Kiki Petrosino on the body, politics, & family

Harryette Mullen calls Witch Wife (Sarabande Books) a “binding spell”, and many of the poems feel exactly as though they are exposing the magic in the world: stitching together frayed edges, weaving new connections, folding ideas into themselves to strengthen them. This collection builds on natural medicine and turns into a diary of recipes and promises.

Doubloon Oath” is a poem that blesses the page with language. “Nursery” weaves a different kind of magic, exploring the fantasy of fairies and being shrunk into and subsequently stuck in their world. “Ought” feels like tumbling down a rabbit hole, but actually seems to be commentary on climate change (or any other current societal issue). Petrosino+FHP+dubloon+oath+front+cover+432+px

Hi, Kiki! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!

“Sermon” focuses on this discussion of the body: the body as vile, the body as glorious. How can a body be both these things at once? How has your own self-esteem impacted your poetry about the body (if at all)?

The image of the “vile” and “glorious” body comes from Philippians 3:21, and is phrased in the King James Bible as a question: “Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself?” Other translations of this same line juxtapose an earthly “body of humiliation” against a divine “body of glory.” So the original quotation is about subduing the earthly self–with its hungers and its greed–to the divine order, which is all loving, all giving.

I have struggled with body image and self-esteem all my life. I have hated my body and longed for transformation. Of course, the transformation I desired was a physical one, fully tethered to the earthly plain and to my society’s ideals of female beauty. With “Sermon,” I was able to crystallize that moment of prayer and critique it somewhat. I hope the poem asks, “What if the body that needs transformation is actually the spiritual one, the self, maybe even the soul?”

“Europe” feels extremely relatable in its break-up angst vibes, although no romantic partner is mentioned, so it could easily be about a different kind of loss and mourning. I especially love the line “I stood in my smithereens.” What is your relationship advice? (This could be friendship, romantic, familial, etc.)

You’re correct that “Europe” is a kind of break-up poem, albeit one that looks back on a past relationship from many years’ distance. I do not, in general, consider myself an expert when it comes to romantic relationships! But I would advise readers to cherish and learn from the “big loves” of youth, particularly the first heartbreak. The pain of breaking up is real pain, and yes, it feels awful. Yet it is in these moments of extremity that we are actually most alive and awake to beauty. Big love, big loss, big joy: live for these.

There’s a line in “Political Poem” I am so glad you wrote – “So let my body move towards justice / & away from countries.” My husband and I frequently talk about how nationalism, patriotism, and national borders harm our world; we see ourselves as “Americans” and others as “foreigners.” We don’t feel empathy for others because they “don’t have anything in common with us.” We feel separate; we assert that we’re “the best.” It’s toxic thinking, and it has created a toxic ideology attached to imperialism, Christianity, and capitalism. Could you talk about this sentiment and what ways you propose we work to dismantle the injustice caused by industrialized nations?

No matter what nation we come from, and no matter our color or creed, we all must be willing to have honest conversations with one another and recognize the ways that our own ideologies (i.e., our systems of self-representation) may blind us to the sufferings of others who are “not like us.” I don’t believe that acknowledging one’s implicit biases or learning about the legacies of oppression and privilege requires anyone to feel guilty or individually accountable for the past. We are all acting within huge systems that we didn’t personally build. At the same time, intersectionality teaches us that we all benefit from a complex arrangement of advantage and disadvantage, and we are individually responsible for:

1) learning about those systems and our place within them;
2) treating others the way we’d like to be treated; and
3) amplifying the voices of those whose experiences may be overlooked or neglected.

Some of these poems talk about motherhood and the emotions associated with bearing children or not bearing them. Are these poems autobiographical at all? If so, how has your identity been shaped by the desire and/or societal expectation of having children? What are your hopes regarding this topic?

These are some of the most personal poems I have ever written. I wrote Witch Wife to work “through” some of the ambivalence and fear I have experienced around the question of whether to have children. And though I have not settled on an “answer,” I do have lots of hopes. I hope to live a life of joy. I hope to maintain my family relationships and all the friendships that have sustained me since becoming an adult. I hope to do good work in my profession and to make my community a place of support and inspiration. Mostly, I hope to be at peace in my own life, no matter what happens (or does not).


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