Ordinary magic

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Young Suh/Courtesy photo
Katie Peterson, winner of the 2014 University of North Texas Rilke Prize, will visit Denton and Dallas next month for readings, receptions and a book-signing.
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Poet finds world of pain, joy in humdrum stuff of world

Poet Katie Peterson is in the business of finding words. But she came up short when trying to explain how excited she was when the University of North Texas creative writing program named her the winner of the 2014 Rilke Prize.

“Does that sound ridiculous? Because it’s true. I can’t explain what a boost it is to get this award,” said Peterson, who earned the award for The Accounts, her third book of poetry. “It does feel like this magical gift. There are only a couple of things that are this big. I think the thing about the prize for a poet like me — there are a lot of prizes for people who have written one book. There aren’t so many for poets who have published more.”

Peterson teaches creative writing and poetry at Tufts University. She lives in Summerfield, Mass. She’ll come to Denton next month for a reception, and to read from her poetry.

“I think I always loved poems,” Peterson said. “When there was poetry in the classroom, I loved it. I loved the structure of poetry, and the way it could bring you right up to something ordinary and see it differently. It took a long time for me to admit to myself that I could be a poet. In my early 20s and not in school.”

She did go back to school, but to study literature. Not poetry.

“Once I was out of school and working odd jobs, that’s when I knew,” she said.

There were formative years. During her senior year of college, she’d join a good friend, also a writer, every day to share poems and talk trade. That friend noticed Peterson’s convention.

“He pointed out that ‘you know, all your poems are about a tree, or a tea cup and two people talking in a kitchen.’ At first I thought it was reductionist and I was offended,” Peterson said.

On reflection, Peterson said her friend was right. And she learned that poetry is about revelatory encounters with the most basic things in life. Death, loss and other upheavals — happy and sad.

Peterson’s The Accounts deals with the death of her mother, but the poems aren’t confined to her mother or the poet herself. Peterson casts her emotional net into the rooms where her mother once lived and moved in, across cemeteries. And she muses over inanimate objects that are now talismans of memories, things bewitched by ordinary people now gone.

“‘Eulogy,’ which is about watching my father write my mother’s eulogy the day she died, is set in the backyard in the house where I grew up. It was a strange experience, watching him write that,” Peterson said. “My poems are usually about two people in a conversation. Most poets have like one poem we write over and over — but I think the public relies on that kind of obsession.”

Peterson said she has long been a fan of Rainer Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet and the prize’s namesake. She still recalls the book by Rilke given to her by an eighth-grade teacher.

“The first book that really meant something to me was Rilke’s Letters to A Young Poet. It’s a book of incredible insight and one of the lines I repeat is ‘learn to love the questions themselves, like locked doors and books written in a foreign language,’” she said. “You must live the questions. You must live in your inquiry. You must live in your curiosity. When I read the Rilke book, I was suddenly aware of this deep thinking in the middle of ordinary life. I’ve always just loved him.”

Poetry might be a solitary craft, but Peterson said a poet almost doesn’t know they are truly making poetry until they have a network of writers, teachers and readers.

“I think I had a similar experience as a lot of other writers, I was lucky to have some great teachers and a community,” Peterson said. “Writers talk about that a lot. This tribal recognition. Community is important, and when you find a community of people who do what you do and they claim you, you found your tribe.”

She names Harvard University professor and poet Jorie Graham as a chief influence.

“She was really one of the most amazing teachers I’ve ever had,” Peterson said. “She taught me how to title a poem, but she also taught me to how to put on lipstick. I feel like she really taught me how to be a poet and how to be a woman.”

Peterson balks at the idea that poets are finding the truth and planting a flag in it so humankind can claim it.

“Artists don’t care about the truth. Artists look at what is beautiful and they get confused,” she said.

Peterson pointed to the work of her partner and photographer Young Suh, with whom she’s collaborating on a project titled I Had a Blind Hunger.

“My partner takes pictures of things that are actually kind of ugly, like a Christmas tree discarded by the side of the road or this dirty snow. It’s the same thing with lyric poetry is that it captures something in time. The truth of the visual in poetry is there in the way photographs are truthful about time. [Suh] wakes these things up, he makes them beautiful in a way that they aren’t supposed to be.”

Peterson now belongs to the community of poets who write and teach emerging poets. It’s an alchemy to teach emerging poets how to negotiate the vulnerability and openness required of poets.

“The Dali Lama said all teaching is the teaching of compassion. I think about that a lot,” Peterson said. “Teaching is the most idealistic and the least idealistic thing in the world. Half of your problem is the Xerox machine, snow days and getting people to show up on time. And I’ve taught high school and I’ve taught grade school, and that will always be part of teaching, the whole ordeal of getting people into the classroom. And once you do that, you can share this way observing the world, and yourself and other people. Poetry is a great thing to have in the middle of the room. It’s a wonderful thing to aim for. When everyone is around that table talking about that thing that is beautiful, everyone wants to protect it and cherish it.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.

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