The Umbrella Interview
A Conversation with Cati Porter
by Rachel DacusC ati Porter of Riverside, California is the author of the full-length poetry collection Seven Floors Up (Mayapple Press, 2008) and small fruit songs, a chapbook of prose poems. She is also founder and editor-in-chief of Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry and associate editor (poetry) for Babel Fruit. Three manuscripts will soon be published: (al)most delicious, an ekphrastic series after Modigliani's nudes, forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press; what Desire makes of us, a series written during NaPoWriMo 2009, and a full-length collection, The Myth of the Everyday. Umbrella contributing editor Rachel Dacus conducted this interview via email in October 2009.
Well, first of all, I don’t come from a family of writers. My mother is a machine operator in a flashlight factory and my father is a sales executive. While I was always encouraged to do whatever it was that I wanted to do, my immediate role models were focused on more practical concerns like putting food on the table and paying bills. But I have always had an interest in writing, in language, and in art.
Growing up and as a young adult my interests were fairly broad when it came to the arts. When I was about fourteen, I took a drawing class in school that I really enjoyed and went through a phase where I would sit and sketch things for hours. I also spent a lot of time writing poems, short stories and plays. In college I took theater, acted in a series of one act plays, then joined the city’s musical theater group. It was also at this time that I started working on the college’s literary journal and having my first work published. In my early twenties I occasionally wrote lyrics for some friends who had a band. Then in my mid-twenties I took a break from writing and tried painting, participating in a couple of all-women’s art shows. But after my first son was born, I had this rush of wanting to write again, so I would sit with him at the computer and nurse him while I typed with one hand. When he was three months old, I joined a poetry critique group formed by another poet-mama. That was nearly ten years ago. Motherhood has been a boon to me, in that it flipped a switch and I haven’t stopped writing since.
And, I would like to point out that while I don’t come from a family of writers, my mother’s father was a noted ceramist and his lobsterware and bird figurines are collector’s items; his father before him was an acclaimed tile maker, without which the Malibu Lagoon Museum would not still be standing. Both were creative individuals who combined arts and science in their work, and I like to think that I may have inherited some of that.
Your poems often have a sense of humor, or of whimsy. I’m thinking of poems like “Inflatable Church.” Are you often drawn to absurdities, and when something tickles you, how do you approach making a poem from that?
Yes, I am most definitely drawn to the absurd. Often what I find funniest are the oddities that occur in real life. When I picked my youngest son up from his first day of preschool and found a sticker on his knee that read “PLEASE DO NOT TURN THE HEAD FORCEFULLY BY HAND,” I was struck by the absurd wisdom of that statement: I cannot force his direction in life, I can only offer my guidance, because if I do try to force him I might break him. Granted, the sticker probably came off of something a bit more mundane, like a faucet or a flashlight, and if it had been anyone but a poet’s child, the sticker would have been peeled off and discarded without regard. But I just thought it was hilarious. And very good advice. So I put it in a poem.
As for “Inflatable Church,” here’s the story: My husband was searching for a business opportunity on eBay and ran across this enormous and hideous inflatable place of worship. I’m not a religious person, but even so it struck me as ridiculous that anyone would want to pray in that thing—or worse, get married. (Not that I’m one to talk. My husband and I got married at the drive-thru wedding window in Las Vegas!) But the thought of a funeral inside that thing? Absurd! So I stayed up very late that night working on a draft. With a humorous poem, you just have to jump on it, otherwise you risk losing the spark.
In your new book, Seven Floors Up, and in your forthcoming chapbook, (al)most delicious, many of the poems reflect relationships. How does your life as a wife, mother, and daughter inform your subjects?
I get up every day, make everyone’s lunches, get my husband off to work, get the boys off to school. My mom lives in an attached apartment so we’re very close—literally—and I see her every day. And my other significant mothers—my stepmom, my mother-in-law, my grandmothers—all figure prominently in my life, though some live farther away than others. My subjects, at least the ones that asserted themselves in Seven Floors Up, are drawn from everyday conversations, situations, or objects that demand further examination, and always I learn something from the process.
However, it is not always personal relationships that directly inform the subject matter. Rather, the larger issues of identity, existence, the interplay between power and powerlessness, and the ever-pervasive male gaze, are what I am attempting to get under the skin of, in (al)most delicious. As an ekphrastic series of persona poems in a singular voice that represents the collective “consciousness” of Modigliani’s female nudes, the poems attempt to redefine the objectified female form as subject, and empower it. By redirecting the view outward these poems implicate the viewer and redefine the viewer as the viewed. I can’t confirm what the artist’s intention might have been, but because of the frankly and unapologetically sexual poses, coupled with the way he paints their eyes—many of which appear to be contemplating the viewer—it doesn’t seem such a leap to think that he may have intended to do the same. Of course, those are only the mechanics. It’s messier than that. What about the women who enjoy being viewed in this way? Unless Modigliani significantly altered their expressions, all of the women in these paintings, for their part, appear complicit.
When I think of the ways in which my relationships have informed the subject of these poems, it is from the standpoint of having lived thirty-eight years in a woman’s body, and having witnessed my mothers and sisters do the same. Women’s experience of the body is complicated, because it is not seemly to be too concerned with it, yet it is what we are (sadly, it does seem) still most valued for.
What draws you to writing ekphrastic poems? Do you often start with a specific piece of art, or artist, as with the Modigliani chapbook?
Yes. However, outside of (al)most delicious, I have not written many (other than more about Modigliani that didn’t make it into the manuscript). One notable one that preceded the Modi poems was after Picasso’s Lobster and Cat, which seemed such an unlikely duo that I was immediately drawn in (as lobsters & cats have figured prominently in my life).
How did you choose to focus a collection on Modigliani?
My husband and I were on an anniversary trip to Las Vegas just after our oldest son was born. Because I couldn’t loiter in the casino (children aren’t allowed on the casino floor) we looked for other things to do. At the time, the Venetian resort housed a small Guggenheim collection that included many important works, including Modigliani’s 1917 Nu. I stood before it in awe—it was enormous, taking up one whole wall. It was truly larger than life. Later, in the gift shop, I bought a set of magnets to commemorate the visit that included both of those works. Even as small as the image was, I noticed that it caught people’s attention against the white of the refrigerator door, so one day I decided to write an ekphrastic poem after that image. While that poem ultimately wasn’t successful, I did revisit the original impulse of that poem and wrote “Restraint,” which appears in Seven Floors Up and is a predecessor to the rest of the Modi poems.
If you had to identify your most important themes, ones that you feel you just can’t exhaust, what would they be?
I would probably say Sex. Is it okay for a woman to say that? I don’t know. But it does crop up in my work quite a bit, in one form or another. That’s what everything boils down to, anyway; life is all about the sex. But of course, it’s not. But it is how we arrived at this moment, someone having sex (well, that is, unless you were conceived in vitro, but I still think the rest applies). It is what drives most of us to couple, and to fiercely protect what is ours. Sex can be a catalyst for good, as well as for evil. Sex, and the desire for it, causes both women and men to view their bodies, and others’, through a distorted lens. But I suppose I won’t go so far as to say that I could never exhaust that subject. I think maybe, above all else, the primary recurrent theme that grounds my work is love—for our husbands, for our wives, for our children, for our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters; for ourselves, and for humanity at large. Sex is what drives us but it is love that makes us whole. But if I had started this paragraph with the word “love” it might not have gotten anyone’s attention. What does that say about the human condition?
What impact does editing Poemeleon and co-editing Babel Fruit have on your own writing?
While it does take away from my writing time, the pleasure I take in putting out an issue takes precedence. I enjoy being able to publish a poet for the first time alongside well-established poets who have confidence enough in us to send us their best work. And it has had a decidedly positive impact on my poems. I have a front row seat to what others are currently writing, and I have the distinct pleasure of publishing work by poets that I admire.
When you read a submission, what is the first trigger that suggests you might accept a poem? What tells you to reject one?
I’m not going to quote Dickinson again, because that’s what everyone else does. Instead, I’ll just say that if I get through the first few lines and haven’t run across a cliché or a dud line, I’ll keep reading, and if I get to the end and feel transformed in some way, then I put it in the Yes pile.
As for rejections, it’s the same process, but as soon as the poem strikes a false note or uses a cliché, I’m done. There are too many good poems to read to waste my time with one that isn’t quite ready yet. There is a lot of reading involved with each issue, and the way I schedule in the time I can’t dawdle over poems that I’m unsure about. If I’m unsure, then it’s an immediate No.