In this conversation, we discuss New England frugality, ghosts, and how dance can inform poetics. Kate Colby’s Fruitlands won the Norma Farber First Book Award in 2007. Since then, she has written five books of poetry, including I Mean, her most recent, which was published in 2015 by Ugly Duckling Presse. Kate’s poems are taut, their movements agile. At display throughout her work is intelligence, wit, and formal inventiveness. Very little escapes Kate’s attention; she is a poet of wide-ranging curiosity and rigorous inquiry. We “spoke” over email and then in person, too.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Earlier this year, you hosted a “poet’s walk” through the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. How did the idea for this come about?
Kate Colby: It wasn’t an idea so much as the end of a trajectory. I had been reading and writing about Gardner for a long time and really wanted to engage with the physical museum.
A couple of years ago Brooklyn-based artist Todd Shalom, who is my best friend and foil, was invited to create an experiential artist walk at the deCordova Museum outside Boston, and he asked me to do it with him, since I grew up in and write so much about the region. The public programs director at the Gardner Museum attended one of the walks and she later asked me to do the same sort of thing at the Gardner.
Actually, it was not the end of a trajectory, because I have since written more about Gardner, but I might really be done now!
MKA: I remember you telling me that Gardner had stipulated that nothing be moved or added to her collection, so when those 13 pieces were stolen in 1990, the gaps in the exhibit were quite obvious. These absences—these ghost presences—have become part of the story of the museum.
And I am then thinking too about how you composed “I Mean,” how you said what was most difficult was editing down. So in a passage like this:
I mean incessant ingathering
I mean I’m bound to run out
of reachable crumbs
I mean then there’s a leak
I mean light
I mean till I burst
I wonder whether there are imprints of what could not be contained in the poem in its final form. What ghost topics, ideas might be hovering around the perimeter of this poem?
KC: “I Mean” wrestles with the linguistic machinery of its own making to a degree that it leaves almost everything out, calling out its absence of topical content like those empty frames at the Gardner. One reason I ghosted everything topical might be that my life was pure topic at the time. I wrote the poem in the fall of 2009 while I was teaching and nursing a baby who wouldn’t take a bottle, so I would leave him with a sitter and barrel down to Bristol, RI between feedings, and then rush home again after class. It was crazy and hectic, but I had this quiet half-hour commute to and from school during which I’d scrawl contiguous thoughts on a legal pad in the passenger’s seat—totally dangerous. But that was my writing time. What I could manage while driving and with my head all jammed up was these one-liners, which quickly took the form of self-correction—each statement qualifies the previous. I wasn’t consciously calling on Stein, but this was my mode of “using everything” and “beginning again,” rather literally; where “everything,” individually, is incidental, but indicating the aggregate.
MKA: How did you put these statements together? How did you organize them?
KC: The shape of endless qualification was built in, so I didn’t shift them around too much. I did write a lot of bridges between statements, where I’d made logical leaps. I wanted the thinking and the language to be complete—to fully manifest the impossibility of completion—which meant the poem’s success depended on its utter, foregone failure. I was trying to back language up to the wall and find the most present, active kind of meaning, which, it seemed to me, needed to evince the purest possible sense of relativity.
Even the most present kind of meaning is negative space, and sometimes ambient material fell in. So, there’s a baby in there and Mork & Mindy and Martha Stewart and other personal and cultural flotsam. If anything is overtly missing, it’s bodies. Even post-partum and nursing a baby, I didn’t feel much like I had a body at the time. On the other hand, it was all I was. I really didn’t have much of a mind, though, and this exercise was me trying to drive my way back to it.
MKA: In a lot of your work, although I am thinking in particular of Unbecoming Behavior, there is an anxiety or discomfort with self. This anxiety is placed against the recognition that one can only be oneself. How do approach the position of “self” in your work?
KC: The “I” in my poems is pretty squarely “me” and I try to be honest and penetrating to the degree that I’m able about what me is and where it came from. And I can’t not look at myself while I’m doing it, so writing can feel like a tableau vivant, where I’m playing myself—blind in the lights, makeup made to look like me melting down my face. There’s a tableau-vivant “scene” in Unbecoming Behavior, in fact. I was reading House of Mirth and horrified by Lily Bart, whose vanity and selfishness and social-existential terror were so shamefully relatable. Her rarefied cultivation seemed like the opposite of Jane Bowles’ brash performance of ugliness, but both coming from these dark, gendered corners. Both poses feel to me like being caught in a spotlight and silently screaming, “Look at me!” and “Stop looking at me!” at the same time.
MKA: This makes me think about social media and its constant presentation and re-presentation of self—the simultaneous love/hate relationship many have to it—the “look at me” and “stop looking at me” (although I suppose one might quibble with the latter—maybe it’s more accurately an “I can’t look at you / me anymore!”).
KC: Tableaux vivant as Victorian selfies! Yes. I can’t stand social media but look at it all the time. That’s probably most people’s relationship to it. I’ve had people tell me I should use it more to promote myself and others rail against people who only use it to promote themselves. I don’t use it very much because it makes me feel vain and paranoid. I sometimes post photos of the stapled-up phone poles with layers of old fliers on them near my house. I like those.
MKA: I like them, too! Do you mean because phone poles can function a bit like an analog Twitter stream? Or are we talking about ghosts again?
KC: Ghosts—palimpsests, intercutting layers, found language. Also, they’re beautiful accidental visual collages.
MKA: They are! I know that many people broadcast all the exact same things across different platforms, but you use Twitter and Instagram differently. I like to think this is about form. Your work ranges in form—from the short couplets you are working with now to long prose paragraphs to the 150-word essays that appeared in The Rumpus. How do you think about form?
KC: Maybe because I keep trying to drive further into the same set of points—excavating the same ground more—I’m always shifting forms. My first book contained short poems and sequences, after which I wrote two long-lined book-length poems, and then moved into prose for a while—in addition to the long title poem, I Mean contains four essays. Following that book I wrote a book-length lyric and critical essay exploring extreme recursion in literature via my own relationships to death and writing and motherhood. And after all that rambling, as an exercise in economy, I wrote those 20 essays of exactly 150 words each. I love working with constraint, but I easily get cute about it, so I limit myself. For the last couple of years I’ve been writing short poems, mostly in couplets, mostly exploring the phenomenology of seeing, in communion with Joseph Massey. They’re getting shorter and shorter, though, like they’ll soon pinch themselves out, so I’m trying to work my way back out into other forms.
MKA: I love this idea—a form that annihilates itself. Was that something that evolved, or was it an interest from the outset?
KC: I Mean—the poem and the essays and the combination—has a clearly stated goal of formal self-annihilation, but I’ve been interested in the idea of completion from the outset. The title poem of Fruitlands almost reads to me now like an early draft of “I Mean.” Every time I exhaust a form I have to start over, which is difficult but necessary because another reason I shift around so much is that I internalize my forms quickly and the writing starts to feel fill-in-the-blank. I have a terror of glibness because I have a tendency theretoward. I’m worrying about it right now. Like, I should definitely change “theretoward,” but I’ll just leave it.
MKA: I’m glad you’ve left it!
So how do you work your way back out of a form once you’ve occupied that space for while?
KC: I don’t know. It’s really hard. It was hard to stop writing “I Mean.” I’m currently having a lot of difficulty lengthening my lines again. I’m just waiting for an impetus that wants a new form.
MKA: So it’s a cliché to talk about New England frugality, but there is a tremendous economy to your work. The sense that you use every part of the words you put down—the sonic texture, the way the words appear on the page, the multiple meanings of words and phrases—nothing is wasted, everything is put to work. In a passage like the following, from Unbecoming Behavior:
To latch on, like a baby,
is what it takes (to take
to) each time. To nudge
around and find a nipple.
One later tries to cut the futzing
(unless it’s where your mouth is.)
every word here has earned its place, is performing multiple functions and roles. Such precision, and I wonder how it starts for you—with the words themselves? With an idea? Is it more mechanical or more intuitive for you at this point? Do you begin with an idea and find the words for it? Or with the words themselves? How do you know if you’ve worked the language or image hard enough?
KC: I’m less invested in what I can make happen with language than in what I can make happen to or in it. I use a high degree of torsion because that’s what I love about writing. That is the work. Irrespective of content, I want to write art objects. I don’t mean in a recherché sort of way, but a way that foregrounds the language and every choice it requires of me. Why, in an artistic context, use two words when you can use one word to mean two things at once? Eking every drop of potential meaning from a word by putting it to work in all ways is my greatest form of satisfaction. It’s an obsession.
MKA: I love that you have used the word “torsion”—the physicality of that word. I know you are a dancer as well and I found myself thinking about the strength of a dancer holding a pose—making it appear effortless but knowing that every muscle is held tightly to maintain a balance.
I think of a passage from “I Mean,” like
I mean blow the house down
which has a hint of sensuality to it, and a few lines later:
I mean to take the house down
with its own components
This contrast between the breathlessness of the earlier couplet and the controlled rage of this second creates this tension, this tautness. Like one dare not breathe.
Am I reading this right? Is this the effect you were working toward?
KC: That’s nice! If that’s so, it’s less a deliberate effect than a byproduct or necessary formal quality of rhetorical paralysis. Zeno’s paradox overhangs my work—the sense of being suspended in an endless subdivision of space; or, in this case, language, and its theoretical lack of potential to get anywhere outside of itself. Is it possible to both spurn and add value to the hermeticism of theory? I try. I don’t discount language as a tool of real-life practical communication, of course. It’s just not what I’m looking at.
Somewhat opposingly, in those lines from “I Mean” I was playing with Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and positing the poem’s endless involution and self-reflexivity as a tool—undoing language in order to undo language, down to semantic atoms. But if the atoms existed, they’d disappear, be reabsorbed upon discovery, like the Holy Grail at the end of the Indiana Jones movie. Every word or syntactic unit needs all the others to mean, something to do with the particles being made of the field itself. Language is that kind of field.
MKA: You work with social expectations and a kind of discomfort with them. But the expression of discomfort is often fairly controlled.
but I’ve learned
if the knob is hot,
don’t open the door
How does anger or resistance against social order inform your work?
KC: When I stay away from hot doorknobs, I try to acknowledge it—to point at them and my avoidance—to be honest by omission, to the degree that I can see and am able. I recognize the privilege in scrutinizing a maximally decontextualized language, but what I’m interested in, at bottom, is just how socially constructed language is. If I’m putting language in a centrifuge, then the stuff that spins off from it—like water from blood—is no less essential than whatever it is I’m looking for at the bottom of the jar. I would never discount the water, even if it’s Mork & Mindy, but especially if it’s social inequality, which it pretty much always is.
MKA: To not discard the water, or at least to consider giving the words a kind of equal weight—as objects, as signifiers of meaning—calls to mind Gertrude Stein, and I know you invoked her earlier. I recently heard Mary Ruefle say that she wrote to be in conversation with the writers and the voices who accompanied her through her life—the writers she felt indebted to. What other writers are you in that kind of conversation with, who have influenced you?
KC: This is always a hard question for me to answer because I came to poetry kind of late and tried to read everything all at once, right out of the gate. So, a whole lot of things have equal weight and position in my field of influence and I can’t say I’ve studied anyone extensively. Lyn Hejinian’s and Rachel Blau duPlessis’ essays once changed my life and taught me why to write.
Prose writers I’m always talking to—and/or by way of—are Woolf, Duras and Borges. I’ve written whole-book conversations with Hardy and Jane Bowles. Stein is always with me and I know I default to her semantic rhythms, which I have to look out for. I read Olson early on because of the Gloucester connection and he touched off experiments in catalogic exhaustiveness, including a Charles-Ives-y manuscript I later eviscerated, although some bits of it ended up in “I Mean.”
If I had to name a biggest poetic influence, it’s probably Creeley, whose economy and use of reverb, I came to realize, are so much more commodious than Olson’s or Whitman’s methods, and his relationship to place more internalized and endemic to his work. Kamau Brathwaite’s Trenchtown Rock is a book I return to all the time as a reminder of the power of texture—social, typographical, sensory, linguistic—as historical corrective, and as a layered, inclusive approach to place. I’ve been working recently in deduction and the poems can read like koans, which I can’t say I don’t want them to, but I also want them to function in and by way of the world—to bang against their parameters, not read like anchoritic transmissions.
Listen to Kate Colby reading poems below. Download a transcript of the poems read here.
Mary-Kim Arnold is a poet and visual artist. Her work has been featured in a number of literary and art journals, including Tin House, The Rumpus, Wigleaf, The Georgia Review, Day One, Two Serious Ladies, burntdistrict, among others. She was born in Seoul, Korea and was raised in New York. She now lives and works in Rhode Island with her husband and children.
Kate Colby is author of six books of poetry, including I Mean (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015). Fruitlands won the Norma Farber First Book Award in 2007. Recent work can be found in Bennington Review, PEN America, Verse and The Volta. She is a founding board member of the Gloucester Writers Center in Massachusetts and lives in Providence, where she was a 2012 fellow of the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts.