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All You Do Is Perceive: An Interview with Joy Katz

February 18, 2014 | by

Photo(c)2011 by Star Black4_2

Photo: Star Black

In her third book of poetry, All You Do Is Perceive, Joy Katz moves between narrative, lyrical, and meditative language, making meaning from the switches in register. Her images—a newborn, a lynched man, a woman’s mastectomy scar—are dependably urgent and resonant.

The book begins with a poem about bringing home an adopted baby as ashes from the World Trade Center settle over Brooklyn. “The woundable face of a boy” fills the speaker with terror and awareness. Other poems wrestle with the conventions of the baby as an image—Katz is intent on portraying motherhood without succumbing to sentimentality. To resist preciousness, she invents “endearments” for her baby: “my bus, my tarmac.” In Katz’s work, beauty and glamour twine with danger. An “ambulance dazzles like a cocktail ring”; a speaker befriends a holocaust and takes it to a movie; the sounds of a newborn “run over her like mice.”

A former Wallace Stegner and National Endowment for the Arts fellow, Katz lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she teaches in the graduate writing program at Chatham University.

Tell me a little bit about the origins of All You Do Is Perceive.

The title of the book is a little accusatory. OMG, all Joy does is perceive. Meaning—ask my husband—no one got to the grocery store again. On my kitchen counter, there’s a cooking magazine opened to a self-help article, “How to Savor a Moment.” I needed help figuring out how not to savor a moment—how to move through time, seeing in an ordinary, not-intense way.

From my son, I learned a deep, meditative seeing. I watched him looking at his own hands or at a little car or something. For hours. Maybe it was ten minutes? Or days at a time. I was trapped with a small baby, but I was in a trance state, like a heroin high. It was addictive. My book’s epigram comes from Bishop George Berkeley, who says, roughly, I exist because I perceive. You exist because I perceive you. Writing the poems, I came to think that regarding is a form of love, but the regarding is not necessarily accurate. In the poems, people are always misperceiving one another. But misperceptions are a part of being alive to others. You don’t need truth or beauty. All you do is perceive. That’s all you need to have loved and lived fully. Read More »

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Jesmyn Ward on ‘Salvage the Bones’

August 30, 2011 | by

Jesmyn Ward’s second novel, Salvage the Bones, is set in the fictional Mississippi Gulf town of Bios Sauvage in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. It centers on Esch—fourteen years old and pregnant—and Esch’s family in the aftermath of her mother’s death in childbirth. Her alcoholic and abusive father readies the house for the storm; her brother Randal dreams of a basketball scholarship; her brother Skeetah obsesses over China, his prize pit bull; and Junior, the youngest, clamors for attention. Bois Sauvage, also the setting of her first novel Where the Line Bleeds, was modeled on Ward’s hometown of De Lisle, Mississippi. Ward, the first person in her family to attend college, received her MFA from the University of Michigan and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She teaches at the University of South Alabama.

Why did you want to write about Hurricane Katrina?

I lived through it. It was terrifying and I needed to write about that. I was also angry at the people who blamed survivors for staying and for choosing to return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast after the storm. Finally, I wrote about the storm because I was dissatisfied with the way it had receded from public consciousness. Read More »

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Kevin Young on ‘Ardency’

February 15, 2011 | by

Photograph by Kate Tuttle.

In Ardency, the poet Kevin Young chronicles the experiences of fifty-three Africans who mutinied aboard the Amistad slave ship in 1839. After killing two of their Spanish captors, they sailed up the coast of the United States, only to be intercepted by a naval brig and thrown in a Connecticut jail. Their case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the earlier court’s decision: because the international slave trade had been abolished, the men and women aboard the Amistad were not legally slaves and thus had been illegally captured. They were entitled to use force to secure their freedom. The Amistad mutiny would be one of the many events that gave the abolitionist movement traction leading up to the Civil War. In this book, Young conjures their voices in letters, poems, and songs, documenting their violent capture and eventual return to Africa in 1842. Young has tangled with the complexities of American history in his six previous collections, including For the Confederate Dead and Dear Darkness. He recently edited the anthology The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing and is finishing The Gray Album, a nonfiction work about music and history, forthcoming from Graywolf next year.

You spent twenty years working on Ardency. What originally drew you to the story of the Amistad?

I stumbled on letters the Amistad prisoners wrote from jail. I was struck by their poignancy and how the prisoners spoke in this new language of English. But I was struck by what the letters didn’t say, what was permitted of them to say, and, then, what they did mange to say because of or despite those limits.

What was so great about working on this book was that no one knew about it. I didn’t know if I was ever going to do anything with it, but I knew that there was this story I wanted to learn more about. Also, I knew that I wanted to write in the voice of Cinque, who led the rebellion, but wasn’t ready to write in his voice yet.

There are many strangely beautiful phrases in the letters—“be my dear benefactory,” “Cold catch us all the time,” “I am your perfect stranger”—that have the urgency of someone really trying to master the language.

Master is an interesting verb. They had masters who bought them in Cuba and forged documents giving them new identities saying they were born in Cuba. Though he international slave trade was illegal, you could still purchase slaves who were born into slavery. So they were learning English to become free, but there is a sense in the letters that they are trying to free themselves from English.

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