Kathi Aguero Interview

by Tiara Marchando

What inspired you to begin writing?

When I was young I just had the urge to cover any available blank piece of paper. I tried drawing but nothing I drew looked like whatever I was trying to draw, so I switched to writing. I’d write about anything. When I was in first grade, I wrote a paragraph for myself about the different meanings of “lead” and “led.” I was just fascinated by words.

Did you have a favorite writer when you were younger? Who was it? Why?

Basically, I read whatever I could get my hands on. For two years my family lived in Sicily, and since I only a limited supply of books in English I read Louisa May Alcott’s books over and over. I also read the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and some adult mysteries I don’t think my parents knew I was reading. I wasn’t fussy. I just liked to read.

What pushed you to begin teaching? Was it a childhood dream or did you realize later in life that it was what you wanted to do?

My earliest childhood ambition was to be the fat lady in the circus. I think I got tired of people telling me to eat more. Then I wanted to be an actress. By the time I was in school, I realized I wanted to be a writer, but in every essay I had to write about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote that I wanted to be a teacher because I knew that was an acceptable vocation for a girl, and I couldn’t be bothered explaining that I wanted to be a writer to my teachers. My mother was the only one who knew. When I got out of graduate school, I was only one of two in my class who actually got jobs teachin, and so I became a teacher. I’m sure my family was relieved I didn’t become the fat lady in the circus.

Much of your poetry depicts the real-life experiences of the speaker through other literary forms that embrace the mythical, the biblical, and the surreal. How has your growing knowledge of these types of literature influenced and transformed your own writing?

I began writing poems using myths as metaphor when I started teaching Mythology and Literature at Pine Manor. I’d been looking for ways to break out of the personal lyric, experimenting with persona poems etc. Writing from narratives that had already been created was liberating in that it opened up new subject matter and let me play with voice.

The second section of The Real Weather is titled after and includes epigraphs from William T. Foster’s Anatomy: An Artist Beginner’s Guide. Foster’s intended audience is made up of painters, cartoonists, and animators; what was it about his message that moved you to connect it to your poetry?

I don’t remember how I came upon Foster’s book. I think a roommate may have owned it. The tone of the quotes, combining the imperative voice with gently encouraging language struck me, particularly the ones about the head as I was definitely someone stuck in her own head. Looking at the body in such a detached fashion also interested me. I planned to write a series of poems about all the parts of the anatomy in the book, but, predictably, I never got past the head.

Foster believes “a working knowledge of human anatomy is essential for any artist who wishes to render the most realistic human form possible.” Do you consider your poetry a rendering of humanity in its most realistic form?

I don’t know that I’d make such a grand claim for my work. I like to write series of poems that look at a general subject from contrasting points of view. So, perhaps each of my poems tries to show a different slice of humanity.

You have experimented with myriad poetic forms and rhyme schemes. How do you determine what form a poem will take?

That’s an interesting question with no one answer. Initially, I began writing in form because that was something I thought I should know how to do. I’ve always written primarily in free verse, but to ignore form seemed to me to ignore one of the resources of the English language. I began to study poems in form, to read about meter and form, and to work my way through all the exercises in A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, a book about writing in form by Mary Kinzie. So, some of my poems in form started out as exercises in trying to master a particular form. Once I felt more confident, I began to match form with content. “Swim Show,” for example, is a villanelle, a poem matched to the back and forth movement of lap swimming. “Sudden Departure” borrows the fourteen lines, the turn, and the octave/sestet structure of a sonnet, but because it’s a poem about leaving under threat, it doesn’t have the graceful rhyme and meter of a sonnet. This explanation makes the process seem completely conscious and planned out. The decision-making is usually quite intuitive.

Many of your poems reflect on childhood or family, such as in “What Has a Child Told You Lately” and “Grandparents,” and you have recently had a new addition to you own family. How much of your poetry is inspired by your own family?

Most of my poetry is taken from the life I live and that involves family. I think family life is very intense emotionally and psychologically, so a lot of my poetry does come from those relationships.

Your husband, Richard Hoffman, is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist and teaches at Emerson College as well. What are the benefits of being married to an artist with similar interests? What are the challenges?

It’s wonderful to have someone to show your work to and to be married to someone to whom you can talk about books and writing, and to someone who understands why you like to spend so much time alone in a room staring at a blank legal pad or a computer screen. Richard has always been supportive of my work and is usually my first reader and critic. Of course, there are also challenges. We both want time to write, a quiet space to write in, so who is going to pay the bills, do the shopping etc.? I imagine any working couple faces these same challenges, but when our children were young, balancing full-time teaching jobs, child-care, household duties, and writing was tough. You just take turns. Falling into destructive competition can be a danger. You have to have faith in your own work as well as admiration for your partner’s work. Somehow being a writing couple has worked for us.

You have an impressive record of involvement with programs developed for the betterment of communities in need, most notably the Changing Lives through Literature program at West Roxbury District Court. How does the Solstice MFA program fit into this criteria?

The Solstice MFA shares the mission of Pine Manor College as a whole, including its commitment to social responsibility. The option of choosing an applied track during the critical thesis semester allows students to tie their research directly to the community. In addition, the Solstice MFA Program faculty has a strong sense of the writer’s role in the larger world. However, I also firmly believe writers need to follow their instincts. In addition to providing community, the Solstice MFA program provides support for the necessity of withdrawing into solitude to create art. The balance of being in the world and apart from the world, which writers need, is a delicate one. The MFA program helps its students find this balance just the Changing Lives Through Literature Program helps participants to gain an increased sense of self-worth and the need to take care of oneself along with an increased sense of responsibility to and empathy for others.

You have edited three collections of multicultural literature alongside New Hampshire poet laureate Marie Harris. Do you feel that there is a lack of multicultural experience in literature and a need for more viewpoints?

I think the literary canon has expanded since we edited those collections. A Gift of Tongues, the first of those three anthologies, was published in 1987 and it took us at least five years to find a publisher. We didn’t even use the word “multicultural” in our preface. The term wasn’t current, and we didn’t think of the project in that way. In fact, we started working on that anthology because we were angry about how cliquish the writing community had become in terms of who granted and received awards etc. and angry about all the good writers who were being ignored. In the process of putting the anthology together, we discovered that many of these marginalized writers were Latino, African-American, gay and lesbian etc. As I re-read the preface, I see we used vocabulary like “many languages and traditions,” “diversity,” “an extraordinarily various literature.” Looking back, I’m glad we didn’t have that word, “multiculturalism.” We had to struggle to articulate precisely what we meant. I worry “multiculturalism” is becoming an empty buzzword, but I do think the literary canon has expanded to include a greater variety of voices, aesthetics, and concerns and I’m grateful for that change. Such expansion enriches us all.

What is your definition of a perfect professor? How closely do you mirror that image?

I don’t know that there’s a perfect professor, but I do know that I don’t come close! Different content, different students need different kinds of professors, so I don’t imagine there’s a one size fits all definition. When I was getting my MA in Creative Writing, I found the most helpful teachers those who tried to see what I was doing and helped me find my voice, and complete my poem, as opposed to those who taught me to write as they did, although learning their strengths was also tremendously helpful. So I hope I can help my students find their way to and through their own poems.

What expectations do you have of your students?

I expect graduate students in writing to engage passionately with their work and with the endeavor of writing.

What is your philosophy on teaching?

Maybe that like a doctor I should “do no harm.” At the graduate level, I see myself as a coach and a resource for my writing students. My most important responsibility is to read their work carefully and thoughtfully so I can help them articulate the possibility of each poem.

Is there anything about you that you think people should know that can’t be found in a biography?

If it’s not in a biography, probably they shouldn’t know it!