Whether or not Katie Ford is a "God-fearing soul," we can’t say for sure. We suspect, however, that God has fixed at least one wary eye on her. Somebody’d better -- she’s got the chops to take over the world (at least that small corner of it known as Po-Biz): Harvard M.Div. Iowa M.F.A. Latin honors from Whitman College. Good thing for us slack-ass mortals, she seems pretty benevolent.

Ford is the author of
Deposition, published by Graywolf, and her individual poems have appeared anywhere and everywhere that matters. She has received an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Prairie Lights Prize, and she has contributed to the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century. Currently the Poetry Editor of New Orleans Review, she has taught most recently at Loyola University, the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and Reed College.

Lucky for RMR, she’s agreed to judge the 2007 Red Mountain Chapbook Contest (!) and -- über–Good Sport that she is -- she’s submitted herself to the inaugural 500 Words (More) or Less [read the interview after the jump!]. This new feature will bring you the insights and musings of various writers, readers, and thinkers of note, all in 500 words (more) or less...

First, a morsel from Deposition:

Last Breath with No Proof

What is unremembered may be lodged she said a child may not
recall but will act it out in play doll on ground face against tile see how he takes it

by the hair by the foot by the tangled legs sweet mind made of tangled legs
and a patterned dress oh to have evidence to have the scent explained

birds trapped in chimney rustle of wings and fire or numbers etched into an arm
show me where you were hurt I am asked but I am simple unmarked remembering how

can one act out what happened in the mind how make the mind alone in a house
how show long silence what clock what song is there for hollowness who hurt you

once the ticking the voices start she did he did my mind did
and the trespass it begins again?



RMR: TRUE or FALSE: Contemporary American poetry is kissin’ cousins with Christian Gnosticism of old, stingy with its secret handshakes, its extinction hard-wired into its own genetic code. Discuss.

KF: The heart of your question is whether or not American poetry will go “extinct” because it is written by a group of insiders — mean, wise, and tight. We should be more concerned that we are writing poems that will last than we are with the movement called “Contemporary American Poetry.” The poems that will last in time, and that move us now, are written because a poet is trying to write something that someone else can utter as if it came from them. When I recite a lyric by Rilke, if I attend to its music and thinking and emotions, it feels as if it is my utterance. That is a form of lyric ecstasy. A fusion, an intimacy. There can be no stinginess in the poetic task. There can be no selfishness. Individual poets might be this way, but they are human beings, so forgive them. Where would we be without T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes”? Yet he was a part of perhaps the tightest, most elite poetic circle of history. But, for the “Preludes,” I would forgive him anything. To be able to have on my lips, “I am moved by fancies that are curled / Around these images, and cling: / The notion of some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing.” There are extinctions in poetry all of the time—good extinctions. Poems published that are not memorable die off sometimes because of compositional haste, because they are not strenuous in their language, because they are anecdotal, etc. That is an extinction. But poems that will last press against and through this — it doesn’t matter who writes them.

When you are alone, you are with a poem, not with “Contemporary American Poetry.” If the poem slays you, you will be a little more alive, a little less extinguished. When I feel this way, I am full of gratitude toward the poet who struggled and thrashed about to write that poem.

As for the “Christian Gnostics,” their texts were lost to us because they were deemed a heretical threat to the political and religious powers of what was being named “orthodox Christianity.” We have them now because they were discovered centuries later in a sand-buried library in Egypt. They are gorgeous, complicated texts. In the same way, Contemporary Poetry, if it is foolish and threatened by new genius, if it allows power — political and literary — to publish only poems of the inner circle, we could bury the poems that would have otherwise brought us new utterance, ecstasy, and lasting literature.

RMR: A couple of years ago, in the Q&A after a
reading at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City [scroll down to July 20], you explained your decision to pursue the study of Divinity by quoting Tony Hoagland’s poem, “When Dean Young Talks About Wine”:

When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.

But when a man is hurt,
he makes himself an expert.

Interestingly enough -- nearly as interesting as the fact that you know those lines by heart -- you left off the poem’s three-line dismount, which goes like this:

Then he stands there with a glass in his hand
staring at nothing
as if he was forming an opinion
All of this makes me think of Auden, addressing Yeats:

...Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

The same might be said of religion: not a thing but a way; not a noun but a verb. A means of addressing hurt, responding to it. A method of survival.

On the other hand, there’s something calcified in expertise, or perhaps cauterized. Product over process. Safe, confined, contained -- and trapped.

Your work, specifically Deposition, seems more unleashed than that. There’s a helluva lot of roaring involved. Incomprehension, too: the powerful, growling -- yes -- ferocious kind. There’s also huddling, nesting. Indeed, there’s “nothing,” as well -- “...how show long silence what clock what song / is there for hollowness who hurt you” -- but it’s the kind of nothing that won’t suffer to be blinked at dumbly. It demands an opinion, a stance, if only as a mechanism of self-defense.

Messy, yes. Painful and incomprehensible, too. I suspect (who can say for sure?) those things are part and parcel of transcendence: “Why hast thou forsaken me?” pleads the bloody Nazarene (and here’s the kicker) the moment before his spirit ascends. Last breath with no proof.

Here’s something I notice: There’s some measure of resignation in Hoagland’s sentiment, and defeat. Secular and still. But I daresay there’s a roar of religiosity in the Auden, as in Matthew 27:46. And I already said I hear that roar -- lots of them, actually -- in Deposition.

So here, finally, is the question -- loaded and unanswerable though it might be:

Where would you locate your study of Divinity and -- if I may be so bold as to ask them to join hands -- your poetry on the continuum of secular to religious, of sacred to profane?

KF: Divinity School and Deposition were part of the same time period in my life, but there is a distinction between them, and that is why I quoted Hoagland’s beautiful lines, “But when a man is hurt/he makes himself an expert,” when asked why I went to Divinity School. Expertise is a pursuit of the intellect, and, in some cases, the body. So, yes, it holds itself at a distance, a distance religious seekers don’t usually want. They want intimacy, submersion. Studying theology (trying to gain some intellectual expertise) was a way for me to contend with the powerful and destructive elements of religion, elements I had experienced in my earlier, younger religiosity. Deposition stems from those emotions, which were, I believe, flamed a bit by things I was learning in my intellectual studies. For example, I began to find clear correlations between the ways theologians and religious leaders wrote and spoke and the ways humans perpetrate violence. Both forcefully define the reality of another person, both control another, both thrive by moments of threat and moments of mercy. I have a long essay on this and can’t go into it all now. I used up too many words above! But, having this theory made Deposition even stormier. My work engages the metaphors of my tradition — God, world, human, salvation, etc. — and in that way, my work is not fully secular. If being called a “religious” poet means the questions I most often contend with in my poems concern those metaphors, then I lean towards what you call the sacred. That said, the human is included in my list of metaphors.

I am not a Christian poet. I am just a poet, and it means very little to me to say or not say I am religious. I don’t believe in God, I do believe in God. I have no interest in reading poetry that claims to be Christian or religious, in the same way I have no interest in surrounding myself with people who are eager to claim those things.

RMR: Ten Either/Or’s. (Explain or not.)

Barack or Hillary? Barack.
Clooney or Johansson? This is not an interesting either/or.
John or Paul? Small parts of both.
Psalm 23 or Sonnet 18? The psalm, I dare say.
East or West? Northwest near the East.
Elvis or Frank? Elvis.
Emily or Walt? Emily.
Martin Luther or Martin Luther King? MLK.
Audrey or Katharine? Katharine in “Bringing Up Baby.”
Loaves or Fishes? Fishes, currently Japanese varieties.

RMR: You are poet-king for a day. Make a to-do list.

KF: 1. Depose some people.

RMR: Katie Ford poems as prophecies, as tongues, as baptisms, as ablutions, as all or none of these. Discuss.

KF: One becomes ugly when one claims these things. I will say this: there are rhetorical and musical techniques in the voices, liturgies, and manners of speech you list in your question. Sometimes I use them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You say that you don't be around thinkers who claim too much religious truth; but isn't the fundamental religious truth that we are claimed by God.