A Most Fantastic Philosophy: An Interview with Rilke Prize Winner Katie Peterson 

Interview conducted by Jessica Murray 

Jessica Murray (JM): Congratulations on winning the Rilke Prize. The Accounts is a beautiful book. Can you tell us a little bit about its origins, how it takes up questions of mourning and elegy? 

Katie Peterson (KP): I wrote the book because I lost my mother, and because I lost my mother, my world changed. In the first days following her death I remember being in my familiar world—specifically, the house where I was raised—and feeling as if something basic in the structure of reality had altered. So, the poems began in a feeling less personal than oddly, strangely, conceptual. Some intuition about reality seized me, some sense of its own disaster being present inside of it. It occurred to me as a form of panic, like being present in constant catastrophe. Maybe this finds itself reflected in the hurtling and sometimes headlong syntax of some of the poems, especially those in the middle section, which tries to narrate the last days of my mother’s life. The elegy, as a poetic form, tries to turn the mourner back into a self, reintegrated with reality: the elegy seeks to mourn, but also to find a more permanent way of remembering the dead as a way of living with loss. Our gravestones and anniversaries are for visits but not for residencies. We speak of “normal” grief and “complicated” grief and the idea is that normal mourning has an end and that “complicated” mourning perhaps goes too far, continues too long. But the mourner quite often does not wish for mourning to end. I didn’t and don’t, in the sense that in mourning you declare that your lost beloved cannot be replaced. Losing my mother was not the same as losing a beautiful thing. It was more like losing a beautiful way of understanding, a most fantastic philosophy. And in this way, her loss felt as much the ruin of a civilization as the loss of a person. The charge of elegist is to repair the world; the challenge is that the world cannot be fixed, and must be made new.

JM: It’s interesting that there are more “arguments” than “elegies” in the collection. In what way is this book about accounts, rather than anything else?

KP: The book’s title comes from the idea of “making an account” of something, or someone: telling a story, or a version of a story of something. The theorist Judith Butler has taken up this idea in the 21st century in her book, Giving an Account of Oneself, but the process of “making an account” goes farther back, to Plato and certainly in spiritual and philosophical discourse, before that. I know the phrase from teaching Socratic dialogues. The idea of it became useful when I observed, during my mother’s death, how various languages for what was happening had equal purchas