Katie Farris Battles Cancer and Insurrections with Poetic Humor and Hope in “Standing in the Forest of Being Alive” [INTERVIEW]

Katie Farris’s work has been commissioned by MoMA and appears in American Poetry Review, Granta, McSweeneys, The Nation, and Poetry. She is the author of the chapbook A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving, which won the 2020 Chad Walsh Poetry Award from Beloit Poetry Journal, and boysgirls, a hybrid-form book, as well as co-translator of many books of poetry. She holds degrees from UC Berkeley and Brown University. She is currently Associate Professor in Creative Writing at Georgia Institute of Technology. Standing in the Forest of Being Alive (Alice James Books, 2023) is her first book of poems. Below are excerpts from her interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

James Morehead: Before we talk about your poetry and your book, share a few thoughts for students considering an MFA. From the perspective of a student and, now, an Associate Professor, how should students approach an MFA to get the most out of the experience?

Katie Ferris: “I taught in an MFA program for about eight years at San Diego State University. I’ve also taught in low residency programs here and there, and at New England College most recently. I got my MFA from Brown University. I’ve seen the MFA experience from multiple perspectives. When students ask me what to expect, I always say the most important thing you’re going to get out of your MFA is time to write. That’s the thing you can pretty much be guaranteed. If you’re a person who needs deadlines and other people’s pressure in order to get you to succeed, then that can be really effective. 

“Most likely you will come out of an MFA program with at least one or two good readers. If you’re lucky, you might come out of an MFA program with a mentor whom your relationship with lasts beyond those two to three years. You may come out of there with people who can write you blurbs or recommendation letters. You should be able to count on recommendation letters from faculty whose class you’ve taken, provided they don’t retire in the interim. I think a lot of people go in expecting they’re going to have a book when they get done. That may or may not be true. When I finished my MFA program, I had a book but it was not the first or second book I published. You come out with a manuscript of some kind, but it might not quite be what you expect. 

“I also wouldn’t go into an MFA program necessarily expecting an easy job. There are jobs that you can get teaching, such as adjunct rhetoric and writing composition type classes, which are typically pretty easy to find. However, it can be quite a challenge to get into a solid tenure-track position. Some people love adjuncting and do it their whole lives, but it can be a lot of work. If you’re going into an MFA program primarily with the hope of having a university position, it will be good to talk with other people. Depending on where you are in the country and how far you’re willing to travel and how much you’re willing to teach, that may be viable, but it’s not something to count on. That’s something I’d really want students to know before they take on the debt and the time to go into an MFA program.”

James: “Standing in the Forest of Being Alive” interweaves your powerful experiences battling cancer at a relatively young age, and social issues, yet never preaches. Before getting it to specific poems, how, in general, do you tackle such powerful subjects without the subject overwhelming the poetry? 

Katie: “The insurrection happened just six days before my surgery. Things were happening kind of neck and neck, and most of the poetry that I wrote during this time was totally overwhelmed by the subject matter. It was awful. It was preachy. It was frustrated. It was emotional as I was flailing around in fury and fear. Most of it was crap. Maybe 10% of it was decent. and of that maybe 5% ended up in this book. I’d like to pretend I have the magical wand that just makes good stuff come out, but in actuality, the only thing I have is the ability to distinguish what is good work from bad work, or good work from work that just doesn’t fit. 

“One of the things I really focused on as I was writing the book was trying to incorporate humor where I could. That’s a tricky thing both with cancer and criticizing a country which I love but also which I am very critical of. I was going through poems that I accumulated during this time and asking myself if there was a touch of humor in there. I looked to see if I could pull a tease out a little bit or add some word play or some sort of linguistic strangeness that I could use to turn this on its head so that I didn’t run the risk of taking myself so seriously all the time. There’s certainly some very serious problems there, but I think providing some variety of tone was fundamentally what I was looking to do where I could.”

James: “A Row of Rows” is one of many poems in this book where you achieve exquisite brevity. You write,

"A pleasant row
of rows, little rugs
on the strings
of our love,
just enough
to pull out days

Like many poems in this book the lines are compact, just a few words, with most of the white space undisplaced. How would you describe your poetic voice and how has it developed over the years?

Katie: “That’s a great question. My first book consisted of short prose pieces, somewhere between prose poems, flash fiction, and short stories. Initially, I was trying to be a fiction writer, but about five or six years ago, I realized I was actually a poet. It took me 15 years to come back to poetry, where I started.

“When I transitioned from sentences to lines, I lost some confidence in line breaks. I began exploring metered poetry and prosody, which I enjoyed despite my initial failures. Around the time I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had just finished reading Emily Dickinson’s entire collection. I was particularly drawn to her use of ballad meter.

“This shorter style, combined with writing love poems, led me to adopt a two-beat-per-line meter, which I thought of as two heartbeats together in a line. Dickinson’s alternating three- and four-beat lines also influenced my work, as I mostly write in iambic pentameter.

“This shift in style allowed me to think more in phrases than in long sentences, and it gave me the confidence to experiment with longer, more statement-like poems. Overall, this evolution is what led to the poetic voice present in my current work.”

James: “The Invention of America” experiments with repetition, with line length and word placement. Is a howl at times, longer than many poems in the collection, and is an effective shift in form, placed between two slight poems.

How do you approach ordering poems, the connections between poems, in particular the placement of a poem like this that stands out in form and voice? 

Katie: “You’ve set up the context quite well. The book incorporates three major threads: love poems, cancer poems, and America poems, with some overlap between them. Ordering the book was a challenge, and I experimented with different arrangements, seeking advice from others like Jessica Jacobs and Maggie Nelson.

“Ultimately, I focused on tonal and textural variation. Placing a long, hard-hitting poem between two shorter, gentler ones allowed me to transition between themes, such as from love poetry to the idea of America and back. Transitions in poetry collections are perhaps less discussed than in fiction, but they’re crucial for maintaining the reader’s attention.

“It’s essential to give readers a break in tension if you want it to build again later. I aimed to keep the hits coming, ensuring that every poem in the book was worthy of inclusion. However, I also recognized the need for ‘sleeper hits’ – the slower, subtler poems that complement the more prominent ones. At times, I even had to revisit older poems to extract smaller, more concise pieces that could serve this purpose.

“The goal was to create a well-balanced collection that effectively spotlighted poems like “The Invention of America” while maintaining an engaging flow for the reader.”

James:  You manage to imbue this collection with humor, “Quid Pro Quo: A Dedication” you write:

 "You said
we could replace
our lumpy
mattress if
I wrote you
a poem.
So here's
your god-

I read this out loud to my wife and thought it was hilarious. How do you advise poets to approach incorporating humor into their poetry, as it is deceptively difficult to do well?

Katie: “It’s true, incorporating humor in poetry can be difficult, partly because we might not trust it when it comes too easily. I wrote this particular poem before my cancer diagnosis as a love poem for my husband and left it on a Post-It on the refrigerator. When searching for love poems for my manuscript, I initially dismissed it as too easy, along with another poem called “Rachel’s Chair.” Surprisingly, people loved “Rachel’s Chair,” which taught me to trust their opinions and, eventually, my own instincts.

“Workshops are great for gathering feedback, helping you understand what works and what doesn’t. Over time, you become more objective about your own writing. Learning from my experience with ‘Rachel’s Chair,’ I realized that sometimes a straightforward, intimate sentence or two can work without needing elaborate poetic language.

“As for advice, I encourage poets to go for it and add humor to their work. I’d love to read more funny poetry. Trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to experiment with different styles and tones.”

James: Absolutely. Billy Collins’ recent book, for example, is full of short, clever snippets, and it’s a whole collection of them. It’s a good reminder that poems don’t always have to pull from Greek history, be ten pages long, or extremely complex to resonate. Trusting your instincts and your audience is important.

Katie: “Definitely. Another poet who does this beautifully is Andrea Cohen, who writes very short, lyric poems. Her collections primarily consist of these compact, clever, humorous, and witty pieces, and there’s so much potential in that style.”

James: I love the titles of so many of the poems in this collection. One of many examples: ‘I Wake to Find You Wandering the Museum of My Body,’ a title that is a poem in itself. How do you approach the challenge of titling a poem, and what are the characteristics of an effective title?

Katie: “I’m honored that you like my titling, as I often struggle with it. When I was a kid, I named my stuffed animals quite literally. When titling a poem, I usually look within the poem for an unusual line. If I try to come up with a title externally, it’s often terrible. It has to surprise me and not be premeditated.

“An effective title, for me, can feel like a poem in itself. I ask myself, ‘Would I want to read this if it was all there was?’ Ideally, a title has a double or triple meaning, with layers of depth that can be uncovered. I love puns, wordplay, and using unexpected words because I have a passion for language.” 

James: The poem “To the Pathologist Reading My Breast, Palimpsest” is such a powerful blending of found medical text, so dispassionate and clinical by design. The rhymes and phrases you find and amplify. Share how you approached creating this poem.  

Katie: “This was a tough one, as I had been trying to write my mastectomy poem for a long time. Most of the chemo and radiation poems I wrote while going through the treatments, posting about my experiences on social media. However, the surgery was particularly difficult for me, and I struggled to address it in my poetry.

“During that time, I was reading all the pathology reports since I have a strong interest in biology and medicine. One of the reports really shook me, and months later, I revisited it, noticing the rhyme of ‘specimen’ and ‘formalin.’ That’s when I realized that was the basis for my poem.

“One of the goals of my book is to demystify the experience of cancer, opening up the conversation, and letting people know that it comes with its horrors, but also, in a strange way, with its delights. I wanted to playfully address the doctor who did this work and the medical community in general, acknowledging that while some doctors may lose track of the humanity in their work, many do their best to keep it at the forefront.

“This poem was a way to be in conversation with the medical field, even though it gets quite sharp towards the end, especially with the irony of being ill while a dear friend was pregnant. Overall, I had a lot of love and respect for my physicians, but I also had some bad experiences in getting diagnosed and treated. This poem allowed me to express these emotions while still acknowledging the dedication of the medical community.”

James: I was moved by your determination to live, the thread of hope through many of the poems. In “Woman with Amputated Breast Awaits PET Scan Results” you write

"Help me to spell waiting? I forget. And whom
can I tell how much I want to live? I want to live."

And in “To the God of Radiation” you write:

"O God of Radiation,
let your light
like a ship pass through me,
your radiance exposing,
exposing what's inside me
like film a god takes—"

How do you hope your experience affects those who have been impacted directly or indirectly by cancer, and by those who haven’t? 

Katie: “I thought a lot about this from the beginning, which is unusual for me. This is the first time I really engaged with my audience directly as the book was being written. As I shared updates about my medical condition and the poems, I struggled with how to share my experiences publicly. It was during the pre-vaccination COVID-19 era; I was alone, medically vulnerable, and couldn’t see anyone. I used this platform as a way to make connections, but I also worried about burdening others.

“What emerged were messages from people saying that my writing helped them understand their loved ones’ experiences or that it resonated with their own experiences with cancer. This made me realize I had a responsibility to keep going and keep hoping, not just for myself but for others as well. My writing became a way to speak with, not for, the cancer community that I had become a part of, a community that nobody wants to join.

“As one in two people in the world will end up with some form of cancer, my hope is that my words can help others understand, empathize, and find hope, whether they are directly or indirectly affected by the disease.”

James: What are you hoping to impart to your students, and what have you learned from you students? 

Katie: “Oh, man, so much. One of the first things I’ve learned from my students is how brilliant they already are. There’s a lot of fear about producing and emphasis on the product or deliverables, which I really dislike. They want to write a good poem, but I tell them that their brilliance lies in the experimentation, process, and the act of writing itself. The deeper we go down the road of focusing on the verb of writing instead of crafting a perfect product, the better the results.

“It’s easy to say this to others, but harder to live by it yourself. I’ve been writing for a long time, and it’s easy to feel like you’re not successful in the arts. The biggest antidote to that feeling is to focus on doing the work, loving the work, and enjoying the work. That’s the point of this journey, at least for me.

“I used to say I liked having written, but now my perspective has changed, and it helps me stay sane in a world that can feel bizarre and insane, even in the poetry world. It wasn’t just me figuring this out; it was my students and me working on it together. This shift in perspective has also affected my own poetics.

“If my students come away believing in focusing on the process even just 5%, I will have succeeded.”

Listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast to hear Katie reciting selections from Standing in the Forest of Being Alive.

One thought on “Katie Farris Battles Cancer and Insurrections with Poetic Humor and Hope in “Standing in the Forest of Being Alive” [INTERVIEW]

Add yours

  1. Wonderful interview, so insightful: both the questions and the responses. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Up ↑