Poet Of The Week

Katy Didden

     July 21–27, 2014

Katy Didden’s first book, The Glacier’s Wake, won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize from Pleiades Press and was published in 2013. Her poems and reviews appear in journals such as the Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Poetry and the Best New Poets Anthology (2009). She is the winner of the Beulah Rose prize from Smartish Pace, three Dorothy Sargent Awards and an Academy of American Poets Prize, as well as scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Ragdale Foundation and Hambidge Center. She recently completed a post-doctoral fellowship at St. Louis University, where she co-curated the 2012-2013 Observable Reading Series with poet Rickey Laurentiis for the St. Louis Poetry Center. She is currently a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University.

On Trying to Save My Niece from Grieving

After my father
had recovered enough
to sit up in his bed,
my brother brought Clare in
to see him. He was losing
the tips of his fingers
on his right hand.
They were shriveled and black
above the knuckles—
the rough skin bent
at wild angles. As Clare
went to him, my father
(who could not lift
his arms) told her
he’d dipped his fingers
in blueberries,
and I watched Clare
measure the lie with a look
I have seen my whole life
on my brother’s face.
And in how Clare
did not look away
from the wounds
on my father’s hand,
but still reached out
to take hold of his wrist,
I saw my brother—
the way he can’t help seeing
all our flaws,
the way he winces,
then for our weakness,
wills himself to love us again.

–From The Glacier’s Wake, Pleiades Press, 2013.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem had an entirely different trajectory at first, and included a central image of a six-foot-high French poster of a clown with white gloves and green suspenders. My brother wasn’t in the poem at all. The early draft didn’t flow right, so I kept working at it and whittling it down and consulting people, and now when I see it I can’t quite believe how it moved from the original poem to this one. I spent a long time trying to figure out how to describe the particular look I saw my niece give my father—I have tons of pages of drafts of those few lines, and during that work my brother came into the poem, because I figured out that her resemblance to him is why it made such a big impression on me. That’s what the poem became.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on a few poetry projects right now. One is a new manuscript of poems along the lines of “On Trying to Save My Niece from Grieving”—poems that frame moments, poems that work out of memory, poems that are place-based (Italy, New York, Yosemite National Park, St. Louis). Many of them have muses that come in as counterpoints: Cavafy, Dante, Shakespeare. I just got back from walking part of the Camino de Compostela, and the new Spain drafts seem to be a little weirder, which I like. I’m always wanting to be weirder in my work. I’m reading about mysticism. Finally, I’m working on a manuscript titled The Lava on Iceland, for which I’ve erased a series of texts about Iceland (interviews with Bjork, Icelandic sagas, geologic surveys, etc), to the voice of lava. I’ve been surprised to find that most of those erasures are ars poeticas.

What’s a good day for you?

An ideal day would be four hours of reading and working on poems in the morning; four hours of corresponding / teaching / synthesizing ideas; swimming in a lake with friends in the mountains somewhere; then a dinner party where someone plays music. A good day is when I get through any two of those activities.

So you live close to, but not in Brooklyn. Explain yourself. Where’s home for you? What’s it like being a poet there? As Jay Z might ask, Can you live?

I’ve been living in Princeton this year, where people live large, and I lived not so large among them. I spent a lot of time in the library, or walking by the river, or attending events and lectures and readings. The writing community and artists and musicians I’ve met there have been very generous, so that made being there for such a short time much easier. In two weeks I’m moving to Eugene, Oregon where I’ll teach in the MFA program for the fall quarter. I feel at home in the Pacific Northwest, since I lived in Seattle for five years. I go where the jobs are, like most poets. I can’t wait to see all my old friends out there again. I lived in the Midwest for a long time, too, and I miss it there. The worst part of all the moving is saying goodbye to friends, but the best part is meeting new friends. I think home is anywhere I have friends—that’s all I need.

How often do you come to Brooklyn? What neighborhoods do you go to? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

I was just in Brooklyn a couple weeks ago, visiting friends in Prospect Heights, and then meeting other friends for drinks in Bed-Stuy. I am meeting friends at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden this week.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

Prospect Park. This week I’m going on a pilgrimage to visit Marianne Moore’s Camperdown Elm. I love Camperdowns—I visited the one in Seattle a few times, and the one in Lenox, MA a couple times. Moore wrote a poem to try to raise money to save the Camperdown in Prospect Park, and I’ve written about that poem, so I feel a special affinity for it, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in person.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Marianne Moore. I did my undergraduate thesis on Moore, twenty years ago, and I still feel like I’m just beginning to appreciate her work. Lately I’m thinking about her use of what I’m calling “anachoristic” images—how she would sneak in alternate ecosystems inside her poems. Anyway, there is something about her spirit, and the way she was dedicated to her career that inspires me. She lived very simply, she wrote her own stuff, and she also promoted other writers as a mentor and through The Dial. I don’t know why this would be true, but I feel encouraged in my own career when I read her. A friend of mine took me to her old apartment in Brooklyn—it amazes me to think how she lived so many years in such a small space.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

Failure and I Bury the Body, by Sasha West. Our Andromeda, by Brenda Shaughnessy. My Favorite Tyrants, by Joanne Diaz.

I’m waiting for my copy of Life, by Elizabeth Arnold. I can’t wait to read it.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the beat and sing the beat,
And what I move to you should move to,
For every beginning in me as good as begins with you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

Where in Brooklyn is my father
hiding? White-haired body-Dodger
eyeing the river like a one-eyed-jack
waiting for the sun, half-an-hour high, to rob
shadows off commuter’s faces, erasing sin
with benediction. A thousand poets carry his pen
though the streets of Brooklyn now. Love
arrows all the crowds to Brooklyn—
driven by still-living Walt and Biggie.

Why Brooklyn?

Everyone belongs.