Faith, feminism & formalism: Kim Bridgford reflects on a life in poetry
Kim Bridgford is an award-winning poet and editor known for her wide-ranging conceptual poetry projects. She is the editor-in-chief of Mezzo Cammin, a journal of formalist poetry by women, and she will soon travel to Antarctica as part of her ongoing collaboration with the installation artist Jo Yarrington.
Ms. Bridgford visited America recently and spoke with Colleen Dulle about her work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been vocal about your preference for formalism in poetry, and some people identify your work as being part of the New Formalism movement. You write mostly in sonnets?
I do. My career has had a range of phases, as most people’s have, and I for many years was a free verse writer. Then I realized that I could only go so far as a free verse writer, that there was something that I felt I was trying to get at, which, it turned out, was structure. So I began writing as a formalist, and for many years I did that. Now I’m working on a book that has some free verse poems and some formal poems. So, I think that most people, as Dana Gioia has said, reach for both. But I think it’s good to have had that long set of years where that was primarily what I was focused on.
Many people identify the New Formalism as a reaction against the more modernist free verse. Were you attracted to it for that reason?
Well, I suppose in some way, because it was different, but I’m very drawn to the forms in human life or drawn to the impulse to make sense of chaos and to tell the full story. So, I think there are so many things that are attractive about writing in forms and that each form reveals something new.
It’s true that it’s a reaction against free verse, but I think it’s also that many people get a tremendous satisfaction about, you know, in the way that we say our prayers at night or in the way that we do the same thing as we go to work. These rituals or patterns in our life over time give a sense of richness. So, it’s nice to have the ones we have developed that are ours.
Do you see a connection between that and the adherence to forms that Catholicism espouses?
Yes, those are many of the things that I love about Catholicism. I grew up Presbyterian and my husband is Catholic, and I taught for over 20 years at Fairfield University, so I feel that in terms of my own faith that I have those twin sensibilities: the aesthetics I appreciate about Catholicism, the patterns; and the sense over time that we’re part of something that is much greater than all of us together.
How has any experience you’ve had with faith or religion influenced your work?
Well, I’ve always been a believer, so I would say that belief has influenced my whole life. So then it would have influenced all of the writing that I’ve done. I’ve done some particular projects on faith. I have a book of poems called Epiphanies: Poems (WordTech Communications, 2013) and I’ve published in a range of faith-based journals. But I think [faith is] one of the great intimacies of human life, so I think also that that sense of coming up out of the center is what moves me in all kinds of ways.
I think [faith is] one of the great intimacies of human life.
I’ve heard you use that phrase “intimacies of human life” before when talking about these types of things. Could you go into what that means?
I think it’s the love impulse, certainly. But I think it’s also that we move through life in a very textured way, and while we all look to the past and look to the future—I think that’s human—if you’re really inside each moment and think about what it means, there is an intimacy to whatever you’re doing. Love is perhaps the greatest intimacy in that way. If you’re really thinking, “I’m alive in this moment and interacting with my community and with the world,” I don’t think there’s anything much greater than that.
Karl Rahner, S.J., once wrote an essay comparing priests to poets. His point was that priests and poets have the same function in society: They both use common words to connect people with the capital-W Word, to God or to a higher truth. He has this line, “The priest calls to the poet and the poet calls to the priest.” Does that idea resonate with you?
I don’t know that on a daily basis poets think of themselves as delivering this message in a way that priests might, because you have the body of your constituency there in front of you, but I think it’s the hope of a poet. I think that poets do like to feel that what they’re doing matters and that they can change the course of people’s daily intimacies or people’s daily lives and say something that might make it possible for the world to be somewhat new…. It’s like “something borrowed, something blue” but in a different context. It’s shifted, and people look for the next word of advice.
You’re talking about poets in the third person there, but do you see yourself as a part of what you’re describing?
I do. I think in general it’s true, but I do, and then there are a lot of different moods within that. In a different life, I was a standup comic—
I was! But that’s another thing where you do a performance, and you like to hope that the audience is with you, but in a funny way. Whatever your performance is, you like to think that it matters what you’ve done. So, as a poet, I do a lot of different ranges of tones and poems simply because one day I want to do standup, and one day I want to do something else.
Do you see a connection between that and your work with women poets to highlight their voices?
I do. It’s interesting because some poets that I’ve worked with and published, like Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, that is the work that they do. But I think the intensity of doing a women’s journal or doing the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline is that so many women have been forgotten or they’ve done their work regardless of any fame they get from that work. What’s lovely and brings tears to your eyes is that as certain work is published and as certain women poets are recovered, it’s as if we’ve known them all along. There is that sense that we’ve been connected forever. They’re joining a body of work that people see as connected to whatever they’re doing.
As certain work is published and as certain women poets are recovered, it’s as if we’ve known them all along.
Is that the connection between women poets or poets in general?
Yes, I mean, in that particular case, women poets. But in the way that we were just talking about the intimacies of human life, those intimacies seem not isolating but invigorating.
It seems that you spend a lot of time raising up women’s voices in poetry, and Mezzo Cammin seems to be a feminist project. Do you aim for any sort of intersectionality there? Do you try to represent women from racial minority groups, for example?
That’s been part of what we’ve done. I run a conference called Poetry by the Sea, and a lot of what I’m talking about with bringing different voices together happens through that. That said, what happens, as with all projects, is that you start with the group of people you know who are amazing. Then you begin to see what you have as strengths and what seems to be missing.
One of our goals with the magazine and the timeline is to bring in a range of voices of all backgrounds, but the other thing is the timeline will eventually—it seems so bold to say this—but our goal is to have an essay on every woman poet who has ever lived. There are 75 now, so naturally there are many we haven’t included, but we’re going to run into some issues in terms of, what if we have too many poets from China? What if we begin to have many poets from France? As the number grows—primarily we’ve done British and American poets now—it changes the character of it, and you begin to see the poets being added to the timeline. It’s exciting to see how the narratives have been very similar, no matter the background or the ethnicity.
Has your experience working with all these different people influenced your writing?
In the end, my career has moved more and more toward community-based projects. The timeline is one; the conference is another. I run a reading series at 30th Street [Train] Station in Philadelphia and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. So, having these iconic structures where people can experience art or music in that way, that really appeals to me, to connect people.