Like, Fer Caesura: An Interview with Cait Weiss Orcutt

24 mins read

Cait Weiss Orcutt Author PhotoWinner of the Zone 3 First Book Award, CAIT WEISS ORCUTT’s work has been published in The Boston Review, Chautauqua, FIELD, Prelude, and more. The founder of the Writers Guild Community Creative Writing Workshops in Columbus, Ohio, and a former workshop leader at New York Writers Coalition, Cait now teaches through the University of Houston, Inprint and Writers in the Schools. She is the recipient of an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor/MD Anderson Foundation Fellowship. Her first book, VALLEYSPEAK, came out this November.

Jon Riccio: VALLEYSPEAKs opening poem “Calabasas” exfoliates (to use a 90s beauty term) new life into the construct of origin—“I grow up in the valley under porn / stars, inside cars” concluding with “It’s a miracle to be born a vessel. We have so much / rind to burn.” How does the collection address potential, unmeasurable as it is, though often touted in quantifiables? On the inverse, what does VALLEYSPEAK say about squandered potential?

Cait Weiss Orcutt: Potential requires a linear understanding of time and a strong belief there is only one reality—and I suppose an origin story does too. I’m fascinated by cycles, by the belief that time itself is a series of spheres instead of one straight line from Point A to Point B. VALLEYSPEAK is constantly racing against itself, doubling back, finding shadows between generations, unearthing the future through conjuring ghosts.

As a child of the 80s and 90s, I grew up playing a lot of Mario Kart. I was especially captivated by the idea of a “ghost lap.” In a “ghost lap,” you race a semi-transparent version of yourself, a version of yourself endlessly repeating what you did the lap before. As the child of an alcoholic and an alcoholic myself—and as the child of two seekers, and a seeker myself—I imagine my potential and my origin as being interwoven with that of my parents.

I don’t think there can be a 21st century conversation about origin and potential without bringing up privilege, too. As a white cis-gendered able-bodied woman growing up economically stable, I have inherited a large degree of privilege. The family in my poems is white, far from poor, and has easy access to the industries and entertainments of a major American city. There’s a line in the poem “Charity”: “Our money, good money, crooks its fingers / in our breakdowns. Pulls our family’s addicts back up / by our teeth.” The women in my poems are often white, cis-gendered women, women with a specific privilege tied to social conceptions of beauty, beautiful objects, and how men with power and capital can and should use them.

So what is VALLEYSPEAK saying about potential? That it’s a myth, really. I don’t mean to devalue potential by calling it a myth, either. The most powerful things we have in our world are myths. Whether we use myth to re-inscribe power structures or subvert them, how we justify what we do is almost always traced back—not to potential, not even to origin, but—to myth.

JR: “Don’t Forget! This Mother’s Day” contrasts silicone and Ding Dongs with the weightier “Remember / your childhood—the good one? One recites Faust, slices / rivers in her thigh.” I admire the pivot from Hostess to Goethe. Could you describe the compositional and linguistic bargains inherent to VALLEYSPEAK?

CWO: I love a good junk shop. Copies of Richard III next to old Garfield & Friends mugs. I therefore not only love this question’s interest in uncommon bedfellows, but also in its use of the word “bargains.”

I’m a post-modern tyke. I grew up learning the bulk of my culture not from the source itself, but from a quick parodic mention on The Simpsons, Disney films, and, a bit later, South Park. VALLEYSPEAK is an exercise in world-building as much as anything else. I wanted this book to be as full of nuance and texture as a novel, so that not only could the reader see the Santa Monica mountains carving into pink sky from a white ranch house in Encino, but could also feel that specific resilient sponginess of Wonder Classic White Bread Thin Sandwich slices, or sense the high-wattage hum of an imagination decorated by David Lynch in Twin Peaks’ bright red.

There is nothing more high/low than the virgin/whore binary. And most of us humans fall somewhere in the middle with memorable moments at both poles. Why wouldn’t a poem?

JR: Mother Culture! Not the expletive I had in mind, but “Portrait of Family with Lana Tuner” depicts Martians and the matriarchy against a Hollywood of “loosed-up angels, smudged / -out stars.” The Mrs. of the house “sunbursts to painkillers, / platinum. Podge & I linger outside our home, count UFOs,” . . . “We wait for Mom like we wait for aliens.” Which is more of an oddity where the collection is concerned?

CWO: What’s more mythical: supermoms or the supernatural? In researching the history of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, I wasn’t wholly surprised to find our spot of land was the birthplace of quite a few creative faiths. Pentecostalism has its origins in L.A. via the Azusa Street Revival, and the First Church of Scientology opened in L.A. in 1954. est was big in Southern California, too, as any thorough Mad Men fan knows. Los Angeles has been home to several cults, many of which were referred to as “families” – first “The Family” (also known as Children of God), then The Mason Family and The Source Family. Pardon me if it seems I am collapsing spiritual with extraterrestrial, but I do think there is something about the Los Angeles area, specifically, that encourages otherworldly thinking. Disneyland, after all, makes a fortune on our ability to make-believe.

I have no idea what it takes to be a mother, but I imagine, from what I have seen, it’s as comprehensive and ineffable an experience as God or the universe itself. VALLEYSPEAK wrestles with the realization that we are all humans at the end of the day, even parents, as human as the actors that, every day, manage to pull together the Main Street Parade in the poem “Tomorrowland”: “Every character removes their heads, unzips their backs.”

JR: The sister, Podge, appears throughout VALLEYSPEAK. She is depicted in a deep-bonded light. Your book was on my reading list just after Louise Glück’s Ararat (1990) where the sisters have a less-than-cheery relationship, as seen in her poem “Animals”—

My sister and I

never became allies,

never turned on our parents.

We had

other obsessions: for example,

we both felt there were

too many of us

to survive.

Oppositional much? Who are some of your favorite literary/filmic siblings? Which ones would you want as neighbors in VALLEYSPEAK?

CWO: My lifelong best-friend Caitlin Cody gave me the book Animal Dreams to read years ago. Caitlin also has a sister she couldn’t fathom herself without. I’ve gone on myself to give that book to close friends with sisters, since I know they will know just what Barbara Kingsolver is talking about. I’ve recently read A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, a book which is fascinating for many reasons but also happens to have a few short pieces revolving around sisters as they age which I found very moving.

I should be upfront, though. I lost my shit watching Frozen. To me, that movie is entirely about sisters and addiction and the walls we build that most hurt the ones we thought we were protecting. I still can’t handle the snowman song. I feel my sister was singing me that snowman song every day for years. A whole childhood and young adulthood of the snowman song, and I’ve only recently been able to sing my own part back. Metaphorically, but profoundly so. Frozen hit me somewhere deep.

JR: I tell a colleague that keeners are in vogue, then I read “The Prophets,” its final couplet: “I fold inwards. O Earth, you are still too young & keening. / You do not know yet how to swallow the universe without tasting.” I like the idea of an Earth refining its gullet. Midway through, the poem asks “Can you proofread my prophecy?” Are there times when fate has played a role in your poetry trajectory?

CWO: There’s a saying in the sober community: “Is it odd, or is it God?” I have my own funny little form of faith I’ve gardened since I stopped drinking and while it doesn’t exactly involve fate, my understanding of the world does allow a lot of magic. For instance, VALLEYSPEAK came out of my MFA at The Ohio State University. I wouldn’t have known about The Ohio State University or my mentor, friend and thesis reader Kathy Fagan Grandinetti if it weren’t for a woman I got to know at recovery meetings. So ultimately, I can trace this book back to my sobriety. I can trace everything I care about back to my sobriety, except my family, which may be why I wrestle with our relationships so much.

The line you’ve quoted came out of a poem inspired by my father’s openness to God right after my parents separated. I see so much of him in me. He never stops trying to understand the world and humanity’s place in it.

Has fate played a role in my trajectory? Grace has, I would say (as only a born-and-raised atheist-turned-agnostic could). I don’t know why some people get sober and others don’t. Why some stay and others relapse, or why I got to come into the rooms so much younger than so many. Was that fate? I would have no poetry otherwise. Is it odd or is it God? Why can’t everyone who wants recovery find it? What are we even re-covering or un-covering when we do?

I can’t seem to answer your question in any straight way. I try to live each day as fully as I can, showing up for its trials and triumphs. Lately those days have started adding up. My poems have gotten a chance to move into the world. Whether or not it’s fate, it’s wonderful. I am grateful for the journey that brought me here.

VALLEYSPEAK jpeg cover

JR: Written as a prose block, “Ode to the Glitz” gives us the tiara treatment of “pageants, flippers & big hair. The closer to Jesus, the flippers, the poise. Pint-sized queen Ramsey, Mini Supreme.” In a collection rich with 90s reminders, how do the tabloidier elements zipline us from one landscape to the next?

CWO: Every era has its own true crime and for us in the 90s, especially in the suburbs of L.A. in the shadows of Hollywood, our best true-crime fix came from the Ramseys and O.J. While writing VALLEYSPEAK, I read City of Quartz by Mike Davis and nearly every James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain noir novel in the library. I watched Chinatown, Mulholland Drive, Blade Runner and any noir or neo-noir (or cyber-noir) film I could find.

Yes, the JonBenet and O.J. cases happened to be in the tabloids when I would have been waiting with my mom in line at our Gelson’s on Hayvenhurst, but these stories are not new stories. There is a mythic quality to the true crime story—the girl who grew up too quick, the father who could not contain his sins, the threat of an outsider to an insider-rigged game.

All of these myths are as timeless as violence itself. Again and again, the narratives in noir center on a young, pretty white woman’s status as virginal treasure object. Her simultaneous idolization and objectification upholds a racist, able-ist, misogynist, transphobic society. As the story progresses, she is “corrupted,” either by her own actions or others’ and society cannot accommodate this reversal without retribution. Her fall is used to justify the abuse of whole communities of people of color, of queer peoples, of anyone outside the mainstream of white, able-ist, heteronormative society.

I don’t think we can understand what we’re reading as “news” until we unpack the myths that have contextualized events. JonBenet and O.J. show up in my poems because they are part of the fabric of a world VALLEYSPEAK creates. There is Dopey from Snow White and Sophie from Sophie’s Choice. In a child’s mind and a society’s consciousness, they all end up subconsciously weighted the same.

JR: “Play House” closes with


He dug a hole in the sod of his new house

while Mom watched. Playing dead by the TV now, he reminds us


about witness. The tree is a witness. There is always

a witness to hope. Always some damned fool. Two girls to play patsy.


We all bury what we must bury

in our holes on the lawn.


What of VALLEYSPEAK is the sequined sliver that concealment misses?

CWO: At least one way of answering that fascinating yet dangerous question is this: I was recently in Clarksville, Tennessee, with Zone 3 Press to give a reading celebrating the launch of this book. Douglas Kearney had been the reader of the contest and chose VALLEYSPEAK for the prize, and so he was there too, performing his poems in a way that will be forever (I hope) seared in my brain. After his reading, he gave an introduction to welcome me onstage. In it, Douglas quoted from “Reseda”: “I know my world, how to guard it. You do not / ever stand naked, wings spread, on the street. / Even clothed, it is unsafe to be anything / but iron. // I will never // unlearn // how to hide.” He ended this quote by exclaiming, “Bullshit.” This book, he told us, is undoing this claim. This book is a poet unlearning how to hide.

JR: “Hollywood” uses Black Dahlia as a verb, your proper nouns as malleable as I am awed. The poem assures us “Even murdered, / we survive.” It asks “Who tells the ghosts how they died?” How does the pleasure we derive mourning the infamous compare to the solace we take from the bygone?

CWO: Isn’t that a question for anyone who’s lost, or terrified of losing, a parent? For me, at the end of the day, this book is a love song to my mother. My mother is still living, but “Mom” in the book is not. I don’t think I will ever meet anyone half as interesting as my mother and I have no idea how I will find comfort when she is gone, except for in the parts of her that live in me. Her resilience, for instance, her iron backbone, her enormous compassion for strangers, her ability to allow magic in the narrowest places, her impeccable sense of a good joke or story… I hope to be haunted by her if she should go before me, and I hope to meet up with her wherever it is we wandering agnostics end up.

JR: You received your MFA from The Ohio State University. Did any cultural perspectives gained from living in the Midwest help revise a book of poetry about California?

CWO: Absolutely yes. I also gained a husband from my time in the Midwest and with that, a whole new set of perspectives on life, love, and family as well. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis writes at length about how much of Southern California was actually settled by Midwesterners. They were apparently the ones most sold on the marketing for sunny, orange-groved real estate. Much of SoCal’s values, Davis argues, come from middle-American farmers who headed west in the mid-1800s. By the time the trains were running and gold was found, you would be hard-pressed to find a white non-Hispanic Angelino who could claim more than a generation or two of California heritage. California is not anything near as white as Hollywood tells us. (Nor, actually, is Ohio for that matter.)

Before I moved to Columbus for my MFA, I had been living in New York City for eight years. Both of my parents grew up in the NY/NJ area, and most of my extended family lives there still. I was not interested in being from California until I moved to Ohio. Suddenly, in the middle of corn and tailgates, I felt a kinship with my golden home state I just didn’t feel while living in Brooklyn. So in that way, I had to live somewhere with real rivers, grey winter afternoons, blue jays, cardinals, cerulean warblers, and long low-hilled roads to understand what it meant to be Californian.

JR: As an educator, you’re quite involved with the Houston academic/community scene. Suppose I wanted to take a class directly from VALLEYSPEAK. What is its teaching philosophy?

CWO: In short: Write what you think you know, but be ready to uncover the lies in it. There is nothing a poem cannot hold—so hand it over. Everything you’ve got.

JON RICCIO is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers where he serves as an associate editor at Mississippi Review. Forthcoming poems appear in Lotus-eater and SOFTBLOW, among others. The poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review, he received his MFA from the University of Arizona. He was a past reader for Sonora Review.