On “Unlikely Designs”: An Interview with Katie Willingham – Michigan Quarterly Review

On “Unlikely Designs”: An Interview with Katie Willingham

Full disclosure: I lived with the poet Katie Willingham. She occupied the second bedroom in my too-small apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, she often made the most incredible cornbread. Sometimes, I would return home to find our big, silly dog curled up at the foot of her bed while she edited the poems in her collection. So while I may not be the most impartial source, believe me when I say that Unlikely Designs (University of Chicago Press, August 2017) at times feels like a long, sprawling intellectual conversation with an old friend. The sort of conversation that culls together so many disparate topics but yet, somehow, has its own beautiful logic.

In Unlikely Designs, Charles Darwin speaks to the nature of chatbots on Twitter, Wikipedia discussions to extinction, and Pacman speaks to the human condition — the notion that anything can speak to anything else, that there’s always a thread waiting to be knotted between two points. It is capable of smudging the line between the permanent and the ephemeral, the natural and unnatural. Unlikely Designs is just as highly concerned with the ways in which we make categories as it is with the fact that most things inherently resist categorization. In that regard, Unlikely Designs is clever, sometimes even a bit cheeky. 

More than that, Katie Willingham is concerned with the act of curation’s fraught relationship to loss. Perhaps the most poignant moments in the collection hinge on this notion. Under its humor and its delight in the conversations it arranges, Unlikely Designs is all-too-aware of the ever-eroded present. It’s a quiet anxiety that lies artfully latent on the page. “I forget which trees turn what color, which / plants return and which die out in winter and must be / sown again come spring. I mean I forget / what to cherish,” Willingham writes in “Darwinist Logic on Pattern Recognition.” In “Staying Power,” she muses, “we study most fervently what’s gone, and then / what’s going.” Unlikely Designs culls together what it can, and like the Voyager Golden Records — another one of the book’s myriad topics — it puts forth a gorgeous approximation of what it means to be a part of this world, saying as much in what it includes as it does in what it has excluded.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Katie about Unlikely Designs, the challenges of preservation and the end of the world. 

Our friend posted a picture of her dog with your book. And you had a moment that I think is so telling, I want us to start with it.

Okay, so she posted a photo with her dog Ruby, who was reading the book for her book club — the dog has a book club. And I immediately thought, “Oh, no! Does a dog die in this book?” Because I thought of that website, Does the Dog Die? So I thought about it, and it’s fine. There are a few dogs in this book, but no dogs die in this book.

I did write one of the poems after my dog died. But, I was just reflecting on dogs.

So, I actually kind of love that we started on death here.

If you’re talking about poems, you’re talking about death.

I’m  glad you say that! In one of your “Darwin (Disambiguation)” poems, you write of children with a penchant for collection and observe that “From a certain angle / this collection will appear to be a veiled obsession / with death.” Is yours? This book is so focused on the process of collection and archival, and I wonder if this is a way of talking about death?

I think it is a way of talking about life and death. Sometimes, the only way we can talk about what goes in is by talking about what doesn’t go in. Conversely, this book is all about preserving stuff. But of course the horrible problem of preserving anything is that we can’t keep anything of really any value. We pretend that we can, but we can’t.

This is also true of knowledge. We attempt to accrue knowledge about the world, our place in it, and about the thing we create. But, knowledge is also a way of leaving things out.

A lot of your work plays in interesting ways with temporality. I’m thinking of not just the overt examples, such as the basis of the title of “Correction: Tonight Is Not the Longest Night in the History of Earth” being that by the time you reached an article about the longest night in the history of Earth, the article had already posted the correction. I’m also interested in the ways you mark time in the poems — lately, these days, last week — and how these function to give these poems a sense of “time.” Because when this book comes out, it won’t be “last week” anymore, but in the voice of that poem, it is. What interested you in marking time like that?

I wanted the book to feel intimate. Maybe that’s a strange way to think about intimacy or time. But I wanted it to feel conversational. My experience of time is that things are always coming up to me, right? That’s part of what it’s like to have the Internet. Things approach you very rapidly all the time.

It creates a space in which, when you enter the poem, you feel close to what is happening.

You draw from a lot of very eclectic, sometimes obscure, sources for these poems. William Bligh’s voyage of the Bounty, Twitter chatbots, the destroyed minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo are just a few. Your work practically invites readers to fall down their own Wikipedia holes and spend a lot of time interacting with the Internet. My partner actually once told me that he feels anxious at your readings because he wants to have his computer out! He wants to look everything up as you read it and learn about it immediately. There’s a pleasure in that kind of research for him, and for many other people. A clear research practice is so tangibly worked through this collection. How do you conduct your research? And is there a tangible moment where you look at a piece of source material and think, “Oh, there’s a poem here?”

I’ve experimented a lot with different research practices. I’ve used Evernotes to save things. I’ve used computer bookmarks to save things. I’ve used many tabs open at once to fail at saving things.

It fits the ethos of this book. Underneath all these poems is the belief that everything is connected. So, I have to be able to go anywhere to show you that you can go anywhere in order to make that true. All of these are experiments in figuring out actually how close these topics are. I make them appear much closer than they appear normally. Things that we compartmentalize. Things that we consider distant and close, either spatially or in time.

One of the things I spent a lot of time on towards the end of putting this book together  was writing notes. Nobody thought that it had enough notes. There’s actually more information at the end of this book than I thought there would be. I was invested in trying to put as much as I could into the poems as possible and have all the information you needed to appreciate them. But part of the pleasure that comes with research is wanting more.

I’m so glad you brought up your ethos! This question I wrote literally uses the word “ethos.” So, a question you once told me you liked seeing in interviews is what are the first and last poems you wrote. But, I’d love to know your answer to that. To build off it: how has your poetic ethos, if you will, changed between the writing of those two poems? 

Before we get into this, I should attribute that question. It comes from Laura Kasischke. I don’t know if she’ll remember that she asked me that. Maybe it’s something she asks all the time. Maybe it isn’t. But it’s something I now ask all the time.

The first poem I wrote that made it into this book is the second “Darwin (Disambiguation)” poem. The one where he eats the bug. “PacMan” might be pretty close to that, even though those are very different. One of the last poems I wrote for this book is a poem you’ve mentioned, “Correction: Tonight Is Not the Longest Night in the History of Earth,” which is a poem I wrote to put into the first section to round out the conversation. I had the book already. Some things changed after that, but that first section really didn’t. I took out a poem that wasn’t working as well and wrote that poem to go there.

How has my ethos changed? One answer might be that my sense of line progressed a lot. My sense of how to pace a poem. I’m not sure if that’s an ethos. Maybe it is. In poetry, form is ethos.

Between those two poems, my approach to time changed. The first deals with time a little, but it’s time as a transition. But time has already transitioned in “Correction.” Like you said, right? Time has already transitioned and you’re just in the space of being two steps ahead.

We’ve discussed that you reference a lot of material in this collection. But which works of writing that do not appear in this collection were helpful or influential in its creation? I know you have your thought shelf, that you keep close and reference when you write. What was on the shelf?

There are almost no poets in here! Obviously, I was reading poetry. I used poetry to write this book, but referenced no poetry at all.

Unless you count Eminem.

Yeah! And Frank O’Hara’s in here. “Pain produces logic.” But it’s not even a poem, it’s a reference to his manifesto. So there you go. Unless you count Eminem, there aren’t any poems mentioned.

What was on my shelf at the time? Anna Moschovakis, Mark Doty, Nick Flynn, Albert Goldbarth, Linda Gregerson, Anne Carson. There are always plays on my thought shelf. Angels in America — I’m always thinking about it. I don’t know how that works, but I’m always thinking about it. That and Waiting for Godot. I think that’s in my poetry, working in there all the time. I also have Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. Of course, there’s always theory. Foucault is in that book. But there’s never any fiction. I don’t know what that’s about!

Thank you so very much for this conversation. Would you like to a share a little about what you are at work on or thinking about next? 

One way of me explaining this is to tell you what’s on this shelf now. I just redid it. I have Jean Baudrillard, Matt Hart, and Carl Phillips. Living A Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed and Simulacra by Airea D. Matthews, as well.

What I am working on now is also about time, but it’s very different. To circle back a moment to when we were discussing time, I have always thought of Unlikely Design as oriented towards the past. The work I’m doing now is more explicitly about the future and, to some degree, the present. It’s about being in a present that has a much deeper knowledge of the future than ever before. When we think about radioactive waste, we’re thinking about something that’s finite but really big. It’s not like it never decays, it’s just that it will take a span of time that is so long that it’s hard for us to conceive of.

We’re also super aware that we’re living inside of the end of global warming. We’re living inside of the heat death of that planet, that is ongoing. It has begun before us, it will continue after us. We’re thinking about this now more than we have been because the United States has now left the Paris Climate Accord.

But even the way we think about the linearity of “Are we going to do something about this future problem?” is wrong. That’s false. If we’re already inside it, you can’t think about something as preventative. So I’ve been working on a series of apocalypse/utopia poems where there are spaces that are ambiguously either positive or negative. I like that idea of the overlap. That feels like the abundance of our world. It can feel like a utopia; it can feel like an apocalypse.

Author photo by Joseph Sibilia-Young.

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