Poetry Spotlight: Katie Peterson

In her most recent poetry collection, A Piece of Good News (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Katie Peterson generously gathers the elements in our lives that can often feel most disparate: the private and public, the present and past, the personal and the universal. While the poems are almost always grounded in personal experience—driving around town with parents, traveling to Mexico, going on a honeymoon, the death of a family member—the public, political, and historical conditions in those moments are also presences in Peterson’s poems. Rather than being overwhelmed by these larger contexts, A Piece of Good News envelopes them into the personal. In the poem “Filibuster to Delay the Spring,” an elegy for Peterson’s mother, who passed away before she could vote for Barack Obama, the poet addresses the former president: “I am closer now / if I never meet you or stand / in the same room / with you than I’ll ever be / again to my mother.” This poem has what all of the poems in A Piece of Good News havean alchemy of the personal and public that is moving, true to life, and alive.

Katie Peterson is the author of three other poetry collections, This One Tree (New Issues, 2006), Permission (New Issues, 2013), and The Accounts (University of Chicago, 2013), which won the University of North Texas Rilke Prize. She is also the editor of the New Selected Poems of Robert Lowell (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017) and Director of the Graduate Creative Writing Program at the University of California, Davis.

Many poems in A Piece of Good News seem to balance between particular, lived experience and something that moves beyond personal experience, like myth or allegory. I especially love the poems “The Fountain” and “Happiness” for how they feel both otherworldly and, well, worldly. Are you interested in writing between these two poles of the tangible, grounded world and transcendence (or something like it)? 

I am interested in describing the tangible, grounded world—when I lived in a rural place, in the high desert, I wanted to put the desert directly on the page, I wanted to give the desert to my friends, I wanted to preserve the desert for everyone who might never see it and love it as I did. I admire poets who are willing to spend time describing reality—prose writers, too. Thomas Hardy is the one who comes to mind. He’s not the only writer I can think of who loves to describe, uses all the senses, can really bring you somewhere, and is also rather confused by and concerned with whether transcendence can be found, held, kept, or understood. James Schuyler is another, Toni Morrison is another, and Henry James and Carl Phillips and all the great writers of the haiku. If transcendence can be found, it’s only because you agree to be here in the present moment. 

Poems in A Piece of Good News approach the public realm—currency, the state, the government, the economy, and public figures like Barack Obama and John Lennon. At times, they are described with a bit of distance, as if someone were describing America as a foreign country; at other times, with uncommon closeness. What drew you to approaching the public realm in your poems, especially alongside more personal, particular subject matter?

One political moment I am thinking of is the consciousness descending on my mother, dying of cancer, that she would not get to vote for Obama in the general election. Her sense of being robbed of that vote, how she would have loved to do it. Her sadness. And another: my husband becoming a citizen last January in a large, boisterous, anonymous ceremony in Oakland. Our daughter was still very young and I brought her to watch—I believe she was nursing when he took the oath. And then I remember moments like these are actually quite common in life. My mother playing John Lennon in the car—Liverpool and Yoko’s Japan positively leaping into a car in California. Poetry returns us from our clunky, made distinctions between “political” and “personal” to a lived current of existence in which we can be more whole, more integrated—though to be whole, to be integrated, does not solve any “political” problem, or necessarily make us “better” citizens. It shows us who we really are, involved with the lives of others. 

Lately all I want to do is write poems about the Holy Family—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I keep trying to rewrite the story and I keep getting bogged down in the strangest moments, Mary losing a shoe, or Joseph snoring. I like how it doesn’t feel like a “religious” story when I’m writing it. As a person with a little family of my own, I know all too well how losing a shoe on a trip can be devastating. When poetry shines through images like this, what is “political,” what concerns the question of living with other people, pulls away from what’s been politicized. I’m not sure how this happens, but I suspect it happens because we have access to a truth through our senses that no cultural authority can fully control or regulate. Sometimes I think that people don’t understand how rebellious poems are—Tomas Transtromer’s work can bring you back to yourself without showing you overtly what a government you had to topple to get there. 

In the very first section of your poem “The Massachusetts Book of the Dead,” Emily Dickinson is introduced and, in later sections, returns as “the recluse.” Her presence in this poem, with its particular, vivid scenes of contemporary life, is striking. What place does Emily Dickinson hold in this poem for you?

She is the ultimate American citizen—a recluse, with all the good and the bad that term implies. The good: an independent mind, a desire to observe the world, an intensity of spirit, fortitude, depth of attachment to those she loved. The bad: isolation, the ability of fence oneself away from others, faith in one’s own snap judgments. I am interested in the history of feeling like a person in this odd, large, country. As we move through citizenship today, we don’t just move through our legal rights and responsibilities, but the lived experience of being American. Undocumented Americans move through this as well, innovating our sense of what it means to be a resident, and reminding us that movement has always been a part of culture. Dickinson believed in freedom of movement—but she expressed that by staying still. I think a citizen is one who stays with her country. Not in her country, but with it. Often, these days, I feel like my country is with undocumented people, migrants, children separated from their parents in any context, animals running from the wildfires of Paradise, people being priced out of the cities, friends of mine without health insurance. My country is always in the classroom with my students. I try to stay with it. 

What was it about the Book of the Dead as an idea or form that you connected to as a way of approaching the subject matter of “The Massachusetts Book of the Dead”? 

Once I saw the poet Tanya Larkin singing with her band, screaming passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Yes, that’s how grief feels. Grief feels like Tanya on a Somerville, Massachusetts porch in bright sunlight telling the big minds of that zip code only screaming will do. Because of her, I bought the Tibetan Book of the Dead; I have a beautiful copy, its pages barely read. It must be a true “reader” of that book accompanies it with practice—I was never able to do it. Though I love the idea of the bardo—the sense that one could explore consciousness after death, which seems like an impersonal space. Poetry tries to fill impersonal spaces with life. 

The origin of the poem was a kind of American book of the dead—a poem by Wallace Stevens. I used to rewrite poems I didn’t like—a poem I didn’t like for a time was Stevens’ “Like Decorations in a N [] Cemetery,” which speaks to death and nothingness using familiar figures from literary history, including Walt Whitman, in the location the title mentions. I can’t feel good about the word used by the title to indicate where certain Americans buried (and according to Stevens, forgotten). Hilton Als writes in White Girls“N [] is a slow death.” It’s more than a word we shouldn’t say—it’s a world of things we should never have done. Walt Whitman is the guiding spirit of the poem, the authority on death and dying, a brave contender with nothingness, the poet of American expansion, our usual figure of our own joy. Stevens’ poem is preoccupied with preparing for a death that will not lead to another life—his problems are existential. The poem is full of human institutions, considered mostly as symbols—museums, labor, music, cities—and it’s sonically gorgeous. It’s also Stevens at the height of his lofty grandeur, his sometimes-cutting disregard for certain individual lives. I find him human and dehumanizing in the poem. I also find death itself human and dehumanizing.

“The Massachusetts Book of the Dead” is the oldest poem in the book—begun in January 2010. It bears little resemblance to its first draft. My argument with Stevens is still slightly present—I replace Whitman with Dickinson, and I replace Whitman’s preoccupation with groups and communities with my own fixation on odd, idiosyncratic individuals who do not fit into categories. I was trying to think not about my mother’s death, but about her cultural disappearance from the world—in a sense, her disappearance from civic life, her evacuation from a life as a citizen. When I lived in Massachusetts, I went to Dickinson’s house frequently—I wonder if I saw it as some other form of my mother’s grave. The poem didn’t need its argument with Stevens as much as it needed to be its own voice, telling a story of the history of citizenship in a large country, but centered in a state that gave America some of its finest ghosts, including Dickinson. The feeling of the poem is of being at loose ends in America, lost on a road trip, lonely in the cities, alive in a fraying world, afraid of not being remembered, remembering frantically, and living frantically, but not always legibly, not always with an audience, not always, and not ever, truly seen. 

You render space and position so precisely and vividly in the images of your poems in A Piece of Good News. Prepositions in particular seem to carry more importance in your poems than just as grammatical workhorses. Do you feel any affinity towards prepositions? 

When used correctly, prepositions are a kind of verb. When you diagram sentences the old-fashioned way I learned in school (click here for a visual aid) you see that prepositions rocket out like an inflatable slide from an airplane. They can represent restlessness, movement, energy. I used to assume what I was taught—that prepositions mute the voice, taking it into the mind and the world of concepts, of ideas that don’t really exist. Now I trust my voice more. Finding that it finds its way into prepositions so often, I assume the wisdom of its digression before I scorn its judgment.   

You don’t have to give up the sentence to write the poem. The best poets write interesting sentences, sentences that change the way we see parts of speech. Dickinson finds a way to make even the earthiest of nouns unstable—often just with a dash and lineation—and so, she reminds us that even the solidity of a noun is an illusion. Carl Phillips, James McMichael, Jorie Graham—they all extend the sentence in different ways, reminding us that what we thought was a container is actually more like the wind.  

Poems in A Piece of Good News have so much motion to them. At the same time they reward readers who slow down, pause and appreciate the language as it’s shaped and heightened by lineation. What excites you in a line of poetry as you’re writing? Has that changed over time for you?

I still get excited about unexpected sound or rhyme within the line or within a few lines in close proximity—in a poem I will get involved in a thought and then the poem will remind me it’s a poem with a hard rhyme, brought to the surface by my own appetite for sound. And I get excited about the opportunity for silence within the poem—the clean break between one moment and another. It’s a loud word—the fact that you can make a silence, wow, that’s incredible to me still. These are technical pleasures.

But when I find that a poem has happened upon actual wisdom—never of my own invention, always a discovery of something known before—when I find that a poem enacts the recognition, or remembrance, of something that feels not only true for me, but which feels as if I am discovering an ancient spring that still brings water to the surface—when I find myself tracing the tracks of a conversation that feels like something we’ve been having for centuries—then I feel a kind of awe. I suppose I feel that poetry isn’t, at the last, something we write, but something our writing participates in. The closest I get to community within the poem is this intuition of the history of people singing in words, touching a sense of the present, believing in the future of doing so.

The word “middle” in this book caught my attention in different contexts (for example, middle distance, in the middle, not the beginning or end, etc.). Is the idea of the middle something that you’re interested in?

The middle is the hardest part of the story to tell, and the present is the toughest tense to get to, even though its better if you live there. I’m a middle child—we have the reputation of being easygoing and left out. In the essay “Experience,” Emerson begins with the image of a stair with himself situated in the middle, and the question, “where do we find ourselves?” There’s a poem in my last book, The Accounts, called “I Am The Middle,” which is about a picture of me and my brother and my sister. I’m the one with the stunned, strange look on my face—the picture is on the cover of the book.

I love stories of all kinds, but I’ve always been less interested in the obvious protagonists than characters a bit to the side. Woolf’s probably my favorite novelist, though I like Tolstoy and George Eliot too, because she has endless interest in people doing unheroic things, people just inhabiting their lives. Her characters are always “in the middle,” swerving in and out of a central interior monologue, an introspective space. 

Americans loved beginnings for a really long time—look at the frontier. Now we love endings—I wouldn’t be the first to say that our fear of climate change seems as big a threat as the thing itself. We like to tell stories about the world feeling like it’s ending right now because it actually does feel that way—but also, I think, because it might be easier on us if the world really did end. But I have a suspicion it won’t and we’ll be stuck here with each other and our problems. Stuck in the middle with each other.

Interviewer Evan Blake is a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program at Bowling Green State University. He was born in Lesotho, grew up in mid-Michigan, and is now very happy to be reading and writing poems in Bowling Green, Ohio.

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