Saturday, October 28, 2023

Q&A with Kate Partridge



Kate Partridge is the author of the new poetry collection Thine. She also has written the poetry collection Ends of the Earth. She is an assistant professor of English at Regis University, and she lives in Denver.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in Thine?


A: I wrote these poems between fall 2016 and spring 2020, and I think of them as a record of my wilderness years, when I was moving between several cities in the West and getting my bearings as a writer who is very grounded in place.


I grew up in Virginia, but when I started writing these poems in 2016, I was in the process of leaving Alaska, where I had been living for three years. It was a difficult decision to leave the community I had built there to go to pursue more graduate work in LA—and an incredible shift in landscape and culture!


I think there are actually some interesting parallels between living in a place that is quite remote and a place that is very urban. The ways that people orient their lives around the peculiarities of the place are often the same, whether you’re in Anchorage or LA.


When I moved to California, I spent a lot of time driving around the desert looking at land art installations like Michael Heizer’s Double Negative.


I was trying to quietly observe as much of the landscape as I could, and in these poems, I can see myself meditating on the experience of being in a new place and trying to learn as much as possible about its extraordinary features.


By the time I wrote the final poems in this book, I had moved again to Colorado, so to some extent I see the book returning to where it started, in the mountains.


Q: How was the collection’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title comes from a poem called “Watch,” which playfully uses some archaic language. For a while, when I lived in LA, the house next door to my apartment was under police surveillance (or at least, this is what my roommates and I believed).


The buildings were separated by a high garden fence, but I could see over it easily from where I lived on the second floor; there wasn’t really anything interesting happening out back, but I definitely had a better vantage point than the police cars on the street.


I’m playing a lot in Thine with the language of epic poetry and desert mythologies, in which there are so many walls and walled cities in the epics and religious myths.


But “thine” is also one of those words shared between literature and religion, and its persistence in idioms and quotations makes me always feel rooted in the sharpness and brightness of the stories we tell about our pasts. It literally means “yours,” or a thing that belongs to you, but it also distances the self from that thing.


So, the title seemed fitting to me because there are so many poems here grappling with what it means to have a relationship with something or someone over distance. To whom and to what do we belong? What are the things we are trying to preserve and protect, and how do we fail?


The collection is thinking through these questions in terms of family, places, and, in many poems, artistic lineage with women artists like Agnes Martin and Willa Cather. All of them are ideas or people I am trying to be in relationship with through these poems.

Q: How did you decide on the order in which the poems would appear?


A: I think of this book as a record of several years of my life, but the poems aren’t arranged in a strictly chronological order. The book starts when I’ve moved to a new landscape, and then as it progresses, the book tracks my process of trying to use what I have at my disposal—the practice of writing poetry, and many years of reading and watching—to figure out where I am.


What are the relationships to people, to histories, to language, that I’m carrying with me? For instance, I grew up in the South, and there are several poems that explore what that background means for my thinking about the desert.


My family lived in a house that directly abutted a swamp, so I think it will always be shocking to me to be someplace dry. The ways I think about place are deeply inflected with the language, the saturation—the slowness of the South. 


When I was thinking about how to order the poems, I thought about which problems the reader should be aware of first—climate crisis arrives really early in the book, and my grappling with the landscape of California in some really fragmented, rocky poems.


I was living apart from my wife for a while, and so there are some early poems about distance and the idea of home. By the end of the book, I have a new baby, and the poems are opening up more questions that I’m not trying to necessarily offer a definite answer to.


I’m recording my thinking about raising a child not only in the context of climate crisis, but as a queer parent in America, as a writer committed to both writing and family, and as a person who has made a break between the place they’re from and the place they are creating a future. The book ends with openness and hope, I believe, but not with answers.


Q: The poet Jennifer Atkinson said of the book, “Intelligent, understated, and as wryly funny as they are deeply, searchingly serious, Partridge's poetic meditations evolve, turning again and again, always in unpredictable directions.” What do you think of that description?


A: Well, I think that Jen is extremely kind. That’s a beautiful reading of how these poems work—I do think about writing as a way of searching.


The poems are tracking my process of asking—of being with ideas and following them wherever they lead me, which is one of the tremendous joys I find in writing. I like to follow a poem until I’m surprised.


When I think about Elizabeth Bishop’s commitment to spontaneity, accuracy, and mystery, I think that’s what she’s talking about in some capacity—you can’t have any idea where the poem is going when you begin, and you have to trust the language to take you to something you didn’t know when you started.


Maybe it's something you hadn’t yet seen correctly, but the poem will help you see it right.


Over the years, I’ve become much more comfortable letting those surprises take me in really wild directions—like when you’re playing an instrument and the muscle memory lets you make it through a tricky passage that you’d never be able to play if you were trying to use your fully logical, conscious brain. The poem has to find that balance of being both skillful and uncontrolled.


I’m glad that the poems in Thine have that quality for a reader. My own favorite poems are ones in which I can see the writer handing control of the poem over to the language, which I think is the ultimate expression of trust in poetry’s power.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on some poems that take a more hybrid approach with historical material. Maybe because we’ve all been living in a global pandemic for the last few years, I’ve become very interested in Colorado’s history as a place where people of means came when they were diagnosed with tuberculosis (another illness tied to breathing).


I love an old building, and Colorado is full of these aging sanitariums where people would come to recuperate, and then sometimes they’d stay here to start a new life. I also really love some Victorian-era medical quackery.


So, I’ve been using that history as a touchpoint as I write about my life in the covid years and whatever it is we’re in now. The new poems have more of a historical direction of inquiry rather than a horizontal one across landscape.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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