Between 10 September 2012 and 6 March 2013 Paul Hetherington and Katharine Coles conducted an interview about poetry, creativity and creative practice by email. Questions and answers were exchanged one email at a time and what follows is the wide-ranging discussion that resulted—about Katharine Coles’ approach to poetry, some of the ways in which she connects her poetry to her personal experience, and her understanding and practice of her craft.
Paul Hetherington: It’s great to be talking to you. I wonder if we can begin by reflecting a little about the question ‘Why poetry?’ In this percussive, materialist 21st-century world, why write poetry and why care about it?
Katharine Coles: I see we’re starting small. But I will try to be brief. In some ways, I suppose, the choice is a matter of personality. I was an extremely bookish child—I taught myself to read quite young and from then on had my head in a book constantly. It’s hard to say what was cause and what effect, but the inner life was at least as interesting and attractive to me as the outer. Conversely, most attractive about the outer life, which in my family involved a lot of intense activity in nature—climbing, hiking, whitewater rafting, that kind of thing—was how it inspired and interacted with the inner life.
Above anything, I wanted to be engaged in what my parents and teachers called ‘daydreaming’ and I now call ‘passionate thinking’. For me, poetry gives the daydream its direction and discipline and, in opening it to others, directs it beyond narcissism—ideally even into something like generosity. I like to imagine creating a daydream someone else can walk into. There were other professions I considered: fireman, marine biologist, lawyer, architect, fashion designer, physicist, poker player, and (rather late and surprisingly seriously) diplomat. But I always imagined being some other thing and a poet.
Paul: Daydreaming and poetry have been connected before; daydreaming and ‘passionate thinking’ not so often. It’s appealing to imagine a generous daydream that someone else can walk into but in what ways, exactly, can a dream—especially a poetic dream—be passionate? And is passion always generous?
Katharine: The first impulse in any poem is selfish, isn’t it? It’s not, perhaps, unlike the impulses of early love. When we think of love, we tend to assign the passion to that early period, when you could say we’re ‘out of our minds’, mindlessly seeking our own pleasure. That’s where the poem begins, I guess. But I am even more interested in the kind of passion that keeps you at it, that leads you to persistently seek the pleasure of the other and to find your own pleasure there as well. It’s here that love becomes difficult but also most rewarding.
Likewise, the pleasures of poetry, both its writing and its reading, are often bound with difficulty. In the poem, the dream takes on purpose and becomes subject to craft and skill—you reach a point when you are not drifting but rather directing and also directed, responding to the poem as a kind of creature taking on its own life. Direction and purpose give the dream intensity. It becomes a place of experimentation, where play and work come together.
You are constantly trying things out—one word, another; trying to use the poem to find connections between thought and the body, to find the place where mind resides. In the service of the larger goal, you have to be willing to get things wrong for a while, to undergo failures and frustrations—at least if you’re me. Yesterday, I was trying to write a very short poem about a fly, which I think I’ll have to abandon.
Paul: Trying, persisting, risking failure, working to get it right: I guess these are important experiences for all creative artists. But what is a successful poem and how do you recognise such a thing? You mention the body. Does the body sometimes know poetry better than the mind?
Katharine: Well, I believe mind is body. But I think you’re talking about trusting our intuition, which means trusting what the senses tell us whether we can ‘make sense’ of it or not. ‘Success’ is also kind of a problematic term, isn’t it? There are poems—by other poets, I mean—that were extremely important to me when I was younger that leave me cold now; others whose importance has grown and deepened over time. Those in the first set created the opportunity for an experience for a reader in a particular place and time—surely a kind of success. But those in the second set provide opportunities for new kinds of encounters over time. You know, ‘nor custom stale’, etc. I used to say that a really good poem was a repeatable experiment, but that’s not quite right, since with a poem every result, every encounter, is a little different.
Paul: Yes, encounters with poetry—they can sometimes be momentous. Can you tell me about some of the important encounters you’ve had with poetry, and how they’ve affected you as a writer and person?
Katharine: There are different kinds of encounters, aren’t there? When I was first attending readings, I remember being completely swept away, often by poems I wasn’t fully grasping as I would if they were in front of me on the page. Charles Wright, Joseph Brodsky, Robert Hass, Jorie Graham all had that kind of effect on me.
Really, though, I am happiest when I’m asking not what a poem is about but how it works. Last year, I agreed to do a series of discussions with a large reading group of about 60 women, mostly former English teachers. They were smart and well read but afraid of poetry. We read Alice Fulton’s Felt and Linda Gregerson’s Magnetic north, both full of dense poems about science, art, perception, etc., and all we did was choose poems and look very closely at how they were operating from line to line—not what they meant, but how they constructed meaning; how every choice both ripples forward through the poem and changes how we see what’s happened previously. Likewise, last June at Oxford—that is, in 2012—I had the chance to throw Louise Bogan’s ‘Night’ (1968: 130) up onto a whiteboard and look, with another poet and a group of computer scientists, at the evolution of its vowel sounds. For me, there’s nothing more fun than that—and the Bogan, which I have by heart, is now becoming part of an essay on the image in time.
There’s something about having a poem living inside you, changing and growing with you. I wish I had hundreds of them by heart instead of dozens. Yeats and Dickinson; the Bogan and some Roethke, some Auden, some Shakespeare. Some I have because my teachers made us memorise them as children, but quite a number I memorised voluntarily as an adult.
Paul: I’m interested in what you say about the image in time. Does poetry work in part by crystallising and transforming memory into imagery? And how important is for you to be true to your personal experience in your work? Is poetry any kind of testimony for you?
Katharine: I tell my students something I think is equally true of me: the reader doesn’t care about your experience; she cares about her own experience. What I care about when I start a poem may be related to particular events, and what has happened to me, but the most important thing is how those events and how that experience get transformed in the poem into a vehicle for the reader.
That said, I try not to lie about what happened. That would be a violation of trust. If I deviate from events, or—more likely—if my memory rewrites them and I know that’s happening, I will indicate that in the poem.
My argument about the image—we’ll see if I convince anyone, including myself—is that we think of the image as capturing a moment, as being static in time, but it doesn’t and it isn’t.
Paul: And doesn’t the image do other things, too? Some people would suggest that we live and write in a period where Imagism—a movement that was originally partly an expression of the fertilisation of English literature by other languages, poetries and art in the early 20th century—has become, in various ways, a kind of poetic convention; an acceptable way of saying poetry. Imagism, in a broad sense, also travels a long way back in time—for example, Sappho’s extant poems and fragments demonstrate that she was, in some respects, an imagist. Would you say that the use of poetic imagery is at the heart of your own work?
Katharine: Oh, yes, the image is hugely important to me. But not in a simple way. Did you have something over there called ‘Deep Image’ poetry back in the ’60s and ’70s, or was that just us? Here it was people like Robert Bly and James Wright.
Paul: Australia had various ‘imagist’ poets in the ’60s and ’70s—and ever since. Robert Gray is an obvious example of a contemporary Australian poet who makes conspicuous use of imagist techniques, as does John Foulcher. Some of our poets have been directly influenced by Bly and Wright—such as David Brooks, particularly in his early work—but we didn’t have our own home-grown ‘Deep Image’ movement.
I’m interested in your use of the image partly because—as you know—I’ve recently been reading a selection of your Antarctic poems and I have been taken by the way you make use of imagery that subtly abuts, collides and moves—as in the following from ‘Self-Portrait in Glass’:
Between liquid and crystal, I am
Holding firm, trying to see through
Myself. I could magnify what is past me
Or flip and turn an ice-locked continent
Crossed with gorges and fissures to
A leaf just coming out. (2013: 50)
This is sensuous and dynamic. The images seem to shift and transform as the poem unfolds. Is this an effect that you consciously created as you drafted the poem?
Katharine: I think the conscious and unconscious minds work in concert in poems—but when I am working most happily, I am no more conscious of the poem’s individual movements than a juggler is of one hand catching one ball. Revision is another story—that is an obsessive and precise discipline.
I asked about the ‘Deep Image’ poets because they seem to have been harkening back to Pound and the Imagists in some ways but not in others. For them, it seems that very specific natural objects were inherently imbued with mystery in an almost symbolist way. If they could find the right way in to the image, their work was more or less done. It’s as if the image is the next thing to silence; when the image is fulfilled or completed, the poem stops speaking but continues to resonate through the image.
And yes, I use the image much more as a vehicle in motion, something fleet and changing and taking up a whole lot, I hope, in its net as it goes. Maybe this is why I am interested in considering the image as being somehow inherently in motion, even when it seems to sit still.
Paul: The ‘image in motion’—that’s a lovely idea. I also like the way an image, or clusters of images, can work their way through poetic sequences, and evolve and develop as they go. Did you think about such matters when writing your Antarctic sequence? And, more generally, why write poetic sequences at all?
Katharine: We’re back to the question of what we think about consciously and what comes from trained intuition. I think with the Antarctica poems, I was trying to recreate the feeling—or maybe ‘sense’ is a better word—of what it was like to be there, in that huge and constantly changing place. I don’t think a sequence of static images—or of images pretending to be static—would have done the trick. So even the self-portraits, landscapes, and photo poems had to treat their images as mobile within the individual poems.
Over the whole sequence, of course, the changes are larger and less swift. In a book-length sequence especially, you can’t just have the same image appearing over and over without any sense of change or evolution. That was something I really worried about when I set out—would I end up with 50 poems about how cute penguins are? Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
With regard to your question about poetic sequences in general, maybe you should write poetic sequences only if, or because, you can’t help it? But that’s a bit glib, I know—especially since I obviously set off for Antarctica having proposed to write just such a thing, which I guess means hoping to be unable to help doing so.
This has to do, I suppose, with that weird tension inherent in the artist’s iron will, which is the will to surrender as much as anything. Edna St. Vincent Millay talks about being ‘waylaid by Beauty’ (2000: 21), but of course like all of us she was always putting herself in the way of waylaying. I think of the trip to Antarctica as being an extreme form of putting myself in the way.
Paul: I like the idea of ‘putting yourself in the way’ of poetry. What about research? Does that contribute in any way to your craft as a poet?
Katharine: Research is a huge part of creating the conditions for poetry, though it’s not quite the same as scholarly research or even the kind of research you would do to write a novel. The biggest difference is that I’m looking for something different—not evidence or a sense of historical or situational accuracy but something that will trigger a kind of productive dreaming that has its source in defamiliarisation and wonder—the encounter with something larger or outside the self. I read a lot of science during the generative phase of poems; in Antarctica, I read Shackleton and other explorers.
Of course, I do want accuracy in poems too, but I am more likely to make sure I’ve got that after the fact, not beforehand.
I also think of research for poetry as being ongoing, in a grazing sort of way—I am always looking for something to ruminate over.
Paul: How much of the stuff of your poetic ruminations comes from reading—either reading other poets, or reading more generally? And how much comes from your life apart from reading? Also, what kind of chemistry is there between your life-as-a-reader and your life outside reading, and where are the points of intersection?
Katharine: Reading is the essential food for a writer, I think—for me, the only thing that tops travel. Very often, a collection of good poems—or, for that matter, a really well-written novel or book on, say, physics—awakens not just the language-receiving but the language-making person inside me. Reading is, like writing, an essential part of the great conversation—you can’t, or shouldn’t, walk into a party just to speak and not to listen.
For me, writing a poem almost always involves bringing together material from various sources, often apparently dealing with different things—theories of higher dimensions, say, and the death of a dear friend, and spiritualism, to name one example; or the move to a heliocentric universe and bad eyes and, again, the deaths of friends and others, to mention another. There will be these various preoccupations all sort of spinning around each other, and the task is to find a language that will accommodate them all. Reading is a way of courting language, of being reminded of and brought into vocabulary.
Paul: You mention higher dimensions and the deaths of friends. How important are spiritual and/or religious beliefs to you and your writing? And what can poetry say about the deaths of people we have loved?
Katharine: Well, this is a sort of good news/bad news situation, I guess. I’m an outright atheist if theism is a belief in a personal god or a god as described in any of the sacred texts we’ve got. But that doesn’t mean those texts aren’t good for anything. Like other poetry and art, and like ritual, they have the power, through their beauty, to bring us into contact with the numinous, and I’m in favor of that. For me, the dangers come when we literalise the texts.
There’s no question in my mind that the universe is larger than I can comprehend, and one of the things I live and write for is to achieve in brief moments a cheek-by-jowl proximity to that largeness. When I am working and reading and looking and thinking as well as possible, I can feel that I’m always about to tip over into wonder.
Death, I guess, is part of that largeness, what makes it awful and mysterious. Not believing in heaven and hell, I can’t expect comfort from it, but I can marvel, whether in joy or in grief. I guess the poems try to capture all of that by perceiving reality as accurately as possible, then by rendering it. Reality is overwhelming, which is why we have to ignore it most of the time.
Paul: How do you know reality when you encounter it? Does poetry help?
Katharine: Ouch, got me. Because reality is deeply mysterious, isn’t it? Was it Yeats who said, ‘There is another world, but it is in this one’?
So there is the world, of course, in which reality we find gravity, and matter, and global climate change. And there’s even a scientific world in which gravity and matter, at least, are not all they seem to be in our quotidian lives. And then there is the world we can encounter only fleetingly, and only if we are paying very close attention to that place where the inner life and the outer life meet. It’s a reality we can’t measure but can know only through apprehension—a word I like because it contains both understanding and fear. For me, to enter this reality, however briefly, is to enter joy and terror together, but in a way that is calm and focused, not at all hysterical or disorganised.
And yes, for me, poetry is the reliable method. Reading and writing. I think it’s uniquely suited to evoking that border region between inner and outer life. Did I say that to you already? I know people who get there through religion, by the way, and religion is an equally valid route—it just isn’t how I do it.
Paul: The ‘place where the inner life and the outer life meet’. Can you say more about that? Also, how much is the ‘inner life’ of the adult shaped by childhood experiences?
Katharine: The poet is often seen as detached and unworldly, isn’t she? And there’s some truth to that: we tend to be very distracted by what’s going on in our heads. But the poets I know are also deeply engaged with their senses, all of them. This sensory engagement is at the heart of the image, which we were talking about before: the image is the place where the senses and, what—sensibility?—meet. If reality is that place where the outer world meets the inner world, the image is one of the most powerful tools we have for exploring it.
I do think the ‘inner life’ is hugely shaped by childhood experience, but also probably that childhood experience is shaped by the child’s inner life. It’s a chicken-or-egg problem, nature or nurture. My mother would say that I came into the world with an unusually well-developed inner life. But I was also encouraged to read and imagine on the one hand and to roam and explore the world on the other. My parents were both intellectuals and, in their own way, adventurers—even in their eighties, now, they are big outdoors people, though they don’t take on quite the challenges they used to.
Paul: Could you say more about the inner life of your childhood and what your private experiences as a child were like? How does one grasp the nature of such experiences as an adult? Are they forever elusive?
Katharine: I think they must be elusive, just because of how memory works. A neuroscientist once told me that the only accurate memory is the one you’ve never recovered—that every time you go over a memory, from the first time, you are rewriting and changing it.
So let’s stipulate that my memory of myself as a child is all the more flawed, as far as accuracy goes, by the fact that as a poet I’ve dwelt on it. In a way, by dwelling on childhood, by creating a version of it to appear in our poems, we are locking our childhoods out of reach—the more we remember our childhood selves, the less actual access to those selves we have.
That said, I think my mother would confirm that I spent much of my childhood in reverie—either reading or daydreaming. I suspect if I were a child in the US now, I would be medicated to make me stop looking out the window during class. Fortunately, my mother had also been a reading, dreaming child, and she was quite tolerant—though in summer she would often make me go outside to read.
Since you know me, I hope you’d agree that I navigate the world of objects and events reasonably well now. But if I do ‘grasp the nature of [my] experiences as [a child]’, I think it’s because my own essential nature hasn’t really changed. And if I’ve sacrificed the actual child to the poem, that seems like a fair trade to me now.
Paul: Could you quote one of your poems about childhood and/or memory and say a little about it, including the kind of experience that you’re trying to capture or register in the poem?
Katharine: Funny, how this question stops me almost in my tracks—I’ve been a long time answering, and only partly because life has intervened. The question seems simple, but for me it isn’t at all. As utterly informed as my sensibility is by childhood and the inner life I developed there, I have to go back to my first book to find a poem in which childhood is explicitly invoked—and even there, the poems are not themselves directly about childhood experiences.
In this way, I guess, I am distinctly un-Wordsworthian, but then I’ve always preferred Keats. Even as a child, I wasn’t much interested in childish things—or indeed in children. What I wanted most as a child was to be an adult, by which I mean, I think, that I wanted to do as I pleased, to be autonomous and free in the world as I was in my imagination. This is either in spite of or because of the fact that my childhood was mostly happy, by which I mean, I suppose, without catastrophe or violence.
So of the seven poems in my first book that are most directly rooted in childhood, four of them actually relate or imagine events that occurred not to me but in the lives of my parents—who, obviously, were adults. The events are filtered through a child’s mind, but they are really focused on adult things—and, perhaps interestingly, more or less on the subject of freedom, of how my parents seemed to me to be either free or not free; of how freedom might be achieved and what it entailed. Apparently, I wanted freedom for them and knew they didn’t quite have it. Looking at them now, I can see the poems are driven by intense identification and empathy.
And embedded in them, too, is a sense of danger. ‘I imagined all the bright lights I could for him’, the poem called ‘Father’ starts (1990: 21), in the process of placing him in a life far from the ‘trimmed / suburban shrubbery’ and ‘swingset / erected in the snow one Christmas’ of my childhood—a life in which he achieved ‘the drama of a heartbreak / he had earned’ as opposed to the one his perfectly ordinary capitulations and achievements had brought him to. In the other poem for him, he is hunting, tracking a doe through the snow, alone and autonomous. The poems for my mother also invoke both danger and exoticism.
Of the other three poems, one is about a childhood (teenaged, actually) friend who committed suicide, and two are longish meditations on the nuclear testing that occurred in the desert Southwest during my childhood, the literal cloud of which I grew up under.
Paul: Before we leave the subject of childhood, to what extent do you think that the aspirations that your early poems expressed for your parents were also aspirations you kept and nurtured for yourself? Did you want any kinds of danger and exoticism yourself? If so, what kinds were they?
Katharine: I absolutely nurtured those aspirations. I was at once an inward, bookish child and a child who imagined great adventure for herself. Some of that imagination came from the books themselves, of course—but I am not sure I would have become physically adventurous if my parents hadn’t been so. My mother was among the first women to climb the Grand Teton, and my parents brought their children along on outdoor adventures from early on. I learned to ski at three, for example, and was climbing, whitewater rafting, and backpacking before I was out of single digits. In our family, you had to throw yourself at the world just to keep up.
As an adult, as you know, I spent a month in Antarctica with the National Science Foundation. I’ve been up the Amazon on a small ship—I think it slept 14—and travelled alone for three weeks in Indonesia. The last two trips I took because I am writing a book about my grandfather, who was an exploration geologist for Standard Oil beginning in 1926, and my grandmother, who pursued her own mostly romantic adventures in the colonial cities while he was out in the jungle.
Paul: Given that there has been a lot of adventurous, even questing engagement in your family, I wonder whether there is any more you might say about the extent to which you have taken members of your family as models for your own approach to living as a creative artist? Do you see yourself as on any kind of quest?
Also, a fair bit of contemporary poetry over the last century or so has seemed to have a kind of urban, and even suburban, questing about it—we have seen many poets trying to render their experiences of living imaginatively and expansively—even transformatively—in urban environments. How do you understand your own work in relation to your daily experiences of home and place?
Katharine: Most of the time, I understand myself to be a tragic falling off from some more heroic age of family adventuring. I have never macheteed my way through a jungle with leeches clinging to my body, for example, or suffered scurvy, or beheaded a giant python—at least so far.
The seeking and questing in my family comes, I believe, not just from restlessness and a wish to see and experience the great out there, but also from an inbred sense of discontent or an inability to be pleased with one’s lot. This is where I’ve actually tried to depart from the family legacy. I want to go out in search of the strange, the not-me, but I have in my adult years worked just as hard to be content with, even joyful in, what I have and know, and to really appreciate my good luck, which has been profound.
In recent years, I have wanted my poems to be driven more by joy, wonder, and presence than by sadness, loss, nostalgia, irony, discontent—the set of emotions out of which I first learned to write and which I think of as the affect or the default emotional tenor of the age, at least over here in the United States. I don’t know if I succeed, but I want my poems to be full of light and awe. I suppose it sounds completely trite to say that I try to live in wonder, or close to it, as much of the time as possible, even at home.
Paul: That doesn’t sound trite at all. In terms of emotions and moods that drive poems, doesn’t loss and an awareness of mortality and transience often connect with the sense of awe and wonder you mention—at being here at all and being so fleetingly close to the beauty and glory of so much we see, intuit and know?
Katharine: Right. Not Keats this time, though Keats was all over this, but Wallace Stevens:
She says, ‘But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.’
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths … (1990: 69)
I think wonder also comes from understanding our smallness in vastness and how little we understand of the great mystery (back to that), both of which are part of being mortal …
Paul: Those are wonderful lines, aren’t they. I love the way Stevens moves so effortlessly from ‘contentment’ to the idea of ‘imperishable bliss’—we can’t have it, yet certain kinds of bliss do have the feeling of being somehow imperishable when they occur, don’t they, almost as if our very particles of being have been moved and altered …
Katharine: And the question remains, how do we capture and hold onto those moments? If poems are still, often enough, little machines for their capture and reproduction, then we are still, after all, in the long Romantic age. For me, though, the focus is on the bliss and not on the loss, which, as you noticed—and Wordsworth laments endlessly—is an inevitable part of the package, so why belabor the point, at least inside the poem itself?
Paul: Does making the work—the poem itself—sometimes partake of this bliss? Is that part of the fascination of creating art; of making new things, however small, that can stand by themselves in the world?
Katharine: Yes and yes. A poem is a way first of re-entering the experience oneself and second of recreating that experience for someone else. These are two really different activities, I think, each with its own pleasures—the first involves reestablishing the poet’s connection to the original event or emotion, and the second requires the poet to disconnect from that original, personal experience to create a vehicle for someone else’s experience—what we call art.
Paul: Your quotation of those lines from Stevens reminds me how important formal considerations are to a lot of poets. Stevens organises ‘Sunday Morning’, from which those lines are taken, into eight stanzas, each containing 15 lines of iambic pentameter. What formal issues are most important to you as a poet and how does that relate to your sense of making verbal music in your work?
Katharine: As we’ve noted, a major theme for me is constraint and freedom, so of course form is hugely important. I do write quite a lot of strictly formal poems, by which I mean poems in received forms, but I am always happiest when I am finding ways to push at the boundaries of a form—to adhere to it but in a tricky, unexpected way. I like to put little geeky poet jokes in poems through torquing form.
I also like to invent forms. But even in free verse—or in prose poems—where the finding of the form is part of the making of the poem, form and pushing at form are important. In prose poems, I like to move occasionally toward or even into lining and back out. Much of what I do involves following and trusting my ear—how I hear the poem’s music is hugely important.
Paul: Would you be prepared to quote a whole poem and talk a little about how you have constructed it, including some of the elements of its music and some of its formal patterning—not so much line by line, although it would be fascinating to hear about some of the detail—but in a general way. In other words, I’d be interested in hearing more about how you have built one of your poems as a ‘made thing’.
Katharine: Okay, so here is where the technological record is either convenient or inconvenient. I imagined I would use ‘Tempo for a Winged Instrument’ first because it is short and second because it came out—or so I remembered—nearly whole. I thought I could talk about it briefly and in a cogent way. But then I looked back and found the first version in my computer. This, along with my notes, tells a slightly messier story, although not nearly as messy as some I could tell.
Here is the poem as it was published in Poetry and in the Antarctica collection, The earth is not flat:
Tempo for a Winged Instrument
Full of light and music, the beating air.
Light like a bird, Calvino says, not a feather.
Over the water the shags come in to land
All wings, uh-ohing over the cliffs.
Rock, their nests, and bare the rookeries.
Blue eye, blue eye, the wind plays fast and sharp.
They lift and ride and do not pick their fights.
Oh, blue sky, blue day. Heart
Of muscle, thrumming down, and swift. (2013: 60)
What I remembered is that the first line came to me at the cormorant rookery near Palmer Station, on the Antarctic Peninsula. The birds there are blue-eyed cormorants, also called blue-eyed shags. The chicks were just hatching, and the adults were flying into and out of the nesting areas bringing back food, the males and females in each pair alternating on the nest and in the air. The day was brisk, windy, and brilliant, all blue sky, blue water, grey rock, and ice in colors ranging from white to blue to green.
And I clearly remembered getting the title, which came much later after I returned home and, once joined with the first line, gave birth to the poem. It came from what the US poetry scholar and my former teacher Charles Berger used to call a ‘productive misreading’, this one of a New York Times crossword puzzle clue. The clue was ‘tempo for a stringed instrument?’ (Of course, the question mark indicated there’s a pun involved in the answer, which was ‘Harp speed’.) I saw immediately that I had misread it, but I also knew there was a poem in what my mind had done, and that I had the scene and possibly already some language for the poem in my notes.
I recalled a little trouble getting the second line right—I wanted the idea expressed by Calvino, which is one I return to over and over again in thinking about both work and life, but couldn’t find any words better than his. I also didn’t want to appropriate the idea by saying it differently and not crediting him. As you can see, I finally decided to use his actual expression—or nearly so, minus one word—and also to credit him directly in the poem, so there would be no doubt.
This was both an ethical decision and a musical one: my ear just liked the way that ‘Calvino says’ sounds in the poem; how its insertion, by both interrupting and elongating the line, gives it a bumpiness that seems to enact what is happening with the birds. The line also has the—to me, deliciously complicating—advantage of importing Six memos for the next millennium (Calvino 1993) wholesale into the poem, an idea that delights me in a geeky poet way but that I think places no particular burden on the reader who isn’t all that interested in the Calvino. From there, at least in my memory, the poem delivered itself more or less whole.
Going back, I discovered the first line in my notes, exactly as it stayed, and a note about the Calvino—‘“Light like a bird”, IC?’ So I didn’t misremember everything.
The rest of the first intact draft looks like this:
Tempo for a Winged Instrument
Full of light and music, the beating air.
Light like a bird, Calvino says, not
Like a feather. Over the water
Cormorants come in to land
All wings, calling from the cliffs
Their low uh-ohs. Bare rock, their nests,
The slightest formalities of shit
And fluff. Blue eyed, blue eyed. The wind
Plays fast and sharp. The birds
They lift and ride. They do not
Have to fight. Oh, blue sky,
Blue day. This heart thrums, my hand
Full of muscle, down, and speed.
So it didn’t come like a bolt from the blue after all. This is a poem that, much more than I remember, is feeling its way toward itself; it is anything but complete and whole. Some of its uncertainties are expressed in the lineation, I think—the first line is still intact, but my own lingering uncertainty over the second is expressed in the break, which looks from here like a failure of confidence that I tried to address by over-poeticising the material. That precedent, once set, sets the pacing and gesturing for the rest of this version of the poem, leading to multiple hesitations and—let’s face it—some real infelicities. (Let’s agree not to talk about the middle of stanza three.)
As I recall—cobbling together the recollection from the evidence in front of me and the wisps of memory that evidence elicits—the strategy from here became to trust the syntax and even the sentences themselves, and hope, if I forced each line to bear its own weight, that the extraneous material would be forced out and everything would tighten. This is something I often do when the poem seems to be flopping pathetically around on the page.
And here, it seems to work, even, in a small way, with line two, where the second ‘like’ falls out. Once the poem begins to arrange itself so that the lining and the syntax more or less match, it becomes clear that ‘shags’ is much better than ‘cormorants’ and that ‘calling from the cliffs // Their low uh-ohs’ is self-indulgent in an unsustainable way that allows me to imagine I can get away with using ‘uh-oh’ as a verb, since, really, it could hardly be worse than what is already there.
From here, I think, it was almost entirely a matter of ear and image trying to reconcile. Almost all of the imagery and description is very much the same as in the first draft, at least until the last stanza, but the music becomes much tighter and the images therefore also more compressed and impressionistic. In the final stanza, the thing that drops out is the ‘I’ with its self-conscious embodiment and awareness; the subjectivity that remains is all ‘eye’.
Many of my poems are very much meditations spoken aloud. This is one that falls into the category of almost pure song. I think the drafting process shows that there was, at least in the first draft, a battle of impulses—toward meditation on the one hand and toward song on the other. Here, song wins in a way that becomes especially clear as the poem ends. The penultimate line is one of only two that isn’t explicitly end-stopped, and it is the only line where the break occurs in a place where the syntax provides no natural opening. The word ‘heart’, then, bears a tremendous amount of weight in the poem, and attaches itself explicitly to what immediately precedes it—‘Blue sky, blue day’—in a gesture toward metaphor and also drives forward to the specifically and quite literally evoked body of the bird. My hope would be that the ‘I’ and her body are also suggested there, in an identification with the creature made all the more intense by the fact that the ‘I’ is repressed.
Paul: Calvino, light, birds and Six memos for the next millennium—can you say something more about this? And also about the tension you mention between meditation and song when making poems?
Katharine: So you’ve sent me back to the Calvino, and now I have a confession to make. I’ve discovered that in a book I think I know well, a line that is important to me isn’t Calvino’s but Valery’s, quoted by Calvino: ‘Il faut être léger comme l’oiseau, non comme la plume’, which Calvino translates as, ‘One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather’ (1993: 16). Weirdly, perhaps—though of course I should have checked this—on consideration I am glad to have gotten it wrong: I have no idea how I would have handled the whole apparatus of citation in a poem that means to enact lightness. Now, if anyone wants to they can just footnote the poem: ‘As was so often the case, Coles misremembers the quotation …’ I hope they also say, ‘At least, she caught the error herself, though belatedly.’
Anyway. Calvino’s essay ‘Lightness’ talks about one of six crucial literary values he identified for a series of lectures—the Charles Eliot Norton Lecture Series—he was to deliver at Harvard. He delivered—and wrote—only five before he died: ‘Lightness’, ‘Quickness’, ‘Exactitude’, ‘Visibility’, and ‘Multiplicity’. The title of the last was to have been ‘Consistency’; in the published volume, it exists as a kind of ghost. The essays are brilliant—and though they are cumulative the first two are my favorites, I think, celebrating as they do a sort of deceptive muscularity in literature. The bird image is consistent with this—and consistent with something the lectures demonstrate, which is that each of these virtues contains its opposite (if this weren’t the case, ‘Consistency’ could never follow ‘Multiplicity’—which it does, if only in our imaginations).
It’s the embodied weight or musculature of the bird that gives it the strength that allows it to fly as a feather can’t—on its own, with direction, purpose, and quickness. For Calvino, lightness arises from power. As a poet, I can’t really say if my attraction to this idea comes partly from the fact that I am myself small and (I like to think) strong for my size.
For me as a meditative poet, poems are often vehicles for thought, for thinking through ideas that arise from or inhere in experience. The risk in this kind of poem is always too much weight, I think. Though song can also be heavy, there is a kind of lightness or freedom in simply looking and singing, in saying, ‘All I have to do is see and sing what I see, not to think about it’. There is pleasure in being guided by the eye and the voice. Of course, there is also pleasure in the other.
Paul: Calvino discusses Ovid’s Perseus and ‘how much delicacy of spirit a man must have to be a Perseus, killer of monsters’ (1993: 5). Do poets need some kind of delicacy of spirit too?
Katharine: I almost quoted at you a line near that one: ‘Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space’ (1993: 7). Yes, I think poetry is the place to do this, and thus that poets need to exercise that delicacy of spirit you refer to. I use the word ‘exercise’ very purposefully—again, paradoxically, this flight seems to be a muscular thing, not willed but still somehow achieved.
Paul: Do poets also need a way of moving away from the conditions of this post-industrial, material world? And, if so, how do they do this? What sort of future do you think poetry has?
Katharine: There are so many such ‘conditions’—do you want to say anything about which ones precisely you mean?
At first look, I guess you must mean ‘materialistic’ as opposed to ‘made of matter’, but I am not sure I share all the assumptions inherent in the terms here. I am very glad I don’t live in a cave without access to central heating, aspirin, and really nice shoes, though I do wish I didn’t have to contend with the pollution to which I contribute more than my share, or with the demands of the gadgets I buy—like this one, which allows us to conduct an interview in close to real time from the opposite ends of the earth. Which will also generate pollution, though probably far away from me, where I will never be exposed to it.
Is that what you are getting at? If so, I am deeply implicated, and my feelings are … mixed. When I want to escape the post-industrial world (or pretend to), I get on an airplane. Given that, I am not sure it would be seemly of me to complain.
As for poetry, people keep predicting its death, and it keeps kicking. I prefer to predict a long and vigorous life for it, though what that life will look like I have no idea. I think as large a percentage of the population is connected to poetry as at any time before—maybe even a larger one. And since poetry becomes essential in times of trouble on the one hand, and since the pleasures it provides can be found nowhere else on the other, I don’t expect its force to diminish. But then I am a pathological optimist.
Paul: Thanks, you have answered my question beautifully, but could you say more. How are people connected to poetry? Why is it essential in times of trouble and what is ‘essential’ about it?
Katharine: Mark Strand—I might already have invoked this for you?—talks about how poetry tells us, ‘in so many words, exactly where we are’ (I will have to find the exact quote, but this is the gist of it). It tells each of us this no matter where she actually is, physically—whether sitting alone in an easy chair, or in an airplane, or in an audience listening to a reading. This is, I think, because the poem uniquely maps that place where the inner life meets the world—and it does this not only for the poet but, in a successful poem, for the reader too. The poem begins in the life and mind of the poet, but completes itself in the life and mind of the reader, who, like the poet, puts skin in the game.
I am sure you were in Australia and not the US during the days following September 11, 2001. On the afternoon of the 11th, I got a call from our local National Public Radio affiliate asking me to be on a call-in program the following day. I demurred and said that they really needed an historian or a philosopher or a psychologist. It turns out that they’d already lined up both an historian and a psychologist, but they also really wanted a poet. So I grabbed a stack of books and went up to the station.
As the conversation went on (they extended the show into a second hour, instead of going to their usual national show, because they had so many callers on the line) I read or recited poems by Mary Oliver, Adrienne Rich, Agha Shahid Ali, Emily Dickinson, WB Yeats, Theodore Roethke—who knows who else. But the first poem I spoke—this one from memory—was Auden’s September 1, 1939, which, though written in a different time and place, resonated powerfully with me. I had been speaking it to myself almost since the moment I learned of the attacks. In fact, this particular poem was soon being recited on the radio practically, it seemed, every time I turned it on.
And all that fall, the radio was full of poems and talk about poems. People were looking not for comfort so much as for truth—and not for simple truth but the big, complicated one.
Paul: If Mark Strand says that poetry tells us ‘in so many words, what we are going through’ (2000: 51), he also writes that poetry ‘allows us to have the life we are denied because we are too busy living. Even more paradoxically, poetry permits us to live in ourselves as if we were just out of reach of ourselves’ (2000: 44). Do you live with poetry in that way?
Katharine: Thank you for the exact quote, and also for the extension, which I would also modify some in order to answer the question.
I guess I believe we all—not only poets—live ‘just out of reach of ourselves’; for me, what poetry does is remind us of the gap between the self and the reaching self; and provide us with bare flickering moments in which that gap closes or nearly closes.
In a way, I think of this as the same gap that exists between the interior self and the world—I suppose you could say it’s the gap between how we experience ourselves on the inside and the actual experience of our sensory selves, our bodies, within physical reality. Poetry provides a site for a kind of cleaving, I guess—using the word in both its senses, in that it at once cuts us off from ourselves and brings our selves together.
Bogan, Louise 1968 The blue estuaries: poems 1923–1968, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Calvino, Italo 1993 Six memos for the next millennium, New York: Vintage
Coles, Katharine 2013, The earth is not flat, California: Red Hen Press
Coles, Katharine, 1990 The one right touch, Idaho: Ahsahta Press
Millay, Edna St. Vincent 2000 First fig and other poems, Mineola, N.Y.: Dover
Stevens, Wallace 1990 The collected poems of Wallace Stevens, New York: Vintage Books
Strand, Mark 2000 ‘Introduction to The Best American Poetry 1991’ in The weather of words: poetic invention, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 45-52
Strand, Mark 2000 ‘On becoming a poet’ in The weather of words: poetic invention, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 33-44