Conversation with Christine Boyka Kluge
by Dan Wickett

Christine Boyka Kluge is the author of the poetry collection, Teaching Bones to Fly (Bitter Oleander Press), and a poetry chapbook, Domestic Weather.

Nature is the dominant force in the poems of Christine Boyka Kluge. Nature in many levels, from the world around us – the stars and sun and sky and sea – to our very own bodies – and the blood and bones and skin and veins.

It is the mixing and matching and comparing of this internal and external nature that drives the poems within Teaching Bones to Fly. She isn’t shy about the body at all as one should understand from the Table of Contents alone. There are 59 poems within the collection, and they are broken into six sections, the titles of which are: Blood Like Nectar, Split Skin, The Edible Grave, Flicker of Flesh, Breathing Shadows and Scratch of Light.

The first poem after the prologue poem, with the same title as the collection, is a four page effort titled Secrets of Blood. This poem has some fantastic lines:

Blood loves its caverns of blue and orchid silk

touching your inner heart from time to time

Blood has known the irresistible draw

of pipettes and plastic tubing.

To teach a girl not to wear a white skirt.

It softens mighty lust by retreating.

These all describe blood, but in the same breath, describe love, yearning, and feelings. That’s what Boyka Kluge’s poems do best – while vividly describing the topic of her poem, and with a fairly subtle wit, she is also expounding upon larger issues – those of relationships we have with others, as well as with the world around us.

Dan: Your first collection, Teaching Bones to Fly, has a very eye catching cover. How would you describe it and how it came together?

Christine: It’s a striking black and white photomontage by Jerry N. Uelsmann, an extraordinary acclaimed artist. A pair of woman’s hands holds a nest containing an empty eggshell and feathers. Above, towering clouds part to reveal something flying in the sunlit rift. When one looks more closely, it’s not a bird, but a tiny woman soaring overhead. It was meant to be! Fortunately, Paul Roth, my publisher/editor at Bitter Oleander Press, gave me a lot of voice and freedom in all aspects of creating this book (In fact, he accepted the manuscript before it was complete, with the agreement to let it evolve wherever it had to evolve to.) I had been searching for an appropriate image for the cover for a long time, looking at art everywhere. Then, one day I remembered a book of surrealistic photomontages by Jerry that I had given to my husband as a gift. When I looked back through his work, then checked out more of his art online, I knew I had the right artist. Then I came across one of his pieces that perfectly fit both the title and the feeling of the collection as a whole. Paul was equally excited about using this photomontage. Of course, Jerry Uelsmann is an internationally recognized master, which was intimidating, but I felt I had nothing to lose, so wrote to him. (I had to have that photo!) I heard back from him almost immediately, and he was tremendously gracious and generous. Delightfully, we gained permission to use the photomontage, and Rod Martinez did a beautiful job on the cover design and layout. I’ve actually had people ask if the photomontage was created specifically for the book.

Dan: Is there a specific reason that the poem Teaching Bones to Fly, which is pretty much a prologue to the collection, is capitalized, while the book title of the same name is all lower case?

Christine: The only reason there are no capitals on the cover is that Rod Martinez, the designer, chose to do the title that way. The words ascend toward the right in smooth progression, mirroring the pictured woman’s flight. I respected his artistic choice.

Dan: The book is divided into six sections of poems ¬ how did you come up with this structure?

Christine: Again, this is what evolved as the book developed and patted itself into shape. Some poems seemed to seek each other’s company and clustered together naturally. I felt lucky that when the poems sorted out, they ended up in groups of fairly equal size. The section titles are all fragments of poems in the book. For instance, the first, Blood Like Nectar, comes from the title poem, “Teaching Bones to Fly,” that introduces the main body of the book. Blood like Nectar refers to the way a poem, like a hummingbird, sips the writer’s essence, needs the poet’s deepest commitment and heart to “fly.” I hope that the section breaks allow the reader to take a breath and think as she/he progresses through the book.

Dan: The bulk of your poems do not jump out as having a specific structure. However, Pearl, has six stanzas and each has three lines. What was it about the material in Pearl that caused you to write it in such a manner?

Christine: True, my poems are not formally structured, but tend to be shaped organically with sound, rhythm and images. I never try to tamp my words into a preconceived form, pattern or genre. (But I wouldn’t rule out anything as a possibility.) Ah, “Pearl.” This piece is about one of the most piercing losses in my life. Truthfully, the poem seemed to demand its own form. I don’t recall forcing it to fit a framework. (I can’t do that without it feeling artificial. In fact, I never know when I sit down to write just what I’m going to write -- poetry, prose poetry, or fiction.) This just felt right to me at the time. I’m emotionally attached to this poem, so I’m sure I can’t see it clearly any more. That first stanza beginning with “Out you swim, silver soul, / into the indigo night” surfaced like a strange, unexpected gift. The second followed almost all of a piece shortly after, then the rest presented itself, line after line. I’m not sure why this was more structured than some of my other poems. Perhaps I longed to contain the sprawl of my grief in an orderly shape.

Dan: In some cases, you have notes on the bottom of pages giving word origins or definitions. Was this an effort to allow your readers to continue reading and not break away to the internet or a dictionary?

Christine: Yes, I did it to add to the ease of reading the poems, and to clarify meaning where I felt it was necessary.

Dan: Your poem, The Absence of a Heart Leaves an Hourglass Shape, has been worked on as a poetry/art/music collaboration. What was that experience like? Did you, as the poet, have any input on either the art or music, and vice versa?

Christine: This was the most fun I had had in a long time. It was a delightful experience. I worked with Rick Mullarky, an artist/designer, and Kala Pierson, a composer, doing an interactive collaboration for Born Magazine. Rick was very open to suggestions, and we had a lively and humorous correspondence. I have an art background myself, so I was curious to see how he would visually interpret the poem. I felt both free to come up with ideas and yet receptive to letting Rick experiment in his own way. His concepts were thrilling, parallel to the feeling of the piece, but capable of opening it up in new ways. Kala had previously asked me for use of a prose poem, “One Claw into the Dream,” as text for an experimental opera she was working on. In return, when Rick and I started the collaboration, I suggested asking Kala to participate in our project. She said yes and joined in the fun and e-mailing, supplying the innovative and eerie sound. It was a process of discovery and play throughout. So, yes, I had some input, but tried to let the other artists add their own unique contributions. You can experience the end result here: (Don’t forget to turn on your sound!) For fun, Rick and I just finished another interactive collaboration using one of my prose poems, “Guilt.” We may also do one for the first poem in Teaching Bones to Fly, “Secrets of Blood.”

Dan: Even though much of the material in your chapbook, Domestic Weather, was written earlier than that in the collection, it was published later. Is that at all odd, seeing your older work come out like that?

Christine: Naturally I’m happy to see work published at any point in time! Domestic Weather came out only six months later than Teaching Bones to Fly, so it wasn’t too odd. It was originally a full-length book manuscript, my first attempt at lassoing my poems into a collection. Over time I became more ruthless and kept paring it down. It was finally reduced to its core poems, the ones that banded together and stood the test of time. I think the chapbook version is about one-fourth of the original long version. It definitely benefited from radical pruning. Teaching Bones to Fly and Domestic Weather are very different in personality and theme. I also have an unpublished third manuscript, Stirring the Mirror (prose poetry) which is a whole different sort of creature. I need to now focus on revising and reshaping that collection to send it fluttering out into the world.

Dan: It may be a misconception of mine, or at the least a generalization, but I always think of poets as the type of who like to get away on work on their own ¬ you seem to thrive on working with others. Do you think it’s a large misconception, or are you just one who doesn’t fit the generalization?

Christine: Actually, I savor my solitude. Generally speaking, I agree that writers (and artists) need to be alone in silence to think and to feed their creativity. It’s lovely to have a rich interior life, but, due to the nature of this solitary work, I know I find it refreshing and energizing to collaborate. It broadens your perspective and sparks new and more expansive ideas. It helps keep you in the world. Sometimes two or three heads are better than one.

Dan: Shortly after Domestic Weather was published, you heard that an order was placed from the Netherlands. What is it like knowing your fan base is multi-continental?

Christine: A fan base…that sounds so impressive! Of course, I am delighted to imagine that somewhere faraway, a stranger is opening my book and reading my words as our shared planet hurtles through space. It makes me feel like a world traveler without leaving the house. And — I wonder what they think. Can they connect to the pages in their hands?

Dan: You’ve recently had work published in Double Room, a literary journal of prose poetry and flash fiction, and the search for the intersection of the two. You’ve had work anthologized in the above mentioned prose poetry collection, as well as in Sudden Stories: A Mammoth Anthology of Miniscule Fiction. What do you see as the difference between the two genres?

Christine: I see them as different places on the spectrum stretching between poetry and prose, with prose poetry more toward poetry and flash fiction more toward prose. As a poet (primarily), I feel that my work is usually more prose poetry than flash fiction, but I have written both. For more information on this ongoing discussion, your readers should visit the Double Room site, which has an extensive selection of writing samples in these genres and a wide range of points of view on the topic. It’s a great online publication found at:

Dan: In terms of artistic endeavors, you don’t solely work in writing do you? Do you think your thoughts as a visual artist affect how you write?

Christine: Yes, I’m an artist, too. I have a degree in Studio Art. I definitely think my art and appreciation of art affect my writing. I’m very visual, very intrigued by details and texture. I love imagery and metaphor. On the other hand, it’s also true that my writing affects my art. I think the two areas enhance each other, and as creative forms are very companionable.

Dan: Am I just a bit squeamish, or does blood really play an important role in your work? It really seems to come into play often.

Christine: Well, I hope it doesn’t make you too squeamish. Yes, it does seem to play a vivid role here initially, but the first poem in the book, “Secrets of Blood,” is a long one, one that goes into vivid detail about the hidden life of blood. There are humorous touches, too, with some over-the-top descriptions. Here I see blood as such an elemental part of us, the deep and coursing river of our flesh, symbolic of what makes us human and ties us together. After all, these poems are about the body, about the senses, the way we witness our lives and environment. As the description of the book states, “These poems travel deep into the body’s vessels and glistening chambers to examine its relationship to the natural world, its place under the stars that salt the eye with light. They inhabit both earthly landscape and dreams. Using heart and blood, bones and skin, ear and tongue, they summon larger themes of love, yearning, loss and rebirth.” Funny, I don’t see these poems as gory or gross, but then again, they are a part of me. I didn’t censor them.

Dan: The literary journal Bitter Oleander features one poet per issue. In the issue they featured you, 32 pages were dedicated to your work and thoughts. That has to almost feel like having a book published doesn’t it?

Christine: It was an extraordinary, life-changing experience, a real boost, an in-depth exploration of my poetry, of myself. Paul Roth, the editor and publisher, was by this point my poetry hero. Thrillingly, he felt I was ready for an interview, but I was hesitant at first. I was afraid to dissect my artistic process too far, afraid that I would kill the magic and mystery with prodding. However, it ended up giving me a greater understanding of my work and goals. I refer to the feature as an interior chapbook. Certainly it felt like an accomplishment as it came together. Since it was published in October 2001, directly on the heels of 9/11, those dark events overshadowed its arrival. Didn’t that make everyone stand back and question the importance of what they were doing? Even in despair, though, I came to realize that creativity and communication may be what keeps us human, what saves our civilization.

Dan: Speaking of literary journals, obviously as a poet, much of your work is first seen in them. Which do you enjoy the most and why?

Christine: I read and admire so many, I can’t possibly list them all. The Bitter Oleander has been my guiding star. I respect its intensity and humanity, its range and depth, its fearlessness and lack of boundaries, its openness to writing from all points in the world. It feels like an artists’ community to me.

Dan: You’ve recently begun a small business, Shrunken Worlds. Want to explain what that’s all about?

Christine: For several years, my art side was somewhat neglected while I was intensely focused on writing. I knew that at some point I would slip back into my art self again. For quite a while, I had been considering a way to combine my art and literary loves. Of course, I was also hoping to make a bit of money. (You know, Poetry and Art, those twin millionaire-makers!) I love miniature things, those glittering details that open up into new expansive worlds. And isn’t every poem a shrunken world, a new land to discover? I thought the name Shrunken Worlds was both intriguing and mysterious. Maybe a book/poem/story title as well? One of my original ideas was a glass cube with a tiny surreal landscape inside. I inserted moss and paper figures through the neck of the jar and sealed it with a cork. (Think ship-in-a-bottle.) One example: a paper ear on a bed of moss, with a spiral parchment banner inside the glass that reads: “Van Gogh’s ear still listens for the wind in the chimney at Arles.” Also, my cousin Connie kept encouraging me to sell art ornaments like I had made for the family. Of course I didn’t get around to starting that project until November. Then began a frenzy of cutting shapes from gorgeous papers and constructing little sculptures inside of a variety of glass forms. I sold them in a number of museum shops and gift and craft stores in New York and Connecticut. They sold better than I thought they would, so I was up until 3 and 4AM many nights, working on art projects. Happily, I was having a weird kind of fun, and this reawakened my love of color and texture. I’m currently making small collages on wood and paper, and drawings in pen and ink. I have so many more ideas, but too little time. Stay tuned.

Dan: Lastly, if you were a character in “Fahrenheit 451,” what work(s) would you memorize for posterity?

Christine: My mind grows panicky and unfocused thinking of books going up in flames. The only flame that should ever touch a book’s pages is the hungry fire in the reader’s eyes. Naturally, I would first select poetry…perhaps a sampler of my favorite poets’ most striking pieces to fasten to memory: Emily Dickinson, .Theodore Roethke, Pablo Neruda, Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver, William Blake, Charles Wright, Rolf Jacobsen, Tomas Transtromer, Elizabeth Bishop, Rilke, Yeats, Czeslaw Milosz, Charles Simic…too many to name. Just think, Roethke’s “In a Dark Time” (“What’s madness but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance?…”) in tandem with “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. How about Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” and Charles Wright’s “Homage to Paul Cezanne?” Simic’s The World Doesn’t End is a wonderful little book, full of dark humor and startling and vivid moments. It would be a good one to recite back to others. An inspiring international poetry anthology, A Book of Luminous Things, edited by Czeslaw Milosz, would fill my mind with all kinds of dark and sparkling jewels. If I had any space left in my bulging brain, I would start on fiction and attempt A Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as well as some of Flannery O’Connor’s short fiction, and how about some Hawthorne and Faulkner? (The Scarlet Letter…without the Custom-House introduction.) So many precious books…how fortunate are we that we can go slip them off the shelves and gather them into our eyes, over and over?.

The above material appeared previously in Emerging Writers Network, in a very different form.