(November 19, 2020) Katie Peterson is the author of four collections of poetry, including A Piece of Good News, and her fable in lyric prose, Life in a Field, winner of the Omnidawn Open Books Prize, will be published in April 2021. Katie has received numerous fellowships, including from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and she collaborates with her husband, the photographer Young Suh. Katie, Young, and their daughter Emily live in Berkeley, where Katie directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at UC Davis. She has one daughter who is 3 and she describes writer-motherhood in 3 words as: Always Play First.
FROM THE EPISODE: READING LIST & REFERENCES
Life in a Field (Omnidawn, 2021)
A Piece of Good News (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)
Robert Lowell, New Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)
The Accounts (University of Chicago Press, 2013)
Permission (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2013)
This One Tree (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2006)
Young Suh, photographer and Katie’s husband
Yaddo artist retreat
Katie Ford, poet
Elizabeth Bishop, poet
Sandra Lim, poet
The Odyssey, Homer
Sometimes when I look at my own work, it feels like a combination between a classic American nature poet and a sexy, metaphysical John Donne.
When my mother died, I was filled with two twin senses: the first, this feeling that I would never be a mother, and the second, this incredible hunger to be a mother.
I think of it as a hallmark of my generation that people felt complicated feelings about “settling down.” We were raised in a generation with a lot of ambivalence about family.
During the nine months of pregnancy and the month right after it, all these things happen in your body that you can’t refuse. You can’t refuse the heartburn, you can’t refuse contractions, you can’t refuse back pain. And then you have a baby, and you’re supposed to breastfeed that thing, which is so crazy. Talk about an experience that’s both biological and intellectual! There are all these biological things happening, but your brain can’t help but reflect on the strangeness of the experience.
You’re really hungry while you’re pregnant, and then you have the baby, and when you’re breastfeeding, you’re really hungry. I remember some Berkeley person said to me, “Well, it must be really nice to feel so close to your body.” And I said to the person, “I live here [points to forehead]. When this is over, I’m coming back here.” And the person looked at me like I was a horse.
There was no way I was going to carry a baby and then give birth to it without being ruminative, conceptual, philosophical, desiring of making generalizations about the experience, kind of idiosyncratically obsessed with what was most conceptual at the root of the experience.
Right after Emily was born, I’d constantly have a thought and lose it completely, and the thoughts were a wandering around somewhere in me, but I couldn’t find them. It really drove me crazy.
We have all these reserved feelings about thinking about ourselves as animals, but never in my life have I thought more about another person as an animal than having a little girl.
In the last two or three months, Emily wakes up at three or four in the morning and comes into our bed and literally wants to sleep on top of me. It’s so mammalian. It’s so intense. I can feel that she wants that closeness because it’s going away. She’s a little girl, she’s becoming a grownup. The animal in her is moving forward in time.
I don’t think we have a great sense in our culture right now about what it means to grow up. Many of us don’t want to grow up. I felt and still feel, like being a grown up is fundamentally a bad thing. Who are the models for really good grownups—Obama? That’s it. It’s hard to think of that many more. Dolly Parton and Obama are really good grownups.
Emily and I can’t stand in the rational truth of things when she doesn’t want me to park in a certain place and throws a temper tantrum.
Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant—success in circuit lies.” The truth is something that cannot be dropped on the page unceremoniously, but is its own difficult animal that needs to be cajoled and sometimes restrained.
Motherhood has made me think about how many of my own feelings, and how many of the things I’d like to say, I now must repress. More than once, Odysseus from the Odyssey sat and, through tears, listened to a story that he couldn’t react to. Nothing has made me think about that more than this pandemic.
When I think about being a mother, I think about being a grownup, and when I think about being a grownup, I think about being so attached to others that what you do and say and eat and feel matters in such an embodied way to somebody else.
I had given up hope this spring of writing any poems this year, and then I started going for walks. On these walks, a poem came to me. And then I had to go on the same walk every day. I still go on it, because there might be a poem on the walk.
The life of a poet is a lifelong dare and I’m just in the middle of that big dare, like I jumped out of a plane and I’m still in the jump. I just have really cute company.