Natasha Kessler, poet
Natasha Kessler, co-editor of Strange Machine Poetry, an online poetry journal, is hosting a reading TONIGHT at Side Door Lounge (details below). She shares with Les Femmes Folles about growing up in Bellevue, her encouraging high school English teacher, her experience studying creative writing at UNO, her inspirations from surrealism to fairy tales, how being a woman is central to her theme of writing and more…
"I was born Nebraska and grew up in Olde Towne Bellevue with my mom and older brother. I moved from Bellevue to downtown Omaha about a year and a half ago and love it! Writing has been something I’ve always enjoyed. I can’t recall any specific event that triggered in interests in writing. It is more that literature and writing were just always around in my life—not a constant presence, but a wandering presence like stray cats or the mail carrier. As a young girl, I remember vividly my mother reading stories, fairytales and poetry to me before bed. I have a very strong reminiscence of her reading Edgar Allan Poe to me at a very early age—the raven and the black cat in the wall. My mother is also a writer as well as many other women, I’ve learned, from her side of my family. While in college, she would take me to her writing and poetry classes and I remember her sitting at the table with tea trying to write poems in perfect iambic pentameter. I would say my mother has been a very strong influence in my life and my writing. She always encouraged it—even when I wrote a story called “The Gremlins Eat the Children” that sparked a concerned phone call from a friend’s parent. Now that I think about, I’ve always been drawn to darker things, the dark blood of real fairytales, black cats crossing the street, the things that scare us.
In high school, I had a wonderful English teacher encourage me to take his creative writing course. During that year, I wrote voraciously and had the opportunity to work on the school’s creative writing journal. After high school, I entered college at UNO as a psychology major and pretty much pushed all creative writing aside—I stopped feeding those strays at the door. During what would have been my last semester in my fourth year, I took an elective Intro to Literature course. We read lots of poetry and short stories and did a lot of our own creative writing as well. I felt this spark inside, this scratching. For the first time in a long time, I was excited about what I was doing in school.
During that semester, I decided to hold off graduating. I had heard about the Writer’s Workshop program and, really on a whim with held breath, I added a BFA in creative writing as a second degree. I just wanted to keep feeling that good spark. While studying writing, poetry as my focus, I had the privilege of working with poet Miles Waggener as my professor/mentor for most all poetry courses I took. He was, and is still, one of the most devoted instructors I have ever worked with. I would have never pursued graduate school and my poetry would have never been good enough to apply without his guidance and encouragement.
I recently graduated from the University of Nebraska MFA in Writing program in August. I had the best experience in that program. My mentors, especially Steve Langan and Zachary Schomburg, worked so closely and diligently with me over the two years. They helped me get the poems I wanted to write out of my head and onto the page. Since graduating, I have been avidly sending out poems for publication as well as submitting my poetry manuscript to numerous book contests and opening reading periods. I’ve been getting really good feedback on my work, just keeping my fingers crossed.
My poetry is fueled by the most mundane things of life really—a face on the bus, an overheard conversation; however, my work is also heavily inspired by dreams, art (especially surrealist artists), fairytales, love, other poets, sex, hate, windows, dark atmospheres. In many ways, my first manuscript, Dismantling the Rabbit Altar, isan unraveling fairytale. The poems walk the terrain of dreams, fairytales and children’s folklore—the female speaker often the fulcrum for these worlds, always seeking something while balancing two infinite spaces on her shoulders. My work tends to be conceptual; however, it is also natural, of and part of the earth, carved from dark and light, innocence and experience, a foundation of duality. I like of think of my poems as small performances, fighting to be aware of their audience’s needs and wants. The poems are obsessed with the animal and spirit, innocence, violence, femininity, and relationships—solitary, mutual, forced, and frightening. They give emotionality to the conceptual, and vice versa, as half-birds rest in throats, wolves hide under beds and inside breathing lungs, bones tuck under child-sized pillows, and rabbits fold into themselves in this landscape of endless dark and light.
Currently, and for the last four years, I have been a co-editor of Strange Machine. Strange Machine started as an online journal while I was still working on my BFA at UNO. I run the journal with two of the greatest people, Tom McCauley and Zach Vesper. Last year, we expanded Strange Machine by publishing a chapbook of poetry, Pastoral, by Charles Gabel. We also hosted our first annual chapbook contest. Our second book, The Caress is a Letter of Instruction, by Adrian Kien is due out by January 2012. We always wanted to do print and finally made it happen. Our chapbooks are all handmade, small batch books.
While there is a poetry presence in Omaha, especially in terms of the slam scene, I don’t think it is enough of a presence that truly reflects what is happening in the contemporary poetry world. This is a prime time for poetry. So many seasoned and emerging writers out there need a place to share their voices. Simply, there are just not enough readings in Omaha! This year I’ve been to Lincoln (at SP CE and The Clean Part Series) for almost 80 percent of the readings (and I’m not talking about slam poetry) I’ve attended this year in Nebraska. One goal of Strange Machine is to start a regular reading series in Omaha—it’s time to up the ante. So far, we have had two successful readings and are hosting our third on November 17th at the Side Door Lounge. Omaha is primed for an influx of poetry and I am so excited to help build up the poetry scene in this city.
I think Omaha is a great place for women in the arts—I mean, it’s a great place for the arts in general and it’s constantly getting better. Being a woman is an essential theme in my own work, I never try to elude my sex or gender. I do not write from a gender-neutral voice—and I don’t really have a reason except that it feels necessary to me. I want to share what I have to say from my position of experience as a woman in 2011. I am always torn by what may be expected of me, or what I think is expected of me, as a woman. Great tensions exist because of these gaps, these deep tears between expectations and actions. Control, destruction, and power are certainly topic for investigation throughout my work. Expectations are nuances in relationships and life that can suspend one indefinitely. The exhaustion of their impending delivery can be a true mind-blower.”
Catch “Strange Machine Reading" TONIGHT, 7-10pm at Side Door Lounge, 3530 Leavenworth, featuring our 2011 chapbook contest winner Adrian Kien, chapbook contest finalist Jeff Alessandrelli and featured Strange Machine poets Tim Greenup and Joshua Ware. More information here.
Check out Strange Machine at strange-machine.com!