Rabbit Trail showcases interviews with women of various artistic and practical powers. Our first feature is with Minneapolis-based poet Katie Eckhardt. The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
Poetry Leaves Room for Yourself
Interview by Maria Fink.
Katie is the type of person who breezes into your life so naturally, you can’t pin down when or how, exactly, you became friends. She’s effortless and affectionate, but also dangerous. That complexity is shown in her relationship to poetry.
When did you discover your love of writing?
The first time I realized I could write was my junior year of high school. I took this journalism class, and the teacher gave me a few notes on how to be a more powerful speaker in my [written] voice. It gave me confidence. When I took my creative writing class, it was the first time anyone had taught me poetry other than Shakespearean poetry. And [then] I just understood poetry.
Things that were spoken abstractly made way more sense to me than words just spoken normally. I love poetry because I love the space between it. The space is either a lot of noise or it’s a lot of silence […] When it leaves you spaces, it allows you to explore yourself.
I had picked up my first poetry book, I actually still have it, in middle school. It was about this girl whose sister had a mental illness. My mom, at the time, had been going through this mental illness that altered her entire psyche and the way she behaved toward her family, so I really related with this poet. I had never read poetry in that way. I understood it more than narrative. Things that were spoken abstractly made way more sense to me than words just spoken normally. I love poetry because I love the space between it. The space is either a lot of noise or it’s a lot of silence, and both of those things are really powerful. This is so cheesy, but in stillness you find so much. When it leaves you spaces, it allows you to explore yourself. It’s so reflective. No matter the mood you’re in, you’re either exploring the author or yourself. Poetry always leaves room for yourself.
What purpose does writing serve you?
Understanding myself more. It helps me see more than just my perspective and my emotions. I started doing a journal where I just [write] whatever. Every petty little thought. You have to go through all the shallow shit to get to the center of it. It took me a long time to be really honest in my writing. Even journaling. Because after you read [someone like] Anne Frank, you’re like, “Someone will one day read my journal, and I better look good.” So it took me until the last year of high school/first year of college to be brutally honest in my journals and not try to glorify myself.
Is there ever a day that goes by where you don’t write?
Yes. When I’m not writing I realize what a terrible person I am in real life. The other day actually [a friend] and I went to a coffee shop, and I was in a weird mood. I wasn’t mad, I was just in a weird mood. And then I went and was writing while he was reading. Fifteen minutes later, he was like, “It’s crazy how much your mood has changed after 15 minutes of writing and taking a sip of coffee.” When I don’t reflect and am not writing or walking (walking is the same process as writing for me), I realize I’m not being conscious of myself, and I allow things to slide to where I’m not thinking outside of myself and how my actions are affecting other people.
How would you describe your relationship with writing in one word?
Complicated. It’s complicated because I love it and want to be so much better, but I know I’m holding my own self back from that. And then it’s just a spiral and vicious circle of “I’m not good enough at it, so I won’t do it.” Or, I’ll do it, and I feel great, but then I’m like, “This isn’t good enough, so I don’t want to put it out there.” That’s any person who cares about their art. They’re always their own worst critic.
When I talk to people about the creative process, writing, or projects that they’re working on, it makes me want to do more. Keeping people like that in my life helps me stay inspired […] because sometimes stuff is so good, you’re like “I will never be that good.”
I’m always so inhibited by my feeling of not knowing enough. I always want to know more writers and more poetry and more technical things about writing. I feel like since I don’t know all that I want to know, I’m still not a writer. It’s an unfair and complicated place I’ve put myself in. I feel like I need writing so much, but then I feel like it doesn’t need me.
How do you stay inspired?
Other people, for sure. People who get fired up. When I talk to people about the creative process, writing, or projects that they’re working on, it makes me want to do more. Keeping people like that in my life helps me stay inspired, even more so than reading good material, because sometimes stuff is so good, you’re like “I will never be that good.” I have Sylvia Plath’s journals, and they’re a brutal thing for me because they’re so good, and they’re just her journals. You’re like, “I could never do this.”
How is being a woman in the writing world unique?
Well, it’s interesting. I’m not in the writing world. It’s not like I’m trying to get published, so I don’t feel it in that respect. But I see it more in the last two years being really aware of woman writers. There’s this conversation my cousin and I have been having since reading Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” about suffering for your art and whether that’s romanticized or not, but I’ve always felt the best artists are the ones who have been through oppression or suffering.
…there is such power in being a woman writer. Jane Austen is one of my favorite ladies. It’s not because of the love stories she’s telling, it’s because her characters are unwilling to be women that are passed by and not get what they want because they’re women. She wasn’t afraid to show those kind of strong women. Women are so badass.
Women–especially women poets–are so good. Especially black women poets […] who are lesbians. They’re just the best. Right now what’s happening is women are really feeling this collectiveness against our government and Trump and standing up for ourselves. I feel the power of women, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m a woman. I think it’s because there is such power in being a woman writer. Jane Austen is one of my favorite ladies. It’s not because of the love stories she’s telling, it’s because her characters are unwilling to be women that are passed by and not get what they want because they’re women. She wasn’t afraid to show those kind of strong women. Women are so badass. It’s so cliche to say. But women in their time who wrote characters who were women and unwilling to bend to a man’s world and who are also in the process so graceful and humble about it. That is what I love about women writers.
What’s your favorite part about being a woman?
Breasts. Just kidding. Being versatile. I feel women are allowed to get away with it more than men are. We’re allowed to put on many different caps. We are invited to put ourselves in any role.
When did you start to own your womanhood?
That’s complicated. When you felt your body the first time you had sex. The sexual relationships, not even sex itself. But feeling your body because someone else is feeling it. I don’t think I fully stepped into it and understood what it meant to be a woman until two years ago. [And] It’s not just about the body. It’s the mentality. It’s what I get from the classics. Being a woman and all its gracefulness and, people say, mysteriousness. But I do think that I’m mysterious to myself. There are so many things that are still locked away that you unearth every now and then.
I’ve known what it means to be a woman to bend and not fully break and to show humility when you want to show defiance. But also to stand up for yourself when there’s no one else standing up for you.
There’s this poet where she talks about a steel thread that’s made up of the women in her family, and I think that’s what is in a woman. Not that we’re made [completely] of steel and iron–that’s bulkiness. But it’s these steel threads in our body that make us up. We’re sensitive and light and graceful and so powerful. We bend, but we don’t break. I love being a woman. I’ve known what it means to be a woman to bend and not fully break and to show humility when you want to show defiance. But also to stand up for yourself when there’s no one else standing up for you.
What goal do you have for yourself as a writer and as a woman?
As a writer, to actually put stuff out there. To write within constraints, because a lot of times the way I write is writing where no one will see it. But having some structure to it so I can be a better writer–giving myself that kind of discipline. As a woman, continuing to step into what it means to be a woman and exploring that. To continue to support other women. Definitely not being anti-men. I don’t want to ever get to that place. Supporting and loving women and men and having that conversation between men and women.
Who do you respect in the writing world?
It’s not one person so much as it is the whole African American community, especially women. They’re speaking such truths, and it’s me walking into a world that’s been right there that I’ve never walked into before. Discovering that and feeling the uneasiness of going into that is very inspiring and humbling and educational. That’s where I’m living right now. Unlocking this whole culture that’s my neighbor and trying to understand it.
The starting point of that was going to see Nikki Giovanni speak and being in this auditorium where I was definitely the minority, and she was speaking, and I had no idea what she was talking about. She’s referencing all these things that aren’t in my history as a white person. That was a weird awakening because it was very uncomfortable to be there, but you knew it was right to be there and sit in that uncomfortableness. Since then, it’s been my goal to understand that language of that culture that should be my neighbor and my friend.
What’s the last best piece of literature you’ve read?
I just read “Why the Caged Bird Sings.” That is the best piece I’ve read in a long time. It’s another understanding of what it is to be a woman. She’s still a young girl in that book, but she hits you with what it is to be a woman through being a girl.
Who should I interview next?
[My friend] Erica. As a strong woman, she lives for other people. Her friends, her family. She does what needs to be done for the best of others and does it with grace and a light. That is a strong woman to me. Giving naturally and without expectations. Caretakers of others and your environment. It’s such an honor to be a woman in this way. She inspires me to be more generous.