This month, THERMOS has hosted a feature on a writing group, King of the Cats, based in Seattle and taking its from from a post-collegiate cohort of writers. We published work from three members— Zac Fulton, Caitlyn McGehee, and Emily Wittenhagen— and now have an interview with (and embarrassing photos of) these folks.
TH: What was the spark for you guys to become a community of writers? What subsequent structure best seemed to suit formal work, critique, good conversation etc. together?
C: Some friends and I started a writing group— King of the Cats— with poets we’d met through classes at the University of Washington. It was truly a community— we reviewed each other’s work weekly, shared books and ideas, went to events together, hosted events together, drank heavily together.
E: I think really fondly on my first meeting, at Seth’s house back during the wine dynasty. One gentleman got a little caught up in the revelry and produced the most beautiful vomit I’ve ever seen, bright fuchsia the consistency of fine sorbet.
But the reason I kept going back was the poetry and also how freely people critiqued. It was all really wholehearted and I was like, yup, these guys have totally nailed it. I assume this is similar to how lots of poetry groups start, or should start, with a kind of engine grease to help people get over the terrible awkwardness of reading poetry aloud. The best structure I think has been in each other’s homes with comfortable couches and maybe a piano or a balcony. If you can’t help feeling awkward, you can at least be comfortable.
Z: King of the Cats was always a pretty informal and inexclusive affair, so there was a lot of variation. Some times it would be only a few of us and the critiques would be very focused, other times fifteen or twenty people would show up and it would turn into more of a recital/wine party. If Cate decided she a more serious workshop she would sometimes have us meet at a coffee shop, because when we met at someone’s house a lot of wine tended to get drunk.
C: Three years later, King of the Cats formally dissolved, either because this “community” shrank in bodies— specifically, people moved away, clods washed to sea, etc— or because it grew in familiarity— people developed enmities, crushes, histories, tastes and distastes. Now: less wine, no meetings, but still most of the same people sitting in rooms and reading to each other.
TH: What do you want to write next?
Z: There are so many mental resources outside of your own mind, I feel like you should make use of them as much as possible. All language is found language— some of it just comes in bigger pieces. For a while with Cats we went through a phase of mashing each others’ poems up into new poems, and one my mashups of Emily actually worked its way into my portfolio. Occasionally at meetings after someone reads a poem, someone else will read it backwards just to see how it sounds— anything that can spin your mind in a new direction.
E: I’d like to write more about the desert. I just got back from New Mexico and I’m going through this phase I think lots of girls have of being obsessed with the southwest. I think the usual progression is horseback riding, photography, and then tarot cards and desert wisdom type stuff. I also really like when a writer takes on a landscape or a region like that. Barry Lopez does an amazing job of it in Desert Notes. He starts by talking about how he entered the desert by jumping out of his car and just letting it drive away from him and how that’s the best way to enter the desert.
C: I’ve always been a sucker for “peer work,” in quotes because I usually consider these poets (such as Emily and Zac) peerless. I like seeing people do something over which they have ownership and authority; when I say “peerless” I mean apples to oranges to orange soda to aluminum, not Braeburn to Honey Crisp.
TH: What were some of the first poems/poets you loved? How do they seem to you now? How do they relate to your own work?
C: The first poets I loved were determined by whoever took the time to sit me down and tell me why and how someone was amazing. This led to the creation of some pretty schizophrenic work at first, and trying to do both Keats and Koch no doubt still ripples today, in what I can only hope are gradually less distortive waves.
Z: The first poem I remember really loving was “The Pool Players” by Gwendolyn Brooks. I find that poem devastating, and she does it in so few words. A few other early favorites: “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass, “The Second Coming” by Yeats, and “The Radish” by James Tate.
All of those poems are still fresh for me. I believe in poetry as something ongoing, social, and fluid; as you gain more experience, read farther and wider, you find that the poems are in a dialogue with each other and that they continue to open up for years and years. I often don’t appreciate I poem until a long time after I first read it, but I rarely lose appreciation for a poem that I liked immediately.
E: The first ones that come to mind are Frank O’Hara and Anna Akhmatova. They each spoke for certain generations and places in time and instead of being just poets, they were like living, breathing poems. People say Frank wrote shreds of poems on napkins and train tickets and things, so probably many of them were lost. For Anna it was different— the Russian government forbade her to write for 30 years, so when a visitor would come to her apartment, she would write a line on a leaf of cigarette paper and pass it to the guest, who would memorize the line and burn the scrap. In a perfect world, the writer’s attached to the words and detached from recognition. I’m not sure I’ve achieved any of that, but I’d like to. My favorite Frank poem is one called “Morning” and my favorite Anna poem is called “You Will Hear Thunder.”
TH: What’s your typical day like this month?
E: It hasn’t been real typical. For the past week my typical day was waking up in New Mexico and being really, really excited about it.
Z: I always have a bowel movement at precisely 7:13 am, during which I drink my coffee to save time. Then I spend the rest of the day waiting for the cold embrace of death.
C: Imagine wringing a towel out and then burning the towel. I’m a college student; it’s a 30-hour day.
TH: What’s next for you as a group and as individual makers of art?
Z: We haven’t had any kind of a formal meeting lately. I’m applying to MFA programs for next fall, so hopefully that’s in the future. Today Emily was joking that we might need to have another reading just to get us the three of us to write some poetry. It’s an exaggeration, but not a huge one. I think it’s always good to have deadlines to work towards. I hope to do an ASL interpreted poetry event some time soon, with both deaf and hearing poets.
C: We recently did a puppetry reading at Pilot Books together, where we created a small theatre with a rice paper screen and played shadow puppets while we read— paper cut outs , Emily’s plastic skeleton ornament, Zac’s head eating an apple, etc. This seems like a good example to pull from the past that points to what I want in the immediate future— delightful, insightful tasks that enliven what I’m writing, hopefully with people I can learn a lot from and have a great time. Maybe in a couple years that will sound a little more like grad school than it does right now.
E: We want to get spooky! Readings in abandoned buildings, old morgues, that kind of stuff. I’d also like to get messier and more collaborative. One of our best phases has been the mashup dynasty, where we read poems backwards or dismantled them and mashed them back together, and I want to get back to that. Also, more puppets. Lastly, I’ve been dying to do a coast-to-coast reading, where friends on the east coast do a reading at the same time as us on the west, with the same poems and everything, and then we do something tech-savvy to combine them, like with dixie cups on big long strings.
TH: What do you dream of but feel in some way limited from achieving? Does that affect your poetry in any way?
E: I think right now I’m more into the power of positive thinking. Zac has this amazing ability of making it sunny by throwing a cookout. No matter what, if he has a cookout, the sun appears. I think 2011’s going to be a year like that for poetry and just art in general. Field of Dreams, baby.
Z: I think it’s almost inherent to poetry. Part of the human condition, if you’ll forgive such a phrase, is a desire to expand beyond our physical selves, and the tragedy of being unable to do so. I think that really informs what we write. Carl Phillips puts it: “I think the body is not a cage / no, / but the necessary foil / against which the soul / proves it was always / true, what they said: to stand / unsuffering in the presence of another’s / agony is its own / perhaps difficult but / irrefutable pleasure.”
C: If you’re going to say it, say it with Zac, saying it with Phillips.