Katy Lederer is the author of three poetry collections and a memoir, as well as a poetry chapbook, The Children, through above/ground press. Poems have recently appeared in Lana Turner, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, and The Recluse. Her new collection, The Engineers, is due out from Solid Objects Press this year.
Her poems “Seldom is He Come,” “Strut,” “Spring,” “Leave People,” “In It Is Still,” and “An Account” appear in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “Seldom is He Come,” “Strut,” “Spring,” “Leave People,” “In It Is Still,” and “An Account.”
A: I wrote these poems when I was experiencing a block. Previous to their composition, I had tended to think of poems as mainly content that determined form. When I wrote these poems, I was having trouble calling up content, so I decided to start with a form and go from there. I had read writers like Gertrude Stein and had written in some of the old obsessive forms, like the villanelle, so I had some sense that words could be separated from meaning per se. In these poems, I allowed myself to remain in that space of material language. I let emotions determine the choice of the words, and then worked with the words—repeating them melodically—in ways that created a subtle sense of narrative.
Q: How do these pieces compare to the other work you’ve been doing?
A: Over the course of my writing life, I have always gravitated toward what I think of as formal experiment. By this I mean that I consider myself experimental, but also highly formal in sensibility. I am interested in the effects of repetition and music, and what they might or might not say about ideation and emotion.
In my most current work, a series titled The Engineers (a selection of which you published last year as a chapbook called The Children), I employed traditional forms—villanelles, pantoums, syllabics, and so on—on a book-length basis for the first time in my writing career. These poems are based on my experience going through in vitro fertilization, IVF, and they are interested in form as a genetic structure. I wanted to think about form as both determinative and generative of pieces or strands of writing.
I see in these earlier poems you are publishing in TtD the prototype of the aesthetic of the poems in The Children. Taking various words, phrases, and rhythms and repeating them in ways that evoke more traditional forms, I see an impulse that I continue to work through now.
Q: What does starting with structure, whether highly formal or otherwise, allow in your work that you might not think would have been possible otherwise? Is this simply a matter of getting the poem started, or is it something larger? And has your form shifted at all mid-point through composition, causing you to move into an entirely other structure?
A: Interesting question. You are prompting me to be a lot more specific about the perhaps unconscious or assumed goals of my process. I think with these poems in particular, I was discovering that poetry could be more than exposition or description; that, in fact, it could be a process by which the writer might discover something they did not already know.
I believe that starting with form can often lead one to places of surprise. In these poems, words like “seldom” and “strut” and “leave” bring heavy connotation to the meaning of the poems. Instead of proceeding in a linear or even in a lyrical manner, these poems proceed iteratively from the content of their keystone words. Lexicon lays the groundwork. Meaning accretes as the musical phrases and lines—the iterations—are laid down. These read as highly lyric poems, but they are at their foundation operational in structure.
As for abandoning a structure or changing the formal trajectory part way through: I can’t say I do this often, no. I almost always complete poems that I start. That said, I sometimes return to certain operations or forms more times than I might have expected. In my most recent work, The Engineers, for example, I found the pantoum form highly generative. Several poems from the forthcoming book are in that form, which is not something I planned.
Q: You mention working through and past a block, and the different ways you approached the poem previous to that. Are the shifts in your work as straightforward as that, i.e.: the writing that occurred pre-block vs. the writing that has occurred since? Could even the most casual of readers of your work spot the differences between pre-block and post-block Katy Lederer poems?
A: I think if readers—if they sat down and read through my whole body of work, which is not available publicly, but which I keep for myself—read through the poems, they might notice several points at which things shifted, whether in response to a block or an interpersonal situation, or to some other internal or external driver. In this, my body of work is like the vast majority of other writers’ bodies of work! That said, I think I have always been more of a composer than a writer; or: the music has always wanted to be on equal footing with the meaning, even sometimes surpassing or contradicting it. I think that a reader of the body of work would be able to see an increasing comfort with this balance over time.
Most poets and writers do focus on music. Rhyming poets are making a particular sort of music, as are free-verse poets who are aiming primarily for emotional expression or confession, as are intellectual or polemical poets who propound theses. Music infuses most creative writing, but in my case I think it’s even more of a driver than is typical, and I think it took me many years to become aware of and comfortable with this fact. These poems you are publishing in this issue mark a turning point for me in terms of my openness to music—to, in some sense, the sonic syntax itself—as a form of inquiry or learning.
Q: Given your suggestion that you have a large body of unreleased or unpublished work, how do you decide what work is ready to be released against what work isn’t? Is it a simple matter of what has been accepted for publication vs. what hasn’t, or are there other factors?
A: This is an interesting question that gets at a lot of very deep issues that all writers face.
As likely most other poets have, I have had many stages when it comes to both my writing and my publishing. When I was just starting out, I took my cue from Sylvia Plath, who used to systematically send work out, putting submissions back in the mail often on the same day that they had been returned to her. I was very achievement-oriented and also rather literal. I sent out anything at all that seemed like it might possibly be “publishable.”
During graduate school and several years afterward in New York, I became very disillusioned and discouraged. I sent poems out, but it was a push and pull. Sometimes I cared immensely, not only whether they were published but in which venues and whether or not my friends would be impressed. Other times I retreated completely, deciding that I just didn’t care about publishing or that rejection was too painful. I think, over the years, I have come to a more sanguine place. I greatly prefer placing poems in magazines, whether large or small, that have a lot of energy and that include writers I admire, especially if those writers happen to be friends. I love interacting with editors like you, and with readers at group readings and other events in support of exciting magazines. I know from my own experience that all editing is a terrific labor of love.
Since I have been getting my body of work together in one place and looking critically at individual poems or series of poems, I have been occasionally sending older pieces out. I also published a full-length series of older poems that I had significantly revised on Atelos Press in 2017. I am returning to this work, in part because with more distance, I feel more comfortable with many of these pieces. It is also in part because, when I look back over all of my work, it is surprisingly consistent. It is difficult to tell what was written twenty years ago versus what was written this year. I have to admit, when I first started critically appraising my own work, I was shocked by the consistency. I really hadn’t expected it. In some ways it was disappointing because we all like to think we have the run of the whole field—that we can become a different person or different poet at any time that it might strike our fancy; but, at least in my work, that is not the case. I have always been a very lyrical poet. I have always been a composer. I have always had a tendency to write in certain rhythms and with certain tones—very much in a minor key.
In some ways, it has been hard to accept that I have such clear limits as a writer, but in other ways it has been wonderfully liberating. When I send out older work now, it is usually because it speaks to the magazine where I am sending it. It is also usually because I dismissed the work too readily when it was originally composed. At times I conceptualize sending my old poems out as a feminist practice. As I have come to a more confident place, I have had to grapple with the fact that I have sometimes been too tentative or too much of a perfectionist about my work. But that’s probably true of most of us.
Q: What does this fresh perspective on your older work mean for your current practice? Has it altered the ways in which you approach or consider new poems? Where does one go from here?
A: I honestly believe it’s all one poem. The body of work is a poem. Individual poems placed in magazines by an editor with others’ poems—this is a poem. A historical period in poetry is a poem.
This does not mean I don’t believe in style or that I don’t have an ego—not at all. But it does mean I believe that poems are something else—a kind of satellite that floats away. It would be easy to critique most poetry practices these days—at least those in the public sphere—as mimicking the keyboard-clicking, capitalist culture of spectacle in which we live. Everything is so of-the-moment and so present-tense, and I think we don’t quite absorb the extent to which this is the case, even in something as non-remunerative as poetry. I don’t think of poetry as a posterity sort of thing, but I also don’t think it’s disposable. I mean, why put anything down on paper if its currency will be only a day or a week or a year? The point is that it stays there, apart from its creator, in material form, yes? So I see my old work as just this: words on paper, structured by music and style, and very alien.
Does the old work affect my work now? Absolutely it does—in the sense, as I articulate above, that it gives me a feeling of grounding, but also in the sense I can see the evidence of the strangeness, the sheer mysteriousness of poetry. For instance, when I was younger I was often depressed. I fell in love easily and it was often very painful. Before I put my poems together, I just assumed the old poems would seem very depressive! I assumed they would be drab, unhappy, fretful, and sad. But they were not! They read as energetic for the most part—enthusiastic, even happy. One friend to whom I showed all my poems remarked: “this a document written by a person who has really enjoyed having a body on this earth!” How could this have been when I was often so unhappy? It is because the poem is, ultimately, alien. It is because our insides and what comes out of them as language are not the same thing. It is because sadness can actually be a form of happiness and happiness, sadness. What is the expression? The opposite of love is not hate; it is lack of interest. My old work influences my new work in that, on the one hand, it shows me my limits, but on the other it assures me that I have no actual control over what I write, that the poem will be alien—surprising, at times even disconcerting. And this is very liberating! The process for me is a form of inquiry—the way one might inquire of a person or a program, I inquire of the blank page. To know that that inquiry has resulted in surprises in the past is very reassuring in the present for my writing.
And the poem of the life: when I die, will I have been the sad person of my memory or the excited, lively person of my poems? It is fascinating to examine the proverbial lives of the poets relative to their poems not because the poems are a transcription or autobiography, but precisely because they are not.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Oh gosh, this is a hard question to answer succinctly, but it’s always fun for me to read about others’ enthusiasms so here goes: there are a lot of poets whose work I know well and love. Donne, Dickinson, Stein, Stevens, Plath, Hejinian, Wheeler, Spahr, and Claudia Rankine. I love my friend Prageeta Sharma’s work. And I have been loving lately work by Simone White. Other peers who influence me a great deal would include Robyn Schiff, Cathy Park Hong, and Timothy Donnelly. I have been majorly impacted by these writers, but in terms of what is generative on a more ongoing basis—and this will sound perhaps very strange—it is highly technical writing. I love reading technical explanations of things: fertility, genetics, financial markets, energy, and climate change. I am interested in what Timothy Morton has called hyperobjects—entities or systems that are outside of human scale.
I feel that my interest in the work of the poets I list above is also related to this proclivity for more systematic thinking and writing. I am very interested in and piqued by seemingly ordered or organized work that is in fact completely irrational! Schiff’s work, for instance, is highly formal, but it is also utterly deranged—about the disorder of art, or the disarray of nature; the sadness in death and decay, and our efforts, so beautiful and futile, to contain it. There is a poignancy to language, all of us trying so hard to put our experience of this life into words. That language has its own ideas about who and what we are is what is generative for me.