Kiki Petrosino: Secret Ninja Transformations

Here’s a clip of Kiki Petrosino reading from her work:

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And here’s what Lauren has to say about her:

Kiki Petrosino was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and is daughter of a Black mother and an Italian American father. She was born in the year 1979. She earned a BA (Bachelors degree, maybe?) from the University of Virginia, an MA (Masters?) in humanities from the University of Chicago. She also earned an MFA (God knows what that is) from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (Which Catherine Wagner also took part in.) She is the author of Fort Red Border (published in 2009). The title Fort Red Border is an anagram of Robert Redford—a man that she takes a lot of interest in, and she literally writes him and her narrator going on dates and such. The first section of the book is a series of lyrics spoken by a woman engaged in a relationship with Robert Redford. Petrosino also spent two years teaching English and Italian at a private school in Switzerland. (Ooooh, Fancy right?) She works now for the International Writing Program at the University of  Iowa, as an assistant instructor.

[UPDATE: Petrosino now teaches at the University of Louisville. Click here for a recent article about her work and her teaching in the Louisville Courier-Journal.]

In a way her poems can be nonsensical. Take the poem, “Ragweed” for example. It isn’t easily understood or accessible. But at the same time her “Secret Ninja” poem is so frank and understandable. She just wants to punch everything that she doesn’t like? How accessible can that get, right? But from all that I’ve read I suppose her style is pretty narrative.

It seems as though Petrosino is influenced by personal experiences and people that have affected her in life. “The self can be such a stifling, terrifying little locket to cram yourself into,” she once said in an interview.

She is also influenced by feelings that she had at some point in time, as suggested in this interview:

GL: Okay. So your poem “Secret Ninja” is something of a crowd pleaser. I’ve read it to a handful of people over the past month or two and they inevitably love it. But the poem, aside from being tender and funny and inventive, is all about adolescent suffering. The speaker catalogs a number of things she would like “smash,” and does smash, I guess, in her imagination — things she hates, things that irritate or perhaps traumatize her, like gym teachers. The speaker wants to enact some kind of clandestine transformation that would render the speaker powerful, magnificent. First, I’d like to know what kind of “secret ninja transformation” you wanted to enact when you were young? And, second, I wonder if the narrative of such transformations, found in comic books, action flicks and fantasy lit, have affected the way you write?

KP: My dear Greg, I wanted what every young girl wants: a total makeover. The kind of makeover whereby your garden-variety blushing weirdo (who, each day, carefully pins a Starfleet combadge to her uniform blazer) might magically transform into a slender orchid of a lass. I wanted long platinum hair, vanilla-scented shampoo, a Fossil watch, an emerald-green prom dress, and perfect, squared-off teeth. I also wanted a British accent. How I suffered. Certainly, books and movies helped me out. I watched Sabrina about a million times during my high school years, and I still love both the original 1954 film and the 1995 remake. (“I have learnt how to live… how to be in the world and of the world, and not just to stand aside and watch. And I will never, never again run away from life. Or from love, either…”) I don’t know if such films have exerted a direct influence on my writing, but the archetype of transformation—the whole ugly-duckling-becomes-swan-and-proceeds-to-rock-the-mic fantasy — is certainly alive and well in my imagination. As far as writing goes, I believe the page is a realm. It can be a space for enacting transformations in language. It’s good to be confident when you approach the page, but not arrogant. After all, the page will not be impressed by your kicky new haircut and French verbs. The page wants results. I don’t think I’d be a poet now if I hadn’t suffered through my terrifically dorky adolescence. My identity as an outsider forced me to become a good observer of things, and allowed me to cultivate an inner life that continues to sustain me today. Qapla!

Like Yusef Komunyakaa, Petrosino writes about experience and the past. Perhaps not even about events in the past, but about feelings in the past. Komunyakaa is said to be understandable, and in a lot of ways Petrosino is too. But sometimes she pulls an Emily Dickinson move, and blocks off the true meanings of her poems effectively. In that way, she and Dickinson are similar. Walt Whitman sort of just, “Tells it how it is,” while Petrosino does also to some extent. It could be suggested that she is a healthy balance between both Dickinson and Whitman.

U of L poetry instructor, author Kiki Petrosino is a rising star

2 thoughts on “Kiki Petrosino: Secret Ninja Transformations

  1. Hannah March 7, 2012 / 10:12 pm

    Kiki Petrosino is just amazingly cool. I think that it is great that she finds a way to be funny in her poetry but also to prove a point. I know that it is kind of a big deal to leave the reader with something, like some sort of wisdom. I try my hardest to say things that will resignate with my readers (although I do accept the fact that I am sixteen and hardly anything I do/think/say is wise); but for the most part I find this very frustrating, and in all honesty, I would rather write about, I dont know, a sandwhich or something. It’s hard to be poetic and flowy and beautiful all the time. And this is why I really respect Kiki Petrosino, because she has mastered a casualness and hilarity in her poetry all while saying something and voicing an opinion. I want to be able to write like her when i grow up.

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