Kate DeBolt holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and is an Assistant Poetry Editor for The Four Way Review: www.fourwayreview.com She has been previously published in The Boiler Journal, Atlas + Alice, Noble / Gas Qtrly, The Adroit Journal, Dialogist, Bluestem, and Plain Spoke, among others. You can learn more about Kate and her work here: www.katedebolt.net
Previous Featured American poets
The High Window is pleased to introduce Kate DeBolt . Here she is in conversation with Anthony Costello:
Kate Debolt (KD) and Anthony Costello (AC) had this continues e-conversation 5pm GMT on 19th August, 2017
Thanks for agreeing to be the American feature poet for the autumn edition of The High Window, 2017
Two years ago, completely randomly (and a little hastily and with nervous reservations) I entered into a three way poem a day venture with you and Joanna Solfrian. Strangers, we responded to each others’ work via a Google group doc in a renga-like triad. I found that month of February incredibly challenging personally, struggling most of the time to write anything of lasting worth, but I remember being very impressed by your poetry, and Joanna’s. I notice that two poems you wrote in that poem a day writing exercise (‘She Wolf Dreams of Romulus and Remus’ and ‘Disambiguation’) were published in Dialogist and Bluestem respectively. Did any other poems survive from that experience? And was collaboration essential to their being created? AC
Yes, quite a few did! I got one or two others published in The Adroit Journal and for a lot of the others the drafts still hang around in my Google drive, waiting to be rehabbed or I guess kind of picked over. With poems I know I’m not going to completely revise to publishable quality, I usually will grab lines and images and see if I can start something new. A lot of the time that works, at least to make something you wouldn’t have made in the first place. I’m a big believer in collaboration with others (and with yourself, as weird as that sounds). That’s why I liked our February project so much. Even though the pieces that I came away with ended up feeling very much my own, I wouldn’t have written them without seeing what you and Joanna were writing and getting thrown into that headspace. Sometimes seeing a phrase or just feeling a mood from someone else’s work is super generative. KD
Yes, I agree with you about collaboration. And that accidental collaboration when we read a poem or a poet, that spark of rhythm, phrase, image, and if we are lucky or attentive, writing poems ourselves. Here are some lines of yours I wrote down two years’ ago:
… / when I sleep, my forepaws run
Without me, a shadow unstitched from its howl
… it will be /
As they say it is, the city speaking
In tones meant only for hummingbirds,
The newly blind
Sometimes I wake up next to you
Start-eyed, reaved open
… / always a bloody
Cloud bearing down on a grass-braided hill
Always a wide red wail when the furrow meets
Your poems seem to blink, a-new, and join together in a connective music over many lines. AC
What a nice thing to say; that’s very much intentional. I try to make poems that reward re-reading, so internal rhyme and musicality are a big focus for me. My favorite writers (Brenda Shaughnessy, John Berryman, Monica Youn, G.M. Hopkins) do this in subtle ways you aren’t aware of on the first read-through, even though your ear gets caught – so you feel compelled to go back and discover what was chiming all those pleasure centers in your brain. I know this is an area that can trip me up, though. I’m often reluctant to sacrifice the weakest parts of a poem during edits because I’ll have to relinquish a nice rhyme. The toughest part of this is linking sounds in ways that are meaningful and not just pleasing to the ear. KD
I love the differences in the music of the poets you mention. And that is a good point about needing the meaning as well as the sound (or, at times, instead of the sound?). Didn’t Pound put meaning or obscure meaning ahead of sound? Or was he creating his own Pound music? I suppose with very modern music (from Poulenc onwards) we might say that everything is potentially music (if not rhythmic), but then Hopkins was often unrhythmically rhythmic; perhaps Hopkins influenced Poulenc? (Ps…I love Hopkins’ The Candle Indoors)… I don’t know Monica Youn’s work but will seek out her work.
I want to stay with your poems for a bit longer. They seem to me to exist in the brightest daylight and yet, in spite of their photographic clarity, they touch on ancient poetic themes: sex, desire, life, death; they can be earnestly satirical as in ‘Hell’s Aquarium’, experimental in terms of abstract ideas (‘Ode to The Omen’), trenchantly political, and physical, especially about the body, albeit often a body as an other thing, perhaps ultimately an ethereal thing, or ultimately leading to an ethereal thing? AC
Oh wow, ‘Hell’s Aquarium’ – you dug up the only flarf I ever wrote – ‘ imagine a million crying / laughing emojis spilling from this keyboard.’ That may have literally been the first poem I got published, but I didn’t know that it existed online anymore so send that link after this interview please! It’s weird that you mention that one and ‘Ode to The Omen‘, because that poem is my most recent one that I really love … I had been on this kick where I was writing these weirdly tender poems about older horror films, maybe as a way to cope with how scary they really are to me. The vulnerability of the body is obviously a timeless horror trope, right? It’s the horror of having a body, of what that makes you susceptible to. And so much of what you mentioned, life, desire, sex, death, really revolves around that. (Do you know Arielle Greenberg and the Gurlesque poets at all? That poetry is fantastic and it’s a great take on all these concerns, especially as they relate to writing and being female-bodied.) With John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ and with Damien, the young antichrist in the original Omen, you have antagonists who are terrified to be embodied, who spend long incubation periods gathering their strength, mimicking the ‘real’ bodies around them. I thought that was so interesting and weirdly so relatable, to be surrounded by ‘real’ people and certain you’re the one impostor.
I guess I can kind of end up all over the map with regard to subjects and form. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I get things on my mind and then can’t stop and then there’s a poem. I’ve never set out to make poems that are political, but at the same time I don’t pretend to be apolitical at all. I think staying out of politics in the current moment, as an artist, especially a white middle class artist with a bit of a platform in the U.S., is pretty monstrous. I have very left-wing views and they end up in my work. I would hope that all of this coalesces into a poetics that can create more meaningful poetry; I try, when I say things, to say them on purpose – but given what you’ve already gleaned, I know that so much meaning is really orthogonal to what a writer intends. And that’s as it should be. KD
That is a really interesting take on the notion of the body. But I get it now because sometimes the narrator in your ‘body’ poems seems to be (in a strange way) describing her body as if it is another’s. (Would that fit with the body-horror trope?) A lot to ponder here. I think you might like Michalle Gould’s Resurrection Party. I reviewed it last year and you can read it online. Look her up on FB?
I don’t know the Gurlesque poets…more homework for me!
Your first poem is successfully satirical and addresses one and all.
I am pleased you touched on the political poem, because in one of your editorials for the fourwayreview you are frank and committed to highlighting the state of race relations in the US. You respond to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Kenneth Goldsmith’s autopsy as poem. If not a call to action your editorial is a call for moral responsibility. How do you separate your life as a poet and your job as an editor? And is it essential that poets have a public duty? AC
A cursory google reveals that I probably would like Michalle Gould a lot, so thank you: ‘The earth gives endless birth to hands / she cannot shake or grasp.’ That’s lovely. And so sad! I always go for the sad ones. I think I’ve read maybe three happy poems I’ve enjoyed in my whole life. I wonder what massive flaw that reveals in my character?
And God, yeah, that essay – the concerns it addresses are so real but they feel almost quaint, now that we have literal Nazis roaming Charlottesville, totally barefaced, totally unashamed. Of course they aren’t quaint, but perspective is so slippery. It’s easy to let the bar get lowered to the point where we’re congratulating ourselves and each other for saying ‘fascism/racism/sexism is bad!’ out loud or on the Internet and then feeling we’ve done enough. One thing that’s a persistent problem (and Kenny Goldsmith’s piece is a perfect example of this) is white artists with fine intentions hijacking black pain for their own projects. They don’t get told ‘no’ enough; in fact, the discourse tends to go down a slippery-slope angle instead where it’s like, ‘Shouldn’t anyone be able to tell any kind of story?’ So we end up with art made by people who haven’t lived what they’re describing, trying to ‘speak for’ marginalized populations rather than honestly examine whiteness (which I think is harder work).
You could see this reflected in Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till at the Whitney and the controversy there (Christina Sharpe gave a great interview to Hyperallergic about that: https://hyperallergic.com/368012/what-does-it-mean-to-be-black-and-look-at-this-a-scholar-reflects-on-the-dana-schutz-controversy/). Same thing recently with Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the Detroit riots. To answer your question in a very roundabout way, I think that all artists have a public duty to do their best to make art that doesn’t harm people, especially marginalized people – and to listen when they’re being told that they have harmed people with their art. But again, we’re setting the bar very low there, aren’t we? That’s basic stuff you learn in kindergarten. ‘Don’t hit your seatmate.’ I’ve always wanted to make poems that say true things well, that people will read over and over again, that are beautiful and incantatory … because the world isn’t a kind place, really. We have to make the kindness and beauty we want to see. When I started writing as a teenager, my home and family life were very difficult, I was deeply depressed, and I struggled a lot just to make it through each day. I lived on poems and in my journals. Art can heal or it can wound, it can be revelatory or just there to bring you accolades. My feeling is, and I really look for this when I’m reading submissions, make art that’s responsible, that’s beautiful, that helps. KD
Kate, that was such an impassioned response, an article of hard truths, maybe, especially for those who think they are ‘doing good’, but are not. I could settle for your fair and heartfelt call for an art of beautiful responsibility, and an implicit responsibility to the art, so that, yes, beauty prevails or is worth prevailing as a good and an aim in itself. (But would add a caveat for an art that challenges much of what is deemed respectable good taste, subverts it (and without doing wilful harm) questions the false morals of an age, take your pick from some of the great works of modernism that tell truth and especially hidden or unconscious truth as it is, or truth that is uncomfortable, or unpalatable?). Anthony Howell’s essays are worth reading on this subject matter; you can find him at TheFortnightlyReview.
Perhaps Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen’ and Kevin Young’s poetry editorship of The New Yorker came/come at the right time?
Before this conversation started I wanted to ask you about poetry, your role as an editor and your work life. I know you have spent many years teaching. Have the last words and tell us something of your teaching past, what it has meant to you and how it has shaped you as a woman and a poet?
It has been a pleasure meeting and discussing poetry with you online. I hope you get many more readers once issue 7 of The High Window is published in September. AC
Ha, I’m worried now that I came off as too moderate. I 1000% believe that we need to immediately dismantle the oppressive systems that underpin our society and generate so much misery. I believe that good art can help achieve that project by making us more visible in our humanity / vulnerability to one another – this is art that locates itself in bodies, not statues or friezes, right? (A current and real conflict in our country is 100 year old statues vs. contemporary humans, which would be funny if it hadn’t gotten a protestor killed…) And, I don’t know that I think a beautiful poem is meaningful sitting all by itself somewhere, un-read. I think at its very best it transmits or transports value. Which is so exciting and unique and wonderful about the medium. I’ve never been moved by polemics, but poets like Wren Hanks or Danez Smith or Layli Long Soldier are so good at articulating their lived experiences, and the only teleology that makes sense after reading with any kind of attention is immediate and total change. This is the best way I can describe it, how I think poets can contribute. We should all write what we want but that urgency is very real.
I’ve been a big fan of Kevin Young for a long time and I’m so excited to see where he takes The New Yorker next. It’s a market I’ve never bothered submitting to, since it seemed they were both reading and publishing past me/my age group. I’m happy that they’re realizing they need millennial readers; I currently subscribe solely so I can read Jia Tolentino’s cultural commentary, and I actually followed her over from Jezebel. There’s a whole new generation of writers who are my age who do things so differently, whose influences are from all kinds of media, who connect and self-promote on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, and honestly who write in a more convivial and collaborative spirit than has ever been possible. It’s a really exciting time.
I actually taught sections of ‘Citizen’ and of The Breakbeat Anthology during my last year as a high school teacher. Claudia Rankine is such a colossal talent and from her interviews, just such a brilliant, funny person – we tried to include excerpts of those too. It’s shocking the difference it makes when you teach students how to read poetry using material that actually reflects their experiences. This is extremely basic, cultural responsiveness 101, but of course I came through an alt-cert program (NYC Teaching Fellows) and didn’t know any of that.
They signed us up telling us we were going to ‘close the achievement gap’ for the Title 1 schools where we’d get hired after just one summer of training; most of us white, young, from other fields, completely naïve. More white saviour nonsense. I got that knocked out of me pretty fast. Before my chronic migraine forced me into a medical leave which basically ended my career, I taught Special Education in the South Bronx. It was extremely difficult, the hours were horrible, overtime did not exist, and… I miss my students every day. I wouldn’t be able to quantify exactly how it’s made me the person I am, but I know I would be very different if I had gone and done something else. The thing I’m happiest about is that after teaching, I’m far more likely to stick with things that are hard; it’s just not a job where input immediately equals output, and you might not see the results of what you’re trying to do for a whole semester. That ability to put a seed down and just wait, without a massive amount of attachment to the outcome, that helps in ways I’m still discovering now. KD
And here are four poems by Kate DeBolt
AN ODE TO THE THING
it wasn’t watching the dog’s head bloom
like a tigerlily
it was the tiny moment before :
dog prim on its paws
in the center of its kennel-manger
with all the other doomed dogs :
i thought of course
that’s not a dog & i hated you
because i was taken in :
some nights i sleep
on a bed of bloody fur
while one dog scrabbles
at the chain link :
howls throttle yips
xxxxxxx& then you
xxxxxxxxxxxxasmoke with dark joy
xxxxxxxxxxxxhaving learned how to talk
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxdog & kill dog & be dog too
(first published in Noble / Gas Qtrly, Issue 204.1)
AN ODE TO THE OMEN
what have I done
besides be yours
my little paper body
waxing in your home
while a dark star swung
toward us like an unhurried fist?
xxxxxlisten : believe :
there were so many things I loved
xxxxxJanuary’s jam-colored sunsets
xxxxxthe terror of caged animals
xxxxxyou at my bedside
xxxxxxxxxxxhands in my hair :
xxxxxxxxxxxfingertips all radiance
as your love rose up
xxxxx& each night slew its brother
A POST-TRUTH MANIFESTO
for Victoria Lynne McCoy
lonely but how lovely to watch this flame
xxxxxxxxa fuse attached to no firework
a note of salutation something lit
xxxxxxxxthat grin isn’t a rictus it isn’t
make dying art on a dying planet anyway
xxxxxxxxstarlight or oblivion however nearby
you aren’t alone before the decimation
xxxxxxxxstark enough to make meet with it or what else
someone suffers in the shape of your suffering
xxxxxxxxa scarlet tube as it snakes out of an arm
the quality of mercy: what matters?
xxxxxxxxdark matter dotted with pinholes
space between death & dead letters
xxxxxxxxthat a word could ever house its own opposite
you are pledged to the bewilderment
you are pledged to the bewilderment
you are pledged to the bewilderment
‘Morning Star’ & ‘Evening Star’ gesture
xxxxxxxxat the same damned light in the sky
xxxxxxxx‘As if the world should cleave, and that slain men
xxxxxxxxShould solder up the rift.’
(Antony & Cleopatra, III.IV.II)
i place a finger on your first rib
nearest the neck / here
xxxxxxxxis what war betwixt us means
busy / find the spine / count five
ribs down / when we leave
xxxxxxxxit’s a species
of moonlight / requisition
how long have you been
xxxxxxxxtracing my primals
with your tongue?
here is what war betwixt
xxxxxxxxmeans / your belly’s still meat
pig-kinsman / white gold
marbling muscle over all
xxxxxxxxthose willow-branch bones