“The Dark Side of the Image”: A Conversation with Kristin Bock — curated by Tiffany Troy

Kristin Bock’s collection of poetry, Cloisters, won Tupelo Press’s First Book Award and an Eric Hoffer da Vinci Eye Award. Her second collection, Glass Bikini, was published by Tupelo Press in December 2021. She has published widely in journals, including The Black Warrior Review, Columbia, Crazyhorse, FENCE, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, and VERSE. A Massachusetts Cultural Council fellow, she holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where she teaches. She lives in the village of Montague, MA with her husband, artist Geoffrey Kostecki, and together they restore liturgical art.

Tiffany Troy: Can you introduce yourself to your readers of the world? 

Kristin Bock: Long, long ago in the galaxy of a creepy painting, I encountered the dark side of the image. My father was an artist and, as a child, I was always at his side watching him paint. He created a series featuring a naked china doll with two holes for eyes and a larger hole on top of its head where hair should be. Once, I peered down the hole and saw some balls of dust, a few dried bees, my father’s crushed cigarette. The doll was cocked awkwardly to one side, and its right arm stretched out to the viewer. As a child, I was frightened but fascinated. I came to identify with the doll, which became my first conscious metaphor. My father’s paintings made me aware of symbolism, the language between objects, and the haunting power of art. In short, art taught me the vocabulary of poetry. Two lines from Emily Dickinson— “Tis so appalling–it exhilarates,” and “the Truth, is Bald, and Cold”—rung true for me then and now.

Tiffany Troy: How did you come up with the title? Section titles? The epigraphs? How do they help inform the collection? 

Kristin Bock: The book was inspired by the concept of monster, which is not just a dark creature of the imagination, but a kind of cultural category employed in fields as diverse as biology, religion, politics, and literature. You only have to check social media or read the news to see monsters, both real and imagined, rapidly proliferating. The word derives from the Latin, monstrum, which in turn derives from the root monere, to warn. So, to be a monster is to be an omen. Throughout history, the monster has been a display of God’s wrath, a portent of a dark future, or a symbol of vice—in this collection, it’s often a metaphor for psychic pain and fear. There are a lot of monsters lurking in the book, and they range from the public and political to the extremely personal. 

The title Glass Bikini comes from the poem “On the Day of your Wedding,” in which the speaker sports a glass bikini while riding a carousel at a wedding. It’s a reference is to the tragic events set in motion by the US hydrogen bomb tests in 1946 at Bikini Atoll, as well as the green, radioactive glass called trinitite formed by the fusion of sand and heat during nuclear explosion. 

The section titles and epigraphs set the mood for each section, guide the reader into underworlds and dreamscapes that are ominously contemporary, and become more apocryphal and futuristic as the book progresses. My favorite book is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, which heavily influenced these poems. Her monster is a physical manifestation of what happens when we fail to take responsibility for our creations. Even two hundred years after its birth, the cautionary tale still rings true in the realm of bioethics—artificial intelligence, cloning, genome-editing, and a whole host of other Frankensteinian pursuits that have consequences we can’t foresee. In a larger sense, the lesson can be applied to all we create, whether in science, politics or art. In the end, we are all responsible and culpable in this grand human experiment. 

But Shelley’s monster also compels us to empathize with his painful journey into self-awareness. We come to embrace the misunderstood outcast and realize the oftentimes-cruel nature of humanity. And, instead of labeling the monster as other, we recognize our own monstrous potential. This, of course, is the genius of Frankenstein as we find ourselves questioning where the monster ends and the human begins. What does it mean to be human? —all great questions to explore in poetry. 

Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem, “Overcome” open the reader to the strange worldscape of your collection? 

Kristin Bock: If art becomes extinct it’s really the beginning of the end, and that’s where I wanted to start the book. The people in the poem “Overcome crave art so much they flock to empty museums and literally go crazy trying to fill the void. I wanted to usher the reader into a premonition of a dystopian reality that may loom just around the corner. 

Tiffany Troy: How do you strike the balance between form and content (the couplet poems? dialogues?) in a predominantly prose poem-dominated collection?

Kristin Bock: I know from the first line whether a poem will be a prose poem or a lyrical one. For me, form and content are one. If I want to bring more attention to artifice (look at this image, this poem as construction), then I lean towards the lyric, but if I want a more relatable voice without the artificial breaks of the line, then it develops into a prose poem. The prose poem’s friendly, familiar form, the paragraph, invites the reader in and often its epiphany sneaks up on you. Of the prose poem, James Tate said “You look at it and you say, Why I thought I was just reading a paragraph or two, but, by golly, methinks I glimpsed a little sliver of eternity.” 

Speaking of Jim, my love of the prose poem is due, in no small part, to his mentorship. I came to the University of Massachusetts Amherst at 22 years old to study under him, and, if you know his work, he was a master of the prose poem and poetic dialogue. He passed away while I was writing this book, and although I had already written a lot of prose poems for it, I started reading him again in a ferocious way (as you do when you don’t want to forget a writer who has been essential to you), and his inspiration stayed with me as I finished the book.

Tiffany Troy: What was your process in writing the poems? 

Kristin Bock: I love this question, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. For Glass Bikini, my process almost always began with recalling a dream and recording it. I’m both cursed and blessed with a very active dreamlife. I’m an unconscious writer in that I begin writing from my subconscious, and then, if I’m lucky, make associative leaps between my conscious and subconscious until the poem reveals its wisdom to me. 

I also read a lot. When I realized I’d written a bunch of poems with the theme of monster, I started reading about monster theory—essays and books that explore concepts of monstrosity throughout history, as well as waking dreams, hypnagogia, Jung’s shadow self, Foucault’s Abnormal, Freud’s doppelgänger and the uncanny—all of which informed the collection.

The illustrator Virgil Burnett believed the artist beholds the world with the responsibility to recreate it with such care and precision that she invents a reality of her own—”one that counterfeits dream.” He believed in a double vision in which the artist sees everything as both object and emblem. Dreams are where our desires and anxieties manifest, where our concerns about humanity float to the surface, and where our shadow selves play out the taboo. We can mine our dreams for signs, for awareness about our interconnectedness with each other. I’ve come to trust that my dreams, whether night or waking, are deeply rooted in a greater, collective unconscious. What force through the green fuse drives the flower, drives me, and drives you. 

Tiffany Troy: How do horror and the grotesque drive home the collection’s social commentary on political issues? I’m thinking of the rifle-like trees in the poem “Everything Coming Up Rifles” and in “The Gift” where “trees in the shape of beautiful dark vaginas” “grow higher than the spires of churches.”

Kristin Bock: Another great question! I would say that the political arises from the personal, so the poem is a personal and collective dream. My dream is my personal dream but because I’m a woman of my time and have inherited centuries of messaging, misogyny, and generational trauma in my body map, it makes it a collective dream. I talk a lot about this with my friend, Chad Sweeney, who is an amazing poet and scholar of surrealism, who’s helped me realize many things about my poems, one of which is I’m a surrealist of the body and my work radiates from it. 

Historically, the woman’s body is the locus of control by a Christian, capitalist society; the woman is a servant and a fertility vessel, and my poetry attempts to counteract those positions. In the book, nature is feminine, and it’s being made grotesque and forced to suffer by a male, military, industrial complex of phallic rifles and church steeples. There are several poems in the collection with militant, commercial, phallic images suppressing the divine feminine. It’s not something I consciously write towards, but it’s how my conscious mind serves my nightmare of a suffering earth. I like to think my personal crisis is part of our human crisis, so the book is both personal and communal in that way.  

Tiffany Troy: I was struck by the chronology suggested by the poem of the last section. What sets that long poem apart from the rest of the collection? Why did you choose to end your collection there?

Kristin Bock: The collection has a loose, narrative arc or a ghost narrative that begins with a creation myth, (perhaps an extinction-level event), then explores how our current reality could easily follow a much darker timeline. The final, long poem, “Co-pilot,” chronicles the apocryphal journal entries of two women who fled an uninhabitable Earth. It made sense to me to end the book on a futuristic leap to escape a dying planet and its miscreants. 

Tiffany Troy: What are you working on today?

Kristin Bock: I’m working on a collaborative chapbook with my poet friend, L.I. Henley. Currently titled Animism, it’s an anti-pastoral and lyrical fable centered around the disappearance of a young, teenage girl told by a chorus of animated objects—a scythe, a clawfoot bathtub, a rifle, a field of red poppies, etc. The choir of voices acts as unreliable witnesses, as jury, and as sorrowful chroniclers of an all-too-common occurrence. Slowly, the voices reveal the girl’s story while also posing questions about the reader’s complicity in systemic violence. 

Tiffany Troy: Any closing thoughts for your readers of the world?

Kristin Bock: Thank you for reading! And thank you, Tiffany, for this conversation. I hope my readers will read my books as if they were sleepwalking. I’d like them to soften their rational sensors, leave linear thinking behind and allow their dream to rise and meet mine.