I’ve heard writers say that readers will follow a good narrator anywhere. Here, readers are deftly led into Katherine Gaffney’s blue house. The events that unfold in the blue house are not new: love wanes and flares for a moment through the delights of the mundane, animals imbue meaning, innocence dies. Yet, the reader finds wonder in this blue house that is not unlike their own. For every lover, love feels like invention. Fool in a Blue House showcases true invention, worth turning every page.
In this interview, Katherine Gaffney’s answers pull readers further in, showing them not furniture or ornamentation, but foundation and inspiration—the magic that created the blue. All writers have something to learn from Gaffney’s words.
Marah Hoffman: The first poem animates a carousel horse, and afterward horses continue coloring the collection. In your words, what roles do horses play in the book?
Katherine Gaffney: The role of horses in both this collection and in my life—somewhat inextricable in certain ways—has become so tangled in the last year. But I’ll start at the beginning, which is to say that horses and riding have been central to my life since I was quite young.
Horses, like many of the animals in the collection, have always been a source of learning for me—particularly in the case of horses, a source of learning about the body, about strength, about fragility, about communication, about relationships, and the list could continue for quite a while I suppose.
The entanglement mentioned earlier comes in the fact that my horse has since passed away–about six months before learning that University of Tampa Press would be publishing the book. So, these poems that once solely embodied a source of gaining and shaping of personal strength for me now also embody a certain sense of grief, which perhaps always rested there in the sense of fragility that these muscular, massive creatures humans have ridden for centuries also harbor.
But let’s circle back to the role horses play in the book. In writing these poems, horses organically gave me another body and entity with which I was fairly intimately learnéd in to explore the collection’s emotional truths (what those are, I’ll leave the reader to discover). Horses serve as another form or definition of home, and I think they also serve as a kind of alter (or even altar to play with the language here)—an alter to the poetic self threading its way through the book and an altar to the power and fragility horses paradoxically embody.
MH: The sections’ vivid epigraphs always ignited curiosity for the poems that would follow. How did you decide on these epigraphs and the collection’s organization into sections?
KG: Finding epigraphs began with writers whose work I admire—so the central voices that give life to the lines in the epigraphs are Adrienne Rich, Sappho, Mina Loy, Mary Szybist, and Hélène Cixous. By no means are these epigraphs representative of the full scope of poets and writers I admire, but that was a starting point for finding epigraphs. I saw the epigraphs as creating a sort of chorus for the book. Not that I see poems as purely solos. My sense of being a writer holds a choral quality. On the whole, I wanted to increase the book’s choral quality.
Some of the lines I collected over years of reading–little nuggets I wanted to keep for yet unidentified purposes. Some I had to seek out expressly as I reorganized the poems in the collection.
Then, my hope (and there I almost typed home which seems a lovely near accident given the book’s focus) as I settled upon the epigraphs is that they frame the poems, begin to weave a connective fiber through the poems even if that fiber is a bit frayed—a bit of decay is welcome amongst these poems.
MH: In “A Conversation in Home Depot’s Kitchen Department with a Line From Mrs. Dalloway,” a birth control packet is compared to both a talisman and a box of Mike and Ikes. Often while reading, I found myself considering the term “magical realism” as a descriptor for your style. Do you feel any kinship with that genre? If not, do you care to describe your style, its evolution, its texture?
KG: While I am certainly honored to be put in conversation with the tradition of magical realism, I wouldn’t want to claim a history and tradition that is so connected to particular places and cultures I am not directly connected to. That being said, writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, along with authors that have perhaps been described within that framework outside the Latin American tradition like Toni Morrison, Franz Kafka, and Milan Kundera have certainly been part of my literary upbringing. So, perhaps kinship would be a perfect term to describe my relationship with the tradition of Magical Realism.
Describing one’s own style might be one of the toughest questions to field and evolution is still a process ongoing and so perhaps is one best answered when I have passed on (though I doubt that I may be considered a poet whose evolution will be deemed worth investigating after I have left this world), but in that list I perhaps gravitate most toward texture. I am deeply invested in texture when I craft poems. As I write, I try to craft a room for my reader, adorn that room with furniture and fixtures with which the reader can interact. This impulse has come to feel more and more entwined with the history of poetry after I realized/learned that the Italianate origin of stanza means “room.”
MH: Besides relationships and moments, things discussed are a 1938 hope chest advertisement, the symbolic interpretation of horses across history, and Marie Antoinette’s fate. How do you find the inspiration for your poems? Are you a journaler, a stop-in-the-middle-of-an-errand writer, a researcher, all of the above?
KG: I have always wanted to be a journaler as I find it to be so beautiful and romantic and I have poet friends who keep such beautifully multimedia journals that they turn to for inspiration, but I suppose I would say I am somewhere between “stop-in-the-middle-of-an-errand writer” and “a researcher.” I’ll jot down snatches of language or images I excavate in day-to-day happenings that I hope might birth a poem in my phone’s note app (so not aesthetic or romantic) but I also do love to dive into deep rabbit holes of research.
Perhaps returning to the term magical realism I find such magic in the real, in fact, there are so many poems to mold, shape, uncover from raw research. But that research doesn’t have to always mean Wikipedia dumps or library trips (whether digital or physical), but can even be found in the imaginings from a hope chest in my own home. So, I suppose I want to keep the definition or identity of the researcher poet as fairly expansive.
MH: I adore your last lines. They transform both poem and perspective. How can you tell when to end a piece?
KG: What an incredibly high compliment! Perhaps to begin to answer this question I’ll turn to witnessing another poet answering this question.
In spring 2023, I was in the audience at a Richie Hofmann reading and someone in the audience asked him this exact question, and, if my memory serves me well, he struggled as well with this question. I can’t recall his exact answer, but it helped me feel like we don’t have to always be able to articulate the method to our craft or even have a consistent answer, but I’ll attempt a little something.
For me, for some poems, the ending feels so clear, like when you’ve incidentally perfectly seasoned a sauce, but for some it takes leaving them in a drawer for a while, coming back to it, realizing you’ve overwritten the poem, past its final exhale. But perhaps my decision process for an ending has a couple of different forms. At times I want there to be a final or fading closure of movement. At others I want to leave an opening akin to the crack of light that peers through a slightly open door—the light I see as perhaps a little more space for the reader. And occasionally I allow a really musical line to end a poem to create perhaps a kind of reverberation in the reader’s ear. So, I suppose different poems call or beckon for different endings.
MH: What is your revision process like?
KG: Revision process truly depends on the poem. Some poems require more drafts than others. But whenever I start a new poem, I tend to tinker as I compose. I find the poem’s shape as I compose, read aloud as I write—in this last regard, I need to feel the language corporeally to decide if it’s right. But a lot of the revision process for me is overwriting and trimming back as if chipping away at marble.
Poems that are more emotionally raw, resting deeper in me, require more time for me to untangle and re-tangle them into something one might call a poem. Distance I suppose is part of the revision process for me. It’s perhaps an old adage, but I often think of my mentor’s advice to not be afraid of putting a poem in a “drawer” for a while and returning to it with fresh eyes. It’s amazing how even in returning to some of the poems in Fool in a Blue House I find changes I might make.
So, perhaps two central ingredients to my revision process are time and sound.
Katherine Gaffney completed her MFA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is currently working on her PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her work has previously appeared in jubilat, Harpur Palate, Mississippi Review, Meridian, and elsewhere. She has attended the Tin House Summer Writing Workshop, the SAFTA residency, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a scholar. Her first chapbook, Once Read as Ruin, was published by Finishing Line Press. Her first full-length collection, Fool in a Blue House, won the 2022 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. Gaffney lives and teaches in Champaign, Illinois.
Marah Hoffman grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania. Since graduating with her bachelors in English and creative writing in 2022, she has lived in Tennessee, Michigan, and now North Carolina. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and the Creative Director of Sundress Academy for the Arts. She enjoys genre fluidity, whimsicality, cats, lattes, distance running, travel, and adding to her personal lexicon. Her list of favorite words grows every week.