Give the child up, says the warm
Give the child up, says death, says
ruination, says torture, give the child up we will care for him
say the men with carapace faces
You can grieve, says the net
you are my favorite, says falling out a
Grief has rules, says the raven, grief has grades,
sidelines, crowds to cheer you on
friendly faces smeared with dung
you can ace it, say the men with beetle-shell faces
baby is tearing up tissues one by
in pieces with a strengthless
On my eyelids the fibers linger
Pale filaments of fairy dust, the hairs
of donkey ears
The fairy makes a sound like cellophane
The baby answers in lighter-clicks
of little flame
The baby looks upward into a weather system
it settles round his head, a crown
makes a sound like eyeliner coming wet and thin onto a brush
He makes a sound that wet and silken
you are getting very
young you are getting very
Wake mother wake this is how they take your baby
when you are drowsy with enticement—
His voice comes like a veil onto my eyes
Lightly a mother’s bridal veil crumbles
The sweetness has come up to my collarbones
shows yellow under my chin
The mother is marked, tired. Tired
“Let’s play on the bed”
(Don’t speak, it will pull out the slow drip
anesthetic of his voice)
He pulls a book off the nightstand
I am helpless
We are addicts, an old
boyfriend would say
This is not that. But it is
I am helpless
My hair fills with sparks
He is eating the rare book
curls the corner back so prettily
So what, say the hairs on my arms
what, says the water rising in the room
He is melting all the books, tasting them
eating the corners—
In between, that sweet voice of no-words-yet
His sounds turn words to eyelashes, a fine net
a white powder
The baby pulls tissues from the box
Out! and then
that one one more
with equal attention to them
all the pleasure
is up to my skull
again the feel of my hair, new-cut, on my back
a rabbit asleep there
a white, still rabbit from the box he would
hold it up till it became vapor
The air gathers in pleats of vapor
I lie back
We are pulled together toward—
Are we are
alive on a planet
“My son and me”
(try to speak)
The words heavy as cured meat
can’t push them
outward into the street the sun
The baby holds up an erasure
tears it, tears off
floats over the edge of a breath
of a stand of milkweed
His breath exists as sand, slipping over my elbows
Water is pouring over the bed
Where is any fierceness
Traffic holds the house in a five-point harness
There is no traffic
just the edge of an infinite pour
not even that
open your eyes
Anne says: “it is like
What is it
I asked her
what does it feel like?
Left alone with the baby is boring
woodfloors knees clockfalls make rounds
Then the light, milkily, comes
We are sugared in a medium, he and I
He is smiling
is on me like a scratch in a car door
The floor is dirt and chalk and cool as a henhouse
He has crawled
into in the bathroom
“Can you open the door?”
“Can you close the door?”
The tub’s cool slope
frames his head with stone
I smell like done bread
Turn over the loaf, tap tap—
hollow sound—door open.
He is smiling
A fishing line, clear, thin
draws through my legs then tight across my chest
a line fine as rapidograph
constant, narrow, even, drawn
round my wrists, shoulders, I am bound
to front, tied up lightly in
is beautiful again.
in the stopped air the animals have stopped.
The baby points at the light.
“?” he says
Answers sparkle and turn like coins on a line
Look at this look
how you are a fish-mother, silvery
on the pond-bottom
can’t breach the surface where the boy
churns up hard light—
There is a spreading through me like snowmelt
He is in the milky world of the bathroom, the daytime
dry chill, he is suspended in marble
All at once he points at me
Then he is out the door, stepping
onto a silver wing
How to describe to you this height, this opening?
Death Is Something Entirely Else
Department of Trance
of Dream of Levitation
Department of White Fathom
Department of Winding
Sometimes my son orders me lie down
I like when he orders me lie down close your eyes
Department of Paper
Department of Sound of Sheets of Paper
he covers me with
I like best the smallest sounds he makes then
Department of This Won’t Sting
Am I slipping away
Department of Violet Static
as if he were a distant station
Department of Satellite
My child says you sleep
Department of Infinitely Flexible Web
and covers my face with blankness
of Tap-Tapping the Vein
Department of Eyelash
I can’t speak
or even blink
or the page laid over my face will fall
Department of Clear Tape in Whorls and Double Helixes on the Wall
mama don’t look
Department of You Won’t Feel a Thing
I cannot behold
Department of Pinprick
He will not behold
Department of Veils and Chimes
of Lungs Afloat in Ether
I like this best
of Spider Vein
when I am most like dead
and being with him then, Department of Notes
Struck from Thin Glasses
Successively at Random
I must explain to my child that sleep
is not the same as dead
Department of Borderlessness
so that he may not be afraid of
Department of Fingertips
Lightly on Eyelids
so I can lie and listen
not holding not carrying not working
Department of Becalmed
faint sound of him
I am gone
His song is the door back to the room
I am composed of the
-from All You Do Is Percieve
Poems - Bio - Essay - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
Joy Katz is the author, most recently, of All You Do Is Perceive, a Stalecher Selection
at Four Way Books and a National Poetry Series finalist. Her other collections are The Garden Room (Tupelo) and Fabulae
(Southern Illinois). Her honors include an NEA fellowship, a Stegner fellowship, and a Pushcart residency at Jentel. She
teaches in the graduate writing programs at Carlow University and Chatham University and lives in Pittsburgh with her husband
and young son.
Poems - Bio - Essay - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
Left Behind by Joy Katz, first
published at Poetry
When my mother died,
eight years ago, I stopped reading poetry. A strange thing for a poet to say, but it’s true. In fact, it wouldn’t
be overstating it to say that I hated poetry after my mother died.
Poems felt false. I resisted, especially, the
kind of piece whose impulse is to resolve. These poems, many of which were sent to me by well-meaning friends,
reduced death to a salvo. It was unbearable to be confined to the limits of their “meanings” at a time when the
territory of mourning was expanding before me, and it appeared to be infinite.
My discomfort with language spread from poetry
to moment-to-moment thinking. People said that I would find a metaphor for where my mother was. I understand this often happens
for grieving people. But when my mother died, I grew suspicious of metaphor. Metaphor insisted: your mother might be the
sea. I tried to imagine her as the sea. I tried to feel around in my soul for whether my mother could ever become the trees.
But I couldn’t. Metaphor said: you are deficient, you have not found a place for her.
I could not imagine what form she might take partly
because I had not settled for myself that she had “gone.” Even today, I sometimes hesitate at the verb. Occasionally
the people who wanted to comfort me in grief seemed discomforted themselves. Their faces were tense, as if anticipating
an unreturnable emotional volley. I tried to find an expression that felt honest and, at the same time, safe to use after
a casual “what’s new?” There wasn’t one.
I remember once, when I was 12, trying to reckon
with the idea that my mother would one day not be here. I promised myself that when the time came, I would say “dead,”
because it was the true word. I understood “passed away” as a pretend phrase adults use when speaking to children
and the infirm. Decades later, when I came back to claim the truth, I discovered that “died” is only a syllable
from the slipstream, useful for emails to one’s employer, but otherwise featureless as a light switch.
felt drained of its possibilities by the time I stood graveside. My disorientation with language was complete as my mother’s
coffin was being lowered into the ground and the rabbi read out her name: Elaine.
Elaine. Something seemed off to me about
this. A mistake. Maybe even a lie. I don’t know why, but I was absolutely certain of one thing: That is not her
name anymore. It was as if someone had whispered this message into my ear. It did not have to do with anything poems
had said, or anything people were saying after the funeral, as we were spooning egg salad and potato salad into bowls. “Elaine
is with Tom now,” someone told me. And “Elaine is in a better place.” Not Elaine, I thought to
myself, as if it were an obvious error of fact that any proofreader would catch.
The next week, while going through my mother’s
things, I found an old etiquette book. In the chapter on condolence, there was a drawing of a woman’s hands, narrow,
graceful, cartoonish 1950s hands, holding a teacup. The grieving person, said the book, will forget to eat,
but she may accept a cup of bouillon. Reading that, I felt, truly, like a pale gold light moved over me. I felt the
weight I had been carrying ease just a bit. The etiquette book was not elegiac. It did not offer beauty, or a “message.”
Its author spoke from a time when people thought about grief and knew what to do when it happened, a time when grief was
an ordinary household condition. The grieving person, the etiquette book explained, is ill. The assessment
was as flat and serene as a sickroom tray. This language had possibility. The etiquette book offered a calm voice, recognition,
an assurance that I wasn’t falling through space.
Several months later, I was sitting in a theater watching
Sarah Ruhl’s play Eurydice. After marrying Orpheus, Eurydice dies. In the underworld, there is a chorus of
stones that addresses the audience.
wants to speak to you.
But she can’t speak your language anymore.
She talks in the language of dead people now.
This was it. Further to the communiqué I had received at my mother’s grave, and to my problem with poetry
The play said: elegies are false. They think they can talk to the dead, but dead people speak in the language of
the dead, and we can’t.
Eurydice is about the playwright’s own bereavement. After dying and traveling to the underworld,
Eurydice sees her father, but she does not recognize him. An ocean of sadness opened up in me as I watched. This play understood
what the loss of a person means. I couldn’t speak to my mother not because I didn’t know where she was, and
not because I had too little faith or imagination to envision where she was. I couldn’t speak to her because I could
not recognize the Her she had become.
For me, the vital part of grieving was not to try to “resolve”
or cross this distance. It was the distance. Eurydice led me back to poetry because it is not an elegy.
It is about being left behind.
I began to think there could be a poem about death that was as large as this distance. Or that a poem about death
might enact a failure of language that seemed to me the truest part of my mother’s absence.
years since, I have found poems into which I can take my remnant grief. It took me a while to sense what kind of writing
I could trust with it, because my relationship to poetry was shifting. Owing to my mother’s death, I had become uneasy
with closure and impatient with poems that offer epiphanic “truths.” Poems of sorrow, especially, needed to do
The ones that sustain me, I find, have to do with living people, humans who mourn, rather than with the departed.
These poems are not “like” grieving—they are not lamentations—but instead open up the isolating
process of mourning. They translate sorrow through poetic form rather than confining it to a metaphor. Here are a few of
The narrator of Ai’s “Cuba, 1962” is a plantation hand who discovers his lover dead in the
sugar cane. First he cuts off her feet with a machete—“what I take from the earth, I give back.” Then
he takes her body to market with the crop.
tastes my woman in his candy, his cake,
tastes something sweeter than this sugar cane;
it is grief.
If you eat too much of it, you want more,
you can never get
I couldn’t have imagined there was anything surprising to say about death. But this poem surprises me by rhyming
grief with greed. It shows me a stage of mourning I passed through without realizing: punishing aboundingness. When my mother
died, so many people brought cakes to the house, the soft, airy kind that always seem to be frosted a lip-staining blue.
I ate and ate. The cakes made me sick, and they never satisfied. The person speaking in “Cuba, 1962” is a laborer,
but the labor in the poem is sorrow. Sorrowing is work, and it does not satisfy. At the end of each day I did not know how
far I had come or when I would be done. Grief was infinite, and yet no amount was enough.
“Cuba, 1962” feels true to me because
the pain in it is not assuaged. The poem is brutal, and it is a love poem. It is almost a reproach of sympathy-verse. So
often the “comfort” in grief poems seems like pretense. I feel easy around this poem; paradoxically, the way
it forsakes comfort comforts me. It reminds me of the condolence card I got from my mother-in-law: Dear Joy, she
wrote, Do you feel like you have a hole in your heart that nothing can fill? Her question held a mirror up to my
pain. This twinning of grief was generosity itself, in the form of a question I was not obligated to answer. Do you
feel this? Not death feels like _________.
Christina Davis, in her incantatory poem “Furthermore,”
focuses on the body after the death of her father. I love the ancient sound of lines such as these:
[…] to have for a body
the going away of
the body, to have for eyes
the going away of the eyes. And for hearing,
What the poet has left of her father—what she gets to keep—is even less substantial than a memory. Her
father has become an abstract process, the-going-away-of. And there is more transformation: the body is also the poet’s
body. All she can see with her own eyes is the going away of his.
“Furthermore” is the opposite of poems
that make the site of mourning an object, such as an ocean or a tree. In those poems, an image becomes a reliquary, a stand-in
for a person who was once able to see it. Images can be objects of faith: a poem can make a tree more real than a real tree
(to misquote Marianne Moore). But in this poem, I find the lack of image more faithful to experience.
In a way, “Furthermore” argues against
the faith poems place in images. A passage in Psalms, echoing this poem, explains: “Eyes have they, but they see not;
they have ears, but they hear not.” In the psalm, the Jews are being instructed to reject idols. Instead of worshiping
gold effigies, they are supposed to rely on a God whose presence is abstract. A process. Not wind or vapor, but the fact
that wind and vapor are created.
How to turn, in need and sorrow, to a process, where so recently there was a living body? In return for my mother,
I had going-awayness and, after a while, having-goneness. Davis’s acceptance of this transformation, in “Furthermore,”
strikes me as a strong act of faith.
Mary Szybist’s “On Wanting to Tell [
] About a Girl Eating Fish Eyes” questions poetry’s faith in metaphor, even as it is full of metaphors. “On
Wanting to Tell” is really about a helpless way of seeing that happens in grief. Death creates an intensity of perception
that causes objects of the world to change:
died just hours ago.
Not suddenly, no. You'd been dying so long
nothing looked like itself: from your window,
fishnets entangled the moon.
“You’d been dying so long, nothing
looked like itself.” In death’s slow approach, starlight became sequins. This is a romantic metaphor, spun of
sweet sorrow. But “On Wanting to Tell” is not the kind of poem that turns starlight into sequins. It is not sweet,
either. Death has come finally. Metaphor disappears.
the dark rain
looks like dark rain. Only the wine
shimmers with candlelight.
it would have been a relief to find, even for a minute, that the world was just the world again, and nothing was “like”
anything else. An ordinary minute in a universe where my mother wasn’t dead, and the rain was not charged with loss.
But this moment, when the rain is simply the rain, is not a resolution. The world of this poem is not normal. We know this
because in its first lines, before any mention of death, there is a little girl going around eating eyes.
—how her loose curls float
above each silver fish as she leans in
to pluck its eyes—
Is a girl actually going around the room and pulling eyes out of fish and eating them? Is “eating eyes”
a metaphor? It is unclear. All we can tell for sure is that the speaker of the poem is at a dinner party where she turned
from an ordinary wine-drinking person into a person-who-is-still-alive. It is a very, very odd moment. She speaks to the
dead person, but wishfully, not with any investment in communicating:
If only I could go to you, revive you.
You must be a little alive still.
At the end of the poem, the girl who has been
helping herself, apparently from platters of eyes, is asked what they taste like. She responds: “They taste like eyes.”
Metaphor declined—no explanation, no truth revealed, no diversion from the weirdness.
Szybist’s voice throughout the poem is pacific,
hypnotic. And there is tenderness (awful tenderness) in the description of the girl slipping eyes into her mouth with “soft,”
“rosy,” chewed fingers. The creepy girl hovers in the uncomfortable place between metaphor and reality as the
poem wonders about the border between still-alive and no-longer-alive.
Ted Berrigan’s poem “People Who Died”
does not want to set me up for philosophical understanding. It does not have flashy chops. It moves obviously, deliberately,
like someone laying down a weapon in surrender. The poem, as the title announces, is simply a list.
The people who died are Berrigan’s family and friends.
The recitation is chronological, so it intermingles the legendary and the obscure:
of Huntington’s Chorea in 1968.
of exposure, sleeping all night
in the rain by the RR tracks of Mexico….1969.
Franny Winston……just a girl….totalled her car on the Detroit-Ann Arbor
Freeway, returning from the dentist….Sept. 1969.
of drink & angry sickness….in 1969.
It’s not that the poem refuses to confront death’s mystery or
that the experience of grief is missing from “People Who Died.” Quite the opposite. Grief is in the poem’s
form. It is in how Berrigan trips up, interrupting his list, pausing and then continuing, as though snapping out of a reverie.
“Jack……Jack Kerouac.” In the hesitation, I feel a tension. The poem doesn’t tell me how to
interpret this pang—I am free to take it as sadness, or as an emotional double-take. The ellipsis could be a crack,
just a flash of the infinite territory of sorrow. The details of their relationship aren’t important. The epic of Kerouac’s
life could have crushed this poem. “Drink & angry sickness” compresses a life into a teaspoon of radioactive
material. It satisfies the part of me that wanted adults to tell it straight.
The poem closes: My friends whose deaths have
slowed my heart stay with me now. The pitch of the last line is not so different from the rest of the poem. It is a
gesture of acceptance, not a reach for the lyrical sublime. It is a low-key observation.
Whose deaths have slowed my heart describes
the cadence of this poem, calm as a resting heartbeat, or a train on a long nighttime stretch. My friends stay with me
now limits the poem to saying something about Berrigan. “People Who Died” makes no pronouncement about
my relationship with my own people who died. But because the poem is so modest, I feel invited into its ongoingness, the
train that carries all the dead and the living.
Poems - Bio - Essay - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
A Review of Joy Katz's All You Do Is Perceive by Kay Cosgrove, first published at CutBank
Some thirteen years ago in a gale of wind,
On a foil packet of shampoo,
After a prayer with no words,
When a spoon leaves a firm imprint,
During the last known hours,
As the meltdown hit groundwater,
When we signed off on everything,
And then, a face: the woundable face of a boy.
From That Time Iffus’d Sweetness Into My Heart”)
concludes the first poem in Joy Katz’s latest collection, All You Do Is Perceive. This first poem, set off
from the rest of the book, reads as an invocation to the muse, who, in this case, happens to be the adopted son of the speaker.
Written as one long, breathless sentence, “Which From That Time Infus’d Sweetness Into My Heart” establishes
the arc of the book as akin to “a basket tossed weightlessly” (line 13). The poems float from page to page,
linked by their shared perception of the world through the eyes of a speaker, who, in turn, sees like a child again. One
can feel the joy bursting forth from the pages of this collection, and as readers, we get to share in it through the language
of the poems, like children in awe.
Take, for example, the poem “[Noon, F Train].” In it, Katz creates a simple, beautiful portrait of a
daily life. Nothing much happens in the poem: there is a woman, arguably the speaker, and she rides the F train home, reading
a book. Written in a block of prose, “[Noon, F Train]” unfolds like a movie clip before the reader’s eyes,
as if we are there with her on the train. Though the echo of Eliot (“there is time enough…”) might be
a bit heavy-handed as an allusion, this repeated phrase evokes a mood that allows the reader to see this ordinary scene
through new eyes, to “pass up into the world and leave nothing behind…” (“[Noon, F Train]”).
of the book reflects on being a woman in the world, specifically, a woman in relation to a man and/or a child. The speaker
both identifies with and makes a distinction between herself and the other ‘characters’ in the collection, the
man and the child, who are perhaps representative of the family unit. There is the relationship to a beloved: “his
song is the door back to the room/I am composed of the notes” (“Death Is Something Entirely Else”), the
relationship to the son: “we are sugared in a medium, he and I/He is smiling/Happiness is on me like a scratch in
a car door” (“Mother’s Love”), and the relationship to both of them: “how she must hold to
everyone and swim them to the same shore” (“He Laughs Too Hard About The Wine”). In each poem, the speaker,
at times in a playful tone and at times rather gravely, highlights these relationships in order to underscore her femininity
– the defining difference between both the beloved and the son. This accounts for a different perception of the
world, as in the poem “The Lettuce Bag” (“If labias were in/season, their tender interiors, their roundness,
would be touched by/the grocer’s mist”), or the fourth stanza of “The Imagination, Drunk With Prohibitions”:
Womanhood is more embarrassing than manhood.
If the woman is old, breakfast
If breakfast is brioche, it becomes less frightening.
Insouciant is more French than nuance,
disappointment more French
London more suave than Paris.
Drunk With Prohibitions”)
There is even something childlike in the more
serious meditations on womanhood and motherhood, something that insists on finding delight in the most unlikely places.
Katz establishes this child-like wonder largely through her playful use of anaphora and repeated images. Katz succeeds in
using the phrase “Department of” twenty-one times in “Death Is Something Entirely Else”, and in “Mother’s
Love,” she similarly repeats the opening few words again and again so that the poem begins to sound like a song. Less
original, but just as striking, is the ending of “Just A Second Ago”, which relies on anaphora to establish an
eerie tone of possibility: “just a second ago/while you were crossing the street/while you were finishing your lunch/while
you were handing me your terrible secret—“ (lines 25-28). Finally, there is the sky, the air, the natural
world we inhabit, and the language we use to understand nature, as in the poem “We Are Walking Into The Sunset”:
Look, the sky has become stained glass made of meat!
You keep talking,
as if in utter faith that life will go on forever.
Yet that in itself is lovely.
Keep talking. What is more of a pleasure to
See, a moon as big as a bison head
or the face of a friend, talking?
(“We Are Walking Into the Sunset”)
Another level of perception present in the collection is the perception
of the world through the eyes of a writer, specifically, a woman writer. Again and again, Katz acknowledges that she is at
work in All You Do Is Perceive, that she has “a few minutes left to write” (“The Composer”),
that “mornings [she] wrote and workmen/raised up their nets” (“All You Do Is Perceive”). The speaker
seems to be trying to reconcile the world with her place in it, a task that might be impossible through poetry:
I get a great, blank feeling, driving. I am a girl, driving.
labor, progress, robber barons—not poems. Four men sit
in recliners on
a grand side lot. Lush weeds, what grows without regard.
Girls’ names no one
thinks to pick: Lorraine. Here is the street where
I lived. Where I can be—nothing.
Four p.m., light rain, no one asks
what I am writing. A room livingly painted sends its notion
(“To A Small Postindustrial City”)
All You Do Is Perceive explores a way
of being in the world that relies on consciousness alone, on paying attention to even the most mundane aspects of life,
such as carting the empties to the dump (“Big Baby”) or admitting that being “alone with the
baby is boring” (“Mother’s Love”). In this collection, there is joy even in sorrow, and Katz
teaches her readers to notice, to be alert, “to prefer autumn’s bigger name, fall, and/its battering change”
(“Big Baby”). All of the poems, as with all of the aspects of life, accumulate one on top of another. Some
are happy, some less so, but, through the eyes of a new baby, a son, they can be beautiful, like a basket as it comes crashing
back down to earth:
That becomes a basket tossed weightlessly,
As a baby is handed
through the air to us,
In the final seconds of the fourth quarter,
Halfway through the preface,
After they set
us on fire…
(“Which From That Time Infus’d Sweetness Into My
Click here to read a review of All You Do
Is Perceive at Pank
Poems - Bio - Essay - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
An Interview with Joy Kats by Elizabeth Hoover, first published at Post No Ills
HOOVER: Four Way Books recently published your third book, All You Do Is Perceive. How did that book lead
into your current poems about race?
JOY KATZ: My book wonders about perception. We are most alive when we are perceived—even,
misperceived. Misperception is a form of love in these poems, except one: “A Lynched Man Came with the Mail onto My
This poem is about an image from Without Sanctuary, an exhibit of lynching photographs. I don’t know
why I wanted to write about it. Writing the poem, I hit a limit of perception. I wrote about the photo’s visual composition;
I’m good at that. But it feels awful in this case. When I look at the photo just as a human, I feel pain. But what
is my pain exactly?
In his essay on Without Sanctuary, critic Hilton Als says that writing about those pictures forces
him into a “niggerish point of view.” As a black man, he feels constantly watched, “niggerized.”
For my part, I can’t not look at the lynched man from a white perspective. Am I “niggerizing” him? No matter
how much empathy I try to summon, through all of my ways of seeing—artistic, intuitive, human—there are limits
to perception. Why should my gaze confer dignity? Maybe I am merely gaping at a “blockbuster disaster movie,”
as Als refers to the collective effect of the pictures. “All you do is perceive” becomes a problem. That problem
was the door to this new work.
HOOVER: In your poems, the speaker encounters resistance when she brings up race. You write, “People
go quiet who know about it/ when you try to ask about this white.” Why do you think whiteness is a taboo subject?
It’s only taboo for white people. Kids of color are raised talking about race. I was raised to pretend it
doesn’t exist. If you’re a person of color, race affects your life every day, from the minute you’re born.
If you’re a white person, it’s easy to not think about because our race doesn’t limit you in stark, everyday
I am always aware of my inexperience navigating race in everyday conversations. (Elizabeth, you are white, and
you’re interviewing me about being white. Shut up!) I know someone reading this must be rolling her eyes.
The poet Reginald Dwayne Betts has said: “Don’t write about being white.”
I didn’t want to send my son to a school
with all white kids and I live in a segregated city. Trying to figure that out, I thought about race ten times an hour.
When I brought up the subject with people of color, the conversation felt natural. When I broached the topic with white
people, they would get a look on their face like I was standing there with my blouse unbuttoned down to my waist.
Why did it become so important for you to write about race?
KATZ: I don’t want to raise
my son as a symbolic white. I have seen how that hurts kids of color with white parents. Writing is how I am thinking through
this, how I’m trying to change my life.
I use the phrase “This White” in the poems to mean the white
I was raised in. I need to know how it happened, because I cannot raise my kid inside it. I need now to be a different kind
of white. I don’t want to write poems that gaze at an Other with wonder or narrate white guilt. I feel freest in my
poetry to interrogate, skewer, love, and fray “this white.” Wildness can come into poems about “this white.”
I can’t make whiteness go away, but I can find out how it came to envelop my life, and try to fray it. Maybe I can
poke a hole in it big enough to fit myself through and stand on the other side. It is hard to perceive something that has
been invisible to me for so long.
HOOVER: In terms of white poets writing about race, Tony Hoagland springs to mind. Do you look to
his work at all?
KATZ: I perceive Hoagland recording the whiteness of generations, and implicating himself, without
falling into the guilt trap. His poems are full of white-maleness and are cognizant of that. His poems are not timid. Hoagland’s
frankness and boldness are models for me. And his Americanness.
Hoagland said that his controversial poem “The
Change” may be for white people. Taken out of context, the idea is troubling. I don’t want to write
poems for “whites only,” and I don’t believe that’s what Hoagland was doing. But—could it be
useful if one of my poems made clear it was talking about, or to, a white person? It’s a risk, because intentionally
white spaces are so awful. Klan rallies, skinhead blogs. But I recently drafted a “Poem for White People.” The
decision lifted a burden off the poem. I could record a tension I felt in talking specifically to a white person. It’s
a poem anyone can read, but if you’re a person of color reading it, it’s clear you are looking on as an observer
at a certain conflict. It lets both of us off the hook—me and a reader—so I can concentrate on the language of
the poem and not be inhibited about its content.
Writing to a white person, explicitly, is a strategy I’m
experimenting with. In my poems, I try to find ways to record white anxiety and self-consciousness. A fundamental meaning
of the poem comes from the title, “Poem for White People.” The poem functions in part because of where you stand
in relation to it. I needed to make that clear. A poem can orient itself toward white people the way a side of a mountain
is oriented toward a town. I think that’s Hoagland’s approach (in his poems on race, I mean). My “Poem
for White People” operates more in the spirit of Frank O’Hara’s “personism.”
Do you look to any other white poets writing about race?
KATZ: There aren’t too
many white poets working in this area. Todd Fredson is writing about his experiences in Ivory Coast during the buildup to
civil war. Tess Tayor writes about the history of slavery in her family. Martha Collins also investigates race through her
family. Personal history is one way in, for white poets. Jenny Browne uses her white privilege (legibly) to make observations
about race. The poems are funny, meditative, intelligent. I love Ailish Hopper’s lyric poems that inhabit racial consciousness.
CD Wright’s One Big Self is a huge influence. The introduction sets Wright up in relation to the situation:
visiting maximum-security prisons in the South. A white professor among mostly black incarcerated people. Imagine all the
ways that writing could have failed. The book turns on its introduction, which is gorgeous and moving. Wright pledges “to
I am excited by the irreverence in work by contemporary playwrights of color. I love Qui Nguyen’s The Inexplicable
Redemption of Agent G, Young Jean Lee’s Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, David Henry Hwang’s
Yellow Face. All, hilarious, disturbing, smart. These plays say the worst things; they don’t tread carefully.
I have to be careful talking about race, but self-censorship is problematic. I don’t want to shrink from what poet
Khadijah Queen calls “the profane frequency.” I don’t want to make tentative poems (except to make tentativeness
the subject of a poem). Ideally, anyone can say anything, but how?
Click here to read an interview with Joy Katz
at The Paris Review
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