If You Have to Go, the new collection of poems by Katie Ford, is a book that conjures powers of possession. I feel that way about all of her books: Her poems bring me to a mystical plane somewhere between language and life. I’m left shaken. Her willingness—we might even call it her essence—to write seeking the untellable makes her work unique.
Ford’s new book is anchored by a sequence of sonnets, the first of which begins, “Empty with me, though here I am.” She’s a kenotic poet, and we can feel, in that emptying, an ardent desire to see the knobby and surprising routes of which poetry can be capable. Her books are ones to sit with and contemplate—much the same as I feel about her conversation.
Ford is the author of four books from Graywolf Press: Deposition, Colosseum, Blood Lyrics, and If You Have to Go. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Paris Review, and she holds graduate degrees in theology and poetry from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She teaches at the University of California, Riverside. We spoke about poetry, theology, and what happens when language fails us.
The Millions: You studied theology at Harvard—your first and latest books are dedicated, in part, to Gordon D. Kaufman, who taught you there. Could you talk about him as a mentor? What did you learn from him? How does he remain an influence?
Katie Ford: Gordon D. Kaufman was the first theologian—living or dead—that I trusted in a thoroughgoing way. I had been studying Christian theology, mainly, because I wanted to learn how to articulate just where and how particular forms of Christian thinking proceed from flawed and/or injurious methodologies. Kaufman’s An Essay on Theological Method was formative to my thinking, as was everything he’s written from the 1990s onward. He disowned his earliest work. I remember being in his office with him, looking at the massive systematics he published in 1969—Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective—and he told me, “Don’t read that. I didn’t know how to do theology then.”
It wasn’t until he traveled to the East and had conversations with a broader range of religious thinkers and practitioners that he said he understood that all theology and religious language is an imaginative endeavor and a human construct. This may sound obvious to some, but it’s not very widely accepted that all of what has been written—including religious scriptures and normative creeds and prayers—is made by us and is, therefore, limited and flawed. That which is ultimately mysterious and ultimately real (I’m fine calling that ultimate reality “God”), is approached with human language, not a specialized language that is infallible simply because its content is theological. This recognition holds us responsible when that language goes awry, as it often does when it mixes with governmental or ecclesiastical power. We are responsible for creating metaphors and approaches that might remedy wayward, often authoritarian constructs.
More than that, though, this recognition begins in reverence for that which, by definition, is mysterious. And just because we are acknowledging human imagination in theological efforts doesn’t mean what we are directing that language toward—the ultimate reality—is “imaginary” or make believe. Some readers miss this point, sometimes willfully so, just to take Kaufman down.
I cannot overspeak Kaufman’s influence upon me, nor how dear he remains to me now. When I dedicated Deposition to him, I went to his house for a visit. He was developing dementia at the time, so I asked him, “Did you see that I dedicated my book to you?” And he said, “I did!” as if it had just popped back into his mind. “I scarcely know what to say,” he said. I think a theology that begins with this posture—I scarcely know what to say—would serve us well. If You Have to Go, in part, made me feel like I was behaving as a theologian, and nearly everything conveyed theologically in it can be traced back to what Kaufman taught me, although I think it’s only now—20 years later—that his work has truly been integrated into my way of thinking and being.
The last time I saw him, I was with the writer Sarah Sentilles, who also was profoundly influenced by Kaufman. We sat in his back patio. I asked him if he remembered what he and I talked about years back. He said, “No, but I remember it was very important.” And it was.
TM: I’m always interested in the routes of poets. You first began writing poetry “seriously” when you were 19, studying under Tess Gallagher, no less, at Whitman College. Had you converted from prose—or was poetry your first writing genre overall?
KF: Poetry was my first genre. And only genre, really. I’ve written essays here and there, but prose isn’t my love, and I’ve never written long-form prose. Perhaps you’re thinking Whitman College was named for Walt? I wish. It was named for the Whitman missionaries. It’s a secular school but traces back to white religious colonization. In any case, Tess came to Whitman when I was a senior, and studying with her drenched me in her astounding sense of figuration and the lyric poem’s “singing line,” as she would say, which she likely learned from Yeats (Tess has much Irish in her, and is often living in Ireland), Akhmatova, and García Lorca. She sounds like this: “Terrible the rain. All night rain, / that I love. So the weight of his leg / falls again like a huge tender wing / across my hipbone.” Her mind moves with a brilliant, pure-gift originality, leaping and shifting, but always trustworthy, always returning us to ourselves anew. I was with her once in the Portland Japanese Garden, and we decided to write a poem together. I wrote a few lines, then she did, then I did … at one point she looked at a waterfall and started a gorgeous metaphor about a bear showing itself finally in the water as it fell. I looked at her and said, “How do you do that?” and she laughed and said, “I don’t know.” There was humility in her laugh, a recognition that however the gift comes, it’s the whence that’s inexplicable.
TM: What led you to study theology?
KF: I’ll let the fraught content of Deposition be the lengthy, 60-page answer to that. The book traces the aftermath of my own short but awful participation in a fundamentalist, evangelical sect when I was 18. When I was 22, I applied to Harvard Divinity School because I had a pained intuition that I needed to study the thinking and methodology that can cause Christian sects to be so devastating. I wouldn’t have said it that way then, but that’s what it was. I went to Harvard Divinity School on that intuition, and then began studying the big guns of Christian thinking: Aquinas; Calvin, Luther, Augustine, Barth, Rahner, and so on. I ended up writing a major paper on how these theologians at times proceed, in their writings, with the same methodology as perpetrators of violence.
Perpetrators, for instance, begin by defining the reality of their victim. The victim’s life is redefined by an authority stolen away by the perpetrator. These theologians all begin in this way, defining reality (invisible and visible, the former of which is most problematic) in their own terms in order for others to have their lives defined and explained by a stolen authority. Once you yoke this starting point to image-making that doesn’t acknowledge, as Kaufman stresses, the utter mystery we stand before, I think theology becomes astoundingly misguided. I won’t go into all of what I traced between theological method and perpetration, but that’s what I was working on. I’ve had a desire to actually return to that paper and work on it further …
In short: Disturbance led me to study theology. And disturbance most often leads me to write poems.
TM: What were the differences between the lived, experienced Christianity of your youth, and your study of faith through theology?
KF: When you study theology and world religions, you can either end up in an internal schism of confusion and turmoil, or you can revere the human history of myth- and meaning-making, their aspirational, perplexed, reaching instincts. For me, a statement of faith would be a confession of not knowing. I believe that the more you admit you cannot know, and do not know, about the divine, the more “faithful” you are, although I don’t often use the word “faith” or “faithful.” The construction is useful here because I’m hoping to subvert its normative use. I was raised in a home that by heritage was Norwegian Lutheran. It was culturally so, even as it was religiously so. Both aspects, I have to say, were deeply good and fruitful—my parents are socially and politically liberal, the ethic was one of service to others, and we had rituals and customs that grounded us (I have a brother and a sister) in repetition and the mythology of our religion. None of my disturbance, as I mention above, was due to my childhood.
While at Harvard, I wasn’t known as a person of faith. I was profoundly wary of Christian doctrines, creeds, and interpretations of the world. My own experience had attuned me to how excruciatingly systems of belief can bear down upon one’s internal life. My orientation was toward the lived life—the daily burdens or sufferings—of the person living under Christian systems of belief. I should say, too, that I simply have an innate curiosity about human religion. To me, it is a vast field of fascinating inquiry. And the stakes are very high.
I’d like to say, too, that the study of one’s own religious tradition only is able to destabilize that which is inherently unstable, and only needs to be feared if someone doesn’t want instabilities of thought and heart brought to light. Such study can become the depths of religious practice.
TM: Your work brings to mind three other writers I adore: Mary Szybist, Fanny Howe, and Paul Lisicky (his prose poems, in particular). Who are writers that you are drawn to (curious about? inspirited by?) on spiritual/liturgical wavelengths?
KF: I love all of those writers and am honored to come to mind in their company. Fanny Howe’s lyric essay “Doubt” is a touchstone for me. I think Mary, Paul and I would all love to be in Fanny’s company to listen to her talk and ask her questions for as long as she’d allow. She’s one of the great poets of our time. What she asks of herself, and of all of us, are inquiries of unparalleled depth. I think Paul and Mary are after that as well.
If I had to narrow myself to a list of writers who bring a sense of spiritual resonance, I’d say these authors: Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, Frank Bidart, Ilya Kaminsky, Jorie Graham, Linda Gregg, James Wright, Li-Young Lee, Marina Tsvetaeva, Audre Lorde, Robert Hass, John Berryman, and Shane McCrae. I’ll indulge in a few long-dead authors as well, naming John Donne (especially his sermons), Hildegaard of Bingen, and Basho. I’m also deeply nourished by the ancient noncanonical gospels and writings found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. Today I finished the book Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, which includes a translation of “The Gospel of Judas” (by King) and an extended scholarly meditation on how this gospel reshapes our sense of the arguments and debates going on from the very beginning in the early Christian period. It doesn’t matter if someone believes what’s said in these noncanonical writings, at least not for me; what matters is an absorbed understanding that there was no singular “first” Christian community or normative set of beliefs and practices. The communities were wildly diverse from the start. This is a fact that disempowers present-day fundamentalists who argue, inherently, that there is “one true faith.” And it can undercut Christian Nationalism as well, which I find deeply perverse. Every religion, when desirous of or attached to governmental power, goes terribly awry. The subversion of such power is inherently Christian. It’s important for Christians to look this straight in the eye: They follow a politically and religiously subversive dissident who was executed by the state. It ought to be a protest movement of the highest order and intensity, wherever and whenever state corruption and brutality occurs.
TM: They appear in Deposition, your first book, but the lines “What you are looking for cannot be / found now” feel as if they permeate all of your work: a palpable sense of longing. Where does that sense come from? Does longing birth your poems, or is it a discovered place?
KF: Perhaps the 24-year0old who wrote, “What you are looking for cannot be / found now” should have regarded those lines as her own theological starting point. I suppose I couldn’t integrate that idea in its fuller manifestations for quite some time in my own life. Theologically speaking, I align myself with negative theologians who argue we cannot name the attributes of God but can only say what God is not. It simply cannot be found now. One might argue we can find traces, or feel them, or experience manifestations of it (God) via love and service to others, but I believe we are seeing “through a glass darkly.” Yet there is longing, yes. But I have grown more settled in knowing that human illumination is enormously partial. It doesn’t upset me, although during the composition of If You Have to Go, I was painfully startled by lonesomeness, and the suddenness of that—of being solitary after 11 years of marriage—gutted me. I had to build my life up again. And for me, that hollow cannot be satiated by some sense of communion with the divine. I’ve tried that. I need humans, and my longing is mostly reaching toward humans.
Longing is somatic for me. I feel it, right now, in my chest, shooting out for something, for someone, to hold onto. When I desire to speak from it, I desire to do so via poems. Emotions aching to attach to an idea, to an articulation—this complex compels me to write. The only requirement for me when I begin a poem is that I feel something deeply, but I don’t know what that “something” is. I’m inside of the poem to find out what it is, what the constellation of images, ideas, and human relationships is that has driven me to feel so upset, or desirous, or, at times, still. Stillness in a poem is more rare for me, but I believe If You Have to Go has a few still points where a reader can rest in a calm. “Psalm 40,” for instance, and perhaps “All I Ever Wanted.”
TM: “Belief and doubt on the form of faces. / Ask the faces / which is which?” You’ve discussed the curious reaction to Deposition, the misinterpretations of you as a fundamentalist Christian poet as perhaps being a result of the “deeply secular” world of poetry, how that world can misconstrue the appearance of faith and religion in verse. How do you feel about the secular, the spiritual, and poetry now—years later? How do you think the contemporary poetry world (and perhaps the world of poetry criticism) responds to faith and doubt on the page?
KF: Well, I’ll say right away that I know the risks of engaging religious language on the page, but I’m willing to take them. When I use religious language, it’s necessitated by the poems themselves and is a sincere articulation. It has never occurred to me to be ironic in my use of theological language, and what I can say about a reader’s response to faith and doubt on the page is this: I believe readers are tired of ironic renderings of faith and doubt. I think people want to believe the author is sincere.
As tiresome to me as Christian fundamentalism is atheistic fundamentalism, which so very often utilizes religious language ironically, or worse, mockingly. Atheists can also succumb to fundamentalist fervor and rigidity of mind but can be unattuned to that risk. But to return to sincerity of religious language, I think readers are often intrigued and even nourished by original lines of poetry that use words like God, Lord, Allah, Christ, Buddha, the gods, enlightenment, and so on. Poetry is in a particularly strong position when it comes to such language, as poetry’s first demand is for original language, acute sensory renderings of the world, and subtle, internal interrogations. In the end, poetry is pressing as far as it can until it hits up against mystery, the unsayable. And coming to that limit, and feeling that limit, is an ecstatic experience. I suppose it’s as close to what I might call “religious” experience as I get. And readers are right to want that, and should put down books that aren’t pressing toward that limit, that are satisfied to offer articulations that are facile, general, or easily won. Such books are insults to the intricacy and subtlety of human experience. When such a book addresses belief and/or doubt in a facile way, it can feel like a higher offense, as the stakes are at a heightened pitch. So the poetry has farther to fall.
TM: If I were asked to name my favorite poem of yours, I would say, “All of them!” But if I had to choose, it would be “A Woman Wipes the Face of Jesus.” There’s this wonderful poem, “Rosary,” by Franz Wright, that is so simultaneously narrow and grand: “Mother of space,— / inner // virgin / with no one face— // See them flying to see you / be near you, // when you / are everywhere.” I feel that way about your poem, which in six lines contains almost a hundred variations and vibrations: the woman, Christ, the cross, tenderness, folklore, and more. I return to it like a devotion. This is a longwinded way of saying that you can accomplish an incredible amount in a short space, so: Could you talk about the shorter poems that pepper your collections? Do they “arrive” differently? How do you see them working, or speaking with, your longer pieces?
KF: You’re very kind toward my work, thank you. I’m humbled that it might be a ritual piece for you, a devotion. Again, my very-younger self wrote that poem, and if I remember correctly (without going to the garage to rummage through my Deposition box), that poem was extracted from an abandoned longer poem. I often “find” a small poem within the body of a poem flailing about, as it’s very hard to sit down and successfully write a poem of less than, say, eight lines. Eight—the octave—is when, for me, an argument unwinds via detail and the development of a voice, and is simply roomier, more elastic.
I’m happy when my books have a variety of reading experiences, and often the very small poem offers a crystalline moment in a collection. “Still Life,” a short poem in Blood Lyrics, was written in one night (as is the rule at the Community of Writers in the High Sierra), and I felt brevity was a confine I needed, as I was deeply fatigued, I had my 2-year-old with me, and I was in my hotel room, a toddler staring at me from her crib, bobbing up and down, and a children’s song, “Down by the Bay,” was stuck in my head. So I wrote the phrase, “Down by the pond …” and then I asked myself what the most unexpected thing to find down by the pond might be—the farthest thing from “where the watermelons grow”—and I wrote “addicts sleep.” Perhaps showing the whole poem will be easier than explanation:
Down by the pond, addicts sleep
on rocky grass half in water, half out,
and there the moon lights them
out of tawny silhouettes into the rarest
of amphibious flowers I once heard called striders,
between, but needing, two worlds.
Of what can you accuse them now,
The last sentence was something I forced upon myself: I was so fatigued (I like thinking of fatigue as a formal constraint!) that I simply said: Stop this poem. Then I had the amazing poem “American History” by Michael S. Harper in mind, which ends with the rather scolding, scalding question, “can’t find what you can’t see, can you?” I borrowed that tone of voice and grammatical cadence to write the last sentence. I knew it was risky of me, as I was claiming I had written these humans into a form of unexpected beauty. But when are people suffering addiction ever rendered as beautiful? So I decided to let it stand. That poem went through almost no revision after the first draft, which is entirely rare for me. Almost never does that happen.
Short poems have to have some guts. They are far riskier, I think, than their longer brothers and sisters. In the poem you cite, I remember feeling terribly uneasy with using the word “tenderness.” But there are times when even sentimentality must be risked. And I’ve had more response to that poem than to any other in Deposition. But you know what I think? I think, above all, poets have to guard against becoming cold.
TM: I like the occasional literary conversation about poetry and prayer. David Yezzi has said “poems and prayers have different ends: the end of a poem is aesthetic communication, the end of a prayer is God. Liturgy works to tune the soul; poetry works to tune the emotions.” Jericho Brown talks about how “writing poetry has probably been the best teacher for me learning to pray.” More than any other poet I am reading now, I feel like I am sitting in front of prayers when I read your work: They are incantatory, solemn, otherworldly (when you end the poem “Flee” from Colosseum with “I gave you each other / so save each other,” it feels like God is talking—really). Could you talk about the connections, intersections, differences between poetry and prayer?
KF: Perhaps what prayer and poetry have in common is that they both must be revised. I think people need to witness what they are actually saying in their prayers. Is what they are asking for ethically sound? Do prayers of gratitude take, as their object, something granted via economic and/or racial privilege? These questions can make prayer fall silent for quite some time. I’m interested in when prayer falls silent, when it isn’t just another form of wanting. Prayers have human motives, and we need to approach them with critical suspicion. Is anyone out there wanting a prayer to say for the next year? Then pray for your trespasses to become known to you, and ask for nothing but the fortitude to bear the revelation and the strength to make amends. It’s a hard thing to ask for. I rarely dare it.
It’s intriguing to me that you say my work acts as prayer for you, as I’m very often desiring to subvert traditional Christian thought, although the chastening, godlike voice of “I gave you each other / so save each other” can easily find biblical correlatives. I knew I was taking on a godlike voice in those lines, but I had no belief at that moment that I was channeling. Nor did I feel like I was praying. I was making, and I felt myself to be the maker.
At times there is a religious desire to define all things as forms of prayer—art, writing, reading, parenting, walking, thinking, etc. But I resist this. It undercuts the inherent value of those pursuits and doesn’t allow them to stand on their own two feet as necessary human endeavors. I don’t want my mothering to have to be buoyed up in importance by calling it a form of prayer. It’s not. It’s mothering. And my poems are poems. I’m not praying, I’m writing. If a reader takes those poems in as forms of prayer, I’m honored. We all need to find language—as I have, for instance, with a revision of the prayer of St. Francis I’ve grown to love—that we direct outward toward the unknowable realities. But we also need to know that language is fallible, that it’s an effort. Fallibility isn’t necessarily an ugly human fact. It can be a rather beautiful, actually, if we name it as such. But then we have to try again, fail again, try again …
TM: As a reader, your new book If You Have to Go feels like a return to the world of Deposition, a place of spiritual longing, where past and present are joined. It is a fantastic book, grounded in a sequence of sonnets that accumulates so well (as you do with other formal moves in previous books). It feels, again, as a book of longing: “All goes to gone. God of my childhood, / with your attendant monstrosities, / have a little warmth on me, bent and frozen.” When I finished it, I felt physically and emotionally spent; it was a transformative experience. Could you talk about the writing of this new book?
KF: I was physically and emotionally spent myself! I felt like that sonnet sequence was going to kill me. Many things articulated in the sonnets came at great cost. At the same time, I felt I was in the middle of something artistic that would never, for me, happen again. It’s a time of my life I don’t enjoy looking back at, but I remember its insomnia, and how, at 4 a.m., I’d wake up, go down the path to the little studio our Los Angeles rental had beneath the main house, and I’d write for three hours, a little more, a little less, until I heard my husband and toddler daughter waking up, walking (and pattering) in the main house, and I’d stop my writing and walk back up to the house. I don’t remember the mornings very clearly after that initial window. The end of a marriage fashions its own dull, pained light. To articulate that light, I realized very easily that, in my writing, nothing could be ruled out or considered out of the question as artistically old-fashioned, tired, dead, worn out, or even archaic. In fact, I landed upon a form (it seemed comic, I remember lightly laughing when I began it) practiced by the poets of the 17th century—the crown of sonnets, a corona, in which the last line of one sonnet becomes the first of the next. I just decided to try it. And each morning, I’d have the last line of the previous poem to start the next.
I wrote the sonnets sequentially—meaning I didn’t leave gaps and hop around, or write sonnets and then order them—and the first 20 or so came very fast. Two months or so. Then things slowed a bit, and the fluency of the beginning stage left me. Portions of the sequence were doggedly tricky, and I began to have narrative questions I don’t usually have as a lyric poet. For the sequence to end, I had to wait quite some time. How would it end? I had to wait for my own life to unfold. The poems in the book that are not sonnets were written when I knew I had content that needed other forms. Now that I’m truly done with the book and it’s in the world, I feel a bit bereft. I know I won’t ever be inside of those sonnets again.