10 Questions for Katie Farris

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Amal Zaman



      "And would’ve you passed the

Would your past
                                            
                                              would you your past?

      Would the
                        
                        (your or the?)

                                   Gert?...”

--from "Song of Eleven Consonants and Thirteen Vowels, for G. Stein" which appears in the Winter 2016 issue (Volume 57, Issue 4).

Tell us about one of the first pieces you’ve written.

My first work was a series of torrid, vaguely rapey romances set in the South, all in huge loopy cursive so I could fill up a lot of pages quickly.

I read Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides at a formative age.

What other professions have you worked in?

I’ve taught fifth-grade ocean science, apprenticed with a midwife, developed photographs at CVS in the pre-digital-camera era, and nannied for a cabal of neighborhood children who are now graduating from college and are currently, no doubt, planning world domination.

What writers or works have influenced the way you write now?

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities— I’ve been hauling the same copy around since I was 14, and the marginalia is like an archeological survey of my life as a writer, reader, and teacher. Anselm Kiefer’s “Starfall.” Beloved. Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. Equus. I have a complicated relationship to Heidegger, but he’s been undeniably influential. Tom Waits. Erik Dietman’s “L’Ami de personne,” which I find myself ironically and almost obsessively drawn to. Lolita. Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. As I Lay Dying, which is probably, and appropriately, the book with which I would request to be cremated. Gwendolyn Brooks, who has this incredible deft urgent elegance that excites me in the same way that Emily Dickinson does. Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror.” Mrs. Dalloway. Joseph Cornell—or perhaps more accurately Joseph Cornell as viewed by Charles Simic in Dime Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell. N. Scott Momaday’s Way to Rainy Mountain. Ani Difranco’s early music. Balthus, especially the “Nude in Front of a Mantle,” whom I love to visit at the Met, if I can find it. Invisible Man. Henry Darger. Marina Abramovic. Helene Cixious. Clarice Lispector, especially her short story “Love,” which is a nearly perfect thing. Gertrude Stein, obviously, and especially her “Poetry and Grammar.”

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?

In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where I did some of my best growing up, you can be walking down a twisted narrow Colonial street with saltbox houses forming a solid wall around you, turn a corner, and suddenly find yourself on a bay, or in a pocket of woods, or in a very old graveyard. It’s a little bit surreal, the way the landscape seems to like to change the rules. I like a place with agency.

What did you want to be when you were young?

A physicist, astronaut, or environmental scientist.

What inspired you to write this piece?

I love word games—Scrabble, Boggle, Ruzzle (all the –les). I’m not very good at them, but I love them because you start to build up an esoteric vocabulary of short words. I collect words like I used to collect clothing hang-tags and rocks and books from the library until they were overdue—I believe the delightful word “overzealous” would be appropriate here. This is how I came to know the words “thew” and “wode,” which make appearances in the poem.

I was already playing around with constraint—specifically using a limited number of consonants or vowels in a piece. I usually started from a word or phrase, and added in a couple of other sounds as the piece progressed—something like a fugue, maybe. So I began with “wode” and “thew” and built the piece out around those sounds. I was slightly liberal with my accounting—I didn’t include the dipthong “th,” for instance. Dedicating a dipthong to Gertrude Stein sounds vaguely crass.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?

I’ve been listening to Philip Glass’s “Metamorphosis” when I write since 2008. The opening bars have a Pavlovian effect for me. I’m pretty sure if you read my first book out loud, it would be the same length as the album.

Who typically gets first read of your work?

Ilya Kaminsky, a brutally good editor.

If you could work in another art form, what would it be?

A perfumer, without a backward glance.

What are you reading right now?

Cesar Aira’s Ghosts. Malachi Black’s Storm Toward Morning and Christian Wiman’s Every Riven Thing. Jericho Brown’s The New Testament. Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro’s Pry, an extraordinary piece of digital literature. Mary Oliver’s Upstream. Marina Abramovic’s Walk Through Walls. I’m also avidly following the comic book Monstress from Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda.love.


Katie Farris is the author of boysgirls, a hybrid-form text. Her translations and original work have appeared in anthologies published by Penguin and Greywolf, and literary journals including Virginia Quarterly Review, Verse, Western Humanities Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. She is an associate professor at the MFA program at San Diego State Unviersity.