The Writer’s Hot Seat: Katie Peterson

05 December 2019 on Blog, The Writer's Hot Seat   Tags:

This past November, poet Katie Peterson gave a reading from her new book, A Piece of Good News, at the University of New Hampshire, followed by a Q&A session with students. One of our poetry readers, Emily Gore, had the opportunity to ask some further questions about the book and about Dr. Peterson’s writing process. 

Gore: You talked about authors that inspired you when you began your journey in writing poetry, like Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Victor Hugo. Have you read anything lately that inspired you?

Peterson: That was Richard Hugo! With the wonderful late-career book White Center, a book that people often miss because of his more famous The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir. Lately – meaning, this week – I am doing what I often do, which is reading new books and rereading old ones at the same time. This week, it’s Arthur Sze’s wonderful, clarifying, tonic of a book, Sight Lines, which has so much to offer us – an image and a person and an animal in every line, a sense of life continuing through upheavals, a sense of the steadiness and even the boredom in life, but pockmarked with rage and intensity. I love the book, it reinvents the world, and Love and I by Fanny Howe which is a marvel of allegory and weather. Alongside that, Larry Levis’ Winter Stars, his first book, which I’m going to teach next quarter in a workshop, and which goes for broke with drama in the midst of essentially ordinary life. I’m reading a book a friend gave me by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, simply called Problems, which speculates on questions like why half drunk people are less coherent than the fully drunk, and whether illness is already inside a person from birth or whether it comes from without – it’s a worrying, paralyzing, human read and I find it to be a good friend at the end of the day. I’ve been drawn back into Joyce’s shorter stories and poems, especially the long-forgotten Epiphanies, by the work of the California poet James McMichael who writes narrative poems with an off kilter spiritual sense. I’m enjoying Adrienne Rich’s Your Native Land, Your Life, the first book she published after moving to California. Yesterday I read a bunch of Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets and I loved them, full of music and Los Angeles. “The Invisible Avant Garde” by John Ashbery is good for any artist, not just a poet. 

Gore: I’m interested in what you said about viewing poems as stories, particularly in relation to America’s current political landscape. I'd like to know more about how you approach exploring public stories in your writing. And what challenges have you encountered when doing this kind of work?

Peterson: I don’t use public stories in my writing for the most part, though I like the formulation of the question because it differentiates between public stories and private stories. I am more interested in private stories because they’re harder to talk about, so the act of making language new within them feels more mysterious and less intentional, though surely public stories must be made new as well and should be. I have heard the argument that the “private life” is harder to see now, or maybe doesn’t exist at all, or is just a version of what we tend to call “privilege,” but maybe mean “power” or “entitlement” by. And surely it’s hard to have a private life, or to feel that one has one, when so much that used to be intuitively private is now easily made public, or felt as public. But this is why it’s still worth talking about – the things that happened to one person, as Robert Lowell might say, or the “soul’s superior instants,” which “occur to her – alone,” and the things that happen between two people, in love or in friendship, which feel privacy, which want and need privacy to breathe. I guess I want and need privacy to breathe, and I guess I think everyone does, and I guess I think, further, that this might be a minority position in “America’s current political landscape,” and for good reason, since privacy has also been used to conceal so much bad behavior. And still I need it. I explore public stories in my writing by writing the story I am living, which public stories surround and envelop. In a few of the poems of the book, “Filibuster to Delay the Spring,” and “Music 1980,” private events and public events share space, and the point, in part, is to re-value public and private events and make us see them differently. What happens when Robinson Jeffers (a poet many will have not heard of), Obama (a guy most of us know), and my mother (a person many of us will never care about) are equated in value, in time, in aesthetic attention? The argument of the poem is that the loss of any of these affects us. In “Music 1980,” John Lennon only gets preserved because a personal character to me (mom again, hi mom, who knew you would be in so many poems?) tells me about him. So how public a figure is he if he only lives in the poem because of a private conversation? The challenge I have encountered doing this kind of work is that our sense of the world now requires us to address the public world first and the private world second, and I like the opposite action. I don’t write documentary poems, and I don’t write poems in a collective voice. My old gamble is that what I do on behalf of you will matter to you because you can enter it and feel it and that mysteriously you and I will become one mind within the poem.  

Gore: As I read your latest book, A Piece of Good News, I understood an implicit sense of place weaving its way through your poems, and you spoke about this idea briefly at UNH. I guess this is a question about process— how and when did you see place entering your writing as A Piece of Good News unfolded? 

Peterson: I wrote this book over six or seven years, in a few different locations, and I traveled quite a bit while I was writing it. One series of poems within the book (“An Offering,” “The Economy,” “The Government,” and “Self Help,” and “Autobiographical Fragment” are in this group) was written in the high Mojave desert in California where I used to teach at a small school, but just as many poems in the book about the desert are written on the move, while driving to the valley or leaving it. And so, I’d say that all of the poems in the book have a strong sense of place and a strong sense of movement – every poem in the book has a body in motion, even when that body is trying to sit still. A challenge in putting the collection together was to bind this energy lightly, rather than try to make the book be “about” one place. I wanted the collection to proceed sensually, as if all the poems added up to one larger poem together – I wanted the unity to come from the poems, not the place. 

Gore: I loved the story you told about naming specific parts of a long drive to work. Do you think a practice of naming influences or is reflected in the poetry you write?

Peterson: I think names are important, though I don’t always pay attention to that at the time of the writing – many people have remarked to me that previous collections have been involved with naming as a spiritual act. In my first book, I have a poem about Adam and Eve naming the animals together in a chaotic and haphazard fashion. In this book, I wanted to tenderly name ordinary things in order to restore them to use – making love, sleeping with each other, I use those phrases in the first poem, and the poem I think is almost scared to use them, scared by the power of them and the difference between them. To name Obama and my mother in the same sentence, or in the last poem, to call the poem Paul Bowles and then to spend it talking about my husband, an immigrant – this is the voice working through the language to renegotiate what we think is a “proper name,” and what might actually be a “proper name.” As for naming influences, I think, generally, allusions get a bad rap in poetry today (for being elitist, or too learned, for keeping the reader at a reserve) but I kind of love them, because I love books and the people who write them, and I am one of the deluded ones who thinks that there is some relation between books and people, though the two are not identical. I think we name influences in part of carry forward a piece of what we love, and I think we name influences because we are lonely and want to roll a little deeper when we are scared, and I think this is different than just trying to impress someone. 

Gore: Speaking of naming, what is your process when creating titles for your poems? 

Peterson: Take a deep breath, guess, make it short. Make it like jumping into a cold lake. 

Gore: Is there anything that’s been on your mind lately that you’d like to share before you go? Any advice you have to give?

Peterson: Cook for your family and friends and let them cook for you, it’s so important. 

Dr. Katie Peterson is the author of four collections of poetry: This One Tree (2006), Permission (2013), The Accounts (2013), and A Piece of Good News (2019). Her work has received many honors and awards, including the Rilke prize for The Accounts, a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is the Director of the Graduate Creative Writing Program at the University of California at Davis.

Emily Gore is a first-year poetry student in the University of New Hampshire's MFA program, and a poetry reader for Barnstorm.

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