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Poet Kiki Petrosino asks: Can people change?

Kiki Petrosino’s poetry began as a child in the backseat of her mother’s car.

Many nights, the family would drive to and from Catonsville Community College near Baltimore to pick up Petrosino’s father, a public school teacher who taught evening classes on the side. And on those trips, Petrosino’s mother would play Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 Countdown and ask her and her sister: What’s happening in this song? How is the person feeling, and what happened to them to make them write the song?

“I think about that experience when I think about the beginning of my own life as a poet — because poems are songs, the first poems were songs,” she said. “That’s where I’m coming from.”

Now, Petrosino asks those same questions using poetry to deconstruct memory, time and the changes that have taken place in her life.

“I think that I’m always contemplating the key question of, can people change? And I really still don’t know the answer,” she said. “Some days I think yes, it seems very apparent to me that people can change and people do change all the time. But on other days, I think no — people are fundamentally who they are and what we perceive as change is just us discovering new things about ourselves and the people around us. It’s a mystery that my poetry helps me investigate.”

Petrosino grew up in north Baltimore before her family moved 45 minutes away from the city, across the border with Pennsylvania. While working toward a degree from the University of Virginia, she spent a semester in Florence — an experience that she said encouraged her to live in Switzerland after college, teaching English and Italian at The American School in Switzerland.

Her poem “Pastoral” began as a meditation on her time in Europe. “It’s me looking back and thinking, to what extent [am] I the same person that I was at that time and to what extent am I a completely different person?” she said.

The villanelle form, which employs repetition, was a starting point for the rhythm of the poem, which moves back and forth between variations on similar images and sounds. Serving as an anchor for those images is a question: Where did it start?

Petrosino is still asking that question herself. “It can have a different answer every time,” she said. “And even though it can be uncertain to have a multitude of answers, I think it’s an authentic response to the question.”

Hear Petrosino read her poem “Pastoral” or read the text below.

Pastoral

Where did it start? In a city of gardens & muck.
When I held someone close, in watery light.
We drank & I bled all the way home.

Red-orange light on my legs. Oh, wow
that blink-blink of bright, that flip of the pulse.
Where did it start? In the garden, the muck

where insects jumped in starry arcs. My body
took shape, then. A greenhouse I entered alone.
We drank & I bled all the way home.

I wore so many clothes. Cotton, cotton, wool.
I burned in my skin like a stone. How, exactly?
Where did it start? There, in the muck

no one saw how we blazed into poppies.
Light raked through our bellies like combs.
We drank & I bled all the way home.

Now, I put myself to bed. My dreams
are coins to dispense as I like. On water. On light.
In a city of gardens & muck, you can start

to feel rich. You can start to feel right
& tumble for years down the hill of your life. You ask
Where does anything start? In muck. In a garden.
You drink the drinks & bleed. You’re foam.

Kiki Petrosino is the author of two books of poetry: Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013) and Fort Red Border (2009), both from Sarabande Books. Her poems have appeared in “Best American Poetry,” “The New York Times,” “FENCE,” “Gulf Coast,” “Jubilat,” “Tin House” and elsewhere. She is founder and co-editor of “Transom,” an independent on-line poetry journal. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Louisville, where she directs the Creative Writing program.

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