Providing a home for poetry in Chicago, the Poetry Foundation is publisher of Poetry magazine and is an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry. It exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience.
Holly Mason: What is your role at the Poetry Foundation? How long have you been working there? What has the experience been like?
Katherine Litwin: I’ve been at the Poetry Foundation since 2011. I was hired to create their library, so basically, it was a dream project. The first year was incredibly exciting and overwhelming. There was this amazing collection of poetry that had been in storage at the Newbery Library, all the way in the furthest recesses of remote storage. For the first year, my focus was pretty heavily on the collection, because we were still sorting, culling, and cataloging this amazing assemblage of review copies from the magazine’s history. Five years in, the collection is still very much a focus of my work, but we also run a huge amount of educational programming and outreach out of the library.
One of the things which the Foundation as a whole, and the library in particular, tries to do is put poetry in front of people who might not otherwise read it.
One project that I’m working on which I’m very excited about is a collaboration with doctors from the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine to give poetry to patients who are in palliative care.
HM: How did you get the job? Or what prepared you for this job? What experience and/or education did you need? What sort of interest did you need to have in poetry, in books? A devout love?!
KL: I do have a devout love of books. Walking into a library or bookstore has always given me a profound feeling of peace. I truly love everything about books, their smell, their design, their ability to simultaneously provide safety and escape. In terms of formal education, I have an MLIS, but not an MFA. In my job I need to do a little bit of everything, so I was lucky to have worked in a lot of different places, doing many different things.
HM: What is your favorite aspect of working at the Poetry Foundation?
KL: The best part about working at the Poetry Foundation are my colleagues, who are a constant inspiration to me. I feel incredibly fortunate to work with such smart, cool, quirky people. Some of my dearest friends are people I met at the Foundation. And in the library I am especially indebted to two poets, Maggie Queeney and H. Melt, who have created wonderful educational programs for our patrons.
HM: Have you always loved poetry? Which poets or poems or books originally inspired you? Do you write?
KL: I’ve always been a voracious, possibly compulsive, reader, and when I was in high school I really got into poetry. It started when I was in a theatre class and my friends and I all used to write poems and share them with each other when we were supposed to be rehearsing our scenes. I remember the sharing was very important, we’d pass our notebooks back and forth, and latter on I used to spend long hours at a Denny’s with my best friend and we’d talk about poetry while we were smoking and crying. So for me my love of poetry really began with the writing of it, and then I started reading it and I just began consuming a lot of it in a very short amount of time.
The first poet that I truly, deeply loved was Roethke and the poet who is most essential to me now is Paul Celan.
HM: Has your writing practice changed since becoming a mother? I also know that you are involved in theatre, too, right? Has that world shifted for you?
KL: For about ten years I wrote every day, mostly poetry, but at a certain point my work in theatre began to consume the time that I had been putting into writing. So I had stopped writing sometime before becoming a mother, but I am still very involved in theatre as an actor and a director. In terms of how becoming a mother has affected my work, the biggest thing is time. Especially as a working mother, everything is weighed against time.
So there are a lot of things I don’t do anymore, but I do give myself space to work in theatre because that’s just, essential to my being.
I can’t work constantly though, so I have to be very specific about what I want to do.
HM: Maybe this question is ridiculous or maybe not? I am wondering if you would consider yourself a feminist?
KL: Yes, absolutely. Feminism is an essential part of who I am, and how I view the world.
HM: I always like to ask—what reading recommendations would you give our readers?
KL: Anything by Cynthia Cruz! Other poets I love right now: Fatimah Asghar, Alice Fulton, Jean Valentine, Ed Roberson, Robin Ekiss, Valzhyna Mort. The poetry-comics journal Ink Brick brings me endless delight. Non-poetry: Luca Turin’s Folio Columns. Turin is best known as a perfume critic, and his Folio columns explore all manner of sensuality via comparisons. For example, the relative merits of mushrooms versus plants, trams versus trains, and on and on. And like the rest of the world, I am deep into the Neopolitan novels.
Katherine Litwin is the Library Director at the Poetry Foundation. She lives in Chicago with her husband and child, does many theatrical things, and spends a lot of time reading.
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