10 Questions for KT Herr
- By Edward Clifford
while we yellowed in the pale strobes
rumors began to arrive
of a wide floor blown open
of some clever thing
—from "Catherine of Siena Fucks Up the Club," Volume 64, Issue 3 (Fall 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
What first comes to mind is that I was a musician and songwriter before I started writing poetry in earnest. My dad (hi Dad!) is a violinist with the Lancaster Symphony, so my brother and I grew up very musically. I studied violin and piano, and took voice lessons in high school. When I was twelve, I wrote an original piano composition in three movements. It was short, but I was so proud. To this day, it’s one of only a handful of things I still remember how to play.
As I got older and started writing lyrics, I taught myself guitar. It’s hard to sing along while playing violin, and pianos aren’t especially portable, so it just made sense. Most of the songs I’ve written as an adult were on guitar. Still, I miss the somatic experience of playing piano; something about that particular embodiment feels deeply soothing. Lately I’ve been keeping an eye out for pianos for sale.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
(These questions always stress me out—what if I forget someone?!)
I’m a poet today because in the seventh grade I read the poem “Mushrooms” by Sylvia Plath and it completely rearranged my brain. In college, the poem “Song” by Adrienne Rich became a touchstone.
I discovered the poetry of Meg Day almost by accident, from a stack of postcard flyers I collected from the Boutelle-Day Poetry Center while attending a Smith College reunion. It’s one of my happiest accidents; their poems and their spirit have inspired me in more ways than I can say. When I think about what it means to have queer poetic kinship, Meg’s one of the first people who comes to mind.
Lately, I’ve enjoyed recent work by Cody-Rose Clevidence, K. Iver, Nathan McClain, Wo Chan, and CM Burroughs. I should also mention I owe a debt of gratitude to Sarah J. Sloat—whose collage poems toppled all my previously-held beliefs about what poems could be or do—and of course, to my many mentors (hi y’all!), without whom a great many doors would have remained closed to me.
What did you want to be when you were young?
Recently, my mom (hi Mom!) sent me a large box of ephemera and memorabilia from my childhood. According to one document (from…third grade?), I wanted to “paint, draw, dance, and be in the olympics for gymnastics and swimming.” In a sense, I think poetry is a little bit of all those things, so I guess I’m winning.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I’m presently in coursework for a doctoral program at the University of Houston. Last fall, during a course on premodern poetics (hi Dr. Daniel!), we read excerpts from Raymond of Capua’s The Life of St. Catherine of Siena. I can’t really account for how immediately and vividly Catherine appeared to me, but it was as though she sprang fully formed from the 14th century into my brain.
At first, the poems were chronologically indeterminate, or else clearly tethered to a more-or-less 14th century consciousness. But then a member of my workshop (hi Adrian!) told me he wanted me to write a poem called “Catherine of Siena fucks up the club.” The following week, a shooter opened fire in a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, killing five people. That’s more or less how this poem got born.
Something about Catherine feels essentially queer to me. She cut off all her hair at thirteen to avoid being married off. She was known to fall into ecstatic trances that could last for hours. According to one story, she’s said to have nursed a nun who was bedridden with breast cancer. Upon finding herself repulsed by the nun’s rotting flesh, she drank pus from the open lesion in a gesture of spiritual communion. For so many reasons, this particular hagiography really resonates along a queer spectrum for me.
In a broader sense, I tend to think of myself as pan-religious, and therefore spiritually queer. I was raised attending a Unitarian Universalist church, where we studied most world religions throughout the course of Sunday school and youth group. I’ve had flirtations with Catholicism since I was fairly young, as well as a number of other faith systems. My relationship to religion remains frought and multifaceted.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
This is sort of a difficult question, for a lot of reasons. I’ll just say I’ve moved a lot throughout my adulthood, and the locations of my childhood—many of which are, to a greater or lesser degree, out of reach to me now—rise up in memory with a sort of mythic power. I also dream almost every night, and some of those dreams take place in the same recurring landscapes. These places remain in my waking consciousness like a flavor or scent, overlaying, I think, some of the atmospheres I write within/around/through.
I just bought a house with my partner last year (ahh!) and I’m exploring how it feels to be rooted somewhere for a while. I think, in general, the idea or question of home propels a lot of my work.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I’m mostly feral, having developed terrible eating habits and sleep hygiene during my decade spent bartending and waiting tables, so establishing habits and routines has never been much of a strength. Poems find me when they find me, often while I’m driving, or sleeping, or cooking breakfast, or having sex, or doing any number of other things that are complicated to stop doing for ten minutes so that a poem can happen. If I have any ritual, it’s frantically mashing words into my notes app on my phone while the sink is running and something’s burning in the toaster oven, or while I’m standing by the washer with half the clothes loaded, or after waking myself up by biting my tongue in my sleep.
On the other hand, I’m also a Virgo rising, so I descend into random fits of obsessive organization. In the last few years, I’ve discovered that I like to gamify the writing process. Sometimes I do this using Oulipian or similar constraints; sometimes I assign myself received forms; or sometimes I involve a divinatory element like tarot or I Ching. I also feel drawn to visual poems and erasure, so working with images and with physical source texts can be very liberatory.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Lately, my partner (hi babe!) is often the first person to see new stuff. They work outside the writing world, but have a deep, long-standing appreciation for literature and philosophy. They’re a great cheerleader and we’ve worked hard to find balance in our home life between my degree program and writing life, their work travel, and our parenting schedule for my partner’s daughter.
I also have a few poet pals (hi critters!) whose writing and reading practices I really admire, and who are great for both hyping and helping.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
There’s an artist I’m endlessly inspired by (hi Lexa!) who works with ceramics, but is also an accomplished chef with a masters in social practice. I met her during a residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, where she was the visiting chef for our cohort. One week, she arranged a dinner-party-cum-participatory-installation at which all of the residents dined together and shared “recipes” for our favorite things (food or otherwise). I would like to do whatever work it is that allows for the creation of spaces like this. I would have that dinner over again every night, if I could.
What are you working on currently?
I’m supposed to be working on my first full-length manuscript, but I’m endlessly distractable and perpetually terrified by the notion of publishing a first collection. Remember that meme about the rewards of being loved versus the mortifying ordeal of being known? It’s something like that.
I’m noodling with a sonnet crown. I have a few chapbooks in the dreamscape. I’m slowly building out a hybrid project focused around childhood memories, and a series of poems around queer domesticity. I like multimedia collage and interactive or “mechanical” poetics. I like nerding out about ars poetica and space and weird technology and cryptid folklore.
At some point soon, I’ll have to start thinking about the critical forward to my creative dissertation. A terrifying prospect!
What are you reading right now?
I’ve been savoring a few collections on slow burn while I hustle through required reading for my courses. Judas Goat by Gabrielle Bates. When I Reach For Your Pulse by Rushi Vyas. Reck by Leslie Harrison. Karyna McGlynn’s 50 Things Kate Bush Taught Me About the Multiverse, which was a gift from a friend (hi Joy!). My classmate Anthony Sutton’s first book, Particles of a Stranger Light, which is phenomenal (hi Anthony!).
And of course, I’ve been reading back through sheaves and folders of my ancient childhood scribblings. I’ll send some pictures of my earliest known work––“Waiting For Spring”—which may still be my best. I keep it pinned to the bulletin board above my desk so I don’t forget where I came from.
KT HERR is a queer poet, songwriter, and curious person with poems appearing in Black Warrior Review, Frontier, ANMLY, and elsewhere. KT is currently a C. Glenn Cambor PhD Fellow in critical poetics at the University of Houston, a board member with Four Way Books, and co-host of Coordinates: A Podcast for Writers & Readers.