Katie Peterson is the author of three collections of poetry, This One Tree (2006), Permission (2013) and The Accounts (2013), which won the Rilke Prize from University of North Texas. She has taught at Bennington College, Deep Springs College, and Tufts University. She is currently teaching courses on Jane Austen and Homer at Deep Springs College. She starts teaching at UC Davis in January of 2015.
A stripe of asphalt keeps the pond,
at the municipal park
in the capital of the state, in check. I went
there, going and coming
from your dying, to watch the ducks.
I mean I went there
to see a friend. On the way
to him I stopped at an orchard
and pistachios the color of oranges
are what I bought.
Kindness to those who keep
the sweetest secrets and long
life. Now that you
are dead, I can tell you
he was not a friend.
When we met, I could forget
you would not be.
Elsewhere the orders
kept their orders through the fall.
I rose from the bed, the spring dismantled, he and I met
in secret and we spoke of how we wanted
to die like it was work.
Awake, I said, yes, driving him
on a road through green fields.
Painlessly, he said.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
Looking over the poem, I hear my friend Kayla’s voice saying “those pistachios are the color of oranges!” She drove with me from my parents’ house in Menlo Park, California, to Deep Springs College in Inyo County where I was teaching. The drive crosses the Central Valley (where I live and work now, interestingly) where abundant fruit and nut stands dot the highways. What she said stuck in my head for obscure reasons. Years later, I think it was Spring of 2010, I wrote this poem in Cambridge, Massachusetts, staring at the orange house behind mine on Walden Street. That detail came first and that experience. I had a sense it could be used in some story, almost like Persephone’s pomegranate seeds - a fairy tale detail, a ticket. When I began working with the detail, the memory, and a poem, leapt up around it.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
In my head the poem still undergoes revision. I question the efficacy of the third stanza. My trusted readers advocated for its removal (and I agreed and yet left it in, both of and against my will somehow). The third stanza has nothing to do with the narrative of the poem. But the speaker addresses the “you” and tells that person “you are dead.” “Now that you are dead,” the speaker says. How can she say this? How dare she? How is it possible? How can one address someone who isn’t there? It is the only moment in the book where the speaker admits the “you” is dead. To say it more contextually, it is the only moment in the book where I call my mother “dead.” But the poem taken apart from the book, it doesn’t matter who the “you” is, it feels like some demented love triangle out of context. In a sense this is the most important stanza in the whole book. How casual and callous the speaker is, “now that you are dead.” How dare she.
I think it got written rather quickly in 2010 and then the tinkering took hold. That’s how I think about revisions of syntax, like tiny semi-incompetent elves with outdated tools trying to beat gravity back into the top or straightness back into the train track. But I always print the poem out again and do revisions in pen, even if it’s just one phrase or a comma, it’s such a waste of paper, but I have to see myself correcting myself to hear myself correcting myself. I remember pulling out some prepositional phrases and putting some back in. And then, at the end, the problem of this stanza in the middle, which kept me from shutting down the poem into final form for one long week in the Fall of 2012. Some friends weighed in, I think, about this stanza problem. I remember that we agreed to cut it, and then we agreed to disobey ourselves and leave it in.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I wonder if now when we think of “sweat and tears” in poetry what we mean by that is diligent crafting. But there is another form of this – the experience that went into the poem in the first place, the sweat and tears of everyday living. And the sweat and tears of that which you need not search for, life experience, which seems to find you, wreck and ruin you, and then expect you to get up in the morning. And so many people are simply at the mercy of the way the world makes them feel, they don’t need deaths or love affairs to feel a little wrecked. I fear I am starting to sound Romantic and maybe I am. But a tiny poem cannot hope to measure up to the depth of life for the poet. It may be true for the reader in a different context, the way the right song can be a balm on experience, the way the right poem can become like a prayer. But for the poet – the sweat and tears of experience can feel greater than the slim volume in front of you. My friend Katie Ford reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s thought in her recent Prayer Journal, that many writers wish for the writing that would come from suffering, but not as many wish for the suffering. I would substitute the word “experience,” I suppose, and maybe not assume suffering to always be the current of it, but this sense of things feels true to me.
As for inspiration, it’s never meant much to me in terms of the account I myself make of writing poems, maybe because it’s a religious word and I’m essentially still a religious person (I was raised Catholic and continue to practice, if haphazardly). I relate more to the sense that poems can occur like dreams, sometimes, with their coordinates born in some place your imagination has outsourced its labor to, so it doesn’t feel like yours, and there’s some lovely and strange ease about that. This poem’s details don’t belong together in real life and never did, but they found themselves together here.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
At the time I was working on poems with at least two currents of voice, poems I called “arguments” because they had two sides (there are several of these in The Accounts). But they were not necessarily two sides of the same argument. The compulsively self-correcting, authentically evading movements of the poem have some kinship with this. I like using stanzas because they imply containment, they feel natural to me, like paragraphs, but the containment usually doesn’t exist, as it doesn’t here.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
I remember I was sleeping with someone who slept late. For whatever reason it enraged me that he did that. Those hours of my resentment turned into this golden writing time, between the time I woke up and the time he woke up. Funny how something so upsetting at the time feels now like a gift.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I finished it as I finished the manuscript, though clearly I am not finished with it (see question #2 above). I published it in the book but not in any journal, at least I don’t think so. Chicago took the book pretty quickly. Honestly, I’m not sure I would have sent it out to a journal. My feelings about self-disclosure had such defense and tenderness then, which I feel like I’ve gotten over, though who knows.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
As long as possible? Is that an answer? I should probably send out more work, I’m working on it, it’s a resolution. It’s really not something to do with not wanting a final form or not wanting to commit, it’s more to do with sending things out interfering with the state of writing which is for me a state of private pleasure and meaningful freedom. I have been honored this year that people have asked me for work (Maureen McLane at GREY, Elisabyth Hiscox at Third Coast, James Allen Hall at Cherry Tree, Robin Ekiss at Zyzzyva) and I think I feel accountable to people, and desirous of making them happy, and in need of their respect because they are really good poets, all the people I mentioned, so it made me happy to send them work, and further delighted me that they actually took it. I don’t have any rules about this, I go into it haphazardly with a complicated mixture of desire for privacy and desire for recognition. It confuses and bothers me.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
After New Issues published my first book, I was having dinner with my parents and they wanted to talk about the poems. In one of the poems my mother is asleep and as I remember I say “I very well may have been happy then.” It was one of my earliest memories, my mother being asleep on a green quilt in the yard and me being awake. My parents both insisted on questioning the truth of the facts in several of the poems, including that one. Finally, my mother said to me, “You know that poem where I was asleep? I wasn’t asleep in that poem.” I considered this a victory; she realized she had to battle me inside my poem as opposed to outside of it.
Is this a narrative poem?
I often write poems where I try to tell a story and fail. I suspect this poem falls into that category. One of my favorite poems is “Directive” by Robert Frost – I admire the way that poem keeps saying it’s going forward (progress! American productivity! history marching on! joyfully moving forward into a better world!) while psychologically going backward, staying unhelpfully put, until its conclusion is gorgeously complete and chastened and strange: “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” I am aware of a philosophical position in which lyric poetry must somehow resist or fight against narrative. But a fragment of a story has always seemed to me the most resonant and romantic thing, like a love letter or a lock of 19th century hair or a trapped butterfly or something. In fiction the story itself has the meaning. In poetry the story gets schooled by music, and the predicament is whether the story can stand up to music, make music, whether the story squares with language’s own story. Often it doesn’t. It’s the struggle between the mind and the body in a sense, the struggle between narrative and form, or maybe more truly, the struggle between will and reality, thinking and matter. Narrative poems tend to ask us to live in ruins and they foreground memory not just as a requirement of the poem but as an anxious concern. Another way of explaining this is that I love stories but I hate plots.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was on the same fellowship as Jericho Brown when I wrote this poem, and his sense of melody based on repeated syntactical patterning, and the correction of errors by the self or by others may have schooled my ear here.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
This question is so difficult, it makes me feel like kind of a difficult person to answer it the way I want to. But don’t you think the reader is obsolete to the poet? Not to the poem, of course, surely not. But to the poet? This poem is addressed to my dead mother and concerns a love affair, but is that the point of the poem? Is my dead mother my reader because I have addressed her? Surely not. And yet she’s addressed. So what do I want from my reader regarding this poem besides his or her prurient curiosity, that overhearing of something? I am reading Spring and All this fall with some good friends out here at Deep Springs, and Williams writes, “I love my fellow creature. Jesus, how I love him: endways, sideways, frontways, and all the other ways – but he doesn’t exist! Neither does she. I do, in a bastardly sort of way,” and he goes on, “To whom am I addressed? To the imagination.” I’ve been thinking lately about poems where the reader is kind of obsolete, kind of not relevant, but that still includes the reader somehow, not as his or her self but as a more capacious and intimate imagination of whom he or she could be. I think of Dickinson who seemed to have an imagination of a past for her poems and of a future as well but not necessarily, and not always, a present for general readers other than her correspondents, or herself. And now, her poems have such an electric present, a constant and real present tense. The poet and critic Walt Hunter and I were talking about this and Walt speculated that maybe, right now specifically, 2014, we’re so invested in an idea of our own contemporaneousness, we like too much the idea of a reader right in front of us in time we forget that sometimes we make the possibility of a reader present, instead, in the space of the poem, in history or in the future. I hope for readers for my poems after I am dead; I adore the thought of people who are long dead (like Dickinson, or my mother) participating in my poems somehow even though they’re gone. When someone who is alive and present responds to one of my poems it seems like a lucky break, like fortune, a sudden and even random correspondence.
I heard Louise Gluck once say that she imagined her reader as an individual, reading her book in one sitting. I think this is a beautiful idea and reveals more about her poems than it does about reading poetry books. In her work, there is a sense of companionship in solitude, the private life, what is invisible. There is something that feels disappearing to me in this vision of having the time and space to read an entire book in solitude. But poems have the ability to preserve forms of attention in this way, and to remind us they’re endangered.
I suspect I must think about the reader under the radar of my imagination. I suspect I have a notion of providing for another person’s secrecy and solitude, of preserving a space for that provision within the poem. But it’s done selfishly, as a way of preserving a form of my own.
I know there are other traditions of how you relate to a reader but this is mine. It comes from prayer and has one foot in silence. Saying who my reader is exactly feels to me like breaking the anonymity of someone in program, or outing someone, or telling someone else’s secret. If they want to just overhear the poems without telling me they’re reading them, if they don’t want to admit to anyone they’re reading them, if they’re ashamed of reading poetry at all, that’s all right also. To be included is a form of being addressed, and for many of us being included is far better than being broadcasted.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
About this poem, I can’t totally recall. But first, I showed many of the poems in this book to Eli Schmitt, who took great care with their emotional content while also pushing me towards a better version of their music. Good friends Walt Hunter and Lindsay Turner, without whom I cannot imagine continuing to write, are often my first readers, and, in the case of this poem, my last. The playwright Brighde Mullins, luminous in her intelligence. And brilliant Sandra Lim, who held my hand through some last minute edits of individual poems. Now that I am in California these are all long distance relationships (though many of them were before).
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I don’t know, but it might be more “confessional.” Though the title kind of keeps that from being true. If you call a poem “Confession” it can hardly be confessional.
What is American about this poem?
It’s about various lost places in the American landscape, and I am now noticing that it tries to fit a lot of landscapes in. It doesn’t really make sense that this is all one country but it’s what we’re stuck with unless various wacky splinter groups have their way and break us up. There’s some notion in the poem about bringing all the landscapes together. For a small poem, there’s a lot of space in it, an appetite for space.
There’s a candor in the voice I think of as American but the candor is fake and faked and maybe that’s American too, the tone of talking like you’re only interested in the bottom line but you refuse to see the bottom line actually. A bluntness in the voice (and even the rhymes are blunt) I call the Californian accent, the vowels dropped and the consonants clipped.
The lovers believe they can hide in the landscape somehow. They also believe they can orchestrate their own deaths like “work,” like something produced and effective and focused. And they are not even the ones dying. They are so dead to the world, luxuriating in each other and pistachios while someone dies. I did not write this as a fable about America but now, as the poem’s obsolete and irrelevant reader, rather than as its creator, I see how their affair happens in a ruined and beautiful place and they don’t care. Their desire is for secrecy not recognition. This may be our current political failing – we are always preserving individual rights at the expense of national needs, or at least, it seems so to me – but love is ruthless, and maybe American love is the most ruthless of all.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?