A Conversation with Cati Porter
Cati Porter is a poet, editor, essayist, and arts administrator who hails from Southern California. She is the author of five chapbooks and three full-length collections of poetry, all with independent or nonprofit presses: small fruit songs, Seven Floors Up, (al)most delicious, what Desire makes of us, The Way Things Move The Dark, My Skies of Small Horses, The Body, Like Bread, and her most recent book, The Body at a Loss. She is the executive director of Inlandia Institute and founder/editor of the poetry journal Poemeleon. The first draft of The Body at a Loss was written in the days following Porter’s thyroidectomy. The book deals with the devastating toll of illness, not only on the body, but also on the mind of the patient. Literary Mama contributor and author Kyra Robinov conducted this interview with Porter mainly through email.
Kyra Robinov: How long have you been writing poetry?
Cati Porter: Since my early teens. I credit the California Poets in the Schools program with changing the trajectory of my life. Poets Jack Grapes and Doraine Poretz came to my eighth grade English class, and that was my first exposure to professional writers. Over the course of a few weeks, they led us through writing exercises and then through the process of pasting up and printing our own chapbooks. I still have a copy on my bookshelf! Then in community college, I worked on and published in the college literary journal and participated in my first reading where I read barefoot in a borrowed dress. I was carving out a space that felt wholly my own.
KR: Illness seems to be a recurring theme in your writing. Having dealt with your mother’s cancer and your dog’s and then having been diagnosed yourself, I assume writing for you is part of the healing and dealing process.
CP: Yes, it was most definitely a healing and dealing process, one I’m still not quite through with.
In 2014, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the thyroid gland. Mine was getting larger and causing uncomfortable symptoms. I also just generally didn’t feel well, which happens when your thyroid is out of whack. So, it was decided that I would have a thyroidectomy. It was my first major surgery, and my only hospital stay save for childbirth.
KR: Your award-winning poem, “Administering My Dog’s Cancer Therapy, I Think about My Sons,” which opens The Body at a Loss, powerfully evokes the conflicts and feelings of a parent, as well as the searing pain experienced by the caregiver of someone who is ill. How does motherhood specifically influence your work as a poet?
CP: When I wrote about Harley, our dog, it was through that mothering lens, the effect that his dying was having on my sons, who took it very hard. It was one of their earliest experiences of loss. From caring for Harley, I could extrapolate what it might be like to have a terminally ill child. Don’t misunderstand me, though: I don’t think there’s any way to get inside that deeply specific pain without actually having gone through it, so in that way, that poem’s project fails. But I do think I earned some small insight.
KR: It must be difficult to have to deal with so much sickness when you have young children, when you want to focus on your future together. How does the process of putting your thoughts into your writing help you come to terms with the vast uncertainties in your life?
CP: As a mother, I can imagine nothing more terrifying than losing a child, but as a child, seeing your parent ill is nearly on par with that. Watching my mom go through surgery, chemo, and radiation was painful. My own surgery experience pales by comparison. And yet, in both cases, writing helped me through those feelings.
Moving forward, I can’t imagine a time where motherhood and mothering won’t be at the core of my writing. There’s no shortage of material.
The week after Thanksgiving 2017, my youngest son spent an agonizing four days in the children’s hospital. I never left the hospital, sleeping beside him mashed up against the bedrail, waking with him for every round-the-clock diagnostic. On the eve before his release, a group of carolers came through. They stopped at the foot of the bed and sang for us, and I began to cry. That experience will, inevitably, wind up in a poem.
KR: In The Body at a Loss you write:
I don’t know how it has to come to this—
The slit throat, the unguent wound.
Yes, I do know. I know how the body
Turns, the traitorous rising up
Of the lymphocytic swarms, the swell
Crowd rushing the site like an ambush,
The body’s defenses defending against
Itself, itself the enemy.
How do you find inspiration for your poetry in medical procedures and diagnostics?
CP: All of the diagnostics leading up to the surgery, coming from a writerly point of view, were fascinating. I found myself writing in waiting rooms, and then, post-surgery, my neck bandaged and on serious painkillers, I found that I had a drive to write about it. I had the very unpleasant experience of having a post-anesthesia migraine. Retching with a fresh surgery wound on your throat complicates the issue. And I wrote about it all while in recovery.
Then, when the pathology report came in, it turned out that I had a “tiny baby cancer,” as my doctor said. But, cancer is cancer, even if there is no treatment needed. I still get checked about once every six months.
KR: In that poem, “tiny baby cancer,” I found the last line particularly revealing:
. . . Still learning
How to mitigate any potential disaster; how to view it
Without distortion; how to live fully acknowledging
There is always a diagnosis, and not always a cure.
CP: That experience got me thinking about the other people in my life who have endured chemo and radiation, mastectomies, lumpectomies, and more. Some of those people, people I cared about, lost their lives. I wanted to honor all of them by sharing a little bit of their story, my mother’s in particular, and that of my mentor and friend Marion, who was the founding executive director of Inlandia Institute. My mother and Marion went through breast cancer at the same center, in a similar time period. My stepmom is in the poem too, as well as in my book, Seven Floors Up, which came out shortly after she was first diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer. They gave her six months to live, and now, eleven years later, she’s still here and doing well.
KR: Your poem “Even At Their Best, Doctors Only Guess” sums it up.
CP: Sometimes, the poison saves you. Sometimes it doesn’t. My mom is still here but Marion isn’t. All of the poems in the collection come at illness from multiple angles: the impact it has on us, and those closest to us, and how we endure.
There is also a psychological toll it takes, the routine monitoring for recurrence. You are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Often it does. In fact, just in the past week, I’ve been referred to a hematologist-oncologist for suspicion of cancer. It’s the same doctor my mom sees. As of this writing, I don’t know whether I have cancer, or whether I don’t, and the waiting is excruciating. Most of us begin our lives feeling invincible, but the older you get, the more mortal you feel. This is not a complaint, it’s just a personal observation, and a reminder to make the most of our time while we can.
KR: In addition to illness, you’ve addressed other difficult—and personally difficult—topics in your writing. You wrote an essay for Salon, “What We Tell Our Sons About Rape,” in which you are both mother and daughter. In it, you juxtapose the flippant attitude of insensitive young boys, your sons and their friends, joking about rape in the presence of your mother who herself was raped as a young girl. Of course, the boys were unaware of that. But you illuminate the struggle of how to bridge that gap and teach your sons and their friends how close to home their laughter slices while at the same time respecting your mother’s silence.
CP: That was a difficult situation, but I think a teaching moment for all of us. On a family trip to San Diego, my mom and I and the boys took a side trip to Mission San Luis Rey to visit her elementary school, which was closed for summer break. There were very few people around, so mostly we peeked in windows and walked the grounds, and consequently the boys were pretty bored, looking for things to amuse themselves with. I’ve noticed that boredom can do strange things to teenagers. Most of the time, I’m the lenient parent, so they were goofing off some. But I do draw a pretty bright line. Some things you just don’t joke about. Rape is one of them. I love my sons intensely, and their friends are family, too. This was an instance where one of them said something impulsively, thinking it was funny, and I had to declare to all of them that there would be no rape jokes. And there weren’t, for a while. Later, though, I overheard another “joke” and while I no longer remember what was said, it was enough for me to get angry. I needed to make entirely clear that those kinds of jokes were not funny, and there would be consequences if they kept it up. I took my oldest son aside, who was 16 at the time, and started to tell him exactly why they needed to stop, giving him just the outline of what had happened, and how embarrassing and hurtful those kinds of jokes can be. His discomfort with hearing the story was palpable, enough to make him wince and wave me off, not wanting to hear more. Nothing like that has ever happened again.
KR: Besides the artistry of your writing, I’m intrigued by the many different ways you present your poems. How do you come up with your layouts and punctuation—or lack thereof?
CP: Each of my collections has adhered to different internal rules. It’s whatever the poems seem to need. In my first book, Seven Floors Up, I used several different strategies throughout, including some with run-on sentences and no caps and no punctuation, where others adhered to traditional punctuation and grammar. With more recent collections, once I’ve come up with the poems I want to include, I’ve gone back through and revised for consistency. Also, sometimes the device I use dictates the layout and punctuation: My chapbook, The Body, Like Bread, was written exclusively on my phone, in the kitchen, on an app. It auto capitalizes the first word of each line, and I decided I liked the look of that so I didn’t revise that away. Also, formatting is a challenge on a smaller device, so generally everything stayed left justified, whereas in other works like (al)most delicious, my chapbook inspired by Modigliani’s nudes, the form was intended to replicate some of the features of the paintings. I listen to the poem and do what feels organic to the nature of the subject.
KR: Like mothers everywhere, your life is a juggling act. How do you manage to balance all the various hats you wear?
CP: My different interests and obligations are all thoroughly braided together. Some might say tangled. There is no pulling them neatly apart. Take today: This morning, I borrowed my teenage son to help me unload the tables, chairs and paraphernalia from an event last night, then I drove my van to the mechanic where I’m getting it serviced, took Lyft to the University of California Riverside campus to deliver books to one of our authors, and now I’m camped out in front of a campus coffee shop for this interview, a copy of last year’s Inlandia Institute budget next to me, waiting for lunch with a board member in two hours. It sounds convoluted, yet somehow everything gets done! Or if it doesn’t, it couldn’t have been that important to begin with.
KR: Tell me a little about Inlandia Institute and Poemeleon.
CP: Inlandia Institute is a twelve-year-old literary nonprofit serving the Inland Southern California region. I am only the second executive director the organization has had, and I’ve been with it for ten of those twelve years. We are a small, homegrown nonprofit where every dollar has to come from somewhere, and where website updates are done either by myself or a volunteer. Our tagline is “Celebrating the region in word, image and sound.” Somewhere on the website, it says world. As far as typos go, I think that’s apt. We are all about community and our place in the larger literary “world.” The world is only as big we make it!
Poemeleon was founded in my kitchen in December 2005, after having a few too many glasses of wine. Like all things that seem like a good idea when imbibing, when I was sober I had to figure out, okay, now what? So, I learned from scratch how to build a website, how to put out a call for submissions, how to format an issue, and so on. My kids were young at the time, and I was able to devote a lot of time to it. In the beginning, we published two issues each year, each devoted to a different kind of poetry; now, with all of my other commitments, I’m lucky to get one out once a year. It’s still up and running and is something I am very proud of, and, hopefully, by the time this hits, the new and improved website will be up and a new call for submissions will be out.