Catherine Tufariello
February 2007

 

Catherine TufarielloCatherine Tufariello was born in Ithaca, New York and grew up, as the eldest of four daughters, in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst.  She received a B.A. in English from SUNY Buffalo and a Ph.D. from  Cornell University, where she was a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities and specialized in American poetry.  After a peripatetic career teaching composition and literature at colleges in the Northeast, the South, and the Midwest, she is currently the Associate Director of Communications for the Project on Civic Reflection at Valparaiso University.  She lives in Valparaiso, IN with her husband Jeremy Telman, an assistant professor of law at the university, and their daughter Sophie.  In the summer of 2006, she was a Walter E. Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

Catherine Tufariello’s first full-length collection of poems, Keeping My Name (Texas Tech UP, 2004), was a Booklist Editor’s Choice selection for 2004, a finalist for the 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry, and the winner of the 2006 Poets’ Prize, awarded annually, by a committee of poets who put up the prize money, for the best book of verse published by an American in the preceding year.  She also has published a limited-edition letterpress book, Annunciations (Aralia Press, 2001), and a chapbook, Free Time (Robert L. Barth, 2001).  Her poems and translations from Italian have appeared in such journals and anthologies as Poetry, The Hudson Review, The New Penguin Book of Love Poetry, Western Wind, Contemporary American Poetry, and The POETRY Anthology: 1912-2002.


Statement of Poetics

When my sisters and I were young, our father, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Buffalo, used to tell us interesting chemical facts.   One that made a special impression on me was that coal and diamond, despite looking completely dissimilar, were identical in chemical composition:  both were pure carbon.  The difference between them was enormous subterranean pressure over a vast stretch of time, during which the randomly arranged carbon atoms in coal assumed a crystalline structure.   Much later I learned that Emily Dickinson, who wrote home enthusiastically about the chemistry course she took during her year at Mount Holyoke seminary, had taken notice of the same fact and filed it away.  One of her poems (#356) observes that

…Carbon in the Coal
And Carbon in the Gem
Are One—and yet the former
Were dull for Diadem—

The metamorphosis of coal into diamond seems to me a perfect metaphor for what her poems do with words, subjecting them to the pressures both of her keen, skeptical intelligence and the most intense human feeling.  It’s also a wonderful metaphor for the power of poetic form, a pressure chamber in whose “white heat” (to borrow another Dickinson phrase) language, thought, and experience are transformed.  One of the reasons I love working in meter and rhyme is that their constraints almost compel me to be concise, to go slowly, to question my first impulses or preconceived ideas, to think hard and then to think again.  Or as Auden put it, metrical rules “force us to have second thoughts, free from the fetters of Self.”

I find the objective, “impersonal” quality of form especially valuable because my subject matter is often deeply personal.  I’ve never aspired to be a confessional poet, and form (I hope!) gives me the necessary aesthetic distance to avoid that.  Six months or so before writing “Useful Advice,” I jotted down a tactless remark someone I barely knew had made about my childlessness, with the idea of possibly using it in a poem.  I discarded several false starts before hitting upon the notion of writing it in heroic couplets.  The new form brought with it a new tone, humorous and satiric.   I was speaking not just to my individual experience of infertility but that of other women in the same painful, isolated situation.   The largely unconscious process by which poems find—or in some cases, fail to find—their appropriate forms is still mysterious to me, more alchemy than science.  I’m fascinated by the moment when conception and form come together, and the poem comes to life.


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