Sunday, February 15, 2015

Katy Didden

Katy Didden is the author of The Glacier’s Wake, which won the 2012 Lena-Miles Wever Todd prize from Pleiades Press. She earned an MFA in poetry from The University of Maryland, and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. Her poems and reviews appear in many journals including Spoon River Poetry Review, Forklift: Ohio, The Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, Smartish Pace, Shenandoah, and Poetry. In 2011, she attended the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference as the John Ciardi Scholar, and in 2013 she was a Walter E. Dakin fellow at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. A former Hodder Fellow at Princeton University (2013-2014), she is currently a Visiting Professor in the MFA program at Oregon University.

—Parc Georges Brassens, Paris
Most afternoons, I’d run laps through Parc Brassens
where grows the second smallest vineyard

I have ever seen, and where those silver,
pruned-back stalks looked blunt,

strung-out on wires, and mostly dead
all winter. That was how I saw them.

That’s all I expected. Even in the cold,
I’d see a guy my age there, once a week,

playing his guitar. He’d sit next to the bench
where I’d be stretching. He rarely spoke—

just to ask if I’d like a song—
until the week before I left for good.

I was sitting at the top of a hill
about a hundred feet away from where

if you stand tiptoe you can see the Eiffel Tower.
He sat too close to me. We spoke of many things.

Then he suggested we go at it right there, 
on the ground, under the sun. This is how

one lives who knows that she will die:
rolling in the arms of anyone she can—

rolling in the arms of a musician—aware 
that no one cares much what we do

in little knolls behind reedy forsythia,
in the middle of a Tuesday, in the middle

of living. And I would know now 
how he felt, and the ground against me,

and whether he was rough or sweet.
And what is possible would widen every hour.

Oh, but me, I thought I was immortal.

When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

I composed this poem in the Fall of 2007, which was seven and half years after I lived in Paris. The previous summer, I spent several weeks working on another poem about France, "At Chartres," and I guess I still had some residual nostalgia, or that I had opened up those rooms in my memory, so I kept seeing more images from that time. I lived in France for just four months, but it was the only time I've lived anywhere where I had to speak in a different language, and I think that's the reason that my memories of that time are so vividI spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was happening by reading situations for context clues. On a more sombre note, I think my experience of disorientation from not knowing French in 1999 was rhyming with the disorientation I was feeling in 2007 while my father was dying, which could be why I wrote this poem when I did.  

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts? 

This is one of the only poems I have written that arrived in one rush. I don't know how that happened. I wish I understood how that worked, so I could make it happen more often. I tinkered with minor revisions here and there, but overall it still reads pretty much the way I wrote it the first time.  

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears? 

I do believe in inspiration, and also in genius, and all of that. I think there are some people whose inner constitutions are so suited to poetry that they can rattle off poems more easily than mostthat their thoughts just move through their brains like notes through flutes. This isn't usually how it works for memy thoughts are more like bewildered mice in mazesbut I also think that all hard-working poets can have fits of inspiration and stretches of genius, and I try my best to set the conditions for those to happen again.    

When I wrote this poem, I was taking a seminar on Visual Culture in the 19th century, and I was reading a lot of Blake and Keats. Keats's rhythms and cadences were definitely present while I wrote this, but the sound-gate that got me into the poem was Zodiac of Echoes by Khaled Mattawa. I know that I was reading and loving that book at the time. I just took it off my bookshelf to revisit it again, and I am remembering how much I liked Mattawa's honesty and musicality, and the way he mixes colloquial language with lyric riffs and gravitas. I think the couplets in my poem came from admiring "Echo and Elixir 4."  

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Yes: the principle of "lop off the first few lines." I had started with "My veins regreen like April vines / I should not be afraid," but thankfully cut those lines. To my ear, those lines sound different in tone from the rest of the poem. I also had something about "tucking bus money in the pockets of my jeans." Maybe that was because I was also reading Sappho that semester to help me write an epithalamion, and I was trying out her way of naming metals and fabrics as a form of image. I don't know anymore, but again, I'm glad those lines didn't make it.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

I suppose that confluence of influences is unusual: Keats, Blake, Mattawa, and Sappho! Plus the ghost of Georges Brassens, the folk singer for whom the park is named. I used one of his song titles for the title of the poem, and the song is actually a good counterpoint to the poem, though I hadn't heard it until after I wrote this.   

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? 

This poem first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Poetry Magazine. So about eighteen months.  

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? 

I sit with poems until they feel finished, and that time varies from poem to poem. I have some poems I've been whittling for years, and some poems I send to journals a month after the first draft. I think the main rule that governs my sense of whether the poem is "finished" is how it sounds. I can hear when lines are off and there can't be more than one or two moments like that in a poem. I'd prefer there weren't any moments like that, but then maybe the poems would be boring in a different way. It has to sound good at the line level, and also the whole poem has to have a coherent sonic sweep, some kind of rhythmic gesture.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two? 

This poem pretends to be just a reporting of events, and it is mostly factual. To be honest I can't remember if you can see the Eiffel Tower from Parc Brassens or if I was conflating that park with Greenlake in Seattle where there's one spot where you can stand and see the Space Needle. In my mind both parks have views of monuments, and in similar locations. I've never gone back to Parc Brassens to check. The second half of the poem relies on fiction, because that is when the speaker introduces the fantasy of an imaginary self, and plays out a different scenario in her mind. The presence of that contrast is crucial to the poem.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes. Until fiction makes it lyric.  

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader? 

One of my good friends is really funny, and even though he works as an illustrator, he's constantly playing with language and putting on voices when I talk to him or making puns out of everything people say. Another one of my good friends is a poet who is also really funny, and constantly saying outrageous and irreverent things that catch me off guard. In some of my best poems I've imagined I'm writing to one or the other or both of these friends, because I think that keeps the poem from getting too highfalutin or sentimental. Trying to amuse funny people is a good muse for me.

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?

Yes. I love a good workshop. In fact, I wrote this poem for a workshop at the University of Missouri. There were a lot of poets I admire in that group, which was good incentive to write well.  That group saw an earlier version of this poem, and their response to it confirmed my decision to lop off the first few lines. The same funny friend I mentioned above who is a poet is also cursed with exceptional editing skills, and I am always showing her my poems and getting her invaluable feedback, though I don't think I showed her this one since I had a workshop then. Generally, though, I feel lucky when I get to talk about my work with her. More recently, I joined a workshop when I lived in St. Louis, which was in fact one of the hardest things to leave behind when I moved. I like hanging out with people and talking poems, and workshops help make that happen. 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

I would say the narrative in this poem is more straightforward than in other poems in my book (even though half of the people who read this think the speaker slept with the guy in the park, and half think she did not). Only one person ever asked me about the smallest vineyard I've ever seen. I also use the first person hereI thought that was rare in the book, but I guess it wasn't. I used to find it hard to write in first person. I'm writing poems now that are more like this one, but longer.

What is American about this poem? 

I never felt more American than when I lived in Paris. Especially while I was jogging. Maybe I amped-up the conversational tone as a kind of subconscious rebellion against all the orderly parks and super-stylish people, but overall I still feel a great affection for that city and for my friends there.

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 

I think that more than most of the poems I write, this one felt finished in its own flawed way! I let it be.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful,
    I really enjoyed the poem
    and this time also felt I could gain much from reading about it and the process.
    Thank you,