph who escapes through salt water, and there’s a geologic basis for this, it turns out—karstic underwater pathways through which myths and real objects sometimes travel. I visited her spring in Sicily and started puzzling over water science graphs—gorgeous and unnerving. Plus I read a lot of wonderfully stiff official crime scene rules and more painful things about interview technique. I was fascinated by the closed captioning of sound effects on film (that got me through season 3 of The Killing). One highlight for someone who reads procedurals and detective fiction, by the way, was ordering evidence bags over the Internet
RR: Your work has changed a great deal since your earlier books. I believe (but correct me if I’m wrong) you started out your poetry journey as a formalist. Talk about your evolution as a poet. What new methods have you incorporated? What through lines do you see in your work?
TW: I learned the historical constraints of poetic form at Vanderbilt under some great teacher/poets—Melissa Cannon, Mark Jarman, Donald Davie. Davie used to say that free verse was just another kind of constraint, and would go on to demo the de-limited line in Whitman, say. He went to great lengths to metrically read Pound, whom he loved. It was mesmerizing. At the same time, my favorite contemporary poets in the mid 80s were Jorie Graham and John Ashbery. Their subjects seemed to shake free of words, somehow. Lots of what I read stuck then unstuck. The nymph Arethusa vanishes into the spring even as her assailant’s river waters blend in with her own. I’m pretty much happier as a mixed bag poet now, just blowing through different types of constraints because I want to know stuff I don’t. It’s all an experiment. Testing the evidence, I’d say, speaking in The Rape Kit terms.
RR: At Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas, you teach “Poetry in the Expanded Field.” To me, poetry in the expanded field means poetry that refuses to be confined to the page. How do you define it?
TW: I love how you go right to defiance—I won’t stay flat, dammit! And why should we? The term is lifted directly from Rosalind Krause’s iconic 70’s text about sculpture—in it Krause asks us to logically link plots in the field—and why, when we see mazes and labyrinths as both landscape and architecture, can’t we see other arts as non-hierarchical occupants in the same space? Cyriaco Lopes, my Brazilian visual artist collaborator, with whom I love teaching Poetry in the Expanded Field, is always very impatient at the distinctions US artists guard, because of course in South America visual artists and writers and activists historically haven’t separated them out. He says of our MFA of the Americas that it includes many arts but TEXT is the glue—and here he balls up and wiggles his hands. And once we suggest students don’t have to section out the various loves of their lives they seem wildly happy. As we are happy for them. And wow: the work. At the residencies everyone acts as if we all got infected by some sort of life-giving virus. I know the History of the US poems in The Rape Kit began with a breakfast conversation about Michael Jackson with Laura Mullen, Ronaldo Wilson, Carol Ann Moon and Jacklyn Gion —race, death, pop power, money, all at 8:30. Exhausting. Exhilarating.
RR: Talk about the evolution of poetry as a medium. Do you think as a whole the landscape of poetry is changing? How do you think technology, like social media, has played a hand in this evolution?
TW: The more widely intra cultural and lingual and virtual and bodily the landscape is, the more hopeful I feel. Even thinking about experimental translation, for example, seems like a bracing breeze. Social media and all current tech can as always be ways to make art. Just like everything else. And what’s wrong with ephemeral—which means exactly what, at the end of the world? I’m not interested in rear-guard actions or fights—except against injustice. It’s too late. I mean really. What we make uses everything—and there are consequences. As Laura Mullen says so beautifully and clearly: “ Poetry _…m_i_g_h_t_ _b_e_ _s_a_i_d_ _t_o_ _b_e_ _a_l_w_a_y_s_,_ _i_n_ _s_o_m_e_ _w_a_y_s_,_ _a_ _r_a_p_e_ _k_i_t_—r_e_q_u_i_r_i_n_g_ _i_n_v_e_s_t_i_g_a_t_i_o_n_)”
Terri Witek is a poet and professor who lives in DeLand, FL. Her book The Rape Kit won the 17th Annual Slope Book Prize and will be published by Slope Editions on March 6th. It is her 8th book.
Rebecca Renner is a writer and editor out of South Florida. Her essays have been featured in the Washington Post, New York Magazine, and Glamour. She is working on a novel.