Devil’s Lake


Interview with Katie Ford

Q: You took, I believe, an interesting route to becoming a poet. You earned a graduate degree from Harvard Divinity School before getting your MFA from Iowa. Did you think of yourself as a writer the whole time, or was poetry something that came to you later? How does your background in divinity influence your writing?

I began writing poetry seriously when I was 19, when I first took writing courses at Whitman College. In my last year of college, I studied under Tess Gallagher, and that was utterly formative for my ideas about poetry and poetics, especially in terms of lyricism and figuration. Gallagher has one of the richest imaginations of her generation of American poets—the way her poems swirl out from their initial image or thought towards figurations so looping and rich you don’t exactly know how you got where you are, but you are somewhere new….and then when you retrace your links and steps, you see clearly that her logic never asks you to break any laws, even if the law-landscape of her poems is a delightfully liberal one. So, first there was Tess. Then I studied at Harvard with Jorie Graham, another astonishing teacher. At that point I began working on Deposition and it’s impossible to disentangle that book from what I was thinking about during my coursework in theology. They are completely wedded, but not as "academic interest" weaving in and out of the poems. First there was a pressing need in me to study theology because I had found certain forms of American Christianity deeply disturbing, and that disturbance was from my own personal experience; then I went to learn what causes certain movements to be so unmooring and theologically constrictive, even towards abusive ends; all the while I was writing poems.

Q: I’d like for you to talk about your relationship to form in your writing. Though I don’t know that I’ve noticed your using received form as such, you do have the Last Breath poems in Deposition that feel like a nonce form with their own rules and conventions. I’m also interested in the Stations of the Cross series in Deposition and the way that the stations create a form for the poem. How do you think about form as you write?

Yes, I’d agree that the Last Breath poems are a nonce form. In terms of received or traditional forms, I’m more interested in the music and structures of thought that various forms offer than I am in obeying all of their rules. How do I think about form as I write? It’s never absent from my thinking as I write. It’s everything and it is the poem. I can hardly talk about it without simply talking about craft in general or writing in general. Form is the poem. There isn’t a poem that can be spoken of outside of its form, as if form is an element you can ignore or lift away as you discuss the "other parts" of the poem. Received structures, like the Stations of the Cross, function for me as vessels that are rather flexible and can give poems a starting point, but when I wrote the series for Deposition on the Stations I first wrote the poem and then found the station in which it could have an intriguing chemistry. My imagination would not open by saying to it: You are now writing Station Five. Now write and make it fit. The poem must have its own way, and allow itself to find its unwieldy own will.

Q: Colosseumfeels to me, in some ways, like a very different book than Deposition. Did you set out to write a distinctly different book? Did you set challenges or rules for yourself as you began writing?

Insofar as a poet ought to be warned against a second book that is simply a kind of rewrite of the first book, yes, I wanted to be sure my second book was not a repetitive or formal mimicry of the first. The writing of a poem is always a challenge—it often feels impossible. "Rules" swarm through my mind constantly—not my own but sayings of masterful artists and poets—I do think of them. The sayings of Frost, Keats, Dickinson, Tsvetaeva, Michelangelo…it can make the task feel less lonely and can make one strike back at one’s own small-mindedness, fear, and laziness.

Colosseum takes up Hurricane Katrina as one of its subjects. I’m really interested in how you began the process of writing poems from a catastrophe. Was there anything you knew you wanted to avoid? How did you go about making your poems separate or unique from other catastrophe writing? Was there an amount of distance (or lack thereof) you needed in order to write about it?

I didn’t feel so much that I was writing about a hurricane; I was writing about my experience of what I heard and saw in the flooded city I lived in, a city largely abandoned by any wise or swift governance. I felt no need to scour other "catastrophe" writing. Other books were being written simultaneously "about" Katrina, and I knew nothing of their forms or ways. I did recall poems that came out very quickly after the towers fell, and I felt warned against some of the sentimentality and large generalizations I found in them. The stakes are very high—its less harmful to write a sentimental poem about your husband than it is about the dead—and that thought was enough to chastise (I hope) any sentimentality out of my poems. It was an extremely stressful and upsetting time in my life, and that’s from someone who fared well in terms of property loss (virtually none) and safety (I was able to evacuate prior to the storm). Distance wasn’t really a choice. The deaths and hardships were everywhere, and I began to describe it. I’d almost argue that if you can "get distance" from a subject, you perhaps have no need to write about it. The poems I like are hotly in-the-middle.

Q: I think of your writing as being about or at least connected to the importance of place. How do you think about the importance of place for you in writing? I’m interested also in the challenges of writing about New Orleans. My experience in New Orleans was that the culture was so wonderful and so rich, but also so complex – I really felt that, unless you’d grown up there or had really made concerted efforts over a long time to become part of the culture, that you really felt like an outsider. I wonder if you had that feeling of being an outsider, and, if so, how that feeling influenced your writing in Colosseum?

Yes, I’m an outsider to New Orleans; even when I lived there it felt foreign to me, and because I did not remain there long-term, I am an outsider. It’s a bit controversial to say this, but perhaps my sense as an outsider also allowed me to wonder if New Orleans is simply too environmentally dangerous to be occupied by citizens. The government still has not provided adequate levees—which are federal property—and, until they do so, I’ll have conflicted views on it. What is clear to me is that it is the art, architecture, music—all things cultural and creative—that make New Orleans so devastatingly irreplaceable, and I hope it will not become a vanishing or vanished city, although I suspect it will—if not by hurricane than by rising sea levels. Not to mention the BP oil spill that is now beginning its slow kill of the wetlands and barrier islands, as well as human livelihoods.

Q: What are you working on now? I read that you’re writing essays. How does the essay feel different to you as a form than the poem? Do you feel like you’re able to work through similar ideas in prose and poetry, or do you find that concepts are better suited to one genre than the other?

I’ve written several essays in the last year—one that will appear in West Branch this fall, and one that was just released by Pleiades in its new "Unsung Masters Series." I don’t adore the essay as a form in the same way I adore the poem, and I’m more drawn to discovering new rhythms for poems than I am new rhythms for prose. However, I am writing some experimental mixtures right now of poetry and prose. My third book, which I only have a working title for, meditates on violence.

Katie Ford is the author of Deposition and Colosseum. She is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Larry Levis Reading Award, and Colosseum was named a "Best Book of 2008" by Publishers Weekly. Her poems have been published in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Paris Review, and Ploughshares, among other journals. She teaches at Franklin & Marshall College and lives in Philadelphia with her husband, the novelist Josh Emmons. Her website is