Katie Peterson is the author of five collections of poetry, including Life in a Field (2021), chosen by Rachel Zucker for the Omnidawn Open Book Prize. Her previous collection, A Piece of Good News, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award. Her work is forthcoming in the Harvard Review, Poetry London, and the Yale Review. Her collaborations with Young Suh have been shown nationally and internationally, most recently at the Datz Museum in Gawngju, South Korea. She directs the Creative Writing Program at UC Davis, where she is Professor of English and a Chancellor's Fellow. She was born in California.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Oh my god I was so young and then I had to take myself seriously. At that point in my life, the publication of that book made plain that I didn’t really want to write a critical monograph (I was in a literature doctoral program). Some poets do both of course and I’m not dead yet, maybe I’ll write a critical book (see below). But publication meant permission, which is sad, because shouldn’t a person who wants to be a poet give themselves their own permission (by the way, the title of my second book is PERMISSION so I guess I was working that one out). The year my book came out I got my degree and keep teaching at Deep Springs College, which is in remote Inyo County, California. I loved the job but I was so far away from everything that had grounded me and I felt very alone in poetry, very solitary with it.
My most recent book Life in a Field is a collaboration with my partner, the photographer Young Suh. The writing emerged during an extended collaborative process between the years 2014 – 2016 that culminated in a show of our work together titled Can We Live Here? Stories from a Difficult World at the Mills College Art Museum. I can’t imagine this work without Young’s influence and presence, I think the book arrived in my imagination as the telling of a story to the child we didn’t have (we have her now). A fairy tale, a parable, an explanation of the real world that needs to hold the real world at a distance in order to say something about it.
I spend so much more time with visual art – specifically with photography – than I used to. I wanted Life in a Field to move slowly, as I suppose I want time to move more slowly now in the middle of my life. I embrace the fantasy of slowness that poems sometimes have, the fantasy of holding things still, I am interested in indulging it rather than poking the obvious holes in its lies. Photography has made me love poetry more for the qualities they share – an aspirational stillness, a lushness in the moment, a dream of coherence, a fantasy of accuracy.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I don’t think I did. I loved stories first. The first stories I wrote were in a fairy tale structure about ordinary people in an unenchanted world. I remember that I wrote a story about a man who wrote a woman love poems, and the woman responded by eating the poems. I liked things like that, a tweak inside the ordinary, a vein of strange in the rock of the normal. But I couldn’t move past a statement of the conflict. I didn’t like resolving the conflict. I didn’t like making things happen, I liked making them unhappen. I’d write scenes and no one would leave the room.
A beloved English teacher gave me Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet when I graduated from high school. I wonder if I loved the vocation of the poet first, the sense of purpose and the agility of mind. I used to recite that passage, “learn to love the questions themselves, like locked doors and books written in a foreign language,” all the time to myself. I knew it was armor; I knew then the usual world is determined towards answers. And it seems now the world is even more determined, that questions are even less valued. There is so little time and space for our wandering.
I was a bright schoolgirl and good at forms so every time I was assigned a poem, I excelled at it. What I respected, early on, was that the moment you went into form consciously, it turned whatever sincerity I brought in on its head. My sentiments became rhymes; my thoughts turned into stressed and unstressed syllables. Form dissected my certainties. Even if the poem sounded or looked successful I knew better – the poem showed me how little I knew about all the certain statements I brought into it. One reason people like Bishop’s “One Art” is it presents a credible humility, credible because the voice of the poem thinks she’s figured something out and all her figuring is a disguise for the opposite. I kept going back to poetry because I couldn’t fool poetry, however smart I was, poetry always knew more than me.
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 feel like I am always working on something, if not on the page, in my head. And I have left certain projects behind like half built houses or abandoned ships, and I feel no better about that than I do about breakups with humans that have ended poorly. In my writing life I have to live alongside my mistakes. But at a certain point you draw a line and you are working towards the completion of something rather than experiencing its promise. I am in an uncomfortable place right now, maybe 7/8 of the way to a book and it makes me long for the writing, poem by poem, I was doing a while back. There is nothing like writing if the poems are close by, it is a grand feeling, nearly luxurious, like the night before Christmas or something like that.
I used to write poems at my desk and now I do them anywhere – having a child has made me more flexible and more tenacious. I often think about a poem as I drive Emily to school and try to catch it on the way back, or in the driveway, which makes me a distracted drop-off parent sometimes, which is interesting to me, why do I want the poem to get in the way of dropping my daughter off, what am I trying to do with that. Also, is that moment of our separation the poem of my life right now that I am avoiding? Maybe so.
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?
Usually I begin with an image, though sometimes a bit of overheard speech (I guess I think overheard speech is also an image, if you get down to it). I often write poems in a series, which I always think about more as repetition than narrative – I like the spiritual activity of repeating a gesture in the mind after it gets memorized or stale, like prayer, and trying to refresh it. Or it might be true that I repeat an act of mind because I don’t understand it yet. I don’t think I’m ever working on a book from the very beginning. I like to work piece by piece.
But it is true that the more I have finished books, the more I see, earlier on, in the process. For example I was very sure this summer of the structure of my next collection and then over the course of the fall I lost faith in that structure and had to try again. But in order to see it, I had to put the whole thing together. I think a lot of people do this. I guess I would say that I used to think I could develop a less fixed and judgmental mind, that I could stay in a state of “negative capability” for longer, stay in process longer. What I’ve discovered is that part of my process is making a judgment, seeing it’s wrong, changing it, making another, maybe getting closer, changing it, making another, maybe being more right, or more likely, having exhausted all but the most necessary option for the book. When I revised both of my last books, A Piece of Good News and Life in a Field, I wanted them to live as lightly on their feet as possible.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I used to love readings and relish them. Now I love them and they freak me out. Why? I have no idea why. I just get really scared right before, even online. Like I’m going to mess something up.
And I do mess things up! More than once I’ve had the experience of reading a poem the way it should have been written, not the way I wrote it on the page. Ouch. But the living voice, to me, always has more authority than the page, sometimes it just pops up.
Can’t lie, virtual readings can be thrilling because you see people’s rooms, because it feels so shoddy and secret. I think I have a romance of making lemons out of lemonade, maybe I’ve enjoyed the difficulty of the virtual reading for this reason.
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?
Love and violence are hard to talk about. I’m interested in all sorts of things that are hard to talk about. I think poetry’s less involved in saying the direct truth about those things than in representing the difficulty in approaching them. Our world seems terrified of love and dead to violence, and I guess I’ve been wondering lately why this is and whether it’s going to last and what it has to do with the language of our time. I’m always wondering whether this sort of thing is a problem of right now or something true through time. I long to be connected to other times and places, to guess or intuit what this moment shares with other moments from long ago or might with future moments.
There are many other people interested in the same set of questions, but I think most of them prefer to ask it in cultural terms – “intergenerational trauma” is a phrase I hear and think about. Many people are asking these question as immigrants or migrants, or concerning race, or sexual orientation. I think of my trans friends and how they have to ask every day why on earth anyone would want to do violence to them just because they are human and themselves. Or of the way my partner has experienced more aggression in public in the last year because he’s Asian. I don’t know what it would be like to be American and not care about the murder of George Floyd.
There is a passage in Henry David Thoreau’s essay on John Brown where he considers who people are to each other in American culture – he’s imagining his way into how people must have felt the day after John Brown was killed in 1859, since some were sympathetic to his cause and others reviled him. He talks about how people must have been more than strangers to each other in the wake of that historical moment, and of other similar moments – that they were like aliens, utterly strange to each other, on the eve of the Civil War. I think about that passage and that predicament a lot these days – this sense of a broken understanding between people – and I wonder if it will change in my lifetime, and, because I refuse to idealize things, whether it was ever different.
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?
I don’t mind that poems feel like small things. They bring us closer to what’s true and what matters by refreshing our senses with imaginary, lucid activity.
Poetry prefers knowledge to information. It prefers music and verbal patterning to facts. It tells the truth “slant” for a reason – it is interested in truths that are difficult to share.
The role of the writer is to keep refreshing our access to what’s most true which is the reason why love poems are so important, because they argue that truth and love have something to do with each other.
I think the role of the writer is to help us survive by bringing us closer to what’s beautiful, and by reminding us how our relationship with what’s beautiful invites us into a thousand amazing conversations, about justice, about nature, about grieving and sorrow, about weather and time, and home and love and other matters.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ll take any help I can get. The editors I’ve worked with have been angels. Advice can be useful even if you don’t use it.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
If you keep making the same mistake, make a different mistake.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to collaboration)? What do you see as the appeal?
I was living with a photographer for whom English is a second language and Korean the first. But it was even more complicated than that, he’s a photographer! There’s a line by the poet Rob Schlegel – “language is not my first language.” We had to find a way to communicate if we were going to stay together. You can fall in love with a lot of people but if you want to spend your life with someone you have to develop a language together. What was a necessity in my life became the necessary conditions of my work.
Collaboration is not a picnic. As I say this I remember that Young and I made a movie about a man and a woman having a picnic with a donkey – with an actual donkey. The donkey messed up every shot we planned, though we also planned the donkey’s messing up into the shooting script. When I say “collaboration is not a picnic” I mean it’s not a unity, it’s not a perfect marriage, and if it’s going to be interesting it can’t stay play or process forever. Collaboration surfaces misunderstandings and ruptures, it reminds one always of the distances one cannot travel. It can’t hide a power struggle even if it converts that into the making of something.
The appeal is that it’s real. Forrest Gander’s book Twice Alive uses the word “combinatory” to describe this intuition, that one’s perceived aloneness is at least in part an illusion. I am not sure whether we are truly alone or truly collaborative beings. I do not know the nature of the great web of things, the way we might be connected to animals and plants and the earth, but I know I am involved with the question, sleeping or waking, paying attention to it or not.
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 used to write in the mornings, early as possible – I wrote all of my third book The Accounts in the early hours – and I loved that schedule. Now I write whenever I can. I used to write down all my dreams, but now my daughter comes in and tells me hers before I have time to remember mine and isn’t that just like a poem, itself, and shouldn’t we just leave that there without comment?
So I start messy, her and Young awake, and breakfast and everyone getting out the door, grabbing a thought or a headline or an intuition, trying to organize myself, check in with the members of my family who don’t live in my house by phone, maybe texting a friend, trying to get to coffee, but maybe remembering an image from a dream, or maybe starting a fight with Young about politics or whose turn it is to do something. Right now, listening to Emily say things about the world, or tell stories with her made-up characters, like the Windy Robot, who puts metal leaves on the trees. Just totally messy all morning. Maybe a poem surfaces out of all of that, mainly not.
The best part of the day is walking. I love to walk, I’d walk two or three hours a day if I had time. Lately (last four years or so) the poem or the revision comes out of the walk.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Cooking makes me feel like I am temporarily in control of making something that is supposed to disappear. It’s just like poetry or it’s not like poetry at all, I guess. Baking is not my gift – I think it appeals to qualities I don’t have, like making a complete and unbroken whole, or setting up and executing and savoring a process of waiting. Though I am not a stranger to delayed gratification (is there any other kind?) I like to stir something in a pot and look at it while my expectations change and come to fruition. So lately I like making Italian recipes (Marcella Hazan) and Korean food, at which I’m a rookie. I like reading cookbooks too, and I like reading about food (Olia Hercules, Madhur Jaffrey, Ronald Johnson).
I never feel better than on a road trip. Those have been harder to take. But I find if I drive myself around or go up to a very high place, or go to the ocean or to a weird town somewhere, something often breaks apart in me that needed to be broken. I love what I call the “lost feeling,” which you might find in a Tarkovsky movie or in a poem like “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” by Richard Hugo. The last time I had the lost feeling was on a road trip this summer. We were in Kingman, Arizona. The train rolled by right outside our motel in the middle of the night, and we ate ramen from the gas station, and watched the last night of the Olympics and I swear I was in heaven, I swear I cried of happiness.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My mom used to put a bay leaf from the Spice Islands jar in a tomato sauce she pulsed in the blender with an equal measure of carrot, celery, onion, tomato. We seemed to have it forever in the winter for a decade but now it’s gone. If you could get it back for me I’d give you everything I have except Young and Emily. Ah, I am 47, my home is still my mother. Eucalyptus, Monterey Pine, rosemary hedges woken up by the Bay Area’s marine layer.
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 love the ballad tradition, Irish folk music, all folk music, all forms of country music from bluegrass to Miranda Lambert. John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Iris DeMent, Gillian Welch, Rhiannon Giddens. Women’s vocals from all countries. I love hearing the voice tell a story in verses and I love it when old songs feel new again. The Smithsonian recordings of Elizabeth Cotton have been in my ears pretty deep for a few years.
Jesus from the New Testament and all his paradoxes. Sacred texts like the Bhagavad Gita, the prayers of St. John of the Cross, Nietzsche’s aphorisms, but less for the meaning than the rhythm and the style.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I just did a few podcasts for my graduate workshop, titled “Putting Poetry at the Center of Your Life” and “Why You Should Read,” both so moralistic, I should be ashamed of myself! The third one is going to be called “The Self in Poetry.” I wanted to just try to say what I thought about some basic things at the center of poetry and I didn’t want to do too much research, or planning, I wanted it to come out like I was just talking to a friend of mine about things, like a California version of poetry Socrates. So I didn’t plan the talks out, I just sat and wrote them, remembering a poem or poet or book when I got to it, instead of taking notes. The writers I mentioned again and again – Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Fanny Howe, Flannery O’Connor, Simone Weil. Catholics, New Englanders, converts.
For years, I taught what we used to call Western Civ, or the Classics, or the Great Books – Plato’s dialogues, Homer in translation, Nietzsche, Shakespeare (seen as a writer of ideas), Jane Austen, James Baldwin. This kind of teaching, its limitations and its uncertain legacy, matters to me still, after doing so much of it. It wasn’t what I planned – it was the job I got, coming out of grad school, and a fortunate fit at that time. I continue to be involved in educational projects that do this kind of work for a reason, even though it is more than out of fashion. It was the method, of using books of this kind almost as workbooks for the soul, that mattered as much as the texts themselves. I still think this way about books – I want to do critique, to see what’s wrong with arguments, but I learned the pleasure of following an argument itself, and the artfulness of knowing the mind of a book well. The idea of the classics might be over, but I learned something so real from this kind of reading about what reading is for. I am so confused about what we’re doing in education if we’re not trying to raise responsible adults, or cultivate free individuals. I also just love books so old you can kick them around a bit.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Life stuff – I’d like to do the pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico with my friend Sarah, I’d like to go to Jeju Island in South Korea, I’d like to go to the Isle of Skye, and the Faroe Islands, and I’d like to go back to the Aran Islands, where I went in 2015. Iceland. But I’d like to do just about all of these things with my daughter, and she is only four, so it’s ok for them to wait.
When I decided not to turn my thesis on Emily Dickinson into a critical book I think I also turned away from the idea of writing a prose book at all, but I’ve been wondering lately whether I’m ready to return to the idea of writing a critical prose book on poetry. I didn’t ever want to write anything research-driven, or archival, or footnoted. After years of getting to say what I think in the classroom, I am getting closer to knowing what I think. I think I could only write a critical book if I could first speak it, put it in my voice, so I am hoping these podcasts for my class help me figure out what to do.
I love swimming. I’d like to get really comfortable ocean swimming.
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?
I just think I was always going to be a teacher. Aristotle talks at the beginning of the Ethics about what makes people go – in the sense of what makes them happy. He says most people are motivated by love of pleasure, that’s what makes them happy. But there are some people motivated by love of understanding. I have tried over the course of my life to be motivated by love of pleasure, or love of other people (i.e. an interest in community). I love pleasure and I love other people but it’s not my thing, I guess I’m terminally attracted to knowledge. And I love watching other people learn things, come to an understanding. I love giving people the freedom of books, that power. I love pointing people to their inner teacher. And I do think teaching is different than writing, I don’t think writers have to be teachers. I think I would have been a teacher if I had never been a writer.
But let’s say you could remove all of that or imagine it away, that I wasn’t a teacher, either? I’m telling you, I’d just want to be a singer. A Rickie Lee Jones or a Joni Mitchell, an Aretha Franklin or a Leonard Cohen. A Miranda Lambert under the lights. A Beyonce with the outfits. I’d want to make it big when I was young, make a mess, then make a comeback with an album of covers so unexpected you’d think of me not just as a chanteuse but as a sentiment-curating diva singing your sadness on your behalf. I’d be fine doing my time on the road or a lackluster residency in a dive as long as I broke a few hearts a night. I’m compelled by the idea of having to repeat something a zillion times like it was the first time I ever did it.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think it was the easiest thing to keep secret – it didn’t need an audience. It was something I could do without the approval of what seemed to me like the general population. It was only much, much later I thought about a writing “community” and it still doesn’t come naturally to me. I loved that poems began in such a secret place, and then, like a shirt turned outside-in, seemed, if they were good, magically transmissible. I still love this about poems – that they go in in order to go out, that they embrace the partial telling of a secret not to expose the material truth of that secret but to tap into a language just under the surface of admissible speech. When I was young, I could write and write and not show anyone anything and no one could tell me I was being ridiculous.
And I had an aptitude for music, and I was a pretty good painter, and for a time I was gifted enough as a stage actress to play some wonderful roles, but I wasn’t nearly as good as any of that as I was at telling stories. I could forget about the world, telling a story. The story was all that mattered.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was Romance in Marseille by Claude McKay. It’s some of the best, most delicious prose I’ve read in years. It’s about a West African sailor named Lafala who’s had his legs amputated after trying to stow away to America; he receives a settlement from the shipping line and courts a prostitute named Aslima. Nothing works out for anyone but the plot keeps returning to the question of whether we can save each other, a question I really care about. It wasn’t published for decades because people worried the content was offensive. McKay was Jamaican, better known to us as a poet. It’s a wild, joyous book – the descriptions of multicultural Marseille are so vivid.
I watched Bright Star, Jane Campion’s movie about John Keats, this fall, after not seeing it for years and it is still as amazing as it ever was, a feast for the eyes and heart.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am close to finishing a collection I might call Fog, History, and Smoke. I started writing it in earnest when my daughter went back to day care some months into the pandemic and I had some time to walk, and then to write – the poems talk about landscapes but I think they’re really interested in this numinous feeling of violence between people these days, like someone’s about to throw a punch.
I also started working on another narrative book, a bit like Life in a Field. It’s about an apartment two families have to share, and how they live together – it’s set in a world in the future in which people have doubled up in apartments, been assigned mandatory roommates. In this future, there are also all sorts of other weird rules – everyone has to move every five years, when you have a child, you have to change jobs, everyone plays a musical instrument. It’s set at Christmastime, but no one believes in Christmas. It’s complicated. I’m still working it out.