Katy Didden is the author of Ore Choir: The Lava on Iceland (Tupelo Press, 2022), and The Glacier’s Wake (Pleiades Press, 2013). Her poems, essays, and reviews appear in journals such as Public Books, Poetry Northwest, Ecotone, Diagram, The Kenyon Review, Image, 32 Poems, The Spoon River Poetry Review, The Sewanee Review, and Poetry, and her work has been featured on Verse Daily and Poetry Daily. She has received fellowships and residencies from The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, the Hambidge Center, the MacDowell Colony, and the Listhús Residency in Ólafsfjörður, Iceland. She was also a 2013-2014 Hodder Fellow at Princeton University. Collaborating with members of the Banff Research in Culture’s Beyond Anthropocene Residency, she co-created Almanac for the Beyond (Tropic Editions, 2019). Katy is an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ball State University. Below are excerpts from her interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.
James Morehead: “Ore Choir: The Lava on Iceland” (Tupelo Press, 2022) is an extraordinary work of art, employing erasure in such a unique way. To help our listeners have context, take a few minutes to describe “Ore Choir.”
Katy Didden: “‘Ore Choir’ is a book of composites, photographs, source text, and erasure poems. Visually, it’s like a palimpsest. It was important to me that readers could see the source text while I wrote the poems. I wanted the image to look like lava, and my dear friend Kevin Tseng figured out how to do that using grayscale and layering. He’s the one who created the palimpsest look. To me, it resembles a topographic map with a sense of layering. The way he shaped the erasures was meant to look like lava.”
James: What inspired you to explore the lava of Iceland, and to use the combination of erasure and photographs?
Katy: “Well, in my first book, ‘The Glacier’s Wake,’ I had a series of persona poems in the voices of a wasp, a sycamore, and a glacier. That all started with the wasp, which became a muse after a friend showed great affection towards a lethargic wasp at an artist residency. I enjoyed writing in different voices and using various poetic forms, so I knew I wanted to write in the voice of lava. This was largely inspired by an undergrad class called “Ring of Fire,” where I studied plate tectonics and read John McPhee’s “The Control of Nature.” McPhee’s essay on the 1973 eruption of Eldfell in Iceland and how the people diverted lava flow to save the port fascinated me.
“When considering a poetic form to create a sense of lava, I thought of erasure, as it often involves inking out text, which seemed similar to lava moving over land. Erasure as a form lent itself to collaboration, which is common among artists who combine text and image. It was a great joy working with Kevin and the photographers and geographers who provided photos for the book.”
James: “Ore Choir” has multiple layers, each two page spread has a poem on one side and the source text blended with photography on the opposite side. There are so many elements at play, how did you approach the many choices required, which photographs to include, the source text to use, and the themes to create from the erasers?
Katy: “Thank you for noticing that. Many of the choices were intuitive, but when choosing source texts, I tried to select passages that related to lava or things an outsider might be curious about regarding Iceland. Iceland is famous for its geology, Norse mythology, and the sagas, so I included erasures of a saga and even a Siggi’s yogurt label, for example.
“I recently heard a lecture by Asa Sigurdardottir on the idea of ‘Iceland as a city’ in terms of Icelandic artists and their engagement with the concept. I was exploring Iceland’s global influence, which is both cultural and geological, as their active volcanoes have major impacts worldwide. The source texts aimed to show how lava is part of food, drink, history, and art. So, there was a desire for variety in the source texts, but the choices were often more intuitive.”
James: “Ore Choir” is a beautiful book to look at, the design so thoroughly considered: the dimensions of the book – square and larger than a typical paperback, the merging of photography, source text, and how the poems are visually mined from the text, the extensive notes. How did you approach the design of this book, which is a critical element?
Katy: “The design really reflects the aesthetic of my collaborator, Kevin. I wish he could join us for this because we had many conversations about the design, and there were times when our visions didn’t match up. We went through a lot of experimentation with the layout, even up until the end. We considered different arrangements, like alternating image and poem pages, which could create a sense of disorientation and not immediately provide an ‘answer key.’
“Kevin had a real sense of scale for what worked well with the images, and while there was a book designer who helped us as well, they were very faithful to Kevin’s vision for the look of the book.”
James: It’s a beautiful book that invites the reader in visually. In “The Ore” you write:
THE ORE "In a wish to know poetry, ore formed and ran to put an end to war. Carried a treaty of peace: a reed to a red beach spitting."
As was the case with each of the poems I was curious about the source text, scrimmed by the photograph masks. Using this poem as an example, how did you approach finding the poetry, which is particularly effective in this example?
Katy: “This is one of the oldest poems in the book and has become a fan favorite. My method really evolved from this one. Initially, I preserved many phrases from the original source, but eventually, I got more into working letter by letter. This poem is from the Younger Edda of Snorri Sturluson, translated by I.A. Blackwell. The feel of the page, from a 1907 book, had a lovely texture.
“When I work with the text, it feels very absorbing. I feel like I’m in the text and hurtling through it, almost like I’m pushing like lava, trying to find places where I can move forward. Often, my way forward is sonic, finding a rhyme or alliteration. It’s very intuitive.
“What’s interesting about this poem, like many others in the book, is that it gets meta with erasure, thinking about the process itself and the art of creating. It goes back and forth between thinking about what poetry is, how it might be central to putting an end to war, and how it is so language-based, exploring the relationship between these aspects.”
James: In terms of selecting your source material, you had to work with specific letters, phrases, and words. Did you have to discard some of the poems because the material didn’t work, or were you looking for certain things in the source material? Given all the aspects that had to come together, it couldn’t be a 10-page thing because it wouldn’t work visually, and it couldn’t probably be two lines, because it wouldn’t provide enough raw material to create a poem. How did you approach that selection process?
Katy: “At first, I think I looked for the shape and the size of a good paragraph. I did try a couple of texts that didn’t work right away, but that was more towards the beginning. I really wanted to work with Eileen Myles’ ‘The Importance of Being Iceland,’ and I think I tried a couple of times but was surprised that it didn’t move forward. I don’t think it was about the text itself, but more about me trying to figure out my methodology. Interviews had a great quality for the poems, as I was writing in the first person, which made it easier. Later, I wanted to write longer poems, so I started wrestling with the source text to a greater extent. Kevin pointed out that there was a maximum length because the visuals would get too dense, impacting the quality. But overall, I never felt too constrained by that.”
James: Regarding revisions and editing, in most poems you can change everything. A sonnet that isn’t suiting the material can become free verse. Stanzas can be re-ordered. Words inserted. How did you approach revising and editing with the constraint of the source text?
Katy: “I’m a poet who revises constantly, sometimes working on a poem for 10 years. With these poems, a lot of the editing happened as I went along. I didn’t revise them as much as my other poems, but I did make changes, and it required letting go and finding a different way through the ‘maze’ of the text. It was satisfying to see how infinite the possibilities were when moving through the text. There were times when I really wanted a word that wasn’t available, which felt like mopping myself into the center of a kitchen floor. But I found a way, and it was thrilling. I would say that with these poems, the editing happens more as I go because the constraint is so tight.”
James: The questioning poems are a wonderful shift in form, with two speakers, both extracted from the found text, the erasures visualized by different opacities of the photograph layered over the source text. In one of these double erasure poems, “the SCIENTIST questions the LAVA” you write:
"Scientist: What was fixed? What was fluid? Lava: Lobes crept in hollows. Birds fled."
In the notes you refer to the background research influencing the incorporation of questioning the lava through double erasures. Share a bit more about how you approached researching “Ore Choir”, and how research changed your approach to the book.
Katy: “The most significant thing that happened during my research was learning about the 1783 eruption and the Laki fissure in Iceland. I discovered its devastating consequences not only in Iceland but globally, as it lowered global temperatures. This eruption is believed to have been one of the original causes of the French Revolution, destroyed crops in Europe, froze the Chesapeake Bay, and lowered the Nile, causing mass migration in Egypt.
“Once I started researching that eruption, it became a spine in the book. I wanted to learn more about how such devastation could happen and how we could be in relationship with it. I thought about asking the lava questions from three different points of view: the vulva, a Norse prophet and female figure; a priest, based on Jón Steingrímsson, who survived the eruption and wrote an autobiography; and a scientist, based on geologist Thorvaldur Thordarson, who cross-referenced the rock record with accounts of survivors. The language in the poem comes directly from witness accounts of the eruption and how they made sense of it.”
James: The photographs, source text, and resulting poems express Iceland in a multifaceted way. In the notes you write about the collaboration with artists. What do you hope readers take away from “Ore Choir” about Iceland?
Katy: “I hope that readers see how much I acknowledge myself as an outsider and appreciate the marvelous history, culture, and fascinating landscape of Iceland. I hope this book serves as an homage and encourages people to explore the incredibly rich culture, artists, artifacts, and history of Iceland.”
James: Your book is unique because, while poets use research all the time, the reference material often isn’t explicitly mentioned or footnoted. In your case, the source texts are right there for readers to dig into. What advice do you have for poets or your students who are considering taking on the challenge of a project book versus a collection of poems?
Katy: “I would say have fun with it. I loved working on a project book, and I think it’s a great experience for poets. Fiction writers often have the experience of returning to something already in progress, and a project book can provide that sense of companionship. It feels like coming back to an old friend, having a place to begin, and establishing a longer relationship. I highly recommend it – it’s enjoyable and rewarding.”