I hear a heron—each of us trying to unfurl our heavy wings: A Conversation with Katie Marya about Sugar Work — curated by Tiffany Troy

Katie Marya is a writer and translator originally from Atlanta, GA. Her work has appeared in North American Review, Guernica, Waxwing, Ruminate, and other literary magazinesShe was the recipient of the 2018 James Dickey Prize for Poetry at Five Points and has received fellowships from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Nebraska Arts Council. Her first full-length poetry collection Sugar Work was the Editor’s Choice for the 2020 Alice James Award and will be published in June 2022. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Sugar Work chronicles the complexities of womanhood, race, and gender that arose from growing up around sex work in Atlanta, Georgia in the late 1990s. The poems investigate beauty and whiteness, the aftermath of sexual trauma on the female body, divorce, desire, and art itself.

Tiffany Troy: How do you think your first poem “Sugar Work,” which is also the title of your collection, helps anchor the reader into the world of the rest of the collection?

Katie Marya: The title of the book came to me while watching The Great British Baking Show. One of the contestants said the phrase “sugar work” and I realized I needed that—though I wasn’t sure then how that phrase would encapsulate the book’s various themes.

Much later I started to think about the production of sugar—the whitening of it. Dr. Jeannette Eileen Jones in the history department at UNL recommended I read a book called Sweetness and Power by Sidney W. Mintz, which chronicles the history of sugar, starting from the Atlantic Slave Trade, starting with its production in the Caribbean. An image of an engraving by William Blake opens the book. It’s three naked women standing side-by-side. On the left a black woman, on the right a brown woman, and in the middle a white woman. The two women of color seem to be holding up the white woman, supporting her in some way, and a strand of fabric intertwines their hands and bodies. The epigraph under the image reads: 

“I do not know if coffee and sugar are essential to the happiness of Europe, but I know well that these two products have accounted for the unhappiness of two great regions of the world: America has been depopulated so as to have land on which to plant them; Africa has been depopulated so as to have people to cultivate them (from Volume 1 of J.H. Bernadine de Saint Pierre’s Voyage to Isle France, Isle de Bourbon, The Cape of Good Hope...With New Observations on Nature and Mankind by an Officer of the King (1773).” 

Each of the women in Mintz’s opening image has been commodified in some way. And it matters that they each appear naked there. The phrase sugar work denotes sex work—and yes, my book takes its root in my experience of watching my mom perform a certain job for a small portion of our lives—but that’s not what the book is about. How do I un-commodify my body? And the bodies of all women? How do I un-commodify the body period? Those were the questions I was asking—am still asking. I kept trying to get the history of sugar into the book, but it felt contrived to do so. Mintz’s work seeped into in my mind; I believe in a kind of osmosis when it comes to writing. 

The first poem sets up desire, watching the mother’s body take desire into her own hands, but also being desired—how desire is never innocent. This watching, this observation, they are central to the book. The beginnings of my experience as a white woman, as someone racialized, and the whitening of sugar are all there in the background. Writing the historical explicitly into the poem didn’t feel true to who the self is there, didn’t feel true to how I experienced race as a child learning how her own body is observed. And to how her mother’s body is observed. The first poem sets all that stuff up associatively but not head on.

TT: Those themes play throughout your collection. I was stunned by the poem where you wrote about how the mother cooked the same thing. That’s so different from the cake the child is curious about but doesn’t want to touch. What you said about the body reminded me of the scene where the child saw the photograph of the mother’s partially nude body and thought about how the body is observed. You think through the idea of race through the colors that the child observes, too.

Can you describe the process of writing your debut collection?

KM: I started these poems while I was a high school Spanish teacher. I didn’t know I could go to school to be a poet. I didn’t know what an MFA was. I’d gotten an undergraduate degree at a private school that my mom worked her ass off to get me through, so I could get a good job. College was always a place my mom told me I was going, but nobody in my family went, and I didn’t have the idea of academia as a world I could enter and work creatively. 

Anyway, I was teaching high school and stressed out. I took a community college course in poetry because I was writing a lot and needed some relief. I had an amazing time there. My professor encouraged me to apply for MFA programs. I wrote the beginnings of these poems in the tiny bursts of energy I had to spare and in that community college class. When I left high school teaching to get my MFA, it became clear I had this project. I was committed to it. All the threads were clear. I like working like that, with a vision.

That was in 2015, so it has been a good six years of tinkering. My mentor at Bennington, Gregory Pardlo, was the first person to challenge the hubris involved in my self-doubt. He said something like: if all these people could get a book published, why can’t you? It was humbling. He basically told me to shut up. I mean he didn’t say it like that, but I got real serious. Real focused. I knew, ‘Ok, this isn’t done yet and it’s not perfect, but I’m going to max out my credit card on submission fees and believe in my tiny existence. 

TT: Congratulations. Your debut also won a prize, right?

KM: Well, kind of. It was the Editor’s Choice for the 2020 Alice James Book Award. So, like second place? The prizing winning collection for the award is Aldo Amparán’s forthcoming collection Brother Sleep, which I look forward to. 

TT: I can see why Sugar Work was selected. There’s so much vulnerability and matrilineal power despite the vulnerability, and at the same time, you can see the craft. I get why Gregory Pardlo had you believe in yourself and I’m so glad you did.

KM: It is a vulnerable book for me, but it’s also vulnerable for my mom, so it’s good to hear that you can see the power there beneath it all. 

TT: Yes! There was a poem where somebody called the mother figure a “bad, bad woman” and then the mother yanked her hair down the stairs. I thought that was a wonderful moment.

KM: The stories that get told in families become mythic. I would love to know what your family is like because I know every relationship is its own world–but the world between single- mothers and single-daughters is a particular kind of mythic world. The hair story got told by my mom a hundred times, and then by me a hundred times. Who knows exactly what happened, but my mom told me that story to remind me who I come from, to remind me she’s not gonna take any shit and neither should I. The poem is about the cost of that kind of self-preservation, the distance from others one needs to breathe through fear. 

TT: I can see that. I also grew up in a single-parent family, so many of my poems touch upon the relationship between father and daughter and the nuances of that. You sometimes talk about the absent father, but most of the time you talked about the mother and how she holds you up. I love how supportive your mom is in the collection and in real life, it’s touching.

KM: Since you grew up with your dad, I imagine you know how that relationship intensifies. And the relationship, or lack thereof, with the absent one, for whatever reason they are absent, also intensifies. But the one you’re closer to, that you spend daily life with—well, there’s just more opportunity to hurt one another. And to love each other. 

TT: How does form inform your collection? More specifically, some poems are prose while others are more lyrical. Some feature caesura and there was a two-column poem. When you write your poems, does the poem find its form or do you come up with the form afterwards?

KM: At Bennington I was pushing myself to write in fixed forms; there’s a sestina in the book. And a wonky pantoum. But if I can say something true about form besides simply that I was practicing new techniques, I’ll need to address punctuation. 

I often drafted the poems in Sugar Work with or without punctuation and I was preoccupied with preserving that original impulse or brush stroke, if you will, while I revised. I just had my copy-editing session with Julia Bouwsma, who is incredible. It was three hours. I had so much fun! She told me my manuscript was clean, which felt great because I like to be tidy. But we did have to work through some discrepancies within individual poems. There are places where I use heavy punctuation and other times where I just let it fall off. 

In the poem “Work,” the first two and last two couplets are heavy with punctuation, and then in the middle the punctuation disappears. I can theorize about why I did that and make up something that sounds half smart, but I think it’s just my mind working out order. There are times in my life where there isn’t any order, and so to have punctuation in some places felt intuitively wrong. In that specific poem I’m trying to sort out language at an early age. I’m watching my mom in a certain work environment—the club—use the same words she uses in the household but with different meaning. So that’s when the punctuation falls off.

Couplets always come to me. Everything about Sugar Work feels tightly wound, even the poems that are spread out. I’ve been a tense person while writing this book. I’m looking forward to what I’m working on now, loosening up a little bit. 

TT: That makes perfect sense. I had this interview with a poet who talked about how he was always trying to find a way to break open his voice with seemingly arbitrary rules. You can make up rules and see what happens. I’m curious to see how your second collection opens up.

KM: April Bernard—a genius of a teacher—once suggested I open all the cabinets in my house and put everything out on the floor and then write. I can’t work where everything is a mess. I was like: No—I will not do that. I like fixed forms because anyone who experiences a disordered mind knows we do this kind of “forming” already in our own ways. For me, the poems in Sugar Work were places to find order, even though I know order is a performance, you know. But that performance feels good because we can’t perform like that in our actual lives. It eventually breaks down.

TT: Poetry as a performance we cannot perform in our own lives is so true. There are five sections including a middle section titled “Exaltation.” 

How did you organize your collection? 

KM: Lots of people helped me. The final ordering I owe to Hope Wabuke, who’s a brilliant writer and a professor at UNL. She had a graduate workshop for whole manuscripts. She started that class by dissecting the order of Nicole Sealey’s collection Ordinary Beast. Hope is a mad-genius mathematician with poetry. She made things straightforward for me. I decided on and named the six clearest themes running throughout the book. I wrote those themes on different colored sticky notes and I highlighted each poem with the color and corresponding theme I saw coming through the most. I kept feeling like: Oh God! There are so many, too many themes in this damn book. There’s the mother, the father, my divorce, and desire, water, childhood sexual assault, addiction. Lord. Can I put this much together coherently? But in my mind, it was all connected.

I laid it out the pages with their colors on the ground. I moved them around in a way I liked based on color—it became a very visual process. That was all because of Hope’s exacting recommendation. After those revisions, I sent it out to a round of prizes and that’s when Alice James picked it up. 

Nicole Sealey, in Ordinary Beast, does most of her experimentation in the middle of the book. There are practical reasons for that. It’s your first book—have you earned your right to experiment on the first poem? My poem “Exaltation,” a huge homage to Alejandra Pizarnik, was me taking what I considered big risks then. It also felt like a breath I wanted to come in the middle with its single-line stanzas and double breaks between them. This is a trend Elisa Gabbert recently pointed out in her brilliant New York Times article. I get why it is so. I needed space and breath. Hope Wabuke and Nicole Seeley totally blew it out of the water for me because ordering a manuscript is weird and at that point, you’re just too close to it. 

When I first conceptualized the book in 2015, I thought it would move from east to west because that mimicked my life from Atlanta to Las Vegas to California. I wanted that movement, but it was too much chronology. It was boring. I feel like I’m one of those people that can’t remember the names of movies or actors or maybe anything, but I will remember the clothes and what color the actor’s earrings were—the color labels helped a lot. Poetry is about sound and movement and optics. It’s akin to painting. 

TT: I love how you basically described the process and paid homage to people who helped you along the way, because poetry truly is a community that supports each other and finds beauty in each other’s stories. My next question is tied again to what you said about time and space. We have the different geographies from East to West (Georgia, Nevada, and California). 

How do the geographies come together?

KM: I think about this all the time. How these various geographies adhere in my body. I have a good friend who grew up, for his entire life, in Sacramento, in the same neighborhood. Even his mom grew up there. That experience is foreign to me.  

Moving from Atlanta to Las Vegas still lives in my mind as a colossal memory. We had this little pearl old Volkswagen. My mom put a tiny Christmas tree in it, and we drove across the country at Christmas. We stopped in Texas where my grandparents lived at the time. I had this notebook she gave me to draw in. “Every state,” she said, “draw something.” She made the journey fun and safe, but it was a ripping apart of this place I loved and my dad and my stepmom and my half-brothers. Relatives. The idea of extended family. My best friends across the street. I knew it was a good thing—my mom needed a different life—but it was painful. This is a common story. I think the reasons movement happens in someone’s life is often because of rupture. I relate to that experience.

And that experience is and is going to be more and more a part of this world. All these geographies feel and do not feel like home. I don’t feel entirely at home in Las Vegas. I don’t feel at home in Atlanta. But those places, fragmented as they are in my mind, are what I have. I’m thinking about how the cities in my book are so flashy, and then there are the worlds my mom created inside of those cities. Later, I realized I longed for the natural beauty of Atlanta and Las Vegas, but the “outdoors” weren’t really a part of my childhood. We didn’t go on hikes or have a garden. We had a pool in Las Vegas—that was tight. My mom kept it so clean. When you are only sort of from a place, you start to love that place more. You make it up. You make it bigger. The desert in the collection becomes mythic. Atlanta does too. There’s no resolve for the scattered among us, so the geography in the book is an homage to the places I’m from even as I don’t know them.

TT: What you said is fascinating because it’s impossible to be pinned down as one thing, just as it’s impossible to pin down where you are truly from, like Atlanta or a certain place because an integral part of your life is about the move and the settling into that new place. It’s about the emotional joy and trauma that’s associated with the move, which I feel is present in your poems.

In Sugar Work, we have the inclusion of Facebook and Instagram next to themes that poets have always grappled with from time immemorial. How does time function in your collection?

KM: Something you just said made so much sense to me: Yes, I’m just as much from that colossal move as I am from Piedmont Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta. 

In a literal sense, the book begins and is about the 90s in the US. The background music is Whitney and TLC and Jewel and Lenny Kravitz and Outkast and Madonna. But the book spans decades. I am hesitant to talk about this publicly, but I will say it took me a long time to accept and believe that the aftermath of childhood sexual trauma sometimes doesn’t show up for decades. The book is about that time hop. 

So, our phones are locations now. There’s such a weird spatial dynamic there, and I don’t really speak to this in the book, but certainly getting married and then going through divorce at a relatively young age, the phone became an escape for me when I was lonely in a dingy apartment in the middle of graduate school. The phone is the thing that has always connected me to all my relatives in their respective and different geographies. On Instagram, I’m looking at my nephew and I’m seeing these pictures of him eating cake and it feels like for a second, I am witnessing, intimately, his beautiful life. But there’s a sadness—always a sadness that comes with social media, with the square boxes we are now. Something’s lost. 

TT: Yes, social media is like a portal to a different world that you cannot be in physically, to teleport you into the living room of your nephew but at the same time you’re like: Oh, I’m not actually with them.

KM: I’m thinking now about how the book opens with a photograph, a 2D image, of the mother. We could talk about women’s bodies in squares, on screens—there’s an element of that in the text. For a long time, I only understood myself as a body observed and I didn’t realize I had the power to observe back. Or to not observe or be observed at all. When you have so many 2D versions of a self, you crave touch. Now that I’m thinking about it, the book is me getting at that with my mother and with myself—Oh! to let myself be a whole 3D (4D? IDK) creature. 

TT: That is so poignant, and ties to the next question? Do you have anything you want to add, in terms of major themes that readers should see? Or do you think it’s better for the reader to find out for themselves?

KM: I’d mostly like to simply see what people latch on to. But I do want to say something about genre. When I was writing this book, I thought a lot about the lyric poem, how the lyric gets talked about. I write nonfiction too, so this blurred line between poetry and nonfiction is something I find fascinating. Sometimes I read poems from Sugar Work now and I’m bored. There are parts that feel melodramatic because, perhaps, of its reliance on a first-person speaker. I also, though, consider the first-person one of our most liberating techniques. I want to keep having that conversation with myself and with other poets. What can we do with the first-person speaker? How can we write from it in a collective sense too? Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria is one of my favorite books—she does so much with the first-person there and with persona, but it’s deeply steeped in a collectivity that I’m still studying.

TT: Recently, I was reading Catullus and thinking about how he makes the lyrical epic and I think your collection can be read as a lyric incantation of the epic journey of transforming the self into a 3D thing.

KM: That’s generous. One of my favorite poems in the book is also the one of which I am most embarrassed. It’s called “Self-portrait as Lined Seahorse, as Coronet, as the Sun” At one point I write, “I am the sea / which is a blouse for time.” That move feels important. And epic.  

TT: What are you working on today? Do you have any closing thoughts, you want to share with your readers?

KM: I’m working on finishing my comprehensive exams for the PhD, part of which is a close study of Louise Gluck and Lucille Clifton. The other part focuses on translingual poetry and silence. More creatively, I’m working on a second book of poems tentatively called Drum. It’s about fentanyl and drummers and water. It’s an homage to my brother. I’m also super excited about a full-length translation of poetry by Puerto Rican poet Nicole Cecilia Delgado that I’ve been working on that for a couple years. 

I’m looking forward to how Sugar Work furthers this community of poetry you mentioned. Poetry has become my home, you know, in some sense—at least one of the surest homes I’ve made for myself as an adult. I don’t plan to leave any time soon.

Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet.