Winner 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: VALLEYSPEAK’s 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.