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.
In one of your descriptions, you first tell the reader what something is not. What are you pushing against in these “anti-descriptions”?
If you look at a woman’s chest after a mastectomy, you can see the scar as a design, and that might make it easier to perceive. In my poem “Study of a Friend with One Breast,” I write, “not ruching / not unbreast” to remind myself to see what is there, plainly, not to decorate it or to long for a certain idea of wholeness. My friend who had the mastectomy went to a talk by a breast cancer survivor. “You are sexy!” the woman yelled to the audience, who fist-pumped. And my friend said, “Do I have to be?” It was a total undoing of a certain perception.
Your poems often reference places—Varick Street, Brooklyn, Buffalo. Do you perceive differently in different cities?
I like to live in unselfconscious cities because I’m most relaxed in them. For example, in Buffalo, where I grew up, and in Pittsburgh, where I live now. They are robber-baron cities, way past their age of glory. They are ordinary places. If you’re in a café or the library, no one is sitting next to you with their novel or screenplay. I like not to be perceived, it turns out. I can’t think very well when I live in a place like Brooklyn, where every inch, to my mind, has been sanded, painted, thought about, and enticingly lit—all the perceiving has been used up.
One of the poems in this collection, “Which from that Time Infus’d Sweetness into My Heart,” is composed almost entirely of dependent clauses. What made you write it that way?
I wanted to write a poem that’s just a series of beginnings—to hold a poem back from getting underway—and see what happened. “Which from that Time” was so much fun to write. My heart pounded when I wrote it. If you make a long poem and never let it “happen,” it’s like hanging on the edge of something exciting, never quite getting to it—which is an exciting sensation in itself. I harvested the “beginnings” in that poem from, among other places, abandoned drafts in my poetry graveyard, Shakespeare plays, and Sharon Olds.
In your essay “Baby Poetics,” you write that you fear a “loss of credibility” when you write about having a child. What sort of dangers do you face when writing about motherhood?
If a baby comes into a draft I’m working on, I helplessly recall things people say about poems with children in them and the women, always the women, who write them. Things like, Normally I hate poems with kids, but yours are okay. And, I’ll read her again when she’s out of her baby phase. Those are only things people—men, in this case—say. As an artist, I get anxious working with motherhood, because I don’t want to write a sentimental, housebound, squishy, narcissistic poem about a baby. The true danger is self-consciousness, which wrecks the writing process. I am not very good at blowing off criticism, but I try to use my anxiety about it as material for the poem.
In “The Imagination, Drunk with Prohibitions,” you take on gender dynamics in literary tropes. “Womanhood is more embarrassing than manhood,” you write. Do you find there’s something embarrassing or humiliating about being a woman writer?
The potential for humiliation is everywhere for women. Plenty of people still agree with what Nathanial Hawthorne said about women being a tribe of sentimental scribblers. My poem came out of a conversation with the poet Sarah Vap about the ambient pressure against subjects like girlhood, grandmothers, religion, shoes, “the domestic,” on and on. In the poem, I gauge my own cringing about these subjects and make a taxonomy of embarrassment. Pressure in Poetryland, though, is the least of it if you think about the potential for the humiliation of women in places like college campuses, where the gender climate is hostile and rapists go unpunished.