#CrashawPrize The shortlist in profile: Catherine Theis
Catherine Theis’s The Fraud of Good Sleep begins with an epigraph from Catullus: “I hate and I love. Why do I do it, you may ask? / I don’t know, but I feel it happening, and it burns me up.” Indeed, the book draws extensively on antiquity for its themes and obsessions: pilgrimages, Sapphic fragments, Herakles, Martial — but this delight in the ancient world is interspersed with epistolary poems, mock lectures, zombies, saunas and even a banjo tune. It’s a joy to read, filled with an extravagant delight in what David Starkey called the “thinginess” of of history — as well as the things of our own world and its loves, and the litter of those loves.
I grew up in Chicago, was born in New York, and spent all my childhood summers in Sicily, where I swam in blue coves and ate gelato before dinner. My sister was the prettiest one in the piazza. I feel extremely lucky to have an American father and an Italian mother. As a child, I always wanted to be an American in America, and an Italian in Italy. My maternal grandparents and extended family lived in Aci Castello, a small fishing town outside Catania where supposedly Odyssey and his men romped with the Cyclops. My family taught me how to swim with a small knife tucked in my hand to catch the many crabs found scuttling on the lava rocks. My paternal grandparents lived right outside Chicago with a backyard of apple trees. In the fall, we’d climb up any chance we could. We’d have meetings in the trees, and read books up there, until my grandfather built us a stunning treehouse in the prairie style, and then we took to painting and practicing our dance moves. Extended outside hours. I still like reading outside the best, especially at the beach. Oh, and I like swimming, too. I’m not terribly good at swimming laps. In fact, I’m terrible at it, but I enjoy the water’s gentle resistance. Swimming is a lot like eating, pleasurable in the way it motivates your senses to fullness, and swimming is like reading and writing. I’m fascinated by doubleness. Waves.
So where did the book begin for you and what was going on in your life while you were writing it?
The Fraud of Good Sleep took a long time to produce (4, 5, 6 years). I mean, there was always something going wrong throughout production. Technical problems, lack of adequate funding, bad speakers, mountains, expired visas, expensive haircuts, blindness, egos, terrible boyfriends, reluctant landlords and landlords with very nice names as if they were characters in the great American novel, paintings so cheap the paint chipped off. Fines. Once, a leaky cup. Dinner parties. Trips to the greenhouse. Uncomfortable couches. Fire!
Ho ho. What one of our authors, Katy Evans-Bush calls stuff. What do you think were the real driving elements within the book — the things that moved it all forward for you?
Little by little, the failures and misadventures translate into a single moment of euphoria—the poem itself; a remembered thing you can never forget and always want to duplicate. I like writing poem by poem. The danger and thrill of having to start completely from nothing, like I have amnesia, or I’m a body double. I like costumes, long speeches, toned muscles. I just kept writing new poems and throwing the old ones away. I read a lot. I read Homer, Sappho, Euripides, Martial, Pliny, Dante, Woolf, Vallejo, Stein, Moore, Lispector, Notley.
I can see the Notley …
I searched for a women’s epic because I believe Beatrice should go off on her own pilgrimage. I don’t know. I kept thinking about ideas of honesty and tradition. I tried to be very dishonest some days. I tried to use my head less. I’ve always wanted to become headless. What would that be like?
Where do you think you’ll go to next in your writing — what are you working on now?
I have two other manuscripts in the works. One—which I can’t really talk about—is called Fool Me Once. The other one, The June Cuckold and Other Tragedies combines poems and poem plays. The inside of a verse play or poem (or a painting or a song) is one of the last decadent places on earth. It reminds you that you are neither a machine nor an animal. I’ve always been interested in Greek drama, in the use of myth, and in how the Romans re-imagined Greek ideas. I’m drawn to voice (music) and tone (quality, pitch, and strength). I’m interested in rhetoric, in performance, in all night rituals. I want my work to have the force of something leaking from a mask, or booming from a leafy treetop. Balance—wildness of emotion and language coupled with the restraint that comes through form and grammar— interests me. Are you in the cave, outside of the cave, walking to the cave? All kinds. I want to shape a lightening bolt in my readers’ heads. A puff of smoke here.
(This poem first appeared in Gulf Coast)
The country’s manse requires a calmness
of mind, of method.
Pewter plates, tankards,
the dried firkins fitting comfortably
in the endnotes without disruption,
mummies wrapping themselves in parlance,
in abundant white cloth, how historical.
Here, drink this glass of milk, stay in bed,
do not think such strange thoughts,
do not think at all.
The cast-iron pan cast apart,
away from the mind’s deliberate action.
Holding things off,
as if one could be a butler or lady’s maid
to a very rich gentleman,
so estranged from a self-problem,
castellated. To be cast in metal,
to be a pellet disgorged
by a hawk’s decisive spirit.
Double-headed lights cast
through the darkness of night,
never carried inside you,
never broached, never recognized
as invoice or receipt of a city
made famous by its twilight.
Gold and silver. Birds nesting in the ivy,
voices resembling a tower,
their invisible faces, a cup’s worth
of goodwill chatter.
Water, smoke, lakeshore fogs & light now leaving—
new forms, new spaces, life’s materials
contributing to a structure
but not to sympathy,
the cupholder’s proof not measured
in finite steps, or as an ordering principle,
but roughed in sorrow
it sees its way through,
it passes into sense.
The skillful application of paint surprises you.
You suddenly realize you are not yourself.
Discover more about Catherine Theis