Writing to a Single Listener

Katie Peterson and Louise Glück

In Conversation

In those days I began to see light under every
bushel basket, light nearly splitting
the sides of the bushel basket. Light came
through the rafters of the dairy where the grackles
congregated like well-taxed citizens
untransfigured even by hope. Understand I was the one
underneath the basket. I was certain I had nothing to say.
When I grew restless in the interior,
the exterior gave.

Dense, rich, and challenging, Katie Peterson’s A Piece of Good News explores interior and exterior landscapes, exposure, and shelter. Imbued with a hallucinatory poetic logic where desire, anger, and sorrow supplant intelligence and reason, these poems are powerful meditations of mourning, love, doubt, political citizenship, and happiness. Learned, wise, and witty, Peterson explodes the possibilities of the poetic voice in this remarkable and deeply felt collection. Peterson joined poet Louise Glück, author of American Originality, in conversation at Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore to discuss her new book.

Louise Glück: I’m going to ask some very general questions and some very particular questions. The first question is really three: What was the first poem you wrote for this book, which was the last, and which was the most recalcitrant?

Katie Peterson: That’s hard to remember. The last one was the last poem in the book: “Paul Bowles.” The last major revision was to that poem. The poem sat there for six months, and then there was one line that needed to be in it.

Glück: Which line?

Peterson: “This morning we had to borrow money.” The whole poem really needs that line. But it was this thing for me—I didn’t want to say anything about money. Then I wrote the word “money” and it was like uttering an obscenity and suddenly everything was possible. That’s how it felt to just say the truth, the thing that was inside, the thing that made sense.

The first poem—

Glück: “The Massachusetts Book of the Dead.”

Peterson: Yes. I wrote that poem in the winter of 2009 or 2010. It was longer then, and then you fixed it. You—and time—fixed it. That poem is the most recalcitrant for sure.

Glück: The book begins with a road trip in “The Border.” I love this poem. The highlight of which, for me, is the poet’s getting sick. I want to ask you about that choice, which is what makes the poem unforgettable.

Peterson: It has the advantage, though it’s not a necessity, of being true. I think I was in a state of mind in which I was willing to accept the possibility of huge beauty in a poem, the possibility of beginning with the sentiment: “I had a lust for what was distant.” The possibility of just being able to say that, and not the opposite sentiment: “I had a lust for what was distant . . . but felt really guilty in my conscience for thinking I could find it over the border of Tijuana because I’m American!

I was interested in what it would mean to simply accept with all one’s being all the rapacity and hunger that beauty is going to give you.

I was interested in what it would mean to simply accept with all one’s being all the rapacity and hunger that beauty is going to give you. I think there is something about being sick in the poem. If you let one thing in, then the other thing comes in more easily. Being able to say “I had a lust for what was distant” makes it easier to imagine oneself getting sick, as opposed to being tentative about one’s own sensuousness and hungers. That actually makes it harder.

Glück: Something I love is that the poem at the start threatens to be a sort of myth of romance that is implausible and likely to explode. What turns the romance into the real is the getting sick.

You are a passionate and committed teacher. What does teaching poetry—the writing of it—give to a student and what does it give you? Answer the second one first.

Peterson: The first thing it gives me is the illusion that in a whole world somewhere poems are the most important thing. When you have a community of students who write them, you get to for a certain amount of time participate in that ideal republic. You get to live in that city. As if that’s your politics. I get to live in that city right now, for instance, and on Monday nights with a really wonderful group of people from three to six. The other thing it gives me is the constant imagination of the possibility that a great poem could be written at any moment by a certain group of people, and thus by a certain kind of anybody.

Both of these things are so necessary because the life of writing poems, as you know, is not like that. They’re difficult. They’re not at the tip of your fingers. You don’t feel like writing every day. And when you’re not writing a poem it can feel really terrible. So, to share this with other people, to feel simultaneously hopeful and competitive, is a really wonderful state for the mind. Underrated, I think.

Glück: Unacknowledged.

Peterson: That’s for sure.

What does teaching poetry-writing give the student? There are things it doesn’t give the student. I always think that people’s music is usually their own, and it’s hard to teach. I find it hard to teach line breaks to people, for example—not if they’re not good at line breaks, but if they don’t already sort of know what they are.

What else doesn’t it teach? It can’t necessarily teach depth, though it can point people towards those doors. One of the things you can do as a poetry teacher is be a reader. You can point out the great things that your students are doing, and that’s a way of getting out of their way. From there, you can point out the things that they’re doing that are getting in their own way. I think you have to have great confidence that you know them. But I think I do know them, sometimes.

Glück: You have a theory that sadness is the most dangerous and messy emotion, and the most political of emotions. Talk about this, and the relation of sadness or melancholy, to a book called A Piece of Good News.

Peterson: I know that anger has a lot of bandwidth right now. Anger, the emotion that is the great reservoir of the powerless. I remember when I wrote the line, “Music, it was not sadness that gave birth to you, but astonishment.” I wanted to think about what came before melancholy. To me, in that poem, “Music, 1980,” it was something about the awe of the world, the great awe that we were here at all. Sadness is wild because it has something to do with a lack of legibility to the general populace which can sometimes become legible in a group of two. I think there’s something wonderful about two people being sad together.

I think sadness is subversive because it’s unproductive.

I think sadness is subversive because it’s unproductive. Anger has all these ways of being turned back towards productive activity. That’s one of the reasons why people are so into it! It seems like a dynamic and transformative energy, even when we’re mad at those who are angry. Outrage feels good for that reason. Anger has a victor and a victim. There are all these things about it that we like. I don’t think sadness has a victim. I think it’s simply a state of being.

Glück: But why is it dangerous?

Peterson: I think it’s dangerous because it’s the thing that actually threatens to take people out of the things that people think are socially necessary for them to do. I don’t think anger does that.

Glück: I am immediately on the side of sadness. Don’t you feel that sadness builds a reservoir of emotion that comes out as a less superficial rage?

Peterson: I do.

Glück: You live sadness.

Peterson: For sure. I think that sadness feeds back into all of these interesting contemplative activities. With this book I was trying to describe processes of learning that don’t just end in some product. What if the state of learning didn’t follow the narrative that you’ve learned something and now everything is better for it?

Take grief, for example. The idea that you mourn someone and then it’s over is somehow a bad model of learning to me. What if sadness were an energy that we come back and forth to? Something that keeps pointing out that we don’t just learn our lessons and improve our lives? I’m against anything labeled as “self-help” or “self-improvement”—except a poem in here titled “Self-Help” which is actually really good!

I think sadness doesn’t offer “self-help” in the usual way.

Glück: I agree. Moving a little backwards, how does a teacher build an independent mind? I think you’ve already touched on that. But talk about your teachers, the memorable ones, starting in childhood. Who was the first memorable and most important teacher?

Peterson: My mother, because she didn’t praise me when I didn’t do something right. Instead she made me go back and keep trying. My mother loved the rightness and wrongness of facts. There was something about that movement of mind, of being comfortable with making an error, then finding out the truth and correcting yourself, which was really important to me at a young age.

Glück: We were talking a little bit earlier, ceremoniously, about poetry that sounds like thinking and poetry that sounds like talking.

Peterson: I feel like my poems are internally focused. They’re generally talking about issues of my day, which may not exist for anyone else’s day. They begin in overheard speech or in thought. What voice is trying to do is make that thought audible.

How do you make that thought audible? It has to have an imagination of an audience, which doesn’t seem to have a social descriptor—or perhaps has the imaginary or utopian descriptor of the appropriate “other thinker” or the “other talker,” the person to whom you can make that thought heard. So often, I think one’s thoughts are fragmentary and not what one wishes them to be. Sometimes the hope of the poem is to make them talk in a way that only a poetic occasion can give you.

So often, I think one’s thoughts are fragmentary and not what one wishes them to be. Sometimes the hope of the poem is to make them talk in a way that only a poetic occasion can give you.

Glück: It’s also the difference between poetry that’s auditorium poetry—for a broad group—and poetry that intends a single listener. Ideally, multiple single listeners but each listener being the isolated companion on the journey.

Following that: Your work is deeply socially aware of other voices. The voices in books, the voices in conversation and so on. Is this awareness central to your work and how so? By extension, how do you imagine a reader, or do you not?

Peterson: There’s a poem in the book that I wrote for a friend of mine who was going through a hard time. I don’t think it would be bad to write a whole book of poems just for a friend who is going through a hard time.

Glück: There are so many.

Peterson: Yes. I’m a little in love with the idea that a poem is an occasion for two people to share a trouble, whatever the outcome of that trouble might be. So, I would say that the listener I would want is a person with whom you are sitting in a broken down car, waiting for a tow truck to come. I know that may not sound very romantic. But I’ve had some very wonderful conversations with people sitting on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck to come. There’s something about the space of waiting, about someone who is waiting for something, someone who doesn’t feel like complexity is an imposition on their soul.

Glück: May they be many and blessed.

Katie Peterson is the author of the poetry collections: This One Tree, Permission, and The Accounts. She lives in California and teaches at the University of California, Davis.

Louise Glück is the author of a dozen books of poems and American Originality: Essays on Poetry. Her many awards include the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. She teaches at Yale University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.