Katie Naughton is the author of the chapbook Study (above/ground press, 2021) and “a second singing” (forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press). Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Bennington Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Jubilat, and elsewhere and she is at work on two collections of poems, “Debt Ritual” and “The Real Ethereal.” She is the publicity editor for Essay Press, an editor at the HOW(ever) and How2 Digital Archive Project (launching in 2022), and founder of Etcetera, a web journal of reading recommendations from poets (www.etceterapoetry.com). She is currently living in Vancouver, BC, as a recipient of a Fulbright Canada student research grant at Simon Fraser University and is a doctoral candidate in English and a member of the Poetics program at SUNY Buffalo.
Her poems “exchange,” “exchange,” in place of money,” “in place of money,” “double coincidence of wants” and “double coincidence of wants” appear in the thirty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “exchange,” “exchange,” in place of money,” “in place of money,” “double coincidence of wants” and “double coincidence of wants.”
A: These poems are currently placed towards the end of a manuscript in progress, “Debt Ritual,” that I am close to having finished, and some of the later poems composed for that manuscript. I was reading David Graeber’s Debt while working on these poems and trying to learn a way to use his detailed anthropological accounts of the origin and use of debt to write poems. I found that the way I was interested in doing this was not, for the most part, to use language or pieces of information directly from the book but rather to take notes on what interested me and let those expand the range of options I had for thinking about my material. The section I was reading while writing these poems talked about the difficulty of exchange without a system of debt, that it would require a “double coincidence of wants” between exchangers, or elaborate chains of exchange. Rather than describing this idea, I tried to see what using form might tell me about it. These catalogues and their insistence on replacement as part of the act of accretion came out of that. In writing about this today, it is occurring to me that in my job as a paralegal before starting my doctoral program, I was responsible for preparing elaborate lists of ownership of fractional portions of corporate debt, a baroque and effortful human form of accounting not yet replaced by a technological solution like a blockchain. There might be something of that in these poems.
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: Most recently, I have actually looped back to compose a long poem to complete (I hope) my first book-length manuscript, “The Real Ethereal.” That manuscript is much more directly preoccupied with questions of time, distance, family, and death, written mostly around the time two of my grandparents died within a week of each other. I had the opportunity to travel to Sweden in early June, a few weeks before I got married. As I was preparing to travel, my last living grandparent, my grandmother who was of Swedish ancestry and had been very active in researching her family history, became suddenly ill. I visited her in the hospital just before leaving and she died while I was flying to Sweden. The timing of all of this made it possible to return to the thinking of that earlier work, but with some distance and shifts that were productive. I owe the long, journal-like form of this poem to months of working intensively on Bernadette Mayer’s Memory, which offered a gentle invitation to open the form I was working in in “The Real Ethereal” up a bit more, to see what would happen when I strung a week or so of poems together day by day. I wrote every evening around sunset, which given that I was traveling in Scandinavia near the summer solstice, was an uncanny time of day.
Q: You mention Bernadette Mayer’s Memory; are there other writers or works in the back of your head as you write?
A: Lisa Robertson’s ideas about the complex non-identity of selfhood, which acknowledge the ways in which other forces, like reading, civic engagement, and the unconscious physical life of the body shape our individual experience, have been formative to my work as a poet and to the “Debt Ritual” manuscript in particular, with its preoccupation with the public-privateness of debt directly indebted to Robertson’s thinking about the civic and domestic in her collection of essays Nilling.
Q: With a published chapbook and a handful of works-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: I was very interested, when writing my first manuscript “The Real Ethereal,” in questions about syntax and its use in the poetic line, how breaking the sentence broke the sequence (to paraphrase Woolf) of a lyric poem about personal experience and opened up the possibilities of resonances that weren’t straightforwardly confessional, which invited swerves, misdirects, and multiplicities, at the direction of language, that I feel are truer to my lived experience than narrative is. This is still important to me, but in recent years I’ve been trying to expand my subject matter beyond my direct personal experience, or rather, to think about the ways in which what feels private and personal is interconnected with history, policy, the accidents of coincidence, other people, etc. I’m trying to wrap up this “Debt Ritual” manuscript, perhaps by highlighting a bit more directly the linguistic, to the ways in which language might also enact a ritual on its subject material in how it treats it. Maybe. Then I’m really not sure what is next, probably a new project, but I’m not sure yet. I’m interested in the title “Easy Listening” and thinking more directly about beauty in language but I don’t know if that’s a whole project or just something that sounds comforting when I’m exhausted. But after the past few years I’ve been thinking more about comfort and rest. I don’t know yet if there’s a way for me to write about that that doesn’t punt on what is political, too, about access to those states.
Q: I know of some writers who find it difficult to work on the next project until the first one is put to bed, which usually suggests published, or at least accepted for publication. How does the possibility of seeking a home for “The Real Ethereal” effect the way you move forward with your work, if at all?
A: At this point I’m thinking of “The Real Ethereal” as finished – about two years or so ago I put it into a form I was happy with and started submitting it for publication and haven’t changed it much since, though there was some slow tinkering over the course of the time. The new poem to end it from this summer was a surprise. There was some overlap between the composition of poems for “The Real Ethereal” and “Debt Ritual” and a section of poems that I think are kind of a shoulder between the two projects that are currently contained in “The Real Ethereal” that could maybe have gone in either manuscript. I’m not sure how it will go with my next project – I don’t yet have the sense of if something in “Debt Ritual” is going to open up into a new project or if it will be a totally different direction. I do think I have a sense of needing to finish “Debt Ritual,” as in finish getting it into a state I feel ready to start submitting it, before I will have space to think about what I will be writing next.
Q: How does a manuscript usually begin for you? Are you always thinking in terms of full-length, project-based manuscript, or is it a matter of feeling out individual poems until something begins to cohere?
A: The first two manuscripts I’ve worked on (my only examples to go by!) have had their direction begin to cohere out of individual poems, though a particular line of inquiry was a stronger organizing force in the “Debt Ritual” earlier on. I’m unsure what it will be like the third time around.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I’m not sure that I have a great answer to this question. In some ways, turning away from poetry is how I turn back to it – taking time to pay attention to the physical world around me. Visual art can be helpful for me, nothing in particular, just going to museums or talking with or observing artists’ methods. I’m jealous of their relationship to tangible material, but watching the iterative process of physical making many artist’s go through often reminds me of the possibilities available to me, though somewhat more abstractly, with my language-material. If I’m out of ideas, I can turn to a more materials-based play or exploration and see what comes from there.