A Book Review & an Author Interview
In her chapbook titled Mid-Bloom, poet Katie Budris takes her readers on an emotional journey—from mourning the loss of her mother after her battle with cancer to her own battle and survivor’s journey.
For readers who do not know what a chapbook is: “They are shorter than a full collection, usually between 15 and 30 pages,” Katie explained. “This allows for a really focused look at a topic. I think chapbooks work really well for a small collection of poems centered around a theme.”
Ink. Writing (IW): What inspired you to choose this form of publishing for your collection?
Katie Budris (KB): My first chapbook, Prague in Synthetics (2015), was inspired by my experiences studying abroad in Prague during graduate school. When I started writing about my experiences with cancer, creating another chapbook just seemed like the natural next step.
I’ve been writing about losing my mom to cancer for the past 20 years, and being able to combine those poems with ones about my own diagnosis felt right. Somehow, I think it’s the opportunity I’ve been waiting for to really explore the relationship with my mom.
Each poem reads like a diary entry: an up-close encounter of all the thoughts and feelings being experienced and expressed. The line and verse breaks she uses are intentional, effective in giving her poems a steady pace while also emphasizing the emotion in each line and verse.
"These poems are pretty heavy. Any one of the things I am writing about is heavy: my mother being diagnosed with cancer when I was young, her passing away while I was in high school, learning to live in a house with just my dad and in a world without my mom..."
IW: When it comes to the technical side of writing poetry, such as how frequently you focus on giving the poem form as opposed to letting it flow, what would you say the balance and challenge is when it comes to writing and editing your poetry? Do you sometimes sacrifice flow for form or vice versa?
KB: I generally start with freewriting. I prefer handwriting poems first, so I typically just write in paragraph form when I’m generating content. When I type up the drafts, that’s when I start putting in line breaks instinctively. Playing around with line breaks and stanza arrangement is one of my favorite aspects of poetry. I love seeing how a well-placed break can create anticipation or double meaning in the lines. I often try my poems out in multiple arrangements before settling on a form.
I very rarely write poems in a set form, like a sestina or a pantoum, though I do enjoy the challenge every once in a while. (I’ve written a handful, but there’s only one sestina I’m really proud of and have published.) I think maybe it’s because I don’t sacrifice flow for form, and I find that poems in a set form often feel forced to me. I’m in awe of poets who can make it look effortless. That’s not usually the case for me, so I let the flow of the poem dictate the form.
This collection speaks volumes about the battle with cancer and how it affects the patient/survivor and their loved ones. Through her reflections on memories, nostalgia, and the world around her, Katie weaves a portrait of her loss and her life as a survivor.
In her poem “Relapse,” the reader gets a glimpse of her mother’s youth:
“she remembers her first / apartment, above the Blue Moon / Café, Friday nights with her baby / spinning her polka dot skirt silly across / the dance floor,...”
In the following lines, we see where she is in “the present”:
“early 50s, carrying the weight / of children, cancer, the cha-cha… / ...Heads / down the hallway. Takes the stairs one / by one. Slowly. / Aching”
The beginning starts with a nostalgic view of her mother’s youth and closes with an image of reality and where life has taken her. This poem is not only important to see how cancer affected her mother but how Katie reflects on the memories and how she focuses her lens on understanding her mother’s battle with cancer.
"I have never missed her more than I did during chemo."
Her poem “Keeping Things Alive” questions her greenthumb and mourns the loss of her deep blue Beta:
“over two-and-a-half years, purchased / new pots and soil, tried different windows / and porches to identify the right combination / of direct and ambient light. / We thought we had the balance / figured out.”
The efforts of keeping these plants alive, doing anything and everything she can to prevent any of them from dying. But, there is an even deeper meaning to which this poem is alluding.
KB: These poems are pretty heavy. Any one of the things I am writing about is heavy: my mother being diagnosed with cancer when I was young, her passing away while I was in high school, learning to live in a house with just my dad and in a world without my mom, being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 36, going through chemo and losing my hair. There’s even a poem about my divorce in there (though most people probably won’t realize that’s what “Keeping Things Alive” is alluding to!)
Anytime you’re writing about deeply personal and emotional things, it can be hard to not let yourself fall into a dark place. There’s a reason I have been writing about my grief for 20 years before finally doing something with the poems about my mom. It takes time to develop and a certain amount of distance is needed.
It can also be challenging to focus on the craft. When the content is so raw and you’re trying to be honest and vulnerable, you have to force yourself to step back and ask questions about the word choice, the imagery, the line breaks. I think the process was very cathartic for me, in a way, and helped me move past my cancer into survivorship. It helped me face the facts of what has happened to me and enabled me to talk about it. There’s nothing to get emotional about anymore. It’s all on the page.
In “If Things Were Otherwise,” Katie mixes nostalgia with reflection and a sense of acceptance, imagining a conversation between her and her mother. Throughout the poem, there is this feeling of familiarity, the essence of her mother woven into the scenery:
“I’d follow the scent of Sanka and coffee cake / down the stairs, into the kitchen, like so many / mornings when I’d find you with friends."
KB: This actually came to me in a dream! I know many writers have pieces like this, but it’s the first time I have ever written something born out of an actual, middle-of-the-night dream.
About halfway through my three months of chemotherapy, I woke up in the middle of the night after a dream in which I was sitting at the kitchen table of my childhood home, talking to my mom about chemo. I grabbed my phone and wrote down as many notes as I could manage, both from the details of the dream and additional questions and ideas I wanted to explore.
I’ve always loved Jane Kenyon’s poetry, and when I stumbled upon her poem “Otherwise” her words seemed like the perfect way to encapsulate what I wanted to say at the end of this chapbook. So I borrowed her line for my title. “If things were otherwise” I could talk to my mom about our shared experiences. I have never missed her more than I did during chemo. I just so desperately wanted to know if she had similar side effects and fears. I wanted her to tell me I could get through it. But I also wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to be so strong.
What made me so emotional when reading this poem was the understanding and the connection—
“Still you’ve never felt closer, / connected by cancer.… / This time, we’re both cancer patients. / This time, I’d understand.”
KB: I was a teenager when she was going through cancer treatment and I had no idea that she was ever in pain, or feeling nauseous, or dealing with exhaustion. And she must have been! Chemo is poison. It kills the cancer, but it damages your entire body in the process. Sure, they have pretty good anti-nausea meds now, but chemo still causes exhaustion, brain fog, depression, joint and bone pain, digestive issues, shortness of breath, nail changes; so many uncomfortable and challenging side effects.
I can’t believe I never knew my mom was experiencing any of these things. I mostly wanted to be able to tell her that she didn’t need to be strong for me; she could be broken and scared and angry and sad and in pain. I wish I had known then what I know now. I wish I could have told her all that.
I also empathized with her curiosity of their experiences: what are the similarities? As a Korean American who was adopted from South Korea at three-and-a-half months old, I have explored in my own poetry similar curiosities about my birth mother: what is she like? Reading this poem brought me back to those curiosities and has inspired me to explore this topic in my newer pieces.
"I mainly draw inspiration from my own life and from observing the world around me."
IW: When putting your collection together, did you already have in mind what poems you would include or write?
KB: I had a few of them in mind. Some of these poems I actually wrote a very long time ago (“Leaving Home,” “I thought I saw my mother,” and “5:00pm, weeknight” during college, and “Relapse” and “Rain Turns to Snow” during grad school). I had ideas for a few new poems about my own cancer journey, and preparing this chapbook prompted me to write those.
Other poems emerged throughout the process, like “Mid-Bloom” and “If Things Were Otherwise,” as I tried to bridge that gap between my mother’s cancer treatment in 1996-1998 and my own in 2018-2019. I looked through over a hundred poems to pull together the existing ones that seemed to fit. And then I wrote the rest to fill out the narrative, so to speak.
IW: As a breast cancer survivor, you volunteer as a Young Advocate for Living Beyond Breast Cancer. When did you become involved with this advocacy group and how has it helped you through your journey?
KB: I feel very fortunate that I connected with Living Beyond Breast Cancer right away because a friend of mine worked for the organization. They believe no one should face breast cancer alone, and provide multiple forms of support and trusted information to anyone dealing with breast cancer. I joined their Young Women’s Facebook Group, which was a big support to me during treatment. Just being able to connect with other women under 40 who could relate to what I was going through was extraordinarily helpful.
When the Covid lockdown happened, I was about a year post-treatment, and it just seemed like the perfect time to apply to the Young Advocate program. The training was all virtual, and I was working from home, which opened up my schedule just enough to commit to the year of training and advocacy projects. I met so many inspiring young women in my cohort, from all across the country, and was able to get involved in legislative advocacy as well as connecting with a number of newly diagnosed women in need of support. My active term as a volunteer has ended, but I will continue to advocate for those facing breast cancer and to volunteer for LBBC’s programs as much as I can in the future.
IW: What kind of advice do you have for poets who are trying to publish their own poetry or chapbooks?
KB: Be patient and be prepared for rejection. Submitting poems to literary magazines is a great way to start, but remember that most lit mags only accept 1-3% of their submissions. So if your poems get rejected, it doesn’t mean they’re bad. It might be something simple, like you submitted a poem about birds when the lit mag has just published four poems about birds and yours would just be too much. The more you send out your work, the more likely you’ll get acceptances. And once you get some individual publications under your belt, you can start thinking about compiling a chapbook or a collection.
IW: Tell us a little bit about the process of publishing a chapbook.
KB: After writing the poems, I spent a lot of time thinking about the order, taking poems out, putting new poems in. I asked my husband to read the manuscript and help me with titles. Between the two of us, we had a list of maybe 10 titles and I landed on Mid-Bloom, which was from a line in one of the poems. Interestingly, I think that poem serves as a turning point in the collection from softer, more nostalgic poems about my mom to a more raw look at my own cancer experience.
I looked for open chapbook submissions, some of which were contests, and sent my manuscript out to four publishers. My plan was to wait for a rejection before sending it to more, and to just keep cycling through rejection, submission for awhile until I either got an acceptance, or enough rejections that it became clear I needed to revise. Fortunately, after just two rejections, Finishing Line Press said yes.
The publisher offered to design the cover, but I chose to design it myself because I know I’d be way too picky if I let someone else take control. I actually found the artist on Instagram just searching for watercolor images of botanicals, and I love that she’s a woman from Sweden who is about my age.
With a small publisher, and particularly when publishing a chapbook, a lot of the marketing falls on the author. The publisher did all the typesetting, sent me proofs, took orders, and printed/shipped the books. They were also very supportive in sending me materials such as sample press kits, advice on how to get book reviews, and using social media to promote the book. Truthfully, I haven’t really done much writing since the book was accepted; it’s been all about promoting the book.
IW: What is your go-to inspiration? If you have a poet that inspires your form or poetry in general, who is it and what is it about their work that inspires you?
KB: I mainly draw inspiration from my own life and from observing the world around me. I can never pick a “favorite” poet, and similarly there’s not a specific poet who inspires me.
I was heavily influenced by Jack Ridl, one of my incredible poetry professors at Hope College. He’s just so warm and encouraging, the most supportive and attentive person I think I’ve ever known. He really invited creativity and for each poet to find their own voice. Maybe that’s part of why I feel influenced by so many poets that I’ve loved, because Jack taught us to be so open to wherever poetry takes you.
Right now, I’m loving Joy Harjo, Natasha Trethewey, Sharon Olds, and Anne Sexton. Ask me again in a year, and the answer will probably be different. There are so many great poets out there to love.
IW: When it comes to your creative space, what must you have handy at all times? Do you have snacks on-hand when you are writing? What is your favorite “writing snack”?
KB: I don’t really have a specific creative space. I typically write in a small notebook. As a writer, people gift me journals and notebooks all the time, so I use those to freewrite. I do love writing in public places: a coffee shop, a wine bar, a park. So I guess my favorite “writing snack” would be whatever beverage is available to me in those places, whether it’s a latte or an iced chai, or a glass of Pinot Noir. Some of my favorite experiences of writing have been when traveling. There’s so much to be inspired by out in the world.
Katie Budris holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Roosevelt University and a BA in English from Hope College. Her poems have appeared in literary journals including After Hours Press, The Albion Review, Border Crossing, Deep Wild Journal, From the Depths (Haunted Waters Press), Kelsey Review, Our Time Is Now, Outside In, Philadelphia Stories, River and South Review, Temenos Journal, Yellow Medicine Review, and the anthology Crossing Lines (Main Street Rag). Her debut chapbook, Prague in Synthetics, is also available from Finishing Line Press (2015). She was the recipient of a John Woods Scholarship to attend the Prague Summer Program in 2005, and was nominated for an AWP Intro Journals Award in 2004. Currently, Katie is a Senior Lecturer in the Writing Arts Department at Rowan University where she serves as Editor in Chief of Glassworks literary magazine. She is a breast cancer survivor and volunteers as a Young Advocate with Living Beyond Breast Cancer. Katie lives in South Jersey with her husband, Chris, and their English Mastiffs, Harper and Winnie.
Georgia I. Salvaryn is a graduate student at Rowan University, pursuing a master's in writing. She earned her bachelor's degree from Montclair State University in Journalism, with a minor in Chinese studies. Georgia is a writer and content manager for ink. From full-of-facts investigative journalism pieces to fluffy and fun feature pieces, her writing range reaches across multiple genres. In her spare time, Georgia dabbles in photography, enjoys drawing pen-and-ink art, and attempts to complete New York Times crossword puzzles. You can browse her articles and photos on her website at georgiaisalvaryn.com.