Praying Naked: A Conversation with Katie Condon
BY TANEUM BAMBRICK
Katie Condon is the author of Praying Naked, winner of the 2018 The Journal Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize. Her new poetry appears in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, and the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day. Katie is an assistant professor of English at Southern Methodist University.
Taneum Bambrick: In your poem “On the seventh day God says, What you’ve got is virgin charm & a knife in your pocket” you write: “a woman raised in contest with other women is a child of God.” I heard you read this poem at Bread Loaf in 2019 and I remember a collective inhale when you hit that line; it encapsulates what so many of us have felt and lived.
Many poems in Praying Naked work to identify and challenge these social structures that force women to exist in opposition with each other. For example, your poem, “Ode to Gabriella,” addresses the violinist who the speaker’s love interest is cheating on her with. In this poem, rather than attacking or warning Gabriella, the speaker dwells on her beauty and talent as a musician, eventually offering herself to the violinist sexually: “Gabriella, lift your head up from that tired instrument. / I have lips full as hydrangeas.” This poem uses the form of the ode against itself, addressing societal expectations of what relationships can be celebrated and how. How were you thinking about received forms when writing Praying Naked? Can you talk about how you use form to challenge patriarchal structures in your collection, specifically the structures that place women in competition with each other?
Katie Condon: Thank you for reading “Ode to Gabriella” with such care and attention, Taneum—this is a great question. I wasn’t consciously using form in Praying Naked to challenge patriarchal structures, though I can see how some poems’ forms could be understood as doing so. The French surrealist Max Jacob said that “poetry hates ideas,” and over the years that has felt true to my process. When I go into a draft with a thematic agenda, I often end up with a pandering poem. I find that, for me, arriving at the blank page prepared only to be surprised is much more productive. But that’s just me—I imagine that other writers come to the blank page with ideas and outlines that turn into beautiful poems.
That being said, I of course pay close attention to my formal decisions. I haven’t thought about “Ode to Gabriella” as an anti-ode, or as working against the ode form, but I have thought about it as being against traditional, courtly (unrequited) love poetry insofar as the poem resists the sadness and rejection that is so often the end-all-be-all of the genre. Instead, I was more interested in celebrating (that’s where the ode comes in) playfulness and joy in the face of dejection. My hope was to shift the attention from the absent male musician to the speaker by rejecting sadness and pity for the thrill and excitement that comes with seduction. We don’t know, of course, whether the speaker is ultimately successful in her pursuit of Gabriella since the poem doesn’t give Gabriella an opportunity to respond, but I’m not sure whether her pursuit is the point. In writing “Ode to Gabriella,” I was most interested in exploiting the tone and mood we typically expect from such poems by transposing the innate delight of the ode form onto subject matter that would more typically be informed by sorrow.
TB: While reading Praying Naked, I kept thinking of Adrienne Rich’s essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Particularly where she writes: “the denial of reality and visibility to women’s passion for women, women’s choice of women allies, life companions and community; the forcing of such relationships into dissimulation and their disintegration under intense pressure have meant an incalculable loss to the power of all women.” I see your work as writing into that loss of power Rich defines. Through its uses of humor and bold betrayals of conventions, Praying Naked gives shape to an unnamable joy that is deeply feminine and resistant. I wonder who, if anyone, were your models for writing poems about friendship and love between women?
KC: I’m not sure that I had models for writing poems about female relationships specifically, but I did look to certain female poets as models of boldness and joy, particularly Bernadette Mayer and Dorothea Lasky. I appreciate so much about these poets and their aesthetics, but what seems most relevant is that their speakers’ tones are hardly ever one-note. Mayer’s “Sonnet [You jerk you didn’t call me up]” is a good example. (It’s also one of my all-time favorite poems.) The premise is that the speaker’s love interest ghosts her, which, come to think of it, isn’t too far off from “Ode to Gabriella.” Mayer’s speaker rejects sadness in favor of indignance, calling the lover out in the first three lines: “You jerk you didn’t call me up / I haven’t seen you in so long / you probably have a fucking tan.” To me what makes these lines and this poem so memorable is that the speaker isn’t just choosing anger over dejection. Her attitude is more complex than that—it is also, to use your word, joyful. Throughout the poem, the speaker cracks jokes about tan lines, Catullus, and G.I. Joe. She delights in her own playfulness. We can salute her for standing up for herself, for choosing anger over rejection, but to stop our appreciation there, in my opinion, would be a disservice to the many moments of wit that make the poem and speaker multifaceted and vibrant.
I’m relieved to hear that you find joy and humor in Praying Naked. I think that it’s possible for readers to mischaracterize the collection’s speaker as a stoic crusader in the fight against male dominance, and the poems as steadfast doctrines against the patriarchy. Granted, these things aren’t necessarily untrue—the speaker and the poems are challenging and rebelling against these things. But it would be misleading to suggest that this speaker is a perfect activist when, in fact, over the course of the book she’s often willingly complicit in the very systems she rebels against. I also think that characterizing the speaker that way could risk eclipsing the moments of wit and joy that you noticed. My aim was to create a visibly imperfect and sometimes silly speaker with hope it would make Praying Naked a psychologically complicated and multi-dimensional collection. I’m thrilled when readers, as you have done, laugh along and delight as the speaker transgresses and falters.
TB: Five poems in Praying Naked end in flowers. “How to Know the Wildflowers,” for example, ends with a list: “Buckwheat. Honeysuckle. Swamp-rose-mallow.” At the same time, you have identified flowers as common vehicles for sex-related metaphors: “I know bees have fucked the roses into cliché.” I am interested in the gestures in this collection that enact—with a defiant intentionality—exactly what we are told in workshop NOT to do, especially as women. Can you talk about how you see cliché operating in this collection?
KC: My flowers! They are all over the collection. This is such a generous and smart question. I wish I could answer it by saying that I was intentionally reacting against the expectation that good poems avoid cliché, which, you’re right, we are taught over and over again in workshops. In reality, it might just be because I love flowers. I worked at a garden center for a couple of years. “How to Know the Wildflowers” is also the title of a field guide to wildflowers published in the 1940s that I read for fun one summer during my MFA. I really enjoy gardening. It’s not a particularly sexy or intellectual answer to your question, but it’s true: I surround myself with flowers and so they wind up all over my poems.
I’m not sure that I can speak to how cliché functions in the collection as a whole because I wasn’t intentionally thinking about cliché as I wrote many of these poems. I will say that I do think of my speaker as being occasionally artless, and so she might use clichés because she doesn’t know any better (or she does know better but doesn’t care). That being said, “We Need to Talk,” which you referred to in your question, is the one poem in the collection that does engage cliché with some intention. I think it’s fair to characterize the speaker in this poem as artless, given that she uses a cliché (“like the birds and the bees”) with actual sincerity. In the following lines, I was definitely thinking of how the rose in particular still feels off limits as a poetic image, given that in English and American poetry across the centuries—from the “Roman de la Rose” to Yeats and beyond—roses have been used as metaphors for fucking, for seduction, or for love so frequently that it’s impossible for them to stand for themselves anymore.
Although many poets, Gertrude Stein most famously, have attempted to rescue the rose from cliché, I’d argue that it still feels tired to many writers. The line about bees fucking roses into cliché in “We Need to Talk” is an attempt to suggest, on the one hand, that the rose is still what the canon made it—an overused (and sometimes misogynistic) symbol for sex and love—but, on the other hand, that this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. If there’s no escaping the reality of the cliché, why not double down and have fun with it? Carefully employing cliché can be a playful way to showcase a speaker’s historical awareness. I hesitate to do a close reading of my own poem because I don’t believe that that’s my role, but this moment, the bees fucking the roses, also makes possible the poem’s final stance, which is the speaker’s desire to love as many men as possible and to love them so entirely that they themselves become cliché. At the time of writing, rendering the men into cliché wasn’t a conscious attempt to subvert any patriarchal injustice (though I can appreciate the possibility of that reading now). Rather, using the cliché was a means to communicate the voracity of the speaker’s desire to sleep and fall in genuine love with as many men as possible.
TB: Another repeating and contradictory gesture in Praying Naked is the mockery of all that surrounds the life of a career poet—poetry readings, workshops, identifying as a poet—nothing is safe from the speaker’s self-critique. These hilarious, almost anti-ars poetica poems have some of my favorite titles in the collection: “At Poetry Readings I Am Always Drunk,” and “When the professor asked the workshop, Who among us now will speak about poetry ideologically? I thought with abandon ME! & then.” This speaker googles ideology. She buys other poets’ books mostly out of confusion. These moments of levity are always paired with severe scenes, like when, in workshop, she shifts from thinking about Kant to remembering her mother being wheeled into post-op. There is a fragmenting of the self in these poems about poetry, a clear demonstration of the speaker attempting to belong to but not rely on this world of memory and language. Can you describe what you hope to convey about the experience of being a contemporary poet, especially one who is emerging?
KC: It’s so difficult to be an artist in a capitalist society. It encourages us not to be artists, but careerists and I have to admit that I am really skeptical of “career poets.” Career poets tend to think of their poems not as art that strives to clarify or complicate something fundamental about the human condition, but as commodities that will help them publish in POETRY and the Paris Review and the New Yorker, which will help them win an NEA, which will help them win a book contest, which will help them land a job. Whether they are wholly conscious of it or not, career poets are more likely to write poems that are trendy and unsubstantial in order to increase their marketability, generating the same poem over and over again because it got them published once and so, heck, it will probably get them published again. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a career poet’s fault. We do live in a capitalist society after all, and getting published in good places does make you more likely to get one of the few coveted academic jobs in our field. What troubles me is that the methods of procuring these jobs are often so toxic that it’s difficult for career poets to remember why they started writing poetry in the first place. It was to get a job, right? Right?
At the same time that I am skeptical of career poets, I have worked very (very) hard to make sure that poetry is at the center of my career. I am a career poet. I have fallen victim to trends. I have published a couple of poems that I’m embarrassed by, looking back, for how obviously they are trying to say something Important in the Style of the Moment. (And, hey, I’d still really like to be published by POETRY someday.) This ambivalence, this skepticism of and unshakeable desire for recognition in our field, is at the heart of the poems that you mentioned in your question. My speaker wants to be respected, the one who speaks ideologically about poetics, but she also wants to pun on “Kant” and “can’t.” (Can she do both or Kant she?) This ambivalence, I have to imagine, is most intense for emerging poets. The very label “emerging” implies our ambition. We are emerging from obscurity into what we hope will be a steady readership, but, for 99% of us emerging folk, will ultimately be just slightly less obscurity.
All of this is to say that what I hope to convey in the poems you mentioned above is exactly this ambivalence. The speaker of these poems, like me, has an inarguable desire to matter and to be successful but she’s also deeply skeptical—even ashamed—of that desire. These poems always came at a time when I felt like I was writing for the wrong reasons. They helped me make fun of my own Great Aspirations and reposition my love for poetry as my primary reason for writing it.
TB: The invented forms in your collection fascinate me. I find myself returning to, especially, “On the seventh day God says, What you’ve got is virgin charm & a knife in your pocket,” to learn from its mechanics. There is almost a refrain that occurs whenever the speaker talks back to God using highly conversational language (language associated with young women): “God says, Your longing will be for me & I will dominate you. / & I’m like, Nope!” I love how the “& I’m like” creates an anaphora that distinguishes the speaker’s dialogue, her casual refusals of God. Did this form emerge from a prompt? Can you talk about the process of writing this?
KC: This poem emerged from a self-given prompt when I was caught in a bit of a writing rut. I felt listless and was convinced (so dramatic!) that I would never write a good poem again. So, I got out every single one of my old writing notebooks, pulled unused lines of promise, and started collaging. I love collaging as a way to break myself out of these moods because surprise and pleasure are mandatory to the exercise (and these dark moods always come on when pleasure and surprise have been worried out of my writing process. Thanks a lot, careerism!). That being said, these collaged poems rarely find their way into my life beyond the prompt—I thank them for delighting me and put them in a drawer. I think this is because I am partial to having a narrative or lyric situation to contextualize a given poem—my collages often don’t achieve that.
“On the seventh day God says, What you’ve got is virgin charm and a knife in your pocket” is the only surviving collage in Praying Naked. All of the non-dialogue lines in this poem, including the title, are old lines that I wrote any time between 2008 and 2017. The dialogue I wrote new as a way to give the poem a narrative structure that held something in common with other thematic through lines in Praying Naked. I had a great time incorporating the dialogue and noticing how it changed the tone of the surrounding images and declarations. Of all the poems in Praying Naked, it was among the most fun to write, the most fun to read out loud, and it’s also the poem that people have shared the most on social media. It’s an important lesson, actually: the poem that was most fun to write is also the one that has been the most well received.
TB: I love the cover art for Praying Naked, and I know—from following you on social media—that you have had problems with the image being censored by Instagram. I have seen some of your followers covering the woman’s chest with cartoon scrolls to protect their posts from being removed as well. Because of the issues your book touches on—religion, sexuality, feminism, etc.—I find this censorship especially ironic and problematic. What have your reactions to this been in general? In your opinion, what are some possible results of this censorship, and/or what results have you noticed already in terms of your experiences with publicity?
KC: I also love the cover art! So much. The painting is “Until Proven Innocent” by Dorielle Caimi, whose work is fantastic. The women in her paintings are defiant and unconventionally beautiful (in the sense that they look like actual human women with all their wrinkles and sunburns and belly pooches and complex expressions). With Caimi’s permission I sent my press (Mad Creek Books / The Ohio State University Press) a few of her paintings to choose from. There was some version of nudity in all of them, but “Until Proven Innocent” was the only painting that showed full breasts. I was thrilled when they decided to use it. I felt and still feel really proud to be associated with a press that was comfortable designing a cover that’s more difficult to market because of attitudes toward modesty and censorship.
But, I digress.
I wasn’t surprised that Instagram was censoring the cover, taking down, oh I don’t know, maybe 1 out of every 4 posts. It’s frustrating and, like you said, totally ironic, but I also think that the censorship caused more readers to find Praying Naked than would have otherwise. Dorielle and I each posted on Instagram a couple of times about our frustration, and so did many of my friends in and out of the poetry community. People wanted to show solidarity and bought the book. All in all, I don’t think that censorship has necessarily inhibited my ability to promote Praying Naked—so far it may have even helped it out a bit.
That being said, censorship is a destructive issue. Dorielle deals with it on a pretty steady basis, I think, and has written smart posts about how absurd and damaging it is to censor art. I encourage everyone to check out those posts and her incredible paintings. If anyone is interested, she has a limited number of prints of “Until Proven Innocent” available right now!
TB: The concision of this collection is astounding to me. The length, pace, and narrative arc in Praying Naked are incredibly cohesive, lending to a quick, energizing reading process. I wonder if you might share what the revision process was like for you. Can you identify poems in the book that look similar now to how they looked in early drafts, as well as poems that changed dramatically through the revision process? What organizational factors did you consider when thinking about how the book would move from start to finish?
KC: Sequencing the book was among the most challenging things about writing Praying Naked, and so it means a lot to me that your experience of it was so positive. I worked on Praying Naked for roughly seven years. I wrote the oldest poem in the book, “Volatile Elegy” in 2013. I was very impatient at certain points during those years, totally convinced that the manuscript was publishable—and maybe it was somewhere around year four when it started getting semifinalist nods from contests. Looking back, I’m relieved that the book didn’t get published until it did. In the last couple of years before it won the Wheeler Prize, I focused on revision with an intentionality that I hadn’t before. I have to give big kudos to my husband, Richard Hermes, for his help and encouragement as I re-organized the manuscript. Together we talked about the advantages of weeding out poems that were saying the same things or mulling over the same themes as other, stronger poems. My hope was that cutting these poems made the manuscript leaner and the narrative arc more discernible.
For a long time, the book was organized into two sections. The first section was full of the more rebellious poems and the poems that feature a reckless and impulsive speaker. The four-section structure came about after Richard and I talked about the many possibilities for organizing the collection. In the end, we hoped that four sections would highlight more nuanced subplots of the collection (like the speaker’s many small flirtations and an ill-advised affair), which, we hoped again, would ultimately clarify the larger narrative arc.
As I made these global revisions, I was of course also revising individual poems. I revised some poems, such as “Ode to Gabriella” and “Desire is a Sickness,” until the very last second. “The Sacrifice’s Prayer” was originally published here at Adroit under a different title (“For the Christening of a Ship”), and “Origin” was originally a few stanzas longer. “Aubade” is a weird Frankenstein-version of a few poems that I edited out of the manuscript over the years. On the other hand, many poems didn’t change once I decided to put them in the book, such as the title poem, “On the seventh day…” and “I’m a Kick-Ass Woman.”
I won’t pretend that reorganizing the manuscript and revising poems was always fun. At certain points, I was so attached to a draft that even the thought of restructuring again sent me into a tizzy. It made it easier to have someone who hadn’t spent literal years staring at the manuscript help me fine tune and reshape Praying Naked.
TB: Two complex figures—among many—in this book are the mother and God. They often interact, positioning the speaker to float between them in constant reaction to their connectedness and disagreements. The identity of the mother character also slips between the speaker’s mother and the biblical mother, the Virgin Mary. What would you say is the relationship between religion and motherhood in your work?
KC: In the simplest terms, motherhood and religion both represent—to the speaker—the regulation and, in some cases, outright restriction of autonomy, pleasure, and knowledge. As you mentioned, the speaker is constantly reacting and rebelling against her mother and her God’s expectations. At the same time, motherhood and religion are also things that the speaker is drawn to. The speaker loves her mother and she turns to God for solace. She wants to understand them, and, in a few poems, goes to great lengths to try and do this.
Although readers can reach different conclusions as they read the book, the designed relationship between motherhood and religion ends there. I didn’t intentionally design the mother figure to slip between herself and the Virgin Mary (but I absolutely love this possibility—thank you for pointing it out). In the title poem, when the speaker calls upon Mary, I imagined she was calling on her literally (which is a very Catholic thing to do now I think about it!), not a version of her represented within her mortal mother. That being said, the last poem in the book does use the metaphor of Christ’s resurrection to consider the mother’s recovery from an illness the speaker was sure would kill her. That metaphor, I hope, illustrates the simultaneous reverence and aversion the speaker has felt toward her mother and religion (and all they represent) over the course of the collection.