Catherine Pikula [photo credit: Olympia Shannon] is a secretary, writer, thinker, and educator. She holds a BA in literature and philosophy from Bennington College and an MFA in poetry from New York University where she was a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow.
1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I'm Fine. How Are You? is unique in my writing experience because it is prose that I wrote while studying poetry in Graduate School, so it exists as a kind of hybrid. Before, I wrote "poems" more strictly with lineation that we are used to seeing poetry have. My poetry has a stronger performative element than my prose -- I think because it favors music and emotion. My prose is more about philosophizing and stringing together evidence for an argument or some kind.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started writing poetry in the 6th grade. A lot was happening (my grandmother who lived in my family's home passed, my father was hospitalized, and puberty was in full swing) that I didn't know how to deal with. I needed an outlet that was more expressive than the sports I was playing. I think I gravitated toward poetry as a form of prayer as influenced by church hymnals and Catholic school. I didn't write creative non-fiction until a high-school English class.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I always have a journal going in which I take notes. Sometimes I email myself fragments or will use the notes on my iPhone. A first draft is very rarely the final shape. Since I work with fragments, there is a lot of filling in of details I have to do. As I do this, sometimes what I thought I was writing toward changes and the structure changes as it becomes clearer to me what details are important to fill in and which ones are not important, can be cut, or not mentioned in the first place.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I definitely work with smaller pieces and fragments first. Then, I try to combine them into a longer piece or pieces. Often times, I have the title first, and organize fragments into "title" categories before major editing and reworking.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. I think performing is fun, playful, and it can be a really powerful experience. Reading one's work offers a chance to expand the tone and tweak the delivery in a way that an audience or reader might not get or hear when seeing a work on the page.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I'm very interested in moral relativism and social constructionist theory. I'm usually trying to answer the question, "How can and should one live?" The most current question, I think is, "What the fuck has happened in American politics and media?"
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer is many things. It is part entertainer, part cultural critic, part educator.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
My editor at Newfound, Levis Keltner, is amazing. Working with him was easy. He didn't pressure me to change things toward a certain end, but made comments, queries and suggestions that very much left decisions to me. This gentler touch naturally lead to more than minor edits, a tightened structure, arc, and deeper clarity on some concepts. I think a successful editing collaboration is one in which trust and respect is facilitated on both sides and the dialogue is open.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"You can't suffer in silence."
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
It's not always easy, but it depends on the purpose. I don't think I can say what I need to say in the form of poetry right now. I want to formulate arguments which is certainly possible in poems, a Shakespearian sonnet is very much like an argument with a concluding couplet, but the effect is different. The audience is a little different too.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I am always journaling. My writing routine for work I intend to public right now, is whenever I can, which is not as often as I would like. Working 9-6 with an hour commute both ways is exhausting. I can barely find energy to cook for myself let alone get into the writing headspace, not to mention I have been trying to fit exercising into my routine for three years now.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I am stalled mid-piece or mid-sentence, I take walks or cook to mull things over. If I'm stalled between projects, I will read a lot in a wide range of topics and take very informal notes.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I don't know how to pick one: Simmering tomato sauce, Ralph Lauren's "Romance," and that rubbery overworked vacuum cleaner on the verge of burning out smell.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I was a liberal arts student: all of the subjects are and can be connected! In general I am influenced by philosophy, visual art, and the natural sciences. It also depends on the project. What I'm working on now has some roots in political science.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This list is much more extensive in my head and fluctuates based on time and mood.
Books: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics; Ross Gay's Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude; Juliana Spahr's Fuck-You-Aloha-I-Love-You.
Writers in general: Virginia Woolf, Roxane Gay, Proust, Claudia Rankine, Rebecca Solnit, Donald Barthelme.
Writing teachers to which I am indebted: Greg R. Trimmer, Mark Wunderlich, Rebecca Godwin, Michael Dumanis, Matthew Rohrer, Meghan O'Rourke, Brenda Shaughnessy, Eileen Myles, Deborah Landau, Rachel Zucker.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Traveling to Japan is high on that list, but I want to be better at Japanese; skydiving; learn how to pickle vegetables; backpacking hiking trip--- to name a few.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
This is a funny question because I don't consider writing my occupation. It is a passion, but it unfortunately doesn't pay the bills or come with health benefits. So, it'd be cool if writing were my occupation. I know what you mean though, I think I would have been an earth scientist, urban planner, or interior designer.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The blank page is the only space where I can be my most complete self.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Last great book: Chloe Caldwell's Women. Last great film: Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm working on a collection of essays on a range of topics from catholicism to cyborgs, sex education, privilege, healthcare, and more.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;