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Denver Poet Molly Kugel Explores Grief and Ecology With Groundcover

Molly Kugel
Molly Kugel Courtesy Molly Kugel
The last line of the last poem in Denver poet Molly Kugel’s new collection, Groundcover, is this: “our forgotten past inside a seed.” It’s a nutshell of the book overall, a paean to the natural world, the mourning and grief to which it is married, and all that loss entails. Kugel’s work invokes that of both Emily Dickinson and Rachel Carson, working the soil and the greenery that sprouts from it with sharp tools and pointed language.

We spoke with Kugel after the publication of Groundcover, in anticipation of her reading at Trident Booksellers on Saturday, October 29. She’ll be reading alongside fellow poet Amber Adams, who will appear with her new book of wartime poetry, Becoming Ribbons.

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Tolsun Books
Westword: Tell us how this book came about; its focus on herbology and grief seems especially timely in today’s world.

Kugel: My research for my dissertation "'The smallest housewife in the grass': Women, Poetry, and American Botanical Culture," definitely assisted in portions of the book.

“The smallest housewife in the grass” is a line from Emily Dickinson, yes?

It is. My work with the nineteenth-century lay botany movement helped me to make connections between plant life and mourning, as well as teaching me more deeply about many historical figures. Also, my work with eco-feminism and eco-criticism inspired many of the environmental poems, but this has also been a part of my life for a long while. As we all know, global climate change drives us all to focus on ecological concerns.

For sure. Can you expand on how you accomplish that focus? What is it that drives you, and how does that in turn drive your work?

I read a lot of eco-poetry and prose and am interested in poets and writers who seem to feel similarly about a biocentric connection between plants, animals and humans. I'm also very inspired by visiting animal sanctuaries and spending time with rescued beings. Luvin' Arms in Erie and Broken Shovels in Henderson are two local sanctuaries. I also find inspiration from Farm Sanctuary, which is based in New York and California. My daughter Ingrid is part of their Youth Leadership Council.

What about on the scientific or eco-justice side of things? Who do you credit in those spheres in terms of both their work and inspiring your own?

Angela Davis, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Gene Bauer, Greta Thunberg, Dr. Amie "Breeze" Harper, and Michelle Carrera, just to name a handful of people. I also glean energy from journals dedicated to the earth and our current crisis. Emergence Magazine names its mission as an effort to "share stories during dark times because (these stories) are regenerative spaces of creation and renewal."

It's a good point that the writing of others can often provoke a creative response from a writer themselves. What in the creative writing arena helps in that regard?

My editing work for Cordella Magazine definitely motivates my writing. The magazine features the work of women-identified and nonbinary writers, creatives and makers. I'm afforded the opportunity to work with so many gifted writers; I'm also grateful for the community surrounding the project.

Speaking of community, how important are readings like the one you’ll be doing at Trident on the 29th to the work of the writer overall?

Readings can be really helpful to create a sense of community between writers and readers, but also writers with one another. I think poetry obviously began as song and to some degree is meant to be heard, but I would say the same for storytelling and fiction. Who doesn't love to be told a story? There is definitely this component. I think it's even generative for writers to hear their work and to think more about the audience. But I also value the page and the way these forms were meant for quiet contemplation. So much writing can create comfort and companionship for those reading it alone. Writing works in so many ways.

It does! So how do you fit in time to write alongside so many other responsibilities — teaching, family demands and the demands of daily life?

This is such a good question. At this point in the semester, there is very little time. There are ebbs and flows. I do try to write a freehand page before I fall asleep and before I read something before bed. I'm usually trying to read a novel and a book of poems. During less busy times, I'm also reading a book of nonfiction during the day. The process as a whole is a lot of reading, walking, looking for inspiration. Research is also a big part of my process. I'm usually searching for meaning and purpose and, hopefully, how to best help. Amitav Ghosh said something inspiring in an interview: "[T]he task of writers, artists, and storytellers is to give voice to nonhumans...this is the basic challenge for the arts. How do we restore voice to nonhumans, restore agency to nonhumans?"

You come from Pennsylvania originally, but have been in Denver for a couple of decades now. How much did each of those locations inspire the poems in the collection?

Place is really a focus of the book. My hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is featured in many of the poems. Denver is also a focal point, as well as other locations in Colorado. Landscape is so important to the work I'm attempting to do right now. Of course, I enjoy the mountains a great deal and visiting RMNP [Rocky Mountain National Park]. But here, in Denver, I find energy by visiting simple natural settings like the High Line Canal trail. Walking in general fuels me in all sorts of ways.

How so?

I teach a walking course at CU Denver called "Walking: a meditative, ecological and historical investigation," and I think as a class we all learn so much from this basic act if we're lucky enough to have this ability. My students with complex mobility challenges teach us about the often-overlooked realities of "walking" (and all of the forms of walking) as well. We all seem to agree that even this quiet space that is afforded us for a short time can transform a perspective within this busy world.

Molly Kugel Groundcover reading/signing, 6 p.m. Saturday, October 29, Trident Booksellers, 940 Pearl Street, Boulder. For more information, see the Trident website.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen

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