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Poet Joy Katz on Gertrude Stein, Hitchcock, and why a desk is more pepper than salt

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

Note: Originally published in the Spring 2010 issue of Arch Literary Journal.


Haines Eason: If we could, I would like to work backward from your newest book first. Let’s begin with The Garden Room.

Gertrude Stein’s influence on this project is apparent from the outset with the opening epigraph. And, with how the poems hew closely to Stein’s style, Tender Buttons immediately comes to mind. What about Stein’s work excited you enough to write such an extended meditation that so closely investigates her style? And, what would you say to someone who asks “why”—to someone who wonders what more could be made from Stein’s methods?

Joy Katz: The poems in Tender Buttons are bursts of wit and ecstasy. I am attracted to the ecstatic. And they delighted me—I wanted to spend time with them the same way you’d be excited to talk to someone who likes to dance and tell jokes and drink a pretty drink. To someone who asked “why Stein,” I’d have to say I was having a good time at the party.

I also was excited to discover Stein’s preoccupation with objects—household objects—and to enter the poems, with their object-titles, because I love objects too. I studied product design in college, but even as a child I was seduced by color and texture and the different ways things speak to each other in a space, both the two-dimensional space of a photo and in a room. I would open magazines and want to climb into the pictures. It was physically painful (sometimes I would cry) to see the color and arrangement of a group of objects and not be able to get into the room and touch them and walk around them.

The poems in Tender Buttons gave me permission to use the connections I felt between objects as the basis for poems. Stein said her poems were new names for objects. She was re-naming. My project was the consciousness of objects.

I was drawn to Stein’s book at a certain moment in the arc of my writing. When I started experimenting with those poems, at Stanford, I wanted a way to write that was more adroit—more like making thumbnail sketches. I needed to capture the consciousness of objects, and I had to do it quickly, because the links reveal themselves and then disappear. (The thumbnail approach only holds for the conception of the poems, because the poems were carefully worked out over years. I hoped, though, to keep the energy of the sketch in the final poems.) Because Stein’s poems are in prose, they move fast. Her sentences and fragments had a pace I craved. They allowed me to shorten the distance between the world, my mind, and the page.

The poems I was writing just before I started The Garden Room felt like translation exercises. I was translating the world, but for whom? And why was I translating it into a language that felt so cumbersome and tiresome and not like mine? I decided to stop translating to see what would happen.

The titles in Tender Buttons ground the poems solidly: “A piece of coffee.” And then you enter the poem and trust entirely that it’s a piece of coffee. I’m not saying I always get the connections she makes. Just that the distance between what I know as a piece of coffee, and Stein’s piece of coffee, captivated me. What happens in this distance? It’s the same distance, of course, between a tall fluffy shrub along a road and the tall fluffy shrub that David Hockney draws on a piece of paper. Or between whatever Mark Rothko was feeling and his canvas and brush. You like a painter or a poet because you like how her mind interrupts the world.

What more could be made from Stein’s methods? I was not inventing a new way to write, as Stein was doing at that moment in history. I was only inventing a way to write for myself. Cubism happened a long time ago! But my most recent poems, if they are working, owe something to The Garden Room and to the Stein of Tender Buttons, who led me to a nimbleness and playfulness I wasn’t accessing on my own. They are conceived, parts of them, in the same way as the poems in The Garden Room. They move and think in similar ways but are longer and connected with current events in my life.

HE: Hockney’s a great mention—the way the exactly real is transected and distance inserted between things that haven’t moved. I think that’s very appropriate to your methodology. Now, you say Stein’s sketches move fast, but to me the prose generally and her use of restatement (the cubist approach) specifically reads slowly, meditatively. Can you elaborate on what you mean?

JK: “What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it.” That’s quick. And her lines in the typescript read quickly. They are barely 50 characters long. Not even the length of two alphabets, as they say in graphic design. Two-and-a-half alphabets is good for legibility. Stein’s line length is speedy by design. Do you mean that you ponder the associations slowly? I didn’t stop to think about the associations till I’d read the book a few times. But here’s a question for you: I'm not sure what you mean by “distance inserted between things that haven't moved.” I was talking about the distance between the actual thing and Stein's or Hockney’s perception of the thing, and then the distance between that perception and the page. Does that make sense?

HE: I do ponder Stein’s associations slowly, and that’s what slows the reading down for me—the surprises the associations offer give me pause, a pleasurable pause to be sure, but a pause. And interestingly, as regards Hockney, there’s something of that in his work for me too.

I have in mind his photo collages in which nothing's been changed—I’m thinking of his “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” or “Pearblossom Highway,” where the collage consists of multiple shots all of the same background, all pieced together to sort of re-stitch that master-background. Somehow, though they all knit both perfectly and imperfectly (there’s a cubist experiment in play) to recreate the original scene cohesively, there's an elusive disjunction pervading the new image ... something coming in around the sutures. The apprehension of them is instantaneous but each component begs a slow scrutiny too.

Now after what you’ve said, yes, I do get the approach you're talking about regarding perception and actual, and if we could turn to that: you said something very interesting in your first answer … your project being an investigation of the consciousness of objects. Can you take me through what you mean? How does one draw off the spirit of a thing?

JK: I let an object become the focus of my attention, clearing my mind of other thoughts. It sounds like a trance, or like meditation, but for me it was easier than meditating, because I’m overly sensitive to objects. It was a kind of self-negation — a negative capability. Like Williams, I tried to apprehend the object “intensely in the present, virtually out of time.” I could then perceive what I felt was the consciousness of the object.

It has to do with the particular silence of a thing. The silence a made bed keeps is different than the silence an unmade bed keeps. I wanted to record those differences, to become the object through which the silence (or consciousness) passed. To become a seismograph.

It’s funny to compare what I did to meditation, since it’s so materialistic— obsessed with objects. Schopenhauer would say that no matter what “consciousness” I thought an object emitted, or transmitted, or whatever, the poems are all constructs of my brain, since the information passed through it and into my pen. Yet the poems do feel, to me, more objective than subjective.

HE: You say you’re overly sensitive to objects, and earlier you mentioned you would sometimes cry for wanting to disappear into a magazine—can you take me into a recollection? What did the first (or an early) experience of this feel like?

And to get specific to the book—how does the silence of “Chinese Lanterns” compare to that of a “Desk” (pages 12 and 13 in Garden Room)? I guess I’m really asking how it is these particular things approached you, as I imagine they must … is there a uniformity to (a commonality among) these encounters? Sorry to split-question you, but there’s a lot I want to get at!

JK: One photo, when I was about six, was an aerial view of a room — a sort of deck covered with a winglike roof — where there was a party going on. It was a liminal space, not inside yet not outside. The light shining out from under the edges of this roof was beautiful, and maddening. What could such a light come from? What did the room itself look like? And the people? I could see only a couple of hands with drinks in them. I could clearly imagine the music. I needed so much to be in the room that I turned the page sideways to try to see in. I clawed at the paper. I felt disincluded by the very laws of perspective and the fact that a photograph exists just in two dimensions. I loved and was tormented by this photo. I kept it for a long time.

The only thing common among my encounters with the objects in The Garden Room was my recording method, described above. The actual objects weren’t in one room, but many. For example, the Chinese lanterns were in my studio at MacDowell. The desk is my father’s desk.

Like the room in the photo I couldn’t see, the plant (Chinese lantern) in the poem doesn’t need me. Its existence, in its orange-ness, was much more than I could make of it. The consciousness of the plant was both its orange-ness and the clarifying reminder that I had hoped to make so orange an orange, but could not. I am always in service to the objects. The objects in the room are all. The object transformed into a poem is almost-all, if it works.

You wanted me to compare two poems: “Chinese Lanterns” and “A Desk.” I think what you’re asking is: why a desk is more pepper than salt, and why it is as sane as a telephone in a Hitchcock movie, and how is a plant like or unlike a desk. Stevens talked about “the irrational element in poetry,” or the “transaction between reality and the sensibility of the poet from which the poetry springs.” Violating the privacy of that transaction, he thought, “affects the integrity of the poet.” So I am going to invoke Stevens and not answer your question, except to notice that both poems wonder about the seeing of the object and the making of the poem.

HE: Wonderful—and invoking Stevens in response won’t cost you any points. Now if both poems are wondering along in what seems to me to be a unified way, both musing on, as you say, the seeing of objects and the making of poems, do all the poems in the collection do this alone—are they all locked into their own object-centrism—or do they bleed into each other? I guess I mean (since I’m in the habit of asking a blizzard of questions at every turn): if you were trying like Williams “to apprehend the object ‘intensely in the present, virtually out of time,’” how did you trace/track a theme?

JK: Well, there is interplay between the objects, for instance the linen closet and the bed and sheets. There is a wondering, ecstatic, serene, and self-doubting speaker, and there is someone else — the one who shares the bed. There isn’t a narrative, but there is enough (I hope) of the relationship for it to function as the … skeleton? … of the book, structurally and spiritually.

I didn’t track a theme. Earlier, when the manuscript was 130 pages long, I rearranged it different ways, hoping to discover its theme. The poems are close-focused (I was, until recently, almost blind with literal nearsightedness) and couldn’t sense the arc of the book. So I gave up. Later I cut 90 pages, keeping just the poems I felt were the absolute strongest. Then it worked as a cycle. I hope there is a clear sense, around the aggregate of the poems, of a speaker trying very hard to hold onto these objects in a fitful universe. As if the objects, being as permanent as objects are, could anchor the speaker to the world and make her immortal.

HE: There is that sense—surely. Something about each poem is constellational, iconic unto itself, but then, when you relax the eyes, there’s the book again—the sky of the collection, so to speak—as backdrop. “Zooming in and out” in this way, focusing on the poem and then on the poems, an aggregate is apparent—they do speak, one to the next, but to me the speaker at times seems a little secondary to the world of the collection—very much enmeshed in the mystery of it….

Now, what about Fabulae? Did you find yourself with a mass of poems needing to be whittled down, as in Garden Room’s case, or was the speaking voice in that project—one that seems much stronger than the person leading the way in Garden Room—was that first book’s speaking voice clearer, and did it have places it wanted to take you?

JK: Fabulae is a sort of old-fashioned first book in that it is a collection of poems written over some years, rather than a single cycle of poems. It seems there aren’t many first books like that right now. The poems grouped themselves by themes and obsessions. If the voices (because there are several) in Fabulae seem to be stronger than that of the speaker of The Garden Room, it means I clinched the negative capability I was after in my second book. So, thank you, Haines!

Both ways of writing and speaking felt natural and clear to me. In my most recent poems the voice feels different again, but true to where I am now.

HE: No I agree—there aren’t many books like that anymore, and I would say that my friends writing their first books do feel the pressure to turn out something that speaks to itself—a series—instead of something that collects from many corners.

I’ve just finished reading Laura Jensen’s Memory, and that book feels to me akin to Fabulae, in a way (not in the first book way, of course)—it feels something like a series of incidents. I want to say that Jensen’s poems come as they need to; they simply appear when they do, and the poems of Fabulae have the same aura.

Still, if that’s the case, what was your organizing principle for the book? Why did you group the book into the sections “Following the Orthodox Men,” “The Word Wife,” “Together in a Small Room” and “To a False God”? And how, if at all, do the sections talk to each other?

JK: Wow, that’s a generous comparison. I love Memory, and Laura Jensen.

I needed an editor to help me organize Fabulae. I was too caught up in revising individual poems to see how the manuscript might best shape itself.

The poems in the third section have to do with the Holocaust. I had thought they should be spread throughout the book. That was my intuition. But the editor I hired convinced me they should be crammed into their own dense, short section. They are claustrophobic poems. The discomfort in them is amplified by their being together.

The sections work a bit like a camera with different lenses. The poems in the first section occur over a long period of history; the camera takes a wide view. The second section is a domestic mise-en-scène. The third section is history again, but in uncomfortably intimate proximity—like a cropped close-up. The last section zooms out; the poems are philosophical, playful. There are arcs across the book. For example: Orthodox Jewish men, the story of Abraham, Adam and Eve. It’s not a Jewish book, but a Jewish poet wrote the poems, and that’s clear in every section, although not in every poem.

HE: I love that—not a Jewish book, but a Jewish poet wrote the poems. That seems somehow to be a/the anchor of your work—the things/states of being represented are the gift (to the reader) of the speaking consciousness, but not necessarily dependent on that consciousness for their “worldly existence”—the existence that is enacted each time the books are read. Beautiful.

Now, the editor you mentioned in your last answer will make my last question a multi-part one. You say you brought on an outside editor to help organize Fabulae? What was that process like? So many of us are struggling to publish their first or even second books, and, as you know, much of the work happens in the dark, and much of the dark work is the work of organizing.

And, after that, did the working with an editor give you a better sense of how to pursue a next project? Did you come away with a firmer grasp of some of the (many?) routes to a book’s organization? Also, of course, what’s next? What are you working on right now?

JK: Handing over the pile of poems to someone else was a big relief. I could have organized the book on my own—maybe much the same way—but it would have taken me six times as long. The formal relationship was good for me because I could ask seven hundred questions and not worry that I was burdening a teacher or a colleague. I also didn’t wonder whether she was being hard enough on the manuscript, since she wasn’t a personal friend.

A few weeks after sending the poems, we had a two-hour phone conversation. There was an in-person meeting, and many follow-ups via email. The process took maybe two months.

Have you noticed that there are styles of organization that seem to change by generation? Or year? For a while lots of books had four sections. Then it was five. Five sections was it. Now, more books aren’t divided into sections, probably (again) because there are more single-cycle books.

The Garden Room is so different from Fabulae that the editing process didn’t relate. I think by now I’ve absorbed more possibilities for organization by reading lots of books. That is to say—working with an editor didn’t give me a sense of how to pursue the next project. That’s all right, though. Every book is so different. At least for this poet.

I have, I think, two books in progress. One set of poems doesn’t work with the other. They’re so different that I can’t submit them to journals in the same batch, because it would seem like my name somehow got on someone else’s poems.

I write slowly, so it’s frustrating. I’d love finish one of these books soon! But I’m enjoying working on these poems. I like going to my desk every day.


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