“Like an Alphabet Somewhere Organizing & Reorganizing Itself: A Conversation with Katie Peterson”—curated by Lisa Olstein

Katie Peterson is the author of Fog and Smoke, published by FSG in early 2024. Poems from the collection have appeared in the Atlantic, the New Republic, the New York Review of Books, and the Yale Review, among other publications. Her previous book, Life in a Field (2021) is a collaboration with the photographer Young Suh. She is the author of other books of poetry: This One Tree (New Issues, 2006), Permission (New Issues, 2013), The Accounts (University of Chicago, 2013), and A Piece of Good News (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019), a finalist for the Northern California Book Award in 2020. She is the editor of the New Selected Poems of Robert Lowell (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017). Her work has been translated into French, Korean, and Portuguese, and a Selected Poems in French (translated by Aude Pivin), with an introduction by Louise Gluck, will be published by Cheyne Editeur in 2024.

Lisa Olstein: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

Katie Peterson: When the shelter in place order fell on California in March 2020, our young daughter came home from day care. Like many others, my husband and I parented and worked from home together. In retrospect of course I consider this fate fortunate in its relative safety. But with alarming quickness, these conditions revealed themselves hostile to writing. Solitude disappeared. I had no place to put my daughter so that I could be something other than mother, be that worker or teacher or writer. No pickup or drop-off for her, and so, neither, either, for the mother in me. A ritual did emerge, since my girl could only nap then (and now) when tricked into it by motion – I’d drive her around until she fell asleep as I tried not to, and then I’d park at the Safeway, furtively writing notes about wildlife and the weather, cryptic phrases about the mood of the country, or the distant memories that felt as if they came up from some depth to say “maybe this won’t happen again.” Little notes, full of fears. The closest thing to poetry I encountered was the fog coming in and going out on my time-limited walks up the hillside next to my house and down through the surrounding neighborhood, walks taken at the beginning and end of the day. By the end of the summer, six months later, the rules changed, and we released Emily into a masked school. On the first or second day back, I began a poem in my head as I drove her to Growing Light, and finished it, on the way back, writing it down in the car. This poem kicked back against the making of a likeness, it felt like a failed attempt, but I liked the truth of that pose: “It never covered everything like a shroud.” The cycle of the fog coming in and out from the ocean, and the cycle of dropping my daughter off and picking her up – these parallel each other, their patterns of presence and disappearance. What a relief to write those first poems I wrote about the fog, but what resistance they came through – the sense that the fog was really the only thing I could write about. I think of form in poetry as any restriction, and the form that came from this admits and resists the smallness of my world, moving through short stanzas (quatrains, tercets, couplets, and a few one-line stanzas) with occasional rhymes that feel to me like hitting a sort of wall. The single-word title of the first section, “Fog,” is followed by definitional statements that move forward in opposition to each other, sometimes as non sequiturs, even from the first line, ranging far from the initial subject, into language that resists the idea of subject at all.

LO: Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

KP: I have an image of a person, on a walk, receiving poems as a kind of audio transmission, through the ear, through the mind, intimately, a message tuned into like a radio signal. This imagination, of a person walking while listening, exists somewhere in the bones of every poem in the book. “The Walk to the Road, When Dinner Was Over,” recollects this image literally— it’s about two people walking down a road in the desert, saying beautiful but terrifying things to each other, the way that lovers do, the way that Adam and Eve must have done when they realized the extent of the trouble they were in.

So many of the poems take place in what we call the “wildland urban interface,” that borderland where nature hits culture, which is where I live, where so many Californians live – “a zone of transition,” they call it, between wilderness and human development. I’d like to think Californians, and those in the West, might recognize what I’m describing, maybe have lived through it. Though by the time the book was published, New York City had been through it too. If you haven’t been to these landscapes, I’d like to bring you here. I think the image of someone receiving a poem while they walk in a natural place represents so well the predicament of the poems – and of us, really – living in the seam between nature and culture, mixed up between them.

LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work?

KP: Talking with – and about – my daughter, who is now six, without using her as a prop. I had to find a way to respect her autonomy when she entered the poem. Children need protection from us, but they also need us to see them as potentially self-governing individuals. I think they cry out for us to respect their independence even when they’re very small, and just because we need to protect them also, doesn’t mean we don’t have to do that. We do.

LO: How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

KP: I use the word “ethic,” in the long poem, “Fog:” “On my walk, I wore our ethic / so everyone could see I was a person.” In this line, “ethic” is a metonym, and a synonym, for a mask. We have all just been together in a tremendous ethical moment that was also fundamentally aesthetic – the wearing of the mask. I am still thinking about this experience had with others and on behalf of others. It troubled some people quite a bit, to wear a mask – for reasons that seemed uncanny, to exceed the meaning already on the table. To wear a mask for another person, to try not to kill them with your breath, always seemed to me a very beautiful and mysterious thing.

“Fog” includes the mask as a part of habit – it sees the wearing of the mask as an almost thoughtless activity. Part of a ritual. Activities of covering and uncovering find their way into many of the poems in the book. I am interested in ethical activity that exists as a part of habit, more under the radar than arias of empathy or stabs at heroism – listening, for example, or remembering – those undramatic possibilities for ethics that we may have learned as children as forgotten as adults but still do, even if we don’t notice ourselves doing it.

And I have wondered whether these activities feel incoherent – foggy, smoky – as we do them. How much of ethical activity doesn’t feel dramatic or even good. This book isn’t fundamentally a book of grief, but a book of creation – of building the household, which comprises the book’s third section. Many of these poems move forward through swerve, digression, and non sequitur. Poetry reminds us we are capable of surprise, can be surprised by what we do – and this includes what we do for each other.

LO: As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?

KP: The first sentence of the epigraph to the book concerns time: “We dream of foreign countries, of other times and races of men, placing them at a distance in history or space; but let some significant event like the present occur in our midst, and we discover, often, this distance and this strangeness between us and our nearest neighbors.” I think a poem turns time to space – that’s what it does, that’s what it’s work is. In the poems I think wanted to show what the mind was capable of if it saw everything available in the present moment, if it looked at that moment with forgiveness, and grace, and agility, and candor. What the poems saw, so often, was a “strangeness between us and our nearest neighbors,” an intimate distance between people to compass and make sense of.

And I want every poem to have its own speed, its own way of inhabiting time – it’s important to me that the poems show all sorts of different kind of present moment, from watching the weather to recollecting the past (the experience of remembering is a present-moment too, even if memory requires us to time travel) to telling a story to taking a child to the beach.

A sense of the present moment itched the poems into being, but it also created their ambitions. The contemporary weighs heavily on us now. But I had a hope – I didn’t want to write a book about the present moment that was going to expire. I wanted to burn a hole in the page of the poem straight towards the ancients, whose fatalism and wisdom feel so close at hand to me these days.

LO: How did the book’s structure unveil itself to you? What emerged to shape its architecture? 

KP: I’d written enough poems to begin figuring out a structure, and I put them into three sections, beginning with the “Fog” poems, and ending with the poems about family and parenting – that seemed the arc, from the breakdown of the world to its rebuilding. The “Fog” poems came from the walk I mentioned, looking out at San Francisco across the bay – these seemed to be a meditation on the “city,” as thought about by Plato’s Socrates, the “polis,” the civic space set adrift and obscured by the pandemic, in which our relations had been suspended or broken. The middle section’s longer and more narrative poems happened mainly in rural or fictional settings, a kind of pastoral landscape, in which self-reflection, friendship, and eros could be tested out again. And the last section’s poems all had to do with the household, a microcosm of the world. I realized that the first poem of every section positioned the speaker looking up at the sky – reckoning with it. And then I began to see what the poems had done. Their elemental places – city, country, household – test out versions of the political, versions of the predicament of living with other people. These sections were also disparate aspects of the California I live in, a marvelous state, but one, as large as a country, with its own coasts and interior, a whole made from disparate pieces.

LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm? 

KP: An early sequence of Czeslaw Milosz’s, published first in 1943, “The World: A Naïve Poem,” written mainly in quatrains, followed me through the writing of much of the book. It’s spare and falsely straightforward – a vision of Eden whose studied simplicity and peace is too calm, too perfect, and wordlessly threatened by an unspoken war. The poem is so elemental, so deceptively simple – and it has the aesthetic goal of making a whole, even as it keeps revealing a world barely held together, a world about to fall into pieces. I admired how amid such despair Milosz didn’t give up on aesthetic wholeness – a completeness of the poem.  And I considered calling the book The Human Family, a phrase that comes from Milosz’s tremendous Norton lectures collected as The Witness of Poetry. He tries to the see the possibility of a human future from the vantage point of the difficult 20th century. He’s exploring an idea of how we might be ethically related to each other – how we might see and understand that relation, apart from nationalities and states.

Something about Milosz’s thinking – and the mood of his poems – began to animate my writing life. When he lived in California, he lived just a few minutes down the street from where I live In the Berkeley Hills. In Spring 2021 my husband went to Korea because his father was dying – he had to go back and spend three weeks in quarantine before he could see him, which he did, right before he passed. On the day his father died, I hit and injured a deer directly in front of the house where Milosz spent most of his California years. The deer lurched through a hedge out of sight. I had known the house was there, but I’d never stopped, and now, my own inability to stop, stopped me – kind of wild. I feel connected to Milosz, and to Robinson Jeffers through Milosz’s writing about him. California’s golden dream has an opposite side; they know it.

Thoreau’s and Emerson’s essays – those Yankee pragmatists, at-home in their brainy obscurity, alive in their non sequiturs, with so much evidence of thinking on their page. They can talk about anything and mean everything by it. They don’t go in fear of abstractions – they eat them like apples.

I was always making dinner. I feel like I’m always making dinner. The experience of forever cooking dinner that remains on the table for the mother – not just the parent – but the mother, from whom dinner is expected, not simply longed for. Cookbooks and tabs on my phone with recipes, the spice cabinet, a profound memory for the contents of my freezer. Arrangements of balanced meals somewhere in the mind, always as obsession and task, like an alphabet somewhere organizing and reorganizing itself.

Lisa Olstein is the author of five poetry collections published by Copper Canyon Press: Radio Crackling, Radio Gone (2006), Lost Alphabet (2009), Little Stranger (2013), Late Empire (2017), and Dream Apartment (2023). She has also published two books of nonfiction: Pain Studies (Bellevue Literary Press, 2020), a book-length lyric essay on the intersection of pain, perception, and language; and Climate (Essay Press, 2022), an exchange of epistolary essays co-written with Julie Carr.