Interview with Kate Sontag Derek Alger One on One

portrait Interview with Kate Sontag

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 49 ~ June, 2001

Kate Sontag, an accomplished poet who graduated with an MFA from the
University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has won numerous awards and
recognition for her poetry. Her work has appeared in anthologies such
as Boomer Girls, In Praise of Pedagogy, and The
Chester H. Jones National Winners Anthology

Born in Los Angeles, but raised in New York City, Sontag has taught
creative writing and literature for the past six years at The
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Her work has appeared in Blue Moon
, Prairie Schooner, Green Mountains Review, Southern
Poetry Review
, Kalliope, Salt Hill Journal, and Nimrod, to
name a few. She was winner of the 1995 Ronald H. Bayes Poetry Prize,
The Sandhills Review, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize 2000,
and has work forthcoming in a special edition of 13th Moon on
women’s poetics.

Sontag’s poetry manuscript, Step Beautiful, has been a finalist
in many national competitions, and she is co-editor with poet David
Graham of After-Confession: Poetry as Autobiography, an essay
anthology due out in October.

Derek Alger: You must be excited about your anthology After
Confession: Poetry as Autobiography
being published this

Kate Sontag: Yes, my co-editor David Graham and I feel this book is an
essential resource in understanding the nature and the future of the
lyric “I”. In an age of memoir, the distinction between fiction and
nonfiction has become increasingly blurred, sparking controversy for
writers, readers, publishers, and anyone interested in the creative
process. For the most part, the debate has centered around prose
writing. After Confession is the first collection of essays
that offers from a diversity of poets a thorough discussion of first
person poetics, including the boundaries between literal and emotional
truth, memory and imagination, person and persona, revelation and

DA: And the book deals with questions concerning the autobiographical
impulse of poetry?

KS: It explores the poet as subject from multiple perspectives –
historical and critical, personal and cultural, ethical and aesthetic,
feminist and political. In what we and Graywolf believe to be a ground
breaking collection, some of our best contemporary poets contemplate
the legacy of the confessionals, such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton,
and Robert Lowell. After Confession also tackles such complex
issues as self in relation to others and to the natural world, the
very essence of craft as transformation, and the role female poets
have played in breaking the code of silence.

DA: What is the code of silence and what are some examples?

KS: The code of silence is a kind of a gentleperson’s agreement not to
speak publicly about certain aspects of our private or inner lives.
Breaking it makes us vulnerable to disapproval, but it can also
empower us. In some cases it might mean writing about seemingly
indecorous subject matter – say, Anne Sexton’s poems about
menstruation or her uterus. Or it might mean exposing another’s sins
and holding that person accountable – say Sharon Olds’s poems about
her alcoholic and abusive father. The code of silence also has
political implications, and this is where confession overlaps with the
poetry of witness or testimony. Carolyn Forche’s The Country
Between Us
that includes her personal account of atrocities in El
Salvador comes to mind.

DA: Would you classify yourself as a confessional poet or one that
simply draws from personal experience?

KS: “Confessional” has pretty much become a dirty word these days, not a
label one would normally apply to oneself. In fact, I have heard a number of
poets when speaking about the autobiographical element in their own work,
disclaim themselves as confessional poets. On the other hand, a very
dramatic friend of mine recently declared herself to a rather large audience
of women writers as an “unabashed confessional poet” and received some
applause. She did this to make a point, to try to rescue the term that,
originally coined for a specific group of poets at a particular time period,
has come to be used pejoratively, especially in connection with women’s
poetry. There’s a lot of complaining these days about the narcissistic
self-indulgence of the confessional or autobiographical school. But my
friend really isn’t a confessional poet. And neither am I. Nor do I consider
myself a post-confessional poet. Such categories are essentially pedagogical
devices, useful primarily for the classroom when trying to make sense out of
the big picture. When it comes down to the heart and soul of writing poetry,
none of us wants to be tagged as belonging to this school or that school.
Yes, I am a personal poet–that is, one who attempts to make a personal
connection with the reader by drawing from personal experience. But I think
almost all writing is autobiographical, including fiction, since one’s
imagination is an extension of one’s self.

DA: How do you view the factual versus the imagination in poetry?

KS: A poem may be initiated by an actual event, but a poem also takes
on a life and a truth of its own – through attention to line, imagery,
music, and overall lyric structure. A poem based on autobiographical
material combines memory and imagination, and memory is always
selective and subjective, just as the shaping of a poem is. Many times
the farther you allow yourself to travel from the fact, the closer you
get to the truth. The truth is in the creation, not in the actual
event. I have a poem in which the speaker disowns her father, but
that’s by no means the whole story. It fits the emotional occasion of
the poem. Outside of the poem, it has little or no meaning, except
perhaps for readers who may feel cheated if they were to find out the
poem was a lie. Or perhaps to the father himself, especially if he
read it in a poetry journal or a book of his daughter’s poems.

DA: Do you ever share your work with the people you write about?

KS: Sometimes, and sometimes not. If I’m fairly certain, as I was in
the case that I just mentioned, that the person won’t ever see the
publication, then no, I won’t show it. On the other hand, if there’s a
good chance it will be read by the person, then I often talk about it
in advance. Once a poem is published, it can aggravate the situation
even more. There’s something about seeing a poem in print that makes
it appear even truer than it is, for the writer as well as the reader.
It’s a touchy issue, and one isn’t always prepared for what it
actually feels like to publish certain material. The initial elation
at getting a poem accepted can change once the poem appears. I’m
fortunate to have most of my close family members still alive, but it
does complicate things at times.

DA: How did the idea for After Confession come about?

KS: The project of putting the book together really began in 1998 at
the AWP Conference in Portland. I flew out there from Wisconsin with a
group of poet friends and colleagues, one of whom was David Graham,
who teaches at Ripon College. I had a faculty development grant from
UW Oshkosh, and planned to attend a number of panels relevant to the
teaching of creative nonfiction and memoir, since that was the focus
of some of my courses. The questions raised in these panels about the
boundaries between fiction and nonfiction were fascinating, as were
all of the ethical concerns. It got me thinking about the possibility
of a poetry panel that dealt with these issues.

DA: So, the idea of the book came out of the conference?

KS: More or less. I talked with David on the Milwaukee to Appleton leg
of the trip home about proposing a panel for the following year. I
knew he was the perfect person, in part because he’d been writing
fabulous “self-portrait” poems for almost twenty years, but also
because I knew he, too, was skeptical of the backlash against
autobiographical poetry in recent times. We came up with “The Poet as
Autobiographer: Truth, Lies & Consequences,” which got accepted
and which I moderated in Albany in 1999. It drew a huge crowd and
inspired a heated discussion and before we knew it we were working on
a follow-up panel for the next year in Kansas City which also got
accepted and inspired an equally fiery debate. By that time, we were
already working on the book since we knew we had hit a nerve.

DA: Was there a major starting point?

KS: Prairie Schooner had published two new provocative essays – “Lying
For The Sake Of Making Poems” by Ted Kooser and “Self-Pity” by Carol
Frost – which dealt directly with our theme. Then we began researching
other publications, as well as drafting our dream list of

DA: And so the search began.

KS: Yes. We sent out letters to about fifteen authors, many of whom we
never expected to hear back from either because they were too renown
or too busy, or both. Amazingly, though, almost everyone we approached
expressed an interest. Alicia Ostriker and Stanley Plumly were the
first to come on board. Then Billy Collins, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marilyn
Chin, and Joseph Bruchac. Colette Inez agreed to revise and expand her
presentation from the first panel, and before we knew it, it looked
like we had a potential book in the works, one that would offer a wide
range of voices and aesthetics. As it stands now, the anthology
contains twenty-eight essays, about half of which were written
specifically for the volume.

DA: And there’s also an essay by Kate Sontag. What’s it about?

KS: It’s called “Mother May I?: Writing With Love” and is, in part, a
response to something my mother once said to me about my own work.
It’s also an attempt to come to terms with the fine line between lying
and telling the truth. In considering what it means to “write with
love,” I raise some of the basic ethical and aesthetic questions
involved in writing poetry about people close to us as well as our
contract with the reader with respect to literal truth. Generally
speaking, it provides a kind of overview at the beginning of the
book’s third section “Degrees of Fidelity.” That section title, by the
way, is adopted from Stephen Dunn’s essay which appears later in Part

DA: You were lucky to find Graywolf Press.

KS: Very lucky. We sent them a proposal with a few brief excerpts and
within a week they asked to see more of the book. I remember our
editor’s e-mail response when I asked her how much she’d liked to see:
“Send everything you’ve got!” I was on a remote island in Maine at the
time, one that can only be reached by ferry. The next day I was madly
copying away on the one xerox machine available. A few weeks later,
they made an offer.

DA: Obviously the people at Graywolf recognized a good book.

KS: Yes, and their almost immediate commitment to the project
reinforced our own belief in it. In addition to recognizing the often
stunning prose in the book, they also supported our efforts to be as
inclusive as possible. A real strength of After Confession is
that it doesn’t argue a single thesis but instead reflects the breadth
and depth of the controversy, a large part of which centers around
attacks on the solipsistic nature of American poetry since the
Confessionals. While these attacks are often justified, another virtue
of the book is the way it highlights many fine examples of
autobiographical poetry by our contributors and others, illustrating
that first-person lyrics can embrace a larger social vision, achieving
revelation over narcissism, universal resonance over merely
self-referential anecdote.

DA: Did you always feel that you would be a poet?

KS: I remember in first grade copying out poems by Emily Dickinson,
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Robert Louis Stevenson, making whole
collections of them really, with accompanying photographs and
illustrations, but I didn’t start writing poetry until high school.
There was something about growing up as a boomer that encouraged one
to write poetry.
It was just in the air. My friends and I all wanted to be writers and
musicians and change the world through our art. Many of us went on
instead to become English majors, then English teachers. When I went
to Iowa for grad school in the eighties, it seemed like the perfect
opportunity to get a degree that would enable me to teach writing on
the college level and at the same time allow me to be part of an
important community of writers. With a couple of exceptions, it’s
really only in the last six years that I’ve been lucky enough to win a
number of awards and have my work accepted for publication in some
terrific anthologies and journals.

DA: But I’m sure you write for yourself, to your own inner voice

KS: Of course. That’s where it all begins. It’s a deeply satisfying
experience to discover new poems I never knew I had in me, or to
revise older poems and make them better. There’s something absolutely
life affirming in the process of figuring it all out and moving from
poem to poem like stepping stones over a steady stream, never quite
certain how or if I’ll get to the next one but always looking for a
way to invent or reinvent the journey. Yet there’s also something
equally affirming in knowing that I’ve taken readers somewhere they
never expected to go, or better yet a group of listeners at a reading.
My husband and my dogs hear everything first, but they need a break
once in a while, you know. And I need the feedback from others to help
keep me in balance. We all need that, to avoid falling too in love
with our own voices, or to help keep us from becoming too

DA: If someone said describe Kate Sontag as a poet, what would you

KS: My husband and friends would say obsessed, a perfectionist. I
would add to that a lover of linguistic subtlety and suspended
emotional release. I once jokingly referred to myself as a
step-language poet, not to be confused with the Language poets with
whom I have very little in common. Having traveled full-circle in my
life from stepdaughter to stepmother, as well as having grown up with
an array of step relations, I am haunted by what I call
“step-language.” The connotations of the word “step” when paired with
“mother,” “father,” “daughter,” “sister,” and so on, signify the
outsider, the other, the one who is never wholly connected. It’s a
hard word to shed, an ugly word, a constant reminder even in the
closest relationships. So I often find myself straddling the emotional
and linguistic fence, attempting to transform in my poetry the wicked
into the good, the partial into the whole, while at the same time
feeling inherently uncomfortable with both the mythological and the
very real baggage of step identity. When I write about my family, when
I write about myself, I’m usually exploring some aspect of stepfamily
or step-self.

DA: Is that the main subject of your manuscript Step Beautiful?

KS: It’s by no means the only subject, but the language itself has
entered a number of poems about other subjects in ways that have been
truly surprising and revelatory for me.

DA: What is the current status of the manuscript?

KS: Well, it’s more or less a recurring finalist in various national
competitions, but at this point I’m feeling my main contribution to
the literary community is After Confession, since the
collaboration has been so rewarding on so many levels, not only for my
co-editor and me, but also for our contributors, I think, and
ultimately for our readers, I hope.