Conversation with Katie Ford

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  • November 20, 2018

Katie Ford is a brilliant poet whose work has received wide acclaim for its music, and its range of emotional intelligence and spiritual depth. Author of several poetry collections, most recently If You have To Go (Graywolf Press), Ford has been honored by the Lannan Literary Fellowship, and Larry Levis Prize. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Paris Review, The American Poetry Review, and the Norton Introduction to Literature.

 

Every great poet lives between two worlds, Adam Zagajewski has written, and no poetry can exist without this duality. In your books, duality is always present. There is war in Iraq and birth of a child, there is Hurricane Katrina, but also the details of daily life, reading Tolstoy, traveling in public transport, listening to others talk. There is dissolution of marriage but also a moment of devotion, poetry as prayer, faith and doubt, in love, in God. Can you talk about more about this necessity of duality for a lyric poet?

Another way to say this, perhaps, is that the lyric poem exists because of internal conflict. And these conflicts might not rest inside the duality of worlds, but inside a plurality. Duality is more painful, surely, as it presents a this-or-that schism, but many conflicts can swarm inside of us. I suspect Zagajewski, however, is referring to the duality between time and the eternal, the visible and invisible realms . . . to which I can only say Yes.

All lives have many worlds circulating within, many ideas and decisions that cause duress, confusions, and clarities. The daily life arrives and doesn’t stop arriving, while the transcendent life appears and sustains, then recedes and rests. These two lives together—the physical life with the soul’s life whispering beneath—are the fundamental source of poetry. Perhaps we might say the poet is she who feels compelled to articulate these realities and conflicts via the poem, the one who has a particular gift for the insight that comes via lyrical articulation. Poems are unfinished by the poet—or should be thought of as such—and await a reader’s interpretive creativity, which is a “making” of its own kind. The reader finishes the poem. The poem is not complete until it is received by another. It lies dormant as an offering until that moment, perhaps like holy water in a basin that is always in waiting. Perhaps. And what does the water know of what it will next be used for, what hand will touch it? What it might bless or bury? In the same way, the author is protected from ever knowing what might be made of her work by individual readers. This is a very crucial secret, and highly intimate.

The part of creating poems and publishing books that harms that sacred secret—for instance, the desire for book sales, reviews, awards, or acclaim—harms every future poem the poet will write, I think.

Well, now I’ve gotten away from the idea of conflict. But conflict and yes, duality—especially feeling or thinking two things about one thing—drives me to write. Conflict is a form of pain. Pain desires a language for itself. A perfect articulation is impossible, but the effort, the artifact of the poem, is more beautifully human because of this impossibility. We are always reaching. And I like reaching.

 

At the heart of your gorgeous new book of poetry is an extended sonnet sequence. What attracted you to this particular form? What did the form itself teach you about poetry? What did it offer, what, in the end, was its revelation? Asking this question, I am thinking specifically about Thom Gunn’s one stating that “every sonnet is a plot against the sonnet” — in other words, that desire to engage form in order to overcome it, in order to find something unexpected, new. What did you find?

 

I’ve been aware of the sonnet as a highly flexible, pliable form for a long time, and I’ve written a few sonnet-like poems that have been in previous books. The poem “Overture,” in Colosseum, for instance, comes to mind. But I couldn’t have predicted I’d engage this form one morning in 2014 and it would become a crown of 39 sonnets. Not even remotely.

I’m surprised that I wrote this sequence within the parameters of the English sonnet and not the Italian, frankly, as the latter has the sestet in which to question or conclude, while the English has only the couplet. But when I began the first sonnet, I was drawn to the three quatrains of the English sonnet—three ways in which to think, three stanzas that must not repeat each other’s imagistic strategies. The sonnet is a system of logic, and I suppose I was writing from such duress and confusion that the multiple “tries” at logic was a necessity both emotionally and intellectually.

After the logic of the quatrains, then comes the couplet. I never dreamed I would want or need the couplet, because when you think of what can be done rhetorically in two lines, Shakespeare shows us that he can be wise, witty, comic, threatening, scolding, and praising in two lines, among other things. What could I do in two lines? My marriage was ending. I was panicked. My life was tearing. That’s when I realized that emotional defeat, yearning, questioning—all of these can be expressed in the brevity of the couplet. The voice can trail off, growing quieter and more private in two lines. Yet I also use the couplet to make strong statements against certain forms of theological belief, and, in the end of the sequence, the voice lifts up and remains singing, even if the transformation of the voice came via the destruction of a former way of being.

I didn’t have a sense of wanting to overcome the sonnet, or to beat it at its own game. I was in a posture of gratitude toward the form from beginning to end, truly. I think most poets feel that way when a particular form arrives and serendipitously one’s subject and lines arrive viathat form. The form has allowed for something to be spoken that otherwise would have been said in a lesser articulation. For me, I believe that. Could I have expressed my content via free verse? Yes and no. Yes, the skeletal outline, the happenings, some emotions; but no, this language and its arrivals and revelations, the obliteration of parts of myself and my way of being, all of this happened because of the sonnet, a form invented roughly 700 years ago. Imagine. Forms—inherited and newly-invented—are specific animals. One manifests as a wolf, another as a sparrow.

 

Some poets make each book a different project. Others do the same thing, but go deeper with each book. You seem to be able to do both. That is, you cover subjects as different as Katrina, divorce, Iraq war, childbirth, prayer, motherhood. And yet there is a devotional note underlying all of this. I am thinking of that otherworldly yet very clear message: “I am not human // I gave you each other / so save each other.” I am also thinking of lines such as: “I make my bed every morning. / I don’t know where to start / so I start with the bed. / Then I fall to my knees against it.” There is a kind of clarity to these lines that is also deeply emotional. I am also thinking of lines such as: “If you respect the dead / and recall where they died/ by this time tomorrow / there will be nowhere to walk.”  The lines are direct, but not flat. Clarity (was it Darwish who said it?) is the first mystery. It is certainly true in your work, from book to book, no matter how different the subjects might be. Can you talk a bit about different books, how they came to be, and what is it that drives your life/tonality/vision as a poet no matter what subject might be at hand?

 

I suppose what drives me is a refutation of the easy path each word might take unless I press language toward original articulation. And what excites my mind is the shapeliness a poem might take, and how that shape—whether in traditional form or in an invented iteration of my own—becomes a kind of pressurized space causing tensions and an inevitability of speech. What I mean by inevitability is this: the words of the poems hadto be these words, and no other words would do. The reason I’m not as stimulated by writing free verse is because I rarely have this sensation of inevitability within it. That has to do with my own artistic temperament, and shouldn’t be taken as an absolute. I’m one kind of poet, and I hope I’m doing something particular to my own life and mind, just as other poets are doing what is particular to their temperaments. We need this array of postures and techniques to keep our literature vital and diverse, so I’d caution writers not to listen to any poet or teacher who speaks in absolutes about poem- and book-making. It is common, for instance, to hear the advice that inherited forms should no longer be practiced, that they are dead. But in my mind, it’s the American narrative free verse that it most often dead on arrival, arrival on the page. Yet it, too, has its resurrections. No generality can be trusted.

What drives me, also, is internal conflict, which I’ve already spoken of above . . . this might be in reaction to deadly governmental inadequacies during and in the aftermath of Katrina, or our torture campaigns, or my daughter’s frightfully early birth, or religious doctrine, or loneliness . . . I write when I feel something very strongly.

In terms of a book-by-book account of how they were made, I’m kind of cursing you right now, Ilya, for this enormous question! But I’ll try. If You Have to Gomost resembles the making of my first book, Deposition, insofar as the frenzy of writing in poetic sequence marked the creation of both. Deposition’s “Last Breath” poems, although scattered throughout, came in a flush quite like the first twenty sonnets of my new book. Those are the two times in my writing life that subject and form have created an ecstasy of composition that I now miss, despite the pain of the articulation. I don’t know if that will happen again for me. It was fourteen years between those compositional flourishes, so I suppose I’m going to wait a long time before it happens again.

Colosseumand Blood Lyricsare similar in the urgency that comes from personal experience—being a citizen of New Orleans, in the one case, and being a mother fearing the loss of her baby, in the other—next to more public poems, poems looking at our nation and around the world. Some readers in our time believe poems are relegated to personal experience, and there is no reason for poets to question our government or imagine the suffering of people in war-ravaged countries around the world. I’ve been questioned about this: who are you to write about the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Well, I’m a citizen, and I’m a poet. And I have about 5000 years of poets behind me who have believed it’s awfully important for poems to articulate the ills of government and country.

 

I hinted at it in the earlier questions, but I want to address the question of devotional poetry a bit more directly. I am thinking specifically of your poems such as the beautiful lyric called “The Soul” —

 

The Soul

 

It disappeared.

It reappeared

as chimney smoke

that burnt through carcasses

of swallows stilled,

and that it portrayed no will

was why I followed that smoke

with this pair of eyes.

 

It was that it didn’t need

or require my belief

that I leant upon it

as a tired worker

upon

a gate.

 

Can you speak bit more about what devotional poetry means for you. Can a poem also be a prayer? What are the challenges? Is devotional poetry possible in our time? What is the difference between a devotional poem and a prayer? Can there be a prayer for the non-believer?

 

Yes, there can be a prayer for a non-believer, if one thinks of prayer as a ritualized reaching out beyond and past oneself toward the ineffable and unknowable. Then prayer doesn’t require belief except, I suppose, that one believes in Something, not Nothing, although even that might be too stringent a requirement. Humans have been crying out for their whole history; it is human to do so. The particular ways in which this cry has been made liturgical or ritualized around the world has given us a multitude of religions and non-religions. I think of them as the multitudinous historical/cultural manifestations of reaching. Creeds and doctrines are institutional inventions, very often written by those in power—the elite men of antiquity wrote them, and they’ve been revised, over the centuries, by the elite men of modernity. What have I to do with them? Nothing.

Prayers I’m willing to say reach toward the inexpressible. Toward wordlessness. So too in poems, we hear a poet sighing behind each word, and our words are our best tries at communicating our sighs. When such poems seem to reach out toward the ineffable, addressing it, perhaps, I think that is what we might call a devotional poem. I’ll use the term “devotional” here, but I also want to press against it. I dislike the term because it assumes an object, a “what” that receives devotion. Yet this is too concrete in my mind for the ineffable. We mustn’t objectify that which is utterly mysterious. Most religions would call that idolatry. Judaism says the name of g-d cannot be known or uttered; Buddhism says “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”; Christianity says “no one has seen God”; and Islam says Allah is the ungraspable “light upon light.” Perhaps such statements could become a common place to start . . . devotion might do well to construct itself not as a strident position of belief in a particularbut a reverence for the unsayable, the unknowable.

I think the challenge of the devotional poem is not to attach too closely to liturgical formulations of a tradition in order to achieve the goal of communal speech, which liturgy already achieves. Such language is spoken by a group. The poem is spoken by a highly particular human, and in that specificity readers might be moved or even altered by the poem—but if a goal is uniformity of thought and speech, then we have something I’m very uncomfortable calling a poem, or at least a poem I want anything to do with.

The basic rule, if you will, for the devotional poem is rather simple, though difficult: all use of religious language must be authentic. A poet shouldn’t import religious language just to elevate the tone or signal depth of theme. Such language must be felt, not simply inherited. Never “imported.” And because what we feel is often full of doubt, devotional poems that I love embody the tension between faith and doubt. Such poems don’t “require belief,” as I say in that poem you generously cited. John Berryman’s “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” is one of my favorite modern examples of a devotional sequence. Here’s how it sounds:

 

I have made up a morning prayer to you

containing with precision everything that most matters.

‘According to Thy will’ the thing begins.

It took me off & on two days. It does not aim at eloquence.

 

The humanity here is so bare, and the voice is so edged with the rawness of a real, lived life. “According to Thy will” is the liturgical formula, of course, and is what I’m talking about above, but Berryman is only speaking “about” such language. The actual prayer—the poem—is the utterance made by this singular, broken and aching voice.

 

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