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The Writer's Chronicle Explores the Mind of Katharine Coles
Katharine Coles was interviewed by Martin Naparsteck in the October/November 2011 issue of The Writer's Chronicle. Naparsteck explores how the author's experiences and surroundings influence her language and work; he also questions her view of the relationship "between the way a poet seeks the truth and the way a scientist seeks it."
The full text of the interview is reproduced below.
Katharine Coles was appointed in 2006 to serve a five-year term as the Poet Laureate of Utah. She has published four books of poetry (Fault, The Golden Years of the Fourth Dimension, A History of the Garden, and The One Right Touch) and two novels (Fire Season and The Measurable World); her fifth book of poems, Flight, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. She comes from a family of scientists, and much of her writing concerns scientific subjects; she is the founder and co-director (along with a scientist) of the Utah Symposium in Science and Literature, which sponsors speakers to discuss the interrelationships between the two broad disciplines.
Her poems, stories, and essays have appeared in Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry, the New Republic, and elsewhere. Long active in poetry and writing organizations around the country, she served as the Director of the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago in 2009 and 2010. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Utah, and previously taught at Westminster College. She lives in Salt Lake City.
Martin Naparsteck: How does living in Utah affect your writing? Would you be a different writer if you lived in, say, Montana or Alabama or Massachusetts?
Katharine Coles: Of course, the simple answer would have to be yes, I would be different as a writer if I lived elsewhere, in that we bring to our work details that we draw from our everyday lives: the way the sky looks, how changeable the light is, the way the seasons move, and the kinds of flora and fauna we see outside our windows. Of course, we transform these things, but the facts of our daily lives become a sort of baseline for our work, even, I would say, when that work involves fantasy and invention.
Beyond that, I was born in Utah and spent my whole childhood here, and I think that the landscape must be in some way imprinted on my brain - or maybe you could say that in subtle ways this geography has shaped my brain. Because I am most comfortable in a high-up place from which I can see for miles, there are other landscapes and cityscapes in which I feel cramped and claustrophobic. I'm not at my happiest in dense forests, for example; I like a high sky rather than a low one. So even though I write about a lot of other places, especially in my poems, the way I see them must, it seems to me, be inflected by these preferences layered down during infancy and childhood. And to the extent that the pieces located elsewhere depend for some of their energy on a sense of estrangement and foreignness, the place against which they are strange or foreign is this one.
When I was eighteen, by the way, I left Utah; I lived in Seattle, Houston, and Washington, D.C. Some very good teachers of mine spoke in class about how you can't go home again, about how you can write only out of a sense of longing or nostalgia. I was actually kind of nervous about coming back here. But it wasn't until I finally wrote a couple of poems set explicitly in this landscape and imbued with concern for this place; the last two poems I wrote for my first book, "Love Poem for the Nuclear Age" and "Sentimental" - that I began to have a bare glimmering of what my poetic project might be.
Naparsteck: For most people not from Utah, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the fact that the state has a majority population that belongs to one religion, the Mormon Church. You are not a member of that church. How does being a member of a minority culture in your home community impact your writing?
Coles: You know, it's funny, but this isn't something I think about at all either in terms of my life or in regards to my work. Partly, this might be because in some large sense I do feel very much at home in Utah - in the landscape, as I said, but also in the subcultures of which I am very much a part, which include the academic community, the literary community, and the community of my family, friends, and household. I was raised high-church Episcopalian and went to parochial school, and I think the exposure to that liturgy, to the language of the King James Bible, and to certain habits of thought that were prevalent in that subculture, probably had more influence on my poetry than any sense that I was outside the majority culture. My parents, who are quite progressive, took us to marches and protests during the Vietnam War from the time I was quite small; they were very engaged in politics, and I started working in political campaigns myself when I was twelve or thirteen, so I was very much inside that subculture. And while Utah is majority LDS (Latter-day Saints, or Mormons) and heavily conservative, Salt Lake City is neither. It has a vibrant arts and restaurant culture and, from my door, immediate access to the mountains, both of which I am very connected to. So in this sense, I suppose that like everyone, I live outside one set of categories but inside another.
Over the last few years, especially since I've become Poet Laureate of the state, I've traveled pretty extensively throughout Utah, and though we are usually talking poetry and not religion, I have to assume that many of the groups I've spent time with are majority LDS if not entirely so. Coming in to these situations, I am always the outsider by definition, and I have to guess that I probably look like an outsider to them, but I have never been treated with anything less than complete warmth and enthusiasm. And the people who come out to hear and talk with me embrace the poems, too, which are very much about the exploration of ideas and about the kinds of doubts that come with an active intellectual life. Once in Saint George in Southwestern Utah, I was approached by a woman privately who wanted to tell me she admired my ferocity. So I try not to make too many assumptions about what people might be thinking or experiencing or looking for. Even if we're different in some ways, my experience is that there will usually be a place where we can connect.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, my intuition is that most writers flourish on, maybe even need, their outsiderness, whatever it is they may be outside of. The things that did make me feel different - the overdeveloped inner life, the sense of being an observer, the obsession with words - would have made me feel different no matter where I lived, I think, though I wasn't really aware that others had different kinds of subjectivities until I was an adult, and quite frankly I was surprised to learn it. Certainly, it explained a lot I'd found confusing.
While walking the dogs recently, I was thinking about this in relation to another set of experiences I've had, experiences which have set me to pondering the phenomenon of poets who are quintessential insiders (early and steady success, all the big honors and awards, embeddedness in prestigious institutions, no chance any book they ever finish won't be published, with the added advantage of white maleness) but whose sense of their own outsiderness is so deeply ingrained that they are unable to perceive themselves in any other way. I actually think such people can be very useful to have inside institutions, by the way. But whether one's sense of being an insider or an outsider results from nature or nurture or some combination of the two, it does seem to me to be something that gets laid down very early and that becomes an indelible part of one's sense of who she is in the world. I had parents who never doubted or allowed me to doubt that I could and would be whatever I wanted and welcomed wherever I went?and this at a time when there was very little evidence for little girls that this might be the case. So even when I went through an entire undergraduate career with no female professors and two graduate programs in which I had one female professor in each, I never felt excluded on the basis of gender - maybe in part because I just assumed I wouldn't be and so blithely ignored the signs, though this is pure speculation.
But it would be very hard indeed to think of myself as an outsider in a state that has so embraced my work and me. And I think my colleagues and others in the literary community would be quite bemused if I did.
Naparsteck: Your comments about "outsiderness" suggest other concerns. In addition to being involved with the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute and the University of Utah, you've long been active in Utah, Western, and national poetry and writing circles. Writers tend to do their work in isolation, and they might benefit from contacts with institutions such as colleges or the Poetry Institute. Too much aloneness can damage the psyche, but too much contact with the rest of the world may both distract the writer from writing and make the writer a bit less honest in what he or she writes because of the natural tendency we have to not offend others. Do you ever worry about too much aloneness or, conversely, not enough of it? Do you consciously take steps to seek a balance between too much and not enough aloneness? Similarly, do you cultivate outsiderness or simply accept and adapt to whatever outsiderness comes your way?
Coles: Well, this is exactly the problem, isn't it? And you've hit the nail on the head: the issue isn't only finding enough time to be alone, but also finding the right balance between aloneness and getting out. Not enough time alone, and you can't do the work; too much time alone, and you go a little crazy. Not too long ago I had a whole year off to work on a nonfiction book, which was wonderful, but by the end of the year I had lost the habit of society? I felt a little like Emily Dickinson lowering cookies on a string to the neighborhood children from her bedroom window. Now, I am careful to instruct my graduate students who are reading for their comprehensive exams to make time for their friends.
Still, it's probably obvious that I'm at greater risk of erring on the side of getting out too much rather than of getting out too little. I don't worry very much about whether this makes my writing "a little less honest," but only because - speaking of outsiderness - I really hate being told what to do, and my knee-jerk response to being told to do things one way is to look for another. And I err on the side of expressing my opinion too openly rather than not openly enough. This is something I really have to work on in life - listening to advice and considering it or thinking about how to adapt it before rejecting it - but I think it can help the writing in the long run, even if you sometimes lose time by not following good advice right away. It seems to me that in any creative endeavor, whether it's in writing or in administration, you have to find a way to incorporate that advice into your larger vision, and that can take time.
Emotional honesty, whether in writing or in other aspects of life, really does depend on carving out that quiet space in which you can cultivate your inner voice and hear what it is saying. I'm a long-distance runner, and I find running, cycling, walking, and swimming useful ways to spend time in my own head - it feels as if a moving body gives the mind more freedom to make its own way, though this might just be the effects of getting more oxygen to the brain. I do quite a lot of writing while I'm running, though sometimes I use runs to think through other kinds of problems or issues as well. I carry a phone, but I answer it only if it's my husband or my assistant and program manager at the Poetry Foundation. I also use reading time to court the inner voice.
And I really benefit from the flexibility in my schedule that academic life and now the Poetry Foundation have accorded me. When I'm in Chicago, I am intensely present there, but when I am working from home I can draft memos and plans at 6 a.m., which is a good time for me, or 10 p.m., or during regular office hours. And I've recently learned to write on airplanes, where I'm surrounded by people, but everyone is really alone in a little bubble. It turns out you can train yourself to take advantage of that wonderful interrupted time.
Naparsteck: A change of direction in questions. Much of your writing, although certainly not all of it, is about science. That's particularly noticeable in the poetry collection The Golden Years of the Fourth Dimension. While not unprecedented among poets, it is a bit unusual. To what extent, in writing poetry with science themes, is the subject selected because you're seeking less-explored territory? To what extent is it simply a result of your personal interests? And is there any relationship, in your mind, between the way a poet seeks the truth and the way a scientist seeks it?
Coles: I've already referred to the two poems I wrote to finish my first book, poems that were different, or gestured in a different direction, than the others. Part of this was about coming home in the sense of place, but I also think I was looking to come home in other ways - to return to, or rather to come home to, what I think of now as my natural subject matter. You will remember that in the late '70s and through the '80s, the dominant mode was the free-verse confessional poem, which relied rather heavily on the poet's having had a somewhat harrowing childhood. I didn't. I had come more or less to the end of my childhood traumas, such as they were, before I finished the first collection. And while I certainly hadn't come to the end of free verse, I could sense that I needed to mix things up formally as well. But at the time, I didn't really have many models for how to do what I sensed I wanted to do, which was very unformulated but which I now think of as passionate thinking. In other words, I believe - and this is all in retrospect, of course - that I was chafing against two things: the convention of relying almost exclusively on the five named senses for images, as if those really made up all of our experience (which for me, and I think for most people, they most patently do not), and the convention of speaking in the plainest possible way, directly, about experiences that had actually happened to the poet - I guess you could say the convention that put the burden of the poem on its narrative structure and details. This latter, by the way, had many poets rejecting certain conventions of form wholesale, as if their use would inherently and without exception lead to imprisonment of mind.
What the first convention neglected for me was just that, mind, which I now think of as being as much a sense, or at least as sensually embedded, as touch, taste, etc. And what the second seemed to have abandoned was pleasure - pleasure I guess in the unknown, the undiscovered, and perhaps simply pleasure for its own sake, pleasure of the kind that would ask itself, Why shouldn't I deploy a form just for the fun of it and so I can mess with it?
And finally, to return to your question, much of my childhood life had to do with or revolved around or just lived around science. My father was a mathematician, my mother received PhDs and had careers in geology and psychology, my older brother became a mathematical economist, and my younger brother is a mechanical engineer. At the dinner table, conversation often required equations to be scribbled on napkins; we had Science News on the back of the toilet. So the language and methods of the sciences were the language and methods I knew and was used to, though after about the sixth grade I never wanted to be a scientist myself. At the same time, my parents were serious readers, and so they brought me to literature, if not to poetry, by example.
So when, after finishing my first book, I knew I was at the end of one path but didn't know how to begin to bushwhack another, I did the only logical thing: I wrote a novel - a book in which, perhaps not coincidentally, the main character was a scientist. I wasn't sure I'd ever write poems again; I just knew I needed to think my way out of the cul-de-sac I seemed to be in. Though I don't think I was aware enough to have predicted this at the time, writing prose helped me tremendously when I did come back to poetry. It gave me, I think, a more flexible and expansive voice, a voice that could adapt to a wider range of vocabularies and also to a more wide-ranging kind of meditation.
This is the voice I started testing in A History of the Garden, my second collection. I continued to work on it through The Golden Years of the Fourth Dimension, which engages science much more directly, and then through Fault, where I feel I've been able to achieve something of what I've been looking for - the sense that thinking about what matters, about what we are, where we are, what we can know about both, and our wonder at all of these - is part of, inseparable from, our sensory, passionate, daily lives. These questions also seem to be fundamental questions of poetry; that I find science to provide good places from which to consider them may be related to how I'm made, emotionally and intellectually - may, in other words, be natural, much more so for me than the places occupied to such excellent effect by other poets.
By the way, people began to talk to me about my poems as "intimate" after I left off the childhood poems, the autobiographical epiphanic poems, and once I'd launched myself into what felt riskily like abstraction. But those readers are right: the later poems are much more intimate than the others, even if they divulge fewer autobiographical details. They follow - they are meant to follow - the contours of my mind when it is in its most exploratory, least certain mood, when it's asking the questions that matter most to it, and maybe finding answers - if so, only provisional - but maybe not.
And yes, as to the last part of your question, I do think this is like science, however different the methods may finally be. I never did escape my roots. I married a physicist and computer scientist, and in doing so, I chose to continue to live in the environment that feels most like home. And one thing Chris and I agree on is that scientists and artists are much more similar than different in how they actually work, once you get beyond the cultures and conventions of the fields and into the place where the real work happens. The stereotypes of the rigid, uncreative scientist and the free-spirited poet break down where the rubber meets the road - where the real work gets done, where discipline and mental freedom have to come together somehow to occupy the same space. The scientific method is as much a myth as the lightning bolt of inspiration. The uncreative scientist is a technician; the undisciplined poet merely a flake. Neither will produce much that matters beyond the moment.
One last little story. When I was reading for my PhD exams, I was sitting on a beach in Greece with my parents. I was reading the Odyssey, and my father the mathematician asked how I knew it was great literature.
I asked, "Beyond that its experiment is repeatable, and has been for 3,000 years?"
"Yes," he said.
I asked, "How do you know that a theorem is true?"
"Because it's beautiful," he said.
Naparsteck: You write both poetry and fiction. How does the act of writing fiction differ from the act of writing poetry? I'm concerned less with the intellectual differences and more with the different set of emotions that are necessary for each. And what are the similarities? And which is more important, the differences or the similarities?
Coles: Well, first off, fiction is just bigger. When I was working on my first novel, I didn't really know why I needed to write fiction (I had thought I never would), only that I couldn't write poems at the moment. And that's a big advantage of doing more than one thing: when you get stuck in one place, you have somewhere else to turn for a while. In the case of my first novel, I also came to realize I had something to learn from fiction that I would eventually bring back to poetry, though of course differently, and that had something to do with vocalization, with the size and ease of voice. My poems had tended to be very tight and univocal. What I wanted to do required more flexibility and range, and the prose helped me to find that.
So there's one difference, though you can see that the distinction doesn't remain pure, at least not at that point. The truth is, I know right away when a piece of language comes whether it belongs to poetry or prose, and I think provisionally that this has something to do with character, with finding the rhythm of another voice. Even when my fiction is spoken in third person, its voice is still constructed as - what? - Not Kate, while the voice of the poems, however constructed, is almost always constructed as Kate. If we think in the prose in terms of the distance between "Kate," the-real-me typing in her jammies; "Kate" the Implied Author, who is a construct; and "Kate" the Narrator of the book, there's a lot of room for play between the real Kate on the one side and that constructed narrator on the other. In the poems (and this isn't the case for all poems - think of Browning, for example, or Van Johnson's superhero poems, or any other personal poem), Kate the Implied Poet is a lot closer, if not in every case, to Kate in her jammies or at least to Kate in a number of constructed situations, and I very rarely deploy an additional level or voice that you could think of as a speaker separate from the implied poet. In other words, the poem means to represent much more closely something that attaches to my self as intelligence and ethos.
So here I am, off on the intellectual differences, but I don't really separate intellectual and emotional issues. You could say that I am exploring my own passions in the poems, which reside equally and simultaneously and inseparably in the life of the body and the life of the mind. The poems are very provisional in that they are entirely exploratory, but they represent my thinking and feeling my way through a question or problem that matters to me personally. In the prose, I explore the possibilities presented by emotional lives other than and/or different from my own. Of course, one's own emotional life is always at the beginning of anything, even a novel - if the opening question is, "How would someone feel?," that is more or less like asking, "How would I feel?" But in the end, I think, you have to get to, "How would someone else - this particular someone else - feel?" Of course, the given complication is that in the end you've constructed the person, and you could argue - and I couldn't disagree - that every character contains some aspect of yourself, perhaps even some aspect that you don't want to face up to. But I think the character doesn't come alive until you've created a sense of those differences, of that other, and the novel isn't done until you've crossed the space between your own emotional life and the inner life of the character, which may even be repugnant to you. So in the end, you feel and experience something you wouldn't have felt otherwise, at least not consciously. We talk about "creating character" in terms of a lot of externals, but I think for me this is really the essence, and it's the opportunity presented by fiction.
Naparsteck: Does writing poetry improve the writing of fiction and vice versa? Is there any possibility, even in a small way, that writing one can damage the writing of the other?
Coles: As I said before, as a young poet I believed I would never write prose. I loved to read it, but I couldn?t imagine how to write it. Still, though learning through trial and error about prose was laborious and difficult, I think the skills I brought from poetry must have improved my fiction writing in the sense that I knew from poetry how to pay close attention on the level of the language, of word and syntax and music, which is a skill that strengthens any kind of writing. Poetry also taught me to read the language itself for what should come next rather than following an outline. And it taught me both how to construct a voice and how to use detail and image for effect. For me as a poet these skills were the givens, the tools of the trade.
But as with so many other things, in this too, strength and weakness are two sides of the same coin. While in poetry, to work from instinct - out of what you know and toward what you don't know - is not only a good thing but an essential thing, I am less certain this is always the case in prose, at least in book-length prose.
If nothing else, a process like mine just makes for a whole lot of work. At least, it takes me many years to write a long prose piece, not only because attention to detail on such a fine level is enormously time consuming when you're talking about 100,000 words instead of 200, but also because it takes me such a long time to discover, and discover again, and discover again what a piece is about and what it's doing. It's one thing to proceed this way with a one-page poem or even a seven-page poem, but it's quite something else to work this way when you're aiming for 300 pages and have to generate 700 pages - essentially a map of your mistakes and wrong choices - which you cut to 400 before realizing you have to write 100 more and so on.
There are perfectly wonderful novelists and prose writers who do write more or less knowing before laying down the first sentence where things are going. Of course, their paths toward their destinations contain surprises, but such a novelist sits down at the desk in the morning with at least a general sense of her direction and destination. Frankly, I envy them this knowledge. But I can't work this way. Even when I'm writing nonfiction of the kind in which certain parameters, certain events, are simply there to be dealt with, I guess I am more interested in inner life than outer life, and so there is much that remains invisible until I can root it out and bring it to the surface. So I always go astray, always start to pay less attention to narrative and plot than other things and have to go back to figure out what's actually important on the level of event and cause-effect. Over the years, I've worked hard to teach myself about narrative and plot, but I still don't consider these strengths.
On the other hand, I can say without question that writing prose has helped me over and over again come back to my poems with new tools, better able to do with them what I want. The prose has helped me develop a larger, more flexible and capacious voice, and it has also helped me think about pacing in different ways. It has given me more confidence in breaking rules I thought were firm. It may be a matter of moving out of my comfort zone and into something that is much more puzzling and white knuckled, and then coming back full of new ideas and skills. Of course, whether the poems are actually stronger is for others to decide. But having these other skills at my disposal makes writing them more pleasurable, and since I think poetry is largely about pleasure, about pleasures, it feels right to work this way.
So it may be that the skills you learn from the genre that seem less natural feel as if they work more powerfully and visibly when you bring them back to your primary genre, while in the secondary genre you're more conscious of having to work against as well as with what comes most naturally.
Martin Naparsteck has published two novels, War Song and A Hero's Welcome; a collection of short stories, Saying Things; and a book of writing advice, Honesty in the Use of Words. His book, Richard Yates Up Close, will be published in 2012 by McFarland.