I can’t recall how Kate Litterer and I initially found each other in the dense mist of online poetry, but think of it this way: it’s 2001 and we’re on Audiogalaxy, looking to download the kind of crucial, identity-forming albums that lucky children discover through older siblings or, luckier still, the radio. If you find one of us, you’ll eventually find the other. Perhaps we’re uploaded by the same person, share a strange kind of poetic DNA. I’m not entirely sure what the link is, but I felt it tugging as I read Kate’s first full-length collection, Ghosty Boo, out from A-Minor Press as of last March. So I thought I’d ask her a few questions.
Sonya Vatomsky: Our childhoods share a lot of reference points: Nancy Drew, the floor being lava, coming home from school to an empty house, alcohol. In a list that doesn’t seem emblematic of anything beyond simply being alive in the 90s, but it all evoked a very visceral kind of understanding in me. What does it feel like when others see themselves reflected in your work? What reflections have been the most distorted so far, as you’ve received feedback from readers?
Kate Litterer: You know, this was a question I was concerned about in terms of members of my family feeling condemned by the book, but I actually haven’t received negative feedback from anyone. The book just came out 2 months ago, and my hope is that women and queers with trauma will be able to feel themselves seen and their experiences named in my book. I wonder if the spooky fantasy nature of the book will pull the reader into the world of the book, with an understanding that the characters are fantasy but also originated from the factual ways that people do hurt one another. I thought about including a trigger warning at the beginning (I am pro-trigger warning, and almost always give them at readings and when I teach), but decided to just let readers experience it with no warning. I joke that my life doesn’t have a safe word because I’ve survived so many horrible things, and I wonder how other tougher-than-you-should’ve-needed-to-be readers will experience the book. I hope it’s empowering. I hope it makes people with trauma laugh and people without trauma listen.
SV: Related to that, what kind of poetry reader are you? Are the books you’re drawn to like fun-house mirrors, or museum paintings accompanied by a tour guide, or something else entirely?
KL: My favorite books of poetry are the ones that weave characters throughout the collection, so more like the tour guide but less to museum paintings and more to someone cracking upon their sternum or skull to let me peak in. Like morbid flashbacks. I love gurlesque poetry—I can’t tell you how much it reformed my style and my confidence—and I desire books that let me in a new world, be that a world of flowers and love or a world of Hell House tables of metaphorical images. I like creepy, dark, queer, biting poetry the best.
SV: I’ve had readers and interviewers imply that referencing one’s childhood is bizarre. Has anyone ever told you you’re obsessed with your childhood, and to what degree does/would that irritate you?
KL: I’ve never had someone tell me that I’m obsessed with my childhood, and if they did, I’d shrug it off and keep writing about childhood anyways. I think there’s something really visceral that you can tap into when you ask a reader to observe the way a child would feel in a certain situation, knowing that the poet is translating for the child. I think poets writing about childhood are doing a sort of magic and showing respect by giving voice to what a child couldn’t say or broadcast in childhood’s powerlessness. Children don’t know that fear and trauma and pain stop; they don’t understand time the way that adults do. And children in situations of neglect or abuse become accustomed to a topsy-turvy way of living—I want to honor that and make the reader uncomfortably aware that it is real. And to create a mirror for readers who’ve experienced childhood trauma to feel seen. So, if someone told me I was obsessed with my childhood, I’d say no I’m not and that rather I’m healing and honoring my child selves.
SV: Do you have lucid dreams?
KL: I am so glad you asked this question. When I read your interview with Mlle Ghoul about your own lucid dreams, I thought, “OMG I need to talk to Sonya about my lucid dreams.” I first got lucid dreams—always nightmares, though—when I was 20 years old, in the typical Google search answer way of having a nightmare where something is in the bedroom, the old hag looming over you where her crooked fingers keep stretching out or someone is chasing you, and then when it would hit a point of terror/she would get me/I would be caught I would snap out of it and switch to an in-between world of knowing I was in bed with my partner next to me, but everything was grey and gloomy. I taught myself that if I screamed or flailed in my “dream” that in the waking world I would mumble and twitch or shake a little, with hopes that my partner would catch on and wake me up. I knew I was in bed and could “see” everything in the room, but I couldn’t open my eyes. When I lived alone in my early 20s I went through a period where I was afraid to sleep without someone there to feel my desperate tremors/chirps and wake me up, but I learned how to wake myself up by rapidly opening and closing my eyes in my dream or by stopping and talking to whatever the scary thing was, like “You don’t have to do this; it’s okay” and sometimes that would wake me up. The last lucid dream I had was where an invisible ghost was trying to pull my lover and cats away from me, and in my dream I stopped and looked at where it would be and said “It’s okay. I don’t need you to protect me like that!” and then I woke up. Never nice dreams, though; always nightmares. I try really hard not to take in violent media, so I have no idea where my subconscious pulls the creepy horror stuff from, but I’ve kind of accepted lucid nightmares as a part of life.
SV: Poetry and horror frequently eat off the same plate. What’s your favorite horror film, and what do you think of the “female revenge ghost” trope? Related, what’s the scariest thing about being alive?
KL: True story: I hate horror films. I have this thing where I can’t stand suspense–I think it’s a complex PTSD thing (I also can’t tell when someone is being sarcastic; I take everything literally). That being said, I am all about the female revenge ghost trope in the way that I not-so-secretly love vigilante justice. Especially for/by queers and women.
The scariest thing for me about being alive is accepting powerlessness over the potential for loss. For example, my partner and I are currently in a long distance relationship, and every time she goes to NYC and has her phone off I have at least one “OMG, what if her train crashes?” thought, like “What if I never talk to her again?” and in those moments I just have to turn it over to a higher power (for me that’s a witchy, putting faith in the Universe kind of power) and try to breathe. I think for people who have certain types of trauma that the thought of losing a loved one can feel especially overwhelming, but we gotta get through the day with as much groundedness as possible. Yeah, the scariest thing about being alive is the fear of having loved ones ripped away.
SV: Did you feel any pressure to end your book on an ~uplifting~ note? Do you think you did?
KL: I really didn’t feel any pressure to end the book with an ~uplifting~ note, and my editor, Nicolette Wong, was extremely supportive of my structural choices. I don’t think that Ghosty Boo is an uplifting book (my writing isn’t really uplifting, which is a-okay with me: I keep saying that for my next collection I want to write something that turns the reader on but simultaneously makes them really fucking sad/uncomfortable), but by the end of the book she (little Ghosty Boo) has found some hope and gotten a bit out of the terror rooms of the home.
SV: In addition to the childhood reference points, many adolescence reference points jumped out at me as well: cybersex with adult men, printing out pentagrams. While “cybersex with adult men” is maybe, like, a kind of shitty thing to have experienced in retrospect, the distance it creates between the psychological and physical elements of sex is really interesting. Do you think a lot of yesterday’s cybersexers are today’s poets?
KL: Whoa—this is a brilliant question. I think probably a TON of women and queers today are secret cybersexers of yesterday. I think there’s something really fucked up about cybersexing—young women (girls—GIRLS, like KIDS) did this a lot in the 90s/early 00s—there’s something about getting attention and approval from adult men that’s not really sexually satisfying as much as it is feeling seen. I think when you use words and images to get someone to give you attention as a young woman or girl, you might see the power of your body in words to create a new world to live in. That might sound too big, but it’s like walking through a door you can’t go back through. It’s like a sad form of self confidence, in retrospect. I guess I’d say it’s like weaving together poetry and the body. I like this question.
SV: Dad jokes, dad bod, Dad Magazine… What do you think about the “cultural moment” dads are having right now?
KL: I think about the cultural moment of dads: woof. So, instead I want to talk about the cultural moment of Daddies, which in my mind is tied to butch/femme and BDSM and is a queer ancestral thing. Probably the most popular and colloquial way people hear “Daddy” is from singers like Beyonce, who I think hit on the romantic/sexual/trust/desire of what Daddy signifies to me. I remember when I was proofing my book that I wanted all of the “Butch Daddy”s to be in caps, but to keep all the father “daddy”s in lowercase. I caught a typo of “mommies and daddies” with a capital D and almost vomited, because Daddy is something really sacred to me, something you’d never mix up with the normative “dad.” I think we need to have more of a cultural moment of Daddy. Secret: my favorite line in the book is “Butch Daddy you better have big arms and lots of money.” I’d be so interested to hear how that resonates with other queer femmes with sad pasts.
SV: There’s a line towards the end of your book — “what am I making up?” — that makes me think of how often women’s stories aren’t believed, and also of how the stories women create are assumed to be autobiographical. Do you find yourself, as a poet, drawn more to exorcism or manifesting?
KL: I loooove this question. As a witch, the belief in manifestation is big to me, with a view that magic is the ability to change your reality at your own will. The other night I got up to go to the bathroom (I live alone with my cats) and used my iPhone flashlight and decided to look into the front room and a box and chair looked like a monster bent over and I got SO FRIGHTENED and went back to bed thinking “Kate: no one is in the apartment, you are safe” but I couldn’t relax until I had done some small protective spell casting. It’s like, as a woman, as a witch, as a person with complex PTSD, I can’t exorcise the deep trauma; it’s literally who I am. But I can learn to exist with it and manifest my own power and groundedness.
I knew when I wrote this book that people would assume it’s all me; it’s the bane of being an AFAB [assigned female at birth]/non cis-man poet, right? But because I knew that, I purposefully fucked with the reader’s expectation that my speaker would feel shame or would fudge the truth: she tells what she remembers, and Ghosty Boo pipes up to say her truth, definitely without shame—I mean, she’s a kid, this is really how it is to her. I didn’t write this book for an audience who doesn’t believe a woman’s story about her own body and mind; I wrote this for people who would honor and feel honored by holding sacred space for me not trying to exorcise the demons, but rather manifesting respect and care for women and queers as we are. I guess I want the speaker to be all women and queers with trauma, and I also liked playing with the idea of what did I pull from my lived experience and what did I literally make up—because I did both in this book.
SV: What books/music/movies have you consumed and loved lately?
KL: Recently I’ve been listening to Lemonade by Beyonce about 3 times a day. I am obsessed. I’m aware that as a white woman that I am not the target audience for the album/movie, and I am thrilled that she has created such a powerful piece to honor and communicate with Black women. Bookwise: I fucking love your book, Salt Is For Curing. Oh my Goddess, it is delicious and witty and dark, all the things I love! I’m also really jazzed with the poetry Laura Warman is putting out. Right now she’s been sending out smut poems/writing titled “Whore Foods” via email.
I’m in a PhD program, and I study lesbian periodicals from the 20th Century U.S. I focus specifically on the 1940s-1960s and butch/femme relationships. The last couple of months I’ve been reading and analyzing the letters to the editor from Volumes 1 and 2 of On Our Backs, a magazine for lesbians that started in 1984. So many of them talk about how they’re from small towns, or how they are afraid of S/M because radical lesbian feminism labeled it as violent to women, and these are from 2 years before I was born! So, I’m obsessed with reading periodicals by lesbians, which is great because that’s what my dissertation is going to be on. This summer I’m planning on filling in the holes in my historical context of lesbian experience in the 40s-70s, but I’m also hoping to eat up more books by queers and women. I really want to finally read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.
Thanks so much for interviewing me! xoxo
Sonya Vatomsky is a poet and the author of Salt is for Curing (Sator Press), as well as the chapbook My Heart in Aspic (Porkbelly Press). They were born in Moscow and live and write in Seattle, but you can find them by saying their name five times in front of a bathroom mirror or at @coolniceghost and sonyavatomsky.tumblr.com.
Kate Litterer received her MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Program for Poets and Writers. Her poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from numerous online and print journals, the anthology Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation, and the anthology Hysteria. She is pursuing a PhD in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she focuses on queer and feminist historiography, butch/femme experience, and archival research. Her first book, Ghosty Boo, is available via Createspace and Amazon. Her website is katelitterer.com.