“I often just cut a piece of writing into its smallest fragments and rearrange it on the floor until it makes sense.”
Guide to Urban Reindeer (Essay Press, 2017)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal excerpt from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
At 10th and I, Star the Reindeer can see the Park Strip from her enclosure. (She is on my running route, not because it is convenient.)
Star has an array of punching and sharpening objects suspended from the roof like meats in a smokehouse: PVC pipe, ribbed tubing, an orange bag.
In summer she feeds at the trough. In winter I find her standing stock still, watching her breath congeal in the air.
Why did you choose this excerpt?
Guide to Urban Reindeer is a record of my encounters with the city of Anchorage when I moved there in 2013. The project uses an archive of photos from the construction of the Alaska Railroad in the 1910s to explore vision, sound, and life in the contemporary circumpolar North.
I chose this excerpt, in part, because it’s about a reindeer who was my neighbor. I almost always notice animals in a space first, whether it’s a chicken running across a street or a gigantic moose. More broadly, though, I think this excerpt is a sort of establishing shot into the way the chapbook investigates the scenes that exist within the city, and particularly within this Northern city, where the wilderness and harshness of Alaska are sometimes foregrounded in startling ways. I’m also interested in the role of eco-tourism in the city, and how I was always a sort of outsider in the space even as it became familiar.
What’s your chapbook about?
I spent a summer working as a caretaker in a little train depot building that has been turned into a museum in the town of McCarthy, Alaska, on a route of the railroad that has long since closed but once led to a copper mine. Spending time with the artifacts of the railroad and the mine sparked an interest in the history of railroads and railroad workers in Alaska, which was not a subject that I had ever considered as interesting. When I got back to Anchorage, where I lived at the time, I began looking at photos from the construction of the Alaska Railroad, and I was fortunate to have received a grant through the Polar Lab Initiative at the Anchorage Museum which allowed me to devote time to the project.
I focused on looking at a set of photos commissioned by the Department of the Interior that show the railroad coming through the creek bed that would later become Anchorage. I lived in an apartment very close to the original townsite in a neighborhood called South Addition, and I was interested in representing the experience of movement in that community—including my fascination with its most famous resident, Star the Reindeer, who lived just a few blocks away and whom I highly recommend following on Facebook. I talk about starting my own garden in Alaska and some of the experimental agricultural practices that new arrivals in Alaska tried out, without much knowledge of existing practices of interacting with the land.
For me, writing is often the way in which I experience a new place by working with its language and tracking my own inquiry, so Guide to Urban Reindeer follows my research into many of my questions, like why the carrots in Alaska are sweet and how the quietness of the Alaskan landscape affects people. I also just follow whatever is giving me delight, like learning about my neighbor reindeer’s recreation habits.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
One chapbook I’ve been thinking about a lot as I’ve worked on this project, because it has an extended intertextual relationship with one other source, is Anne Carson’s The Albertine Workout, a very deeply funny reading of Proust. I also think of Susan Howe’s Sorting Facts, or Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, which was formational for me in thinking about the relationship between experimental film and techniques like montage in documentary poetic approaches. I recently read C.D. Wright’s 40 Watts, which was a lovely reminder of her spectacular precision.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I think that one might say that these three are major formal influences for me, both in their use of collage or intertextuality and their hybridity. I’ve been interested in writers who use fractured forms since I began reading poetry, and I think that these writers represent a range of approaches to that idea—archival work, revisionist reading, and extended meditations on place. There are elements of all three in my work.
Does the chapbook’s form have an impact on the politics of the pieces that appear inside it?
Short documentary forms (which is how I would describe this work) have interesting formal connections with the history of leftist politics and aesthetics in the U.S.; I’m interested in this history from a critical standpoint, for example in Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, which many contemporary documentary poets point to as a foundational text.
For me, in the process of producing textual interpretations of this series of photos from the construction of the Alaska Railroad, there are very obvious ethical obligations to discuss class, race, and gender. I am invested, in part, in discussing labor because of my own family’s history working in steel mills in Eastern Ohio; it is hard for me to look at photos of abandoned mines along Alaska railroad routes without thinking, also, of the shuttered mills around the land where my parents grew up and which has always felt like a second home to me. So I’m interested in trains metaphorically, and in histories of railroads and settler colonialism, but also in the personal impacts of industry and resource extraction on communities.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
I love archives, and I find that focusing a series of fragments on a salient historical moment is one of the most generative ways for me to write. I became really interested in the Alaska Railroad kind of accidentally through my summer caretaking job. I like trains as much as the next guy, and I’ve ridden lots of Amtrak trains growing up on the East Coast, but to this day I cannot tell you anything about trains from a mechanical angle. To some extent, I left this untouched intentionally because I wanted the poems to be about disrupting the symbols of linear movement, not the logistics.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I often work in loosely braided lyric forms, so the choice to organize this work as a collection of numbered fragments felt organic to me. I’m also working with lots of disjointed bits of text and description from the archive, so the form mirrors the received form of that material to an extent. Two things that were new for me in the arrangement of this work were the decisions to include some of the railroad photos, which I came to in conversation with the fabulous editors of Essay Press, and to use numbered sections. The conceit of linear order operates, I think, as a signal of exactly what I want this manuscript to undercut—any notion of a fixed historical narrative that exists in a singular form. Instead, I wanted the language of description and narrative to be closely connected to photography, and to operate through quick shifts across a broad chronological frame from the 1910s to 2014, so the essay has a loosely braided structure.
I am particularly bad at titling things, which I will fess up to right away, so I ran many potential titles past other writerly friends whom I trust to brutally reject most of my title ideas. I wanted the title to respond to the convention of Alaskan nature writing while also turning it on its head, as this manuscript has a great deal to do with the failures and missteps of inquiry.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
Because this chapbook is one component of a book-length project, I was working on it while also shaping the entire collection’s trajectory. I spent four months just looking at photos in the archive, taking notes, and making sketches, and then I engaged in a series of sorting attempts that helped me to figure out which photos and threads I wanted to pair together into sections. I was, at the same time, writing about moving to Anchorage, and so pieces of that writing got woven into my thinking about the railroad, too. I often just cut a piece of writing into its smallest fragments and rearrange it on the floor until it makes sense. I’m a very tactile writer, and I prefer to do almost everything by hand, from color-coding to re-ordering.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Essay Press was absolutely spectacular to collaborate with on this project, and I am particularly indebted to Aimee Harrison and Maria Anderson, who edit the Groundloop Series. They were so hands-on at every level of production, from providing suggestions for revisions, editing, and formatting to providing drafts of cover art (which they generously let me see many iterations of). I wasn’t sure initially, despite the chapbook’s title, that a reindeer needed to be on the cover, and we looked at some options for using archival photos—but ultimately, I think the reindeer and the bright colors really exemplify the spirit of the thing and its untamedness.
If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
I have written one other chapbook, Intended American Dictionary, which came out in 2016 from MIEL Books. I am very proud of that project, which is also archival in nature but more formally profuse. I visited the Library of Congress and wrote from fragments in Walt Whitman’s notebook archive there; I was particularly thinking about Whitman’s interest in the pseudoscience of phrenology and romantic partnerships.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on finishing up the full hybrid manuscript that Guide to Urban Reindeer is a component of, which is called Northern Ledger. My first collection of poems, Ends of the Earth, is out this year from the University of Alaska Press, so I’ve been finalizing elements of its production, which is also exciting!
Kate Partridge is the author of the poetry collection Ends of the Earth (University of Alaska Press, 2017) and the hybrid chapbooks Guide to Urban Reindeer (Essay Press, 2017) and Intended American Dictionary (MIEL Books, 2016). Her poems and lyric essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Ninth Letter, Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Pleiades, and Passages North. She is a Graduate School Fellow at the University of Southern California, where she is pursuing a PhD in literature and creative writing.