Katie Farris Makes the 2023 T.S. Eliot Prize (for Poetry) Shortlist for her Poetry Collection “Standing in the Forest of Being Alive”

Katie Farris from her Twitter post in Sept. 14th, 2021 announcing the signing of the publication contract for her book, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive, shortlisted last week for the T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry. The accessory on her chest is the heart monitor placed there after her heart failure as a consequence of her treatments for breast cancer.

A Week before Surgery I Practice my Body

like Giotto’s angels, skecthed from his studies
of sheep, I open the jaws of my back to the sky

eating my body deeper into this blue—
like Johah vomitted from the whale, fragrant

as amergris. Or plain as any woman who,
a week before mastectomy, practices being opened.

Katie Farris from Standing in the Forest of Being Alive, Alice James Books, 2023

A huge congratulation to American poet Katie Farris for making the 2023 T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry shortlist. Katie is no stranger to these pages. To read my previous posts on her and her shortlisted collection, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive please click here and here.
As a lovely aside Katie’s husband, the Ukrainian American poet Ilya Kaminsky, was shortlisted for the same prize in 2019.

Yes, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive has many poems, like the epigraph poem above, that take an unflinching look at cancer and the hunbling treatments for it. But cancer never has the last say. Love and being alive argue with it page after after page! It is no coincidence that Katie’s collection begins with what is becoming a much celebrated poem which I have featured in my previous blog posts on Katie: Why Write Love Poetry in A Burning World. The poem provides its answer:

To train oneself in the midst of a burning world
to offer poems of love to a burning world.

And that is what this collection does again and again. Even erotic poems of love:

An Unexpected Turn of Events Midway Through

I'd like some sex please.
I'm not too picky—
     (after all, have you seen me?
     so skinny you could
     shiv with me?)
Philosexical, soft and
Gentle, a real
Straight fucking, rhymed
Or metrical—whatever
You've got, I'll take it.
As long as we're naked.

Katie Farris, ibid

This poet is a woman, cancer or no cancer, who lives and loves fiercely!

To add to my delight that Katie’s book so deservedly made the T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist is that her book did not make the prize guidelines. It was two pages too short! However her entry and another that failed the guidelines were included! Too important to pass up. Thank goodness. To see the other shortlisted authors and books please see below.

Katie Farris during her chemotherapy.

There’s a look-life-in-the-eyes quality to Katie Farris that astounds me. Anyone who followed her recent journey with breast cancer on her Facebook and Instagram page can attest to this. And it shows up for sure in her shortlisted collection as you can see in the epigraph poem above. And it shows up in her op-ed piece for the New York Times on March 26th, 2023. How dreams brought her cancer condition to light and influenced a life-enhancing treatment decision. And it literally shows up in her uncompromising pictures recording her cancer-treatment journey including the picture included to the left and the one I couldn’t copy from Instagram that she describes so graphically in a Instagram post:

This red cross is about 25% of the total body art I received in preparation for radiation, which starts tomorrow. When I was told they would use stickers instead of tattoos to align the machine, I hadn’t anticipated a full chest piece, complete with these crosshairs over my heart, which I can’t wash off for the next seven weeks as I move into the (knock wood) final challenge of my cancer treatment.

There appears to be a singular life-force in Katie Farris that carries through events that would crush many of us. As if her single masecotomy and radiation weren’t enough Katie describes in her op-ed piece what happened next:

Were my dreams infallibly correct? No. My cancer was strongly resistant to chemotherapy, but my heart was not. Shortly after radiation, at the age of 37, I was diagnosed with heart failure. My ecstatic dream of flying was replaced by the reality of a lifetime of palpitation and metoprolol. It feels a little like a betrayal.

There is good news. Again, from the op-ed piece: Today I’m nearly finished with the treatment my dreams led me to, and I’m currently N.E.D. (no evident disease). My chance for recurrence will never decrease, but I’m beginning to hope again.

The fierce claim on living in Katie’s poems even when she was not sure of a positive outcome from her cancer radiates (pun intended) through her collection. And it’s the reason I asked Katie in March at the AWP conference in Seattle to sign a copy of her collection for my dearheart friend Kathy Southee in Ottawa who was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer in January. Kathy shared Katie’s look-life-in-the-eye attitutde even when facing almost-sure death. And she died on September 12th.

Kathy was my first love (we met in 1971 at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario) and we remained dear friends for the next fifty-two years. Her boyfriend after me, and now a good friend, Rick, became her husband in 1974 and he was with her and their three adult children when she died as he said at her funeral: with a smile on her face. Kathy’s aliveness even in her dying. And Katie’s liveness facing death and in her on-going living. And her extraordinary point of faith: I return to this point of wonder. Something Kathy did even facing the worse depredations of her vicious cancer. Her garden, her friends and family never ceasing to be sources of love and wonder. I dedicate this next poem of Katie’s to my beloved friend Kathy:

Outside Atlanta Cancer Care

I return to this point of wonder:
what kind of animal began to stand
on such small feet? And only two?
What vertical absurdity!
What uptight madness!

Perhaps we were imitating the trees—
lifting our arms,
wishing for roots—
and then forgot to set ourselves
back down to our four, more
                        rational feet—

our longing grew our fingers longer,
twigs to our branches—
for if you long hard enough,
do you not find fruit
in your palms?

I return to this point of wonder.

Katie Faris, ibid

(The other contenders for the T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize: Sharon Olds (Balladz); Isheon Hutchison (School of Instructions); Jason Allen-Paissant (Self-Portrait as Othello); Joe Carrick-Varty (More Sky); Janre Clarke (A Change in the Air); Kit Fan (The Ink Cloud Reading); Fran Lock (Hyena!); Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (The Map of the World); and Abigail Perry (I Think We’re Alone Now)).

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