Catherine Anderson is a Kansas City poet whom I met at a reading with former Kansas Poet Laureate, Denise Low, at The Writers Place. I find Anderson’s poetry to be socially aware and particularly compassionate toward the plight of the underprivileged and newly immigrated, which is also why I am drawn to it. It is no wonder her sensitivities lean towards such concerns, since Anderson has worked extensively with immigrant and refugee communities in the Kansas City area for a great deal of her professional life. I was thrilled when Anderson agreed to an interview and am happy to introduce her to my readers this week. I hope her sentiments regarding the writing life find as much resonance with you as they have with me.
How did you come to writing and what keeps you going?
In the 1960’s I grew up in an industrial suburb of Detroit, half in nature and half in a rapidly changing urban environment. My father was a newspaper reporter covering Eastern European communities in Detroit and abroad, and my mother was a teacher, so I was fortunate to be living in a house of towering bookcases. Also, and perhaps not just as fortunate, my younger brother was diagnosed at the time with mental retardation and mental illness, a duality that kept him out of the public schools and made him ineligible for health insurance. Later, the diagnosis was autism, but by then the window of language acquisition had shut, and although he has grown into a sweet person, his language is severely disabled. The paradox of living in a family of storytellers, word wizards and comedians alongside a rather confused sibling who couldn’t do the most ordinary things has given me the gift of being comfortable in contradiction, uncertainty, and the absurd– most of the time. An unusual childhood resembling a circus act is not bad material for a writer. My late mother allowed my brother Charlie to roller skate in his bedroom, much to the disapproval of the neighbors. My father’s friends were mostly immigrants from Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine, Lebanon, and he had dictionaries from the whole range of languages these friends and contacts spoke. Between his good ear, their broken English, shots of vodka and his quick thumb through a dictionary, they entertained each other for hours in our small living room. Words and the absence of words were the central mystery of my childhood. Also, the civil rights and anti-war movements were major events in the 1960’s, and because of my father’s work, they couldn’t be easily ignored, even in the suburbs.
As a kid, I wanted to write because my father made his living that way, and it seemed fun and adventurous. When I asked my father what I needed to do to become a writer, he said, without hesitation, “learn to type.” This told me a lot about his approach to the written word – one of labor, and work done by hand. I was constantly composing plays for school, or creating a newspaper and I’d end up writing out copy after copy because I didn’t have access to a mimeograph machine (the kind with purple ink). However, my father brought home carbon copy paper from his office, and I could make at least five carbon copies at a time for other kids to read. Always I wrote in the smallest possible letters, to get in as much as I could, without wasting carbon pages. Those were the problems of the craft I encountered in trying to enliven a dull history assignment or interpret a Biblical passage. At least once, I used writing to get through the tedium of school punishment. At St. Thecla’s Catholic school in Mt. Clemens, MI, talking to other students was not permitted in the hallways, on the school bus or while eating. I was a repeat offender so often that a nun told me I had to make up my own penance. Usually, I wrote out a thousand times, “I will not talk on the school bus,” but for this penance, I researched various folktales of talking animals and the consequences of just too much talk. (Remember the turtle who flew through the air by biting on a stick carried by two birds? We know what happened when he opened his mouth!) I am sure what I wrote was didactic and convincingly penitential. I had no intention of entertaining the nuns at the Felician Sisters’ Motherhouse in Livonia with this penance (no carbons made) but that was the result my mother told me months later.
At the University of Missouri I studied philosophy intensely and was centered on learning German and French so that I could read European philosophers I liked in their original language. I was spending an enormous amount of time reading and writing my papers when I noticed that my language was beginning to become much more figurative. I was losing patience with the methodical discipline of philosophical thinking. At the same time, I worked as a desk clerk at local hotel in Columbia called The Downtowner, running from the front desk to my philosophy and language classes. When a major conference of phenomenologists came to town, I got to check all of them in, yet I was too shy to let on that I had read their work and was attending the conference. Instead, I helped Bill Minor, the custodian, spell “Welcome Phenomenologists” on the hotel’s neon marquee. Soon after the conference, I took Larry Levis’s poetry workshop and realized that I had found the art I wanted to practice, poetry. I worked hard on poems for two years, and then by graduation had won a fellowship to Syracuse University where I later received my master’s degree in English and Creative Writing, a kind of half breed of a program that was pre-PhD, and half MFA. I was not interested in the PhD program. Eventually I moved to Boston where I worked as an ESL teacher, community journalist, and finally staff writer for the health care reform organization that spirited through universal coverage in Massachusetts. By then, though, I had moved to Kansas City where I now work training healthcare interpreters.
Writing that was clear, direct, and about something in the world was the style admired in my family. Poetry was not in that category, unless it was written by an Eastern European and reflected the geopolitical state of post World War II Europe! Although my father and my mother both appreciated literature they thought a young person from the Midwest writing poetry was a silly affectation & were thrilled when I landed teaching jobs, or spent time working as a journalist because these jobs assured them I could make a living. Most poets experience some opposition to their vocation, especially if someone is worried that you’ll never make a living. The best thing to do is keep employed because the last thing in the world your family wants you to be is a penniless dreamer. Ignore the pleading as well as any testy remarks about your chosen art. Keep dreaming but count your pennies.
A feeling of adventure, defiance, and the possibility of transformation keeps me writing. Poetry has always been the essential lens through which to more deeply discern meaning in the absurd and unpredictable events of our lives. An appreciation for the paradox of being human, fated, and vulnerable in an astonishingly beautiful world is with me constantly as I write.
How do you keep space in your life, home, and psyche for the creative life?
Finding space and time to write is extremely difficult, and not something I do well. Some people have been able to accomplish the feat by taking on an academic career that may afford a little more time off (not as much as one would think, however) to devote to creative work. I started out teaching, but became impatient with the pace, and threw myself early on into anti-poverty work as an ESL teacher, activist and community journalist. This has been very demanding work over the years, requiring a lot of weekend and night-time hours. In order to write, I had to discipline myself to make the most of the time available, so that meant writing notes on the subway back and forth during the week, then spending a good eight hours at least on the weekend, creating poems from my notes. I also used every vacation and holiday to write, as much as I could. This became provincial after a while, and I wouldn’t advise it. There were times when I was writing steadily for the Chinatown community newspaper, or writing essays or grants when poems had to be overthrown for prose. Still, I always tried to keep the poetic line alive somewhere, somehow.
I often keep two or three notebooks going: one is a kind of a daily encounter group – what I’m reading, thinking, responding to. Very literal, very boring, almost a log. Another one is purely for imagery, and that can be as crazy as it gets, with drawings, doodles, big letters. The rule is that nothing literal is allowed into that notebook, though images and figurative language are allowed in the boring notebook.
Now that I live in a city without a subway, I miss the dream time that daily travel offered to the creative imagination. Since moving to KC, I’ve had to travel a bit in rural KS, and a few other cities where I find I can usually write in a hotel or a diner. The writing feels more alive, striking and honest to me when I pull it out of its usual hometown box. I’m still trying to re-create the sense of taking the subway while living in Kansas City, but haven’t been successful. There used to be access to a staircase at Union Station in Kansas City I could visit that from a certain angle that resembled the entry to North Station in Boston, but they won’t let anyone up the stairs anymore.
What did you read as a child?
I could get lost in the Bookhouse Books, a twelve-volume series my mother remembered from her childhood and bought me for my birthday. These books were chockfull of myths, fairytales, legends, history, all sequenced to follow a child’s developmental stages of reading. The introduction explaining the pedagogical intent of the series was interesting to me, as was all my mother’s infant development books. (I was the oldest in a family of three children.) The lives of those quirky medieval saints we had to study at St. Thecla’s were fascinating. And no quirkier a saint you’d ever find was Thecla herself who coaxed the female lions from devouring her when she was thrown into the arena. Through a series that was popular in the school library, I remember reading about the life of Luther Burbank and wanting to become an agronomist, and then Maria Mitchell, and wanting to be an astronomer. I read both Life and Time, following the Birmingham church bombings, the March on Washington, the Vietnam War, Haight-Ashbury, etc. My parents had a copy of a remarkable book by Dale Evans of their disabled daughter titled The Necessary Angel, and it was one of the few I came across, as a child, that helped me to make a little more sense of life for a family with a disabled child.
In high school, I adored Walt Whitman, John Steinbeck, especially East of Eden, and Thomas Hardy, especially Jude the Obscure. I loved Joyce Carol Oates, whose book reviews I remember reading in the Detroit News, the paper my father worked at.
How do you approach the large task of putting a book together?
I am not sure if I am very good at it, at least for my own work. A book I have now in manuscript has gone through a baptism by fire to get the right order. For now, I think I’ve got it. That might change. Titles are also confounding. The whole process is so strangely difficult. One suggestion I have is to not necessarily group poems according to subject matter, but go perhaps for tone. Also, sections may not always be necessary. If you do use sections, you can think of the middle section (usually the 2nd) as a centerpiece for the other two surrounding it. I wish I had better advice for this question. Another thing to do is study the sequencing of books you absolutely admire and try to crack the code. Ordering a book is kind of like trying to make art that can only be seen from the sky.
A bit of advice about the poems themselves: ask your fellow readers to be as hard as possible on the book, and throw out poems that don’t hit the mark head-on, even if they have been published in the New Yorker, or Poetry.
Catherine Anderson is the author of In the Mother Tongue (1983), a book of poems published by Alice James Books of Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was the Cornelia Ward Fellow for Poetry at Syracuse University in 1976, where she received an M.A. in English and creative writing in 1979. Anderson has published in many journals, including The American Voice, The Antioch Review, and The Harvard Review.
Follow this link to read Anderson’s poem, Womanhood