The Country Dog Review

Catie Rosemurgy

Ron Riekki interviews Catie Rosemurgy

 

Rona Jaffe Award winner Catie Rosemurgy was born in Madison, Wisconsin (1969), and raised in Escanaba, Michigan.  Her work has been featured in the Best American Poetry series (1997).  Her poetry collections include My Favorite Apocalypse (2001) and The Stranger Manual (2010).

 

Ron Riekki: For Michigan State University Press, I’m editing a collection of the best writing in the history of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  For that anthology, I’ve been asking U.P. writers to nominate their top three writings in the history of the area.  Out of the sixty nominations I’ve received so far, your work appears on lists more than any other female writer in the history of the region.  Some would even make the claim that you’re the most important female writer in the U.P.’s history.  What is your response to that level of acclaim?  Does it tie you even deeper to the region?  Does it create a responsibility on your part?

 

Catie Rosemurgy: I'm always glad, of course, when my poems are read and enjoyed. To be read and enjoyed by other writers, writers who know the very particular part of the world that I write about and who care about it--that's the best thing a poem of mine could achieve. I don't feel like I write about the place that I'm from as much as I write to it...or for it...because of it, through it. Being read by other writers from the U.P. comes as close as possible to finding out that some of the messages I sent out into the night actually did get through. 

While I'm very honored to be read as a poet of place, I'm not as sure what I think about being seen as a female writer, though, rather than just as a writer. Certainly my poems are about gendered experience as much as they are about place, but then so is Jim Harrison's work, though he might not describe it that way himself.

Even though I don't live in the U.P., I couldn't be more tied to it. It's my home. I'm like a plant or animal that grew there, it's my natural habitat. It's what's around me when I close my eyes. My displacement from it is an adventure, a great journey, but it is a displacement.

 

RR: I see you as a member of the new school of U.P. writers, linking you with people like Jonathan Johnson, Tom Bissell, and Ander Monson.  Do you see yourself as a U.P. writer?  Do you feel linked to those three writers (or perhaps to a different set of writers)?  What do you make of the fact that of those three writers—and including yourself—none of you have remained in the Upper Peninsula?

 

CR: I definitely see myself as a U.P. writer and I definitely feel a kinship with the writers you mention, each of whom have written things that seem to me to glow with quasi-religious import they so vividly express the part of the world that I know. I'd put your novel U.P. on that list, too, by the way. I have a special shelf for books written about the U.P., and it does feel a bit like my display of sacred texts, all of which are gloriously filled with rot and snow and fear and profanity.

What do I make of the fact that none of us still live there...Well, the easy answer is that we probably all had to leave to get writing jobs. It's rural and remote and doesn't offer a ton of possibilities for writers to make a living. But I think it's probably true, too, what a lot of writers say, that sometimes you have to leave a place to be able to write about it, to be able to see it.

 

Ron Riekki: The poet Saara Myrene Raappana has said that your poem Love, with Trees and Lightning is the best piece of writing ever from the U.P.  Its first stanza opens with:

 

I’ve been thinking about what love is for.

Not the obvious part where he gathers

until he is as purposeful inside her

as an electrical storm, not when he breaks

into a thanks so bright it leaves her

split like a tree.  (We all jolt back,

our picnic ten shades lighter, our hands

clapped over awe that’s too big for our mouths.)

 

Raappana said she is such a fan of the poem “because it continues to blow my mind no matter how many times I read it.”

Could you talk a bit about what you’re doing with this opening?  I’d love to hear some of your insights into analyzing your own poems, especially how you draw a reader in with your openings.

 

CR: Saara Myrene Raappana, in addition to being a wonderful poet, is a deeply generous person.

As for the opening...That first line is a bit of a joke. A throw away line, so bald and artless it doesn't belong in a poem, so it amused me. It fell down on the page like a challenge: no detail, no linguistic come-on, no hiding the cheesiness of it--just, oh, love, ugh. It's all in. Cards on the table. Blah.

It's cynical, not just about love but about poetry, about language, about my ability to marshal poetic language on poetic subjects. I liked the doubt the line raised about my ability to pull this off, this meditation, this using language and having feelings. The poem goes on to ride an edge between poetic language and unpoetic language, between lyric success and failure--that's what I enjoyed while writing it, how the poetry of it threatens to unravel. I felt that dynamic grew out of the first line.

 

RR: Being in China, I was recently looking at natural disaster death tolls, of which China leads in quite a few categories (deadliest flood, deadliest famine, deadliest earthquake, and deadliest natural disaster since 1900).  The U.S. only led in one natural disaster category—deadliest wildfire, which was Wisconsin’s Peshtigo Fire.  In fact, four of the top five deadliest wildfires in the world have all been in the Midwest—Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.

In the Wayne State University Press anthology I edited that comes out in May entitled The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works, you’re the most featured poet in the collection.  One of your poems in it (“Founded 1903”) talks about “the problem of being stacked like kindling and shoveled into / the ground. // But it backfired”; in “Ghost Dog,” from the same collection, you discuss “The swirling smoke of the new thing” and with “Figure Four Deadfall” you have the repetition of different kindling-like elements of “wooden,” “forest,” and “sticks.”  Based on your two collections, I think it’s fair to say that you are fascinated with the U.P. as setting, but I’m particularly interested in your apocalyptic visions of the wildfires of the U.P. and Midwest.  Could you talk about that in your poems, especially from The Stranger Manual and My Favorite Apocalypse.  There seems to be an interesting—and inherently dramatic—antithetical pairing of “fire” and “ice” that seems central to understanding how you handle the Midwest as setting.  What are your thoughts on that?

 

CR: The poems you mention from the anthology are actually very (very) loosely based on the Peshtigo fire and other historical U.P. places and events. Fayette, the "19th Century Ghost Town and State Park" is another inspiration. I do think my earlier work in The Stranger Manual and My Favorite Apocalypse was building up to this direct confrontation with place and history and with the elemental forces you point out. At a very basic level I can't work out how to feel about the U.P. On the one hand, the landscape is honestly the only thing I think I'm good at seeing or experiencing, just because I've been doing it for so long. To look at the water meeting the shore along Lake Michigan is to me the basic condition of life. Take away the clutter and all that's left is lake.

 

But on the other hand, culturally and economically and environmentally, the U.P. is a place that is threatened, a place that peaked and diminished. The land has been host to massive erasures, entire ways of life have been lost there, the land has been gutted in a frenzy and abandoned. What's left can feel vestigial and damaged. Weird mussels and carp and lamprey teem in the sick, shrinking lakes. The industries that supported thriving communities exploited the land and then turned into dusty installments in museums. Of course there are prosperous and vital communities in the U.P.--and I envy, admire, and thank those that build them--but there's also a creeping sense of human loss and disappearance and poison, all of which is set against the mighty, brisk backdrop of fresh water.

 

RR: The Poetry Foundation has a wonderful write-up on you, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/catie-rosemurgy, mentioning the importance of music to your lyrical poetry, pointing out PJ Harvey and Liz Phair in particular.  And things exploded for you after your selection in the Best American Poetry in 1997 for the poem Mostly Mick Jagger.  Can you talk about musical influences on your writing?  Who are you listening to now as you write?

 

It's funny, an interviewer asked me once if I liked Liz Phair and P.J. Harvey and I said, heck yeah, and then somehow that got turned into an official statement of influence on poetryfoundation.org. It's like a game of Telephone. But it is true that I came to poetry through songwriters, that's what I was exposed to when I was really young. While I really like PJ Harvey, I was influenced mostly by a bunch of guys from Texas and another bunch of guys from England. Mickey Newbury and Townes Van Zandt and the Rolling Stones. The stuff I knew backward and forward very young. I would think about lines I thought hurt the songs, compromised them, and it grew into an itch to write words down.

I don't listen to music as I write, though. My attention is way too easily distracted. I do make playlists that I imagine playing inside the book I'm writing. And I can say that much of what I'm writing now was inspired by two songs I first heard in, I think, 2005: Arcade Fire's "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" and Wolf Parade's "You Are a Runner and I Am My Father's Son," both of which had something I wanted or wanted to write about. I don't think it's at all a coincidence that both these bands are Canadian.

 

From "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)"

 

 And if the snow buries my...

My neighborhood

 

And if my parents are crying,

Then I'll dig a tunnel from my window to yours

Yeah, a tunnel from my window to yours

 

You climb out the chimney

And meet me in the middle

The middle of the town

And since there's no one else around,

We let our hair grow long and forget all we used to know

Then our skin gets thicker from living out in the snow

 

From "You Are a Runner and I Am My Father's Son"

 

And I'll build a house inside of you

I'll go in through the mouth

I'll draw three figures on your heart

One of them will be me as a boy

One of them will be me

One of them will be me watching you run

watching you run

Into the high noon sun

Watching you run

Farther than guns will go

 

RR: The Stranger Manual, 2001, and My Favorite Apocalypse, 2010why so long between books?  Will we have a new book soon? 

 

CR: Because I'm super damn slow that's why! Smiley face. I feel like a book is a alternate world I inhabit and it takes me a long time to inhabit it. I also hypothesize that I think more like a novelist than a poet. I think my books are increasingly more like novels in pieces, in shards. And some novelists take a long time to write a book, right?

I hope to finish what I'm working on now in a couple years. So that will be 2010-2015 or so. So that's fast! Record speed!

 

RR: This is a question I dont hear asked a lot, but you are a really likable person; is that important to being a working poet in the U.S. today?  Do you need a bit of cult of personality to succeed as a poet?

 

CR: That's very nice of you to say. I think my friendliness might help me as a teacher--I hope so--but I don't know if it has any bearing at all on my writing career. I can think of a few poets who have a cult of personality, but I certainly ain't one of 'em. The more I think about it, though, the fact that I like people and like connecting with them does make it possible for me to give poetry readings, which would be pretty difficult for me otherwise. I am nervous at first, but the thought of making the audience nervous with my nervousness settles me right down. Their experience is what most interests me. I want to go with them on a little adventure, and I want to be good company for them.

 

RR: I cant imagine a place more non-U.P. than New Jersey?  Is New Jersey sneaking into your poetry?  If so, does it feel like a whole different world of poetry when you shift setting or is your same aesthetic there?

 

CR: I live in Philadelphia, actually, and work in Jersey, which I agree is the anti-U.P. Philly, on the other hand, has some things in common with the U.P.: strong local culture, economic screwed-upedness, grit and humor. No lake, though, and that sucks.

Is it sneaking into my work? Not yet. Maybe the pace of life out east has. Maybe the way people talk and think about poetry. But when I close my eyes, it's all white pine around me.

 

RR: You dedicate The Stranger Manual for my girls.  Who are your girls?

 

CR: My family specifically. My mom, sister, niece, and best friends. The dedication is for them, but it has a couple other layers, too. My mom often refers to my sister and I as "her girls," and she'll call her close group of friends that, too. When my niece was little, 3? 4?, she was inspired by my mom and had a couple imaginary friends who she called "my girls." They went to college and had awesome jobs and filled her in on all the coolest things to see and do. The Stranger Manual is, to me, about girls, girlhood, the play of and danger to female selfhood set against the backdrop of the small hometown. So in that sense, it's for all the girls I knew growing up, for the imaginary girls I've read about and write about, for the girls I've known as students and watched grow up, for Miss Peach (the main character). Who is she but fairytale shadow of all the real girls who wandered into the woods?

***

Catie Rosemurgy's most recent book, The Stranger Manual, was published by Graywolf Press. She lives in Philadelphia and teaches at The College of New Jersey.

Ron Riekkis next book is The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (WSU Press, 2013).  He has written several books including U.P. (Ghost Road Press, 2008) and has an MFA in Playwriting from Brandeis (1999), an MFA in Fiction Writing from Virginia (2002), a Ph.D. in Literature & Creative Writing from Western Michigan (2007), and will be working on an MFA in Screenwriting from Spalding University.  He's been published in Spillway, New Ohio Review, Verse Wisconsin, PANK, and several other journals.