Laura Kauffman is a poet and writer from the Loess Hills of Iowa. She is the author of Carolina Clay: A Collection of Poems on Love and Loss. Her writing gifts also include the creative work of Typeset Poetry: Words for Your Wall, a collaboration with Emily Queen. She had some remarkable responses to my questions. Her fresh take on language shows up in this interview as well as in her book.
I’m learning to love the ground that lies
beneath my feet in the fallow season:
the ground of the dormant, of sleeping life
that carries no promise of certain production
the ground of the nourished, fed by the death
of the things that once bloomed
Jody Collins: Tell us about the title of your book. Why Carolina Clay?
Laura Kauffman: Perhaps I’d been thinking too much about creation; I couldn’t get the phrase “Carolina Clay”out of my mind after we’d buried my grandmother. The day was beautiful: gentle breezes, rippling ponds, chirping birds. But what I remember most was the dirt—mounds of bright red, North Carolina earth. That’s when I thought of Adam. He was shaped from the soil of Eden; was I shaped from Carolina Clay?
Often, when you create a title for a book, it’s the last thing to happen. But I think I jotted down the words “Carolina Clay” before I’d written a single poem. Little did I know that it was not a title, but an invitation.
My grandmother was from North Carolina, but I was not. In fact, I was remarkably absent most of her life. Some of that was due to distance, some to the disease of dementia. I wondered if there was a role I could play in her death that I had not played in her life, so I decided I would write my way into knowing her and the ground beneath her feet.
Collins: Readers will find several of your poems deal with soil, ground, or dirt. Is your place on a farm and as a gardener part of what informs this, or was there more?
Kauffman: Earth-imagery runs deep for me. John Muir once wrote that the clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. I feel that statement in every fiber of my being.
A survivor of the suburbs, I now live in the wild places of the Loess Hills in Iowa. My husband and I staked our claim on 20 acres there and filled it with children and chickens, cats and dogs, wild blackberries and weeping willows. We bought a house of windows…we’re addicted to the light.
As with most of my writing, nature does most of the heavy lifting in Carolina Clay. On the night before my grandmother died, a freak tornado descended on the April plains. The day she died the temperature dropped 80 degrees; the roads froze over in a crippling ice-storm. I watched it all from the windows and thought, “The earth is grieving in poetry.”
Collins: Your degree is in counseling—how did this inform your writing of these poems, particularly dealing with grief?
Kauffman: The ways my counseling education has enriched my writing continue to surprise me.
I used to sit in an office with armchairs and clipboards writing treatment plans and referrals. Now, I work in my living room, plopped on my raggedy couch with a laptop on my knee. That’s a pretty drastic career change. But I’m finding the things I learned from counseling weave their way into my words.
Of course, there is the obvious: counseling has softened my heart, taught me to dig deep, cultivated my perspective. But the greatest of these is presence, being present to pain.
A helper by nature, I want to fix, console, to rush the redemption. Counseling taught me to slow down and face emotion without fear, for there is a holiness to sorrow. Poet John Blase warns against a Picardy third—the major chord resolution at the end of a modal song. Sometimes we must learn to sing in a minor key.
My education taught me how to dwell in irresolution. Patience with pain leads to stirring songs, as well as well-lived lives. It makes for decent poetry, too.
Collins: Your writing reveals a wisdom beyond your years. Tell us about your training or education in writing poetry.
Kauffman: If I use words like “self-taught” or “autodidact” to answer that question, do I sound more legit? Because when it comes to formal literary education, I’ve got nothing.
I guess that’s not completely fair. In the fall of 2018, my youngest son skipped off to kindergarten, and I found myself alone during the day. Though my master’s degree is in counseling, “writing” has always been the specter of my life, patiently waiting for me to notice I was being haunted in a way. Billy Collins says poems are simply words that “say less and mean more,” so I intentionally began experimenting with poetry. Falling in love with the genre was merely an accident. To educate myself, I read. Actually, I consumed poetry: Oliver, Collins, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Neruda, Berry. I would read entire books in a single sitting, hungry for more. I took Billy Collins’s master class. I e-stalked local poets into friendship. I scribbled poetry quotes on sticky notes and plastered them on my walls.
Then one day, when someone asked me what I do for a living, I answered without thinking. “I’m a poet.” And it turns out I was.