Q&A: Caroline Kaufman, Author of ‘When The World Didn’t End’

Teen Instagram sensation and author of Light Filters In, @poeticpoison returns with a second collection of short, powerful poems about love, forgiveness, self-discovery, and what it’s like living after a hard-fought battle with depression, in the vein of poetry collections like ‘Milk and Honey’ and ‘the princess saves herself in this one’. 

We had the privilege of chatting to Caroline Kaufman about her new poetry collection When The World Didn’t End, her writing process, book recommendations, and more!

Hi Caroline! Tell us a little about yourself!

Hi! Well, my name is Caroline Kaufman, I’m 19 years old (almost 20), and I’m the author of two poetry collections: Light Filters In and When The World Didn’t End. A lot of my writing focuses on my struggle with mental illness and how I’ve approached my road to recovery. I’m currently studying English at Harvard University, and I’m about to start my junior year.

Why did you start writing poetry?

When I was about 12 or 13, I began really struggling with depression. But, I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, and a lot of those emotions just built up inside of me. Writing was basically my way of letting out those emotions and trying to make sense of them. It really became my main outlet, and it allowed me to keep everything from bottling up.

Your latest collection, When The World Didn’t End: Poems, is now available. Can you tell us what readers might expect?

Well, most of the pieces in this collection were written during my first two years of college, already a few years into my treatment and recovery. I think this collection mainly focuses on my struggle to not just survive, but live. It follows a time in my life where I really had to figure out what I wanted my life to look like. For most of high school, I couldn’t even imagine what my life would look like in college or as a graduate—I didn’t think it would be possible for me to live a happy and healthy life, or a life that I was excited and grateful to wake up to. So, when I got far enough into my recovery, it was really surprising to realize that I had that life, and now had to figure out how I wanted to spend it and what I wanted to do with it. That’s a big question I grapple with throughout this collection, I think.

Was there anything in particular that inspired this collection or certain poems?

I write mainly about my own life experiences, so those are what inform most of my pieces. I don’t really think of a plot or narrative that I want to form a book around and then write to fill in the gaps—I mainly write about what is happening in my life or what I’m struggling with, and then put those altogether to create a representation of what my life experience has been like. I do have a few poems that are inspired by other pieces of writing, though. For example, one of the pieces in this collection is based off of a line in a poem by Doc Luben that has always stuck with me: “how do we forgive ourselves for all the things we did not become?”. I thought it really encapsulated the grief-like emotion I felt over the person I used to be, and maybe the person I could’ve been if I did not have to struggle with mental illness. So most of my writing comes from personal experience, but there are times I’ll take inspiration from specific lines or movies or songs, and use them to help expand on something within a poem.

When it comes to sitting down and writing, what’s your process like?

Honestly, when I want to be productive in my writing, I’ll get some coffee and sit in the corner of a café. I can be there for five or six hours at a time, and I just try and pour out anything I think of into a word document. At the end of the day, I’ll comb through everything I’ve written down and see which ideas I still like, what can be crafted into a usable piece, what might need to be saved for later, and what can just get deleted. A lot of it ends up getting deleted. But I’ll usually end up with a few poems that I do really truly like, and that’s the important part. Also, I tend to write in random situations, whenever an idea pops into my head. I’ve turned over my notes page in the middle of class to jot down lines and phrases. I’ve excused myself in the middle of dinner at a restaurant to hide in the bathroom and write down the idea that was forming in my head. So, yes, I’ve had incredibly productive sessions where I’m purposely trying to write, but a lot of my writing also comes at random times, and I just have to make sure I have a notebook or a phone on me to quickly get it down while I still have it in my head.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with this?

Of course! I don’t think there is any writer in the world that hasn’t suffered from writer’s block. I think the hardest hurdle for me to get over is the fear that whatever I’m going to write isn’t “good enough”. After a pretty good streak with my writing, I’ll almost avoid writing or stop myself from even trying because I’m scared that whatever idea I have in my head won’t live up to the other pieces I’ve written. But, I think something that’s really helpful for me to remember is that it’s okay to make bad art. In fact, it’s necessary to make bad art! Not everything that comes out of you is required to be the best thing you’ve ever created. In order to write that one good idea or good piece, you might have to write ten bad ones. And that’s just how art works sometimes. That’s what I think about a lot when I’m in my long writing sessions. I try and encourage myself to write any terrible or cliché thought that comes into my mind, because it only brings me one bad poem closer to writing the poem that I’ll end the day feeling proud of.

Are there any writers that you look up to?

Yes, a lot! In terms of more traditional poetry, I really like to read Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I admire the freedom and self-acceptance that can be found in Whitman’s work, and throughout my recovery I’ve tried more and more to incorporate that into my own writing. And I really like how Dickinson can take very simple concepts or objects and connect them to broader ideas or themes in life. As for modern poets, I have a lot of respect for writers like Trista Mateer, Amanda Lovelace, and Monica Youn. Most of their work is filled with simple, raw emotion, without a lot of sugarcoating, and I think that is really the direction that the genre of poetry is moving into. It has become more honest, more angry, more personal, more upsetting, more political. I really support and admire that, and I’m really excited to see how the genre continues to progress and grow with all of that.

Do you have any advice for those interested in writing poetry?

I know everyone says this, but it’s because it’s really the only tried-and-true method poets can agree on—just write! I touched on this earlier, but there is no way to get better at writing without practice and experience. Write and write and write until you feel like there’s nothing left in you to write about, and then write about that feeling, too. No one starts out as a master poet, whatever that means. I look back on my earliest poems and cringe at a lot of them, but that’s where I started. And honestly, I’m really proud of how much my writing has matured and improved over the years. But I wouldn’t have gotten to that point without all the really terrible poems hidden away in my journals. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is just…start writing.

Lastly, do you have any book recommendations for us?

Yes! The writers I mentioned earlier all have books that I’ve been loving recently. I’d recommend Honeybee by Trista Mateer (a heartbreaking and absolutely moving punch in the gut), The Witch Doesn’t Burn In This One by Amanda Lovelace (an empowering and fiery source of self-love and motivation), and Blackacre by Monica Youn (an intricately crafted collection that will leave you questioning everything around you). These are three books that I’ve gone back to multiple times after reading, left tabs in, and highlighted to death. I think people will really love them.

Will you be picking up When The World Didn’t End? Tell us in the comments below!

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