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 purchase on the event. A spiritual language, a psychological language, and a medical language all claimed their version of death made “sense.” How was I to decide? Was I even to decide? My fixation on this—and the seeming impossibility of integrating those languages led to the writing of the book’s title poem. Much of the rest of the book also dramatizes the tension between different accounts of the same person or event—when a person dies, people hold onto their various truths. And the same goes for any autobiographical account: when you make an account of yourself, you often find yourself entangled in other people’s versions of you. The book’s “Arguments” about absurdly large concepts (Heaven, Responsibility) pair competing voices. I call them “Arguments” because they have two sides, but they are not necessarily two sides of the same argument. They replicate, in a sense, my mind in those years: alternating between some operatic, confessional, emotional cry and a dark restraint. The middle voice—what might be reasonable under the circumstances—has been cut out. But as the voices proceed in concert, they switch places and change and both provide inscrutable explanations.

JM: One particularly moving passage from “The Accounts” does integrate to some degree this confluence of languages:


In the last account, the explosions
are too small to be seen, and oxygen
takes both thirst and hunger away
as it ceases to find a home in the lungs,
and the patient, having ceased to feel, ceases
to breathe, as the heart shuts down
before the brain and shuts
the dreaming down, the settling on a nest
of images, not feeling any form of distress.
The pathways to distress are blocked,
but the senses doubled, the ears know
the house more than they ever did,
whose clothes occupy the dryer,
which voice accompanies water.

There is a sense of relief that comes with this order—the heart shutting down the dreaming before the brain shuts down. Is this order or process as you’ve envisioned it related to the centrality of nest imagery within the poem or the collection in general?

KP: Those lines were taken from the doctor’s description of what happened, at least in part. I remember how my ear remembered what he said—its own (rat’s nest) of clichés and facts.  I wonder now about other people who have been with their families in this situation—what the doctor’s said to them, what account’s been given to them. Civilization should record this moment, the language of this moment. Because the doctor’s account fails, in the sense that it quickly gives in to metaphor and figure, at least in part because there are gaps in what they understand. I’m still puzzling over how the pathways to distress can be blocked but the senses can be doubled—as they are, for the dying. Many have reported how the dead can hear a whisper across the room with perfect clarity.

Robinson Jeffers’ long poem Cawdor has three gorgeous and strange descriptions of the state of consciousness entering death. Here’s one of them:

Or one might say the brain began to glow, with its own light, in the starless
Darkness under the dead bone sky; like bits of rotting wood on the floor of the night forest
Warm rains have soaked, you see them beside the path shine like vague eyes.
So gently the dead man’s brain glowing by itself made and enjoyed its dream.

Jeffers’ natural metaphor glows in pieces—it turns from bits of rotting wood to vague eyes. The dead man’s brain glows by itself. How is his account any less “true” than the medical account? Jeffers (I’ve written about this elsewhere) sees this solitary figure as a maker, not a consumer. I couldn’t help but see my mother the same way. The person whose brain I tried to make an account of became highly associative in her last months. This is hard to speak about because we have a notion of mental capacities that aren’t normal resulting in a loss of someone’s dignity. I have no idea how it felt to her to have, as the doctor said, her “executive function” compromised so by illness and medication. But her own accounts became, among other things, beautiful, humorous and true. In one, my brother and my uncle Phil were on a road trip across the country together. In another, I was truant at school and the cops were showing up. In another, she was having lunch with her relatives (alive and dead) and everyone got exactly what they wanted. These stories made us sad because they were not “true.” But for her—and for me, now, they are themselves small nests, places the mind could go to make a home for its future.

The image of the nest came, in part, from the actual existence of one. But as the image persisted, it became re-made in the poems. Nests are messy and partake as much of the artificial as of the natural. Makers of nests make aesthetic decisions based on proximity and necessity: robins have no problem weaving in floss, hair, ribbon. And many nests fail—robins aren’t always good decision-makers.  Language resembles a nest in these and other respects I haven’t thought about consciously. The relief is in the shape—the notion that there could be a shape, even made up of languages with competing objectives. My mother’s doctor did not talk about the soul, but neither could he keep me from thinking about it after he left the room. Our accounts have a woven-together quality.

JM: In our earlier interview, when talking about your mother you said, “The presence of my mother’s absence gets a bit wilder and more erratic with time. My sister and I love to replicate her tone of voice and her sense of humor. Recently we started making a list of ‘Things Sheila Peterson Would Never Allow,’ most of which she also never could have imagined. Like every life, hers ended with death as an interruptionto make her life, as it was, cohere, it would take an act of art.” What are some of the things “Sheila Peterson Would Never Allow”? I’m interested in this sense of the absence/presence of your mother growing wilder and more erratic.

KP: My mother would have never allowed cell phones to disrupt some expectation of good manners and keep people from paying primary attention to those in front of oneself not those elsewhere. My mother would never have allowed the health care debate to turn into a bankrupt conversation about freedom. She would neither have allowed high waisted pants to return nor for tabloids to take pictures of celebrity children. However decent your jeans she would not have allowed people to wear them to a theatre. I think she would have been quite miffed about the ten different levels of service at the airport you can be a part of. No bells on cats, either, or eighth grade girls with stripper heels. She was the daughter of a judge. It’s not that her already-made judgments persist—it’s that they continue, that they seem to interrupt and enliven my experience of this world as if she were still here making them. She had a philosophy that covered things I’m not sure she could have imagined. I’ve been told this is all my imagination but of course I think that’s crazy.

JM: Can you talk a bit about the poem “The Garden”? It begins:

It was like this: she wanted the garden
but she didn’t want the garden.
A narrative of progress: when she did well,
she got a bed by the wall, not the window.

The poem ends:

… she lucked
into the garden because the nurse
who dressed in drag thought she carried
herself like Gloria Swanson, thriving
in a state of languishing. Never any question
she deserved the garden, as she said, though you can’t
smell them through the glass, the lilacs
are the only things to look at in this place. She meant the earth.

KP: A life many of us now live before we die, as visitors and patients, is the life of hospitals, the waiting, the surrendering, the losing all track of time, the waiting again, the promise of going home, the fear of not going home, the waiting, the strangers, the waiting. Like all institutions, hospitals are full of rules and unspoken rules that govern these motions of mind and body. I am not sure whether my mother’s contention, one afternoon, that the sicker person got the window, was true or a conjecture, but I remember the matter-of-fact way that she conveyed that statement to me and I tried to capture it here in a point of view that straddles hers and mine. The last sentence of the poem now occurs to me to have at least two meanings—that she meant, by “this place,” not the hospital but the whole earth, where the only things to look at are the flowers, and that she actually “meant the earth,” as in her value (more commonly I suppose we say someone meant the world to us). In the first meaning, her aesthetic judgment registers a ruthless optimism. The hospital did have a very nice garden, better than television.

JM: Something else that really struck me from our first interview was when you posited the world as such: “If the world presents itself to you as a series of love poems, the world presents itself to you as a series of distances: you hope to discern the squinting of the beloved.” This is a lovely idea—how did you come to sense the world presenting itself to you in this way?

KP: Now that I read this statement that I made again, I can’t help but think about my childhood in glasses (I was born nearsighted, with slightly crossed eyes), and my own persistent sense, as a child, that I couldn’t see, that I was squinting at the world. I have a clear recollection of going (quite often) to the eye doctor (who I adored and thought of as my best friend) and though everyone was very kind, and tried to make me feel that I was special because of my eye problems, and everything, when the time came to dilate my eyes, something in me capsized. Not only were my eyes deficient, but they were making them worse on purpose. Not being able to see, or seeing badly, still upsets me terribly. Trying to see better occupies the better part of my life—as a reader, as a writer, as a person.

I want to say that I have always had some love of difficulty, some sense that love (and knowledge, as I pretty much consistently confuse the two) must cross mountains and do difficult things. I suspect this comes from finding the unintelligible part of myself to be credible and valuable, and this is a poet’s problem.

But it’s not simply a poet’s problem but a lover’s. Those who desire are heroes. Our pursuit of objects, our desire to praise, our believed-in enthusiasms reveal us because of how we pursue not whether we attain. Our valor is in our character not our success; our character lies in the struggle not the achievement. The distances of love mean can many things other things as well—our respect for those we love, our willingness to enable others’ freedom, our own tenacity in love past reason or the material construction of reality. Time is one of these distances, and memory, a kind of love letter.

JM: “Eulogy” strikes me as a love poem to your father, and also your mother. The speaker of the poem is also speaking within the eulogy the father is composing:

The yard fills with sentences
now, the yard accepts another hour of closer
sunlight. In the speech, I say
all time is extra. I say we are lucky
under palm trees. The imagery
that dominates my father’s complex

diction is that of light. His draft
full of tiny crossings out.

What are some of the crossings out that took place, or didn’t take place, as you were working on these poems? Is this idea related to a willingness to enable others’ freedom, as you mention above?

KP: One of the hardest poems in the collection for me to edit was “Symbol,” also a poem about my father. The poem tangles itself up thinking about whether, in a sense, understandings of this situation can be shared. I still can’t figure out whether I put that poem in the right order, or whether it’s two stanzas too long. In other people’s poems, I admire the freshness of perception; in my own, I seem fated to administer and attempt the freshness of judgment, or the moment right before judgment is made, restoring a freshness to it that’s a false certainty, a soon-to-be-taken-down tent of thought. Editing towards this freshness could be challenging because the ending has to be like a quiet explosion not a big finish. Judgments can feel sudden but they come subterranean. In the days of early mourning everything bespoke finality and beginning at the same time. All judgments led to radical new worlds. The discovery of my father as a maker of language was the vexed gift of my mother’s passing. But it is rude not to accept a gift.

I don’t know whether I can take credit for enabling my father’s freedom in the poem above which as I read it involves as much my struggle towards that—and my ambivalence about that – as my desire to do so. The freedom of others can hurt us but love asks for it. There can be fellow-feeling in understanding each others’ distance as well as in knowing each others’ feelings. Something at the end of the poem dismantles itself—the quoted words of the speaker, well-meant, out of context, and the writer-father’s precisions being registered in shape but not in content, and the robin protecting the nest by not reminding predators of the presence of the eggs. Hidden, partial, all the understandings—but this isn’t bad, it’s a kind of preservation.

JM: The poem “Confession” is about a relationship that begins or deepens as death happens. It closes:

When we met, I could forget
you would not be.
Elsewhere, the orders
kept their orders through the fall.
I rose from the bed, the spring dismantled, he and I met

in secret and we spoke of how we wanted
to die like it was work.
Awake, I said, yes, driving him
                on a road through green fields.
Painlessly, he said.

How do you think of the poetic “work”? Would you tell us a little bit about your process in general, and whether it changed when writing this particular collection?

KP: I wonder, when I read these lines above, whether I was thinking of some of the last words of the Reverend Edwards Amasa Park, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard, whose collection of essays was given to Emily Dickinson by her father (thanks to my doctor-father Lawrence Buell at Harvard for pointing the book out to me), which apparently were, “I want to die consciously.” Some might consider this conversation, between the speaker and the lover, morbid or inappropriate.  But the seriousness with which the pair undertakes it in the poem is a bit appealing, no? The speaker thinks she’s being courageous, but the lover’s competing account has more than merit, and the poem gives him the last word.

The concept of work frees an artist from the cruel burden of the idea of inspiration. This doesn’t mean that inspiration never exists; simply that relying on it isn’t particularly useful. People have different practices. Lately I feel like I’m trying to stay awake, like I have a sense of being in a voice just out of or just before the dream state. When I was writing The Accounts I had a different sense, of being alerted, awakened, woken up. My mother died in May, and the month’s effusive sunlight, especially in the California of my childhood, became re-valued with loss. Working on the poems of the book, especially those in the middle section, sometimes involved working over, or waking up, memories from that year of caretaking and vigilance. In writing them, I had to bring them back into some present tense. The book is full of moments that alert the speaker, or wake her up—on the last page, a snake appears in the kitchen of my house in the desert, seemingly out of nowhere. Poetic wo