By Tabitha Chilton
Katy Didden is the author of The Glacier’s Wake (Pleiades Press, 2013) and the forthcoming book Ore Choir: The Lava on Iceland (Tupelo Press, 2022). Her poems and essays appear in journals such as Poetry Northwest, Ecotone, 32 Poems, Diagram, The Sewanee Review, and The Kenyon Review, and she is one of the co-creators of Almanac for the Beyond (Tropic Editions, 2019). She is an Assistant Professor at Ball State University where she teaches creative writing and the environment and poetry workshops.
Photo by Lauren Ditchley
West Branch: In The Glacier’s Wake, you discuss themes of global warming, the negative effects on the planet caused by human life, and life and death through nature. How have these issues of climate, as you construe and blur them through metaphor, affected your life and how you think about daily acts and experiences?
Katy Didden: I do think about climate issues a lot. My climate questions are like low frequency vibrations that hum under all my other thoughts. How can we understand the climate issues we are facing now, how can we imagine and prepare for the consequences we have yet to experience, and how can we talk about this? Above all, as climate issues exacerbate the injustices in our societal structures, how can we think about climate in a way that is intersectional? Our best way forward is to listen to those who have been marginalized in the US and across the world, advocate for climate reparations, and prioritize global health.
As a writer, I have tried to represent these questions in my work. I have a new book of poems that Tupelo Press will publish this November, Ore Choir: The Lava on Iceland, for which I researched the Laki eruption of 1783, a volcanic eruption that lowered global temperatures and had devastating consequences in Iceland and around the world. As I worked on those poems (a book of multimedia erasure poems), this historical climate change event, even though it was a very different situation, offered some means of understanding our current climate anxieties—what does it take to survive as a human species? My method for composing Ore Choir was deliberately citational and collaborative, and both of those practices seem essential to the work of representing climate issues.
As a teacher, I bring these questions to the classroom. In my Ecopoetics and Creative Writing and the Environment classes, my students and I consider what it means to be writers in the time of human-accelerated climate change. My goal is to give students the time and space to engage with these ideas, and I try to encourage innovative writing practices that center collaboration, research, and experimentation. In these classes, we also try to rethink the basic structures of the workshop itself to be more ecological.
As a citizen, I try to stay involved at many levels, from joining a community garden to organizing teach-ins on the Green New Deal. For me, the best way to make sense of what’s at stake is to think about these issues in conversation with other people. It is important to me that as I’ve joined book groups focused on the environment through organizations like Emergence Magazine and All We Can Save, I am also in discussion groups and communities of practice about antiracist pedagogy, centering BIPOC writers, and racial justice. For the past year, I’ve been working on an essay synthesizing what I have learned from these discussions, considering how poetry, specifically Black feminist poetry, offers strategies for facing climate uncertainty.
WB: The Glacier’s Wake as a whole seems to mourn the death of our planet as well as a loved one. In poems from “Before Edison Invented Lights” to “On Trying to Save My Niece from Grieving,” the narrative voice is strong and unsettling yet, remarkably, still comforting. What was your thought and or creative process in blending these narratives?
KD: What an interesting observation! I’d never seen the connection between those two poems before, but I see it immediately when you talk about the voice. It is so funny, but trying to trace the connection between those poems is leading me into the depths of whatever it is that becomes my poetic voice—because the speakers of those poems seem to be at different distances from the reader (“Edison” is farther away, a campfire story, where as “On Trying to Save…” could not be closer, whispered on the couch), and the first poem is more like fiction where the second is nonfiction. So what is it that connects them? Maybe they are alike because they both seem to engage with what my teacher Stanley Plumly wrote about in his essay “The Abrupt Edge,” “So we say life and death, as if that were the edge of ultimate concern to the imagination, when the real edge is between life and more life, memory and wish. The powerful imagination does not work, as every good poem reminds us, unless it comes to an edge, makes its pass, and, one way or another, returns.” In both of those poems, after looking over the edge of annihilation in Edison, or of death and loss in “On Trying to Save…” the speakers’ thoughts resolve in iambic rhythm—they return to the life-affirming, eons-enduring heartbeat.
While I love the fact that poems can invoke all kinds of emotions, and that not every poem consoles or needs to console, I do think much of my work seems to move in that direction. In the deep cave that is the source of my voice, where thanks to your question I am crawling around, listening, I am amused, mystified, and more than a little chagrined that this line from the Penitential Act keeps surfacing: and pray for me to the lord our God. Could that be the ur-line behind both conclusions in the poems you named? Yikes! I was raised Catholic, so the psalms and the call & responses of the Mass are deeply ingrained in my understanding of public speech, and it is probably why my poems veer towards the homiletic. That prayer begins “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters.” So, while at this point I find the patriarchal language of “almighty God” and “Lord our God” infuriating, maybe I can trust the rhythm underneath those words, and the sense that one can address the ineffable and the intimate all at once.”
WB: What inspired you to start exploring multimedia erasure poems, as you mentioned earlier? How do “multimedia” erasure poems differ from traditional erasure poems? have you found the experience of transitioning to this kind of poetry?
KD: In The Glacier’s Wake, I have a series of persona poems where I adopt the voice of a glacier, a wasp, and a sycamore. I found the process of working in persona, especially trying to think with creatures and features of the natural world, to be surprising and strange (in the best way), and after the book was published, I wanted to expand on that technique. I wanted to write in the voice of lava, and that led me to erasure, because I imagined that the process of inking out words on a page resonated with the way lava flows over land.
I have written a lot about erasure as an ecopoetic form, a collaborative form, and a form that invites multimedia compositions. Maybe the short answer is that to create an erasure, poets think spatially—the source text becomes a field, and the poet scans across it. The sensation is a little like reading a topographic map, or like crossing a river by jumping rock to rock.
I have always continued to write other kinds of poems at the same time as I composed the lava erasures. I’m working on a third collection of poems that are driven by sound in a different way from the lava poems, and the poems you published in West Branch are part of that new project. I find free verse far more difficult than erasures, because there are so many decisions to make, but I love that challenge, too. The new collection is more personal, and while there is a different kind of urgency to these poems, they have felt like a way for me to stay grounded with people and places I love.
WB: “Dream Child Of No Children,” published in West Branch, uses dream imagery and a melodic voice to create a sensation at once peaceful and disturbing. How do you think this poem connects to your poems from The Glacier’s Wake and your aesthetic as it has evolved?
KD: Thank you for your close reading and insights about the poem, Tabitha. I’m so intrigued by what you’re seeing. Are all dreams both “peaceful and disturbing”? I mentioned the persona poems in The Glacier’s Wake, but many poems in that book are more narrative, and in those I’m reframing stories from my life. In that sense, “Dream Child of No Children” relates to those earlier poems. But I do think my third book is taking me in a new direction that is more personal and raw than my earlier work.
I tend to write elegiac poems and I can’t say why that is. It could be that I turn to poetry to help make sense of what disturbs me, and that finding a way to order the experience does have a peaceful effect. Or maybe the peacefulness comes from imagining a reader, as if the process of sharing the experience gives me distance from it? But there’s a lot that’s disturbing in the world right now, and the more I quiet my mind, the more I can discern what matters. Is naming what’s disturbing a step towards peace?
One thing I’m exploring in the new book is what it means to live a solitary life, with its loneliness and its paradoxical fullness. The “Dream Child” poem helped me to honor all my friends, especially those who don’t fit the “married with kids” paradigm that is so dominant in American life, and to see us not as lonely solitaries but as a lively troublemakers who are infinitely connected and nurturing (I just read a terrific book on this subject, At the Center of All Beauty, by Fenton Johnson, which I highly recommend). The poets I know who write in the key of joy move easily between ode and elegy. I hope I get there someday!
Katy Didden’s “Dream Child of No Children” and other poems appeared in West Branch 98, Winter 2022.