Nikki Ketteringham lives in California with her husband and son.
I Named the Dragon for You, Ketteringham’s debut poetry collection, follows the tradition of surrealist mythmaking towards the abject, from John Berryman’s Dream Songs to CA Conrad’s Book of Frank, where sexual transgression goes hand in hand with an Icarian attempt towards true love. This striking composition features an ingenious plot twist and etched with what it feels like to say, “I like belonging to something not someone,” but stay.
Tiffany Troy: You begin I Named the Dragon for You with “I named the dragon for you.” How does this first page of your collection set up the rest of the collection that follows? I, for one, was struck by how the monostich appeared visually on the page, as a cue to the form that the collection might take.
Nikki Ketteringham: Oh my goodness–this takes me back to all my literature classes which I fumbled with. Analyzing a text is very, very difficult for me. All I can say is that it starts with “I” which is possibly a confrontation. “I did this, I did that.” It could be the beginning of an argument or could even be the beginning of a love story–it doesn’t matter, it’s a beginning and I love beginnings.
TT: I love beginnings too and the beginning of I Named the Dragon for You. What was the process like in writing and putting together the collection?
NK: Oh I loved the process which started with me buying a plush dragon at a bookstore and the title just hit me because I knew the name for the dragon — Edgar. I had just started reading a book about Edgar Allan Poe. I thought this was too funny, so rich. And I knew I struck gold. And when that happens to me, the collection writes itself, and I hardly have to revise the collection. That rarely happens.
TT: I love a plush dragon as the genesis of I Named the Dragon! I am curious about the very intentional ambiguity and mystique of the Edgar character. How did you construct this character through the lens of a (seemingly) unreliable narrator, who has her own preoccupations and unique voice?
NK: There is the line “Edgar is my soulmate” which is probably my favorite line of the book. The narrator who is, in fact, very unreliable, wants to see the most sexy part of herself. She needs Edgar, her most romantic counterpart, because no one else can be that for her. Human beings are disappointing — all of us. So we have to create our ideals. Edgar is an ideal. He is sexy and sees the narrator as sexy. Sex is the driving force of this narrative and that is why it’s so powerful — and entertaining!
TT: I agree with you, and find the cinematographic flip book or stop animation quality of I Named the Dragon for You to be particularly fun and well done. In thinking about form, and specifically the placement of one to four short lines per page, as well as the repetition and variation of thematic vignettes (of the couple in the bedroom, for instance), did you write toward form or did the form serve as a container for thought in your collection?
NK: Form. Form is an elusive thing for me and so I don’t even try to wrestle with it. It’s a monster. So I approached this as I almost always do — I don’t think at all when I write. I think enough as it is. I am an over thinker by nature and the funny thing with my process is I say to hell with it. I don’t know how I am able to write what I do. It’s always a miracle and I give thanks to something much bigger than myself. And I wish I would write more so that I am less burdened with thinking.
TT: In some ways, I feel your writing process allows you to look into the psyche of the speaker and also at the same time address important themes, like the role of a wife within the sphere of domesticity. I really enjoy how you are able to create a sympathetic speaker with a deeply internalized misogyny, as when she says: “I don’t mind changing diapers in fact I love changing diapers/ Well maybe I don’t love it but I don’t mind it.”
I am wondering if you could speak \about the relationship between the abject and the imagination for you in this collection, whether within the context of post-confessionalism or with other movements or poets you admire?
NK: I cannot thank you enough for picking up on the narrator’s misogyny. We live in a corrupt world and no one escapes it. I could say, how could a woman possibly be misogynistic? Well it’s not only possible, it’s just our collective reality. It’s really no one’s fault; a lot of us try to love ourselves. We women do what we can, but misogyny is so pervasive. Where does it begin and where can it end? This is why I encourage everyone to write to get in that space of neutrality. To not have an agenda but to be open and see where that openness takes us. If we invite neutrality we can heal ourselves, you know? Self love begins with curiosity about ourselves. Who are we? Can we see ourselves without judgment? I think we can.
TT: Yes, I agree with you completely. There is definitely irony in the speaker as the consumer as well as the woman-hater, in some senses, which underscores the inescapability of systems of powers, in some ways. It is no coincidence, after all, that the premise of the book begins with the idea of naming someone as an object of desire. There is also something so unique about the tone and voice of this collection.
Do you see your work as a hybrid form? To me, it works its magic to allow for irony, ambiguity, and the strangeness of your work shine through. Does this distinction matter for you, whether as a poet or reader?
NK: I see my work as micro poetry. I had some micro poems published a while ago. I’ve always been a minimalist, there’s something about having a lot of space around words. You know? All of the things you mentioned, irony, ambiguity, there’s so much room for that. I can’t thank you enough for that observation because often we poets can’t see our poems like readers do.
TT: I was so struck by the plot twist at the end. Without spoiling the plot for the readers, can you speak to how narrative works within I Named the Dragon for You and share any advice for poets writing long, narrative poems?
NK: The ending was a surprise for me too and it ended that way because it ended with three words. Three is a powerful number. But no advice for any creator. Except to make art. Do that for everybody’s sake.
TT: What are you working on next? What recent poetry collection or book are you most excited about?
NK: I’m doing something I love, I’m reading poetry. I’m going through my mother-in-law’s poetry. It’s all unpublished and bound in four separate books. As for writing, I feel like I’m writing when I read her work. It’s teaching me a new style that intrigues me.
TT: Do you have any closing thoughts for your readers of the world?
NK: Keep seeking yourself. Don’t ever stop. Keep going.
Tiffany Troy is author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review.