Cate Peebles is the author of Thicket, winner of the 2017 Besmilr Brigham Award from Lost Roads Press. She is the author of several chapbooks, including The Woodlands (Sixth Finch Books, 2015), James (dancing girl press, 2014), and 9 Poems (eye for an iris press, 2014). She co-edits the occasional online magazine, Fou, and lives in New Haven, CT, where she is an archivist at the Yale Center for British Art.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Waking up one morning to an acceptance email from Susan Scarlata (editor of Lost Roads Press) for my manuscript was a great moment. I’d been submitting various manuscripts for about a decade at that point and been dreaming of publishing a full-length book of poems since I was a kid; I was super excited, happy for myself, and happy for those poems I’d spent so much time with because they found a home at a press that I’ve long admired. But really, the book has changed my life because it’s introduced me to some amazing poets/humans and expanded my world in totally unexpected ways. And now that I’m a billionaire, I can have massages at least twice a week, so I’m way more relaxed.
Since the book formed over many years, some of the poems are older, some newer. The longer poem at the middle of the book, The Woodlands was the most recent work in the book and is more like what I’m writing now. There’s less punctuation, more syntactical freedom in the way the language moves, but also perhaps more clarity. I read some of the poems in Thicket and feel very far from them, but when I was constructing the manuscript they still had a place within the world of the book.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I got into poetry kind of early. Books were a big deal at my house growing up, so reading of any kind was actively encouraged. I was drawn to the wildness of it and the ability to jump ship from linear syntax, though I didn’t think of it like that at the time. I remember writing a poem for a fourth grade literary magazine and I when I got stuck or couldn’t spell something, I made up words and kept going; some well-meaning teacher got their hands on it before publication and changed the words into something that actually made sense. Even then, I remember thinking “Well, that’s boring.” Poetry has always triggered an excitement in me for the possibilities of language, magic, spell-making. I love novels, too, and more traditional storytelling, and definitely grew up with books and stories, but somehow, I fell into the act of poem writing and the freedom from expected linguistic trajectories when I was first learning how to spell and write and it’s something I’ve never been bored by.
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 guess I’m both slow and fast. I used to take FOREVER with poems—it was like chiseling and polishing a piece of marble over and over again for years. As I’ve gotten older, the process is faster and some projects are born within a period of months. My chapbooks James (dancing girl press) and The Woodlands (Sixth Finch Books) both came to be in a period of months. Rarely do I write something and feel like it’s born fully formed, so editing is an important part of the process for sure. But I’ve become less of a perfectionist, which has helped the poems, I think.
Lately I’ve been taking more notes by hand because I’m doing the poem-a-day thing this April and I find that it’s helping me see more than I usually do. The poems that are coming out of the notes, though, look nothing like what I’m jotting down, just the image remains. Usually, I’ll start and end a poem on the computer, whether it takes a day or five years from first to last draft, and all the in-between drafts are erased.
4 - Where does a poem 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?
Poems begin in all kinds of ways for me. A lot of the time, they come as a response to something I’m reading; I like to pull words from books I’m reading or phrases from magazines as a way to jump in. Sometimes it’s the sound of a phrase, other times it’s an image or thought. A lot of my poems being as the result of some kind of interaction with a piece of visual art, such as paintings, installations, or films; my book is full of ekphratic poems. I try not to restrict my modes of getting into a new poem. I’ve recently been trying out different kinds of prompts, which has reintroduced a sense of fun to my writing; prompts can take the pressure off. I hope what I’m writing now will find its way into a book, but I don’t have a fully formed concept for a book—chapbooks or series, yes.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I get nervous about doing readings but always end up enjoying them. Reading aloud is a different kind of interaction with the work, and often it can help the editing process with newer poems.
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 think there are theoretical concerns behind my writing, absolutely, but I try not to impose them or say “this is what I’m doing here” because I think that can rob the reader of their own experience. In a general way, I’m always asking “Where can we go with language? What can language do today?” My concerns are lyrically and imaginatively motivated. I enjoy language as a medium. I am often resistant to explicit messages or “meaning as end-point” because that can stifle the possibilities of a poem. I am more at ease when smarter people than I take on the challenge of parsing my work or delving into the theoretical concerns. Poetry, for me anyway, is all about choosing your own adventure.
What are the current questions? They are such big questions. Such as: WTF is going on here? That’s a common one…how do we do better, treat each other better, value kindness over fear and greed? My poems don’t try to answer specific questions—that sounds impossible to me. I think poetry, as an activity, is often engaging with these questions, and becomes more important the more we’re confronted by a power structure that favors materialism, violence, and numbing out as its favorite tactics---poetry, and the act of writing it, can resist these things. Perhaps it doesn’t solve the problems, but as a form one chooses, as an assembly of voices, it can certainly participate in resistance to our hyper-capitalistic moment, foster empathy, and open readers and writers’ awareness to the world around them. It’s also just a fun thing to do.
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?
Adding to what I said earlier, the writer’s role is to be awake to the world, to be aware, and to create an account based on observations. The variety of the accounts is what makes writing so endlessly interesting. We all have our own accounts, our own imaginings and interpretations, our own identities that can be expressed in in so many unexpected ways. As human beings, writers have a role in culture—writers create much of what we call culture. The TV shows we watch, the music we listen to, the poems we read all respond to and enact culture. The role of the writer should be/ is to write from their own self to the other selves around them—that said, I don’t think there’s one, prescribed role other than the writer writes and uses language (in some way) as their medium.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
My experiences working with outside editors has always been smooth sailing. My chapbooks and my book were all taken “as is”, with most of the editorial process having taken place in the shaping of the work before submission. I seek editorial advice from a select few trusted readers. I’m not opposed to having a very hands-on editorial experience in the future, though. It just hasn’t happened yet. The generous readers and teachers I’ve had over the years have helped shape my poems in so many ways; they are absolutely essential.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The piece of advice that has worked well for me, aside from “always be reading” is: “the only failure is quitting.” I don’t know. Pausing or shifting gears in life shouldn’t be mistaken for quitting, though.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
A typical day must begin with coffee. I wish I could write in the morning, but because of my job, I don’t get to write at a scheduled time each day. I so wish I was good at early rising, but it takes me a little time to get on board with a new day. Sometimes I run early, and that habit has helped me become more of a morning person, and in an ideal world, I’d write between 9 and 1 pm. But given the constraints of my work-life, I have to be open to writing when the time is there—be it early, lunchtime, a break at work, or right before bed.
One new addition to my routine is getting together once a week with a couple other writers in New Haven. We meet at a beautiful library and just write together for an hour-and-a-half; just having that built in to my schedule has helped me find time on other days to write, and it’s great to have the moral support. There aren’t any requirements—just sit in a chair and write for that amount of time. Magic.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Usually I’ll turn to other books of poems. Also, I’ll turn to visual art, old issues of National Geographic that I cut up, or text books that become erasures, music, a long run. Doing these things helps me get out of my head, or away from the pressure of what I think I should be writing.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Humid, late-August air, grass, mud, tree bark. I grew up in Pittsburgh where the landscape is much more lush than you might expect from a former steel town; it’s actually still got a lot of wildness to it. Oh, and at-home hair dye also reminds me home, circa 1996.
13 - 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?
As mentioned before, I’ve long been very into ekphratic poetry and I’m also into listening to music while writing. Many of my poems begin with some kind of experience with a piece of visual or non-verbal art. Artists like Joseph Cornell, Andy Warhol, and Agnes Martin have influenced a lot of my poems.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’d be nobody without Gertrude Stein and Emily Dickinson. Their work always gets me in the mood to put some words on the page. My other go-to poets are: Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, C.D. Wright, Lucie Brock-Broido, Wallace Stevens, Susan Howe, Mary Jo Bang, Mary Ruefle, and Anne Carson. There are others, but these are the poets who immediately come to mind when I think of my poetry parents.
Some newer books I’ve been surrounding myself with lately are: Cindy Arrieu-King’s Futureless Languages; Bridget Talone’s The Soft Life; Adam Clay’s Stranger; Jos Charles’ feeld; Jessica Baran’s Equivalents; Rachel Moritz’s Sweet Velocity; Sandra Simonds’ Orlando; and Simone White’s Dear Angel of Death. All of these books remind me of the vast possibilities poetry offers and keeps me excited about trying new things in my own work.
I also find that my friendships with artists and writers are essential to my life both in and outside the work. Though we haven’t made an issue in a few years, I really enjoyed putting together the online magazine Fou with my friends David Sewell and Brad Soucy; it was a nice collaborative effort that was a different way of participating in the writing community and put me in touch with so many poets whose work I admire.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to write/ publish another book of poems. I’d also like to write a scary novel.
16 - 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?
Well, I’ve always had other occupations along with being a writer, so I’ve had the pleasure of testing this question out quite a bit, except the occupation has never been instead of. And while I’ve had periods of not writing much, I’ve never been able to shake the eventual desire to keep doing it no matter how many other things I attempt. I’ve been a barista, an editorial assistant, a cheesemonger, a copywriter, and now I’m an archivist at a museum. I think I’ve finally settled on the right occupation because it satisfies another part of my brain while feeding my writing life. I often wish I’d tried out teaching, and maybe I will one day, but that’s the road untaken that I fantasize about. Again, it wouldn’t be instead of being a poet, it would be in addition to. I can’t think of anything I would’ve done that didn’t include writing as part of the package.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
A very stubborn, compulsive nature combined with an interest in magic spells/ witchcraft.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m reading C.D. Wright’s Casting Deep Shade and it’s blowing my mind. I hope it never ends. I haven’t been watching many films, but the last great one was maybe the one about all the cats in Istanbul.
19 - What are you currently working on?
This April, Adam Clay convinced me to try writing a poem-a-day, which I have never done, so I’m working on a series loosely inspired by the painter John Constable’s Cloud Studies; we’ll see how much I keep from it, but I’ve been enjoying the experience of adding to my growing document every day and allowing each poem to take its own shape. Constable’s studies were never intended to be exhibited, because they were his way of taking notes for larger “more serious” paintings, but they’re wonderfully impressionistic, though made before that was a thing, and thinking of my April poems as studies has freed me a little from the pressure of trying to “make a serious thing.” I’ve recently been experiencing a weirdly (for me) prolific phase, so I’m working on a lot of new things, which will hopefully lead to another collection, or chapbook, in the next couple of years.