Forthcoming Reverse Engineer, Ornithopter Press, October 2022
Hear Kate Colby read from Reverse Engineer
Beginnings: What prompted this book? What were you thinking about, how is it the same or different from previous work? How long did you work on it?
KATE COLBY: My work has been screwing down into basic epistemological questions and the role of language in facilitating and/or standing in the way of what we can and want to know. How can words help us understand the world when, for instance, “basic” can mean either shallow or deep?
In my early work, I was interested in cultural knowledge—where we each get it, how it takes hold, what we do with it—but I’ve become more intensely invested in the nuts and bolts of language, the limitations of its mechanics, and how the limitations themselves are responsible for so much of what we think we know only because we can say it.
What was your favorite thing about writing it? What gave you the most satisfaction, what was energizing or enlivening about it?
KC: I think by way of writing, so I fit writing into every little crack that opens up in my day. I feel most fully realized when I’m thinking on paper (by “on paper” I mean the opposite of “in theory.”)
A thing that pleases me now about the book is the nouns representing the flotsam of my days that got pulled into the eddy: clams, snow, Norman Bates, West World. I love that about being a writer—letting my thoughts gather like nacre around something incidental.
Was there a section or poem or part of the book that you felt doubtful about including? What made it so? How did you come to the decision you did?
KC: The poet Han Vanderhart helped me to choose poems for this collection, and I am indebted to them. On my own I couldn’t quite see what belonged with what and in what order, largely because all the poems are driving at the same questions (maybe question). Every poem feels to me like, “Okay, let’s try it this way.”
What are some lines, phrases or images from the book that stay with you, either because they capture something that feels very true, or they came to you in a way that felt whole and generative, or some other reason?
KC: I’m somewhat obsessed with the idea that if we could aggregate living things’ perceptual products and capabilities we could know a lot more about what the world physically consists of. What if all the answers are spread out between creatures who can’t share them? The long poem called “Word Problems” at the center of the book explores umwelt directly, but all of the poems circle it, e.g., “All I know is / what my head holds // holds me back” (“Saint Namesake”).
The other answer to your question is these lines from the poem called “Integer*” that get stuck in my head:
Every time I hear “Rocket Man”
I’m reminded of you
reminded of me
every time you hear “Rocket Man.”
Reaching out only to come back around again, in a twisted referential loop, is the shape of the thinking in all of these poems.
Can you share a few other art forms / works / books / experiences that influenced you in the writing of this book? Do you think these influences will be visible to your readers? Would you like them to be?
KC: The Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli was and is a big influence on my thinking. I was reading Seven Brief Lessons on Physics while writing these poems, and physicists’ struggles to make precepts of quantum physics and general relativity jibe became a metaphor for making intractable precepts of language fit the world they exist to describe. There’s a lot in the book about the composition of space and qualities of time and how we perceive them.
The book contains a series of poems called Automat that was written from some of Richard Estes’ photorealist paintings, many of which depict urban plate-glass landscapes. Reflections bounce around so that it’s hard to read what’s in front of the viewer or being reflected from behind and at what depth. The series has an epigraph from Estes: “...perhaps you show the way things look the less you show how they are or how we think they are.”
Reverse Engineer is equally about seeming and being—the schism between perceiving and knowing. I hate how abstract my descriptions are, but the poems exist to evince the ideas.
KATE COLBY is author of seven books of poetry and lyric prose, including I Mean, The Arrangements, and Dream of the Trenches. Reverse Engineer is forthcoming from Ornithopter in October, 2022. She has received awards and fellowships from the Poetry Society of America, Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, the Dodd Research Center at University of Connecticut, and Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room. Recent work has appeared in A Public Space, Chicago Review, Conjunctions, Lana Turner, and The Nation. She lives in Providence, where she works as a copywriter.