“Be Kind Rewind: Where Poetry Meets Proust,” an interview series by L.J. Sysko

TQ32 Guest Poet: Katie Condon

Poetry writing is a holistic proposition, and I believe we ought to talk about craft granularly while we discuss the psychological growth and wellbeing (or lack thereof) that drove it. Since high school, we’ve rightly been New-Critically conditioned to separate the speaker from the poet, but I want to restore unity for the sake of this discussion about art making. While we’re feeling retrospective, let’s admit old-school pop cultural influences, personal milestones, relational drama, and makeover montages into the record.

L.J.’s rules of the game:

“The Proustian Questionnaire” is a parlor game lauded by Marcel Proust, the French writer, for its revealing power. To poet-guests, I present all 35 original quiz questions with the Be Kind Rewind version riding parenthetical sidecar—like a madeleine beside the tea. My poet-guests select six from the list to answer: two from The Now, two from The Then, and two from The Way Back When.

Let’s get started:

The inaugural Be Kind Rewind poet is the hilarious Katie Condon. Her debut collection Praying Naked (winner of The Journal Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, published by Mad Creek Books, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press in 2020) is an ecstatic, sentimental loop through unsentimental contemporary womanhood. Condon busts through the brittle walls of Catholic dogma like the Kool-Aid Man barreling right on into the smoky barroom of romantic sexualization before she sails around the quiet corners of grief: for her hypothetically lost mother (“deadalive woman”) and her own sense of feminine idealism. One of the book’s blurbers, Joy Harjo quipped, “Praying Naked kicks ass and elbows the sky.” Thanks, Joy, for the running start because I’d add that it’s all kicks, elbows, tits, ass (see the poem “I’m a Kick-Ass Woman” for a meditation on ‘ass’), and broken brassy heart. Condon refuses to conform to convention, even if it’s her own, and she especially bucks the ones that prescribe beatific platitudes for what ails the rebel woman. Praying Naked is legitimately laugh-out-loud funny with poems that pop like set pieces in a slapstick romp. How about “Katie Condon, an American, One of the Roughs, a Kosmos in the Flesh.” beginning with, “You have never touched a woman if you haven’t touched me.”? Or some lines from “At Poetry Readings I’m Always Drunk”: “I put on lipstick & ride my bike to the reading for the erotic juxtaposition. // I have conversations & pretend I smoke cigarettes by smoking them. // I rise from my chair with Holly Golightly-type laughter & grace // & hope I am being sexualized by everyone.” The humor’s in service to an incisive ironic wit and powerfully associative improvisation. One can’t help but trust Condon’s clever tour through a solipsistic culture—absurd yet ours. Redemption comes in the form of whirling antitheses (note these two poems placed side-by-side: “To Every Woman Who’s Been Kept a Secret” and “To the woman who accused me of not being a feminist, I’m sorry”). Everybody’s to blame. Nobody’s to blame. Keep going. As Condon writes, “It’s difficult lately to see the point / in even the world’s most beautiful efforts. // ... I’m working on it.”

I interviewed Katie about her book, her writing life, and her memory of how she got Here.

LJS: Katie, the first question is: Praying Naked is an awesome achievement. How did your complex and sophisticated voice—a parfait of pathos, titillation, protest, lamentation, sex, and wisecracks—come about? Quick and without consent like an annunciation? Or over many years of granting yourself permission?

KC: Praying Naked came to be over decades of granting myself permission in many forms. For starters, I had to give myself permission to be a poet in the first place. I’m not sure how people view writing as a profession in other countries, but certainly in America it’s a stigmatized profession because it’s difficult to monetize. For poetry, this is, of course, especially the case. When I was an undergraduate deciding that A Poet was a “career” I wanted to pursue, I was discouraged from that path by a lot of well-meaning people who wanted to be sure I could practically support myself. In some ways, deciding to be a poet in the face of that opposition was my first formative rebellion.

I had to work up the courage to give myself permission to write about my personal experiences. Which is not to say that all poets need to do this, of course. The incredible poet Ai, who worked mainly in persona to give a voice to marginalized people, is a testament to that. And, in fact, I wanted to be a poet like Ai, to write away from myself, because the pull I felt toward Confessionalism scared and confounded me. I constantly wondered about the line between ethics and need—of feeling like poetry was one of the only ways I could process my life but also like it was a fundamental betrayal to a lot of people I love. I tried for a few years to write away from my life, but it wasn’t until I became more selfish, worrying less about my poems making other people feel uncomfortable, that I started truly writing well. Writing toward myself unlocked a verve and authenticity that eventually became the poems in Praying Naked.

LJS: Your comment about trying for years to “write away from [your] life” is resonant. I noticed that the first phrase in your book is “I was born” and the final phrase is “that created me” and so they’re both ideas about origin, etiology, creation. The book is an offering of the self, and maybe it’s the Self with a capital ‘S’ like an archetypal Woman more than a memoiristic self, but it’s still a kind of asking and answering, “How did I get here?”

KC: That’s so interesting. I’d never noticed how the book begins and ends with creation, and I wrote it! Writing Praying Naked definitely was an exercise in self-discovery for me because I was very much afraid to have a personality—that’s one of the consequences of my experience of growing up Catholic. To have an identity beyond a chaste, faceless woman of God was shameful, and I really glommed onto that. I committed myself to it. And so I didn’t know the first thing about myself until I was in college. And even now, I’m like, “What do I actually want? What do I actually care about?” And so poetry, and Praying Naked in particular, forced me to start rebelling in a way that I never had. I was not a rebellious teenager. Rebelling didn’t feel safe in the sense that I was convinced rebellion would cause me to lose everything, my life as I knew it—hell, my afterlife as I knew it. But I found out that I could rebel in a way that felt safe in a poem. I could make a speaker have all of this crazy sex, you know what I mean? [Laughter.] That exercise was really useful for me.

LJS: I can’t believe how far you swung from the faceless woman of God you describe to what I think is a very exaggerated caricaturized “fuck it” version there in black and white.

KC: Yeah, extremity feels very therapeutic. Ironically, or oddly, extremity has always given way to a meditative space for me, actually.

Hyperbole and histrionics acted as an access point to my inner life. By allowing myself to be this hyper-sexualized, hyper-rebellious, hyper-irreverent woman in a poem, I presented myself with the most extreme versions of my desires; the exaggeration, oddly, helped me see what I was driven by and toward more clearly. And so, when I left the meditative space of that extremity, I could walk out into my life and see it a little bit more clearly. I could individuate myself in ways that were necessary and healthy for me to continue being a human in the world. In a way extremity feels more authentic to me than anything else.

LJS: Yeah, it’s like being a fashion designer and sending crazy shit down the runway and then you come out at the end of the show wearing black.

KC: Such a good comparison, yes. And then, the final permission I had to give myself is in tension with the Confessional pull I just described. As I began writing more and more from my own experience, I was faced with the fact that my life isn’t art. I began to understand that if what I wanted to do was to be an artist, if I wanted to write a poem that took the top of my head off (and hopefully resonated with other folks), I had to give up fidelity to fact. Even the most famous Confessional poets (Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton) have been cited as confessing to things that never happened. And I love the way James Merrill characterizes Confessionalism as “a literary convention like any other,” but the particular task of the Confessional poet is to “make it sound as if it were true.”

As I continued to give myself permission to be a writer, and to specifically be the kind of vulnerable, brazen, intimate poet I wanted to be, I had to also give myself permission to stylize my experiences—to do what it takes to make my poems feel vivacious and populated, to feel voiced by a real person in real time, as opposed to a fairly vague voice behind a journal entry. And it took a long time. I wrote the oldest poem in Praying Naked, “Volatile Elegy,” in 2013. The youngest poem, “Resurrection,” I wrote just before I won the Wheeler Prize in 2018. But the work of the book began long before that. Poets are poets all their lives. Every poem has been accumulating forever.

LJS: What do you consider the most overrated virtue? (The BKR version: This is the “wanna cookie?” question. Describe a poetic gesture you see made a lot in recent contemporary poetics that you think ought not be celebrated quite so much—whatever sinks a poem and the kids oughta be warned before it’s too late?)

KC: Okay, I’ll share a poetic gesture that I fall prey to as well, (you know, keep things fair!), which is the, in my opinion, false premise that vulnerability or brazen oversharing makes a poem a good poem in its own right. In recent years, there’s been an exciting resurgence of Confessional poetics (my poetics are certainly a part of this resurgence). My theory is that the kind of Confessional posturing of social media has a lot to do with it—the kind of gushy captions below vacation pictures that detail the bout of food poisoning the person in question had to overcome in order to make it to the sunset pontoon ride, but they did it and it was so worth it! Best sunset of their life! And the post gets its Likes and its story shares, and it feels good to be validated for spilling about our lives publicly. In turn, I wonder if the affirmation we get on the internet tricks us into thinking this is all we have to do to write an engaging poem—to share and share and overshare.

And so it makes sense to me that social media could be part of why people are turning back to the  Confessional tradition of shocking vulnerability. The voyeur that drives all of us to consume social media is also what causes us to revel in Plath calling her dad a bastard in front of an entire country of stuffy 1950s conservatives, it’s what causes us to find Sexton’s exhibitionism so deliciously provocative as she published poems about jerking off while her husband was out galivanting with his mistress. Regardless of whether social media is a catalyst of the idea of vulnerability as craft, I do think that people (as they should!) see something to aspire to in Plath and Sexton’s models of brazen vulnerability. But the Confessional poets were highly stylized and formal poets. Many of the New York School Poets (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, et al), for instance, famously resented Confessional poetics. From the New York School’s formally experimental view, even as the Confessional poets claimed to rebel against New Criticism by writing candidly about taboo subjects, their formal style was completely in line with New Criticism’s clinical academic style.

But I think this is where the lesson lies—in style and form. And I’ll point to myself as an example. Because I use poetry as a mode of self-discovery, and as an access point to my inner life, so often my first drafts are saccharine and journalistic as opposed to dynamic and rigorously conceived. And that’s okay—that’s what first drafts should be. The trouble comes when I think that my vulnerability is so earth shatteringly perceptive that it makes me a poetic genius. As a side note, I’ve published a couple poems I wish I hadn’t because they feel so narcissistically self-interested, as opposed to being interested psychological nuance propelled by well-wrought, stylized, and crafted poetics. Those poems didn’t make it into Praying Naked, though I’d written them in time to be a part of the book. I tried instead to prioritize poems that were participating in the Confessional tradition in every sense of the word: offering a speaker who isn’t just being vulnerable, but who is equal parts likable and questionable, and whose voice is realized through a series of careful rhetorical turns (and the occasional crass joke).

LJS: What or who is the greatest love of your life? (BKR version: Does poetry—either writing it or reading it—feel crucial to your existence? If yes, tell us how you’ve used it to deliver you here to this very moment.)

KC: Emphatically, yes. I would not be here without poetry. By “here” I don’t necessarily mean in the physical sense of the word (although reading poetry has certainly helped me feel held in my darkest moments).  When I say I wouldn’t be here without poetry, I mean “here” as in a kind of presence. People who know my poetry before they know me are often surprised to learn that in life, I am an avoidant, conflict averse, anxious people pleaser. I’m working on it! But, in the meantime, what this has meant for myself so far, especially before I started writing poetry, is that I often sideline any attention toward my inner life. If I have a feeling, I tend to run away from it in haste because what an inconvenience to everyone around me (or so I tell myself). To have a feeling? Gasp! What will people think of me?

Writing poetry, though, forces me to be present with myself. Poetry requires me to not only come in contact with what I avoid but to interrogate that feeling until new ones emerge from it. For me, writing poetry is very much about self-discovery. Figuring out what I actually think about my circumstances, or, as often happens in Praying Naked, what I wish I had thought to say to the assholes I encounter in life. In revision, I manufacture that discovery into a performance of voice, turning the dial up or down to create a nuanced character with interesting things to say.

LJS: After I finish chuckling at the line about “the assholes [you] encounter in life,” let’s think about your voice, which is very punchy and grabs the reader by the collar. The arrangement of poems in Praying Naked is fascinating. On page 20-21, the two poems next to each other are “Timestamps” and “Giving Myself Advice.” The former starts, “Ten hours ago, Adam Liddy liked my profile picture” and then we get this send up of conceited courtly male behavior. Adam Liddy is the antagonist—the object of the speaker’s ire. But then on the next page: “Katie, it’s clear you want to tear through his body,” and the self-address turns you into an anti-hero if not an antagonist. The juxtaposition—of an external target for what is oppressing or making difficult the life of this woman with self-implication—is a frequent arrangement in the book. Was it conscious?

KC: I love difficult women. I wish I had been a difficult woman earlier in my life. [Smiling.] I think they’re fascinating. I was, of course, raised on this idea that women should be demure and chaste and give and give and give. And so, I’m fascinated and in love with this idea of a woman who’s like, “Fuck off into outer space” to anyone standing in her way.

But I’m also drawn to that kind of character because I’m interested in art that’s not safe. Or not saccharine. Another way to say this, maybe, is that I’m not merely interested in victimhood. Even as I believe that art about victimhood should be made, especially by and for women, in my own poetry I’m less drawn to the ways my speaker has been hurt, and more interested in how my speaker is also complicit in that hurt. I want to create a speaker who has been victimized and who is deeply flawed herself. At the end of the day, I’m interested in how bafflingly contradictory desire and the psyche are for everybody. How even as we know this cigarette we’re lighting isn’t good for us, even as we know we shouldn’t be texting our exes at 2am, we do it anyway. And it’s thrilling. And it harms us.

LJS: Which talent would you most like to have? (BKR version: If we look at Gregory Orr’s Four Temperaments—the Myers-Briggs of poetry personality—order is key. I might be an I-S-M-S (Imagination-Story-Music-Structure though the double ‘s’ of Story and Structure throws an alphabetical wrench into this conceit, so let’s change Story to Narrative; now, that’s better: INMS). What’s your order? And how have you seen this pattern enacted in your work over time?)

KC: I am obsessed with Orr’s Four Temperaments and am so happy about this question. As a young poet I, for sure, was IMNS—those two expansive temperaments of Imagination and Music drove all of my drafts. I was writing poems that were exciting and silly and entertaining but so ungrounded that my workshop peers couldn’t follow a theme long enough to know what to take away from the poem. Reading Orr’s essay in an MFA workshop with Tony Hoagland was invaluable in trying to understand methods of grounding my poems.

I would say now, after a lot of intention and practice, that I’m NIMS. Clear lyric situations became important to my poems really quickly once I learned that if I title a poem something narratively obvious, such as, for instance, “To the Woman Who Accused Me of Not Being a Feminist, I’m Sorry,” then I’m free to imagine myself into farther reaches in the poem. I can crack jokes and let my metaphors get weird and trust that the reader trusts me, because I did them a solid by telling them exactly what to expect, if not in the title, then very early on in the poem.

In my newer work, I’m noticing that Structure is perhaps encroaching a bit on Narrative as my grounding mode. I’m drawn more and more to anaphora as a structuring device lately (which I suppose one could argue is as much Music as Structure, but I digress). An example of this is a poem I published in American Poetry Review in the fall called “When I Gave Birth, I Expected a Baby.” The title itself is repeated over and over again in the poem, the speaker giving birth to a different something (that is decidedly not a baby) by the end of every sentence. I suppose it doesn’t matter why this temperamental change is happening, just that it is, but I will say that it’s interesting the shift happened as my life was transitioning from Not A Mom to A Mom. There’s so much more absurdity in my life now and a lot less linear narrative. I can’t cook breakfast in a straight line. I have to wipe a butt, reheat my coffee three times, remove a Lego from an ear, all before I get that meal on the table. Highly patterned syntax, then, has lately allowed for the absurdity of my imagination to ground itself more authentically than narrative.

LJS: What is your favorite occupation? (BKR version: What’s your favorite writing catalyst—one that heaves you off the high dive—or your favorite writing prompt—that opens like the gym floor in It’s A Wonderful Life and dances you into the deep end?)

KC: Whenever I feel like I’ll never write a good poem ever again, I like to collage. Not with images from magazines (though that is fun, too!), but instead with my old drafts. I go back through all my journals, print out as many drafts from my computer as I can muster, and I read them all. I highlight lines that I think are interesting or have some energy underneath them, and I type them all up into one word document. From there I start to arrange them into a kind of constellation of language, try to find the ways they are like each other, or interesting tones that synthesize from unlike lines. I don’t always get a good poem from this exercise, but what I can count on is remembering why I like this whole poetic enterprise to begin with—which is a sense of wonder at language, the thrill of generation.

LJS: Oh, the collaging is such a good idea and a unique method for catalyzing the drafting process! I love that. And the act of retrieving lines from different notebooks and arranging them into a new draft? So encouraging to all of us who have a Notes app on our phones that’s full of poetic shrapnel. Maybe this is the pep talk we need.

KC: Oh, ‘shrapnel,’ that’s a good word for it. One aspect of collage that I like is that it feels impersonal enough to access that truly generative space of discovery. I tend to do this exercise when I’m like, “God, you’re such a piece of shit. You’re never gonna write a good poem again.” And it’s when this negative self-talk starts up that I find myself writing really saccharine drafts, that oversharing as craft that I was talking about before...just trying to reach for something, anything, that feels like a spark, but of course I never write well when I’m trying really hard to write well. Collaging, on the one hand, feels impersonal enough that I can detach and just sculpt a little bit. But also, I feel invested in the process because the human ego [making a horn-like gesture at the back of head] is like, “Oh, but it’s still you.” It’s a nice kind of personal-impersonal balance for me that helps me stay engaged, but not so engaged that I’m being histrionic about my utility as an artist in the world. You know?

LJS: That’s the worst.

KC: It is the worst. [Chuckling]. Happens all the time.

LJS: Yeah, I do that quarterly, I feel like.

KC: Same. Who do I think I am?

LJS: What am I even doing? Like an existential heat wave—so uncomfortable...but then...to the collage!

KC: Yes! An example of a poem born from this exercise is “On the Seventh Day God Says, What you’ve got is virgin charm & I knife in your pocket” from Praying Naked. All the lines from that poem, including the title, I’d written at different times, in different notebooks, under different levels of psychological duress or bliss, over the course of four or five years. The only thing I added were the dialogue tags, making some of those lines speech. Otherwise, they’re completely recycled. And, not to be all sentimental about it, but there’s something really hopeful about this exercise to me. That even if I write a real flop of a draft, I might be able to recycle and repurpose it later. It feels comforting to know that a bad draft can be a part of this larger constellation of feeling and language that’s representative of my heart and mind over time.

LJS: When and where were you happiest? (BKR version: When you think about poems as compared to the discrete units produced in other art forms—songs, paintings, dances, novels, etc.— what is it that makes you happiest about a poem?)

KC: I’m about to get a little academic, but getting a little academic is one of my love languages, so just bear with me. As I think Praying Naked makes clear, I’m really preoccupied with lyric address and apostrophe as poetic tools. It legitimately bewilders me how a simple “Hey, you!” can move a poem from the monological space of confession to a dialogical one in which the subject of the poem, as the critic Jonathan Culler suggests in Theory of the Lyric, feels “potentially responsive” for having been addressed. For Culler, the act of address transforms the poem from a private reflection to a lyric present, an arena in which, for example, the presence of a deceased loved one may be briefly conjured and engaged with in the “real time” of the poem. In this way, poetry essentially tells time to fuck off. Isn’t that the basic premise of Keats’ “This Living Hand”? Even postmortem, the speaker reaches towards us, and not in a I’m Haunting You Way, but instead, in an I’m Still Alive In This Poem Way. I’m always soapboxing at my students about how in a poem the past is always with us, the future is always with us. Any desire we have ever desired is present in a poem, or could be if we’d only let it. Poetry is so swaggy in the way it disregards linearity. It makes everything possible, efficiently and all at once.

One of my favorite poems of all time is “Sonnet [You jerk you didn’t call me up]” by Bernadette Mayer. The speaker of the poem is enduring the phenomenon all the kids these days call “getting ghosted,” or, what I used to call it, getting stood up. It opens like this:

                  You jerk you didn’t call me up

                  I haven’t seen you in so long

                  You probably have a fucking tan

Whenever I read this poem, I am enraged and fist bumping the air, shouting, “Go off, Bernadette!”at the same time that I am deeply comforted by her colorful display. The comfort, for me, comes from the fact that only poetry makes this speech, this rebellion possible and actual. This poem likely originated out of the experience of being actually silenced because this man went no contact on his terms, without allowing her the chance to speak to him about it first. But in the poem? Lyric address makes it possible for Mayer (or her speaker, however you want to perceive it), to say her piece. It restores her agency. And in the lyric present of the poem, the man has to sit there, he has to listen, he has to witness her rage. It’s a theater piece. It’s a kind of active justice. It’s utterly efficient and no less moving than a novel. Is there anything more exciting than that kind of brevity and intensity of feeling? For me, there isn’t.

LJS: Who are your favorite writers? (BKR version: Whose poems struck you first—in school, at whatever age—as personally affecting?)

KC: I remember it really well. It was “Ave Maria” by Frank O’Hara. The one that begins, “Mothers of America / Let your kids go to the movies!” It’s so good and it begins with an exclamation point like [shouting, brandishing fist in charging-forth gesture]: Mothers of America!” and it is so great! The basic premise of the poem is scolding these mothers for overprotecting their kids in these conservative households. Let your kids go to the movies and maybe they’ll have their first sexual experience, but you won’t have to know about it because they’ll be out of the house, you know? You can keep your peace of mind. And, of course, for reasons that will be obvious to you having read my book, that was very compelling to me for a couple reasons. A) I just really identified with that poem on the level of content. I encountered the poem as a relative “kid” myself who felt controlled and overprotected, and so was like, “Yeah! Why are you overprotecting kids? Let us be flawed and human!” But then, B) I mean, that opening line! The direct address, the decadent exclamation point, the irreverence, the call to arms, the multiplicity of tone in the sense that it’s both playful and completely and utterly serious, you know [making a two-fingered and somewhat menacing ‘I see you’ gesture]. I think that’s all over Praying Naked—that sort of exuberant direct address that’s also got something sinister underneath.

We were reading it on the lawn of Our Lady of the Elms College. [Laughs.] And I was like: “This is the shit! This is so great. I wanna change my life.”

LJS: Holy shit! You ripped that answer like a waxing strip!


KC: That’s going in the interview.

LJS: Which historical figure do you most identify with? (BKR version: If time travel were possible, to where / to whom (poet) would you most wish to transport? Secondarily, which version of yourself would you like to send—current you, childhood you, struggling you...?)

KC: This is such a beautiful question. It genuinely almost makes me cry as I consider all of the possible ways I could potentially answer it. I would transport, I think, to 1950s New England to witness the New York School poets and Confessional poets doing their thing. Even though in their lives these poets were ideologically a bit at odds with each other, my poetics are deeply indebted to both schools. My desire to write about taboo subjects as a means to reclaim some agency or power over those subjects, as I mentioned previously, I owe to Plath and Sexton. And my love of humor, wit, and a quick moving syntax I owe to Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch.

To New England I would send my 16-year-old self, who was so desperate for liberation from what felt to her like a suffocatingly religious and socially conservative home life. I think that people who knew me as a kid would be surprised to know that I was perpetually lonely. I was out there in my public high school wearing my crucifix and spending my PE health class arguing with pimpled boys about how masturbation would send us all straight to hell—I probably seemed like I had a lot of passionate conviction. In some sense I did. But I believed all of that because I was motivated by fear and shame. I was motivated by the paralyzing sense that if I didn’t align myself with the ideologies that were raising me, I would have nothing left to love me, humans, deities, or otherwise. I didn’t find O’Hara and Sexton and Plath and Koch until I got to college, and that’s when I started to wake up. To see myself in these poems, which were all rebellious in their own right.

Poetry has given me so much. It’s so sentimental to admit, but poetry gave me myself. These poets were a community I didn’t know I needed, their poems each a mirror held up to my face, encouraging me to really get a look at myself, my real self, for the first time. I wish I’d found them sooner.

L.J. Sysko is the author of THE DAUGHTER OF MAN, which was selected for the Miller Williams Poetry Series by Patricia Smith and published by University of Arkansas Press in 2023, and BATTLEDORE, a poetry chapbook about early motherhood published by Finishing Line Press in 2017. Sysko’s work has been anthologized in BEST NEW POETS and LET ME SAY THIS, appearing also in publications such as PloughsharesThe Georgia ReviewThe Missouri Review’s “Poem of the Week, and Mississippi Review. A former high school English teacher, Sysko is now Director of Executive Communications at Delaware State University and a Contributing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly. She lives in Wilmington, Delaware with her family. You can find her at ljsysko.com.