Peterson is the author of three collections of poetry—including Permission (New Issues Poetry and Prose) and The Accounts (University of Chicago/Phoenix Poets), both published last month—and will visit the Monte Cristo Bookshop in New London this Saturday evening, November 2nd. (See event details below.) Her first book, This One Tree, was released in 2006 and was selected by William Olsen for the New Issues Poetry Prize. Peterson has reviewed poetry for the Chicago Tribune, the New Orleans Review, and the Boston Review. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Summer Literary Seminars and Yaddo. Peterson earned a B.A. at Stanford University and a doctorate in English and American Literature and Language at Harvard, where her dissertation on Emily Dickinson won the Howard Mumford Jones Prize. She currently teaches at Tufts University and makes her home in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Peterson’s new collections of poetry have been warmly received. Elizabeth Robinson praised, “… Permission releases us to explore the unnatural nature of the world. She investigates, with wonder, the ‘puckers in smooth song.’ These poems offer a doubling, a proliferating experience: a folding out and a folding in. Like the children’s toy called the Jacob’s Ladder, Peterson’s poems unfurl endlessly without ever denying their ultimate human finitude ...” Further, Publishers Weekly noted of The Accounts, “Stark, smart, funereal, terrifying at times … Peterson’s is a careful, serious poetry, difficult in the way that real life is difficult, but clear and chilly as a long-held regret …” while Marie Kinzie extolled, “… Who knew the complexity of grief could be drawn with such shocking simplicity and masterful depth?”
From the publisher of The Accounts:
The death of a mother alters forever a family’s story of itself. Indeed, it taxes the ability of a family to tell that story at all. The Accounts narrates the struggle to speak with any clear understanding in the wake of that loss. The title poem attempts three explanations of the departure of a life from the earth—a physical account, a psychological account, and a spiritual account. It is embedded in a long narrative sequence that tries to state plainly the facts of the last days of the mother’s life, in a room that formerly housed a television, next to a California backyard. The visual focus of that sequence, a robin’s nest, poised above the family home, sings in a kind of lament, giving its own version of ways we can see the transformation of the dying into the dead. In other poems, called “Arguments,” two voices exchange uncertain truths about subjects as high as heaven and as low as crime. Grief is a problem that cannot be solved by thinking, but that doesn’t stop the mind, which relentlessly carries on, trying in vain to settle its accounts. The death of a well-loved person creates a debt that can never be repaid. It reminds the living of our own psychological debts to each other, and to the dead. In this sense, the death of this particular mother and the transformation of this particular family are evocative of a greater struggle against any changing reality, and the loss of all beautiful and passing forms of order.
Now, Katie Peterson reveals the pieces of a poet …
1) You’ve now had the distinction of seeing two of your collections of poetry published within the same year (and at a young age, no less!). Do tell: To what do you credit this unique achievement? Also, how do you find that the works relate even though they are different in subject matter?
Writing and publication are two different things and they happen at different speeds. When I'm really writing in the first stages I don't think I'm thinking of publication. I tend to always be working on something, but at least in poetry, I still find it's hard to tell whether it's a book or not, or what the shape of the book is, until much later. I wrote one book, Permission, over the course of about a decade, and it felt like a (slow) meditative practice, writing and rewriting and reordering - and I was also moving in and out of the desert landscape many of the books take place in. The second collection, The Accounts, felt like a faster project, and it had a kind of beginning, middle and end to the process, much like grief itself.
Elemental images recur in the books - fruit trees and orchards, windows and doors. And landscapes - though Permission is dominated, in a sense, by the Mojave Desert, and The Accounts takes place, for the most part, in the backyard of the house where I was raised in Northern California. And both of full of ruins and fragments - of conversation, of family, of the seasons. I sometimes think Permission tries to put a world together ("I made the world / it happened as I spoke") and The Accounts sees one being taken apart ("I call it work and I call work / the meaning of the memory of disaster.").
2) THE ACCOUNTS juxtaposes memoir with poetry and chronicles your mother’s life during the final stages of cancer. How did you first approach writing about such a personal experience – and what do you hope that your audience might gleam from this particular work? Did you find the writing process to be cathartic?
Well, a lot of poetry IS memoir - much of the interesting American poetry of the last half of the 20th century is. Poems are in a sense, persons, and they can keep people from getting lost. Poems can be better than memoir, to me, in the way that they reduce specific circumstances to a more anonymous, and direct, immediacy for the reader. I think of Keats' poem "This Living Hand," in which he holds out his own hand to the reader and asks the reader to give it life. After my mother died I found I wanted to do that, not just for her but for everyone closest to me. I hope the reader can get a sense in The Accounts of how scared we were when my mother was dying and how hard it was to reinvent a world after that. Catharsis implies completion and in spite of what the shrinks say I don't think mourners believe in that.
3) You’ve described PERMISSION as “a bit like Thoreau with an erotic twist.” Can you expand on this intriguing premise? Also, what is your opinion as to why nature has been such an enduring source of inspiration in poetry?
Thoreau's Walden is a romance novel about nature itself. The fantasy is that he doesn't need another person - that Nature herself will suffice. In Permission the speaker of the poems keeps trying to be Thoreauvian in a sense - keeps trying to align herself with autonomy, with isolation, with independence - but beauty calls out to be shared. So the landscape poems become love poems.
Nature, for the ancient Greeks, was just a substitute for thinking about god, or the gods. Maybe it still is. I was raised Catholic and the natural world served as counterpoint to that made and civilized religion (which of course takes all of its images and practices from the natural world!) But now that we're destroying our planet not even slowly and can see our destructions so legibly our accounts of it must be attuned to the dismantling of the seasons, the changes in temperature, and our own hand in those changes. The responses of many poets writing right now reflect this - how can I preserve, for example, that we once had monarch butterflies and that their migrations worked correctly? Can I even look at a migrating creature without a sense that the path is imperiled? The desert processes time in a subtle fashion - but even there seasonal shifts take shape in terms of wind and temperature, and even there, the seasons are changing shape. Recently I've been working on a project about Alaska with a landscape photographer and there you can see the changes even more clearly. Both harsh landscapes, Alaska and the desert, are humbling to the body rather than simply beautiful - and both places are places we put waste, miscreants, losers, and philosophers.
I grew up in a beautiful place - I know I write a lot about Adam and Eve but I grew up on the ruins of an orchard, so I can't really help that, it's in my head. My father is a lawyer for farmers. What's been interesting is to see myself gravitate away from classically beautiful locations and towards harsher climates.
4) Poetry is arguably one of those misunderstood and/or underappreciated forums for expression. What first drew you to this particular medium, and how has your relationship with it evolved over time? Also, what words of advice might you offer to those who are seeking their own creative outlets?
I was raised Catholic and no one was ever going to let me be a priest and I think I had an idea that I wanted to touch something true directly. I wanted that because I never felt like I exactly fit in anywhere and I spent a lot of time alone. When I heard poems the world unified for a minute - it took shape. The idea that I could be the one who made sense of the world like that was impossible and alluring. When I started to write poems and they were so difficult to write that was even more appealing. I wanted to do the hardest thing. People who are seeking their own creative outlets who want to write poetry should write for a while with no hope of success or recognition. I think the form has a tender relationship with audience that improves with time and distance: poetry is about ghosts and broken hearts. You can't write to be liked but on the bright side you can try to raise the dead.
5) Tell us: What can readers expect from your presentation at the Monte Cristo Bookshop?
I am going to break your heart into pieces and then put it back together again.
With thanks to Katie Peterson for her generosity of time and thought.
Ms. Peterson will appear at the Monte Cristo Bookshop on Saturday evening, November 2nd, at 7 p.m. for a reading and interview. This event is free and open to the public, and books will be available for purchase/signing. For more information, call the store at 860-608-5902. The Monte Cristo Bookshop is located at 38 Green Street in New London.