It’s difficult to find poetry as rich in lyrical power as that of Katie Ford—and this time around she has chosen a subject that readily lends itself to her vividly detailed, forcefully compelling voice. Colosseum (Graywolf Press) reflects on ancient ruins, war-ravaged lands, and such natural disasters as Hurricane Katrina and its catastrophic impact. Praised by the extraordinary poet Carolyn Forché and The Feminist Review, it’s a reading experience the artistry and humanity of which stays with you long after you close the book. Ford previously wrote Deposition for Graywolf. Her poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, The Seneca Review, and Pleiades. Publishers Weekly named Colosseum one of the Best Books of 2008. Last month, Ford received a prestigious Lannan Literary Fellowship—an award worth $100,000.
Of all the imaginable subjects for a book of poetry, you chose something as grim as devastation. Why?
I was not in New Orleans for the flood. I evacuated 36 hours beforehand, and so the first images were ones I saw on the news or heard by radio. There were so many images that were hard to forget, and it wasn’t, in those early days, that I felt “inspired” to write about Katrina, but that the images were consuming me. Some were particularly dire: a child waving a white flag on a barge that had crashed into the lower 9th ward, floodwaters all around him; the Xs that were spray painted on every house, noting the time of the search and the number of bodies found inside; dogs tangled in electrical wire, floating in the water, still alive, shocked again and again with electricity; the drowned bodies. So, it wasn’t so much that I chose to write about devastation. Devastation happened and it became an overwhelming part of my life.
Hurricane Katrina drove you out of New Orleans. What drove you back?
When I got back to the city, I would walk through the devastated areas and I would see other things, smaller details that were so human but lost from their human owners—a cooking pot, broken icons of the Virgin Mary set upright again, a letterman’s jacket. I also saw a flag—the flag that is on the cover of my book—which was hung on a chain link fence. I took the photo of it because it seemed so mysterious. I wasn’t sure how to read it. It could have meant “America is still here, we’ve survived.” Or, more darkly, it could have meant, “Look at America. Look at what happened, and how the government did so very little for this impoverished city.”
When you went back, how sure were you that you’d do the subject justice?
I never thought in these terms—of doing the subject justice. However, I was very careful not to say anything about the aftermath of the storm that was not true. For instance, there is a poem in the collection called “Snakes,” which is about, in part, how snakes infested houses after the storm, houses that had not been gutted, and were still covered in mold. I would not have written about those snakes had it not been true. I feel strongly that suffering is greatly diminished when it is exaggerated or sentimentalized. So, there is exactitude of facts about New Orleans in the book. There was, sadly, no need to exaggerate about what was already there. Or, to give one more example, in the poem “Flag,” a woman tries to kill herself. That was true. One of my neighbors came out onto her porch one morning, having cut her wrists. She survived. Of course, the poetry is not literal in all ways, as I end that poem saying that what she used to cut herself was “the wind.” There was a startling—but understandable—rise of suicides and suicide attempts after the storm.
Are you finished writing about devastation?
I’m not writing about New Orleans any more. It’s hard to be engaged with the world without coming across devastation on a daily basis. I see the environmental crisis as a form of devastation, although, in the end, it will be human civilization that is devastated, and the earth will go on, although stripped by us and marred. I suppose my work, right now, is informed by that crisis. But, I’m also working on poems that are more celebratory, or what poets and readers might call a “praise poem.” However, the most interesting praise poems, to me, are stained with a knowledge of the suffering that is ongoing, somewhere, alongside someone else’s joy. There is no pure joy, I believe. Or, if there is, there shouldn’t be.
Why did you choose that spelling for the title?
“Coliseum” is a physically ugly word, I think, which actually matters to me. But, on a deeper level, the central image of the book is not the modern coliseums of our cities now, but the Roman Colosseum as it was in ancient times—a place of games, mock sea battles, and, most importantly for my book, human deaths that were sanctioned by the government. It became, also, a metaphor for New Orleans, as the Romans would flood the Colosseum to create sea battles, and it physically became a bowl. New Orleans, for a very long time, has been described as a “bowl,” as it sits beneath sea level, and so when flooded, the water sits inside of it. I was writing Colosseum during the years of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, rendition, wire-tapping and governmentally sanctioned torture. If there is a difference between what America has done to others and what Rome did when it threw its enemies to the lions, it is only one of modern American secrecy versus ancient Roman display. But the title poem, “Colosseum,” is also quite interested in the metaphor of the Colosseum as the equivalent of the human mind in the middle of its “one great fight,” watching its own festivals, deaths, struggles, and even horrors.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.