Katherine Indermaur discusses hybridity, research, and the self
With C. E. Janecek, CLP Managing Editor
Katherine Indermaur is the author of I|I and two chapbooks, Facing the Mirror: An Essay (COAST|noCOAST, 2021) and Pulse (Ghost City Press, 2018). She is the winner of the Black Warrior Review 2019 Poetry Contest and the 2018 Academy of American Poets Prize, and was named a runner-up in the 92Y’s 2020 Discovery Poetry Contest. Her writing has appeared in Ecotone, Frontier Poetry, the Journal, New Delta Review, the Normal School, Seneca Review, and elsewhere. Katherine holds an MFA from Colorado State University and serves as an editor for Sugar House Review. She lives with her family in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Recently, managing editor C. E. Janecek sat down with Indermaur at our office here in Tiley House on Colorado State University’s campus to discuss her recent poetry collection I|I.
C. E. Janecek: How do you pitch your newest book to readers? Do you find describing it difficult, since the lyric essay itself is kind of an ephemeral form?
Katherine Indermaur: I definitely find describing it difficult. I think there are more and more book-length lyric essays out there now that make it easier, because I can say, “Oh, have you read Bluets? Then this will seem familiar to you.” So that helps. But I find a lot of times when I’m giving readings, I have to open the book and show it to the audience so they can see the form it’s taking; it’s not often lines, it’s prose and paragraphs. I think about the form as the way my brain works. I think it speaks to a lot of people—the associative way our thoughts move from I heard this thing on NPR to That reminds me of a thing that happened to me in childhood to I need to cook this later today. All these things are related and flowing from one to the other, and that’s what the lyric essay really takes on in I|I.
CEJ: Did you always conceptualize I|I as a segmented lyric essay or, as a poet, did the project begin as a poem or poetry collection?
KI: I wouldn’t say it started as a poetry collection, but it did begin as one long poem. I started to question the long poem form when I began submitting excerpts for publication, which became really difficult, actually. New Delta Review, among other journals, accepted an excerpt but then asked me, “Can we publish this as nonfiction?” And I was like, “Sure—I will not say no to that.” That experience made me think, That’s an interesting way to think of this poem. As I read that issue of New Delta Review, I focused on what else they were publishing in the nonfiction section, which broadened my horizons for what I was conceptualizing for the book as a whole. More excerpts got published in Ghost Proposal and Coast|noCoast, which do a lot of this genre-bending work: Is it fiction? Is it nonfiction? Is it poetry? Is it visual art–like work? That exploration was very helpful to me in thinking about what the book could look like and what sort of narrative arc it could have instead of there being page after page covering one topic.
CEJ: As a CSU MFA alum, are there any classes (workshop or non-workshop) that influenced this book?
KI: Definitely. Sasha Steensen and Dan Beachy-Quick’s workshops were the most influential. Dan’s workshop was the one in which I began writing these “poems” and started thinking a lot about mirrors and light and how to reckon with those in my writing. I also thought a lot about Sasha’s class, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which I took with poet Kelly Weber. I don’t want to speak for Kelly, but I think that both of us are in this kind of genre-bending space as poets. That class did such a good job of introducing us to poetry-adjacent texts. For example, we read Dan Beachy-Quick’s A Brighter Word Than Bright. We didn’t read A Whaler’s Dictionary in that class, but learned about the project. These are books by a poets doing creative criticism, like Susan Howe with My Emily Dickinson. I left that class reading Mary Ruefle and Maggie Nelson and thinking a lot about what the poetic mind can do beyond poetic form on the page.
CEJ: Who are some writers that influenced I|I? If I had to guess, I see a nod to CAConrad’s (Soma)tics in your “Practice” sections.
KI: Ding ding ding! Yeah, CAConrad for sure. Ecodeviance: (soma)tics for the Future Wilderness really influenced the “Practices” in I|I and gave me a way to think about ritual, healing, and the physicality of the book, because the book is concerned with intellectualism and philosophy but also very deeply concerned about healing the body.
I’ve already mentioned how Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was a huge influence. So was Heather Christle’s The Crying Book, which I feel does something similar to Bluets. Bluets is obsessed with the color blue. The Crying Book is about crying but precipitated by, I believe, Heather Christle’s friend committing suicide. So she starts thinking a lot about, Oh, I’ve been crying in all these different places, the history of crying, and the science of tears. So it kind of goes all over the place but, in this meditative way, circling and circling around crying and then the anxiety underneath that crying.
I can’t forget Claudia Rankine’s work: Citizen: An American Lyric, in particular. And I was also really influenced by Paisley Rekdal’s Nightingale: A Gloss, which appeared in the American Poetry Review. Rekdal writes specifically about an experience where she was sexually assaulted but also incorporates lots of mythology and outside sources. It really functions as a gloss—you get this sort of encyclopedic aspect to this very, very intense emotional and physical harm.
CEJ: I|I is heavily research-based from psychological studies about mirrors to the first Venetian mirror-makers to the invention of clear glass, cameras, and telescopes. Did you feel pressure to complete your research before writing? Or was it a more organic, simultaneous practice?
KI: The research was more simultaneous. There were a few different pressures going on: one was that I felt like I just needed to know more if I was going to write with any rigor about the subjects of the book, and I was also just curious. The other pressure was just that, personally, I write my best when I’m spending time with other texts. One of the things I learned in grad school was that I could spend time with texts that weren’t creative texts and still think creatively from them. That actually hadn’t occurred to me before. I read three or four thick nonfiction texts on the history of the mirror itself, and for a period of several months of reading, I would take notes in the morning before I went to work. I would sit with those notes and those would generate more notes and more notes, and then that sort of became the book in a lot of ways, even though I’d written parts of the book before I did that research. I was able to generate a lot of the direction the book takes from doing that very factual research, which was cool. It felt adjacent to docupoetics.
CEJ: Etymology features heavily in your book, featuring many lines such as “Lurking, from the German lurken, to shuffle along, from the Swedish lurka, to be slow in one’s work, from the Norwegian lurka, to sneak away, in hope of not being seen. // Haunting, of uncertain origin.” (15) What’s the relationship between mirrors and language in your essays?
KI: Language is inheritance and our face is also an inheritance. There is a history there that I think is important to investigate if you are to learn about the self and how you inhabit a body or language. Your face is, yes, entirely your own, but it is also entirely made up of the genes that come from your ancestors. Language is the same way—we try to say things that have never been said before in ways that have never been done before. We change language and come up with new meanings for words and new slang, but all language is also based in ancestry. As for the mirror itself, there’s a lot of reflection that comes up in language; we reflect back the language we first heard or read from someone else. The way we understand language involves a lot of self-reflection.
CEJ: In the book, you explain that “In logic, the vertical slash is referred to as the Sheffer stroke, where it means nand, or not and. Either of the figures astride the Sheffer stroke can be true, or neither can be true, but both cannot be simultaneously true. In addition, in mathematics, parentheses denote a change in the order of operations by indicating what needs to be evaluated first.”
You’ve put a lot of careful thought into the symbolism and function of your punctuation. When did you first begin to conceptualize the visual aspect of the I as I|I, I I, (I), 👁, and so on? How did you come upon the shifts in the manuscript where the symbol for the self changes?
CEJ: Early on—almost immediately. I think this is because I was shying away from how central the I was to the text, which is ironic because that’s now the title. It was scary. It was almost too much. It’s too much pressure when you’re starting on something so central to the book that’s ultimately a self-interrogation. Especially when what is central to that self-interrogation is the fact that the self is deeply flawed. Initially, I just thought about the vertical slash as the mirror surface across which the self is reflected. I really wanted to incorporate that doubling into the book, how it sounds wrong and looks a little wrong.
Very quickly, I realized that there was a lot of drama and a little bit of an arc in how the visual appearance of the I changes. To me, the vertical slash is like a subplot of the book, you know, how it gets used and how that changes as the parentheses come in, and then you start to get letters on top of letters. That happened before I was able to conceive of the arc through the actual length of the book. I knew where I wanted I|I to go, and it was coming out more in the punctuation than in the actual text. The arc was there in the visual aspect, and then I knew I needed to make more happen in the overarching text because the book is already so fragmented. What you see now as the book was not anywhere close to what it looked like initially in the order of essay fragments. I had to think; When do I want to introduce this information? How does putting this here inform other parts of the book? What do I miss out on if I put this here instead of there?
Once I was a little more comfortable settling those pieces into place, I was able to think more about the direction of the book and the “Practice” sections helped with that. They don’t appear in regular intervals as they’re interspersed throughout the book. For me, the most intense part of the book is this sort of practice-gone-awry towards the end where the speaker is thinking about self-harm and enacting to heal from that as a practice. That part of the book could have only happened through the preceding practices.
CEJ: How do you conceive of the overlap between history, myth, and the mirror in I|I?
KI: I think a lot about the lines between myth and history. The mirror itself challenges those lines because, from its earliest appearances in human history and in literature or spiritual texts, the mirror has always been something that eschews reality and pushes at the boundaries of scientific thinking. Literally, scientifically, if a person with “normal” psychology stares into a mirror for long enough they will enter a trance state, and for some people that also leads to a kind of psychosis. That’s so bizarre! We’re used to seeing other people’s faces, so what is it about staring at our own reflection that does that? That’s the fundamental fascination for me with the mirror and also the real drama of the mirror when it causes this inability to differentiate between reality and fantasy or hallucination.
I|I explores some of the differences between myth and history, particularly Christianity because that’s the tradition I grew up with and is part of the way I think. There’s one text in the book from the 1200s called Roman de la Rose that, like a lot of these medieval or earlier texts, didn’t make it into the religious canon or the Bible but still discusses many of the same ideas and then creates new stories as well. So we have, you know, a very familiar, masculine Christian God in the sky. He’s looking at a mirror to see everything that’s happening in the world and everything that has happened and everything that will happen. Well, that’s not anywhere in the Bible. Does God have a mirror that he’s looking in? That wasn’t considered sacrilegious—it was just the way that people were thinking about those texts. This is what the mirror does to reality and what the lyric essay does to form. How do we think beyond the limits of observable phenomena? How do mirrors and faith affect the way we think about meaning?
You can find more from Katherine Indermaur on her website.
C. E. Janecek is a Czech-American writer, poetry MFA candidate at Colorado State University, and managing editor at Colorado Review. Janecek’s writing has appeared in Poetry, Gulf Coast, Cream City Review, Booth, the Florida Review, and elsewhere. Find them online at cewritespoems.