Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Phoenix Poets, Poetry

Read an Interview with Katie Peterson, Consulting Editor for the Phoenix Poets Series

As we enter the relaunch of the Phoenix Poets series, we’re introducing the new editors and poets through a series of short interviews. Here, we spoke with poet and professor Katie Peterson, who is a consulting editor of the University of Chicago Press’s Phoenix Poets series. Peterson recounts her childhood’s saturation with storytelling, discusses memory’s role in her experience of poetry, and considers how we constantly live between languages.

Photo by Young Suh

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to poetry?

I come from a family of talkers, so the dinner table was a place of argument. The good part was that my parents cared what we thought. The hard part was that they always wanted to know. My mother, the daughter of a judge and a master storyteller, never without a subject, was always looking for a listener. I marveled to discover that language meant you could learn, and keep, a thousand things, in your head, without other people knowing what you knew. Long before I cared about poetry, I knew there was an invisible place with real coordinates, an interior, apart from the world. But the existence of that place was conditioned by the world’s demands. My aunt is a Carmelite prioress and as a child, I idealized her life. She seemed to sing and think her days away with beautiful dogs in a natural setting! Now I see how communal, how social, her solitude must be. When poetry showed up, I suppose was ready for it. I have been lucky to have had brilliant teachers all my life. I remember the first poems I memorized—“The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” “When You Are Old and Gray and Full of Sleep,” and Yeats’ Celtic poems—I loved them for taking me away to another world that felt more real than this one. That element of fantasy in poetry still appeals to me—for example, in poems that use the pastoral—not because a poem lets us escape but because we can continue our earthly debates in unexpected, and if we’re lucky, revelatory ways.

Could you talk about your experience with the Phoenix Poets series, and what are you excited about for the future of the relaunched series?

The books in the Phoenix Poets series have always seemed to me to bring together two elements—the way poetry begins with a voice, and the necessity of experiment in language. David Ferry’s Bewilderment does this; it’s a book in which what’s brutally human goes hand in hand with ritual speech. In Chiyuma Elliott’s Blue in Green, the interior life can only be communicated in the tone of the blues. These earlier Phoenix writers change the way I see self-expression—they intuitively bring forward new possibilities in the language in the (deceptively) simple guise of a person singing, talking, or even just thinking out loud. This kind of dynamism is present in all good poetry. I’m excited for the relaunched series to find new versions of it.

As new editors, we didn’t begin with fixed criteria but conversation. Rosa’s generous attention, hunger to be moved by poetry, and real skepticism make her judgments warm and wise; Doug Kearney taps into the essential energy current of the language at the same moment he sees its social stakes; Chicu keenly finds the wider context of the book’s ambition and strategy as he somehow finds the center of the poetic impulse in each work. Since we treat the books to repeated readings, we return to our first impressions as we return to our conversation with each other. Together we are less ossified thinkers than we would be apart. I value that.

And I am excited about the strength of poetry at this moment in culture. I think about the sheer number of people who are writing it, a simply extraordinary fact that doesn’t get commented upon enough by those of us who teach it and think about it. I still think about T.S. Eliot’s claim that any poet writing in the tradition changes the tradition. As I read work by contemporary poets, I can hear how many different voices they hear inside the language. I can see the diversity of art and experience they’ve responded to (we have gotten some wonderful books with visual elements). And I can feel, in the work, how poetry responds with amazement rather than fear to the vast shifts and changes we have experienced together. 

What are some things you look for when selecting books for the series? Are there qualities, styles, or subjects that you’re especially drawn to?

I am drawn to things that I remember! I use my memory to tell me what I am interested in if that makes any sense. Sometimes I have this experience, that I think I like, or don’t like, a poem or a line, but then I can’t forget it. Then I reconsider. What I am most educated by is what my brain and senses retain from the work after I’ve read it. Good poetry uses repetition effectively; it prefers a full range of diction (whatever that is—in Dong Li’s case, it means more than one language, and in Lindsay Turner’s case, it means moving between lofty speech and slang)—I find these, generally, in the work I remember. I am drawn to books that create a mood and atmosphere, in which a larger world is implied, or made, by the voice. I like poets who are unafraid to ask big questions. And I suppose I like poets who don’t think those questions can be exactly answered, but instead, see them as shared predicaments.

The relaunched series includes the “Phoenix Emerging Poet Book Prize” for a poet’s first or second published book. Could you talk about why this sort of emerging poet opportunity is important to you?

Poets writing their first books right now literally know things that I don’t know. They have been educated by their experiences in ways that I haven’t been. When I read the work of younger writers, I see the world the way they see the world, and my eyes open. One of the reasons why poetry is such an amazing form is that it respects experience and candor more than it respects age and power. It thinks a nearly teenage Hart Crane can tell you something about love just as it believes that a homebound Dickinson can understand politics better than a Beltway wonk. There’s no reason to believe that the best poetry in America couldn’t be found in a first or second book. In a first or second book, the writer, whatever their chronological age, is still breaking the silence of a lifetime—a dramatic task, full of possibility. And as editors, we also get to experience the pleasure of discovery. 

The relaunched series now includes poetry in translation. Could you talk about the importance of publishing translated works in the series?

It’s beyond true that Americans should read more work in translation. By giving contemporary translation a seat at the table, we position a translated work with the best of American poetry and advocate for work in other languages to be read more often here. But Americans should read more work in translation not because it’s good for you but because it’s good! Our submissions so far have been as alive and memorable as the manuscripts we’ve read in English. And many of them have been translated by wonderful American poets.

All of us live between languages—we just don’t always notice it. Like many California kids, my daughter knows a fair amount of Spanish, not because she’s being bilingually educated (thought wouldn’t that be amazing, to have the whole state educated in English and Spanish, or the whole country?) but because she pays attention. Her father is Korean and we’re learning Korean together as a family, and besides, he thinks in Korean. Our world asks us to translate all the time, and intuitively—English is where words land, but it isn’t necessarily where they belong. Publishing translation means giving space to those elements of expression translators know so intimately—fragment, broken meaning, compromise, approximation, frustration, solution, what’s lost, what can’t be recovered, what can be attempted, what must be destroyed, what might be saved. Translators are so close to language—their work reminds us of essential elements in poetry itself.

The first two books in the relaunched series will be published this March. You can preorder Vexations and Orange Tree now from our website.