- Rachel Stempel
Interview with Catherine Pond
A photograph and a poem are both significant for what they leave out, and that’s true of film and good fiction too.
Staff writer Rachel Stempel interviews Catherine Pond on her forthcoming poetry collection Fieldglass (Southern Illinois University Press, 2021), essays, photography, and more.
CATHERINE POND'S book, Fieldglass, won the Crab Orchard First Book Award in Poetry (judge: Traci Brimhall) in 2019, and is forthcoming with Southern Illinois University Press in 2021. She is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, and holds an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University, where she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize in 2013. She is Assistant Director of the NY State Summer Writers Institute and co-founder of the online literary magazine Two Peach (with Julia Anna Morrison). Catherine lives in Los Angeles.
RS: Your first collection, Fieldglass, is forthcoming with Southern Illinois University Press in 2021. Can you talk a little bit about how this collection came to be?
CP: Fieldglass was the project that propelled me for the better part of a decade. It was “the flower / holding a world in focus,” to borrow a line from Yusef Komunyakaa. The oldest poem in the collection was one I wrote in a workshop in undergrad, but last week I cut it from the manuscript during a pre-production purge. So now the oldest poem is probably from 2011, when I started my MFA. I was twenty-one when I moved to Brooklyn to begin grad school, and I graduated when I was twenty-three. At that age it was easy to convince myself that poetry was the only thing that mattered, that I would die for it. I felt that a lot at times. The first iteration of my forthcoming book was my MFA thesis, which I submitted in 2013, also titled Fieldglass.
I started teaching after grad school, and my poems became slightly more narrative, and broke off a bit from some of my earlier influences. Teaching made me less solipsistic, but I still didn’t have much room for a relationship in those years. Most of this book was written between the hours of midnight and 5 am. It was important that nights belonged only to me. So maybe there was something I gave up, in the way of intimacy or support. It could be crushingly lonely at times, but I was focused on this deeper love that fed me. My writing process was: drink whiskey, stay up, write in bed propped against the wall. Whiskey was a great tool until it wasn’t.
Finally, I moved to California. That broke open my life in a good way. I added about five new poems to the manuscript after moving. After six years of sending it out (and sixty rejections), the book was accepted for publication. Only about a quarter of the original thesis remains in the final manuscript.
RS: You’re originally from Georgia and currently live in Los Angeles, but your CV boasts an even wider geographic perimeter. How does your writing process change with your environment?
CP: I’m usually somewhere else in my mind anyway, so location is sort of arbitrary to my writing process. I do love cold weather though, and rain. I just moved to San Francisco and the weather is pretty ideal. I slip on boots and shuffle into the garden and read for a while until it gets too cold or windy. It’s a shared garden, but it’s usually just me out there. Then I come inside and write. The initial writing phase is usually very dream-like. I can’t have any other plans for the day. I like to be very spaced out, almost in a trance.
RS: As someone who’s lived all over, what has been your experience with quarantine and the subsequent necessity to “stay put”?
CP: It’s been devastating to watch the virus spread and inflict harm. It’s hard not to feel profoundly depressed and concerned. But I don’t mind staying home. I finished out the spring semester teaching on Zoom. It wasn’t the same, but I consider it a huge privilege to have a profession where I can headquarter from home. I’m also lucky to have a partner to keep me company. I try to remain very grateful for my circumstances. I went through a bad period a while back when I listened to The Power of Now (by Eckhart Tolle) on audiotape every night for a year. I’m a big fan of self-help books and CBT therapy. So when I feel trapped I try to remember some of the lessons around “accepting what is.” I do a lot of yoga at home now too, and breathwork. For several months I was quarantined in my apartment in LA with no yard, and the parks closed on and off. I have never wanted green space more. I think a lot of people in cities have been feeling that. I moved out of LA in June, so in all honesty I haven’t stayed put the entire time. But I remain very vigilant. I bring my mask everywhere.
RS: I noticed you’re currently a PhD candidate in Literature & Creative Writing at USC! What was the transition like from MFA to PhD? Is there a specific reason you chose to pursue a PhD in creative writing?
CP: I went straight into my MFA from undergrad, so I took several years off before deciding to apply to PhDs. I worked as an adjunct professor in New York, and had several part-time jobs in addition (my favorite was at a bookstore). It came down to wanting a more stable teaching position at a university or college. USC was my top choice. I felt very romantic about Los Angeles, probably because of Joan Didion. And I was ready to leave New York. I enjoy literary criticism but it isn’t my priority, so I needed a program that would value the creative writing aspect of things and allow me funding and time to write my own poetry. A lot of people tried to discourage me, since hybrid PhDs in Creative Writing / Literature weren’t as well established as some older PhD Lit programs. I’m glad I didn’t listen.
RS: On your website, you have a very idyllic photography section. Do you consider photography (or other forms of visual art) as separate from poetry or do you think that kind of medium gatekeeping is only nominal?
CP: I don’t think a poem and a photograph are the same thing, but they can certainly inform one another. My parents are both artists and my brother taught me how to take landscape shots when I was little. He made choices in terms of framing which I found interesting. Once he took a photo of the lake that was just all water. He’d left out the entire sky. I thought that was genius. It was like a poem with an omniscient narrator, or no human narrator at all. It suggested an unconventional definition of balance, of beauty. A photograph and a poem are both significant for what they leave out, and that’s true of film and good fiction too.
RS: I’m particularly drawn to your essay “On ‘Girls,’ Addiction, and Growing Up.” As a white AFAB person from NYC, I felt a similar disconnect watching the first season until I realized the “disconnect” was me not wanting to admit overlap. Can you talk a little bit about how writing/art helps one confront difficult self-reflections?
CP: Being a writer requires a lot of self-awareness. Your personality comes across on the page whether you want it to or not, whether you are writing in persona or not. If you have blind spots or ideological leanings, a thoughtful reader will suss them out quickly. This is even more true of prose, because poetry often leans on lyricism and can shroud things in metaphor. In prose, there’s less place to hide. At least, in the sort of prose I admire. In a poem or essay, if I’m indicting someone else, I’m often simultaneously indicting myself. That’s not everyone’s style, which I completely respect.
At the same time that I encourage self-awareness, a huge reason why I write is to understand myself and my impulses better. There’s an amazing interview in The Paris Review with Amy Hempel, in which she recounts a writing prompt she was given by Gordon Lish: “The assignment was to write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon put it, ‘dismantles your own sense of yourself.’” I often circle back to this prompt. I also appreciate advice I received from a teacher early on: you should always try to write the poem only you can write. If you are doing this, I think naturally self-reflection follows.
RS: What are grocery list must-haves?
CP: This summer I’m very into carrot juice. It’s so cool and crisp. Psychologically I like knowing I’m flooding my body with vitamins. Am I a Californian yet?