Featured Poet: Catherine Tufariello - Interviewed by Uche Ogbuji
Interviewed by Uche Ogbuji
Catherine Tufariello’s book Keeping My Name (Texas Tech University Press) won the 2006 Poets’ Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Recent work has appeared in 32 Poems, The Dark Horse, Mezzo Cammin, The Beautiful Anthology, and Taking Action: Readings for Civic Reflection. Her poem “The Cricket in the Sump,” from the inaugural print edition of Able Muse, was featured on American Life in Poetry; she has also had poems featured on The Writer’s Almanac and Poetry Daily. Catherine is a program director at the Project on Civic Reflection at Valparaiso University, where she enjoys seeing poetry at work in the world outside the classroom. She lives in Valparaiso, Indiana with her husband and daughter.
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UO: I discovered your work in an anthology, R.S. Gwynn’s Poetry: A Pocket Anthology. I found and fell in love with the poem “Useful Advice.” I immediately looked for more of your work online, and I noticed that poem seemed to be the one most associated with you; it’s your greatest hit, so to speak. Of course I also added on by contacting you to ask whether I could use the poem in an essay. It got me wondering whether a poet sometimes feels like the musician with the hit tune that everyone knows, and gets request after request for that song. Are you ever tempted to say “oh, there is more to my body of work, you know”?
CT: Many years ago, I approached a well-known poet to tell her how much I particularly admired one of her poems—alas, it was the poem by which she was known to all and sundry. I didn’t realize the poem’s “greatest hit” status at the time, having only recently discovered her work. She was remarkably ungracious, saying something along the lines of, “Yes, in a hundred years, I suppose that’s the one poem of mine anyone will remember.” My reaction (unvoiced) was, “In a hundred years? You should be so lucky!”
I think of “Useful Advice” as a lucky poem, even though it’s about a time in my life when I felt very unlucky. It was easy to write; it practically wrote itself once I had the idea of producing an ironic catalogue of boneheaded remarks made to the infertile. (Later I realized a similar catalogue could easily be compiled about unsolicited advice directed at parents, or single people, or gay couples, or college graduates, or. . . . Human beings are so prone to share their wisdom about how others should live their lives that the possibilities are endless). With “Useful Advice” I felt I’d stumbled onto a fresh vein for poetic mining—at the time I could find almost nothing in the way of poetry about infertility—and I’m grateful it still seems to resonate with people. But yes, I hope people who come upon it are curious enough to look up more of my work, as you did.
I think it’s probably rare for a “greatest hit” to be among the poet’s personal favorites. (I think of Larkin’s dour remark, “‘They fuck you up’ will be my Innisfree.”) “Useful Advice” meant a lot to me when it was written, but I’ve long since moved on from the would-be-parent phase of life. Before too much longer I’ll be biting my tongue so as not to say to my daughter, “I’m fifty-seven. Don’t you think that maybe it’s time you settled down and had a baby?”
UO: In your interview at The Nervous Breakdown you say “I write in rhyme and meter because doing so gives me pleasure. It’s not part of any program of opposition—to modernism or postmodernism or feminism or any other ism.” I’ve often noticed the surprising association of poetic style with politics, especially in U.S. academe. Is this a phenomenon you’ve had to deal with in your own career? Have you ever been accused, for example, of being a poor disciple of feminism for writing in traditional form?
CT: I’ve never been accused of anti-feminism, at least not openly. But I wasn’t writing poetry in graduate school, when it would have been most likely to happen. I did read a lot of feminist criticism then . . .
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