In Ghosty Boo (A-Minor Press, 2016), Kate Litterer gives voice to a child, and there is every indication that the child is, in part, the poet herself.
This poet is frank and open about her traumatic past—an abusive, neglectful childhood, in part—and she is likewise frank about the PTSD she experiences as an adult. But she is just as forthcoming about the limits of memory and truth, asking in one of the long string of untitled poems in the book, “What am I making up?” Litterer, a doctoral student in rhetoric, has a sophisticated understanding of narration, and she blends her truthful accounting with fiction because she understands that she owns her own history and she controls the telling.
It is a control that seems to have been denied to the child at the center of Ghosty Boo, and giving her free range turns out to be a transformative act.
The poems in Ghosty Boo are presented without titles, although the book is broken up into five sections: “Break,” “Ghosty Boo,” “Say When,” “Terror Rooms,” and “Key and Witness.” The effect of a long series of poems presented without titles is somewhat decentering. Are these even individual poems, or is each section a long poem in parts, or is the book itself a single poem? As with the experiences of the child at the center of Ghosty Boo, the reader doesn’t get to categorize, and there are limits to what the reader can know. We have a right to a certain amount, but then no more.
It’s a contract we have with the voice that laces through the collection—a voice that has been informed by the danger so many women understand, as an early piece, one of two compositions in the “Break” section, explains:
At any moment women
might have to rally
individually to lose a piece of our bodies.
To a butcherman.
No one knows my sacrifice
except me and my bone-taker.
Tell me the difference
I assume it’s rule-based and up to ranking.
I bicker like I have always crackled
in a fire pit.
Litterer refers frequently to the act, and the dangers, of telling. “I am sawing / inside trees down,” she writes in one piece. “The trees are howling / and pissing themselves / with fear.” She also seems to reference the pain inherent to the act of telling: “oh my it is sexy when a queer woman bites her nails / down to the bloodcomingout.”
In another piece, she names a further source of trauma that is familiar to too many readers:
Last night in a red dress, I observed that
if women are fawns, timid in their drinks, martini,
then the man who raped me years ago,
large and barking, is a black wolf,
is a shot of whisky.
He got so close: his breath stank
like a casualty.
Many collections offer witness, and some offer redemption. This book is almost brutal in its willingness to let trauma sing from its own injured throat, and redemption is not part of its project. There are moments, though, of grace and relief, like the kind we wish for when we think of the speaker(s) of these poems. Here is one:
Earth, you don’t have to soak
in all the ooze
black from abuse.
Let it be
carried away and
by insects making homes.
An interview with Kate Litterer …
What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
I went through a range of dream occupations: chef, UPS driver, lawyer, and finally as a pre-teen I settled upon professor. Since then, I’ve been enthralled with poetry and pedagogy, and I suppose that I probably wanted to be a professor because education and school felt like a haven for me: of praise, success, friends, and teacher role models. Looking back, I am very thankful for the supportive attention that female English teachers paid to queer, sensitive Libra little me.
What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.
I’m not sure if I know the best word, but I can tell you my favorite line: “Butch Daddy you better have big arms and lots of money.” So much of this book runs on women’s traumatic labor, while their agency is always tenuous. When the femme speaker says this, it’s like a threat/a prayer/a desire, but it also shows her knowledge that she take care of herself.
Describe your worst poetic habit.
My worst poetic habit is chewing on really great lines of poetry when they flash in my mind but not writing them down! I used to collect lines and words in my phone, and I should really start that again.
It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning.
An anthology of poems about/by gurlesque queer lesbians. Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg's Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics (2010) had such a huge influence on my poetry and my life, and I’m hungry for poetry in that style and that voracity by queers and lesbians.
It’s your poetic obituary! Finish it up, but not with your bio—finish it with an essential statement about your poetry. [Your name] was a poet of/who/with …
I like to joke that I will never die, so how about this: Kate Litterer is a poet whose poems are dark but heart is bright.
Kate Litterer received her MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Program for Poets and Writers. Her poetry has appeared in numerous online and print journals, the anthology Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation, and the anthology Hysteria. Her website is katelitterer.com, and you can purchase her first book of poetry, Ghosty Boo, via Createspace and Amazon.