February 14, 2019KR BlogBlogChatsCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsLiterature

“The impossible becomes possible with hybrid forms”: A Conversation with Katie Farris

Katie Farris is an award-winning fiction writer, poet, and translator. She is the author of the hybrid-form text boysgirls, (Marick Press, 2011) and the chapbooks Thirteen Intimacies (Fivehundred Places, 2017), and Mother Superior in Hell(Dancing Girl, 2019). Most recently she is winner of Fairy Tale Review’s Flash Fairy Tale Prize, the 2018 Anne Halley Poetry Prize from the Massachusetts Review, and the 2017 Orison Anthology Prize in Fiction. She is also the translator of several books of poetry from the French, Chinese, and Russian. Her translations and original work have appeared in anthologies published by Penguin and Graywolf, as well as literary journals including The Believer, Virginia Quarterly Review, Verse, Western Humanities Review, and The Massachusetts Review. She received her MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University. Currently, she is an Associate Professor at San Diego State University.

Kristina Marie Darling:  In your hybrid text, boysgirls, you highlight the fluidity of gender while at the same time dismantling genre boundaries.  In what ways are genre and gender connected for you as a creative practitioner?  How are the categories we impose upon language politically charged?

Katie Farris:  One of the most exciting parts of being a writer during this time is the way that increasingly, mainstream culture is opening up spaces in language and in identity, creating continuums where people used to see only opposing ideas.

Rather than boys are blue and girls are pink and never the twain shall meet, the mainstream is beginning to see a beautiful palate of purples entering their vocabulary. Rather than poetry has lines and fiction has sentences, we have a piece of writing that looks like prose but subverts our expectations, opening up the possibilities of what it can accomplish—a poem in the skin of a paragraph, a rebel sneaking in under the guise of a businessperson.

In boysgirls I included a riddle in the middle of the text, between the boys and girls sections, which I intended as a way to mark out this space of possibility—a space where people who didn’t identify as boy or girl (some or all of the time) could see themselves. For me, this is the heart of the book, the most important page, and it was only after I wrote it that I felt I finally had written the book that I’d intended to write.

In our time, American culture is coming to recognize how much more complex and multi-faceted both gender and genre can be, and how they can be a place of activism, sophisticated dialectic, and even potentially a space for play. I don’t mean to understate the very real, often life-threatening danger to people who identify as trans, non-binary, intersex, or otherwise live outside of the traditional gender/sex roles of the cisheteropatriarchy. And I don’t mean play as something simple, flippant or facile, but a necessary, even lifesaving creative act, the exploration of a relatively uncharted terrain, and respectful curiosity about, and engagement with identities and language and forms that we’ve never before encountered.

KMD:  It has been said by poet Myung Mi Kim that liminal textual spaces — whether it’s the margins, the fissures, the elisions, or the space between genres — are rife with possibility.  What becomes possible for you when writing in hybrid forms?

KF:  I have always loved the words “liminal” and “limn” and “lintel” and “threshold”; they are magical words. Hybrid-form works stand on thresholds, refusing definition and creating themselves out of necessity. When I say that they are created from necessity, I mean that I think these works are best suited to communicate ideas that have never been communicated before: a new form must be created to contain them. The impossible becomes possible with hybrid forms.

One of my favorite examples of this type of hybrid-form text is N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, which tells the story of the Kiowa people from the early eighteenth century through the late nineteenth century. The main portion of the book is composed of two-page spreads; each two-page spread comprises three paragraphs: the first is the voice of the Kiowa oral tradition, stories passed down for generations. The second is a historical insight, occasionally from the ethnographer James Mooney, and the third is Momaday’s own experience, a sort of memoir related as poetic prose.

As the book progresses, we see characters, such as Momaday’s grandfather Mammedaty, move from the memoir section into the historical. Eventually, we see him make an appearance in the Kiowa oral tradition. The neat and tidy categories that Momaday constructed toward the beginning of the book begin to speak directly to, and across, one another, begging the question—why must these categories be separate at all? Don’t our lives engage, after all, with the historic and even the mythic? Can history not be personal? Where is that intriguing place where myth meets history?

Momaday is able to question & complicate the idea that each human being’s reality is limited to their own personal experience, instead of being a part of a collective experience that reaches through time and space; a journey that can be experienced at any time. Memoirs and novel are bad forms for this—they are forms born from capitalism, from upward mobility, from the moment society began to tell itself that a person (almost always a man) was capable of doing everything himself. A new form had to be created in order to tell this story.

Hybrid forms give us new ways to think and engage; they are specialty tools like the aye-aye’s crazy-long finger, formed to pull insect larva out of tree bark. They are investigative forms, revolutionary forms. They nourish what is strange in us.

KMD:  The small press is currently seeing a veritable explosion of women writing in hybrid forms.  Why do you think women are drawn to these forms now, at this particular moment in our culture’s narrative?  Which female practitioners paved the way for your own practice as a writer working in hybrid forms?

KF:  Perhaps what’s happening with this current explosion of hybrid-form works is that we’re finally finding language to speak about them; we’re teaching them in schools as hybrid-form texts, and we’re creating publishers and editors who are interested in these works as themselves, rather than having to disguise them as something else entirely. There are so many extravagantly wonderful books being published in this field right now—Sabrina Orah Mark’s subversive and strange and heartbreakingly funny Wild Milk, Mary Rakow’s devastating and profound This is Why I Came, Jen Bervin’s experimentations with both palimpsestic poetry on the page as well as the intersections between visual art and poetry, or between textile and poetry, or between medical technology and poetry. I just received Tina Chang’s Hybrida in the mail today, and I’ll be diving in this afternoon. It’s a wonderful time for hybrid works!

Back in college, I picked up Sarah Shun-Lien Bynan’s gorgeous Madeleine is Sleeping, a sort of dreamy novel-in-flash-fictions, and felt like I’d been hit by a bolt of lightning. I didn’t know books could be written like this! Within six months, I’d left my nearly-complete degree in genetics and plant biology to write an interdisciplinary thesis about the relationship between narrative and the scientific method. Then someone finally put Stein’s Tender Buttons in my hands, and things began to make sense. I was in an MFA program within a year or two of that.

Bynum tells a charming story about the writing of Madeleine is Sleeping—she was at Brown at the time, working on computers whose word processing programs only left so much text on the screen, which led to these little gems of scenes. I’d been writing page-long prose “chunks” since I was a teenager, but I thought they were only fragments. Up until that point, I saw them as evidence that I couldn’t ever finish anything. After seeing these hybrid-form books, suddenly I understood that this was a form, a worthy contribution.

And from there, I found so many other books that fell under this sort of category. Of course, the definition of “hybrid” can be a moving target, and many publishers (and possibly authors) have been publishing hybrid-type texts for some time by calling them “novels.” For instance, is Gwendolyn Brooks’ stunning Maud Martha a novel, or is it a mashup of prose poetry with more traditional narrative elements? Likewise, Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street is called a novel—for me, that’s really a diminishment of the incredible skill that it takes to write such tiny standalone gems of flash fictions that also function in a larger narrative arc. But at that point, what else would one have called it? I love the interesting combination of subtitles for Marilyn Chin’s hilarious and ferocious Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, which is called “a Novel” on the cover, but “A Manifesto in 41 Tales” on the cover page. Or how about Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, which arguably hardly ever steps into the role of fiction at all, existing instead as an enormous prose poem?

KMD:  In addition to your work as a poet and fiction writer, you are an accomplished translator.  In what ways is translation a creative endeavor?  How is the creativity demanded by translation different from the inventiveness, spontaneity, and improvisation skill that manifests in your hybrid texts?

KF:  “Kissing through a curtain” is the analogy that my cotranslator, Valzhyna Mort, uses for translation; I love the intimacy of that image, the orality of it, the impossibility of it. As a translator of poetry and hybrid-form work, I believe my first responsibility is to communicate the nature of the kiss, of the piece, to your audience. Some pieces are a little cold and close-mouthed. Some are coy. Some are deeply passionate. I am less worried about getting every word or image accurate and much more interested in facilitating the reader’s own kiss, their own intimate encounter, with the work I’m translating.

This means that oftentimes I’m working more in the realm of “versions” of poems/hybrid pieces rather than straight translations, and this keeps the work very creative and spontaneous. I’m also lucky enough to work mostly with living authors such as Russian poet Polina Barskova and Acadian poet Guy Jean who are eager to take part in the translation process, so it’s a very collaborative and even improvisational environment!

I think the fact that I primarily work collaboratively in translation is the big difference between translation and writing my own work. I suppose all translation is fundamentally collaborative, but engaging directly with the author and/or multiple co-translators creates a real sense of community, communication, communion, whereas writing my own pieces feels more like playing directly with language (I almost want to call it Language, like some Platonic ideal) itself.

KMD:  What are you currently working on?  What can readers look forward to?

KF:  I have to begin with a little backstory: I’m married to another writer, a poet named Ilya Kaminsky. People are always asking what that’s like—writers and civilians alike. The writers want to know how our two aesthetics get along, how we manage our library (separate libraries! with multiple copies of books!), and how involved we in each other’s work (too involved). Non-writers, I think, worry that no one pays bills or does laundry. I began writing short, comedic, pretty explicit poems a few years ago as a joke, but they’ve grown into a sequence covering such diverse topics as the death of my mother-in-law, hemorrhoids, and being married to a refugee. I can’t tell if it’s a book yet, but if it’s not, it’s a big chunk of one. I’m looking to writers like Vera Pavlova, Selima Hill, Catherine Barnett, Jericho Brown, and Patricia Cavalli for their beautiful poems about relationships and sex, particularly.

I also just published a chapbook, “Mother Superior in Hell” (Dancing Girl Press), a hybrid narrative of flash fictions and lineated poems. The piece is based on the fact that Catholics cannot be held responsible for what they do in dreams, no matter what. This Mother Superior is deeply good, but she is also deeply lonely for God, who she feels has abandoned her. And when she begins dreaming about the Devil, she really leans in. The book is about that tension, between her true goodness and the guilt she feels, but cannot confess, about this dreamlife.