Saturday, February 23, 2008
It is my great pleasure today to introduce you to Cati Porter. I've known Cati for about 10 years; we first met at Kinko's, where she worked at the time. I would go there to make copies of my early novel manuscripts before sending them (fruitlessly, it turned out) out into the world; Cati told me she was a writer, too, and an artist, and it was always a treat to talk to her over the countertop.
When another local poet, Judy Kronenfeld, and I decided to form a monthly poetry group eight or so years ago, I decided to invite my "Kinko's friend". What a wonderful decision that was. It's been a joy to watch Cati, a passionate poet from the beginning, evolve into a truly mind-blowing poet. Cati continues to challenge and stretch herself in both form and content, crafting work that is gorgeous and strange and deep. She also does a beautiful job of reaching out to the poetry community and creating new community in the process--she founded an online poetry journal, Poemeleon, which publishes amazing work from poets around the world, each issue structured around a specific theme (if you have a persona poem, send it to her by the end of the month!) and is also a contributing editor at Babel Fruit, an online poetry journal with a human rights focus. Her first chapbook, small fruit songs, was recently released by Pudding House Publications, and her first full-length collection, Where We Dwell, will be published later this year by Mayapple Press. It's so exciting to see her work explode out into the world!
I had a chance to ask Cati a few questions. Here is the resulting conversation:
--When did you start writing poetry? How would you say your poetry has changed over the years?
Hi Gayle! Thanks for inviting me here. Writing has always been a part of my life, even when I was very young, but I think what really nudged me onto the path was having the opportunity to experience the Poets in the Schools program. I had already developed an interest in poetry and was writing my own before I even entered middle school, but in the eighth grade Jack Grapes and Doraine Poretz came into my class. We wrote poems inspired by their exercises, and we each produced a "manuscript" which we took down to the local copy shop where our crude paste-ups were turned into chapbooks. I still have mine: In My Mind and Out My Dreams. Pretty funny to look at it now, but I was so proud.
Of course, at the time, I had no understanding of craft. That's what has changed. I have slowly internalized an understanding of the elements involved in making an effective poem. I have learned to ruthlessly revise. And I have learned to accept critiques of my work without taking it personally. The best thing I have ever done for myself, as far as my writing is concerned, is join a poetry group. They have been my educators as well as my friends, and I am a better poet, maybe even a better person, because of them.
--I love the publishing trajectory of small fruit songs. Could you please share the story of how it found its way into the world (and before that, how it found its way onto the page)?
I wrote this poem called "Pomegranate, Juiced". That got me started writing a series of fruit poems. I had written at least a dozen, and then I ran across this song that resonated with what I was trying to do, and suddenly the title for the manuscript became obvious: small fruit songs. But as I tried to order the poems and put them in manuscript form, none of them seemed good enough. So I did the hard thing: I scrapped them all and began again. I decided to use fruit-related terms as titles. I browsed through the dictionary under the word "fruit", then the etymological dictionary, for words that were rooted in "fruit", and made a list of the most interesting ones: civil fruit, fructus industriales, fructify, even frugal. When I sat down to write the poems seemed to come all at once, with a rhythm of their own, arriving almost fully intact. In one day I wrote ten, then three more the next; by the end of the weekend I had a complete chapbook-length manuscript. I had already been researching small presses -- reading periods, contests, who accepted manuscripts via e-mail, who didn't -- and decided on a whim to send it to a press that had already turned down my other manuscript -- I figured I had nothing to lose, and their website boasts a twenty-four turnaround on decisions. And then I waited for what I knew would be a rejection note. After three days I still hadn't heard anything back, so I queried. The answer Yes, they loved it and wanted to publish it.
--How would you describe your writing process? You are also a visual artist; could you touch upon whether that process is similar to your writing process, or is it a different experience entirely?
My experience with writing the fruit poems was unusual, in that I usually labor over a poem for days before I think it's done or get tired of it. Then I'll put it away and pull it back out months down the road and revise again. As for differences or similarities in process, I have a tendency to overwrite, to overpaint, but it's much harder to revise a canvas than it is to revise a poem. And with painting -- I love the smell of the paint, the turpentine; it's almost euphoric, and there's a sort of mindlessness to it. With writing, it's all mind. When I try to pull myself out of it, it's a little like stepping out of a dark theater -- it takes some time to adjust. And I'm definitely one of those writers who are dependent upon the computer. I rarely attempt to write anything out by hand. It helps me maintain a level of detachment from the work.
--What inspired you to create Poemeleon?
Poemeleon, in a bizarre twist, is directly attributable to my husband, who is not a poet and has no interest in poetry and in fact wishes I could just be a 'normal' housewife! We were standing in the kitchen one evening after dinner, and I was grousing about how long it was taking an editor to get back to me about a submission. He said, "Well, why don't you start your own journal?" And so I immediately began researching what was involved and with a month I had rudimentary website up and sent out my first call for submissions! Two years down the road, I now have a nice website, two associate editors, a book review editor, and am preparing to launch our fifth issue.
--What has editing poetry taught you about writing poetry?
Everyone tells you that reading is essential in order to grow as a writer, as a poet. Reading submissions gives me a window into what is going on in the poetry community.
In a sense, the journal has become an integral part of my education as a poet, and I consider it an extension of myself. Each issue is devoted to something different, determined by whatever it is I happen to be interested in when it's time to put out the call for a new issue. We've done poems of place, ekphrastic poems, poems in form, prose poems, and now the persona poem. With each issue, I have done significant reading -- even entire writing projects of my own -- in preparation for it. It provides me an opportunity to research aspects of craft that I want to learn more about, to read as many examples of it as I can, and to learn from the mistakes of others,
The more good poetry one reads, the easier it is to distinguish the good from the bad, or even harder, the excellent from the merely competent. In that way, it has helped me to recognize flaws in my own work.
--How did you get involved with Babel Fruit? How, if at all, does the human rights emphasis of the site affect your editorial decisions?
Ren Powell is a friend I'd met through the Women's Poetry Listserv (Wompo). She was one of the first to submit work for the inaugural issue of Poemeleon, and when it came time for the summer reading she was, by coincidence, already planning to be in Southern California (she's a resident of Norway). After the reading, we stayed in touch. Then one day I was checking the list and there was a note from Ren -- she was starting up a literary journal as a result of her involvement with ICORN, an organization that assists with the relocation of persecuted writers. In her note, she said she was sorry she hadn't thought to ask me for advice while she was here. And so I wrote to her, and volunteered to help in any way I could. Because of the journal's affiliation with the International Cities of Refuge Network, a human rights/freedom of speech emphasis was the natural and inevitable choice, and so it became imperative that the work selected for inclusion reflect that.
--How do you balance your creative life and motherhood?
It's more like a see-saw -- some days are devoted more to writing, other days to family. But I have to believe that my children's lives have been enriched by the fact that I have integrated my creative life into my role as a mother. I've read poetry to them from very early on, and they've been to lots of readings. On a daily basis, it's hard to get everything done that needs to be done. I may have the urge to write, but if they're home I have to be in mommy mode -- helping with homework, separating the fights, etc. Just to sit on the couch with them sometimes, well, I love snuggling, but the sometimes I'm sitting there thinking, If I could just get up I could jot down this line before I forget it…. I've learned to work in writing time during odd moments, like while I'm waiting for the pasta water to boil, or after a shower, or the middle of the night!
--This is a banner year for you, with your two books bursting onto the scene. How has this success affected your writing process, or your perception of yourself as a poet?
I'm still sort of in shock. If you'd asked me a year ago, I doubt that I could have predicted this. Actually, I'm quite sure that I couldn't have. But it's not like I've turned into an overnight success. It's been a long road, and I've just turned a corner. That's all. And I just keep moving, putting one word in front of the other, like I always have, using the backspace and delete buttons liberally and without mercy or regret. While small fruit songs is all new material, the poems in Where We Dwell I've been working on for years. The majority of the poems in there have already seen publication in various online and print journals and anthologies. I think having those finally collected in book form will be a relief. I'm already beginning to explore new material.
--Who are some of your favorite poets?
Poets that I return to again and again include Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ruth Stone, Marie Ponsot, Louise Gluck, Beth Ann Fennelly, Charles Harper Webb….
--What advice would you have for an aspiring poet? An aspiring editor?
For an aspiring poet, I know everyone's heard this, but read. Read anything and everything. Not just poetry. Let all those words and ways of writing buzz around and make connections with one another. Join or form a poetry group, go to readings, attend workshops. Learn how to revise without mercy, to be able to cut a word, a line, a stanza, if it isn't functioning. Make sure your work is ready before you start sending it out. And don't let the rejections get you down. Everyone gets them.
For an aspiring editor, if you aren't ready to found your own you can try interning with an established journal. The Council of Little Magazines and Small Presses can offer some guidance, or if there's one you'd especially like to work with, contact them about the possibility. Or if you do want to jump right in and start your own, make sure you have a vision and then stick with it. Stand behind it. And pretty soon other people will, too.
--Thank you so much, Cati! I look forward to continuing to share our journeys with poetry and publishing and life (and fruit!) in the years to come...