Cait and I met a few years ago. I was a prospective MFA candidate at the Ohio State University, and she was a current graduate student. While I didn’t end up attending OSU, I stayed in touch with Cait. In this interview, we talk about how the playfulness in Natalie Shapero’s poems is at once particular to the poet’s sense of humor and inviting to her readers. We talk also about lists in poems, and about life in universities. I was really happy to have this opportunity to reconnect with Cait, and to read a poem of hers I didn’t know, which is printed at the end of this interview. Thanks for joining us!
Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Hard Child” by Natalie Shapero
Jessica Hudgins: OK so to start I’ve got to say that I was nervous when I saw you’d chosen to read Natalie Shapero, and then relieved and surprised when I heard your recordings. I think I thought that, because her sense of humor is such an important part of her poems, she would have to be the person reading them. Did you think about this while you were recording these? I haven’t been nervous with poems by May Swenson, even though her poems are interested in sound, or with an elegy by Philip Levine. Why would I think that poems with jokes seem more private, or more limited to the person who “told” them, than other poems?
Cait Weiss Orcutt: I am in awe of Natalie Shapero’s aura—and when I say “aura,” I mean “aura” as Walter Benjamin envisions it: an essence, a near-otherworldly power rooted in sharing space with something sublime. Natalie’s readings live in the sweet spot between stand-up comedy and performance poetry, and hardly anyone in the audience wants to breathe lest they break the magic. What Natalie as a living force brings to the page and stage is impossible to recreate. So, yes, now that you mention it, choosing to read her poems was a bold move. But life is for living and so here we are.
As I see it, when you ask about joking in poetry, you’re at least in part asking, “What makes a poem private?” That’s a fascinating question to me. I love that you’re connecting that sense of privacy with a sense of humor, since our senses of humor are so finely calibrated, so minutely shaped and sharpened by the way we grew up, whom we listen to now, how we choose (or don’t choose) to understand the world. I love poems with a sense of humor—not only for the chance to laugh but also because, to me, the best poems are the ones in which I get to see a mind at work. Someone can have a feeling, write it down and then, years later, a whole other human can pick up those words, read them, and have a similar feeling. I was raised atheist and maintain a crystal-embracing agnosticism, but even as a semi-skeptic, I see poetry’s ability to replicate feelings across bodies over time and space as god-like. What is divine if not unfettered connection?
So again, what poems are private? What feelings are? The right words in the right order will out anything you have tucked away inside. Poetry allows one’s isolated privacies to become a shared public on the page—what is more magical than that?
Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Not Horses” by Natalie Shapero
JH: I really appreciate the, like, negative/positive attitude in these poems. The line in “Not Horses” that goes, “Everybody’s/busy, so distraught they forget to kill me,/and even that won’t keep me alive,” is the best example, but also how, in “What Will She Go As,” the past in which an infant may have died turns into a present where the same child is okay. What drew you to these poems? Why did you choose to read this group in particular?
CWO: As much as I am a reader and a writer, I am also a teacher, working with students at the University of Houston, at HISD high schools, charter middle schools, art museums, the Jewish Community Center and the Salvation Army (for senior citizens and homeless young adults, respectively), local arts non profits and, every now again, community board meetings looking to try something new. Having taught every age from six years old to ninety, I need lessons that will open any reader up to the possibilities and play poetry offers.
“Not Horses” is one of my favorite poems to bring into a workshop. The speaker aligns themselves with “a bug that lives only one day” and the “little dog / who sees poorly at night and menaces stumps.” Who cannot relate to these creatures, lost but lovable, broken but brave all the same? I believe poetry exists to make living easier, or at least to make living a lot more interesting. I want my students to see how poems offer a framework for survival, like the speaker’s voice coming out of the poem to our ears, small bumbling pets that we are, saying “don’t be afraid— / our whole world is dead and so can do you no harm.” Only perhaps not quite as morbid. A poem, just in existing, in telling its story or conjuring its associations, says: “You will survive this like I did. You are not alone.”
As for “What Will She Go As,” ambivalence around childbirth will always catch my attention. This specific poem does so much: 1. anticipates a baby’s arrival; 2. mocks society’s consumerist, gendered obsessions; 3. references the most famous baby kidnaping crime with tinges of pro-Fascism around its edges; 4. hints at the future absence of the baby in a defiantly daring way that surprises anyone familiar with miscarriages, stillbirths and infant mortality. This poem takes the topic of Halloween Costumes and launches off into a multitude of conflicting feelings, connections, threats, promises and resentments. What better way to welcome a baby into a world than with a poem that rockets around the human experience with such wit and vinegar?
JH: In these poems there are lists of traditions, of costumes, and of terrible things that might happen on any given day. These lists are really entertaining moments in the poems, because each item in the list surprises us with how obviously it belongs, even while it’s unlikely for the poet to have chosen that exact thing. Do you use lists in your poems? How do you see Natalie Shapero’s work influencing your own?
CWO: I have always enjoyed a good list, how the tension mounts in a poem as items are added, how one can sense a specificity beginning to show itself out of the block of marble that is Language with each new addition to the chain.
Right now I’m working on a series of poems that, in short, bring women back from the dead. When I started writing these poems, I didn’t set out to make them especially baroque, but as I put them together, I realized that, in each one, I’d layered detail upon detail to build environments both shimmeringly beyond the veil and earthy enough for someone who’s seen it all—these survivors step out of lush green glades, move through in-patient rehabs painted infinite shades of pink, skate on Roller Derby teams populated with defiant femme-punned names. List after list appeared in these new poems, always shadowed by the lists of those murdered through partner violence, gender violence, transphobia, homophobia, patriarchal white supremacy. Lists are powerful incantations. Sometimes I wonder if all poems (or at least all lineated poems) aren’t in some way lists—every line giving new solutions to the same overarching problem, different routes to a single destination.
In terms of Natalie’s work’s influence on me, I have been trying to crawl inside Hard Child ever since I finished my book VALLEYSPEAK, a first-person collection of poems built around a coming-of-age storyline. After VALEYSPEAK, I was searching for ways to write beyond my own family mythos. I admire how Natalie is able to create tension, stakes, personality and (inside, outside, borderline) jokes without actually giving us all that much about her personal life, past issues, or childhood history. Her poems create warmth and inclusion beyond or at least beside the autobiographical narrative mode. Natalie’s work, to me, achieves that perfect balance between the poet casually saying “This wild thing happened, let me tell you about it” and the reader noticing, “Damn, that’s a masterly poem.”
Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “What Will She Go As” by Natalie Shapero
JH: You both attended Ohio State University’s MFA program — did your time there overlap? And you’re in a PHD program now. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences in universities?
CWO: Even though we’re about the same age, I wasn’t at OSU until a few years after Natalie graduated. She was still living in Columbus, though, and taught an afternoon intensive poetry workshop one day my first year there. I think the world of her as a human, a writer and a reader.
Not to be too infomercial about it, but The Ohio State University’s MFA changed my life. I learned to think of myself as poet, a teacher and a member of the literary community. I met mentors that changed my understanding of poems and peers whose books I will be buying and reading for the rest of my life. I also wrote a thesis that eventually became my first book and met my husband, so I really have few complaints.
Right now, I’m in the middle of my third year at University of Houston, and again, I’m amazed by the compassion and intelligence of my cohort.
Still, I would be amiss to omit a few caveats. Universities are deeply flawed in how they allocate funds, how they alter (or don’t alter) curriculum requirements, how they treat adjuncts and Graduate Teaching Assistants, how they devalue, minimalize or wholly deny the experiences of BIPOC and non-male students, faculty and employees. The school I am currently at is forced to allow (hidden) guns in the classroom under Texas’s “Concealed Carry” state law. OSU had its problems too. All universities do.
Ultimately I am grateful to be given the opportunity to study, write and teach with a university’s backing and a brilliant, engaging set of colleagues. I value my students and deeply respect how hard they work to balance their family responsibilities, their jobs, their health, and their studies all in fairly uncertain times. I love and admire my professors for the time and care they pour into us. And, as a member of the university myself, I hope to help instigate change where we’re not quite living up to our potential yet.
JH: I feel like we can’t ignore the moment in “Not Horses” where a pet dog appears. Have you ever included a pet in a poem? If so, can we please end with an excerpt?
CWO: In fact, I have! I just finished a draft of a poem about my cats and poor love choices, and a few years ago I wrote an ode to the two black pugs I grew up with back in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley in the 1990s. The cat poem is still stretching its limbs, but the pug poem, “Ode to the Small Black” was published by The Chattahoochee Review, Volume 36.I. Here is a reprint:
ODE TO THE SMALL BLACK
pugs huddled by heating vents. California cold, no one believes it who hasn’t lived here. Temperature is relative, so the family forages scarves & sweaters, mittens, earmuffs. The daughters unbury beanies, but the mother craves the cool wind, lets it caresses her ears, scalp, neck. The family’s pugs cuddle each other, wait for the youngest daughter to slip & spill her sausage on floorboards. She does. She always does. Little creatures, they can’t translate the tantrum that comes after the fall, just the sausage sliding between 4 or 5 snaggled pug teeth. A pet’s joy is a pure joy, a joy more autonomous animals cannot reach. A grandmother visits, calls them bloated ticks. O, everyone has a trash & a treasure. When summer comes, the 2 will gorge themselves on loquat fruit, sweet tumbled meat, but now, they sleep. Dark dog orbs lodged near air ducts. A paradise of squat life: heat, meat & curling up beside another’s feet.
Cait Weiss Orcutt’s work has appeared in Boston Review, Chautauqua, FIELD, and more. Her poems have been nominated for Best of the Net, a Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets. Her manuscript VALLEYSPEAK (Zone 3, 2017) won Zone 3 Press’ First Book Award, judged by Douglas Kearney. Cait has an MFA from The Ohio State and is currently getting her Ph.D. in Poetry from the University of Houston. She teaches creative writing at University of Houston, Grackle and Grackle, Inprint, WITS, the Salvation Army, the Menil Collection, and the Jewish Community Center. She is the graduate advisor for Glass Mountain literary magazine and the recipient of an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor/MD Anderson Foundation Fellowship.
Read Cait Weiss Orcutt’s poem “Frontier” at the Boston Review
Read Cait Weiss Orcutt’s poem “To the Loch Ness” at Hobart
Megan J. Artlett reviews Valleyspeak at the American Literary Review
Purchase Valleyspeak at Small Press Distribution
Natalie Shapero is the author of two poetry collections. The first, No Object (Saturnalia 2013), received the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and the second, Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press 2017), was shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize. Shapero has earned degrees from Johns Hopkins University, Ohio State University, and the University of Chicago. She is the Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University, and an editor at large of the Kenyon Review. Her awards include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Kenyon Review Fellowship.
Jessica Hudgins is a writer and teacher currently living in Georgia.