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10 Questions for Katie Willingham

"Crack in the mug the wine seeps into,
            a pink vein. How close it all feels.
How close to the firehouse, how far
           From home. You bring the pumps
And I'll bring the glitter, but no one's willing
          To make the first sound..."

from “Impermeable Material Suit," Summer 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 2)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The oldest poems still in my possession go back to seventh grade and it appears, at the time, I saw fit to organize them in folders by theme: bitterness, family, friendship, love. I still struggle with organizing my work while it’s in progress, but this method seems absurd to me now, to imagine making such neat boundaries around ideas. I would definitely be interested if anyone else does this, though, and what it looks like to them.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Cole Swensen, Claudia Rankine, Dara Wier, Heather Christle, Natalie Shapero. You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake by Anna Moschovakis was an important read for me when it found me as was Mark Doty’s School of the Arts.

I’ve also been reading more cultural criticism and affect theory lately, and I’m especially a fan of the work of Sara Ahmed. I appreciate her ideas, yes, but also how they emerge and unfold. As a poet, I’m fascinated by the way she turns a word over and over. She offers a deeper understanding of how particular language holds ideas and also circulates them. For just a taste, check out her stunning blog post about the word “No.”

What other professions have you worked in?
I sold fancy cheese for a time and I’m still excited by any and all opportunities to make use of the knowledge I gained. Any takers?

What did you want to be when you were young?
A climber of trees, a label maker, taller than my twin brother. I’ve always loved people and I just wanted to get the jokes the adults were telling. I still do.

What inspired you to write this piece?
“Impermeable Material Suit” is a poem about vulnerability, interspersing the vulnerability of our bodies and our hearts, but also thinking about the vulnerability of the planet and how that intersects with the personal as well. There’s a statistic in here I’d been carrying around with me for some time from Edward Humes’ Garbology: one in six trucks in the US is a garbage truck. Carrying this knowledge means not knowing when or how it might bubble up. There’s no such thing as being sealed off in some kind of suit and the more this poem goes through the motions and the more tightly it clings to the idea of this suit, the more it is also simultaneously revealed to be impossible.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
The short answer is “no,” and it was actually quite a revelation for me when someone pointed out to me that I don’t write about place, but it also felt true. I write a lot about the environment and about nature, but it’s very rarely tied to a particular landscape.  That said, I have referenced snow quite a bit so I’m not thinking about anywhere. It’s just that in terms of specificity, I tend to aim much smaller—objects, plants, noises heard through the wall. Sometimes I think this is a way of giving myself permission to be on the move, to shift between ideas or images and let that cause a kind of friction it might not be able to generate if I took the time to attend to place in a different way.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I wish! Every ritual seems to wear itself out…but, ok, here’s something—I’m risking sounding incredibly narcissistic here to describe what I truly think is a useful practice. When I’m stuck, sometimes I read my own work, pieces I feel really connected to, pieces that got me somewhere significant. Sometimes it really does help to remind yourself of your own voice at its best.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My partner Colin usually gets the first read and the last. Sometimes I let in a smattering of other writer friends in the middle for different ideas on revising, but Colin understands really intimately what I do and what Im trying to do, so he can be a generous reader. At the same time, he also pushes me to make things clearer and to follow through on my experiments.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I frequently find myself saying I wish I could be a dancer, but what I mean by that really is that I want to feel a creative connection to my body because I can dance already. Everyone can dance just like everyone can draw. It’s just that, so far, writing has always been the way I seek in this world, but I sometimes dream of other paths, other forms of inquiry, other modes of discovery for myself.

What are you reading right now?
I like to intersperse different genres. For theory, I’m reading Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of Disaster; for poetry, Lynn Melnick’s Landscape with Sex and Violence and Adeeba Talukder’s What Is Not Beautiful; and for fiction, I can’t wait to start Lillian Li’s debut novel Number One Chinese Restaurant. I can’t tell you how tickled it makes me to have two folks from my MFA cohort on this list [Talukder and Li]. I have admired them both for years but only now can I say go out and grab these books so we can talk about the magic!

KATIE WILLINGHAM is the author of the poetry collection Unlikely Designs. She earned her MFA from the Helen Zell Writers Program where she was also the recipient of a Hopwood Award. Her poems can be found in such venues as Bennington Review, Poem-A-Day, Kenyon Review, West Branch, The Journal, Reservoir Lit, and others. She can be found most of the time in Brooklyn, NY.

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