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Poetry Professor Catherine Bowman on writing, poetry and her creative process

Indiana University Professor Catherine Bowman recently achieved something most writers only dream of -- her poem, "The Sink," was published on the pages of The New Yorker.

Cathy Bowman

Catherine Bowman

Print-Quality Photo

Bowman is the author of the poetry collections Notarikon, Rock Farm and 1-800-Hot-Ribs. Her poems have appeared in literary magazines and journals including The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Times and many others. Her work has also been published in several anthologies including Real Thing: Pop Culture Poems, The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women and Exhalation of Forms.

In a candid interview with Live at IU, the IU Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry discusses her inspiration for writing "The Sink," her experience teaching at IU and her current favorite reads.

Live at IU: When did you know you wanted to be a poet? Did you ever waver from that goal -- and can you ever picture yourself doing anything else?

Catherine Bowman: Good question. I don't think I ever 'knew' I wanted to be a poet, as in 'to know' something consciously -- it was more an infiltration, something instinctual, a kind of possession. I think I was brainwashed into poetry, ear-washed by language. In terms of ever wavering from that goal, again, I don't know if it was a goal; poetry was more a part of me -- though early on, poetry did not seem very practical. So I majored in political science and tried my hand at journalism, all the while still writing poems. I find my studies in political science and work in journalism come out now in my work as a teacher and a poet. I worked with NPR's 'All Things Considered,' featuring and commenting on contemporary poets. I have also worked on poetry and writing projects to promote community literacy and community activism. I can't really picture myself doing something else. But who knows? I find writing a necessity.

LIU: Describe your writing process. Do you write in a specific place or at a certain time? Any rituals you follow?

C.B.: I like to write in 'quiet-noisy' places, with lots of dictionaries around me and resource books, natural history books, books of riddles. Not that I will use all of them, but I like to have them around as security figures, a kind of support group. In terms of rituals, I don't really have any. I try to use any techniques or strategies I can for getting the censoring mind out of the way in order for discovery and surprise to take place. If I'm not discovering something when I write, why even write? I bring my own 'censoring self' back during the revision process.

LIU: What has been your experience as a faculty member at IU?

C.B.: I love teaching. Last semester, I felt a bubbling, joyous sense of anticipation before each class. I've also found the university as a kind of landscape for discovering new material for poems. My last collection came out of my research work in the Lilly Library. I'm now starting to explore the Kinsey Institute.

LIU: Who are your favorite poets and writers?

C.B.: I don't really think I can make a list at the moment, there are so many. Right now I'm reading Amy Gerstler's new collection Dearest Creature, The Collected Poems: 1956-1998 of Zbigniew Herbert, Ann Carson's Nox, and Other Flowers: the Uncollected Poems by James Schuyler.

LIU: What was your reaction when you found out "The Sink" was going to be published in the New Yorker? Is this your first New Yorker piece?

C.B.: Well, I was delighted of course. This was my first New Yorker piece. I was also surprised by how many people read the poem! I received e-mails and letters from people all over the world. A favorite was from a self proclaimed "old sailor" in Berkeley, California, arguing my use of the compass imagery in the poem.

LIU: What was your inspiration for writing "The Sink?"

C.B.: I'm intrigued by simple words that we use every day, words that have several different meanings like "sink" -- and also words we hardly ever use, like "lemnisci" -- that juxtaposition between the familiar and the strange. Three things started the poem for me: the word sink, a friend from many years ago telling me he liked to talk on the phone while doing the dishes, and memories of old coffee cans of bacon fat under the sink when I was a child. I like to traverse in a poem between realms of the ordinary and the extraordinary. How the dark, gurgly in-between space under the sink, with the drain leading to the sewer, might become briefly an enchanted, sacred kingdom.

LIU: What's next for you? What is the topic of your current projects?

Bowman: In terms of my own poetry, I'm working on a new collection of poems. I moved out to a farm this past year, so I am excited what that might bring to my work.

To read Bowman's poem published in The New Yorker, visit http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2010/06/28/100628po_poem_bowman.

-- By Alex Nicola-Iott, University Communications arts intern

This story was originally published August 19, 2010.