Sunday, April 30, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Katherine Indermaur

Katherine Indermaur is the author of I|I (Seneca Review Books), winner of the 2022 Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize, and two chapbooks. She serves as an editor for Sugar House Review and is the winner of the Black Warrior Review 2019 Poetry Contest and the 2018 Academy of American Poets Prize. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Coast|noCoast, Ecotone, Electric Literature, New Delta Review, Ninth Letter, the Normal School, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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?

My first book, I|I, came out on November 15, 2022 from Seneca Review Books. It changed my life in so many ways, but perhaps the most interesting to you and your readers is the way it made a certain kind of thinking possible for me. I|I is a book-length work, a serial lyric essay, so while it is fragmented, there is also endurance present. And with endurance comes a kind of rigor not achieved in the typical single-page, social media-friendly poem form we’re used to seeing these days. I was able to see for the first time the way my brain wrestles with the subject matter of I|I—vision, self-perception, mirrors, mental health—and comes to a new understanding with it through that very endurance.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I came to poetry the way one comes to a crush—I was totally enamored. Poetry felt like magic because it wasn’t obvious or even really explicable how what was on the page made me feel. I wanted to be a part of its magic, to write into that place that seemed the truest to human experience, the place of revelation as in to literally reveal.

To be clear, I|I lives in the space between poetry and nonfiction, but I think of myself as a poet first, and of I|I often through that lens. (To me, betweenness feels like a space poetry inhabits.)

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 just gave birth to my first baby last June, so I’m struck by how different all my answers are now compared to what they were back when I was writing I|I, or working on other projects before she arrived. From start to submission of the final version, I|I took about four years. At first I didn’t realize I was writing a book, but my MFA workshop cohort and professors insisted there was more for me to uncover, more work for me to do on the topic than just a few short poems or pages.

I think my writing initially comes quickly, but then revisiting the drafts is a much slower process. For lengthy projects, I tend to chase an initial spark of interest, then realize I have to follow that up with reading or researching or otherwise experimenting off the page in order to come back to it and make something meaningful.

Since I’ve been a mom, I definitely take copious notes, mostly in my phone between tasks or while breastfeeding. So far I’ve been able to sit down and look at those notes and write something resembling a poem from them exactly once!

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?

It depends on the project! With I|I and one in-progress manuscript, I realized pretty early on that the subject matter demanded a full-length form. I have recently tended toward writing longer, multi-page poems, but one of my manuscripts-in-progress consists (currently) solely of very brief lyric poems, mostly fewer than a dozen lines each. I feel like that only works for me because it’s in the context of a much broader project, though.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I can’t say I enjoy the act of reading publicly, but what I truly enjoy is being in a room with other people who are there to think about the same kinds of things I’m there to think about. The community we form together at a reading is invaluable to me because writing can feel pretty lonely, even though I’m often thinking about the reader while I’m doing it. Readings seem to lie outside my creative process, but they feel essential to the part of writing that is being a writer.

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?

Light and distance and the implications that these facts of our universe have on divinity come up in my writing over and over again, even when I’m ostensibly writing about, say, environmental collapse. I guess there’s an element of hope inherent in those phenomena for me in the same way that there’s an element of despair, too. I’m obsessed with the nexus of those opposites, and why hope is so beautiful when it is necessitated by absence—of a solution, of a god, of answers.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

As much as I bristle at claiming to know what the role of a writer in our culture should be, I do have a few guiding principles for myself. The main one is that I should give back to our community by supporting other writers, whether through reading, teaching, writing reviews, or sharing their work. I’m thinking of Ross Gay’s paraphrasing of Fred Moten in Inciting Joy, which I’m currently reading: “We’ve got to get together to figure out how to get together.” Putting my work out there into the world is really, I think, an attempt to get us together.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both! I have the experience of being both an editor and a writer, and as an editor, it can feel so nerve-wracking to have to lightly say to the author, “Hey, so I fact-checked this, and you’re wrong.” As a writer, I’ve also been on the receiving end of that very statement. Ultimately if you as a writer care about your reader, that’s something that can unite your efforts with your editor’s, and you can think about your editor as a reader, too—albeit a very vocal one.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I had a poetry professor in college, Alan Shapiro, who I remember told us to follow our discomfort while writing—to trust it, in a way. I have found that to be so true. If I’m nervous about including something in my writing, if it feels risky, there’s often a lot of energy there, what some of my poet friends have called “the white-hot center of a poem,” or “the central anxiety of a poem.” That’s often where you’re being the most vulnerable, and what I’ve found to be the most meaningful and rewarding about my own work is to trust that vulnerability—in myself and others. Vulnerability is where we connect.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

When reading, I gravitate most to nonfiction writers who are also poets (Maggie Nelson, Ross Gay, Anne Carson, Mary Ruefle, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Terry Tempest Williams, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Claudia Rankine, Kylan Rice) or who otherwise have very strong poetic sensibilities (Brian Doyle, Eliot Weinberger, Ellen Meloy, Rebecca Solnit) because what I like most is nonfiction that moves associatively, the way poetry does. To me, the mind is the driving force of the essay, whereas in poetry it doesn’t have to be. Poetry is often more instinctual; nonfiction has to back up its instincts, justify them. Moving between nonfiction and poetry has been thus at the whim of the subject matter for me. If it needs to be more about my mind, about investigating the mind, then nonfiction it is—or has been, so far.

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 wish! Before my baby was born, I would often write in the mornings before I went to work (I work a typical office job, 8-to-5 situation). Now all that is in flux. The most I can do is read while breastfeeding and type notes toward writing in my smartphone in the stolen moments between caretaking. So a typical day begins with being woken up by a hungry baby, feeding her, and getting ready for work. Not very glamorous but certainly essential and lifegiving.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I feel most inspired to write when I’m reading excellent writing whose thinking I admire. Second-best is observing art in other media, or spending time in nature. My brain is often at its most creative when I’m taking a walk outside, but I need to be immersed in texts to actually come up with something worth saying on the page myself.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Sagebrush after a summer rainstorm reminds me of my home in the Rocky Mountain West, but blooming azaleas and daffodils are what remind me of growing up in North Carolina.

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 listening to podcasts like Radiolab or watching PBS documentary series like Nature and Nova for how they spark curiosity and are accessible to people who didn’t major in STEM, like me. Spending time outside is also really important to me and the main reason why I live where I do. I like recreating outdoors, but I also love just sitting in a camp chair and looking up at a mesa in New Mexico or a granite cliff in Wyoming or a red canyon in Utah or a snowy peak in Colorado. I love learning about the native plants and animals here; I use the app iNaturalist to identify what I observe. I also love keeping my own vegetable garden. But I think the influence that all this time spent outside has on my writing can be somewhat subtle; it’s more an overwhelming love for the world. As Pam Houston writes, “the Earth doesn’t know how not to be beautiful.”

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I’m looking up at my bookshelves while I type a response to this question, because I am easily stumped when some well-meaning stranger at some benign get-together asks me, “Who are your favorite poets?” Every time! I feel like I need to carry around a notecard in my wallet. So here is what my bookshelves (and library history) are saying: all works by Rainer Maria Rilke, H. D., Christian Wiman, Jack Gilbert, Linda Gregg, Simone Weil, Terry Tempest Williams, and W. S. Merwin; the magazine Orion; Rosmarie Waldrop’s Blindsight; Paisley Rekdal’s “Nightingale: A Gloss”; Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem; Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam; Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette; Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard; Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red; Dan Beachy-Quick’s Variations on Dawn and Dusk; Mary Rakow’s incredible Biblical novel This Is Why I Came; Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain for the beauty of a life lived in the mountains; and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I want to float the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park. I want to do a hut-to-hut backpacking trip through the Swiss Alps. I want to see Alaska. I want to become proficient at trad climbing. I want to kayak the mangrove swamp in Congaree National Park. I want to ice skate on an alpine lake in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

When it comes to writing, I don’t have as many specific goals. I’d love to publish a collection of shorter poems, as my first book was a book-length work, but really I just want to keep making things I’m proud of and excited to share with the world.

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 can’t imagine I’d be some other kind of artist, as I’m not really good enough at any other craft! When I was young, I thought alternately about being a spy (thanks, Harriet), a volcanologist, a Navy SEAL, or one of those scientists who climbs redwood trees—apparently anything involving risk and adventure. Let’s go with volcanologist!

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

As soon as I could read, I loved books. I loved the worlds they created, the characters you got to know, the stories they shared. I was also raised to revere the Bible, so text really was magical. I wrote stories in grade school—most of which I abandoned part of the way through, then lyrics to little songs, and then poetry in high school.

Aside from a love for books and language, I have teachers to thank for making me write. From elementary to graduate school, I had incredible teachers who taught me how to love writing. What more could you ask from education, to learn how to love something for the rest of your life?

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book I read was Geoffrey Babbitt’s Appendices Pulled from a Study on Light (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018), which is a beautiful and confounding exploration of illuminated manuscripts and spiritual identity. Appendices is ever-so-aware of its being a text, and takes full advantage of its form, which I love. I don’t watch a lot of movies, but I’ve found myself thinking and talking a lot about White Noise, the new Netflix adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel. The way the American family is portrayed and in the 80’s—this era of great excess and self-absorption and apocalyptic fear—feels deeply true, but also weird as fuck. And I like the new LCD Soundsystem song that plays as the end credits roll, “new body rhumba.”

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m slowly working on and thinking about two projects. The first is a series of poems on and sometimes in the voice of Egeria, a female Christian pilgrim from the fourth century who was the first known woman to summit several peaks like Mount Sinai, and whose writings from her travels have partly survived to today.

The second project is a long poem-kind-of-thing about the process of my baby’s acquisition of language. I’m adding to it every so often as new things occur to me, happen to me, teach me.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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