Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #10

An Interview with Julie Carr

(Dan Beachy Quick)

DBQ: The poem I find myself returning to most often in Equivocal is "Iliadic Familias (with insertions from Homer)." In many ways, it feels encompassing of many of the things I so admire in your work. The structure of the poem --written, I should add, in prose--is tri-partite, each section a seemingly more condensed repetition of the previous, and within that repetition issues of childhood, motherhood, culture, war, myth, and history (to name but a few) echo and re-echo. I was wondering if you could speak more about this poem and how its concerns and its repetitious forms fit into a larger sense of your poetic experiment.

Julie CarrJC: The first section of "Iliadic Familias" simply speaks narratively about being a child   of a mother who was an anti-war activist and now being a mother during a war.

The second section rewrites the first by inserting moment from The Iliad into the text, while condensing the prose. The third section repeats this process, but condensing the prose even more into a single sentence.

This poem has been important to me because of how it weaves together family life, the political, and the literary. I’ve taken inspiration from writers like Fanny Howe and Alice Notley. These women (and many others) are feminist writers  because of how they exclude nothing from their poetry. The experience of being in a family, being a mother in particular, is nothing if not political.

And my experiential life is never distinct from my life as a reader. I am as much formed by reading Dickinson as a child as I am by being the daughter of a particular mother. I write the way I do because I was born during one war and am raising children during another, but also because of Williams, because of George Eliot, because of Hopkins, because of Jean Valentine, even because of writers I haven't read but whose writing has infused my culture whether I know it or not. My hope is always that my writing can embrace and reflect all aspects of my political, literary, and relational experience. Lyn Hejinian has said that there are those writers who focus on exclusion (what is not necessary for this poem), and there are those who focus on inclusion (what else can I put into this poem).

I think about this a lot, and attempt to include more and more, especially whatever I am afraid of.

DBQ: I can see and feel in your poems what you mention above, that reading life and experiential life aren't exclusive for you, but are mutually complicating. I find myself, reading Equivocal, fascinated by the varied formal approaches and theoretical resonances throughout it--something that feels very tied to what you just said about influence.

I can hear Hopkins in the music, and Dickinson in the pith of the    thinking/emotion; I can also sense the refusal of a poetics of closure in the overall approach; I can see multiple formal approaches from the prose poem to the lyric to the epistle and so on. I was hoping you might be able to speak more directly about the kinds of influence informing these poems, how you think about influence--as a threat, as gift, as some hybrid of both--which is to ask, I suppose, on a larger scale, how you approach poetic tradition in connection to, or opposed with, contemporary poetic thinking.

JC: Well, very specifically, different sections of this book carry different influences.

Cole Swensen's Noon was a book I carried around with me for about two years. I read it hundreds of times. After a while, I wasn't reading it, I was speaking it. The series of "Odes" in the book began as homophonic translations of her poems. I was trying to understand the rhythm, syntax and music of what she was doing. Later, these odes transformed into something entirely else and
retain only the ghostliest sense of Cole's poems. The "letters" in the "Letter Box" sequence were influenced by Mark McMorris's "Dear Michael" series. I had heard Mark read these at some point and basically have been haunted by them ever since. In fact, these poems have influenced my forthcoming book, Sarah-of Fragments and Lines as well.

I am fascinated by the intimacy of the epistolary form—its invocation of a specific listener who in some sense will always remain a mystery to the reader who only gets one side of the dialogue.

The smaller "Letter Box" poems were made with the help of a series of alphabet blocks, created by the artist Elizabeth Lewis. I'd roll the blocks like dice and write from whatever images or letters lay face up before me.

This game-like process was probably influenced by my understanding of John Cage's work. I knew Cage’s writing and music, especially his collaborations with Cunningham. But that year I'd been to a gallery exhibit of his drawings, created through chance operations, and found that work to be intensely beautiful because of its lack of foresight. I wish my writing could achieve that kind of trust.

These very contemporary influences spurred me to write. Often this happens—I read someone's book or go to a reading and something lands in me and is planted and somehow I have to write it out.

But to answer the last part of your question, I see very little difference between the poetic tradition and contemporary poetry. I read everything as if it were written in the present (which makes me a bad historian). The richest reading experiences for me are the ones that feel most intimate—when I feel I am alone with a writer in a private space of our own making. So influence is not a threat, it's a gift for sure. It's even more a form of love: when a writer reaches me in that intimate way, I am changed. And when I can turn that into writing, I am
exercising that transformation.

DBQ: What I find so moving in what you just answered is the way in which form becomes a means of discovery, not simply of your own work, but through your work, the nature of another. That feels to me like a deeply ethical territory. That notion of ethics seems to be very much at the complicated center of your newest book, 100 Notes on Violence.

Before, though, I ask you about the connection between poetry as an aesthetic work and poetry as an ethical work, I was hoping you might be able to address the formal issues at play in the new work, which feels to me fully engaged with song, with rhyme, with lyric tradition--guided at times almost wholly by the ear--as well as by fragment, by fairy tale, by the news. Is there, in your mind, a different formal approach to your work than in Equivocal? And if so, why? And to what end?

JC: The formal considerations driving 100 Notes are many. First of all, I wanted to make a big book for a big subject. I knew it needed to be long (by poetry book standards) and that I needed to vary the form and feel of the poems.

I began with the notion of "notes" only because I was doing quite a bit of reading on the subject of violence and was literally taking notes as I read; many of these notes became fodder for poems or became the poems themselves. But I was also aware as I worked on this that I could not speak about violence without heavily quoting from other sources. I wanted to make a book that reached  beyond my own most immediate realm, that included a larger notion of community and a larger notion of "home." And so I kept my focus both inward —toward language, sound, emotion, dream, family—and outward—toward the political, the public, the news, and toward a large range of other texts and media.

Poems that incorporate outside sources found forms that relied on the nature of the source. For example, a poem that is a sequence of one-sentence statements about violence pulled from a range of texts is structured more or less as a list. A poem that is derived from an email in which a friend reveals a violent episode from his life is left in the form of a letter. I also lifted texts off the internet and tried to allow the forms to reflect these sources.

But you are also right that the lyric is very important to this book. I found myself writing these little lullabies that are rhymed and evenly metered—almost ditties. These were important to me as calming devices, ways to sooth myself, but also to express the fears that drive the lullaby. I was often singing my baby to sleep during the period of writing, and I thought about how that singing is meant to alleviate the fear of being alone, the fear of darkness, the fear of sleep itself. I found a strange terror to be driving the lullaby.

Equivocal is a collection of interrelated sequences: the "wrought" series, the letter box series, the odes, the "equivocal" series at the end. 100 Notes attempts to be one long poem in which I composed with a variety of tones and forms. In this way it resembles my first book, Mead: An Epithalamion, that made use of a similar strategy.

DBQ: Throughout Equivocal and 100 Notes on Violence there is a permeating, manifold, ethical concern--though I wouldn't want to limit ethics to a way of acting rightly in the world among others, for it also feels part of your formal experiments, a capacity for varied attention in words, as well as issues of justice, of right, of care and of kindness.

I'm reminded of a moment from Wittgenstein's Tractatus where, paranthetically I believe, he writes: "Ethics and aesthetics are one." More than your thoughts on that quote (though I'd love to know those as well), I'd be curious to hear about how you think ethical concern fits into or is simultaneous with poetic work.

JC: I think ethical concern is a precursor for all work that involves others. For me “the ethical” is very close to awareness. The more tuned one’s attention is to what’s going on around one in the social, political, emotional realms, the more careful one’s own actions are going to be. Writing is without a doubt a way of increasing awareness. Writing is an act of listening and of watching, it is, in this sense, receptive.

But then it is also a way of making order, making meaning of what we receive through our senses—so one could say that the act of making a poem is akin to turning awareness into a kind of action.

The question I found myself asking in the making of 100 Notes was “is this adding to or countering violence?” If the work seemed exploitive, or too involved in performing violence, it felt “unethical” because it seemed to be coming down on the side of violence (as entertainment).
On the other hand, it would have felt unethical not to acknowledge somehow that violence has a draw on everyone’s attention and is in that way seductive. I tried to be honest, even though that meant I was sometimes unsure of my own ethics.

Speaking more generally, sometimes writing (poetry) does real work in the world— but at a very intimate level. It can dispel loneliness; it can give a reader a (maybe temporary) feeling of balance and meaning. These are gifts I’ve received and hope to give. And maybe most importantly, poetry, like other art forms (music especially) creates community.

Anything that draws people together around a shared passion is, in my view, behaving ethically.

A lot has been said about how poetry’s Indeterminacies create a kind of ethics: an intersubjective or transubjective space in which multiple voices come together to form a kind of democracy within the body of the poem. I’m interested in that, but not sure I believe in it.

What I do believe, though, is that poetry acknowledges paradox and instability, and I think readers (and writers) benefit from being reminded of paradox in the world.

P.B. Shelly argued that poetry is ethical because it teaches sympathy. Most interesting about his assertions (in “The Defense of Poetry”) is that he doesn’t claim, as we might expect, that poetry engenders sympathy by allowing us to “relate” to the feelings of the poet. Instead, he claims it teaches sympathy because metaphor (perhaps poetry’s central tool) demonstrates how things simply are interrelated and interdependent. The more we are reminded of how one thing is like another, the more we will be able to feel our ethical connection to others and to the natural world.

What I love about this idea is that it puts the ethical firmly inside figurative language. One creates an ethics by how one uses language instead of by what one says.

On a final and personal note, I will say that since a huge part of my energy and time is spent on caring for children, on trying to figure out the best way to aid growing people in their growing, I find those concerns to be integrated into most of what I write. So, yes, these are ethical concerns and they are never far from whatever I call my work.