An Interview with Vanderbilt MFA Student Kiyoko Reidy
Kiyoko Reidy is an MFA candidate in poetry at Vanderbilt and the former editor in chief of The Nashville Review.
If you were to write a short biography of yourself, what would it say?
I am from Knoxville, Tennessee originally. Then I went to school at UW Madison , where I majored in engineering. (*Laughs*) I realized pretty quickly that engineering is not that fun. I’d written poetry since, well, forever. But I never thought it was something I could do seriously, at least not at school. But then I made the swap, and here I am! I’m a third year MFA student at Vanderbilt. I also have two dogs, who I love so much.
What are their names?
Murpha and Orzo! They’re awesome.
Growing up in Tennessee, did you ever visit Nashville? If not, what are your thoughts about the city so far?
Me and my family came here sometimes for concerts, we’re a very music-oriented family. But the experience was always really “drive to Nashville, go to concert, leave in the morning”. The city has changed a lot, it’s grown so much. I’m not sure that I would recognize it now, even if I had spent a ton of time here as a kid. Nashville then is definitely not Nashville now. It’s been a lot of fun living here so far, except for maybe the perpetual traffic.
What does a typical weekday look like for you?
In the morning, I’m either working at the writing center as a graduate writing consultant, or I’m teaching my Intro to Poetry workshop class. If neither or those things are happening, I’m a big morning writer. I get most of my writing done in the mornings. I spend my afternoons trying to give a lot of feedback to my students in my class, maybe I spend too much time doing that but I think it’s really important. In the evenings I do my best to keep up with books of poetry that have come out that I need to read, or books that have been sitting on my shelf forever.
What’s the first thing you remember writing?
I was like five, and I wrote a poem that was about cats. Then I wrote a companion poem about mice. (*Laughs*) I really wish I still had it.
When did you realize you wanted to pursue creative writing as a career? What did that decision look like for you?
There’s this unfortunate cultural sense of what is and what isn’t a real job or what is or isn’t a real career path. Growing up, I was pretty good at math and everyone was like ‘oh what a skill! That’s going to be so useful’. Then I got to college and the math and engineering classes just didn’t excite me. And the things that were the most exciting were outside of my discipline. And the thought struck me that I didn’t want to be not excited forever. It just made me sad to imagine myself doing things that I was good at that didn’t excite me. I had always written poetry and always been interested in it, but it just didn’t feel like it was something that I could do seriously. I didn’t have any models in poetry or writing.
I’ve always loved teaching. I sort of realized that teaching is a great way to support your writing. It helps you learn while you practice. (*Laughs*) It also means you spend less time sitting by yourself at your desk. I’ve always been teaching-minded and always gotten really excited about the prospect of teaching other people. My experience with mentors, specifically writing mentors that I’ve had, has been so positive and life-changing. It really made me feel like poetry was important and worthwhile, which is such a great feeling. If I can help generate that feeling for anyone else, it’s worth it.
Speaking more about your own writing, what have you discovered about the kinds of poetry you like to write? Are there forms or themes you find yourself attached to?
I have always been sort of anti-form in terms of what I say. But, I think my poems have always been kind of formal. (*Laughs*) Recently, I realized that I should maybe just stop being such an asshole about it and try more forms. So last summer I made myself write a lot of sonnets- and it turned out to be really fun. I’ve never seen poems as a puzzle before, which I think forms help you see. It made me think about the individual pieces of a poem and how they fit together, which is really beautiful.
In terms of themes, I write a lot about family. I think our families drive all of us in different ways. Everybody has their complex family shit, and I’m no different. I also tend to write about addiction, especially in the lens of family and mental health. Right now, I want to work on this poem series about my grandmother. My grandmother, who I love very dearly, is from Okinawa. As she’s gotten older she’s been sharing all of these stories. So I really want to end up writing these things down so I never forget them.
When you’re reading a poem, what draws you in?
When I can see the imaginative surprise behind a poem, it really draws me in. I really admire poets that can show their own imaginations having fun. I was at a conference this summer and Monica Youn told us ‘show your work’. And that was just such an interesting way to think about poetry, almost like a math problem. Follow your imaginative thread, and show where it comes from, and the poem will end up being so much more satisfying.
I also prefer poems that feel like they have something at stake. I love poems about nature and beauty and flowers, but I’m maybe less drawn to them than poems that really struggle with things and have real things at stake.
What’s one poem you wish you wrote?
I guess every single poem? That’s so hard. I really admire Ocean Vuong and the book “Night Sky with Exit Wounds”. It’s weird because he writes so differently from me. It’s not something that I’m trying to emulate, or that I’m writing towards, so to speak. I’ll never write close to that style. But the elegance, the fluidity, and the lushness of his poems are so wonderful. The poem I’ll pick from that collection if I have to is “Aubade with Burning City”.
Is there anything you feel this interview would be incomplete without mentioning?
Everybody, everybody, should take a creative writing class. It doesn’t have to be poetry: it can be fiction or even creative non-fiction. There’s a sense that it’s not gonna help you, that it has no value other than being fun. And that’s really not true. Creative expression is really undervalued in our education. It really helps you understand language, understand how speech works. It will definitely make you a better writer and probably make you a better person.