Katrina Vandenberg Q&A

March 29, 2021
Katrina Vandenberg's poem "Tulipomania" is about fragile love.

“I write the first few drafts for myself, so that I can try to tell the truth. But during revision, I think a lot about my relationship with the reader. I want to connect with a person, really for real, on the other side of the page.”

Your poems are rooted in both literary tradition and pop culture. You’re as likely to  reference the Phoenician alphabet as Uncle Tupelo. Does the limit-less quality of poetry sometimes seem daunting? 

I have always had a tendency to mix everything together. I think it comes from growing up in a working-class house, in the physical and tactile world of the automotive industry, while also being a kid who loved to read. It was a satisfying and well-rounded way to live. I’ve been writing essays for the last few years, and it’s been interesting to see how writing the same kinds of thoughts in a different genre changes the process. With a poem, I am forever having to cut back, shave off, distill, distill. I have a hard time cutting myself off. When I write an associative essay, I feel as if I’m unpacking a box.

Your poem “Tulipomania” had a big influence on your friend John Green and ultimately The Fault In Our Stars. You’ve said that one of the things you admire about him is how he loves things. Did you find yourself writing more about the things you love during this past year?

Absolutely. Thinking and writing about love has saved me in so many ways this year, when everything has been important and little has been easy. I feel as if the whole book I’m writing right now is about love. It doesn’t feel naive or escapist to do this, either. Vermeer’s paintings are like this: they are super peaceful and still, yet he painted them in a house with a dozen children, directly above the tavern his family owned, within earshot of a sea battle with the British. Lawrence Weschler breaks this down in one of my favorite essays, “Vermeer in Bosnia,” but even before I read his essay or could quantify the historical context around Vermeer’s paintings, I could feel something happening just outside the frame of them. It’s as if the stillness in them is precious because it’s about to be lost.

You have such a wonderful gift for poem titles. My favorite is: “My Sister Visits Her Ex In Prison Once a Year To Ask Him Whether He Did It.” How important are titles to you? 

Until I’m done I tend to use a short working title. I do think about titles in terms of attracting a person’s attention, and making them want to flip to a page and read. My former teacher Pattiann Rogers — who writes amazing titles like “The Importance of the Whale in the Field of Iris” and encouraged us to do the same — used to warn us that people have lots of other ways to be entertained, ways that involve less investment than reading poetry, and that it was in our interest to make work feel worthwhile for any reader we were lucky enough to have. That’s important to me. I write the first few drafts for myself, so that I can try to tell the truth. But during revision, I think a lot about my relationship with the reader. I want to connect with a person, really for real, on the other side of the page.

You write beautifully about love and loss. You have a line in a poem about a former partner still being with you, even on your paper clips. Do poems tend to come easier to you from times of struggle? 

I want to say “I used to write more about loss, and now I write more about love,” but it’s not that simple. I do feel that I could access a greater emotional range on the page after I had a child. Having her was a humbling experience, in a good way, and it also made me newly aware of the ways that moods are transient, and life is more circular than linear. Lots of people don’t need to start families to become more flexible or wise, but I sure did.

Do you write at the same time every day?

I have both a daughter and a full-time job, which means I have fewer choices about writing time than I used to. My best writing time, when I can manage, is 5 to 7 a.m. I like to create new work when my people are sleeping. I feel not-lonely, but also certain that I won’t be interrupted. Once I get deeper into a project, I can be more flexible, and work any time, whether other people are around.

How does it feel when you find a student at Hamline with genuine talent? Do you need to contain yourself from jumping up and down? 

It’s amazing when something great just appears in my stack of papers, and it’s usually written by someone who has no idea how good they are. One of my grad-school teachers told me to always assume that at least one student in the room is smarter than I am, and I think that’s sound advice; I also assume that at least one of my current students has more natural talent than I do. I’ve been lucky enough, and I am old enough, to have had a lot of talented students by now. I used to find it hard to see a talented student with little interest in writing. I felt like Crash Davis in Bull Durham, outraged about a gifted but indifferent young pitcher: “You’ve got a million-dollar arm and a fifty-cent head!” Over the years, I’ve gotten better at accepting that everyone’s called to do different things with their gifts, and it’s all good for the universe. Everyone doesn’t have to be a writer, or be a certain kind of writer, or anything. Plus, developing a writing life involves so many things in addition to talent, not just interest but temperament, perseverance, some luck.

Your husband wrote a wonderful novel called Vestments. In both his book and your poems spirituality often is addressed Do you find comfort in pondering questions of faith?

We both grew up in spiritually active homes, and now we share a faith community at Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul. My husband calls himself a cultural Catholic and an institutional Episcopalian, an agnostic at best who finds familiarity in the rites of the church and enjoys the fellowship, but feels as if his childhood religion is, at least for now, broken by institutional corruption. I grew up in the Episcopal church, and I just love it. It is the height of good fortune, for me, to have found in Saint Paul a community of remarkable and diverse people who wonder, doubt, comfort, and celebrate together. The way I enter the mysteries of existence is through Christianity because it is my spiritual heritage, but it’s just one of many ways to seek truth. Lots of those other ways are equally interesting to me, and equally valid. I’d be the first to say that Christianity has a lot to answer for in its 2,000-year history, including the ways it was used to justify colonialism, misogyny, and the punishment of sexual expression. But I remain highly attracted to the religion at its roots, its early form, which was radically inclusive and leveled hierarchy. We hear the word “love” so often that it’s hard to remember how countercultural it once was, to choose love over brute force. The Jesus Movement at its guts was about new forms of courage, and real social justice. It was so threatening that the most powerful empire in the world felt the need to kill its leader in order to put a stop to it. Think of that!

What’s next for you?

For several years I have been working on a book of essays called Conservatory. It’s based on the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in Como Park, and the essays are about various plants and rooms and sections of it. The book is about what and how we remember, what it’s possible to keep, and the fact that nearly all of us die unknown. Finally, the book is about my mother, who was a tremendous gardener and is losing her memory. Working on that book has been my joy. I have been holding onto it for a while, and I sort of don’t want to finish it because it means that I will have to leave that happy space, but it is definitely time.

— Photo by King Studios