Taisia Kitaiskaia is the author of Literary Witches: A Celebration of Magical Women Writers (Hachette/Seal), illustrated by Katy Horan, and Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles (Andrews McMeel). She holds an MFA in Poetry from the Michener Center for Writers and her poems can be found in journals such as Crazyhorse, Pleiades, jubilat, Guernica, Black Warrior Review, The Fairy Tale Review, and Fence. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice, most recently by the Beloit Poetry Journal.
Thao Votang: First, I want to say congratulations. You’re having an amazing year with the release of Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles and Literary Witches: A Celebration of Magical Women Writers with Austin artist Katy Horan. You finished your MFA in poetry from the James A. Michener Center for Writers back in 2015. How are you feeling?
Taisia Kitaiskaia: Thank you, Thao! It was nuts to have two books come out within a couple weeks of each other, and now that the intensity of the experience is wearing off, I’m beginning to feel simply happy and lucky.
TV: It seems incredibly rewarding to see two projects published (in the same year!) after so much hard work. Are you thinking about what is next for you or simply savoring everything that is happening now?
TK: Though Baba and Literary Witches stand for much of what matters to me—humor, magic, feminism, witchery, folklore—I see them as companions to my main projects. I have three finished poetry manuscripts waiting to be published, and I’m working on a novel. So yes, I’m definitely forging on! Collaborating with Katy on Literary Witches was a thrill and opened up my sense of possibility. I’m excited.
TV: Where did you meet Katy Horan, and how did Literary Witches come about? Did you approach her or vice versa?
TK: I actually found Katy’s work on the Internet back in 2015. I was looking for an illustrator for an Ask Baba Yaga book and just scrolling through Tumblr when I saw one of her paintings of naked ladies engaging in rituals in the woods. I was like, Yes, ma’am. I researched further and loved how her work — of witchy women, folkloric scenes, creaturely sights — was illustrative and stylized but also channeling a wild, magical sensibility. I contacted her immediately and she wrote back an hour later saying yes, it was her lifelong dream to illustrate a book, and she was a fan of the “Ask Baba Yaga” column. Then we figured out that we both live in Austin, which made it feel destined. We started collaborating right away, and though she did some wonderful sketches for Baba, the agent I was in touch with at the time dropped out and so we turned our attention to what would become Literary Witches. The idea for Literary Witches came to me when I was biking around one day; I realized that all my favorite writers were witches, and the connection between witches and women writers made perfect sense to me. The idea resonated with Katy and we made a limited set of five writer-witches for Electric Literature. The project felt rich and alive so we already knew we wanted to do more when our agent, Adriann Ranta Zurhellen, approached us about doing a book. When Adriann helped me sell Ask Baba Yaga a few months after we sold Literary Witches, Katy was up to her eyeballs in illustrations for the first book, and Andrews McMeel had a great house illustrator picked out for Baba anyway.
Portrait of Octavia E. Butler by Katy Horan from Literary Witches.
TV: Ask Baba Yaga and Literary Witches are both inspiring/empowering works. In a 2016 interview in Tiny Donkey, you tell this story about your grandmother telling you about earthworms and how they are just as important as the strawberries. I keep thinking about these two things and wondering what you most want to achieve with your writing?
TK: That story continues to accrue meaning for me. I feel like in that moment, my grandmother initiated me into the interconnectedness of the universe and the glorious specificity of all the participating creatures and elements (strawberries, worms, and the humans who eat the strawberries and are eaten by the worms), and knowing this made me feel intensely alive and happy. I rarely sit down to achieve any particular goal in my writing, but looking back, I get most excited when I feel like my language creates an experience akin to that of the worms and the strawberries — an experience of vast, simultaneous goings-on, the dissolution of illusory hierarchies, and that joyful belonging and bewilderment that I felt with my grandmother in her summer garden in Siberia. Though I believe this sense of joy is available to everyone, we also exist in systems that deny and obstruct it — the patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and other oppressive structures. So there’s a political manifestation to this state of being that I try to access and create. I hope you can feel that in the honoring of women writers in Literary Witches and in Ask Baba Yaga’s suggestions for good psychic health.
TV: You commune with Baba Yaga and read cards for Typewriter Tarot — what draws you to the occult?
TK: Without mystery, life would be dull and cruel. Most areas of study harbor mystery — science, mathematics, medicine, all of the arts — but the occult embraces it openly. On the whole, art-making is magic enough for me and I don’t feel drawn to practicing actual witchcraft (although that sounds like fun for my older years, when I plan to get very mischievous), but I couldn’t resist Baba, and the Tarot is just a gorgeous storytelling medium.
TV: How long have you made your “doodles” as you call them? How does your writing and drawing inform one another?
TK: When I was a kid, I wrote and illustrated my own weird little books and assumed I would keep this up through adulthood. I ended up focusing on writing, but I still envy the materiality of the visual arts, and I often feel a need to make something with my hands. The doodles are fun to draw and share, but I have no ambitions for them. It can be such a relief to create something pleasing but not have to identify with it or call it Serious Art.
TV: What are you listening to, reading, or looking at right now?
TK: I’m reading an illuminating, maddening book about the role of the European and American witch hunts in the creation of capitalism called Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici. I’m also reading Deb Olin Unferth’s hilarious new short story collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance, and Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, which is awesome and has so much more energy and imagination than most poetry collections coming out these days. I’m enjoying listening to music in other languages, like Parno Graszt, a Roma ensemble from Hungary; the Mexican-American Lhasa de Sela (I may never get over “El Desierto”); and the nutty Watcha Clan. I’m also eating up the second season of Lady Dynamite, because Maria Bamford is a treasure. Does she read poetry? If I could send her Harmonium by Wallace Stevens without feeling like a creepy fan, I would do it — I think she would love the wordplay!