The Canvas Underneath: An Interview with Carrie Olivia Adams – conducted by Zach Savich

Carrie Olivia Adams lives in Chicago with her husband and two cats. She is the Promotions and Marketing Communications Director for the University of Chicago Press and the poetry editor for Black Ocean. Her books include Operating Theater, Forty-One Jane Doe’s, and Intervening Absence in addition to the chapbooks “Proficiency Badges,” “Grapple,” “Overture in the Key of F,” and “A Useless Window.” When she’s not making poems, she’s making biscuits. We corresponded about her newest collection, Be the thing of memory (Tolsun Books, 2021), and its relation to other texts, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and the dance between telling a story and conveying the “opaque strokes of mood.”

Zach Savich: Your new book’s first piece, “Daughter of a Tree Farm,” is “drawn from erasures of the Autobiography of Countess Tolstoy.” How did it develop?

Carrie Olivia Adams: The opening sequence was the first piece I wrote for the book, and I didn’t know then that the entire book was going to take the shape of an ongoing engagement with various source texts, but it feels very prescient in retrospect. I was in that very muddled, very cynical space I often enter after I finish a book project (having just completed Operating Theater), where I can’t imagine I ever wrote a poem, much less a book, and I begin to doubt that it will ever happen again. I was lost, and my own words were coming up empty, and I knew I wanted something that would get me out of my head. I work at the University of Chicago Press, and on one of my lunch breaks, I walked to a used bookshop on 57th Street (that is now a wine shop) determined to find a book that might just get me writing again. I had no real criteria for what I was looking for, and it was entirely happenstance that I came across Sophia Tolstoy’s memoir, but it just felt right. A woman’s voice, one often overshadowed or unknown next to her more famous husband’s work, and yet, I knew she would have a story to tell. So, I went home that night and started to sit with it, pencil in hand, marking through lines and words to begin to try to find the story within the story. 

ZS: Sometimes, when reading erasures or poems based in other texts, I feel very aware of the source text and how it’s being altered. Other times, I feel more aware of the poet who’s speaking through it. With “Daughter of a Tree Farm,” I began to hear the voice as neither Tolstoy nor “you” (the poet). Maybe that has to do with the distances that the sequence foregrounds (“I still stop talking for long times”) or with its phrases of shifting perspective (“Later on the trees acquired winter”). How do you think about this voice?

COA: For me, the poem is very much a dialogue—at least in the process of its creation. I can never just make an erasure poem. I immediately want to answer it or question it. The erased text immediately calls me into conversation with it. This disrupts the purity of it being an erasure, but that’s just how my mind works. I am my imperfections. It is very much an intuitive process for me, and I would find myself in a moment where the phrase created by the erasings would trigger a memory or a scene for me, and I wanted to answer in response. Over time, through rounds of revisions and stripping it down, the sense of there being a back and forth disappeared and the voice became more cohesive, but the writing process was one of partnering or pairing of ideas and approaches to language.

ZS: Could you say more about the choice to not indicate which language is directly from Tolstoy?

COA: It’s funny, but the thought never occurred to me. Maybe that’s indicative of my process—that I went into it with the hope of creating a tone or a mood, rather than an architecture, as is sometimes my want. But in this case, it meant that I was focused on stripping down the apparatus, hiding the studs in the walls, and smoothly plastering over them. Though it wasn’t in my mind at the time, I think now of how Gerhard Richter makes a painting—underneath his intense surfaces of abstraction and color there are sometimes incredibly detailed, often realistic paintings that he’s slowly, layer by layer, “disturbing” with new paint until most of the original painting has been consumed or subsumed. I erased Tolstoy’s book and then erased the erasure. 

ZS: This reminds me of what reading can often feel like. We respond to a text as we read, we remember it and our responses together, we become composed by the experience. In addition to working at the University of Chicago Press, you’re an editor with Black Ocean. Do you see connections between your creative work with found texts and the (also creative) work of editing poetry?

COA: There is definitely a similarity in the mindset that I bring to editing a manuscript for Black Ocean and in my approach to a found text or an erasure. Both require a semblance of communion. Both require compassion or empathy. Both require a fair, but assertive objectivity. It’s about first coming to the text and meeting it on its own terms and even determining what those terms and motivations and strategies are. And then letting those terms, that voice, speak. Sometimes that involves excavation, sometimes careful tuckpointing, and sometimes that means taking the structure down piece by piece and building it over again. 

ZS: Taking the structure down, building it over again: this reminds me of how meaning can develop in your poems. Here’s the beginning of the sequence “Proficiency Badges”:

“We had cut down a tree. At first, we were building dams. But as suddenly as the tides had risen, the water fled. Had I asked? In those days, you questioned even the ocean. Had I made it up? But it had moved in, and I had bathed you in it, in the basement.”

The narrative in (or behind) these sentences feel clear. But, for me, the passage is “about” an atmosphere, or a style of being, as much as it’s about the content. When you are writing, how do you think about the interplay between “creating a tone or a mood” and offering more overt narrative, assertion, phrases that orient a reader? Are there poets who’ve been especially influential for this approach?

COA: I think this is often a source of conflict in my work. There’s a part of me that always wants to be a storyteller. I have great fantasies about being a playwright or writing a verse novel. This drive toward narrative and character has been behind many of my experiments with poem film, such as “Pandora’s Star Box” in Forty-One Jane Doe’s and plays on structure such as “Notes Toward a Short Film” in Intervening Absence or the five acts of Operating Theater. But, I’m an imperfect storyteller, just as I’m an imperfect eraser, and I become as interested in where the language is leading me as where the story might go. Maybe I’m impatient or easily distracted or just curious, but the texture of the words themselves feels just as compelling. So, I think there’s often this push and pull at play in my work—between the self that wants to follow Anne Carson’s lead into a narrative and the self that hangs out in an archive with Susan Howe stitching phrases and sounds. There is almost always a story on the first layer of the canvas that can be glimpsed underneath the more opaque strokes of mood. It depends on what the reader wants to find.

ZS: Since first reading 2009’s Intervening Absence, I’ve admired the many ways your writing has connected to other arts. “R-SPIN: A Collaboration for Music and Dance” foregrounds some of those dynamics. What is the “music and dance” in this piece? In what ways is it a collaboration?

COA: I’ve always been an avid fan of dance, and about five or six years ago, I attended a performance from Stephen Petronio’s “Bloodlines” project at the Dance Center of Columbia College, which celebrated the work of his teachers and influences in modern dance—Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown. Watching the performance, I could feel my whole mind and body change—I was hot and restless and shaking with ideas. I realized that my language for talking about dance was the same language I used to talk about poems and that modern dance and modern poetry inhabited a shared space. I come back to this sense of mood, which has become so important to me as a way of thinking about the art—in all forms—that I respond to most. It’s about letting the art happen to you, letting it get under your skin, letting it make you feel whatever it is you feel. And I knew that night, watching the performance, that I wasn’t going to rest until I found a way to write poems within a dance space. This set me down one of the most productive, creative paths I have followed and led to several different collaborative projects with choreographers over a few years. My poems were already quite obsessed with the body—I had just finished writing Operating Theater, which was both visceral and anatomical—and so the move to bring that lyrical body to physical space felt natural.

During that time, through a mutual friend, I met the multi-talented poet Elizabeth Schmuhl who is also a trained dancer and choreographer. Meanwhile, I have a very good experimental musician friend, Joseph Clayton Mills, with whom I’ve had the opportunity to work on other projects—we share a similar sensibility and interest in esoterica and archives—and he’s always up for an opportunity to bring together unusual sounds. At the time, there was a creative dance series, The Coincidentals, run by two alumni from Columbia College’s dance program that featured new dance projects in an apartment salon-style setting. So, Elizabeth, Joe, and I decided to create a piece for the series, which resulted in R-SPIN. Joe started us off by sending me the Revised Speech Perception in Noise (R-SPIN) Test, which I used as a springboard for the text. In my dance collaborations, I’ve worked many ways—with the text in advance not knowing it would be a dance and with the text developing alongside and in response to the choreography. But in this case, most of the text came first and was written specifically with this collaboration in mind. I then sent the text to both Joe and Elizabeth, who began to work on their own and would share their progress. We knew Elizabeth wouldn’t be able to attend the show in person, so she put together two videos, which were installed in different rooms of the apartment the night of. Meanwhile, while the videos ran, Joe performed live, and I read the text in cut and paste and repeated snippets, blending in with and distorted by the music. It was such a fun performance for me, and I loved the result—both structured and improvised—a space and an installation that folks could walk through and view the different monitors and just sit and experience. It felt immersive, and I love art that allows me to sink into it and dwell. I wish there were more opportunities for this!

ZS: I’m curious about how you are thinking about this book’s release, as we correspond in April 2021. We can be frank about challenges—because of the pandemic, and much more—but a new book is also an optimistic act. What are you looking forward to, as this book makes its way in the world? What do you hope it might activate or inspire for readers?

COA: The pandemic has been such a lonely time. I’ve been very lucky to have spent every day of this quarantine with my husband of nearly twenty years, but yet, there is no way to escape the very loneliness that comes with this kind of distance and separation from one’s friends, family, colleagues, and just life. I am lonely for the bus and the subway and the random interactions and humanity of the city. I miss the osmotic energy that comes from being surrounded by others; and I miss the chance to allow myself to be alone amidst it, to sit back and observe—to be on the bus and also outside the window. I’ve always thought of my poems as missives to the lonely—to that part of ourselves that is always, inherently, humanly alone. Through them, I am sending little sonar beeps out from my lone self and hoping they echo or bounce off another. And, that feels more important to me than ever—this goal, this hope, this yearning towards connection. That is all I could for a poem or a book—that when it finds its reader it has the power for at least a small moment to be a companion, to make one feel less alone.