Cati Porter is the author of Seven Floors Up, My Skies of Small Horses, and five chapbooks, most recently The Body, Like Bread. Her third full-length collection, The Body at a Loss, is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press. She is founder and editor of Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry and executive director of the Inlandia Institute. She lives in Riverside, California, with her husband and two teenage sons.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
If you’re a writer of any sort, any type of publication feels like a legitimization of the pursuit, so I do think book publication changed my life. It is often argued that the writing itself is its own reward — and I think it is, for the writer — but it definitely makes it easier to say to others that you’re a writer when you have something tangible to show for it. I also think it changes the way you view your own work if the editor of a press you admire finds value in it too.
A friend noted that my work can be summed up in two words: domesticity and desire. The forms of domesticity and desire that are explored might vary, but those ideas are definitely the through-line.
That said, the works do feel distinctly different. Writing is a process of discovery, and with each new project it is like I am discovering my own processes anew.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have the California Poets in the Schools Program to thank for that. In 1985, when I was just 13, poets came to visit my classroom. By the end of the program, we had learned the art of writing, arranging, and pasting up our poems, so that we could take them to the local copy shop and have them turned into a “real” book. I still have it. I credit that program with helping me find a direction for my life. Here I am thirty-one years later, still writing poetry.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
They’re all different. For my first chapbook, small fruit songs, I wrote the entire thing quickly— maybe over the course of three or four days? — but that’s not the whole story. I initially wrote a bunch of poems over a longer period of time that I thought would make a chapbook, then read them over and tossed them out, starting again.
In general, I am not a note taker for my poems. I might look things up as I write, but I will incorporate the details right away, and yes, generally, the poems are in something resembling a finished form in that first draft. But it’s kind of like playing Jenga — you take out one piece, fit another in, or leave the holes; sometimes the entire structure comes apart and you start again. I’m terrible at saving multiple drafts. I usually end up saving over all of my previous work, sometimes regrettably so.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Usually, I fixate on a particular topic for a while and write a bunch of smaller poems that end up working really well together. I see my work as project-oriented, so I’ll exhaust a topic and then try to find an arrangement of the poems. I’ve done this with small fruit songs (all used fruit-related terms as a jumping off point), (al)most delicious (ekphrastic persona poems after Modigliani’s nudes), what Desire makes of us (a series that personifies desire), and The Body, Like Bread (basically an exploration of a vegetarian’s latent desire for meat). For my collection, The Body at a Loss, I wrote through and around a health crisis I was having.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy giving readings, but they are not a part of the creative process at all. I’m not performance oriented, so I’m not an especially exciting poet to hear give a reading! But I think there is something valuable in the auditory/bodily experience of the poem.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
This isn’t something that I actively think about or pursue but I do feel my poems are concerned with language, with the way the ear hears things, the way our brains process the sounds and make sense of even the nonsense. I also concern myself with details of daily living. Paying attention to the details, even or maybe especially the most mundane.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Poets are reporters. We report on what it means for each of us to be alive, and our ways of being in the world, and we report on the state of the world as we know it. I think that is our role - to preserve our ways of being in the world in the vast variety of ways it is possible to be.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both? I think both. It’s critical to have someone outside yourself give you feedback on your work, and to help you see where something might not be working. It can be painful, but it can also be eye-opening.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Be faithful to your imagination beyond all.” From my friend Maureen Alsop’s Habitual Poet interview on Poemeleon’s blog.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
A typical day for me begins with flipping the light switch on and telling my 13 y/o it’s time to get up for school, making my husband’s lunch, buttering toast for my 16 y/o, shuttling both teens to school, then heading downtown to my office where I run a local literary nonprofit. As far as writing is concerned, though, I don’t have a routine. I’ve tried hard to find one and maybe someday I will, but my genuinely free time is pretty limited.
What I have done is adapt to this limited time by changing how I write. With my smart phone, I can write anywhere — I have a word processor that mimics its full-size counterparts, and while it can be a bit tedious, I did write my entire last chapbook using that method. It helps because it allows me to write between appointments or errands. I’m not good about keeping a handwritten notebook, because while it will feel really good to draft something out by hand, often I can’t read my own handwriting when I go to transcribe it! And I like that with the apps I can synch it or email it to myself.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I like writing prompts and workshops. They break you out of old modes and even if you don’t like what you’ve written, it can spur you in new directions.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Orange blossoms. Jasmine. Sage. Pine. Kitchen aromas — especially pies and quiche, two things I am particularly fond of!
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Everything. Cooking. The natural world. The body. Art, especially painting. My kids and their friends, because being a teenager is an art. The way they speak to each other, the things they do. I am learning a new language, like landing “primo” with a skateboard. Do you know what that means? I do, as of this morning. Listening. Just listening, and observing.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Every stage of my life as a writer has had some other writer as a beacon, and almost without exception female, showing me the way. Once I get past them I spot another one, and so on, with this chain of writers leading me forward.
Early on — and I mean middle-school early — I had Jack Grapes and Dorraine Poretz, the CPITS poets.
Then, late high school and into early college, I discovered Sylvia Plath, who I became obsessed with, and still turn to routinely. Her work infected me.
Around that same time I found Patricia Traxler, whose Forbidden Words has stuck with me. She is probably the first living female poet that I read; she taught me the word “ineluctable”.
Then I met Gayle Brandeis, a local writer, who forever changed my life. I was working at Kinko’s and was big and pregnant with my oldest son and she would come in to make copies of her work to send out, and copies of newspaper clippings about her. I would often save the bad copies (off center, too dark, etc.) to read later. She was a model of what it looked like to be a working writer, and more than that a mother writer who did both exceptionally well. I became a part of a writers group that she was founding with another local poet who has become a close friend, Judy Kronenfeld. All of the women who have come through that group have influenced me in important ways, but especially Maureen Alsop, Patty Seyburn, Nikia Chaney, Lucia Galloway, Lavina Blossom, and Charlotte Davidson.
In the early days of motherhood, I fell hard for the poetry of Beth Ann Fennelly, who wrote this poem about sitting in the backseat of the car with her infant daughter and letting her take surreptitious licks from a lollypop, how transgressive that felt. I ran across her work in Meridian, then bought her books. I loved the way she wrote about motherhood and sexuality and the ways in which they are intertwined. Nothing about her work was saccharine. Then I took a writing course and the instructor knew Beth Ann and put me in touch and thus began a several year correspondence (snail mail!) working closely with her on the poems that would comprise my first book.
I went back for my MFA when my youngest son was in first grade, taking advantage a low residency model program, AULA, that I could commute to as needed. There, I discovered a slew of new writers — Brenda Shaughnessy, Matthea Harvey, Arielle Greenberg — as well as writers like Anne Carson, Alice Notley, Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, as well as my mentor-writers Carol Potter, Molly Bendall, and Jenny Factor, all of whom were influential, especially Molly.
Outside of poetry, lately, I have been reading more speculative fiction — short stories. I have become smitten with Kij Johnson, Kelly Link, Rachel Swirsky. Who knows where this will lead?
All of these writers are important to me, both in my writer-life, and my life on the whole.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write fiction that doesn’t suck. Travel more. Learn how to play an instrument well. Learn a new language. See my children as adults leading lives that are meaningful to them, whatever that may be.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
When I was young, I had thoughts of being a psychologist, and of being a teacher. I might have ended up in one of those fields. Now, I would love to open a bookstore, but I know that’s a labor of love that I just don’t have time for right now.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It didn’t require purchasing supplies. I remember taking an art class in college and I was living on my own, waitressing to pay bills, and the supplies list broke the bank - so I dropped the class. Photography seems fun, but a good camera is expensive. I used to love to dance, but was never particularly graceful, though I enjoyed it. So, I suppose it was a combination of the right skill set with the price. And I do credit early reinforcement with
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Here is the awful thing: I have a bad habit of starting a book but not finishing it. Sometimes it’s because I’ll set it down and not remember where I left it, or switch purses, or I’ll leave it in the car. I have different books around the house and other places that I’m working on. It’s a totally inefficient way to read, but, evidently that’s how I roll.
So, I will just tell you that I am in progress with: Nalo Hopkinson’s Falling in Love with Hominids, Rachel Swirsky’s How the World Became Quiet, Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, Tristan Tzara’s Approximate Man, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, and Romaine Washington’s Sirensin the Belly. For the last book I actually finished and loved, that would be Kij Johnson’s short story collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees.
For films: The only movies I’ve seen in a theater in a long while are the latest incarnations of Star Wars and Jungle Book. But while I enjoyed both, I don’t know that either qualify as “great”. I suppose the best one I’ve seen at home in a long while is Maggie, a zombie movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger that made me cry.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I just finished a cool project with four other writers analyzing the first lines of short stories of an upcoming issue of a prominent sci fi journal, to see how much you can tell about a story from just the first line. I’ve also been dabbling in short fiction, and I wrote an essay about teens and suicide. For poetry, I’m sort of between projects, but I do have a book that I’m working on — slowly — tentatively called Porterville.