“everyday people always echo myth”: A Conversation with Katie Hartsock with a Portfolio of Poetry – curated by Megan Levad

Katie Hartsock is the author of two poetry collections, Wolf Trees (2023) and Bed of Impatiens (2016), both from Able Muse Press. Her poems appear widely, in journals such as Ecotone, Poetry, Kenyon Review, 32 Poems, the Threepenny Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Greensboro Review, Pleiades, Dappled Things, the New Criterion, and Beloit Poetry Journal. She is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Oakland University in Michigan. She lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and their young sons.

I met Katie in my first MFA workshop, and was bowled over by how such an exuberant, open-hearted and -armed person could simultaneously be so...terrifyingly well-read. Katie knows a lot, and shares it with such delight and grace that you feel, when talking with her, when reading her poems, as though you know a lot, too. I was thrilled to run into her at AWP in Seattle, and pick right up where we left off—probably in the middle of some coffee-fueled roadtrip to see our sweethearts 15 years ago. We continued the conversation for TQ:

Megan Levad: We discussed how your poems so naturally include both the erudite and the everyday–something I think many of us writing lyric poetry try to do. Why does it seem essential to the lyric to do that “here’s my regular life and here’s the stuff in my head” thing?

Katie Hartsock: This week my four-year-old was playing with a water squirter, on a summer afternoon with thunder in the distance. As he pumped sun-sparkled geysers up into a darkening sky, he said, “Stars for the rain, stars for the storm.” I am often dazzled by the things children say, and I loved this because he was conflating realms he’s not even yet aware are disparate: the astral and the aerosol. One of the beauties of lyric is that it helps us collapse distinctions and connect things constructed as opposites: the stuff in my head and my regular life; high- and low-brow; body and mind. Part of lyric’s pleasure might be a kind of relief—the world is not so separate! The boundaries and categories of daily life blur, and the rain is studded with stars. It reminds me of one of my favorite scenes—Clarissa riding the bus in Mrs. Dalloway:

Clarissa had a theory in those days – they had heaps of theories, always theories, as young people have. It was to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known . . . .  But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that.

All that, indeed! That moment has deeply remained with me since my early twenties. Perhaps because as poets we’re trying to connect the immediate with the eternal (the term “relatable” might be a downshifted way of saying this). And we’re trying to create that sense of “being known” across distances of time and space, between poets and readers who will never meet but inside the poem (your book What Have I to Say to You, Megan, arranges these meetings so thrillingly). Everyday things—Constantine Cavafy’s bloody bandage, Natalie Diaz’s #4016 apple—give us a footing in poetic worlds that negate and emphasize at once, like Clarissa’s tap, her repeated touch.

ML: I have a strong memory of some of your work when we were in graduate school feeling firmly in the Rust Belt; I liked that. You put people in your poems who don’t show up in a lot of poetry. CD Wright’s, yes. Diane Seuss’s. Tell me more about the people who make it into your work.

KH: My poems are home to cafeteria ladies, radio jockeys, welders, nurses, bouncers, truck drivers with baseball cap silhouettes. Demolition-derby or bluegrass festival attendees with beer can koozies. People who clip coupons, who love or love to hate mullets, who gossip about celebrities as if they know them well, who like Tom Petty. Who have a somewhat vulgar sense of humor. My mother; many versions of my mother (who once said, “Why does she think she’s so special? What does she think she’s got, beer-flavored tits?”) Security guards at Old Saint Mary’s church in downtown Detroit. My dearest friends and family, and my dearest strangers. That Mrs. Dalloway quote continues, “So that to know her, or anyone, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoke to, some women in the street, some man behind a counter – even trees, or barns.” Most of my odd affinities, with people and places and trees and barns, are rooted in the Rust Belt and Midwest places I’ve lived.

Characters from classical mythology also inhabit my poems, but I don’t see them as distinct from the crowd above – everyday people always echo myth. I wrote a poem in my first book, “Medea in Red River Gorge” after getting lost on backroads in Kentucky and passing a small house in the hills where the front porch was carpeted, seething, with cats, cats, cats. I thought, Medea lives there—after all the murders, in some peaceful impoverished ignorance and innocence of what all the stories say she did. Or, the banks of the Mahoning River in Youngstown become the shores where Greek choruses of women weep. A sorority sister at a music festival becomes a mythical island or an esoteric saint.

Someone introduced me once at a reading by saying, “She grew up around Youngstown, Ohio, but that didn’t stop her from getting an education.” It made me angry, but I also thought it was funny. And I was angered and laughing precisely because something about where I grew up demanded both my loyalty and deprecation. When I teach mythology, I remind students that they have a lot in common with ancient authors like Euripides or Ovid—they also felt very distant from the heroic age where gods and men mixed. Like things used to be awesome and magical a long time ago, and now they’re not. Growing up in a suburb just outside Youngstown, I remember an atmosphere of everything feeling after. After the heyday, after the good times. Maybe this is part of what predisposed me towards myth?

ML: When we talked, you mentioned ballad meter. I love it myself, but mainly use it when I’m literally writing song lyrics. I really want to hear your thoughts on that form.

KH: When I was beginning to compose in meter, the ballad was the first form I physically felt jolt my lines. I did not formally study prosody until my later twenties, and I remember feeling simultaneously embarrassed and shocked, and a little mad, that I had a couple degrees in literature but could not explain iambic pentameter. It was then thrilling to go back to favorite authors, from Shakespeare to Rhina Espaillat, and marvel at lines I had loved, but the metrical intricacies of which I had never appreciated before. But this shock-thrill was extra sharp with ballad meter (and hymn meter, common meter, short meter, etc.) When I scanned Emily Dickinson’s poems and saw how she conflated the meter of both Christian hymns and the narrative ballad tradition to make her own alchemical stamp on the form, I was entranced. Story, prayer, lyric interrogations, desire, play, elegy, poetic claims and definitions, ambiguity, landscapes known and never before imagined – everything in Dickinson’s poems came into existence so much more strongly because of the alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter, and rhyme. The ballad form can all too easily be dismissed as too quatrain-y, too predictable. But with Dickinson, the more enclosed the form, the wider the universe.

Ballad meter can let a new poem seem already ancient. My sons are lately obsessed with Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (if anyone would like to have a scansion party, let me know, I have a lot of thoughts) but that’s a great example of how the ballad form itself made the events of the song feel as though they belonged to the distant past—so much so that when I learned the ship sank in 1975 I was confused. Even if you didn’t grow up listening to hymns like “Amazing Grace” (to which tune I sing “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” to my poetry students) or reading old ballads like “Sir Patrick Spens,” something about the form’s rhythm instinctively readies our ears for story and song. Or, of course, it can work with potent irreverence against its own tradition, as Anna Maria Hong’s “Ballad of the Small Dog” in her recent collection Fablesque does.

I’ve written rhyming ballad quatrains, but I’ve come to favor unrhymed ballad meter as a way to conjure that rhythm and evocation of ancientness while subverting its expectation of rhyme. “Love,” included here, flirts with ballad meter, but never quite commits. “Dandelions” is in unrhymed ballad meter and quotes a Dickinson poem as a kind of context for its metrical choice, which arrived a couple years after its earliest draft. For that I have to thank one of my former OU graduate students, Angela Trpcevski, for her discussion of those Dickinson lines during my lyric poetry seminar in the intense summer of 2020: online and overwhelmed, and yet somehow that course was a lifeline for all of us. She related Dickinson’s almost sarcastic take on heaven and neighbors, and questions of timing and testimony, to the protests following George Floyd’s murder and its witnesses and viral footage, in the most insightful, empathetic, mournful way—I’ll never forget it.

ML: Your second book, Wolf Trees, is newly out. I can’t stop thinking about Romans noticing the ants swarming diabetics’ sweet urine. How did your scholarship shape your incorporation of your diagnosis into your understanding of yourself, especially as a mom and a poet?

KH: It helped me understand when I was ready to write about living with Type 1 diabetes, which I increasingly longed to do through the strain of diabetic pregnancies and mothering. It gave me the intuition that I didn’t yet have what one of my Northwestern Comp Lit professors would call the “lynchpin” of my material. One day on a family walk my father-in-law said, “That’s a wolf tree.” Then, it gave me the intuition that I had found the lynchpin, especially when I learned about the polyvalence of a wolf tree—the phrase is ambiguous in its origin, and varies regionally across the US, from a tree which was never cut down in a pasture, or a much older tree in a younger forest. In either case, the wolf tree stands out from its surroundings as a remnant of what used to be, most of which is gone. Wolf trees let me write as a remnant, given that just 100 years ago diabetes was a death sentence. Their aged cragginess contains sculpted decrepitude as well as nurturing forces—either very old or mostly dead, they teem with life, providing creature homes and seeds and overall balance to their surroundings.

All this helped my poems work through the daily Sisyphean tasks of maintaining my life, and during pregnancies, my sons’ lives, though I live with a disease that, untreated, would waste me away. Also behind Wolf Trees is the “great antiquity” of diabetes itself: it was weird to have been studying classics since high school and then find so many references to diabetes in Ancient Greek and Latin, as well as Egyptian and Hindu, texts. Illness connects lives over time; when I was diagnosed, it all felt so new and strange. Learning that symptoms of diabetes had been described in the 1550 BCE Ebers Papyrus (which contains copies of passages first written even hundreds of years earlier) was not exactly a comfort, but it gave perspective. Here’s an ancient formulas to treat polyuria (excess urination): “A measuring glass filled with Water from the Bird pond, Elderberry, Fibres of the asit plant, Fresh Milk, Beer-Swill, Flower of the Cucumber, and Green Dates.”

I am my body, but I also parent my body. The body contains unspeakable knowledge of self, but tending to mine every day, with personal focus as well as with the technology of insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors, can make it feel separate: a thing that went wrong, a problem that needs overseen. Writing as a diabetic mother and wife and poet and comparative classicist helped those distances find reunion. And teaching, too, and talking with students, from poetry workshops and mythology classes to my Disability Studies and Literature course. One of my students who lives with chronic illness spoke so beautifully about a line by Black Mountain poet Larry Eigner (from his poem “File,” published in Poetry magazine in 1964), she etched it into my heart: “All I’ve done is due to my limitations.”


Megan Levad is the author of Why We Live in the Dark Ages and What Have I to Say to You. A MacDowell Fellow, her poems have appeared in Tin House, San Francisco Chronicle, Poem-a-Day, Granta, Fence, and the Everyman’s Library anthology Killer Verse. Megan also writes lyrics and libretti; she is currently completing Gilded, a chamber opera about gentrification and anticapitalist artistic practice slated for workshop in 2024.