Joanna Klink is the author of four books of poetry. A 2019 Guggenheim Fellow, she teaches in the MFA program at the University of Montana. Her new book, forthcoming from Penguin in June, includes a sequence of poems called “Night Sky,” based on the chambers of James Turrell’s Roden Crater. An excerpt from “Night Sky” can be found here. It appears in the May/June 2020 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing this [excerpt] from “Night Sky”?
Five or six years ago, my friend and collaborator Saul Melman took me to “Meeting,” the skyspace installation at MoMA PS1. At that point I had no experience of James Turrell’s work. I couldn’t believe it—that quiet surround below the oculus, with the light felt as source. The framing of real sky as art.
I started making trips to skyspaces around the country, to watch the blue shifts in sky. Or slow shadows of clouds on the walls. And I was reading about the Roden Crater—the extinct volcano in norther Arizona that Turrell has transformed into a kind of subterranean network of skyspaces. But it wasn’t (and still isn’t) open to the public.
So I began writing poems as if I were there, from the point of view of someone standing on the bowl of the volcano crater at night. My new book ends with the full sequence, thirty-one poems, called “Night Sky.”
When we accepted this poem, you wrote a note to the production team to ask for lots of space between stanzas, so there would be space to breathe. Can you talk a little bit about this choice, and about breath?
Well, in the book there is one poem per page. They are discrete poems. I was just concerned that, in the journal, the poems might bleed together, that the space between poems wouldn’t feel like a silence. The divider-icons you added took care of that problem, and the generous white space on either side.
Yes, for me it’s an issue of breath, and quiet—arriving at a last line and wanting the silence that follows to carry out its undertones. I also want each poem to make its own claims (“Your life is open to you”) that might be put in question by the next (“You have no kingdom”). I guess I take refuge in sequences because they underscore the deep conviction of speech in one moment that then falls away, comes to be revised, undergone differently, spoken from within a different moment of conviction.
The line “Carry yourself into sky” could describe [the whole]: the speaker seems to alternate between the earth and looking down from above. Can you talk a little about negotiating the space between these two?
That’s a great question. As I imagine it, a voice is addressing a person, “you,” who stands under a night sky. (Sometimes the poems are spoken by a “we” that includes both.) And the person is stationed on the edge of the volcano crater, looking up and out at the night, or looking down at the grasslands and ground below. This accounts for the perspectival shifts you mention.
But also—I began writing the poems as scenes of deepening dusk and nightfall, but later included some scenes, remembered at night, from the daylit hours. In the book there is one poem written from Nero’s Golden House in Rome, the Domus Aurea, underground, underneath the oculus—imagining people in the park just above. It’s maybe another version of carrying oneself into sky.
The poem you cite from, “Black sky soaked with ghost-violet,” I wrote with the East Portal of Roden Crater in mind—a skyspace that contains a bronze staircase floating up through the oculus to the bowl of the crater. Turrell has designed it so that you can actually walk up into the sky! Depending on the weather and time of day, it must feel like climbing into a cloud of light, or climbing into stars. In any case to read the poem you don’t need to know anything about the East Portal. It’s the energy of freedom, climbing up into a new perspective, a vision of greater spaciousness and possibility where you are included, and encompassed, that I was trying to capture.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I would love to write poems spoken from within the actual volcano. My hope is that Turrell might allow me to go there and take it in. To compose an altogether different book.