We Must Write Love Poems in a Burning World – The Inspiring Poetry and Prose of American Poet Katie Farris

American poet Katie Farris


Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World

To train myself to find, in the midst of hell
what isn’t hell.
The body, bald, cancerous, but still
beautiful enough to
imagine living the body
washing the body
replacing a loose front
porch step the body chewing
what it takes to keep a body
this scene has a tune
a language I can read
this scene has a door
I cannot close I stand
within its wedge
I stand within its shield
Why write love poetry in a burning world?
To train myself, in the midst of a burning world,
to offer poems of love to a burning world.

Katie Farris from a Facebook Post, October 9th, 2020

For those of you following the American poet Katie Farris or her American Ukranian poet-partner Ilya Kaminsky on Facebook you will know Katie has been in treatment for breast cancer for a number of months. I first found this out back in October which was when I also noticed Ilya had shaved his head in solidarity with her.

We may be poets whose words can imagine so much out of air but life imposes its own forms and limitations. There’s nothing free in free verse some famous poet once said and there is nothing free in the poetry we make out of our lives. We must live within what our lives give us but we can always give it our best! And Katie is doing this with the poems pouring out of her this year. More than three hundred, she says.

I know many poets who say they have written poems that pre-figure things in their life. On the happy side of that formula a poem of mine prefigured my relationship with my dearheart Somae, my wife. In a much less happy side a poem of Katie’s prefigured her breast cancer as she writes about so movingly below.

But before I share her Facebook post from yesterday I want to say I cherished this new poem of hers as soon as I saw it in October. Out of what a generous and dare I say life-giving place does Katie write this hymn to life? The burning question? Why Write a Love Poem in a Burning World? Because we must. We must because we must praise this mutilated world as countless poets have written for thousands of years and as Adam Zagajewski wrote in his celebrated poem: Try to Praise This Mutilated World.” And as Katie reminds herself (and us) we must write these poems:

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

I celebrate this brave and inspiring poet and her poetry. Now, her own luminous words and a a luminous poem:

“I hung prisms in my South-facing windows this summer, but it wasn’t until this week that the angle of the sun lined up, sending rainbows bouncing around my bedroom. Color splits me right open with happiness, like an oyster loves iridescence.

My shell needs splitting open lately: one of the side effects of Taxol is nerve weirdness, and in this second week after my infusion, after the worst of the muscle/joint/nerve pain has waned, I notice how much of my face and back has gone numb, like after a shot of Novacain. On the other hand, my fingertips hurt; I can’t do up my own buttons or pop a pill out of a package. So rainbow-watching has become a welcome distraction, and Ladybird occasionally bestirs her beautiful old-lady majesty to chase them around.

My last chemo infusion will be this Wednesday, December 9th! I’m getting an end-of-chemo cake on December 16 (after the worst of the pain passes; it feels weird to celebrate on December 9th and then suffer for a week!). I’ll post a picture of me eating it here. If you feel inclined, maybe take a picture of yourself eating some of your favorite cake “with” me sometime next week? And post it in response? I’d love to share this moment with you!

The only good part of cancer is the chance to be in touch with y’all. I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for you, for your mail and messages and meals and mmmmlove. Thank you, friends!
Here’s a little poem for you. I started writing these “Will you be/ my death, X” poems back in February. There are several hundred of them, three of which are about breast cancer, though I had no idea I was about to be diagnosed. Seems like some part of me already knew.
A Riddle & An Answer

Will you be
my death, breast?
I had asked you
in jest and in response
you hardened—a test
of my resolve? Malignant
magnificent palimpsest.
Will you be
my death, Emily?
Today I placed
your collected poems
over my breast, my heart
knocking fast
on your front cover.
Will you be
my death, chemo?
The shell of my self
in the sphere of time
plucking, plucking
the wool of my hair
from its branches.”

Katie Farris, from a Facebook Post Dec. 7th


What beautiful and, dare I say, terrible music in the first stanza of Katie’s poem that addresses her cancer so directly. And the surprise of Emily Dickenson’s book of collected poems on Katie’s breast. It’s own healing chemo, perhaps? The healing hope in all poetry I feel. And yet these searing lines, too.

The shell of my self
in the sphere of time
plucking, plucking
the wool of my hair
from its branches.”


Plucking her hair from chemo’s branches.  A remarkable metaphor. I so wish there was not this angusihed need for a metaphor for something so many brave women would not ever dream of having.  But yes to the poetry. to the need for poetry at a time like this for her. And us. And a reminder, I hope, to all of us. Keep writing love poems, keep writing praise poems in a burning world.


  1. Joanna Qureshi
    Posted December 9, 2020 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Richard. I’ve missed your posts lately. Have you been sending and I’ve just ‘missed them’ or are you sending them less frequently than before? Heavens knows we need them more than ever in this time when it is harder than ever to retain any kind of hope for this world.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted January 10, 2021 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Joanna: Thrilled to hear from you. I think of poften. The light in your eyes. Your fast wit. Your poems! best, Richard

  3. Lee Farris
    Posted December 14, 2020 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    I am deeply touched by your post. Thank you.
    Since August, when Katie was diagnosed with a complex breast cancer, I have watched her take on a unique and gracious fierceness. Sharing moments of near ribald humor and a straightforward acceptance of all she faces daily with this disease, she nonetheless remains focused on others, demonstrating tenderness, compassion, and unimaginable courage.
    In some recent exchanges between Katie and myself, she thanked me for “teaching her well”. I responded that I thought she was the one inspiring whatever I “taught” her.
    She continues to inspire all of us in ways that are magnificently and genuinely Katie Farris.
    SHE is the gift of love to a burning world, and she is my beloved daughter.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted January 10, 2021 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Dear Lee: So moved through this made-smaller world by social media that you found my blog post and responded to it. Your daughter is an inspiration. And a gift of love to this burning world. Keeping her in my heart as she walks through the shadow of this cancer with such grace.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *