Julie Carr’s first collection of poetry, Mead: An Epithalamion (University of Georgia Press, 2004) was selected by Cole Swensen for the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Prize. Her other collections include Sarah — of Fragments and Lines (Coffee House Press, 2010), a National Poetry Series winner; 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta Press, 2010), selected by Rae Armantrout for the 2009 Sawtooth Poetry Prize; and Equivocal (Alice James Books, 2007). She is also the author of Surface Tension: Ruptural Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry (Dalkey Archive, 2013). In 2011 Carr received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She currently serves as an Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Our Associate Editor, Lisa Olstein, recently had a chance to ask Julie a few questions about her work.
Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?
Julie Carr: The theme of confession introduced itself to me through the writing of the first series, a group of epistolary pieces from one woman to another that eventually became a novella. But really, I’d been thinking about confession for a long time before writing this. A sometimes implied and sometimes overt critique of the confessional mode in poetry seems to view such writing as necessarily naïve, narcissistic, and (at times) even capitalistic (because easily consumed or because participating in a commodification of feeling). I found myself taking such critiques personally, and I wanted to address that. The divide between a poetry of feeling and a poetry of idea has been operating in Anglo and American poetry for a very long time, and often such a divide is gendered. I’ve wanted to push back against any notions of superiority that I found coming out of anti-subjective, anti-confessional schools of writing (even when such writers were my friends, teachers, or were people whose work I admired), because I felt that the ideas behind such a hierarchical divide have been essentially patriarchal. Of course, battles in the poetry world have their parallels in the greater culture, and so it wasn’t just about squabbling with poets. It was about making a claim for the value of a certain set of pleasures, fears and longings, which includes the desire to be seen and heard, to be recognized, even as the self that desires such recognition might be fictional, partial, or unstable and is, anyway, always in a mode of becoming.
LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?
JC: I was working on a very long and amorphous project called Real Life: An Installation when it came time to begin a manuscript for Ahsahta (we’d had an agreement about publication for a while). I decided to see what would happen if I pulled all the prose out of the Real Life project, partially because it was an easy way to begin, but also because I’d wanted to publish a book of only prose experiments. Once I did that, I could see that a lot of these prose pieces shared certain qualities, shared the theme that I identified as “confession.” I decided then to write into that, and so some of the sections—the longer essays—were written directly for this book. Prose made a space for thinking, for following threads and ideas, and for directly engaging other people’s writing. The letter, which is central to the whole book, makes a fictionalized space for confession and so opened up emotional ranges that I couldn’t get to any other way.
LO: What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?
JC: I feel the book has a few different “I’s. The “I” who speaks in the Dear J. letters is definitely not “me.” I found a voice and exploited it – explored it. I wanted to see what it would be like to write from a character, even though she shares some life-facts with me. This was very liberating, because without finding a distinct voice I don’t think the letters would have become as obsessive as they are.
But in other sections the “I” feels much closer to “me,” even though I believe that we invent or discover new versions of ourselves in and through writing. The “I” I speak with when writing the final letter (to Fred Moten and the others who were with us in a workshop the summer I met him) feels like a particular “I” that was spun into action and voice through knowing and reading Fred and through what that summer’s encounter was like. In other words, the self is a becoming, and other people aid and abet that becoming. The I I am in speaking to you is also specific to you, to us. I feel that fluidity especially in writing because there is so much space in it to explore and shape.
LO: Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the book was speaking evolve?
JC: Some books feel very “writerly,” as if they are speaking to the writers I know, read, love.
Others feel more expansive in their idea of audience, speaking, I guess I would say, to neighbors. This one didn’t feel private or hermetic at all, but it does kind of presume an interest in literary confession. Its sub-themes, unseemly desire, envy, anger, motherlessness, fear – might seem to appeal to anyone, but I think I was mostly talking to other women in addressing these themes (maybe I generally am).
LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work?
JC: The first section. I’d never really openly explored jealousy, envy, and desire between women before in my writing. I think these emotions are operating between us all the time and that we often try to ignore or subvert them. I wanted to bring them front and center to maybe free myself of some burdens. That felt a little frightening. Also risky in a totally different way was the inclusion of the two longish essays. I know they ask a lot of the reader – they aren’t a quick read. I find myself wanting to apologize for that! But then, I guess people can always skip over them if they need to.
LO: How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?
JC: I’m not really sure this book has an ethics, unless by ethics we mean an attitude toward truth. I used to not believe in truth, or not believe I was interested in pursuing it. Now I’d say differently that I am interested in circling around whatever feels most difficult to say and most necessary. I say, “circling around,” because I don’t have enough faith in my ability, or in writing’s ability, to get to that “most difficult and most necessary,” but I read in order to get closer to those things, and so I would now say I write in order to get as close as I can to my own most difficult and most necessary truths. If that’s an ethics, then the aesthetics of the book serve that ethics by being as expansive as possible. I want to not limit how I write (in terms of form, style, voice), because whatever it is that needs to be said might find its way via a form I did not anticipate and maybe have to invent.
LO: As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?
JC: I believe this is a slow book. It’s a book that asks the reader to take her time. Each section is its own unit, has its own form, and its own approach to content. Therefore, I think it’d be a hard book to read in one go. Instead, I think each section has a different temporality, a different beat, you could say, and a reader would have to adjust to those shifts.
LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book specific creative realm?
JC: There’s a lot of reading inside the book. Martha Gellhorn’s letters, T.J. Clark. 18th and 19th Century writers: Wordsworth, Hopkins, Keats, Dickinson, Rousseau. A bunch of French philosophers on the theme of confession (they seemed to be obsesses with it!). There’s also the paintings of Barnett Newman, which I find to be extremely moving. Fred Moten’s work motivated me in all kinds of ways (and still does). I write in silence, for better or worse, except for the noise that other people’s writing is making inside my head.
LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of the book? What are you working on now?
JC: Once I finished this book, I returned full force to the Real Life manuscript, which I’d been working on before I started. That book is pretty much done now (coming out in the fall), and so what I’m working on right now is the very beginnings of a book about late-19th Century America. It’s a long thing to explain, so rather than try to do that here, I’ll just list chapter titles: Mud, Grass, Law, Spirit, Apple, Blood, Mind, Power. And a few basic themes: land use, Homesteading and Indian dispossession, Populism, Spiritualism, and Eugenics. We’ll see how it goes. It’s a big project and will take a long time and form is still very much an open question. I hope through that work to address history head on, to take a hard look at family history, national history and some violent histories that are hidden in the mud and grass of the West.
from Real Life: An Installation
Lisa Olstein is the author of four poetry collections, most recently, Little Stranger (Copper Canyon Press, 2013) and Late Empire (forthcoming in 2017). Her chapbook, The Resemblance of the Enzymes of Grasses to those of Whales Is a Family Resemblance, was a winner of the 2015 Essay Press Prize and will be released in fall 2016. Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Lannan Writing Residency, and fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Massachusetts Cultural Council, and Centrum, she is a member of the poetry faculty for the University of Texas at Austin’s New Writers Project and Michener Center for Writers.