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Interview with Poet Katie Ford

I Go Searching For Music

Katie Ford and I crossed paths for the first time on a sultry day in Iowa City. I was quickly enthralled by her keen sense for what makes good poetry, her urgent probing of every line of verse she encountered, her willingness to push further into the heart of things, to carry conversation about the art to fresh and exhilarating levels. Ford’s own poems are durable and elliptical and lovely. Her work, like the work of so many poets of this generation, eschews easy categorization into school or style pigeonholes. It is neither inaccessible nor easy -- and thank goodness on both counts.

A graduate of Harvard’s Divinity School and of Iowa’s creative writing program, Ford’s had her subject matter, most recently, thrust painfully into her life: She and her husband were driven
out of New Orleans like thousands of others by Hurricane Katrina. Her new book, Colosseum, explores this and other sites of ruination. Ford’s work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Partisan Review, and many other publications. She maintains her post as poetry editor at The New Orleans Review and teaches at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. Despite the hectic crunch of the end of the school year, Ford carved out a few hours over the last week to continue a conversation about poetry and life.

SFStation (SFS): You’re the same poet who gave us the long, recklessly beautiful lines of Deposition but those are largely gone in this collection. Your work seems more overtly lyrical now. The music of these poems is more direct and really stands out time and time again. Talk, if you’re willing, a little bit about that evolution.

Katie Ford (KF): I’m not sure how to answer how music evolves except to say that lyricism is one of my primary concerns when I write a poem. Most poets who read this interview will recognize the common statement that a subject finds its lyrical correlative, or that the music of a poem sustains and heightens or, alternately, kills and diminishes the subject. I had plenty of subject matter to write about -- I was living in New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina struck the gulf coast -- yet the labor of poetry is, in part, a labor toward lyricism, not only toward subject.

What music will bring the subject into power—even if that power is a devastating power? Colosseum is a book of ruins. So, the music also had to, in some way, tear down a thought, a misconception, an idea that could no longer survive, even as humans tear each other apart, even as our government and those governments of the past have torn apart their citizens’ lives, even as our oceans and weather systems are beginning to ruin us, as we have ruined them.

Music is the great need of a poet. I go hunting for it in the same way I imagine a sculptor goes digging for the right clay in some remote region where the conditions make the red stone soft. There is an idea, in the sculptor’s mind, of what she wants to make. However, what she finds as she digs sometimes combines with her own ideas, the pressures of her hands, the light of day, the art she’s been influenced by, to make something she didn’t necessarily plan, but something that exact clay did allow in the first place. It’s something like that. I go searching for music. Much more, in fact, than I go searching for subject.

And, as it happened, the poets I was most influenced by as I wrote this book were Russian and eastern European poets -- Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Ahkmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Paul Celan, Nazim Hikmet . . . Tsvetaeva was most influential, I think. I think I also went to these poets because of the extremity of the living conditions of their time, if I read the poets who were in exile and loss, I might be able to find the right music for writing poems about what happened to New Orleans and the gulf coast.

My own loss or grief is not, in any way, comparable to the poets I have listed, nor does it compare to what many citizens in New Orleans went through—it does not compare at all. I was able to evacuate, and, eventually, sell my property and find work elsewhere. But I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that some citizens of New Orleans lost just as much and continue to suffer as much as, say, Tsvetaeva did when her child starved under Stalin, or when she had to gather up her valuables to try to trade them for food in another country, or in the days leading up to her suicide. Certainly those extremities (in their American versions) continue in New Orleans today, it’s just that the New Orleans story has been dulled by time. The story has gotten further away from us. But, America has great suffering, staggering suffering.

SFS: The poems in Colosseum are so spare and essential. Do you go through a lot of drafts?

KF: Yes, many drafts, especially on some of the longer, more meditative poems like “Duomo” and “Koi". Those two poems, as well as “The Shape of Us” and “Division", have folders of drafts, which doesn’t mean they are stronger than other poems in the book. The poems I just mentioned took many drafts because they required long processes (years, even, I suppose) of thinking through things. They don’t have the sudden urgency of the shorter lyrics in the book, such as the poems of the first chapter, “Storm". The meditative poems are not probably the ones you are referring to as “spare and essential". They are wandering, thinking poems, poems in which I’m trying to come to terms with some philosophical question that has surfaced as rather crucial in my own life.

In “Koi", for instance, I was collecting many images from the museums I had seen in Florence while traveling, yet I was actually trying to think through whether I thought humans were essentially alone or essentially companioned throughout their lives.

As for the poems that are more spare—small and terse, I suppose—at times those are extractions from longer, failed poems, where the “actual” poem was buried inside of a long poem of dead lines. For instance, the smallest poem of the book, “Earth,” the poem that says: “If you respect the dead / and recall where they died / by this time tomorrow / there will be nowhere to walk”—this poem was inside something much longer, something I threw away except for this little extracted thing. Other lyric poems of “Storm” were composed in the five months after the hurricane, and, at first, I was simply trying to get down the emotion of things. They were not at all “crafted” at those early stages. I was simply trying to capture things. There are times (because poets have real lives, emotional and spiritual difficulties, of course) when one can only get down small phrases. The months after the storm were not months for crafting. They were months, actually, for trying not to lose your mind.

SFS: Are you a fast writer, do you think?

KF: I am not a fast writer. Colosseum is coming out six years after Deposition. Poems, to me, are events, occurrences, not exercises or tasks. Many things -- not stars, not fates, not the gods -- have to come into alignment for a poem to occur. And if you look at the trajectory of a life, I cannot imagine having those occurrences more than I have had in the past six years, when I wrote roughly forty poems. There must be something compelling the poem into being. As William Carlos Williams says, there is a difference between a poem that is “willed” into being and a poem that is “imagined.” I could will poems into being daily. But part of poetry is restraint, I think. Not going toward the easy thinking just to produce a book. Some poets write brilliantly and fast in certain periods of their lives -- Dickinson had a year in which she wrote over 300 poems, and some of her strongest. Keats had what is called a “miracle year” in which he wrote all of his odes, and more. So, I rule nothing out for other poets. But, for me, I imagine printing a book every five or six years.

SFS: You live with a novelist. That seems pretty neat. Breton encouraged artists to work in as many forms as possible, even if they did so only rarely in some, and horribly in others. Just for the cross-pollination I guess. Do you ever write fiction? What’s it like living with that strange, narrative-curious bird, the novelist?

KF: I do not write fiction. If I write prose, it is the essay. I feel I have little narrative, story-telling impulse...yes, my husband is a novelist. His name is Josh Emmons and his second novel is coming out in June. Living with a novelist—well, he is enormously disciplined. He runs every morning, writes from 9am until about 1pm, and then reads from about 2-5pm, or longer. He does this seven days a week. If we are home together during the day, as we often are because my teaching schedule allows me to spend a day here and there at home, we’ll periodically knock on each other’s study doors for a chat, to pass the dog back and forth, and so on. I probably do this to him more than he does to me. . .

But he has really, just by example, taught me the art of reading. He reads richly, broadly, and gets sad when he cannot get time to read. Our writing lives are nothing alike. At night, we sometimes talk about what we’ve been reading. But we seldom talk about our writing. This seems universally bad for writers—to describe what they are working on. We watch a lot of documentaries, go to local pubs, see friends, go to museums when we can . . . primarily, we are homebodies. I’m proud to say I have a small cameo in his new novel. I’m the receptionist at the office of a cult.

SFS: What’s on your desk at this precise moment?

KF: Well, I’m proofing the summer issue of the New Orleans Review, and I am reading a new manuscript by the wonderful lyric poet Katie Peterson, and I have piles of student work to comment on, and I’m reading poets I just met last weekend at a literary conference for Marick Press -- Rob Lipton and Derick Burleson -- and, as I said, I’ve been reading a lot of Frost, and I’m in and out of Mandelstam as well as his wife’s memoir, Hope Against Hope. Right now I find it helpful to read poems, but then to either read the poet’s essays or biography or some other account of their life alongside the poems. So, I read poems, but I can’t really absorb poems all day, so then I switch to prose, then back to poems.

SFS: What are you working on these days?

KF: I’m drafting new poems, without concern for whether they are going to shape my next book or not. I’m also doing research for an essay that will be called something like, “The Art of Emotion.” It will be a piece of prose on how poems evoke emotion, and what poets do musically, syntactically, in their vocabulary and form to evoke it.