Katie Willingham is the author of Unlikely Designs (University of Chicago Press, 2017). She earned her MFA at the Helen Zell Writers Program, where she was the recipient of a Hopwood Award in Poetry, a Theodore Roethke Prize, and a Nicholas Delbanco Thesis Prize. You can find her poems in such journals as The Kenyon Review, Bennington Review, Poem-a-Day, Third Coast, West Branch, Grist, and others. She has taught both composition and creative writing at the University of Michigan. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
During our overlapping time at University of Michigan’s MFA program, Katie Willingham and I had many ongoing conversations about poetry and literary citizenship. I was excited for us to build on those conversations for this interview, which we conducted when she came back to Ann Arbor following the publication of her debut book.
Marlin Jenkins: Before we really jump in to talk specifically about your book, I want to start a little bit outside of it, and then we can funnel in. I just want to ask about the things that are bringing you joy recently; or, what things are you fascinated with—what is Katie Willingham thinking about?
Katie Willingham: I really like that you’re starting our focus around joy. There is a lot of humor in this book, and I think humor is related to joy. It’s often about finding joy where it doesn’t belong and how that’s where the laughter happens. Lately where I’ve been finding joy is—I’ve been getting back into reading plays, and that’s been bringing me joy. I actually think theatre is more related to poetry than I’ve previously thought, but I routinely keep plays on my thought shelf, which is where I keep all the books that I’m currently thinking about. And I kind of think about my writing as, like, if I could channel my entire thought shelf at once, that would bring me the most poetic joy. I don’t know if that’s ever possible, but that’s how I think about it.
MJ: Tell me more about the thought shelf. What else is on it?
KW: There’s always poetry on it, and often they’re books that surprised me. So I might read a book that’s really beautiful, but it won’t make it onto my thought shelf unless I’m, like, I don’t know how you made this and I want to keep learning and write into that space—write into the space of discovering for myself how that thing happens. I think that’s why other genres make it onto the shelf a lot, although rarely fiction. Often, there’s nonfiction theory, which I think could be close to poetry, the way theory uses language and turns it over and tries to define and find terms for things feels very related. With the plays it’s more about simultaneity; I’m really interested in simultaneity. And, oh! Angels in America! I always have Angels in America on my shelf! Because of the way it has multiple scenes happening at once (which if you watch the film, FYI, it doesn’t exist that way, ‘cause that looks really silly on camera: to have simultaneous scenes next to each other). But on stage many things are actually happening simultaneously, and that has a really different effect.
MJ: I think that gets us thinking about genre, but I think genre is a very loaded term, so maybe a better way to think about it—to funnel it—is medium. It’s interesting to me that you mentioned theatre and poetry as closely related, and you also mentioned learning and discovery. I think your book is very much making the argument that learning and discovery are present in poetry, in the way that you explore it—but then also through science, through technology, through various forms of logic. Can you talk a little bit more about those relationships?
KW: Yes! So, I have no idea if this book does this, but what I care about in poetry are poems and books that answer “Why poetry?” Like, “Why is this a poem?” And that’s when I think about genre and medium. Like, “Why is this a painting?” And, “How is it doing what it’s doing because of that medium?” And I do think poetry thinks differently from other genres. It moves differently and, because of that, it has a different mode of discovery, and I think that you can find different things by writing poems than you can by writing fiction. A part of that reasoning exists, because if you don’t have a “plot” in the same way, then you have different things, right? You have different things that are recurring or circulating or creating a thread or a line that’s leading you somewhere.
MJ: That idea of being led somewhere is really interesting, too, because it seems like your collection is very invested in forward movement. We have this idea of the past coming into the present, we’re thinking about evolution, we’re thinking about technology—both inherently have that forward movement. And if I can pull a couple of quick quotes: the first poem “Terrifying Robot Update,” for example, ends with with, “again and again the sound like plastic gears clicking forward forward.” A moment I think resonated, too, was just a few pages later in the poem “Eight Years Ago,” in which you write, “and the search is ongoing.” It seems like this collection is really invested in setting us up to think that way. Can you talk to us more about that process and those themes?
KW: Yeah! This is definitely a book that’s interested in time because it’s really interested in preservation. I actually spent a lot of time thinking that it can be somewhat oriented towards the past, that it’s about picking stuff up that’s already there and bringing it into the present. Like, “What is it you want to hold onto?” But another way of thinking about that is actually to think about it as an investment in the future. What will you want to have? What will you want to be thinking about or have written down? That forward motion seems important to that, but it also becomes really interested in our failure to recognize what that future will look like, what it will bring. That we could ever finish the process of deactivating landmines, or that we could ever finish the process of un-doing violence, or that we could ever finish knowing—that we could ever have complete knowledge of what we would have wanted to save—I think the book is interested in these unimaginable futures.
MJ: I think it’s really interesting that the further the book gets into those futures, especially in that last numbered section, we’re introduced to a lot of artifacts. I want to ask about the process of research for the book. As you said, you’re very interested in theory, but then also we’re also given a lot of news references, like current events, and speculation as to whether those things are present or in the past and being brought into the present. What’s that process of research like for you?
KW: I love research, although I didn’t go seeking for many of the things I included in the book. I saved them at various times and then returned to them—they came up again, and then I re-read them in the process of writing. But at the time that I was writing this…. We’re concerned with all sorts of other fears now than we were, but the huge thing in the media at the time that I was writing the book was that technology is going to ruin us. And I think now the vibe is like, technology has ruined us. And at the time it seemed like a lively discussion of inquiry around science and technology, and I wanted to bring us back to the fact that we’ve generated all of it. If technology destroys us, it will be we who destroyed us; it won’t be that technology destroyed us. And what I wanted was to bring that humanness back to technology.
MJ: I think that human element really speaks to the way that you have a real relationship with the figures in this book. Most present, we have Darwin—not only as a scientist, or as a theorist, we have Darwin as keeper of journals and as somebody with whom you’re interacting, with his personhood. I think your process also resonates in your poem “Honey Locust.” I believe you’re quoting Brian Nash Gil when you write, “‘I find a lot of materials by accident.’” I love that we have these parallels within the book, seeing your process mirrored. Does that feel accurate to the process of writing about these figures?
KW: I found myself quoting a lot because someone said something that was a spark for me, and instead of trying to translate that, I just offered it and moved on. Sometimes there’s a tension, there are things that are conflicts in the book. Like, the Pac-Man poem was sparked by a conflict. It was inspired by a lecture by Jonathan Blow, the video game designer. Offhandedly, in a lecture, he made this comment that Pac-man has nothing to do with the human condition, and I was like, “Challenge accepted! I will write that poem!”
Another example is “Correction: Tonight is Not the Longest Night in History of Earth.” Frank O’Hara is kind of mis-quoted there because Frank O’Hara insisted pain doesn’t produce logic, that it produces something else. And I was like, No. Pain of course produces logic. It produces discussions of causality, and it seemed so clear to me that the opposite of what he said was true.
And with Darwin, I really felt connected to the opposite of his success story: he is remembered as kind of a scientific hero, and he spent a lot of time ill, and he spent a lot of time struggling, and he also spent a lot of time bored on a boat sailing around with, you know, a terrible diet, probably. I’m interested in bringing that humanness to his (and others’) stories and exploring the record for sentiment.
MJ: I want to talk more about that idea of pain producing logic. It feels like your book is making an argument against logic as this singular, monolithic idea. And instead, it seems like there are logics, plural. In the poem “Dear Charlie” you write, “Forgive me sir unlike evolution / I find I prioritize symbolic logic / over functionality.” Can you talk more about what that means to you, what you feel about symbolic logic?
KW: I think it relates to how we were discussing genre—like, “Why poetry?” It’s a way of answering that question for me. What is offered? What can you learn? What is the discovery process that takes place when you offer some other method or path? The scientific method is a method. It’s not the only method or way of being, and I think poems are extremely flexible in that way. They offer a lot of methods, a lot of logics. But also, it’s something I struggled with in making this book, getting the right tension around logic. Logic is also tied up in rhetoric, and there are ways that a sentence can sound really logical without having a lot of content going for it. Or you can feel really against something and still get caught up in the syntactic logic. I was really interested in that and in producing that feeling that the rhetoric or logic has gotten ahead or away—you’ve somehow leaped, and it’s like, “How did I get here? Where’s the logic? The logic is gone.” And it’s kind of pulling the rug out from under that, as well, and saying, “This is symbolic. This is artifice.” We’re already functioning in this space all the time, and if we’re already in that space, what else can we do when we make it visible?
MJ: I can’t help but think about the relationship between creative work and composition. Many of us who have gone through the whole MFA thing have been required to teach freshman composition. You were hired by the University of Michigan to teach after your fellowship year, as well. Can you talk about the relationship between teaching composition and writing creative work?
KW: One thing I can say about teaching creative writing is that I wanted to bring in that idea of argument, and maybe returning to composition was a given, in that I didn’t have to put pressure on my students. But I did prioritize questions over statements or claims in a way that was not only unusual for my students entering college but is also unusual for many teaching composition. The questions are sort of at this early stage of the process, and I encourage my students to stay there and live there and refine their questions and move towards inquiry, as opposed to figuring out just enough to make a claim. That’s not the only way to process something; the scientific method, again, works with claims: you make a claim, and then you figure out if your claim is right. That’s actually a thesis-driven method. But that’s not the only way, and I really wanted to offer a different way of processing, and that, I think, is really alive and well in this book, in these poems, because there’s kind of a chain effect. A lot of the poems seemed to leap, but there’s these little links that tie everything together and create that movement. We did that a lot in my composition classroom. I often insisted on the transitions between paragraphs or ideas, and I weighted that really heavily compared to, maybe, the organization of a whole essay and where it might go or where it might lead. Instead, it’s like, “Just show me how you get from place to place.”
MJ: That makes me think of the way that you chose to end the book. In the last poem we have, “the sound / like stroking for backwards against the eagerness of all things / to dissolve to cohere.” Can you talk a little bit about that relationship between dissolving and cohering?
KW: First of all, “cohere” is a really weird word. It’s one of those words that works like “scan.” When you scan something, you can read it really carefully or you can kind of rush through and pull out the main parts, so it means both things: it means the opposite of itself. Cohere works that way too, because even though it means to collect, that could mean to create boundaries and separate from something, or it could mean to cohere and stick and become part of something. It works both ways, and I really wanted that sense of double-ness at the end. That felt very right for me. This wasn’t always the last poem in the book, though; I should say that too. Once I imagined it as the end, it made sense for me because of that double-ness.
MJ: One thing that we’ve talked about before is how you felt like a lot of the poems in your book gained momentum in their timeliness: when they were written or when they were originally published they meant something different than what they meant by the time they made it into this book, considering current events.
KW: There’s a poem in the book about smallpox literally discovered in a warehouse in Maryland. There was a box of vials in this back office, and it’s like, “Oh! It’s smallpox! Oops!” And there was a big discussion in this side article, very low on the list on, like, BBC News (I read a lot of BBC News because it puts weird things in conversation—if you want to have the experience of weird things in conversation with each other, BBC news is your media outlet). Back to the smallpox—the United States has refused to destroy its smallpox, even though (and I put a note about this in the back of the book because I think it’s important) the World Health Organization did a study and determined that there’s no reason to keep smallpox for vaccine purposes. But the United States and Russia have not destroyed theirs. And, of course, now there’s a lot more discussion about Russia, and that mood feels very different, right? Like, the only reason to keep these things is biological warfare. That seems pretty obvious, but now it seems pressing and not just in the background.
MJ: Especially because a lot of the material in this book is very heavy, even though the book is very interested in humor, and is very interested in kind of a sense of the personal as well as the macro, big picture: how do you practice self-care within doing the work?
KW: Scale is really important to this book and my future book. I don’t think that we’re ever going to deal with climate change, first of all, unless we can figure out how it feels. How does climate change feel for you? That seems impossible to answer without poetry to me. So I’m trying to do that in poetry, in that poetry acts as its own method of self-care in that way.
But I think, too, you have to live in stuff that’s really hard, and how do you leave those spaces? What do I do? I continue to read people who are good at doing things that I can’t do, to be amazed at what writing continues to offer. I have to keep asking that because I definitely forget in my own writing. When I’m really bogged down and feeling like I don’t know if this poem is going anywhere, I don’t know if that poem is going anywhere, I don’t know if these poems go together, reading really helps with that. And talking to people about work abstractly, which most people hate, I actually really enjoy—for someone to tell me, “I’m working on a new thing and I’m writing this.” And I’m like, “Cool!” I don’t need to know what it’s about. The fact that you feel motivated and have energy and have questions and are writing is helping you go there—it’s magic to hear about. I like to ask people if they’re writing: Are you doing stuff? That’s great. That’s so great.