blackbirdonline journalFall 2009  Vol. 8  No. 2
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A Conversation with Katie Ford

Gregory Donovan: Greetings to everyone. It’s my pleasure to introduce Katie Ford, the winner of this year’s Levis Reading Prize, the author of Deposition and Colosseum. Katie, I’d like to start off by asking you . . . Last night, when I was reading from Larry Levis’s essay, from “Some Notes On The Gazer Within,” he mentioned he thought that when poets turn to animals as a subject matter for their poetry, it was a way of redeeming or resurrecting the landscape. And that seemed perfectly appropriate to talking about some of the poems that you were doing in your book Colosseum, as well as the new ones that you had submitted to Blackbird.And I saw that you sort of responded to that, and I wondered, what do you think about that suggestion of his?

Katie Ford: Do you think he was saying that about landscapes that had been decimated or industrialized or . . . ?

GD: Well, he mentioned that he preferred landscapes which were painful in some way and not the sterile landscapes of the suburb or . . .

KF: Right, that Kmart that you talked . . . that he talked about . . .

GD: Some kind of safe landscape. Yeah, he was interested in landscapes that were charged in some way. Clearly you do the same thing.

KF: Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve thought about it in terms of resurrecting the landscape, and probably quite unconsciously I’ve used animals as kind of the remnant force of what’s left, sometimes, in landscapes that have been, either, in Colosseum . . . that have been fled, or in Deposition there’s quite a lot of birds, actually, which I was not so aware of until someone said, “I read your book about birds.” Looking at birds throughout the history of poetry is kind of an interesting task to set in front of yourself if you’re interested in that. But traditionally, the bird as the perfect singer and the emblem of the poet in some ways. But then the bird throughout history takes on the sometimes socioeconomic or wartime effects in poetry that the humans also feel. So if you read Thomas Hardy’s “[The] Darkling Thrush,” the little bird at the end, at the turn of the century, is very thin, and he’s just barely singing and you’re not quite sure what will happen. But very different than the bird of “Ode to a Nightingale,” for example, where that bird is Keats’s dream of the singer with “full-throated ease,” which, if you have tuberculosis, is going to be the dream in some ways. So it’s interesting to trace how it’s been used. Stanley Kunitz, then, in one of his poems . . . a bird he picks up that’s still alive has been shot through the head by a human bullet, and he looks through that bullet to the sky.

So, in some ways, it feels natural to go to animals. And I guess, as I said last night too, the animal world sometimes, I think, is just better behaved than the human world. So I guess I do work against the idea that the world of the animal is cruel and vicious. And it is cruel and vicious, but different than a human viciousness that’s planned out and staged in some ways. So in Colosseum, you know, also looking at staged acts of violence, entertainment, the Roman Colosseum used as a place of entertainment where violence was the sport and animals used in that rite. But in some other ways I just really like animals. We don’t know how they think all the time, but in some ways I’m strangely interested in other kinds of brains and thinking. Because a lot of my work . . . I guess I’m kind of concerned with the flaws of the human brain and how much it can take and how much it can live through. And in New Orleans it seemed to me very obvious that the human mind was also a place of ruin, that a life could be ruined, and people can only take so much. And I think that would be a very obvious fact to us if we weren’t living in America. But when a city in America is so overwhelmed with destruction like that, it becomes obvious very quickly, and I think we would know that immediately if we were soldiers in Afghanistan right now, for example.

GD: Well, another thing that I was thinking about with relation to your book is that, I think, in the hands of some poets, choosing to be topical about an entire poetry collection, focusing it on one subject, could be limiting to them. They would maybe do the subject to death in the course of the book, and I never felt that at all in reading Colosseum—it’s one of the things I admire about the book. And it seemed to me there were a number of ways that you triumphed over that possible feeling of limitation. Maybe the most basic one is to say that you turned to the mythic aspects of the subject matter that you are dealing with and that enlarged it, freed it from just one time frame, or something like that, and I wondered what you were thinking about.

KF: I knew I was in a tricky area—I mean, I felt that. But also much of the book was written prior to Katrina and had nothing to do with New Orleans. And now in the book sequence, it’ll feel like it’s New Orleans, but really I was talking about Pompeii or something. So a lot of the book preceded anything about New Orleans, and I had traveled a little bit to Italy, and some of those subjects were really chosen in a period of time when I didn’t have a kind of external force pressing on me as a subject matter. The amazing thing about writing a first book is that you have your whole life pressing on you, so you have all of it to use. You only get to do that kind of once. Some poets do it again and again, and the fear when you’re writing your second book is that you’ll rewrite your first book. So you feel that very strongly. So New Orleans was not in my head the whole time. So I wrote a lot of the longer poems like “Colosseum” and “Koi” and “Easter Evening” and . . . the longer meditative poems almost fully were written prior to New Orleans and had nothing in my mind about hurricanes or anything.

David Wojahn: I thought “Beirut” . . . was that before or after?

KF: No, after. That was last. I had a sense of wanting to write a poem that could open the book that maybe brought things together. Yeah, so “Beirut” was almost very last, if not very last. I had studied a lot of first books, partly through teaching, because I taught a course on first books, and I remember one thing we noticed, that a lot of first books . . . the first poems are also kind of origin poems of “Where have I come from? When was the moment I was born? And what was my predicament when I entered the earth?” So I thought I kind of would try that with “Beirut,” but it was in my second book.  

DW: So often what Colosseum seems to be doing is to be operating on a sort of fulcrum between an attempt to be sacramental in the poem and an attempt at some sort of wide-ranging social criticism. And I often think that the whole issue of what constitutes what we would call the spiritual or the sacramental in poetry is one of those great taboos to discuss among contemporary poetry that I think of you and maybe people like Brenda Hillman or Louise Glückas poets who try to break that taboo. But often, I think, what happens is . . . I think of what William Matthews said, that the spiritual in poetry today is, the plot of a poem is, “I went out into the woods today and I felt a little, you know, spiritual.” So I guess one of the things I’m wondering is . . . I know that’s an important issue for you, and I know also that you have a background of a serious study in theology . . . and how did that interest in your past become something that informed the poetry, and what was the struggle like to do that?

KF: I was just thinking when you said that quote, James Tate—you might know this quote—he said American contemporary poetry, the subject, was “Something kind of hurt me once.” I think bringing the spiritual in or bringing the political in is always a bad idea if that is how it feels—like an obligation to be political or to be spiritual or something. I think if it’s something that you feel compelled to say and it has content that is about questions about divinity or invisible things we know very little about, and that’s compelling you in your mind and in your life, then you’ll write about it. I think if it becomes a kind of chosen subject, or if you are from a religious tradition that feels like it imposes itself on your poetry—as if I need to show myself to be Jewish, or I need to show myself to be a Muslim poet—that, I think, makes the poem something else that I tend to resist, where the poem actually becomes a kind of liturgical act instead of a poetic act. And the problem in poetry with that is that the liturgical in religious traditions is based on repetitious language that the practitioner knows is about to happen to them and they will partake in it as a communal act of speech. And so there’s very little surprise in the language itself. And there’s not meant to be. The surprise is meant to be internal—what occurs to you when you repeat the same creed or same prayer. And that’s something very different than language that surprises you at every move.

So I think of the poetic act as needing everywhere and always to be unpredictable. Of course I think the most extreme example of that is Gertrude Stein, and then there are degrees backwards. I don’t want to be, obviously, like Gertrude Stein, but if your religious life or your religious practice or whatever it might be feels, itself, to be pressing you into language that is ready-made for you, and that you slip into it, then the poetry will suffer for that. I don’t feel myself to be obligated to say anything. I’m not a practitioner of a particular tradition that is pressing on me in that way. When Deposition came out, there was some talk of me being a Christian poet. When I went to graduate school right on the heels of that, when I went to Iowa, having gone to divinity school beforehand, I had heard rumors that people thought I must be a fundamentalist Christian and things like that. And so that, I think, speaks to the secular life of poetry—and, like, the deep secular. But I don’t actually feel it to be deeply secular. I don’t really split in my mind, when I read Louise Glück, what here is spiritual and what here is intellectual and what is about the body. I understand her to be practicing in a kind of mythological time as opposed to talking about the objects and the image-scape that maybe Levis would use. And I don’t think I’ve seen Louise Glück ever put Kmart in a poem for example. And I guess I lean more towards that, just in what I am drawn to in terms of imagery.

I studied theology for three years. Deposition is a speaker that is trying any way possible to get outside of a fierce religious practice and imposition. So that is a part of my history actually. I wasn’t born into that, I kind of accidentally stepped into it in college very naively. So it was hard to get out. And if it’s hard to get out of a way of thinking and a practice, then you’re very careful not to let that happen again. And I try not to allow that ever to happen to my poems. In divinity school, I had to study things like preaching. I mean, it was very strange in some ways, but I felt very clearly that in the pulpit I could not say things that I could say in my poems, and that the poem was the place to say whatever you wanted. And so that was where I very much wanted to be.

Mary Flinn: And this is a question to follow up. You quoted Hardy before and—who has a very definite spiritual dimension—and thinking of “Little Goat” reminded me of “Little Lamb.” And I wondered what in the tradition of poets who work like that are ones you have particularly spent time with.

KF: Well, I would say much more actually George Herbert and the Holy Sonnets of Donne. I’ve been drawn to kind of the ranting in that, the kind of raging, but also how, it seems to me, in Donne, those sonnets, he still kind of adores himself as a human even though so much violent emotion occurs inside of him. So in his poem where he says, “I am a little world made cunningly,” I think he’s speaking about the body, but I think he’s also speaking about the poem as a little world made cunningly. And I like thinking of the poem in that way. But Herbert screaming out that he will leave, that he’s drawn—you know, he’ll leave the church, “I struck the board,” all of that—I don’t feel like Herbert, called back, in the way he does so strongly by God in the end of some of his poems. So, I would say those, Rilke, in the range of question . . . sometimes Rilke will use things like angels and gods and things, but you don’t feel him to be attached to a particular tradition. So I kind of feel that way. Deposition talks more about prayer. Colosseum talks more about wishes, which I think is more of the secularized prayer in some ways. There’s a shift from a kind of Christian God to the gods in Colosseum. You can see your mind changing in what you’ll even use and not use. Anne Carson I think is very interesting religiously in her series “The Truth about God” in Glass, Irony and God. She says something about . . . there’s an animal kind of thrashing around inside her and God wants that animal to be thrashing. She says it better than that, but she feels herself to be a kind of thrashing being. She associates with the Catholic Church, I think, pretty publicly. I mean, she will call herself a Catholic.

Audience: I have noticed that in your reading both Colosseum and Deposition that there aren’t specific forms that you use but, in form and theory class, we’ve been talking, not about specific forms, but about sort of the way forms have been shaped by themes. And in Deposition, the “Last Breath” sequences seemed to be a form that you were sort of creating—the syntax was yours. And I was wondering if you would just talk about what formal qualities you bring to your work or how that’s affected your work and whether you push off of them, accept them, that kind of thing.

KF: Yeah, the “Last Breath” sequence, which I spread out in Deposition because I think if you had them all at once, you would just feel overwhelmed because of the urgency and intensity. But that . . . I had actually written the very last poem of the book, “Elegy to the Last Breath” . . . I was being taught by Jorie Graham at the time, and she read that poem and said, “I like this one best. Go write me nine poems like this.” And there was something about having some belief in you, you know, from the teacher at that moment, that was really powerful to me. So I kind of felt, like, a license to do that again, and I was just learning how to write and all of this. And I also had this sense of not wanting to waste scraps of other poems that had failed. Which is probably a very American thought, to not be wasteful. I don’t mean in a good way. I mean, actually like we talk about wasting our time and things like that. In some countries they don’t even have this concept. So I started searching for scraps of images and things, and then using the emotion and form as the kind of driving force. I felt I could bring it all together as long as I wasn’t bound by grammar and sentence-making and things like that. When you fall into a form that works, don’t ever resist it, do it until it dies. I mean, you do it until the poems become very bad in that form, and then you know you’re done. So you have to write thirty or something. I can’t remember how many “Last Breaths” are in there, maybe twenty-five or something. But I wrote past the good stuff, and then you have all these bad ones that are still working on the theme, but it’s exhausted itself and you’re done.

But that, I think . . . when you come to a form, if you’ve invented it—or if it’s the sestina; I don’t know who’s been able to write thirty good sestinas,or villanelles—but if it works for you, I think our sensation of that is what we’ve called the muse, or the gods. And I think that’s why poets have felt divinely struck throughout the ages. When the sonnet was created and it just worked . . . why does the sonnet work? Why it is such a pliable from? So right now I am actually working inside the sonnet, and I really like it. And I don’t know if it’s better work or if it’s interesting, but I somehow feel it’s possible to sit down and know that there is a limit. And so if you have a form, it can give you what the novelists have everyday when they sit down, which is something already done, they don’t have to begin at the blankness everyday that poets do. So you have a little more confidence sitting down. In a lot of ways, I am a formalist in that I am trying to find the forms. I don’t want to chat in poetry. I don’t want to sound like I’m just having coffee with you or talking.

Audience: Is there a connection between using those forms of praise and prayer and the forms of writing? You said that you want to keep it new, the language.

KF: Well, I think praise and prayer are traditional tasks of the poet. I mean, we’ve seen that forever, that the poet is the one who’s praising the athletes in Greece. I don’t know if I’m trying to enter into that task in any way, although I suppose every book of poetry is a kind of creed even if it’s anti-creedal in some way. Dickinson worked with the hymn. And it’s very interesting to study the traditional hymn of her period, the Puritan hymn, or what she was handed, and then look at her poems alongside it. They’re always thinner, they always have less to say about God, but they’re working in them. So one of the traditional hymns she would have known is “I know that my Redeemer lives; / …He lives, He lives,” and it’s so excited. And then she says, “I think He exists. / Somewhere—in Silence—” And then it ends up that God’s playing with her, and she ends up dead by the end and she says, “Wouldn’t that be funny? Wouldn’t that be a funny game?” She’s probably the American who has worked in a form the longest with the best outcome.

DW: Earlier you talked about showing the sequence of Deposition to Jorie Graham, and I’m always interested in finding out who a poet’s mentors were. Who were the people who really made you feel that you had the permission to become a poet, who support your work, and read your work now maybe?

KF: My first teacher was Tess Gallagher. I had another teacher who taught creative writing who wasn’t a poet himself, but named Ben Mitchell, who let me in his class when I was a sophomore in college, and then he invited Tess Gallagher to my college And so she was the first one who was living inside the world of poetry and felt like she opened that world to us. And we didn’t know anything about it. We hadn’t even seen a single book of poems before. She made it feel very possible. And I remember she also told the class, “You know, you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be a poet when you leave, but poems can be your companion throughout your whole life.” And I remember in times, years, when I didn’t think I wanted to be a poet or wasn’t writing, that that was comforting and, in some ways, probably the best instruction, because you should always be reading more than you are writing, I think.

And Tess is the one I have stayed closest to over the years. We still are in touch, and I see her as much as I can. And right after the hurricane I visited her quite a bit because I was evacuated and I was in the Northwest where she lives. So there is a poem in Colosseum called “Tess.” It’s about these moments of asking her, “Should I go back? I don’t think I can do it. I don’t want to go back there ever,” and her responses. So Tess, I think, has been most formative just throughout the years. But Jorie Graham, when I was at divinity school at Harvard . . . she’s the one that I brought my poems to and they were still in a state of needing a lot more rigor and intensity and teaching. She was the one, I think, who brought me to a place where then the poems were the ones that I’ve published. I was with Jorie Graham at Harvard after she left Iowa, and she’s an incredible teacher and, I think, brings everyone in the room into a sense of the poem as a matter of life or death. And whether that’s true or not, to feel that way, I think, why else do it? When I was at Iowa I was really happy to be in Robert Hass’s class and listen to him. I think I’ve learned something from his poems, not the extremely long poems, but poems like “Meditation at Lagunitas,” which I just think is an amazing American poem. I think I learned a lot from Louise Glück, but I’ve never studied with her. And I only met her once, like, very shyly having her sign my book—The Wild Iris changed my brain, that kind of thing. There are certain poems, I think, in my books that try on the kind of Glückian oracular voice and try it, but it’s also kind of a danger zone.

GD: I think several of the things you’ve said show that you are uncomfortable talking about the making of poems as a predesigned thing, but it’s clearly something you are discovering as you go along. I think that I share that feeling, that’s the healthiest way to proceed. So maybe this question is about looking back on things that you’ve created and wondering about this. But I notice a kind of habit of mind that you have that I would trace all the way back—not that you did this consciously—but to the British Romantics, about a kind of balancing where positive forces and negative forces are balanced in a dynamic way. For example, the story from Socrates that you pick up at the end of “Beirut” where you talk about the locusts were once humans, and then you talk about the song that we must make being a plague. It seems like right where other poets might be tempted to make a forceful affirmation that was kind of simple, maybe have it be one side of the coin, your affirmations are always at least dual, they have a positive force and a negative force. When you say that at the end, it hits us both ways. And I just wondered if that’s something you find yourself doing often, exploring to find the richness in something because it has that kind of complexity for you.

KF: The poems I write represent the part of my mind that thinks of life as greatly rich and wonderful and also greatly painful and difficult and full of suffering and all of that. And I don’t think answers are very easy, and so I don’t want to represent an ease in the poem. And I don’t think people read poems to be soothed in very facile ways—although sometimes I’m now risking the sentimental in my poems because Colosseum has a kind of harshness throughout, or some of the poems are rather damning towards myself and humans and everything. But sometimes I’ll think, “Okay, I’m going to risk the sentimental at this moment.” But yeah, I mean, I think that people’s experience is that it’s much more, that our songs are not just joyful but at times they must plague us into change or plague us into becoming different or transformed. So, you know, I’m not consciously looking for that when I’m searching for the image. In the poem “Beirut,” I had the locusts already. At the end of the Vietnam War, when Saigon fell, you didn’t want your identity known if you were on the losing side. And so they were ripping up identity papers and going to the river to try to get in the boats and leave, and papers were torn and flying and all of this. So I had the image of them burning papers that maybe looked like red locusts and stuff. And then I didn’t know how to end that poem and I walked around with it for a while in my brain. And then I looked up the locust in the encyclopedia, which I do sometimes, just miniresearch, then I read the mythological past of what the locust was and then I thought, “I like that. Oh, I didn’t know that.” I didn’t know that in the mythologies they were humans who loved song so much that they just forgot to do what would sustain them. They just didn’t eat because they loved to sing so much, so those humans died. And then the Biblical sense of the locust as a plague. So all of the associations kind of came in line. You know, I am trying in some ways in new poems to try towards hopefulness, believable hopefulness.  end

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