Alumni Profile: Gwen Kirby (’07)

This week we check in with alum Gwen Kirby (’07), whose creative work was lately featured in The Rumpus. She was kind enough to offer us some insight about her work, as well as share some of her experiences since her time at Carleton. You can read the article in The Rumpus here, and the piece, “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at That Point Fuck Them Anyway,” in its entirety here. More information on her writing and public appearances can be found on her website.

Can you tell us a little bit about the piece that The Rumpus has featured? What inspired you to write it?

The Rumpus featured a very short piece of mine, “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at That Point Fuck Them Anyway,” which the title goes a long way to describe. It’s a flash piece, in the form of a list, that describes Cassandra’s thoughts during the fall of Troy (Cassandra being the lucky lady who can see the future but is cursed to never be believed). The germ of the idea came to me during my summer job as a staff member at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. One of the faculty was reading a poem about Cassandra and I started to think, very intellectually, that it sucked to be her and if I were her, I’d be done with those assholes. From there, I began to imagine what, in that future that she could see but not share, she might find beautiful or funny, tragic or hopeful.

The Rumpus refers to “Shit Cassandra Saw…” as a story, but it almost seems to blur the boundaries between short story and prose poem. Which form would you say it takes?

As I am a fiction writer, I think of it as a story, but you are right to point out the blurry line between flash fiction and prose poetry. Part of what made it feel like fiction as I was writing it was that I accessed it through a character’s point of view, though of course, many a character has been the voice of a poem, and Cassandra herself is a product of poems.

Do you consider your version of Cassandra’s story a “feminist retelling”?

I do, but that wasn’t on my mind while I was writing it. I think if I had sat down and thought, alright, time to do some feministing, I would have gotten pretty stuck. But once I began to imagine Cassandra, to imagine her in Troy being so explicitly, actively, wrongly silenced, the parallels to our current world (and how she would feel about them) gave me a lot of energy. What I love about some feminist retellings is that they give the language of our time to women who often have to couch their anger in niceness or excuses. I wanted Cassandra to tell everyone to “fuck off.” I wanted her to feel my freedom, I suppose, in the way that my privilege today sometimes allows me to feel free, to shout. And to juxtapose this barbaric yawp, I thought about all the ways the world doesn’t change, the way today’s world would seem like more of the same. This is reductive and simplistic, but it was a joy in writing it and in today’s political climate, a little female anger is no small or bad thing.

What has life been like, post-Carleton? Has your English major served you in unexpected ways?

Post-Carleton, my English major remains central to my life. I’ve taught English abroad, worked for a publishing company, written for travel websites, been a freelance writer and editor, and, obviously, continued to pursue my creative writing and academic study. It’s really a horrifying degree of English-ness. As for the unexpected, I would actually say the most unexpected thing has been how much I’ve been able to keep writing and reading central to my career. I have freelance edited some very weird books and taken some strange journalism gigs (thank you Craigslist) in the name of experience and they have all been worth it (some more than other in retrospect…). I guess I’d just say that if you want to stay in this world, you can, but be prepared for being scrappy, stubborn, and slightly broke while you break into it.

Your bio says you both hold an MFA and are pursuing a PhD! How do the experiences differ, and what advice do you have for English majors who are trying to decide between the two?

If you are trying to decide between an MFA and a PhD and you are absolutely sure you want to be a creative writer, I cannot encourage you enough to get a (full funded and no other kind) MFA. During my MFA I was able to focus almost exclusively on writing and on teaching creative writing (which is in itself an amazing education in how to construct a story). I was lucky to have wonderful professors and even more wonderful peers in that program and I sucked much much less when I got out than when I started. My PhD is a “literature with creative writing focus” PhD, which is a very different beast than a traditional literature PhD. I have taken some workshops and craft class during my PhD (in addition to literature and theory) and my dissertation will be a novel rather than a critical work. The PhD builds on the MFA and, as a writer, it certainly couldn’t replace it.

What other exciting things are you currently working on?

I’m currently finishing reading for my PhD comprehensive exams and polishing my short story collection (of which “Cassandra…” is a part). As soon as I finish my exams (yay March!), I’ll be beginning my novel/dissertation. And I’m very excited to attend my ten-year Carleton reunion this June!

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