The latest winner of a $10,000 poetry prize at UNT loves poems that are heartbreakers. She says that’s also why she loves country music. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this story.
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Katie Peterson has a bachelor’s from Stanford, a doctorate from Harvard, she teaches at Tufts University in Massachusetts – and she loves the heartbreak in Willie Nelson’s music.
“I’m drawn to subjects that have something to do with loss and loneliness,” she explains. “And like country music, I think there’s something really beautiful about both of those things. I don’t think sadness is just sad. And so there’s a lot of melancholy in my work, but I think melancholy is a way of celebrating the things that we love that are perishable.”
Peterson is the third winner of the $10,000 Rilke Prize, which UNT created as an annual, mid-career award. It’s named for the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and it’s given to a book by a poet who’s just becoming established. Peterson’s third book, called The Accounts, is the one being honored, and the heartbreak in The Accounts comes from the loss of Peterson’s mother to cancer in 2008.
“I was very conscious,” Peterson says, “when I was writing The Accounts that I was writing a personal book about the destruction of my world – in the middle of a world that feels like it’s being destroyed or at the very least changing very rapidly.”
Corey Marks is the director of creative writing at UNT. He says handling the personal, the immediate, while considering larger implications is key to Peterson’s poetry. He calls her poems “meditative.”
“I think this is work that is both intensely moving as it grapples with a personal loss and also fiercely intelligent in thinking about the kind of pressure that loss places on our lives.”
Peterson herself feels her poetry exists in a tug of war between East and West coasts. She grew up in California, and she says the wide-open spaces of the Mojave Desert remain her “mental landscape.” But much of her education was in Boston, and she feels a kinship with what she calls cranky, Yankee poets. These are the poets of isolation and meditation – poets like Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost.
“Those poets teach us what it’s like to be a democratic American subject,” says Peterson. “They teach us what it’s like to be alone and slightly unhappy a lot of the time. And so I’m such a Californian in terms of in my love of big landscapes and freedom. But in terms of poetry, my taste and my practice is a lot more like these contrarians and religious doubters.”
As part of the Rilke Prize, Peterson will give two readings in April, one at UNT and one at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.
- Hear Katie Peterson read her poem, ‘Ars Poetica: Fuschia’:
Ars Poetica: Fuchsia
[author’s note: an ars poetica is a poem about poetry]
The music of free verse is easier
than the music of the sonnet. Which is why
I have avoided sonnets
in speaking of my mother–
to make the difficulty louder.
At the Citadel, the military
academy in South Carolina, one teacher
of composition forbid, for years,
the passive voice, calling it
womanly, across the fifties
and then, in the sixties, changed
the accusations he flung at grammatical
offenders to homosexual, though
for the most part, he used the derogatory
My mother was raised in the fifties
by a woman with impeccable manners
in a house full of crosses. On Sundays,
she covered her extremities
with white gloves and black mantillas.
In the picture I have of her
in her going-away
outfit, plaid, with a slender belt,
on her wedding day, her expression
marries confidence and disbelief,
looking at a friend, while my father
looks directly at the camera.
I want to look like that.
I loved the alphabet,
when I was a girl.
On the wall of my room,
fairies named after flowers
stood for every letter.
After much deliberation,
I decided to be Fuchsia.
The full release:
20014 UNT Rilke Prize Winner: Katie Peterson’s The Accounts
Katie Peterson’s The Accounts, published by the University of Chicago Press, has won the 2014 UNT Rilke Prize. The $10,000 prize recognizes a book written by a mid-‐career poet and published in the preceding year that demonstrates exceptional artistry and vision. Peterson will read at the University of North Texas on Tuesday, April 8 and at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture on Wednesday, April 9, 2014.
In her astonishing third book, The Accounts, Katie Peterson explores with tremendous lyric precision and emotional power not merely the heartbreak of personal tragedy but also the desire to make a beleaguered world new against the pressure of loss. Ovid’s spirit of metamorphosis haunts these poems and asks us to reconsider the redemptive power implicit in an account, how it is made, given, and made again. To fashion an account is to reckon, to reconcile, to recall, to count and so to number, to make things matter. As Peterson says in her opening poem entitled “Spring”:
Everything, everything, and before
everything the possibility of something else,
the moment when a moral gets minced by an account
a body makes of any other body,
and time takes place instead of taking time.
So too, in the title poem, time is less mastered than engaged, less stilled than quickened by birdsong and its longing, its will, its imaginative grace. Here a nest cradles a purpose so full of adoration, it lures us to the future in the past, the past in the future, the heaven in the earth below.
Katie Peterson is the author of three collections of poetry: The Accounts (University of Chicago 2013), Permission (New Issues 2013), and This One Tree (New Issues 2006).
- Schedule of Events:
Tuesday, April 8, 2014: University of North Texas
4:00 p.m. Q & A, Curry Hall, Room 103
8:00 p.m. Reading & Book Signing, Business Leadership Building, Room 180
Wednesday, April 9, 2014: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture
6:30 p.m. Reception
7:30 p.m. Reading
Peterson’s other recognitions include fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and Yaddo. Her work in poetry and criticism has appeared in the American Poetry Review, Boston Review, the Chicago Tribune, GREY, the Iron Horse Literary Review, the Kenyon Review, and many other publications. Her poem “Filibuste to Delay the Spring” received the Stanley Kunitz Award from the American Poetry Review in 2013, and she has been
nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. She has taught at Bennington College in Vermont and Deep Springs College in the high Mojave Desert of California, and she is currently Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University. Next year she will return to Deep Springs as Distinguished Professor of Humanities. She was born in California.
The judges also selected three finalists for this year’s Rilke Prize: Hadara Bar-‐Nadav’s Lullaby (with Exit Sign) (Saturnalia Books), Peter Campion’s El Dorado (The University of Chicago Press), and Angie Estes’ Enchantée (Oberlin College Press).
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