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Interview with 2017 Blue Light Reader Cathy Bowman

Poet and IU Professor of Creative Writing Cathy Bowman will be one of three readers at this year’s Blue Light Reading. Here she discusses the inspiration behind her Blue Light Workshop, “The Kitchen Session,” as well as her recent book Can I Finish Please? (Four Way Bookos 2016) and current creative projects.


CATHY BOWMAN is the author of several poetry collections, most recently Can I Finish Please? (Four Way Books in 2016.) Her writing has been awarded the Peregrine Smith Poetry Prize, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for Poetry, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, and four Yaddo Fellowships. She was the recipient of a faculty teaching award and the IU President’s Arts and Humanities Award. Her poems have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, Paris Review, TriQuarterly, and Kenyon Review.

1) Your Blue Light Workshop description orbits around the idea of “food and cooking, what we consume and what consumes us, and that sacred and profane space of mystery and desire.” Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind this theme? How does this influence your work?

I have written about “the kitchen” in various iterations over the years and continue to be captivated by that mysterious, enchanted, and potent space. We can think about the kitchen in so many ways: the kitchens of our past and present, the kitchens of our mothers and grandmothers, the secret kitchen, the forbidden kitchen, the immigrant kitchen, the symbolic kitchen, the conjuring kitchen, the dream kitchen, the working kitchen, the kitchen as an unknowable and private stage for desire and feminine power. Many of my poems deal with appetite in one form or another. I love to cook, to eat, to dine, read and collect cookbooks, to talk about food and to talk about food some more.

Last semester in a graduate seminar here at Indiana University, several of us were writing about food. So when you all invited me to give a craft talk, I thought why not build on and work with a continuing interest and obsession, one that others seem to share. Many of the poems in my first book, 1-800-HOT –RIBS and my most recent collection Can I Finish, Please?  deal with various forms of appetite, hungers (literal, erotic, spiritual), and consumption on various levels from the private to the public. I have been thinking about an essay by Galit Atlas in her book The Enigma of Desire where she writes “Over the years, the image of the woman in the kitchen has become a nonsexual image of a homemaker, invisible, one who feeds other’s needs but maybe isn’t portrayed as having her own. Here I would like to introduce a different kind of kitchen, one that is more enigmatic and contains hidden parts of a woman’s sexuality. With our culture’s tendency to separate sensuality from sexuality, especially when speaking of male desire.” I’m interested in exploring the kitchen she is talking about.

This sensibility is at work in a poem by your very own Indiana Review Editor, Su Cho. In her poem “The Magic of Soybeans,” she asks questions about the “potent magic” of a maternal kitchen remedy in the face of mainstream medical practitioners. In the craft talk we are going to be writing about kitchens and about food. People seem to remember the details of the kitchen; there’s lots of drama and memory living next to the silver soup spoon with the teeth marks.

2) What was the genesis of your most recent collection, Can I Finish, Please? (Four Way Books 2016). What projects are you working on now?

At the moment, I don’t remember the genesis of the book. I did notice that as I started writing more poems for the collection there seemed to be this obsession with the idea of interruption, not in that snarky angry way, but rather as all the things that interrupt us from engagement. Also, I was exploring the ever-changing self, the never finished, the always-in process, the improvisational. Transformation seems to be at the heart of the book. Not exactly a new subject; to quote Ovid’s Metamorphoses “in all this world, no thing can keep its form. For all things flow; all things are born to change their shapes.” Is there consolation and authenticity in these multiplying possibilities of self through word play, nature, and eroticism? I also had fun in this book experimenting with sound poems.

Currently, I am working on a collage of sorts, prose poems, compressed lyrics, short-pseudo historical documents, testimony, conversations between the dead and living, recipes, epistles, mariachi ballads and rancheros, dreams, diary entries, elegies, lists, oral histories, laments, prayers—it’s a kind of commonplace book meets multi-generational family saga.

3) What advice can you offer writers working on their first collections? How do you know when a manuscript is complete?

I really love what Robert Frost says in his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes.”  I think he gives great advice for writing a first collection and for knowing when a manuscript is complete.

It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood—and indeed from the very mood. It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last. It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase at once wise and sad—the happy-sad blend of the drinking song.  No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.

If you’ll be in Bloomington on Saturday, 3/25, don’t miss Cathy Bowman, Raena Shirali, and Andrea Lewis reading at the Bishop Bar, 7 p.m.!