GR: Thanks for agreeing to let us interview you for Gyroscope Review. We’re pleased that you are one of our contributing poets. Will you please begin by telling us where you’re from, where you write, and why poetry?
KGS: I live near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in a small town in southeastern Ohio. I have lived “here abouts” all my knowing life, never far from my grandparents’ farm, where I spent as much time as I could as a child and young adult. I’ve come to understand that most of what I know that’s worth knowing, I learned from them. I write outside in the spring and fall, now and then at a coffee shop if I’m stuck in town, mostly at the dining room table. There is a big bay window. In winter, we stock the bird feeder just outside. We often get a lot of snow. I write poetry because that’s the way the words come, in poetic form. Otherwise, I might have been a storyteller, which is considered a much more respectable craft for an Appalachian.
GR: Who, or what, are your poetical influences?
KGS: I write about what I know – what I’ve seen, felt, touched, smelled. I have not been formally trained, so I’ll blame it on this rich Ohio soil, wildly eclectic family and neighbors, my upbringing and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
GR: Some of the poetry you’ve had published in Gyroscope Review addresses military members who return home with PTSD. Could you talk a little bit about how you decided to use this topic in your work and what you hope these poems achieve?
My work as a whole is based on Appalachian culture. Unshakable patriotism and a willingness to fight for God and country have been a point of honor and pride for Appalachians for generations. Poverty is also a factor for “joining up.” With limited access to higher education, and never enough jobs to go around, many Appalachians have found very few alternatives to military service. To a teen, the probability of being killed in war seems less gruesome than being killed in a coal mine, or worse yet being stuck forever in a dead end town. If you live in Appalachia, chances are you know a soldier and his/her family.
I know a soldier. I write about him and his mother. It guts me.
WHERE WE COME FROM CAN BREAK US
single mom singing you to sleep.
Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe,
aspirations from a hand me down Magnavox,
After the destruction of the Twelve Colonies of Mankind,
a fugitive fleet searches for the legendary planet Earth …
Easy for a growing boy to believe
he might be the one, lift himself and his mama up
out of poverty, into the stars.
But for that same boy, grown,
kind and underserved (looser!),
high school doesn’t hold sugar,
boredom etches rivers in rust.
Metallica, Call of Duty, Blackhawk Down,
the tug like a calling.
All that he can be he wants to be,
like the recruiter says,
Champion the meek,
see the world on Uncle Sam’s dime.
Boot camp proves sweet salvation.
Born again, his body strong,
structure, purpose, proud to serve,
at last he’s found his people.
He gets good, real good, don’t think
the captain didn’t notice.
Private to Sergeant in one year,
been done before, but rarely.
Get ready boys, here we go!
Heat, sand, no way to dig
a foxhole in that shit.
What in God’s name are they thinking?
KIA, one or more a week,
body parts, zippered bags,
and the children, Holy Christ, the children.
He whispers James Hetfield like a mantra,
Mama, they try and break me,
Still they try and break me.
One year later all that’s left
is the smell of cordite
and the smirk on their faces.
First print: Kudzu 2016
If you haven’t experienced it yourself or seen it up close, you truly cannot imagine what PTSD and/or TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) does to a combat vet and his family. Even worse, how inefficiently the military and the VA have responded to the critical need for focused mental healthcare. I often wonder if the government was expecting more deaths, but due to technology in warfare they are getting massive casualties – mental as well as physical – instead. PTSD and TBI can be hard to spot right away. Until recently, the military did not want to recognize it, so soldiers carried that burden on their own, thinking they were just bat shit crazy. Many combat vets experience overwhelming survival guilt, nightmares (flashbacks) extreme agoraphobia, paranoia and a sense of not belonging in the world. Soldiers turn to alcohol trying to self-medicate. Oh, and the military loves to hand out pain meds. Lots and lots of pain meds, telling vets “it’s all in your head, son.” It really and truly can take six months or longer to get an appointment at the VA. Meanwhile, families are left trying to diagnose and care for their soldiers using tools like WebMD. Twenty-two veterans a day commit suicide.
They wait for you there,
down the narrow stairs,
inside the long shadow where lichen grow
grey in wall cracks and silverfish dance
like free men around empty Jack bottles
and the sagging couch:
shadow brothers, commiserating.
You pray out loud
that self-mutilation and starvation
will somehow bring an end to the torment
of your Jesus Christ make it stop ritual.
Play: Your body hurling
toward the Bradley’s dash, then
snapping back as if rubber bands
were strapped to your backside.
A jackdaw scratches at the cracked
window pane, black as night,
screaming Move! Move! Move!
while blind muzzles fix on your skull
and German Death Metal bands
pang-pang what’s left of your hearing.
Rewind: You don’t remember
the body bags, only the zippers.
And feathers–a shitload of feathers,
and the taste of fresh blood, copper, tin, salt.
First print Red Earth Review 2016
My hope? That people who read my work will experience a perspective most don’t. To think twice about the importance of whether their latte is perfectly prepared. To maybe consider how they personally might be able to help with the veteran health crisis. It’s a lofty goal. The time to protest war is not over simply because we are not “actively” at war!
GR: What is your writing process like?
KGS: Like many poets, my words often come at inconvenient times. I scratch things on notecards, in my iPhone notes, on gum rappers and napkins. When I have a quite moment, I assemble the scraps. There is usually a poem, waiting to be excavated.
GR: Do you belong to any writer’s groups – face-to-face or online? If so, are they part of your process?
KGS: I am a member of the Pudding House Poetry Salon, Columbus, Ohio. It is my great privilege to have been invited to a seat at that table. We laugh, we cry, we celebrate. We’ve been known to spend half an hour discussing placement of a single comma. We are kinfolk.
GR: What do you look for in the poetry you like to read? Any favorite poets?
KGS: I don’t set out looking for anything in poetry. I just try to read a lot of it. I know what I like when I find it. I admire James Wright, Naomi Shihab Nye, Alison Luterman, Jack Ridl, Roy Bentley, Rosemerry Trommer.
GR: What is the most important role for poets today?
KGS: We are artists and so, honor bound recorders of history – explorers of the id.
GR: Which poets have you had the opportunity to hear read?
KGS: I have attended readings by Naomi Shihab Nye, Jack Ridl, Allison Joseph, Colman Barks, Seema Reza, George Bilgere, Lisa Starr, Rosemerry Trommer, Roy Bentley and Tom Lynch to name a few favorites.
Also, I am the founder/curator of the Women of Appalachia Project, an arts organization (fine art and spoken word) I created to address discrimination directed at women living in Appalachia (www.womenofappalachia.com). I arrange for five to seven spoken word events each year, hosted throughout Ohio and West Virginia, which means I get to hear a sassy mix of established and emerging voices out of Appalachia all year long.
GR: Any future plans for your work that you’d like to talk about?
KGS: My chapbook, Serving, was recently chosen runner up in the 2016 Yellow Chair Review Chapbook Contest and is forthcoming spring 2017. The juror, Logen Cure, had this to say: “Kari Gunter-Seymour’s Serving is a heartbreaking and honest portrayal of the life of a war veteran’s mother. Gunter-Seymour juxtaposes the horrors of combat with perfectly rendered images of childhood, domesticity, and home, allowing the reader to experience a perspective we don’t often hear about. This collection is eye-opening, unapologetic, unforgettable, and absolutely necessary.”
GR: Are there other art forms in which you work or would like to work?
KGS: I have an MFA in graphic design and an MA in photography. I do a lot of that stuff, too, you know, in between …
GR: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. We appreciate the time you put into your answers and the perspective you offer. The subjects in your work are indeed important and deserving of their place in front of readers everywhere. Please let our readers know where they can find more information about you or your work: