- Jess Smith
from the horse's mouth: with kate angus
Photo Credit: David West
“…my brain is a strange archive.”
Jess: How did you spend your summer? And how are you today?
Kate: I spent my summer in a bit of a daze. I’d planned to finish a draft of my nonfiction manuscript, a collection of essays that explore personal experience through the lens of folklore and myth, but instead--other than a trip to Michigan to see my family and one to Maine to hang out with friends--I’ve mostly just lolled around on my couch binge-reading and watching movies. I’m riding the “Stranger Things Is Amazing” bandwagon along with everyone else in my Facebook feed.
Today I’m balancing on a thin wire between being exhausted from an early morning CrossFit class and wired from trying to get my lesson plans completed and handouts photocopied before the new semester begins.
Jess: Oh, I'm also on the Stranger Things bandwagon currently. It's a summer treat, to be sure! So interesting that you're working on a collection that deals with folklore and myth, as Stranger Things is also engaged with these traditions in many ways. I believe that stories, as Anzaldúa said, are the mechanism through which we transmit culture. Is this a theme in your essay collection? What can you tell me about it?
Kate: Yes, I think that’s definitely true. I also believe that myth and folklore give us ways to recognize ourselves and that these stories can illuminate our own experiences in the world. We are individuals, but ones who exist inside deep atavistic universal patterns—in that sense, my heart is aligned with Joseph Campbell’s “the hero’s journey” narrative and Jung’s ideas about archetypes and the collective unconscious. The essay collection I’m working on is kind of a chimera—a hybrid I’ve cobbled together where I use folklore and myth in tandem with memoir. For instance, there’s an essay about sleep paralysis, which I suffered from in my late twenties and early thirties, and that essay contains both a catalog of world folklore surrounding that condition, as well as an exploration of my own experience.
Jess: Your book So Late to the Party is a moving, intelligent collection. I was particularly excited by the mingling of joy and despair, and the way you used the city of New York to evince that universal condition. Can you talk to me a little bit about that? And about how the book came into being?
Kate: That’s so nice of you to say; thank you. New York as the backdrop to most of the poems happened because, well, this is my home—it blows my mind sometimes but I’ve been living in the East Village for almost 20 years now. My poems tend to unfurl because of a moment of observation or an experience—something in the external world triggers some kind of internal poetry-making mechanism--and so the world of the poems is also just a reflection of the world I live in.
Did the poems evince the universal condition? Mingling joy and despair, or finding a kind of bleak but genuine humor in the midst of darkness, does feel pretty universal to me, but sometimes my poems also feel so entirely personal that I wonder if anyone else could ever step inside them. But maybe that’s the point—we’re all human, we all live here inside these permeable bodies with our stupid needful hearts, and so perhaps one person being vulnerable and contemplative and self-searching within words is an open door for others to recognize or explore their own feelings. God knows the things that preoccupy me (love, money, anxiety, the need to accept personal responsibility for my own privilege and try to get to work actually bettering conditions for others rather than staying trapped in my own little freakouts) are pretty universal, but mostly with these poems I was just trying to figure out how to live in the world a little more easily. I think I wrote this book to try to better learn how to be a person, how to be an adult, how to be someone who could engage with myself and other people and the world around me with—I hope—integrity and vulnerability and honesty.
Jess: Yes! I love this. I think you are deft at engaging a common human vulnerability with courage and dark humor. There's also a very fresh, modern engagement – talking about Facebook in "Fresh Hells", for example, or Google Chrome ads and JSTOR in "Click Here." Poetry often springs from a "moment of observation", as you said, and we are constantly engaged with new and evolving methods of communication. What do you think about the idea of a poem as a time capsule? And how do you think technology is acting in or upon your own poems?
Kate: In some ways my poems do feel like time capsules or archives of who I used to be and what and who surrounded me—each of them contains a specific Kate, the Kate that I was during the moments I wrote and revised it. So sometimes I’ll read an old poem and remember being the woman I was then, the one who embodied those emotions and thought those thoughts, and I feel a little surge of nostalgia and affection for that Past Kate, along with relief that I’m not her anymore. Not that I was terribly unhappy or self-loathing then, but just that it’s the past now—nice to visit, but not a place to live again.
I definitely see the influence of technology on my poems. I often feel like the path my work takes is very similar to how I surf the Internet. When I’m online, I click from link to link—I might log onto Facebook and then see a post about underwater ruins of old cities and then click another link about the augurs of ancient Rome and then one about Arctic foxes, etc. And I think my poems also often function that way: a word or an image or an idea will send the poem spinning off in a different direction—there are connections there, but the path is associative and tangential and the connections instinctive and under the surface more than ones I can clearly map out and see. There’s a discernible narrative I think, but the narrative is based on emotional and aesthetic connections rather than, say, a step-by-step plot. One of the definitions I so often see of modern poetry is that it’s “the movement of the mind on the page” and, well, in a much more prosaic way, so are our Internet histories.
Jess: Can you tell me about some of your greatest influences? We've already discussed the kind of ekphrastic nature of home – your home being New York City – but what else or who else has shaped your work the most?
Kate: I’ve been shaped very much by certain writers—among them, Rilke, Richard Siken, Mary Ruefle, Kevin Prufer, Kelly Link, Tony Kushner, Agha Shahid Ali, Terrance Hayes and Louise Erdrich—and by teachers like Matthew Zapruder, David Lehman, Meghan O’Rourke and Jack Driscoll. My work has also been influenced by visual artists like Joseph Cornell, Henry Darger, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat and by the music of Prince, Tom Waits, Bach, The National and the Magnetic Fields. Michigan is a huge influence on my work—the dunes, the pine trees and Lake Michigan, as well as my childhood home which is full of strange old family things. My violin. Interlochen Arts Academy, where I went to high school, shaped me. My family has shaped me. Reading about folklore, myths, and legends. Everyone I’ve ever been in love with. My friends. Coffee. Drinking wine late at night. Birch trees. The smell of cardamom. The way saffron strands look like tiny coral branches. Just knowing that there are coyotes living wild in New York City. All these things somehow influence my work—it’s a weird list maybe, but my brain is a strange archive I rummage through and these are the things that I pull out to make into poems.
Jess: I think all the best poetry springs from "weird" lists like these, and the best poets yoke together what seems to be disparate or solitary to reveal connection. Many of the poems in So Late to the Party draw attention to the way small moments draw your attention, as with the funny and heartbreaking 'To the Mustache of the Guy in the 'Che Guevara' is My Homeboy' T-Shirt at Odessa's Late the Other Night." Do you think this kind of sustained, intense attentiveness to, as Whitman called it, "the minutia of daily usages", is natural to the poet or a cultivated discipline?
Kate: I don’t really know. For me, the small moments of the daily world—the things that I notice—are a natural springing board into poetry, but it’s not something I think I’ve consciously cultivated as a discipline. When I’m stuck and don’t know where to go in a poem, or want to write something and am not sure how to start things off, I tend to look around to see if there’s anything near me—physically at hand or within view outside of my window—that I can look at carefully and find interesting enough to write a few lines about, in hopes that those lines spill over into the next few lines and then who knows where things will end up going. So I guess I use attentiveness as a catalyst, as a way to begin. But I don’t know if it’s just a natural outgrowth of how I engage in the world or if it’s a trick I realized worked long enough ago that it’s become a kind of aesthetic muscle memory.
Jess: Lastly, I always like to ask, what advice would you give new writers? Is there anything you wish you'd known, or anything you're still working to learn as you navigate the choppy poetry sea searching for shore?
Kate: I always feel a little ill at ease giving advice because I feel like I’m an eternal apprentice. I’m not sure I’m that skilled at navigating the weird choppy poetry ocean--there are so many things I wish I were better at: I wish I were a better writer, I wish I were more experimental with form, I wish I didn’t rely on a default elegiac voice, I wish I were better at self-promotion and understood how to use Twitter and didn’t feel like I was dying a little inside every time I do a promotional post on Facebook or that I didn’t get nervous when I meet strangers at a reading or that I didn’t feel like I’m asking for too much if I need to hit someone up for a recommendation letter for a residency or a grant. So, really, who am I to be giving advice? But all that said, one thing I wish I’d understood more clearly when I was a newer writer is how long it takes for most people to publish and how difficult and soul-crushing that journey can be at times when you’re paying reading fees and racking up rejections and how even being a finalist can start to feel like a punch in the gut because it starts to seem like a symbol of yet another time your manuscript didn’t win rather than an honor. We mostly read stories about the young writers who make it fast and big because those stories are Hollywood stories—pretty ones. But that’s not how it is for most writers. Many poets struggle for a long time to get their book out. But that doesn’t mean the work is bad or that you should stop trying. It just means that it’s hard. A lot of things are hard—finding (and keeping) real love is hard, art is hard, living in this world with integrity is hard—but they are still worth doing. My book was a long time coming into being and, when I first started sending it out, I didn’t realize how awful those years of rejection would feel and how much stamina it takes, how much endurance you need. But you have to believe in your work and keep trying—revising, subtracting old poems, writing and adding in new work, reshaping the manuscript and sending it out. You have to believe your words will find the right home. You owe it to your work to persevere until it finds its proper readers.
Kate Angus is a founding editor of Augury Books. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Atlantic, Tin House, The Washington Post, Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, Best New Poets 2010, Best New Poets 2014, and The Academy of American Poets "Poem-A-Day" newsletter. She is the recipient of the A Room of Her Own Foundation's "Orlando" award, as well as prizes from Southeast Review, American Literary Review, and The New York Times "Teacher Who Made a Difference" award. Kate is the Creative Writing Advisory Board Member for the Mayapple Center for Arts and Humanities and curates the Pen and Brush Presents reading series for the visual and literary arts nonprofit Pen and Brush. More information is available at www.kateangus.org.