Ashley Kunsa is an Assistant Professor of creative writing at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT. She holds a PhD in English literature from Duquesne University and an MFA in fiction writing from Penn State. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Bennington Review, Massachusetts Review, Radar Poetry, Cream City Review, and Southern Humanities Review, and her fiction and nonfiction have been published in the Los Angeles Review, The Writer magazine, The Forge, Sycamore Review, and many other venues. Originally from Pittsburgh, she lives in Billings with her husband and two children.
Ashley’s poem ‘Beginning with a Confused Notion of Pattern‘ appeared in our Winter 2023 issue of LPR. Our conversation follows.
*Image by Sohrab Hura
LPR: I just loved your poem ‘Beginning with a Confused Notion of Pattern’, even the things I didn’t understand about it. Especially those things, maybe. I’m thinking of mourning and how in doing so we become full of wonder. I love the line “how much/of being in love was a symptom: of boredom, or coin flippage, of seeing a thing/through to its wrongful conclusion (no quitters here).” I guess my first question is, based on this notion of wonder, did you always know you’d begin with the line “So I mourned the cat more.”?
AK: Thank you so much! I actually started drafting the poem there—with “So I mourned the cat more”—in the way that I often start drafting my work, as a conversation with myself. I didn’t know, at the time, that the final piece would start there, or even that the line would end up in the finished version, but it’s not altogether surprising that it did: I typically go through dozens of drafts, often to end up with some version of the very thing that got me writing in the first place. In that sense I’d say I have good instincts at the same time that I am a major reviser.
LPR: I adore the part where your narrator imagines telling her ex-love that “not everything has to be sad, though lots of things are” and then she goes on to offer examples of sad things! Is humor a part of most of your work?
AK: Yes! It is a significant part of my work, much as it’s a significant part of my personality and life. Leaning into what can make us laugh and give us a release is really the only way I know of to get through a day/week/year (to say nothing of the recent days/weeks/years we’ve been living through). I do this in all of my writing, fiction and nonfiction as well as poetry. It’s not so much that I write “funny” stories or poems, but rather that I try to capitalize on the humorous moments—sometimes wryly or darkly so—to add texture to the work. It feels very human.
LPR: Talk to me about the “Confused Notion of Pattern” in this poem. How did you come to write this? What brought you to it, to its organization?
AK: I’d say about half of the time, when I’m writing, I have a title before I have a poem, and almost always, I’ve got the title by the time I’m seventy-five or eighty percent of the way to a full draft. With this piece, though, I was stumped; I was in the tinkering stage and still nothing was suggesting itself. So at that point, I started thinking about the poem in the context of others that were part of the manuscript I was building at the time. Tonally, it felt similar to some pieces in a loose series—a series of “Poem Beginning” poems—but, formally, it was mostly different from the other poems in the manuscript. So I was looking at the draft I had, and the lines and stanza breaks worked well enough—they made sufficient sense in terms of emphasis and meaning—but I couldn’t recall why I had arranged them the way I had as opposed to, say, into all couplets or shorter or longer lines or what have you. What was the organizing logic? What was the pattern? Wasthere a pattern? Was there an avoidance of pattern? And I just started playing with stanza breaks and length, all while thinking about the experience of grief, how it’s simultaneously this known quantity and this unknowable thing, this thing with a pattern—a way we’re told it’s “supposed” to go, a prescribed way we’re told it will happen (I’m thinking of the five stages)—and yet a confused pattern, something that’s so disorienting, that feels so impossible to navigate while you’re in the midst of it. And the final form was born from that process, that movement from disorientation toward a greater, though not total, uniformity.
LPR: I notice that you write fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Do you prefer one in particular? To that end, are you working on a book?
AK: I trained as a fiction writer, and for most of my life, my allegiances resided there. But I’ve been teaching all three genres for more than fifteen years, and once I really started dabbling in poetry four or five years ago, it took over my attention entirely. While I enjoy reading broadly, I find I’m not really good at moving back and forth between and in and out of genres when it comes to writing, though occasionally I do still have an idea for a story or an essay. All this to say, once I shifted to poetry, I really made the shift, at least for the time being.
And yes! I recently completed the manuscript that this poem is a part of and have begun sending it around to a few contests. About two-thirds of the pieces in it have been published or are slated to come out in the next year.
LPR: What writers do you especially admire? Which ones or which novels/poems/essays have influenced your own work?
AK: Amy Hempel and Larry Levis are coming with me to the deserted island. “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” and “Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand” were formative texts for me, and I go back to these authors’ books again and again. If we’re allowed to bring friends/have guests on the island, then I’m requesting the company, in no particular order (or, at least, I haven’t yet worked out the order), of Lorrie Moore, Hanif Abdurraqib, Ada Limón, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Ross Gay, Natalie Diaz, Hemingway, Mary Oliver, Cormac McCarthy, Melanie Rae Thon, Franny Choi, Richard Ford, George Saunders, Marilynne Robinson, Tim O’Brien. And someone should bring along Gatsby, which is still my favorite all these many years later.
LPR: What are you reading right now? Any recommendations?
AK: I just returned from a trip to NYC with a group of my college students, and on the plane ride back, I read, in one sitting, Max Porter’s little novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. It made me laugh and cry, and I highly recommend it. I also started Paisley Rekdal’s Nightingale. My poetry TBR pile—which I likely won’t get into in any serious way until the semester ends—is pretty exciting right now: Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency by Chen Chen, Frank: Sonnets by Diane Seuss, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry by John Murillo, Wolf Lamb Bomb by Aviya Kushner, Human Dark with Sugar by Brenda Shaughnessy, Eye Level by Jenny Xie, Look by Solmaz Sharif, and a darling little edition of Neruda’s love poems, among others. And the next novel I’m going to read is Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.
Reading—voraciously, widely, [fill in adverb here]—is the backbone of everything a writer does. Without it, there can be (or should be!) no writing.
LPR: As a teacher of creative writing, do you have any advice for the emerging writer or the stuck writer, or the writer who is tired of rejection?
AK: Last fall, I told my introductory creative writing class that, if I had my way, our poetry unit would consist of them going off to read 500 pages of poetry then coming back to tell me how their understanding of poems had changed. They groaned. Of course I didn’t assign this task, but my point was: it’s so much in the reading. To the three people you mention—emerging/stuck/writer tired of rejection—and I’ve been all three, I say, Keep reading. Keep going back to the well to get replenished, to learn more, see more, hear more voices. It’s true that you must revise revise revise, but sometimes a piece has gone as far as it can go, and it’s time to move on, and I feel like too often writers, and even more often writing teachers are afraid to say that, to say that someone may have taken a piece as far as it’s meant to go, because that’s a sign of giving up, of failure, or somehow signifies a lack of faith in revision. But I don’t think that’s true by a long shot. Publication and accolades aren’t a realistic goal or even desire for every single thing we write, nor should they be. Most of what we do as writers is practice for what we’re about to do next, which is practice for what’s next, and on and on. Reading—voraciously, widely, [fill in adverb here]—is the backbone of everything a writer does. Without it, there can be (or should be!) no writing. So many of my creative writing students don’t read in any real way—reading beyond what’s assigned for classes, reading for the pleasure of the words, reading because they want to engage with a compelling story—and then they wonder why their writing isn’t getting better, why they’re not growing. Read, read, read. I can’t emphasize it enough.