An interview with Kate Feld

Kate Feld writes short fiction, essays, poetry and work that sits between forms. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including The Letters PageThe Stinging Fly, The Lonely Crowd, Train and Hotel. A native of Vermont, she has lived in the Northwest of England for many years. She lectures in journalism at The University of Salford, hosts Manchester literary events and leads workshops on creative writing. She is the founder of UK creative nonfiction project The Real Story and co-presents the literary podcast The End of All Things. She tweets @katefeld and maintains a small establishment on the internet at katefeld.com

How did you begin writing, and what keeps you going?

I’ve worked as a journalist since I was 25, so for most of my adult life that’s where all my focus and creative energy went. I had been trained, as a newspaper reporter, never to write in the first person – you have it drummed into you that ‘you’re not the news.’ The self-effacement becomes habitual. And I was a very young woman then, so you could say I relinquished my ‘I’ before I knew what it was. How could I write without that?

It wasn’t until I was about 40 that I became really interested in doing creative writing. Then I was asked to contribute a personal essay to an anthology – I didn’t know anything about it, but I gave it a shot. Writing specifically from my own subjectivity, rather than burying that behind the impartial, observational mask of the reporter – it was thrilling. I loved it. I was good at it. And it just kind of took over, then. It was all I wanted to do.

There is nothing more interesting, more absorbing or more challenging to me than writing. You know that feeling you have when you’re a kid, drawing pictures, singing a song, making a fort, when every part of you is completely focused on what you’re doing? That is what writing gives me. And I don’t think there is anything better than making a fine thing that only you can make, a piece of art that will mean something to other people. Why are we here, if not for that?

It would be easier not to write. I have to rearrange my life to do it, over and over again. Needing to write makes my priorities different than other people’s and complicates the hell out of everything. I mean, I have to earn a living. I have to raise my kids. But I don’t have a choice. This is it. So, it happens. It happens however it can.

Your author biography references your work with the essay and short story forms, as well as works that sit between forms. Do you notice a difference in how you work between different genres, or is it a matter of approach?

There isn’t so much a difference in the way I approach forms as a difference in the way I approach each individual piece of writing. So, maybe a sentence or idea comes into my head, often in a dream or daydream. Sometimes it turns into dialogue or seems to belong to a situation or a perspective, which leads me into a story. I rarely know what’s going to happen with it until I sit down and start writing.

Or I can become aware, after picking away unconsciously at a snag in my thinking – oh, this is probably an essay, because there is something to work out which I don’t fully understand, and my mind is already in a state of attentiveness, casting around for elements that will perform different roles in the piece. Then the components of the essay (experiences, observations, excerpts) begin to talk to each other. It’s like having a party in your head.

A poem is more of an adventure – a murky exploration led by sound and associations and resonance – and this seems much riskier. I’m not able to address that process directly. I feel like I’m blundering around with a blanket over my head.  Or maybe, performing a very specific and complicated maneuver without looking at my hands.

Often, I’ll try something a few ways in different forms before it clicks: part of a problematic essay will become the center of a story, or I’ll realise that the reason a story didn’t work is that it’s a prose poem, and has to be approached differently. I’m really still working all of this out. The thing about writing across forms is it takes much longer to achieve a level of skill and proficiency with each one, but I like that uncertainty. It feels alive to me. The idea of being ‘at home’ in one form makes me squirm.     

What poets have influenced the ways in which you write?

I am drawn to poets who work in prose and whose writing stretches against the perceived boundaries of form. I love Mary Ruefle’s two volumes of short prose, especially The Most of It, which is unlike anything else – generous, hilarious and exacting. Rosmarie Waldrop’s prose poems and sequences have such a weird, ringing power. They’re like spells. And Anne Carson is doing extraordinary things in the place where poetry, essay and fiction overlap. Her work is both warm and daring, and reading it makes me braver. There are many other writers who aren’t poets whose work has changed the way I think: Elizabeth Hardwick, Marguerite Duras, Leonora Carrington and Dorthe Nors for starters.

How important has mentorship been to your work? Is there anyone who specifically assisted your development as a writer?

Because I’ve never studied creative writing in an institution, I don’t have a wealth of great writers to draw upon here. I went to grad school for journalism at Columbia University in New York and my favourite professor, the New Yorker staff writer Cynthia Zarin, turned out to be a poet and essayist as well as a journalist. I think encountering her and responding so strongly to the full spectrum of her work helped me realise that you can do all kinds of writing – you can do great journalism alongside great creative work. I mean, you don’t have to be one thing. What you are will inform whatever writing you undertake. After you have been writing across forms for a while, I think you develop some confidence about your identity and how it is expressed through writing. Though you may choose to speak in many voices, all will be recognisably yours.

In Manchester, where I live, the friendship and support of the city’s community of writers is so important. We all learn from each other – at performances, in collaborations, in writing groups or just talking about reading and writing. That’s a kind of mentorship. But I think independently studying the work of great writers is what I have learned the most from. Reading with attention and seriousness, which takes a lot of time.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a novella called Open Mouth. It’s a story about madness, personal mythology, songwriting and solitude. It’s set near where I’m from, in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, which is a really wild part of the world. It’s strange opening a channel to the particular feeling of that place when I’m living here in the UK.

Can you name a poet you think should be receiving more attention?

Geraldine Clarkson, an Anglo-Irish poet whose first full collection should be coming out soon. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

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