Katie Naughton discusses climate & financial anxiety, archival projects, and poetic lineage with editorial assistant Josephine Gawtry.

Katie Naughton is the author of the poetry collection The Real Ethereal (Delete Press, forthcoming 2024), and the chapbooks Study (Above/Ground Press, 2021) and A Second Singing (forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press, 2023). Her poetry has been published in Fence, Bennington Review, Colorado Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere, including in Polish translation in Wizje. She is an editor at Essay Press, the HOW(ever) and How2 Digital Archive Project (launching in 2024), and Etcetera, a web journal of poetry and poetics (www.etceterapoetry.com). She is currently a doctoral candidate in the Poetics program at SUNY – Buffalo and has an MFA in creative writing from Colorado State University.

Josephine Gawtry: Your forthcoming book is titled The Real Ethereal. What can we expect from the book through the lens of this title?

Katie Naughton: I started writing The Real Ethereal in a space where I was very anxious about the climate problem. I started this book as I was starting my MFA at CSU, and some of the earliest poems are actually written about the drive across the country to move out to Colorado. It felt like climate change was a huge, almost invisible force, and it was hard to imagine living an everyday life while that thing was also happening. During this time, I also had two grandparents become severely ill, so I was thinking about death in a way that I hadn’t been before. Death is an example of one of those huge forces that is always before us, yet not always perceptible, and one that came to the surface as I was writing this book. I was also thinking of things that seem otherworldly but are so real, including beauty. I think the book is very concerned with the beautiful, which feels like a very nineteenth century thing to say about a poem. One of my artistic influences, which I discovered in a film class during undergrad, is Stan Brakhage especially The Text of Light. Within it, there’s this attention to intense beauty of the everyday object, so I was interested in how to do that in language, and in language itself as a kind of ethereal force. I was looking at the etymology, and the word ‘ethereal’ comes from ‘ether,’ which is from the Greek and was used to describe the upper layers of the atmosphere, whereas ‘real’ comes out of Latin and is closely connected to the ‘thing.’ There’s that linguistic play in the title, the real is buried in ethereal, but they aren’t etymologically related.  The title mainly comes from the idea of shifting layers of attention moving between the minute moments of the everyday and the sense that these bigger forces are also very present, even when we aren’t looking at them.

JG: You have a series of poems labeled debt ritual that have been used in a variety of publications, and a large amount of your work deals with themes of class and wealth. Why do you choose to write about this subject? Do you think it is especially present or relevant in today’s world, or is it something relatively eternal?

KN: These poems also started with anxiety, or a sort of preoccupation. I had a lot of student debt, mostly from getting my MFA. CSU was a supportive MFA and we were paid to teach, and some people were great at being frugal and could live on that stipend, but I was not one of those people. I was in my early thirties when I was finishing the MFA and starting my PhD, and I knew I’d be continuing to make a graduate student stipend for another five to eight years. After my MFA, I decided to defer the PhD for a year so I could go work and try to save so I wasn’t in such a precarious position. The job I managed to get was as a paralegal for a bankruptcy lawyer, whose job it was to sell distressed debt from companies that were edging into bankruptcy. Then, a couple years later, I was TAing for a course about myths and rituals around the time I started the book, which made me think about the role of rituals and their relationship to fear. I ended up using these poems as a way to transform my shame and fear associated with having debt.

It feels significant that my debt came out of the pursuit of an ambition, and that it came out of the process of making art. I knew people who wanted to keep pursuing art but weren’t in a financial position to do so, and despite that, there’s still this belief that education is a kind of meritocracy, or that everything is available to everyone to pursue if they have the skill to do so. Before my MFA, while I was working in New York as an editorial assistant, I was seeing that there were gradations of privilege, and that even when you grow up in the middle class, there’s subtle ways that previous class positions tend to reassert themselves in various ways, through connections or through a knowledge of how to navigate the system. At Buffalo especially I’ve been exposed to very socially conscious poetry, or work that is very interested in thinking about positionality and forces beyond the individual that shape the conditions of individual life. I started thinking about how to contain those in poetry, and how to write from a place of relative privilege or being somewhere in the middle in a way that doesn’t just reinforce the oppressive system that you are both negatively affected by and also, at least relatively, rewarded by. In some ways, being a graduate student or an artist is a confusing class position, because even while you have this immense privilege of education and a position that’s well-respected, you also have very little money and a sense of precarity about the future and employment. However, this precarity is sometimes short-term and for many people is something you’ve chosen to accept, rather than a class position you were born into or a path you have no or few choices about. But then because there are few tenure track jobs, often the prestigious position of “professor” is held by an adjunct instructor. Adjunct rates in the SUNY system have been around $3,000 per course, so you’re in a position of prestige with very little money attached to it, which remains very precarious in terms of job security even as it is also something you’re hoping to make work long-term. I’m trying to grapple with these complexities, with the ways creative work, academic research in the humanities, and teaching are valued and not valued and how these align or diverge from other forms of economic precarity.

I was really influenced by books like Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders. She writes, “I wish more poets would write about money.” I agreed that this something that we think and talk about so often with each other, and it doesn’t show up in books a lot. Another book that I think is great and, in many ways, exceeds what I was able to do in the debt ritual text was Raquel Salas Rivera’s lo terciario, in which she writes about global geopolitical forces of debt, Puerto Rico’s national debt in particular. In that text, there’s a work to understand forces well beyond the personal, which I haven’t been able to do quite yet. I was also reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years and thinking of debt as a form of social relationship. Toward the end of debt ritual, I started thinking about the uses of exchange or the uses of money that can push against a limited capitalist sense of worth. That word worth is so interesting to me and has such emotional implications, that and so many other words having to do with debt. You can have your debt forgiven, for example. I was trying to release my sense of moral failure and also think about debt in a different way.

JG: You have publications on your website dating back to 2011. How do you think your poetry has developed over the past 12 years? Do you feel like that time and experience is represented equally in your forthcoming book?

KN: I spoke to this a little bit in talking about both projects, but not much that I wrote before 2013 is represented in either The Real Ethereal or debt ritual. During the undergraduate film class that I mentioned earlier, we had to write journal responses, and I remember writing about how I wished there were communities of writers in the same way there are communities of filmmakers. I think it took me a while to discover other emerging poets; it wasn’t until my first day at CSU in Matthew Cooperman’s workshop where he was talking about the New American Poetry anthology edited by Donald Allen, that I found a sense of my poetic lineage in contemporary poetry. The Real Ethereal definitely started at CSU and continued onwards. The bulk was written between 2013 and 2017, and debt ritual started primarily in 2017. There was some overlap, as one project was ending another was beginning. I’m not quite done with debt ritual yet, but I think I’m close.

JG: I’m really excited to see the thematic overlaps between the two, seeing or not seeing what I’ve read of debt ritual in The Real Ethereal when it comes out.

KN: There was a time that I thought the two would be one project, and there’s some stuff towards the end of the Real Ethereal that starts to open into the questions of debt ritual.

JG: I know you’re a CSU alum and currently a doctoral candidate working on your dissertation at the UB Poetics Program. How does your work on your dissertation influence the way you write? Simultaneously, how do you view time and energy constraints in poetry in comparison to formal constraints on the page?

My dissertation here is a critical dissertation, so I’m doing strictly academic research and writing. The creative work is pretty separate, but almost everyone at Buffalo is also a practitioner, so there’s a practice of creative work and critical work informing each other. The intensity of the reading I was doing in the early years of my coursework here made it so that my life was reading, and the materials of my daily life were the things I had read. I think that provides such richly fertile possibility for poetry, because the work isn’t tied entirely to what’s happening to you personally, which is often mundane. As I get older, it’s nice to know that if there’s not a lot of material naturally rising out of my emotional experience, that I can just read, and the material that I have to work with as a poet may include the complexity of deep research and the thoughts of others. I was writing the beginning of my dissertation at the same time as debt ritual, and you can see the influence of the poets I was reading at that time. My dissertation has also involved a lot of archival research, so almost two years ago I was in San Diego for a month reading the letters of Bernadette Mayer. I don’t know if it was affecting the work directly, but it was such a significant companionship, just listening to not only Bernadette but the people she was writing to, which included her sister, the artist Rosemary Mayer, and a number of letters to Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, and other poets. To get the sense of how other poets experienced and struggled with their own processes, and everyone having a problem of exhaustion, or asking “How am I going to make enough money to keep doing this,” or “How am I going to get this book published,” was very informative and comforting, to understand that even these poets I really admired felt unsure or stuck or frustrated at times. In terms of energy and time, I tend to work kind of cyclically—I’m bad at attending to multiple things at one time, so I often give intense attention to one thing, then the next thing, and so on.

JG: Finally, I love your work on Etcetera, a publication for which you’re the editor that focuses on poets and their practices reading and writing poetry. What do you think has been the most edifying thing about running that site? Are there any tidbits that have been featured on there that you think back on regularly in relation to your own work?

KN: Part of my interest in doing Etcetera came from being a young poet and finding it hard to figure out what to read. I think there’s such a robust media infrastructure around reviewing and recommending fiction, and with poetry it can be more challenging to access that knowledge, especially in informal ways that offer easy, quick exposure to new work. I was also very interested in thinking about this question about the overlap between reading and writing practices; I was curious to see what other people were reading and not to speak directly to their poetics, but to align those practices to each other on the page and allow those resonances to become available. I also think it’s really interesting when people like work that’s very different from their own writing.

I was also influenced by another editorial project I work on, a digital archive of the feminist journals of poetics HOW(ever) and How2, started by Kathleen Fraiser and edited by various editorial collectives. HOW(ever) was a print journal, mostly in the eighties, and How2 was mostly in the 2000’s. Both journals were interested in publishing working notes from the poet alongside their poems to give poets and opportunity to participate directly in the theorization of their work. I was interested in that, though I’m doing it slightly differently in Etcetera. I was also influenced by HOW(ever)’s intention to be easily readable in a single sitting. I give people a set of questions, usually one to five to choose from and I ask the responses to be between 200-400 words so that they’re easy to write and easy to read. That way readers can get a quick sense of these various books without reading a six-page review of them. There’s certainly a place for that kind of writing, but I was trying to do something that was easy for both the reader and the writer, with the understanding that people are massively overwhelmed by the amount of information available. It’s interesting to see the stylistic range of how people respond within these parameters. It’s also interesting to see what recommendations repeat in Etcetera; Cecilia Vicuña, Agnes Martin, and Robert Hayden have all come up a few times. It’s also been nice to be able to return to things that aren’t just new releases and to continue recirculating that work.

Josephine Gawtry is a first-year MFA candidate in poetry and Gill-Ronda fellow at Colorado State, as well as an editorial assistant at Colorado Review. She spends her free time parenting her three-legged rabbit, Cabbage.