Originally published in Willow Springs 66
From the author
Notes on “Improbable Wings”
A friend my age died suddenly in the middle of the year, and difficult questions of mortality were upon us as a family, and then some creature in the night destroyed half our flock during the cold months, and the indelible gruesome images of that became a starting point for a kind of braided meditation — an accumulation of facts, of images, that — once rolling, introduced a narrative simply through accrual. With three young children, I’m constantly aware of bodies’ amazing transformations, and our chickens provide the visible miracle of eggs daily — as satisfying as the tactile delight of real letters from friends in the rusty old mailbox.
With a group of Whitman undergraduates, in a course exploring hybrid genres, I was reading rich and inventive pieces from throughout time in The Lost Origins of the Essay (ed. John D’Agata); as well as thinking about What it is (Lynda Barry); Plainwater (Anne Carson); Varieties of Disturbance (Lydia Davis); Things I Have Learned (Stefan Sagmeister); The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Bhanu Kapil Rider); and Most Wanted: A Gamble in Verse (Jeff Encke), among other texts, and “Improbable Wings” began as a response to a collective prompt — to compose lists of things we’d learned or come to believe so far in our lives… I was curious about how we frame and pin down the inscrutable and ever-changing. I became fascinated by the posture of claims, proclamations, conclusions, especially in the face of what can’t possibly be known. As well as by “wisdom” — what it means to know something for living it. The language of maxims hovered nearby. Sagmeister’s striking design book invokes a prophetic stance; its flashy oddness and language play; its deceptive simplicity and concision; its implications and cinematic juxtapositions, all interested me in those moments.
As well, I was thinking about synchronicity, the multiple identities/roles we inhabit and forge continually, and I was also deep in contemplation about the body’s astonishing capabilities and limitations. In my work, I’d been thinking about voices that have carried across continents and centuries to find me, (about the beauties and inherent risks of the dramatic monologue, as well), and doing research about lives in many ways quite unlike my own, at least apparently — life stories that nevertheless suddenly seemed crucial and topical to me to know and embrace. In a manuscript of new work (which has since gone on to become Underdog, my fourth collection of poems forthcoming from U of Washington Press as part of the Pacific Northwest Poetry Series), I’d been contemplating the palimpsest that place can be — the erasure and iterations the narratives of our lives make on this shared earth, and how language attempts to bridge us despite the subjectivity of perspective; and various notions of “truth” in memoir, in memory, in translation.
As I worked on the poems in Underdog, including “Improbable Wings,” I was reminded of riding in the back seat of a smoky car as a child, letting my eyes glaze on a bug on the interior glass, then letting them peer through to the moving trees zipping past – continually shifting my gaze back and forth through the distance, of miles and years, holding my head still to let my eyes and mind drift. That kind of layered experience, a polyphony of voices and sources, when you’re aware that you are multiple — here, now, as well as wherever you’ve ever been at any age — fascinates me. My work as a winemaker/distiller is similarly
vertical — challenging and satisfying: during any given week I’m doing radically different yet interconnected things: some days I practice the Zen art of pruning, other days the creative exercise of label design, some weekends I’m pouring to the public in the tasting room. I’m fascinated by simultaneity; focus and slippage. The crosshatches in my old 35 mm camera suddenly aligning. I return to William Carlos Williams’ “Perception is the first act of the imagination.”
What sort of footstep I’m making in this instant of environmental devastation/degradation is crucial to me, and I’m also interested in continually finding things to celebrate in poems as I think praise is an important karmic gesture.
Each book is an inevitable departure. My last book was a sequence of sonnets, and this next book is not, though ghosts of traditional forms continually interest me as the regular beating (often unnoticed) of my heart does. I remain curious about the way things are synchronous and multifaceted. “Improbable Wings” experiments with a short line, as some poems in Underdog do, while others stretch out across the page. In this moment, the variable forms feel apt for what I’m trying to comprehend.
Notes on Reading
Reading is a great part of the in-breathe to writing’s exhalation, the way all of living is for me. I read avidly, eclectically, incessantly. I’m a book junky; I love the heft and texture of the object, and the promise of intimacy each time it’s opened, though I’m also intrigued by all the possibilities the ether’s introduced.
Poets I’ve been reading and rereading recently: Gary Young, Sabrina Orah Mark, Emily Dickinson, Louise Glück, Randall Jarrell, Terrance Hayes, Ingeborg Bachmann, Naomi Shihab Nye, Rachel Zucker, Katie Ford, Norman Dubie, Robert Hass, Jorie Graham, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Robert Wrigley, Carolyn Forché, Paisley Rekdal, Sarah Vap, Jane Mead, Cate Marvin, Tod Marshall, Marie Howe, Dorianne Laux, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Ashbery, Lia Purpura, Dan Beachy-Quick, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Brian Turner, Li-Young Lee; Larissa Szporluk, Wallace Stevens, Laynie Browne, Laura Kasischke. I like to read many voices at once, though there are times when I’ll immerse myself in one writer’s work for a duration of months. At the moment, I’m reading many rather than one. I read lots of fiction and nonfiction, too, on my own, as well as with my children.
About Katrina Roberts
Katrina Roberts has published three collections of poems (How Late Desire Looks, The Quick, and Friendly Fire). Her fourth collection Underdog is forthcoming from the University of Washington Press. Roberts is the Mina Schwabacher Professor of English & Humanities at Whitman College, and director of the Visiting Writers Reading Series. She and her husband Jeremy Barker are the founders of Tytonidae Cellars, and the Walla Walla Distilling Company, the first micro-distillery in southeast Washington state (where they live on a small farm with their three young children).