Susannah Lodge-Rigal interviews Katherine Indermaur about her chapbook Facing the Mirror
Facing the Mirror (Coast No Coast, 2021) is available for purchase HERE.
Susannah Lodge-Rigal: Hello dear Katherine! Thank you so much for giving me the chance to read your beautiful chapbook, Facing the Mirror. It was such a privilege, and I'm so excited to have the opportunity to talk with you about it today. Having read bits and pieces of this manuscript over the years, it was an absolute joy to read in in its finished form. If memory serves, this project stemmed from procedure: a daily practice of viewing yourself in the mirror, followed by writing. I would love to hear about the evolution of this project. How did it begin? How did it change as you journeyed in and alongside it?
Katherine Indermaur: Yes! I first started writing a few prose poems in which mirrors serendipitously appeared, and then I began the procedure you mention, standing daily before a mirror for a set period of time (I would set a timer—I think it was just for a minute) and then putting pen to paper. I picked that procedure because I knew it would be a challenge for me, and I hoped the fraught relationship I had with mirrors as someone who suffers from dermatillomania would produce some interesting work. As a writer, I’ve learned to lean into what feels scary and hard. I also hoped that spending time in front of the mirror where I could do nothing but look, and intentionally so, would help change the way I’d interact with mirrors going forward. Mirrors often trigger my dermatillomania symptoms—compulsively picking at my skin, sometimes for hours in a kind of daze. So I thought the practice of standing there, immobile, and then immediately having to write would add some positive (or at least neutral) mirror experiences to my history.
For a while the prose poem fragments just kind of poured out of me, but then my lack of endurance got the better of me. That’s when I turned to research, to learn more about mirrors, their history, and the ways in which other writers and thinkers have considered mirrors over time. I incorporated a lot of language from these source texts in my chapbook as an attempt to mirror the mirroring—to demonstrate that language is inescapably its own mirror, too.
SLR: As I read this book, I was reminded of Michel de Montaigne’s description of the literary essay as “an attempt.” I love the verbing of essay here—the reaching and brave nature of attempting on the page. As this project took shape, when and why did you decide the essay was its necessary form?
KI: Yes, I’m so glad you asked this question because “attempting” is exactly how I like to think of my chapbook as well. My graduate thesis advisor at Colorado State University, Matthew Cooperman, first suggested to me that I think about and work on this project as an essay. He also suggested I add “An Essay” as the subtitle, and we talked about the essay as an attempt, a trying out of sorts, in this same context. I found this container for the project really helpful because it gave me permission to wander, to explore, to try out new and weird and unexplained things on the page without anticipating or expecting a resolution. As an essay, the chapbook isn’t a solution or an explanation or a silver bullet. It doesn’t claim to fix anything. But I do really appreciate your characterization of the attempt as brave, because admitting to the failure of not being a 100% total solution feels rather vulnerable, rather anticapitalist. And that strikes me as particularly important in this day and age, when all the purported solutions that have been sold to us are failing us at a global level, catastrophically. In other words, maybe we could benefit in moving away from things marketed as solutions and instead toward more humble attempts.
I’ve also read about the form of the essay as having emerged from the sermon, which I find fascinating. In thinking about this, I start envisioning the essay as a room in which there are many listeners, seekers. It makes the page feel more intimate—in reading, we congregate. I also start seeing the essay as more of a connection to existing texts, as an attempt (there it is again!) to connect text to lived experience, as translation or hermeneutics.
SLR: I love that framework, of the essay emerging from the sermon. As I read Facing the Mirror, I was reminded of a strategy used in many of my favorite lyric essays—a woven structure. In this chapbook you weave together dozens of sources and hold those voices in constellation, which really allows readers to build their own connections. I love the idea that a woven structure is also a space for people to congregate and consider those connections together. I think that's so beautiful.
KI: I love that—like it’s woven both with the congregants as well as with the text.
SLR: This book folds its subject so deftly into its form. Even on the level of syntax, mirroring occurs on every page. Brilliant lines like this one, which functions like an image in mirrorglass: “A looking glass. See? The glass is looking.” Or moments when definition splinters like refracted light: “Cover my|my hands with cotton gloves. Cover my|my mirror with a scarf. Cover my|my face with concealer. A cover-up: a crime.” And, of course, the pronouns doubling or splitting in every instance; my|my and we|we journeying across the manuscript. I would love to hear more about how you made these choices--how is “mirroring” is enacted at the micro and macro level across this book?
KI: Thank you for your generous and perceptive eye! I think the nature of mirroring is that it refuses to be limited to the surface it truly is. Mirrors penetrate, refract, flip, and alter…. Like a poem printed on a page, they reject their two-dimensionality and instead insert themselves into the lived world. They live beyond their surface. This omnipresence and kind of contagion of the mirror is especially true to my experience, as a woman taught by our culture to be deeply attentive to and to be valued by my appearance, but also as someone with dermatillomania, for whom mirrors represent a threat as well as a reminder of how I look after having picked at my skin. All that to say, I wanted mirroring to be at work in not just the subject of the book, but in the language and appearance itself—an opportunity that poetry especially presents.
The mirroring of the pronouns—which I think of as a representation of selfhood—always occurs with a vertical line between them, a punctuation mark called the upright or vertical slash. In mathematics, this slash can mean that the first number on the left divides the one on the right, or that the left is a factor of the right. In logic, this mark is known as the Sheffer stroke, where it means “not and”; in other words, one thing on either side of the Sheffer stroke can be true, or neither can be true, but both cannot be simultaneously true. So the vertical slash is not just a visual representation of the mirror’s surface on the page, but refracts as soon as it appears into all these various meanings and implications—a threat, a doubling, a joining, a division, a causation, a negation.
I also chose not to indicate in the text of the chapbook itself when I was quoting from an external source; instead, I cite all those quotes and their sources in the end notes. As I write, “it’s not my|my language in my|my mouth. Words are reflections.” I intend to bring originality itself into question here, the same way that I question whether my dermatillomania may be inherited from my great-grandmother.
SLR: That is so fascinating. I love the variability of that Sheffer stroke—while I was reading, I had no idea about the mathematical context for that symbol. It’s so fascinating, your explanation adds such an interesting dimension to that formal decision!
KI: Yes, it’s wild that something as simple as a line—just a vertical line—can branch out into all these different things.
SLR: As a reader, this book truly did transform the way I thought about my own seeing. It made me interrogate the relationship between myself and the self I see when I look in the mirror. As the poet and essayist who brought this book into being, I am curious to know if and how this project altered the way you “see [your] own seeing”?
KI: I wish I had a more definitive answer to this question. In a lot of ways, I think the point of this essay has been the interrogation itself, the looking. I take from it the knowledge that our own perception shouldn’t escape our perceiving, that we should question our seeing as rigorously as we question what is seen.
I’m thinking of the concept of the Perceiver as written by Patanjali in the ancient Yoga Sutras. Inside the self, according to Patanjali, lies the Perceiver—the deepest, truest self, which is not attached to the body or one’s experiences or even the senses. This is the part of us that, when we feel sad, “sees” that feeling and recognizes the impermanence of the sadness, recognizes that we are not sadness, but merely experiencing sadness. It’s the part of us that lies beneath the part experiencing the sadness. It is the blue sky behind the storm. The Perceiver’s true nature, I believe, is equanimity.
So I suppose what I’ve gained from writing this chapbook—beyond the text itself—is a measure of equanimity around how I see, and what that seeing leads me to. I try to remember the blue sky even while I’m getting soaked in the downpour.
SLR: Oh, I love that. I remember you sharing that wisdom with me years ago and it was so helpful for me in the moment, especially as somebody who has my own challenging relationship with the mirror and with mental health. I love the blue sky behind the storm as a metaphor I can return to in times of doubt.
KI: In terms of mental health, I often think that just having that distance within the self is really helpful. It’s funny because you would think that a lack of intimacy within the self would be problematic, but I think being able to take a step back from the moment or the experience of the moment to say, “Okay, I am not this moment, I am not my reaction to this thing” [can be helpful]. Like, there's some deeper part of me, and that's the vantage point from which I can perceive what's happening around me. That knowledge is really calming. I don't know if I have anything else like, wise, to say about that, but…(laughs)
SLR: (Laughs) No, that’s beautifully said! Facing the Mirror weaves so many voices, traditions, and sciences into its pages. Fables, Catoptromancy, architectures, Greek myths, Shakespeare, Socrates (to name a few) all take hold here. Can you tell me about your research process for this project? What did the process of discovery and synthesis look like as the manuscript took form?
KI: One of my biggest takeaways from studying poetry at the graduate level was that I could do research to write poetry. I don’t know why this hadn’t occurred to me before, since I love research and reading, but I guess I had this romantic notion that poetry had to come from either wandering through the woods or sitting at a desk and waiting for the Muse to strike. But in graduate school, I was assigned a lot of docupoetics and writing that interacted with source texts in generative and fascinating ways. So I started to think differently about how I might approach a writing project like a chapbook.
For Facing the Mirror, I started by reading several nonfiction books on the history of glass and mirrors—Sabine Melchior-Bonnet’s The Mirror: A History (translated form French by Katharine H. Jewett), Mark Pendergrast’s Mirror Mirror, Richard Gregory’s Mirrors in Mind, and Alan MacFarlane and Gerry Martin’s The Glass Bathyscaphe. Those led to other texts and sources. As I was working on this chapbook, I also just naturally picked up on a lot of allusions to mirrors. You know how the more you think about something, the more of it you see? That’s totally what happened for me. I also gave a lot of thought to what I’d read about mirrors in the past, and where they come up culturally (like Snow White’s stepmother’s magic mirror on the wall, or in dressing rooms) to see what feelings and ideas came up across those many places.
As I gathered all this information, I realized I had to start making decisions about how to organize it. I definitely didn’t want the chapbook to feel like a textbook, but I also struggled with how much and when to divulge my own personal experience. My initial tendency was to remark on every factoid, and I started developing this awful pattern of offering a fact or observation, then saying essentially “and here’s how I feel about that.” So I had to push back against that tendency and think about more creative ways of engaging the source material, which is how a lot of the formal choices like the vertical slash began to emerge.
SLR: Absolutely! That's something I really admired about this project—the way these different sources and your own narrative come together. This book really allowed me to draw connections for myself. There is so much room for invention on the part of the reader—you allow us to think through how these source texts situate themselves in and across the manuscripts and how they connect with your own narrative. So beautiful!
KI: Oh, thanks. Yes, I find that really interesting too. There's something about decision-making that's inherent in seeing. In a lot of poetry and nonfiction that I really admire, [the reader] has to make decisions around how things are connected. [The act of reading] is somehow part of interrogating your own seeing as well.
SLR: You mention your readership of nonfiction and poetry. I’m curious about how the process of writing a lyric essay influenced your poetics? Did this project change the way you thought about form and genre?
KI: Yes, I think that the distinction between [poetry and nonfiction] gets really hard for me with this manuscript. I mean, we've talked about this, but I find the essay framework really helpful in some ways. But I also think that if somebody were to say to me, “Oh, this book is nonfiction,” I would really bristle.
SLR: Yes, I can understand that! As I read Facing the Mirror, I kept thinking “This is poetry!” By which I mean, so much of the logic at work here I appreciated from a poetic perspective, even as I considered the project an essay as well. I love that it's possible for this project to be both a lyric essay and poetry at the same time. Did this process of grappling with hybrid forms influence the writing you did outside the project?
KI: I definitely come to this project as a student of poetry. I've read a lot of hybrid work, but I haven't read nearly as much creative nonfiction as I have poetry. So that's the background with which I come to this manuscript and to this effort. At my chapbook release reading, which was of course over Zoom, a fiction writer I know, who also writes some nonfiction, asked me a question about how to approach personally difficult subjects—like how to write into really hard topics. And I mean, when I initially started writing about mirrors, I wasn't thinking about them as triggers. For me, I was thinking that they were appearing [in my work] as a poetic symbol. And I think the essay as a form is just more expansive and allowed me to make a lot of attempts. Like, what about the fact that the early church banned the use of the mirror for a period of time, while other cultures put the mirror at the center of their alter in their holy places. At least when drafting the project, [the essay form] really allowed me to throw everything at the wall. I didn't feel so much pressure from a poetic perspective to have to figure out a system quickly. Writing longer projects or longer poems can feel very systematic to me. Like, the image you use at the end of a poem has to revert right back to the beginning, or, you know, metaphors have to work with one another. I also think that because this project was particularly emotionally taxing for me and required that I really confront a lot of uncomfortable things, writing the essay felt like a form of self-care. [It feels like] allowing all of these things to coexist within one project is in itself a form of compassion and self-compassion. That process has given me tools I’ll use [in my writing] moving forward.
SLR: You’ve spoken a bit about this already, but I’m curious about your portrayal of the mirror and the one who gazes in it—the face separated from the self. As a reader, I connected with the mirror’s paradoxical illusion: how it allows us to appear and disappear simultaneously. How it permits us to haunt ourselves. As I read Facing the Mirror, I was prompted again and again to confront what Dan Beachy-Quick calls the “unthinkable, thinking gap between I & I.” This gap is a central fascination in Facing the Mirror, and I would love to hear what drew you to it as a subject.
KI: Thank you for referencing Dan Beachy-Quick’s lovely invitation to the chapbook, for which I’m endlessly grateful. I think that, as someone for whom mirrors trigger the symptoms of my mental disorder (which, by the way, is not uncommon for folks with mental disorders), it’s easy to expend energy wondering how my life would be different—and much better, to be honest—if I lived in a time before mirrors existed, or were so omnipresent. It’s what Lorca laments in the quote I include in my chapbook from his poem “Song of the Barren Orange Tree”: “Why was I born among mirrors?” I think about the same thing as it relates to smartphones and social media. There’s so much reflexiveness, reflectivity in our contemporary world. So much opportunity for self-reflection, but also for the disorder that that inherently generates. Our face is a performance of the self for others, but if it were solely that, scientists wouldn’t use a mirror test to determine animals’ intelligence and ability to self-conceptualize. There is something deeply, frighteningly true about our appearances—some piece of the self in how we look—and I find myself both hating and being drawn to that fact at the same time. That’s the gap, for me.
I want to be able to eschew my appearance as unimportant or even irrelevant at the same time that I want to claim it as perhaps the only thing I can choose to change about myself, or at least as the easiest thing for me to change. My ability to control how I look, though, is hampered by my mental disorder. Is having dermatillomania or trichotillomania (hair-pulling) any different from being born with a nose you don’t like, or having a birthmark you wish you could make disappear? I want to say it is—the ongoing fluidity of mania feels distinct—but I’m not sure; I like my nose, for the most part. “I can only speak to my experience” is something a lot of people say while actually giving a sermon to a room of congregants they’ve gathered, right? That’s this chapbook, for me. Here’s my experience and here’s also an attempt at making it more than just mine. That’s the gap, and the bridge.