Flow State: Katie Hartsock’s Poems Fluidly Move from One Place to the Next in New "Wolf Trees" Poetry Collection
Katie Hartsock’s poetry collection, Wolf Trees, surveys what persists amidst trials that must be weathered. One poem defines the titular term as, “A tree that is the forest that is / the island.” A wolf tree is also, “A tree to lean / against and think, I’m there.”
Hartsock, a professor at Oakland University, connects the mundane and discouraging aspects of one’s personal and family life to the natural world and also to different points in time. In the poem “Decent Seas,” the setting is a Chicago harbor. The poet instructs us to, “Think of a desire turned into a satisfaction turned into a joy / turned into a joke. That’s how to name your boat.” Whether the topic is boats, local parks, wolf trees, art, or Greek mythology, Hartsock has, “my gaze trained / on earth’s colors as they shift, / ready for invention.” The poet’s attention to nature leads the reader to new associations and even new ways of being in this world.
Hartsock’s poems take sweeping journeys through the woods, as “you see something and think of something else.” The poems’ lines make sharp observations about having children, managing a chronic health condition, and traversing both regular days and other countries. “It’s all a little Sisyphean,” Hartsock writes.
Part II contains one long poem also named “Wolf Trees” that is divided into numbered sections, and section xi reads:
In the days I drove long distances alone
in a ’99 Cougar named Purple Haze,
I opened the moonroof whenever the weather allowed
the sky to become less separate. I looked for the trees
that stood apart in fields, turning my head
as from a barstool to trail their silhouettes,
as if they were the ones passing me by. As if
they’d know me, as if they too had been wanting
a recognition scene with someone, something,
they’d never met. And all this was before
the onset of the disease, before the disease
set itself on me. Before I’d heard anyone say,
that’s a wolf tree. Her limbs are loveliest
at dusk, reaching her reach the daylight made
into shy seductions of nightfall…
The poem fluidly moves from one place to another – or to an issue or memory that the place conjures. There is no longer simply existing but rather there is the before and there is the after. While “We all have our excuses,” Hartsock’s poems do not ignore what is in front of the poet but rather look everything in the eye because, “After all, I am a mammal. This is how I work.”
Hartsock has a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award. We recently interviewed Hartsock about her recent book.
Q: How did you decide to stay in Ann Arbor after earning your MFA at the University of Michigan?
A: I returned to Ann Arbor, actually! After the MFA program, I worked at Chicago’s Poetry Foundation and then earned my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Northwestern. I started my job at Oakland University in the fall of 2016, and still feel so grateful to be back in Michigan. We lived in Ferndale at first, which was wonderful—great neighbors, close to Detroit. My husband and I and our two young sons love to be in the woods, so in 2019, we decided to return to Ann Arbor. It’s a commute for me, but we spend so much time among the trees or by the river—Bird Hills, Barton, the Arb, Furstenberg, Gallup, or even the lakes and trails in Pinckney, are some of our favorite places. Plus, it’s a terrific town for writers. Between the U-M Zell Visiting Writers Series and bookstores like Literati, there’s always a reading to look forward to.
Q: What does working as a professor of English at Oakland University involve for you?
A: When I was working on my dissertation, I’d dream of a job where I could teach both creative writing and Ancient Greek and Roman literature in translation—and it turns out I have that job! I teach intermediate and advanced poetry workshops and enjoy mentoring undergraduate poets, some of whom have gone on to publish and study at terrific MFA programs. I teach prosody – the study of meter and rhyme – as well as free verse, and I’m always happy when young writers at first resist and then come to appreciate or even love composing in meter. “Freedom in form” is one of my classroom mantras. I also teach upper-level literature courses, including Disability Studies and Literature – creating the syllabus for that class while working on some of the poems about my Type 1 diabetes in Wolf Trees was fascinating and generative. And I teach general education classes, like my Classical Mythology class, where I get to work with English majors and creative writers, but also majors across the university, from biology to nursing. I love all the perspectives this variety of students brings to the ancient—strange, difficult, beautiful—texts. I also invite my students to create their own version of a myth, through writing or art, as part of a final project, and this has been rewarding for everyone, including I think mythology itself! Being retold is how myths remain, and remain relevant.
Outside of teaching, I advise the English Honors Society and help plan readings and creative writing events. There’s a lot of exciting things happening at Oakland, like our Disability Literacy and Awareness Committee; our Indigenous Studies group (OU is actually the first university to rematriate land to local indigenous communities – I’m so lucky to have the visionary colleagues who do this work); and the OU Bio Preserve, a beautiful marshland in the Clinton River watershed where I take poets to learn and write.
Q: Your second book, Wolf Trees, came out this year, and you write, “My second collection weaves changing ecologies with personal worlds of motherhood and living with Type 1 diabetes.” Tell us more about how this collection came about.
A: I was diagnosed with Type 1 when I was 26, and of course, it was life-changing and overwhelming. Taking care of my blood sugars takes more time and focus and discipline, every day than I can easily explain to people who are not familiar with diabetes. I didn’t write about this new immense part of my life for years. As I was going through pregnancies, I was focused more than ever on my blood sugar levels. Pregnancy with diabetes is difficult and stressful – if the mother has high blood sugar, so does the baby, as they share blood, and excessive high blood sugar can lead to health problems for the child. When I was pregnant with my sons, there would be times my blood sugar was high and I’d think, I’m already failing them.
This stress was creating a lot of energy that needed to be released through writing, but I needed an indirection—some kind of outside image or lens—for it. Besides my insulin pump and glucose monitor, which appear as small bumps under my clothing, my diabetes is an invisible disability; I needed something visible and narratable to ricochet against the invisibility and inarticulateness I felt. But I didn’t know what that was. And then one day my father-in-law pointed out a tree and said, “That’s a wolf tree.” I was immediately intrigued at the phrase, and even more intrigued as I learned it has an unclear etymology: its meaning varies regionally across the U.S., from a single tree alone in a field to an older tree surrounded by younger forest—in either case, a remnant of a former ecology. Writing about wolf trees allowed me to start writing about my diabetes, and how I felt like a wolf tree, like a remnant, given that diabetes has long been, until just a century ago, a death sentence. The wolf tree’s enormous symbolic range, from survival and strange beauty to shattered or resurgent landscapes, ground (ha) the poems in this book, through several perspectives: mother, comparative classicist, wife, daughter, diabetic, poet.
Q: There are four parts in Wolf Trees. How did you go about making these delineations? How do you see the different parts of the book as distinct?
A: Ordering a book of poems can be both exciting—discovering resonances, detecting patterns—and difficult, as it presses you to try to define what the book is and wants and does. On a poem-by-poem level, I often think of the effect of one poem leading into another as something like what happens on a good mixed CD, as my friends and I used to make, in terms of keeping or changing the mood, subverting or fulfilling expectations. Billie Holiday’s “I Cover the Waterfront” and Looking Glass’ one-hit wonder “Brandy” (two favorites!) are so different. But they’re both about women by the sea, and so the 1930s jazz piano ending moves into the 1970s soft-rock intro in surprising but satisfying ways. The space between poems can shift and echo like this, too.
Even between the sections, I thought about this effect—the poem ending section one, “Needle in a Haystack,” ends on the word “invention,” which is one of my favorite words. Etymologically, it can mean finding what is already there or creating something entirely new—a tension between what has always been and what has never existed is constantly at play in a good poem. And I thought it was a great springboard word into the second section, which is the 11-part title sequence, “Wolf Trees.”
The poems echo each other in different ways, from a kind of lived chronology to more thematic arcs, and there are other poems with “wolf tree” in the title beyond the title sequence. I wanted the effect to be choral and non-linear, while still presenting a kind of timeline of illness and motherhood that could ground readers.
I think of section one as introducing the book’s central concepts such as living with diabetes; symbolic interpretations of the wolf tree, before the second section defines it more literally; motherhood, including miscarriage and trying to become pregnant; and reimagining, and experiencing contemporary life through, figures from the classical world. The title sequence, as the second section, then gains its own focus. The third section might well be thought of through the title of its last poem, “Appearances and Realities,” as it rethinks figures from myth and literature, but also personal lived experiences echoed throughout the book, like diaper rash and cutting up a mango to give to my sons. The fourth section has a more retrospective mood to it, I think, and upends the book’s chronology (the speakers of “Child with Droid” and “Glucose Tablets” grieve a miscarriage, or recall being newly diagnosed with diabetes). I hope the ending momentum of the book feels more collective than individual.
Q: The way your poems move from one observation or reference to another is so fluid. When you write a poem, do you have all of these observations or references in mind at the outset or do they bubble up as you write or is it an entirely different process?
A: Oh, thank you! It can feel like a gamble, but also a like a gift, to follow unlikely juxtapositions or associations through a poem. A gift that is newly given each time, I should clarify—not like, I have a gift for this or that. Aristotle discusses metaphor in fascinating ways (and poets have long discussed his discussions), and one thing he says that is you can’t teach someone to be good at metaphor—the talent for noticing similarities, in a way that will surprise and arrest, and maybe even teach something to, the reader, is innate. The capacity he describes as a talent for metaphor – to see likeness between unlike things – I think often works on a broader scale in poetry. The whole arc of a poem might be unifying a disparate sequence of events or emotions in such a way that nothing else could unify them. But I’m not sure this is so much a talent, as Aristotle might suggest—for me, it feels more like an openness, a listening, a gift from some grander consciousness, rhizomatic and ethereal at once. These gifts or glimpses can also come from working within the constraints, or without from the skeleton, of a form or meter, as it helps poets think even further outside themselves.
Sometimes a poem comes mostly at once, with all the observations and references already tangled. Sometimes it grows over notes and revisions and accretions. Either way, the associative arcs are not within my control, I don’t think, but I’m grateful for them. The best gifts are often surprises, too.
Q: In the poem, “Flashes in All Directions,” the last two stanzas say:
God went for a walk in his woods
and found a man and a woman trying to hide
everything, and asked them
my favorite question God ever asked:
‘Who told you that you were naked?’
It always makes me laugh.
These poems are so grounded in the woods. Did many of them originate on walks?
A: Absolutely. There is something about the rhythm of walking, of concentrating on things outside myself or immediate concerns, of smelling and touching the world of a forest or prairie or riverbank, that allows the openness I spoke of above to arrive. I wish I were good at keeping a notebook with me at all times, but I’m not; a lot of my notes are on the backs of envelopes or napkins. In recent years, which have been blessedly busy with my sons, sometimes I find myself even without the most minimal scrap of paper, and so I have also taken to using dictation on my phone and turning the words I speak to text. (This has also created a few unintended words which I actually retained for the poem! The grand consciousness works in all ways, I guess.) I had to get over my initial embarrassment of walking through the woods talking out loud into my phone – but it’s become something I enjoy—just walking through Bird Hill, declaiming. Although I do not subject other walkers to my vocal meanderings.
Many poets have observed the illuminating power of walks. I’ve also thought a lot recently about disability poetics, and poets who cannot access hikes or high vistas. My students and I have read poems by poets who use wheelchairs, from Larry Eigner to Laura Hershey, to selections from Petra Kupper’s Gut Botany, some of which began when a friend “went on wheelchair-inaccessible nature hikes and brought back found materials for a creative exchange with me.” We also read Jillian Weise’s Cyborg Detective; here are some lines from “Biohack Manifesto”:
AND WHY IS IT ALWAYS A POEM IS A WALK?
A poem is like a walk
A poem is like going on a walk
A walk is like a poem
I was walking the other day and a poem tripped me
So how can we account for a poetic rhythm of moving / thinking that is not able-bodied? I want the poets in my workshop who can, to go walk in the OU Bio Preserve; I also want to make space for writers with disabilities to have a similar assignment for a different space for thought and reflection. When I go on walks, I often feel full of ideas and lines for poems, but, just as poetry is always mindful of mortality, I also feel the precarity of my motion.
Q: Another poem, “Negative,” acknowledges that, “I know / some walks can get / you nowhere.” Would you share about this poem in particular and its inspiration from graffiti on a bridge over the Huron River?
A: When we first moved back to Ann Arbor, one of my favorite things was a piece of graffiti on the bridge over the Huron just next to Barton Dam, a single word in white cursive, “Sea.” It was so arresting and delightful to see the word as I saw it, “identifying” its decidedly riverine background. Maybe something to do with that Aristotelian likeness between unlike things? I live in a place, I would think, where people know a river is really sort of a sea, and the sea is really sort of a river, etc.
Once COVID hit, we walked even more as a family, almost every day. I would always stop to soak in that “Sea.” Then one day, during a time in the pandemic when lockdown had lasted longer than anyone dreamt it would and everyone was feeling desperate, I noticed someone had come along and crossed it out with a bright blue X. I was incensed and bitter over this, what I thought of a complete failure of imagination in a time when we needed to imagine more than ever to get through our days. I began the poem with that anger, but the poem took over—it was really an instance of a poem writing itself—and went into a surprising (to me!) empathetic address to the blue-X-perpetrator. I found myself imagining acknowledging to X that walks do not always illuminate or give or soothe; sometimes you’re just walking into whatever you want to get through, but you can’t.
Q: What are you reading and recommending this summer?
A: My current reading stack holds Ross Gay’s Inciting Joy, Saint Rafael Arnaiz’ The Collected Works, Karen Solie’s The Caiplie Caves, Maggie Millner’s Couplets, Dunya Mikhail’s The Bird Tattoo, Meg Day’s Last Psalm at Sea Level, J.C. Scharl’s Sonnez Les Matines, Rochelle Hurt’s The J Girls, Nandi Comer’s Tapping Out. I’m always reading the Iliad, along with sourcebooks for women in antiquity, and I’m honestly taking years to get through Adrienne Mayor’s awesome The Amazons. I also just finished Brian Bouldrey’s The Genius of Desire, in its 2019 reissue (1993 original debut) from ReQueered Tales. Like Julie Buntin’s Marlena, which I also devoured earlier this year, it’s a hauntingly gorgeous Michigan Bildungsroman.
My favorite things to recommend to friends include Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, which is just a perfect, well, summer book; Anne Carson’s Short Talks; Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi.
Q: Where is your writing taking you next?
A: I have been working for years now on translating Homer’s Iliad. The manuscript combines translated sections of the Ancient Greek epic with fiction: historically inspired vignettes of ancient people who knew and loved the poem, and heard and saw it delivered in its original context of oral performances. I want to invite contemporary readers to encounter the Iliad as those in the ancient world did – not as a book that takes weeks or months to read in silent solitude, but as a song, an episode at a time, heard as a member of an audience, within a community. The current title is The Iliad Rewilded, which may be too much of a mouthful, but I hope it could indicate that the ancient audience members were native inhabitants of the ecology of the epic’s ancient flourishing, and I’m planting them back into its landscape. The translations also play with meter and white space, and vignettes give glimpses of how men and women of higher and lower class, soldiers and veterans, athletes and priestesses, grammarians and musicians, the elderly or anyone with disabilities, and even children, would have encountered the poem, and how they might have related the characters to their own lives. I’d like it to be a book that evokes a time and a poem before books.
And my current poetry manuscript, which I began before finishing Wolf Trees, is called The Last Crusade. It has poems about water, the heroics and pitfalls of adolescence in contemporary America, climate anxiety, and prayer. And Indiana Jones.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.