Since the publication of Letters to Colin Firth (Sundress Publications, 2015), writer Katherine Riegel has published a full-length collection, Love Songs From the End of the World (Main Street Rag Press, 2019), started teaching poetry and creative nonfiction online, and is experimenting with new poetic and literary forms, including using images. Recently, she sat down with Sundress Editorial Intern Saoirse to speak about her writing process and projects over the past six years.
Saoirse: Thinking back on the publication process from Letters to Colin Firth, what was the experience like?
Katherine Riegel: I was just so floored to have won anything, since I tend to be one of those workhorse writers who publishes in non-splashy ways. But it so was lovely and easy to work with the team at Sundress, and I was (and am) impressed by the work Sundress does to get the word out.
S: What would you say surprised you the most about putting Letters to Colin Firth out in the world?
KR: The most surprising thing was having someone review it on the Ploughshares blog, and say that it read a bit like a rom-com. I loved that! And I really enjoy that it’s available for free for readers as an e-chapbook on the Sundress site, but it was also fun to put it together as a print-on-demand book that sells a copy every couple of months or so on Amazon, often to the UK or Europe.
S: What has changed for you since Letters to Colin Firth was published?
KR: Well, I married the English man I was dating in the book (it’s sort of prose poetry, sort of lyric creative nonfiction). I’ve published a book of poetry called Love Songs From the End of the World, some of it written during the early days of the Trump administration, when it did seem like the world was ending. I left academia to live with my new husband, and now teach independent online classes in poetry and creative nonfiction. It’s kind of funny that I’m in England now, as I answer these questions, to visit my husband’s family and walk on the moors and eat English chocolate.
S: Has the publishing of Letters to Colin Firth altered your perspective on the literary community? If yes, in what way?
KR: Every year that I’ve stuck with writing and publishing, I’ve felt more connected to the literary community. When I was young and had just graduated with my MFA, I felt like an outsider looking in, like I didn’t matter at all, even when I published a poem here or there. But Sundress is part of a wonderful tradition of publishers connecting with the writers they publish in real and substantive ways. I think the rise of social media has made this easier, but you still have to put the work in, and Erin is truly exceptional in that way. I think many writers struggle with issues of self-worth and self-doubt, but the truth is that publishers and other writers really do want to be connected with you. We’re all in this together, and it’s more important than ever to understand that other writers are part of the same tribe.
S: Have you published other full-length works or chapbooks since being published at Sundress?
KR: Love Songs From the End of the World came out from Main Street Rag Press in 2019. It’s a full-length collection of poetry, and putting it together helped me get through the awful stress of having the 45th president of the United States in office. The poems in that collection seek to find beauty in the midst of despair, to understand that loving the world and believing it to be doomed are not incompatible impulses.
S: How do they build on the themes you explored in Letters to Colin Firth?
KR: I feel closer to Letters to Colin Firth, actually, than to the newer book, possibly because I had such a good experience with Sundress and possibly because I think I did a better job injecting a bit of humor into Letters than into Love Songs. Interesting to think about them in conjunction, since both presuppose an audience in the very title, as though I needed to imagine someone on the receiving end in order to write them. I guess that’s a useful framework for me, imagining that I’m speaking to someone directly, trying to explain what I feel and think. But though I love to laugh, I tend to be far too earnest and serious. Thus, a bit of poking fun at myself feels necessary in order to hold the interest of that imaginary reader.
S: Who are your inspirations right now? Which books are you reading? Which writers stand out to you the most?
KR: I’m in love with the poems of Ada Limón, Kelli Russell Agodon, and Maggie Smith. I’m reading Russell Agodon’s Dialogues with Rising Tides and trying not to go too fast because I want to savor it. I want to get Smith’s Goldenrod, but I try to keep my physical books to a limited space due to a dust allergy, so I’ve been waiting for it to come out in paperback (hardcover books take up more space). I also don’t enjoy reading poetry on my Kindle, though I read prose on it all the time. I follow my favorite poets on social media and am thrilled when they post new published poems. In this way, I discover new favorite poems all the time by poets like Martha Silano and Camille T. Dungy.
I’m also reading Livewired by David Eagleman, which is interesting nonfiction neuroscience, though sometimes it’s difficult to see how this is the same guy who wrote Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, an old favorite of mine (short prose pieces speculating what the afterlife might be like, imaginative and instructive). I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and although some writers would call those books “guilty pleasures,” I think different kinds of books serve different purposes for a person. We’re not all one thing, any of us. And some of those genre books deal very directly with issues facing us now: sexism, environmental collapse, fascism. My current favorite of these writers is Alix Harrow, who wrote The Ten Thousand Doors of January and The Once and Future Witches.
You will easily be able to tell that I read mostly women writers these days. I don’t dislike male writers, and have many favorite poems and books by them, but life is short, and I’m drawn to the words of people who understand things about my own experience that are generally not in the forefront of the minds of men. If we’re alone in a parking lot at night, a woman writer and I are thinking the same thing—be vigilant!—while probably also feeling frightened, angry that we have to feel frightened, and foolish because we know most women are attacked by men they know rather than strangers. None of this has to be spelled out; it’s just there, like gravity.
S: What are you currently working on?
KR: I’m working on a book about my sister, her death in December 2019 from cancer, and my grief. Since she received her terminal diagnosis nine months before her death, I haven’t really been able to write about anything else. While the book will have a narrative arc, it will include poems, prose, fragments, experiments, and probably even images. I wish I were able to write long-form creative nonfiction, but it seems that I simply can’t—at least not now, on this topic. I have to work in shorter sections. I don’t think my grief is particularly unique, but I also have learned from and gained solace from other people’s books about the deaths of their loved ones; perhaps others will get something from my writings. At the moment, I have pieces of this book in several programs, including Scrivener, phone notes, Evernote, and MS Word. Soon I hope to gather everything together and print it out, play around with order, see where the holes are. I have sent out a chapbook of poems on this topic to a few contests, but I’m not sure it works as well as it should in that form. I think there are explanatory pieces that provide necessary context, and I think some readers who might be drawn to the content could be put off by the form—some folks, even literary people, see line breaks and immediately avoid reading. So, I may take out the line breaks, which worked for Letters to Colin Firth—yes, that was originally written as poems. Several of the pieces of this book-in-progress have been published as poems already.
S: What is one thing you want to try in your current work that you haven’t tried before?
KR: Definitely the images and experiments! I think the old brainstorming maps are fascinating, because we are seeing the writer’s conscious and subconscious connections. Timelines, family trees, photos can all tell stories. Personal timelines juxtaposed against public ones say a great deal about the general climate in which a person grew up. I think being primarily a poet means that the work that would be behind-the-scenes for a novelist feels vital and stage-worthy for me.
S: What are you most excited about for the future?
KR: Flying cars? At least that’s what I thought, when I was a kid, would be common by the year 2000. I suppose in both a literary and larger world sense, I’m excited to see what young people will do with things. How will young people use and change social media, for example, so that it serves us rather than our scrolling serving it? How will they keep alive the human flame at the heart of true works of art, so our culture doesn’t collapse under “influencers” who sell not only objects but worldviews and self-loathing? How will they help each other recognize that their minds are complex and mysterious, miraculous even, and that their words and paintings and music are important regardless of money or notoriety? I try to do that as a teacher, to help others see themselves clearly, to challenge them to ask the hard questions and say the hard things.
S: And finally, what advice/insight would you give to emerging writers?
KR: Don’t stop writing. You’ll get kicked by rejections and envy and your own self-doubting brain. You’ll have “well-meaning” people ask why you keep writing when you haven’t made any money at it and probably won’t, ever. You’ll send out your best poem and throw in one you really aren’t certain of—and the editor will take the second one, and that best one may never get published. You’ll find ways to avoid writing (oh, so many ways) and then beat yourself up for being weak and not writing. You’ll read about the schedules of other writers, some of them long dead, and feel inadequate because you don’t have that same schedule. You’ll see other writersget lucky with publications or jobs and you’ll half-believe they deserve it, that they’re just better than everyone else. It’s hard, the making of art in a capitalist culture that does not value it, and a Puritan culture that tells you people get what they deserve. The truth is, fuck capitalism, because your art matters in ways not measurable by dollars. And don’t buy into the old American fable that hard work and talent are always rewarded. For every person who gets a book taken by your dream publisher, there are 500 others, many of them just as good, who don’t. There is so much in this life that we can’t control. Find ways to be at peace with that, and then focus on what you can control: write. Read. Keep writing. Keep reading. Take classes or exchange work with other writers when you want to, and don’t when you don’t. There’s no one right way to do things, but nothing good will ever happen—for your soul or for your writing career—unless you keep writing, in your own way and your own time.
Katherine Riegel is the author of Love Songs from the End of the World, the chapbook Letters to Colin Firth, and two more books of poetry. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Offing, Orion, Poets.org, Tin House, and elsewhere. She is co-founder and managing editor of Sweet Lit, and teaches independent online classes in poetry and creative nonfiction. Find her at katherineriegel.com.
Saoirse‘s name and passion are the same: freedom. As an exophonic writer, their academic interests revolve around linguistic power dynamics, especially in connection to the land. They are always trying to write, and find, poetry that breaks the English language into articulating its own colonial violence. They are a freelance editor and serve as the Guest Editor for Emerging Voices in Poetry at Oyster River Pages. They are a 2021 Brooklyn Poets Fellow and a finalist for the Sophie Kerr Prize. They find excitement in travel, comfort in a good cup of coffee and love in their newly adopted puppy, Malaika. Find them at saoirseedits.com or on Twitter @saoirseedits.