The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Katie Ford about her latest collection, If You Have to Go (August 2018, Graywolf Press), the role of theology in poetry, sonnets and sestinas, and earned sentimentality.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I feel a bit like the first line of poem #5: “I pick up the comb, but don’t know where to start,” only the comb is this book. That’s meant as a compliment, for the record. 🙂
But I guess I’d like to begin with that long sequence of sonnets that takes up most of the book, and ask about how the book evolved, in part because I’ve never successfully chained poems the way you do here. Did you write them as a chain or put them together after you’d written a number of them?
Katie Ford: So I’ll start with the question about the sonnets. I didn’t put them together after composing; I composed them as a chain…
Brian S: If this thing did emojis, I’d be posting that big-eyed one right about now.
Katie Ford: I started with number one, and then I remembered the quite archaic form of the garland/crown/corona of sonnets. It was a fairly painful time in my life. But I remember very clearly feeling a sense of comedy about trying to write a crown of sonnets. Like, “Well, let’s try this old, strange, rickety beast…”
And so I laid down the last line of #1 as the first of #2, and kept going. I had somewhere to start every day, and I was grateful for the energy and momentum that provided.
Brian S: I have enough trouble making a sestina hold together, much less something that turns out to be thirty-nine sections long (which has the air of the sestina about it, now that I think about it).
Katie Ford: True! It’s the # of lines of a sestina. I’ve never written a successful sestina. I was thirty-nine when I wrote the bulk of the sonnets… years old, that is.
Brian S: Now I’m going to have to write an essay about how these sonnets are actually a hidden sestina!
(I’m not going to actually write that.)
So what made you stop at thirty-nine? Or did you? Are there sonnets that didn’t make the cut?
Katie Ford: I wrote about twenty-one of them quite swiftly—maybe over two months. That’s fast for me. Then they slowed down. Around thirty I really started having some trouble… and finishing, well, I had to wait and wait and wait… I didn’t set out to write the same number of sonnets as my age, but I did have it in mind when I wrote Psalm 40, because I wrote that when I turned forty. But it references the Psalm, too, and mostly that. “I will sing a new song.”
There aren’t sonnets after #39 that are lying around. No. There are versions of the existing sonnets that were failed versions, and I had to try again and again. Once you’re in a crown and you’re at, say, #32, and #32 isn’t working, you have to stay there, deal with it. It’s more of a novelist’s problem at that point, I suppose. I suspect… I’m not a novelist, thankfully.
Brian S: Ah, I knew I should have looked that up. It’s been a good while since I read the Psalms.
Katie Ford: U2 set that Psalm so beautifully. They call their song “40.” You might know it from that….
“How long to sing our song.”
Brian S: To go back to the sestina comparison, that’s what happens when you’re in the sixth stanza and the end word isn’t working for you. It’s way more work to go back and make the rest fit, so you fight with that line until it comes true.
Katie Ford: But back to the “how do you know when to end…” question: I had introduced many elements that needed to be dealt with, that needed to come to fruition. So I had to deal with them in the length necessary. No more, no less.
Yes. But a sestina has trappings I didn’t have in the sonnet sequence. And I had problems a sestina doesn’t have!
But, like sestinas, the sonnet sequence (of this length) lends itself to a kind of narrative arc. A sestina does so because you repeat six words over and over, and in narratives, you very naturally repeat certain words—a character’s name, for instance, or another “player in the piece,” like an object or something in a room… if you look at Bishop’s amazing “Sestina,” you see this very clearly—the repeated words are grandmother, stove, almanac, child, house… what’s #6? “marvelous”
Brian S: Since you mentioned #30, I opened up my copy and found the lines:
I was scared
of how long I’d have to ask
for someplace, maybe, for me.
I’m not hostile anymore, but in the world
I felt myself a pregnancy set breech,
unable to be righted or birthed as I should.
And I can see why that would be a tough place to move on from poetically and emotionally, because the feelings have become less, I don’t know, rage-y? That doesn’t feel quite right. But less violent while still uncomfortable.
Katie Ford: Defeated.
But yes, sometimes it was an emotional quality that was difficult to propel myself out of, or from, and sometimes it was a sticky narrative issue. What to do about the “kingdom,” which is such a theologically fraught word? I had to do something about it…
At times, in this sequence, I felt I was behaving as a theologian. Trying out ideas, ways of speaking, efforts toward mystery that are not reductive but are not utterly loose, either.
Brian S: Right. I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, which means I had a different theology than pretty much every other Christian I knew, but I still recognize the weight of those words. And of mystery, which Witnesses openly scoffed at, even while they had their own versions of it.
Katie Ford: Yes. And I don’t think they should all be thrown away, simply because they’ve been misused, or burdened by patriarchy or whatever selfish motive new to cling to the power of theological language. “Kingdom,” in it’s early use, was subversive of the power structure. If you say the kingdom is inside of you, it certainly isn’t the state, Rome, the temple, the priest, etc… it was outright subversion.
Brian S: Right. It’s interesting to read those accounts and see how badly some people wanted Jesus to be talking about Jerusalem as kingdom and how much he refused to do so directly.
Katie Ford: I take mystery very seriously. I don’t mean it as some thoughtless catch-all. I think when we come up against our true limits of knowing, when we hit the wall of mystery, we’re in a very good position to be reverent toward humans, toward ultimate reality, toward the “God” that is beyond any belief or creed yet spoken by humans.
Christianity, at base, is subversive of corrupt power structures. It has nothing to do with the Christian nationalism we see today.
Brian S: Yes. I mean, I’m an atheist in the sense that I don’t believe in a personal God who gets involved in human affairs, but all that change has done for me is open me to the vast mystery in the world. The faith I was raised in told me that there were no mysteries that God wouldn’t unfold for us if we just believed hard enough. I like this life a lot more.
Katie Ford: I’m not a theist.
Brian S: Yeah, I didn’t imagine you were. 🙂
Katie Ford: But I still am willing to use the word God, and don’t want to surrender much of theological language that came down to me from my tradition. I’m Norwegian Lutheran by heritage.
Brian S: Right, because I don’t want to cede those traditions to fundamentalists who suck all the joy and wonder out of this amazing gathering of texts and art.
Katie Ford: What I like about Lutheranism is it is contentious. I don’t know who I’d be if I weren’t bristling against theological ideas that I find harmful, deadly, even.
America is a Christian state. There’s no way around it. It is. We don’t have separation of church and state. We need people who are inside the Christian tradition (I’m fine saying I am) who fight the Christianity that aligns itself with right-wing hatred and racism. It’s a distortion of the highest ethics of Christianity.
Brian S: Isn’t there a really long joke about two Lutherans meeting and talking about which sides of various schisms they were on, that ends with them finally disagreeing and getting into a fight or something?
Katie Ford: No, they would disagree and then eat lefse together.
Brian S: Ha!
Katie Ford: What Christianity needs is a form of Jewish banter—argument, back-and-forth, Midrash…
Theological argumentation indicates a healthy orientation toward what is, ultimately, mysterious.
We need to know that we don’t know.
Brian S: And what it seems to get is schism, to the point where people of some faiths don’t consider people of other faiths to even be Christian. I got a lot of “so you don’t believe in Jesus” and “you’re not a real Christian” growing up.
Katie Ford: That’s a very immature form of Christian spirituality. Unfortunately, some people never find their way out. They don’t mature. It’s miniature state-building, you see?
Brian S: That’s something that goes beyond belief. Atheists, especially the loudest ones online, really need to know that we don’t know, and more, that sometimes we can’t know.
Katie Ford: Yes, I’d be happy for atheists to have a dose of not-knowing. I know some fundamentalist atheists.
Brian S: And that’s fine. It’s okay to have mystery in your life.
Katie Ford: All systems of belief fall prey to rigidity. Atheists have a gorgeous alignment to mystery if they would allow it.
Brian S: Unfortunately, the fundamentalists in any group tend to be the loudest (and tend to be male) so their voices get the most attention. Richard Dawkins is not that much different from Franklin Graham.
Katie Ford: It’s easy for people to form an attachment to that kind of talk. Couple it to oration and singing, and you have a lock on minds that maybe haven’t yet been allowed to see how many forms of faith there, even within “Christianity.” It’s a diverse religion. And it was from the start…
Brian S: What were you reading when you wrote this book? Do you think it had much influence on you? Or is that too broad a question?
Katie Ford: Let me think… Some Simone Weil. She’s the Simone who appears… Gordon Kaufman, the theologian I dedicated the book to. I read him a lot. Everything I’ve just said about theological language is Kaufman!
I looked at John Donne, his holy sonnets, his sermons… But more than what I was reading, it was who I was hearing… I was hearing the voices that I was ushering into my own lines… their cadences and contortions, their logics. Berryman, Plath, Donne, Keats. I read Gwendolyn Brooks’s sonnets over and again…
“I know more than I’ve said. I know everything there is.” That’s a line in an early sonnet in the sequence. And I felt like Plath was saying it. I remember a distinct pleasure in using her form of hyperbole, in a kind of arch manner…
Also, I’m careful when I’m really in the middle of a sequence not to read deeply. I can absorb a sound that’s another author and it can begin to seep into my own rhythms, vocabulary, sonic devices, and suddenly I have a different tone entirely.
Oh! And I was reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. When I write about “So many foods to eat—. And one is of affliction.” That comes from a passage of hers where the speaker is talking about the “bread of affliction.” That it’s been lost, the sense that affliction feeds us…
Brian S: You know, I live in Iowa right now and I have not read that book, which I’m fairly sure puts me in violation of a local statute, if not state law. I should do something about that.
I feel like in a couple of places (maybe more?) in this book, you said something along the lines of, “you might not believe me but I’m going to tell you this truth,” which I found very interesting because I think it primed me to just roll with where the poems were going, even if they involved an elk asleep at the front door of some friend’s cabin. Can you talk some about that particular poetic move?
Katie Ford: Oh, yes, I think I did that twice.
Well, they were utterly true, and I knew that a reader might think I was making something up. But they were different in each case.
In the first instance, at the end of the sonnets, I say I’m hearing birds, and they are the only companion I have in the poems. And birdsong is so utterly cliche, and everywhere in poetry, that I thought, God, I have to say this. It’s the truth. It really was true. I remember the room, the isolation, and those birds outside my window. There was a persimmon tree. So I said, “I risk you not believing to tell a little truth.” Something like that.
Brian S: It reminded me a bit of Dante, if I remember right. I think he did that a few times, more in Paradiso than anywhere else.
Katie Ford: He got it from me.
Brian S: Ha!
Katie Ford: And the elk story just was bloody true. My friends told me. They were in a difficult place in their marriage, and I wrote the poem from them after sending them both lists of questions about their marriage, each other, and so forth….
After you write for a while, you know what critics or readers might nail you for. So if you can anticipate it, that can be good. Because they might be right! But if it is a truth that needs saying, then you have to build your case for it. Here’s why I have to say this…
Brian S: That’s the thing about life though—it’s legitimately weird and beautiful and unbelievable at times, and we don’t always want to believe it when we read it in a story or a poem.
Katie Ford: Well, when something transcendent happens, once you speak of it, it seems to disappear before your eyes. Or wither.
It’s an issue of mechanics.
Brian S: One of my first creative writing teachers spent a lot of time in a class talking about earned sentimentality. He said you can’t just put a dead puppy in a poem for no reason. You have to earn the right to put it there. I have never put a dead puppy in a poem, for the record.
Katie Ford: Well, you should try. The writing, that is… how am I going to get away with an elk being on the porch?
Brian S: I’ll work on it.
Katie Ford: Remember the dead bunnies in “Emergency” by Denis Johnson?
Brian S: Sometimes you just have to put an elk on the porch and trust.
Katie Ford: I tried that rule out once—I wrote a poem with balloons in it, just to see if I could get away with it.
Katie Ford: What some writers learn, however, is to become technically very, very nimble. With no heart left.
Brian S: Right, and without heart, there’s really no point.
Katie Ford: Sometimes I have students who I have to advise to become sentimental. One of my best students from New Orleans, I told him to get out of my office and go write me a confessional poem. He almost died. He was getting so cerebral and tricky… And then he wrote a gorgeous poem!
I studied with Tess Gallagher in college. She said, “sometimes you just have to shoot your arrows.”
Katie Ford: You work and work and work… and then suddenly you can say, like in Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” “my mind’s not right.”
That’s an arrow.
Brian S: What are you reading these days? Anything new we should be on the lookout for?
Katie Ford: Well, I just bought Terrance Hayes’s new book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, which I think you guys all read together? And I’m about a third of the way in. He’s brilliant. And I just finished Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.
Brian S: We read Terrance’s collection last month, yes. And what a book it is. Though I feel like I say that a lot recently.
Katie Ford: Okay I just went over to my end table… here are the books:
The City in Which I Love You by Li-Young Lee (amazing, amazing).
Brian S: That’s waiting on my table.
Katie Ford: The Whole-Brain Child by Seigel and Bryson (I have a young daughter!).
Brian S: I have four-year-old twin girls. I feel you.
Katie Ford: I’ll send you my copy of Your Four-Year Old.
I’m thinking of reading poets by their full body of work. I want to stop mid-way with Li-Young Lee and go back to Rose, then read all of his work in order…
Brian S: I had a professor in grad school who did that. We read Heaney and Rita Dove that way for a class. It was amazing to do.
Katie Ford: There are poets that really ask that of you, I think…
Brian S: Thanks so much for joining us tonight, and for writing such an amazing book.
Katie Ford: Thank you! This was a lovely thing, and it took so many turns I hadn’t anticipated. So thank you. That’s creativity. Something new happening.
Photograph of Katie Ford © Helge Brekke.