DeWitt Brinson: What’s the best thing poetry has given us?

Abigail Carl-Klassen: The best thing that poetry has given us the ability to explore and embody paradox. Poetry is the voices of the living and the dead. Poetry records and erases. Poetry hurts and heals. Poetic form, through line breaks and negative space has given us the ability to embody contradictions. With poetry we are able to encounter the heart of quantum mechanics—to be everywhere and nowhere at once.

DeWitt Brinson: When did you first agree to write a poem? How soon after did you start seeing poetry?

Abigail Carl-Klassen: I started writing poetry in middle school. Typical rhymey angsty teen stuff. I only had access to the classics like Emily Dickenson, Robert Frost, and John Keats, all of whom I loved, especially at the time. Where I came from art was dangerous unless served an evangelistic or uplifting purpose. A poem was supposed to be like a Thomas Kinkade painting that led people to Jesus. The greater part of my adult life has been spent trying to renegotiate how to live and create art after leaving my rural Fundamentalist Christian community.

Because of my background, poetry has always seemed transgressive. It took me a long time to see the poetry in where I came from. Lately I’ve been coming to terms with the language of the King James Bible. That’s how “Teach the Young Women: A Primer for Modern Womanhood” was born---an experiment in letting the language of the Bible speak for itself without ignoring the darkness and violence. The fundamentalism of my youth tried to pretty up that language, but I spent a lot of time with the text alone, without flourish. I read it out loud over and over as an act of grief and defiance. That’s what poetry is to me letting language speak for itself without censor.

DeWitt Brinson: When did you feel like poetry had become a lover?

Abigail Carl-Klassen: When I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at El Paso I was introduced to contemporary poetry that really moved me. Some of this education was in the classroom, but the majority of it was on the street, in community centers, at open mic readings, and at the haunts of local poets, artists, writers, social workers, laborers and activists. The education in poetry and activism that I received from the radiant hearts of the El Paso and Juárez community is a debt I can never pay. I can only hope to carry that spirit with me and share it wherever I go.

DeWitt Brinson: Between you and poetry, who is more likely to leave this relationship?

Abigail Carl-Klassen: Sometimes I try to take breaks and there are times when I am more intensely dedicated to the craft than others, but poetry is always there pursuing me. The nature of this relationship is long with many seasons that I anticipate will continue to ebb and flow in the years to come.

DeWitt Brinson: Does poetry satisfy your needs? How often do you orgasm?

Abigail Carl-Klassen: I have to seek out the poetry that meets my needs, but the search pays off and I continue to be amazed at the wonderful work being created today. Poets like ire’ne lara silva, Craig Santos Pérez, Barbara Jane Reyes, Natalie Diaz, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Claudia Rankine, the free styling rapero performing on a crowded bus in Xela, Guatemala. I can’t get them out of my head. Every once in a while there is a piece that I can’t shake, that haunts me longer after I’m done listening. Maybe it’s my background, but I feel the best poetry is filled with ghosts rather than orgasms.


DeWitt Brinson: What’s the worst thing you’ve said to someone? Was it to someone you love? Do you think you could ever be upset enough to say it again?

Abigail Carl-Klassen: Poetry is as much about the silences as what is being said. Because of my background I was taught to hold my feelings inside at all costs. Anger was a sin and the worst insult for a woman was “bitter” so I trapped my rage and resentment inside. The worst thing I said to someone I love was probably unsaid—a festering silence that iced them out of my life in lieu of conflict or confrontation. I’m trying to work through this, but old habits die hard.


DeWitt Brinson: How have you lived with poetry? What kind of compromises do you have to make with poetry?

Abigail Carl-Klassen: Poetry has always reemerged in my life even when I have tried to ignore it. Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano said, “Walls are the publishers of the poor” and I feel that is true. Poetry is everywhere crying out to us in every pitch and rhythm rising out of the Earth. Much of the work I have done over the years, as an educator, community development worker and writer has been with traditionally marginalized communities that aren’t voiceless, but are speaking loud and clearly. This is how I try to live out my poetry, through intentional radical listening.

I keep having encounters with people who are saying things that I feel are important and so new poems and projects keep emerging and taking shape whether or not I feel like I have time to complete them or not. Some seasons of my life I have to focus on working and making money to fund my travel, research and writing. Other seasons are spent focusing on writing. In order to live the kind of life I want to live and write the kind of poetry I want to write those are the compromises that I have to make, at least, for now.

DeWitt Brinson: Do you know where all the poems you’ve made with poetry are? If you are missing some, were you just too young or drunk to keep them?

Abigail Carl-Klassen: In many ways I feel like I have an archivist spirit and am trying to channel the poet as the keeper of individual and collective memory. I’m constantly preserving and cataloging everything, not just poetry, compulsively for some nebulous purpose that will become clear in some far off future. The oldest poems are packed away in boxes in notebook organized by year and the hopeless poems composed electronically have taken up permanent residence in folders with names like “Poetry Rehab” and “Shitty Poems. Good Memories.”

DeWitt Brinson: Has poetry ever cheated you? Have you cheated on poetry? Describe it or its absence biblically.

Abigail Carl-Klassen: I feel that true poetry is always faithful. Sometimes I feel dragged down by the overly navel gazey poetry that has been workshop polished—that receives accolades, but has no heart and nothing to say, but time after time poetry that matters is making itself known. I don’t feel like I’ve cheated on poetry or that poetry demands exclusivity in its relationships. I think that every step on my journey has drawn me closer into the heart of poetry—its ancient oral origins, its function of preserving and individual and collective memory, its power as a conduit of protest and witness, its ability to simultaneously fragment and connect—to both remember and forget. For me, the most apt biblical description of the persistence of poetry comes from the book of Luke 19:39-40, “Some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him [Jesus], Master, rebuke thy disciples. And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these [people] should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.”

DeWitt Brinson: Where is your work going? Where are you? Tell us more about where to find more of you and your poetry.

Abigail Carl-Klassen: The last several years my work has been taking a much more ethnographic and research based form. I’ve been thinking about it as a kind of radical listening that centers on the experiences and unexpected intersections of marginalized people and communities, whether the focus is on migrant workers, homeless communities, or on the intersection of rough and tumble oil field culture with Christian fundamentalism, as is the case with the poems included in this issue of TENDE RLOIN.

Most recently, I’ve returned to the United States after spending nearly a year teaching, volunteering and collecting migration narratives in Central America and Mexico. I’m in rural Virginia working on a farm, substitute teaching, doing some interpretation and translation for a local school district, and getting some manuscripts at various levels of completion together. In other words, hustling like always.

I am a staff writer for Poets Reading the News and my work can be found at Later this year my chapbook Shelter Management, an ethno-poetic exploration of homelessness on the U.S.-Mexico border (where I lived for 11 years), will be released by dancing girl press. 




interviewed by the tender, young, virile writer

DeWitt Brinson

About the Author:

Abigail Carl-Klassen was raised in rural west Texas and lived for many years in El Paso, Texas. She has done ethnopoetic work with migrant workers, Old Colony Mennonite communities in Mexico and Texas, social workers, homeless communities, immigrant communities along the U.S.-Mexico border and most recently, with Central American migrants and asylum seekers in Mexico. Her work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Catapult, Cimarron ReviewWillow Springs, GuernicaAster(ix) and Kweli, among others. She was shortlisted for the Society for Humanistic Anthropology’s 2016 Ethnographic Poetry Prize and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets 2015. She is a staff writer for Poets Reading the News and her chapbook Shelter Management will be released in late 2017 with dancing girl press. She earned an MFA from the University of Texas El Paso’s Bilingual Creative Writing Program and taught at El Paso Community College and the University of Texas El Paso.