by Nancy Koerbel
Kristin Kovacic has published widely and well, if quietly, over many years. Her clear and elegantly crafted work has garnered a Pushcart (for her essay “A Short History of My Breath,” about the difficult surgery her son Ramsey had when he was a child), and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship, among other prizes. In 2002 the University of Iowa Press published birth, a literary companion, published by the University of Iowa Press, an anthology of poems, stories, and essays about parenthood Kovacic coedited with Lynne Barrett. But it’s only been recently, after she raised a family and taught for many years, that collections of her own work have appeared. In 2016 Kovacic’s poetry chapbook, House of Women, was published by Finishing Line Press, and in 2018 her collection of essays, History of My Breath, was published by Red Mountain Press. Last October I had breakfast with Kovacic to talk about her essays and the hard work of writing.
Nancy Koerbel: Can you talk a little about the arc of your writing over the years while teaching and raising a family, being a daughter and a wife?
Kristin Kovacic: The work of love has always been resonant and sustaining, and the recognition that love is work helps me do it. The work of writing is also the work of love. It’s not the work I have to do for anyone, and I can cop to the difficulties of ordinary adventures. Sometimes I feel a little self-conscious. My life is not that dramatic—I have less to complain or brag about than most people. I look for places that make me uncomfortable—for a wrong set of feelings. I try to write in a way that honors that. You don’t honor it if you sentimentalize it or gloss it over.
KK: I think what I’m really talking about when I say the sound of us is the internal process you’re doing when you’re doing the work of love. It’s very, very loud when you’re a parent—particularly a parent of our generation where we overthink parenthood.
The thing that gives me confidence about doing any of these essays about my family is that I don’t think we’re extreme or outliers or unique. I feel like if I examine closely who we are it will resonate with people—that noise (sound) is that constant evaluating parents do all the time: Are we doing this right?
Now my kids are grown. They’re cooked; they’re in their lives and I feel the absence of all that internal noise. It’s not so much their physical absence, because I can talk to them, but it’s the psychological noise that I no longer feel. I feel the freedom of that absence profoundly, in a good way.
My kids were trying to tell me, in ways large and small, stop trying so hard. Stop observing us. Stop interpreting everything we do.
The truest thing about being a child is being powerless. And that’s what the essay “A Short History of My Breath,” about Ramsey and his surgery, is really about. It’s about powerlessness.
NK: It’s such a beautiful essay.
KK: That one still gets to me. It was a dark time.
I got the sweetest letter from a guy out of the blue a couple years ago about it. He said your essay accompanied me through my parenting. And I thought, OK, I did some good in the world.
NK: Reading your poems again reminded me of Mary Gordon’s essays. In her essay “Having a Baby, Finishing a Book,” she quotes Katherine Mansfield, who said: “The egotism of the infant is well known; less well known is the egotism of the mother.”
I thought of your work because I think you interrogate that egotism of the mother (and the child) in a really interesting way and are very honest about it.
KK: One of the worries I’ve always had about being a parent is not to think of it as my achievement. I see the temptation of that. I’ve seen elements of it in myself, the temptation to hide behind your kid—to use your kid as your identity—as your professional accomplishment. I think it’s less about work and life and it’s more about identity. Regardless of what you do, having children is a sacrifice, but are you also taking on parts of their identity? It can be very selfish—it can be self-sacrificial but it can also be self-aggrandizing. So who is this about, really, is what I want to keep asking. Whose life is it?
The essay about [my daughter] Rosalie, “Comma Momma,” and “The Sound of Us,” the one about the kids being adolescents—I’ve had more people talk to me about those essays as comforting. It’s like they were holding in the same kind of fear that they were horrible parents who should have a better relationship with their kids. The essays where I kind of cop to that were helpful to them in some way, which is honestly the only reward I really want from the work I’m doing. It’s too late in the game for me, I think, to expect some kind of fame from my writing, or god forbid, money. But if I can get that kind of reward, like someone says to me, “You know that essay you wrote, it really helped me,” that’s it. That’s all I want.
KK: The reason I made that book was because there wasn’t enough sharing of the real experience of parenting, in my view. I was desperate for information but all I was reading was medical texts or women’s magazines that were really sentimental.
Then I read a poem by Lee Upton called Women’s Labors, and I also read Ed Hirsch’s poem, The Welcoming, about adopting his son, Gabriel. For me, reading both of those poems together got closer to the experience of being a parent than anything else I’d read. And I thought why am I reading all of these medical books? There should be a book that shows this kind of sharing of the emotional work rather than the sentimental. And to find all of that work in the early days of the internet was an adventure.
Now there’s been a tsunami of sharing about parenting and there’s oversharing, so it’s isolating in another way. It’s isolating because you don’t see yourself reflected in the social narratives that are perfected.
NK: Why did you decide to work in the essay form, instead of poems or stories?
KK: Essays are self-reflective and self-investigative. You don’t get anywhere unless you call yourself out. Cynthia Ozick has an essay about how having a baby is not an achievement. It’s very hard core. In it, she’s suspicious of work that fetishizes motherhood. And yet, I feel like that physical work, that emotional work, has not been fully explored as a subject.
When I was writing my book and putting it together, I did feel that there’s territory—domestic territory, feminine territory—that is still out there to be covered. And maybe we’re not going to write about it in the same way as men write about their achievements. Maybe we write about it differently. I hope we do.
I gave a talk at Chautauqua a couple of years ago about how many women essayists are on the best seller lists. Cheryl Strayed. Leslie Jamison. Women are good at it. Because the engine of an essay is doubt. The engine of an essay is doubt and self-reflection and humility, and once you get in that territory I think women are better at it.
NK: Who’s influenced your essays? Was there anybody in particular you were reading while you were working on the book?
KK: What I’m drawn to in my reading is the deep dive, the show and then the tell, the questioning, the stopping—then making the larger connections.
Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories is a great book. Phillip Lopate. George Orwell. I also read Hampl’s book A Romantic Education, her first memoir, about going to Czechoslovakia and finding her roots. Every page resonated with me. Not just because my story was the same, but because of the way she was reading her life as thematic and emblematic of larger things all the way through.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a wonderful memoirist. In his book Colored People he says some difficult things about looking at your own family—your own kid. I learned from him that you have to say those hidden things from within your family in order to see them.
NK: That’s what’s so amazing about your essay “Interrupted Journey”—where you write about what happened in your Pittsburgh neighborhood, Carrick, when the city instituted busing—the honest insights into family and community.
KK: That was a really hard essay to write, because I did not want to be holier than thou. I had no concept, when I was a child, of how pervasive and nasty the racism in Pittsburgh was. There were all kinds of ideas in the air about how they were going to achieve segregation.
One of the things I tell my students is that a good place to really learn something is to write out of childhood, because you can stand in a place that’s reflective but you are by definition innocent. So you have a little more courage to talk about your own blindness, because you literally couldn’t see because you were young. It’s much harder later on to talk about your own blindness. A child has a perfect imperfection. You can call into question things that you believe as a child that now look different. That’s why I felt like I could investigate that moment in my childhood, because I wasn’t fully implicated. And I didn’t want to make my family sound like some kind of civil rights activists, because they weren’t. They were just quietly non-racist.
That essay’s about investigating where racism comes from and how do you learn it. It’s about how we learn what we learn. Wherever you have a little shame, where you feel like you’ve got a wrong set of feelings, you’ve got to look at that. That essay’s about how much it matters who you walk to school with and who you are physically proximate to.
People say Oh, I loved your book, is your family still talking to you? And I say, yes. They say I could never write about my family—but you know in your bones whether you’re respecting someone or disrespecting them.
Your intention absolutely matters. That’s another thing I like about the essay genre. The most important this is why you’re doing it. If you’re doing it to get even with someone, that will out. It shows in the writing. But if you have a genuine curiosity and interest and a generous intention, that shows up, too.
The real engine of that piece is that I just really wanted to know what happened. There were so many discoveries once I started looking.
Nancy Koerbel teaches professional and legal writing at the University of Pittsburgh, and holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Her poems have appeared most recently in One, Redactions, and The Pittsburgh Poetry Review.
Head shot of Kristin Kovacic by Jim Daniels.
Photo of Kovacic reading by Nancy Koerbel.
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