Cat Dixon is the author of Eva and Too Heavy to Carry (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2014, 2016) and Our End Has Brought the Spring (Finishing Line Press, 2015). She is the managing editor of The Backwaters Press, a nonprofit press in Omaha. She teaches creative writing at the University of Nebraska. Her poetry and reviews have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Sugar House Review, Midwest Quarterly Review, Coe Review, Eclectica, and Mid-American Review.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you get to work with the Backwaters Press?
Cat Dixon: I met Greg Kosmicki, the founder and now editor emeritus of Backwaters Press, in 2005. I had just started a low-residency MFA program and was looking for an opportunity in Omaha to volunteer with a press. I was lucky that Greg took me on as an intern–I’m very grateful to Greg for mentoring me and allowing me to help with the press.
Geosi Gyasi: What led you to become a poet?
Cat Dixon: I began writing short stories very young–I do not remember the exact age. My fifth grade teacher encouraged me and through the years I kept writing. Eventually I ended up at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, where I met Art Homer, a poetry professor who is now retired. Because of his support and belief in me, I ended up studying poetry in Nebraska’s MFA program. I was drawn to poetry because I like playing with language–syntax, sounds and repetition. My favorite poets are Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, W.D Snodgrass, Alvin Greenberg and John Berryman.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your writing schedule like?
Cat Dixon: I keep a notebook with me at all times and I write whenever I have a spare moment or when an image captures my attention. Before I had children, I thought I had to write late at night after drinking a few glasses of wine. Now I find that early morning works best or sitting at the car repair shop with a yellow legal pad in my lap.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you manage your time as a teacher and writer?
Cat Dixon: Most of my free time is spent with my children. Writing time happens in the in-between moments and when they’re asleep. I find that I write more now than I ever did before I was a mother. I cherish my time with my children and the quiet times I actually have to write. I find that teaching creative writing actually generates ideas and images I would never have found without student interactions.
Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you write for?
Cat Dixon: I tend to write about unlikable and unsympathetic characters/personas. Exploring the shadow, the part of ourselves we hide from the public, interests me, and I know that these type of voices also intrigue others. Depending on the collection, I feel that my work would reach mothers, divorcees, and survivors of past trauma. I’m submitting a manuscript right now called The Book of Levinson, which is about Bob Levinson, the longest held hostage in US history. When I was working on these poems, I was writing for Bob, his family, his friends and to any reader to raise awareness of Bob’s situation. He has not received the attention and support that he should have. This new collection is very different from other poems I have written.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about Eva?
Cat Dixon: Eva, my newest collection, explores in persona poems the life and death of Eva Braun, Hitler’s long-time companion and eventual wife. As I mentioned, I am fascinated with the unlikable, the detestable and most people would count her up there if they were making a list. Because of her relationship with one of the most hated men in history, she has been labeled and hated. Looking at her background (two-parent home, Catholic school, normal childhood), it is hard to comprehend why she would stay with Hitler. She was depressed and attempted suicide twice. The reader has to decide if he or she will have empathy for Eva, but I wanted to give her a voice because very few of her letters or diary entries survived the war. W.D. Snodgrass wrote two collections in the voices of those in Hitler’s inner circle. Inspired by his work, I wanted to explore the female in that group who had no decision-making power when it came to government and was tucked away and hidden from public view.
Geosi Gyasi: How was the writing process for Eva?
Cat Dixon: I have spent years researching the Third Reich, and Eva, her family and World War II. I had a few poems written in her voice when I left my Masters program, but was uncertain what to do with them. I was reluctant to share them at first–I did not even tell others that these particular poems were in her voice. Eventually, after I published a few and had feedback from friends and readers, the stream of poems flowed and for a few months I wrote every day–very early in the morning and late into the night. I did not face any kind of writer’s block. All of the poems were read by my close friend Clif Mason who gave me priceless feedback. My writing group also read many of the pieces. The chapbook Our End Has Brought the Spring came first. I sent the manuscript to one place–Finishing Line Press–and it was accepted. Yet even when the chapbook on its way to the printer, I had more poems coming–all the time–so I kept writing. The finished result is the collection, Eva.
Geosi Gyasi: What has been the reception of Eva?
Cat Dixon: Positive for the most part. I was nervous at first. I do not want anyone to think that I am promoting Nazism or anything that Hitler did. I do not. The atrocities and pain the entire world had inflicted on it cannot be overstated. Yet, like Snodgrass, I believe we need to acknowledge that people who committed these heinous acts and decreed the laws were in fact human. If we say that the Nazis of the 1940s were monsters, (thus picturing scary-looking folks easy to spot) we will not be able to identify them in our own societies of today. The men who worked at the concentration camps often had wives and children. “Monsters” have lovers. “Monsters” walk among us. It isn’t until a “monster” comes to power that we uncover what is really hiding beneath. Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil is a book I return to again and again.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about poetry readings?
Cat Dixon: I like organizing readings. I like attending them. As for reading at them, I do often, but I much more prefer to be the promoter rather than the promoted.
Geosi Gyasi: What is too heavy to carry in “Too Heavy to Carry”?
Cat Dixon: Regret. After going through a divorce with two small children, I felt lost and depressed. I had been cheated on and lied to and was holding onto anger and sadness–sadness that my home was broken. The book explores the journey through dark times and the light at the end of the tunnel.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer?
Cat Dixon: I write with pen and paper. Then, usually once or twice a month, I type up my scribbles. The challenge is that my handwriting is horrible.
Geosi Gyasi: As an editor, do you edit your own work?
Cat Dixon: I do, but I always want a second pair of eyes on a poem before I send it out. I have an excellent writing group that meets once a month and from time to time we will workshop via email. I would be lost without them!
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever experienced writer’s block?
Cat Dixon: Yes, in the past, but now I keep many projects going at one time and that seems to help. Right now I have a completed manuscript that I am sending out while working on a collection of poems about working in a restaurant, a collection of prayer poems, a collection of poems about working as a church secretary, and a collection that explores relationships of all different kinds. If I am stuck on one poem, I bounce to another poem or an entirely different group of poems.
Geosi Gyasi: What books are currently on your reading table?
Cat Dixon: Stephen King’s Lisey Story. I have been reading King since junior high.
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes. Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind sharing with me your most recent poem, whether published or unpulished?
Cat Dixon: The manuscript I am sending out that I mentioned above is a collection of poems about Bob Levinson, the longest held hostage in American history. I spent a couple of years learning about Bob’s case and contacted his family and received feedback from his daughter, Stephanie, and emailed with other family members. Some of the poems in the manuscript are written in his voice, some are written in mine. This poem “The Haunted House–October 2014” is one where I am writing in my voice reflecting on Bob’s plight. The poem is up here: http://www.lindenavelit.com/
Here’s the poem:
The Haunted House – October 2014
I squeeze my husband’s hand as I follow his black coat around dark corners. Cobwebs stick to my hair, middle-schoolers push my back, hurry, hurry, the floor slants up and we stumble, catch ourselves against plastic axes, skeletons, giant wire spiders. Hallways lead to rooms—one, with a grown woman in pigtails cradling a decapitated baby doll, dozens of doll heads hang from the ceiling. Another room, a butcher in a blood-spattered apron cuts the air with a cleaver, rubber intestines ooze on the counter. Down the hall, carnival music squeals as a demented clown chases us to the stairs that lead to another scene. The man in an orange jump suit chained to the wall, his white hair and beard covered in dirt, moans. I thought of you. An actor dressed in black approaches the prisoner, screams in his face, wielding a chainsaw. The white beard hangs his head in mock despair. I had to look away. I thought of you and wanted out. We had paid to enter this place.
To learn more about Bob Levinson, please visit: http://www. helpboblevinson.com/