Getting to Know Catherine (Kate) Stearns and her New book Then & Again
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
Then & Again is very exciting to me because it results from my work with Slate Roof Press, a gem of a small, collaborative press in Western Mass. At Slate Roof you learn about book arts by working with other members of the press and, especially, with master printer Ed Rayher, who has an extraordinary, guiding vision. So, beyond the poems themselves, and with a lot of help, I made choices about papers and fonts and inks. Each book from SRP is a labor of love, definitely a made thing.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Then & Again has overlapping themes, but memory is at the heart of it--memory that goes beyond the self. I grew up in in a small farming community in the Midwest, and some of these poems are about how that landscape remembers, how history itself remembers. I’m less interested in charting a spiritual autobiography than in exploring what comes before words, perceptually speaking, and how and why the act of remembering rearranges, undoes, forgives or not….
I have at least two working definitions of poetry from other poets: as one-half of an imagined conversation, and as a way to say what otherwise cannot be said. Many of my poems are a working out of the latter. The poem as palimpsest: word-layers you test and collate over a lifetime, although some poems, or lines thereof, do appear as the occasional gift. I try through poetry to connect to history, to have conversations between the present and past. The longest poem in my book (“A Simpling for Cotton Mather”) is a dramatic monologue, indirectly about Mather. A friend said to me recently, “Oh, this is a ‘Me, Too’ poem,” and although I argued with her I see her point. If a young woman had gathered flora and fauna for the formidable Mather, I think she might well have, even then, questioned his conclusions about “the Mind of our Author.”
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Writers who have influenced me are many and varied, including prose writers like Lydia Davis. I read Adrienne Rich at a crucial stage in my writing life, and like most poets I’ve known, I’ve been obsessed with Dickinson. I have loved poems by Heaney, Justice, Glück, and many, many more. I’m a huge Bishop fan, and though I’ve learned a lot from her artistry, I’m ever more wary of her emotional restraint. The dramas and subtexts of childhood, when we have no agency to speak of, enrich us—perhaps make us turn to poetry in the first place—but also wound us. I think part of the work of remembering is to figure out what you can use and why, what actions and beliefs in the present you can draw from the deep well of the past.
Read an excerpt from her book here:
Learning to Read
The pointer finger, creating the tender,
sinks in reflective black ink’s water
to the bottom of the page. When
you move your lips to say “water,”
the word crystallizes like honey
on the tip of your tongue. Later
for days, then years, a riot of wings
pings through the air by your ears;
words flatten like teeth marks.
You have to wait, wait
to feel what you can float on, inner-
tubes on the river, then the river itself
opens you to the sea.