Brian Bender: You begin All You Do Is Perceive beautifully with the poem “Which From That Time Infus’d Sweetness Into My Heart,” through which time, place, and motherhood play a critical part in introducing the book as a whole. Yet, I am particularly intrigued by the reoccurring phrase “a basket tossed weightlessly,” especially because it appears on the cover. As readers we might associate the image of the basket with the adoption of a child (or the need to give up a child) but there seems to be more to it. Can you comment on that?
Joy Katz: The basket is what the universe is about to deliver. It’s coming through the air at you: anything could be in there.
I think poems should try to make the most serious things — adopting a baby, or the last time I saw my mother alive — weightless. In the poem, I don’t want the baby, or my mother, to be too important. In life, a boy was handed to me through the air as someone with a clipboard called my name. But also, someone had handed me a glass of water just beforehand. If the baby is heavier than the drink of water, it will sink the poem, it will become sentimental. The poem tosses a lot of things at you, but, I hope, lightly.
The basket also means the Moses story — the leaving of and receiving of a baby. In my life, a statue of Ho Chi Minh witnessed this transfer. Afterward, there was lunch, the babies slept, the parents drank snake wine. Meanwhile, back at the orphanage, ants ate a sandwich I had left in the car. All of that is in the basket, although the ants are not in the poem.
BB: There is a satisfying balance between prose and lineated poems, lyric and more narrative poems here. How do you decide what a poem will look like and how it’ll be written? Also, do you try to strike some kind of balance when organizing a collection?
JK: I love how the contemporary choreographer Mark Morris reaches for whatever language he needs, from whatever form of movement. He has this piece called L’Allegro, Il Pensero, ed Il Moderato, in which he borrows gestures from yoga, sacred dance, classical ballet, modern …. I try to reach for what form I need, no matter where it comes from. It’s nothing poets haven’t been doing since Pound. But it has meant a lot to me to know that dance, L’Allegro. The first time I saw it, it caused a crisis in me: as a poet, I could never make work with so much movement (I used to dance). But in writing and arranging these poems, I felt free to move between story and image, meditative language and lyric prose sentences and fragments, flatter and elevated language, strict form and open field. The book doesn’t settle anywhere formally, but this one of its meanings — the movement between modes and allegiance to none.
The book isn’t fickle or slippery or sneaky, though. The poems love story. They love language, they love sentences, and sometimes they love just words taken out of their context. I don’t “trust” any one of these modes by itself for very long, though. It never does everything I need. I like to pick up and put things down, choose and change my mind. (My husband would agree, pointing out how often I move tables in a restaurant.)
I need all of the forms in this book—prose with its speed, casualness, and fluency; the narrative bits offering the personal; the lyric offering frank beauty and music, counterbalanced by flatter language elsewhere. But most of all, I need the movement between forms.
BB: Speaking of movement, All You Do opens with the adoption of a child, yet quickly brings the reader to a friend’s suicide—where even apart from taking her own life she is giving away her books: “’Four dollars,’ said the poet, swung / her arms as if she were walking through a field / of empty Saturday nothing-to-do—.” There’s a poem for a friend who has lost a breast; the speaker in “To a Small Postindustrial City” returns to the lost city of childhood. “Give the child up,” begins the poem “Mother’s Love.” In the titular “All You Do Is Perceive,” each stanza starts with the phrase “I was given.” Throughout book, the image of a boy tearing pages continually reoccurs. Even the lettuce in the erotic “Lettuce Bag” wilts. The book is full movement back and forth: coming home and leaving it, doors opening and closing, life and death.
JK: Poems are places to keep things: cities, children, sex, lettuce, ecstasy. Like everyone, I have lost a lot of things. So I keep some of mine in poems. I moved around a lot in childhood, and also in my grown-up life. There are a lot of cartons and boxes in the book, and one ode to packing tape.
BB: In the latter half of your book, some of the poems begin to focus on or include historical subjects or contexts (I’m thinking specifically about the Holocaust as a pet, a young Egyptian boy speaking to you…). What sort of role do these poems (and histories) play in your book?
JK: Context is a good word. I don’t like to reduce poems to content. The Holocaust sleeps in my lap, the men from the concentration camp get off at my subway stop—these poems allow me to encounter history. I carry history with me, like everyone does …. it is in my DNA, but I don’t know what to “do” with it. As I go on in my life, this question of what to do with it becomes more and more absurd. Comical even. Oh end the movie! Cut! I tried to write a poem that is the very last movie about the Nazis. Have you noticed there is something sexual in the History Channel ads for Nazi movies? Evil Tyrants in HD! My friend Ellen says she finds the History Channel trailers erotic, pornographic even. I was glad she said that. I thought it was just me.
My poems don’t have to do with how I feel about the Holocaust; they are encounters with its absurd persistence in my consciousness. I use “encounter” the way Celan uses the term Encounter. To happen upon fortuitously. He was talking about what the reader does, but I think it also applies to the poet, in the act of discovery that is writing.
Kenneth Koch wrote: “Imagine an Egyptian child and that he speaks to you.” I read that poem and walked to work, trying to feel for how close Egypt was to me at that moment. It felt not close. Koch’s Egyptian child feels so close. Closer than news, as close or closer than word from friends in Tel Aviv. Stories of ancient Egypt formed me as an American schoolchild and as a Jewish child at seders. They have a nostalgia because of it. But suffering, no matter how ancient, is alive. The end of that poem surprised and scared me.
BB: To whom does the “you” refer in All You Do Is Perceive? You the Poet? You the Reader? You the Powers That Be? Can you share?
JK: The title quotes a Harold Pinter play. A husband says to a wife, “Perceive! That’s all you do. Perceive.” Watching the play, in New York, I realized that line sums up my creative crisis. It has become a family joke: “All you do is perceive!” meaning, the poet once again did not get to the store, and there is nothing for dinner. But I am often in an agony of perception. Things are very intense! On my kitchen counter a cooking magazine is open to an article titled “How To Savor a Moment.” I often think I need help with the opposite — how not to savor a moment. I am trying to work out a kind of poem I can do more quickly and that does not feel like a big job. I think it has to do with getting the ego out of the way, in the perceptive process.
So — “All you do is perceive” is self-reflexive and a little accusatory. But in the end, the “you” is you. The title is a rejoinder to Keats. It means: you, Brian, don’t need truth or beauty. All you do is perceive. That’s all one needs to have loved, and lived fully, on earth. It’s the easiest thing, and the hardest.
Brian Bender is a young poet and writer living in Tempe, AZ.
Joy Katz is the author of All You Do is Perceive, a National Poetry Series finalist and a Stahlecker Series Selection at Four Way Books (2013). Her other two poetry collections are The Garden Room (Tupelo, 2006: winner of the Snowbound Series prize) and Fabulae (Southern Illinois University press, 2002: winner of the Crab Orchard Award). She also is co-editor of the acclaimed anthology Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems (University of Illinois, 2007). She was recently the visiting writer at the University of Pittsburgh and has taught literature and poetry at The New School and NYU. Currently she teaches in the graduate writing program at Chatham University and in Carlow University’s Madwomen in the Attic workshops. She is an editor-at-large for Pleiades.