Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Sara Mumolo and Alisa Heinzman Interview Julie Carr
Mumolo & Heinzman: Often, you cite other texts and the words of your poems tend to engulf the borrowed text (the cited portions are not set outside the body of your texts). Then, rather than point or respond to the quotations, the poems seem to move along with them, using the citations as integrated lines. I'm thinking of your works cited, but especially of moments similar to your use of Whitman's Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking in 20. of 100 Notes on Violence
"Out of the cradle endlessly--shameful--out of the rocking the
mocking-bird's throat--bludgeoned the musical, the musical
shuttle--out of the parents the child from bed--"
Here, Whitman's words have been melded with your own. Can you talk about your relationships to Whitman and Dickinson in the book? And, possibly, also as part of your own aesthetic history as a poet? What, as you see it, is the relationship between quoted texts and your own words in the poems?
Julie Carr: Whitman and Dickinson are important to this book because they wrote through and, in very different ways, about the Civil War. Their approaches to writing about violence are as contrasting as their poetics: the one public, direct, political, the other private, metaphoric, metaphysical. The Civil War is almost a metaphor for the book’s central concerns, which are domestic, local, and intimate violence. I wanted both Whitman’s direct engagement and Dickinson’s metaphysical questioning to be part of how I addressed violence in this book. When Whitman writes,
“Long, too long America, / Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn'd from joys and prosperity only, / But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing, grappling with direst fate and recoiling not” (which is the poem of his I most often refer to), he directs his poetry and his readers to acknowledge these “crises of anguish.” He asks for a poetics of honesty and engagement and he assigns himself the role of “show[ing] to the world what [America’s] children en-masse really are.” I took his words as a challenge. Then, in the last line of Dickinson’s poem #442, written in 1862, “Creature—Shall I—bloom?,” you get the full weight of her uncertainties, her capacity to write through doubt and despair. “The Frosts were her condition,” it says earlier in that poem. I felt it was crucial to include the fullest emotional range that I could discover, and certainly questioning one’s right or ability to bloom (given the conditions, given the realities), occupies one end of the emotional spectrum, while taking responsibility for showing the world who its children are might be another.
The book is woven with other voices. I wanted to record my own reading experiences, but also to reveal how violence is a communal problem, one that preoccupies all of us, one that we are collectively engaged with.
As for my own history – I read Dickinson first when I was probably about seven. My mother had a selected in the house, and I was drawn to it. From then on I loved and always read a lot of poetry. I think that early exposure to the lyric as a mode of internal inquiry has left its mark on me pretty indelibly.
M&H: There is a tension between what I observe as the personal and the public in your poems. In Equivocal you address Memory, which often coincides with the private world, and History, which often coincides with the public in the "Wrought History" and "Wrought Memory" poems. Of course the two subjects overlap and intertwine. A recurrence of this tension between private and public (if these are even the best terms to use) happens in other areas of Equivocal as well: grief, gender, family.
Grief (9): "Private griefs become public when theorized: I cannot get it nearer me" p9
Gender (64): "Burying my ancestry requires so little / I've lost touch with other mothers, // lost touch with my sex"
Family: Scenes of family reappear throughout. The family seems to be most people's initial experience with the individual's relationship to the collective, where it touches and where it divides. Maybe all of this has something to do with loneliness, language, and the difficulty of writing poetry as perhaps a transference of personal to public. Is it even possible to talk about when/how these tensions between personal and public appear in the consciousness of you-as-the-poet writing the poems? How do you think the individual's relationship to the collective manifests during the act of writing?
JC: This is a big question! I think the answers will vary from one book to the next. Equivocal is more private (to me) than 100 Notes on Violence, and I was definitely directing myself to reach farther outward when I began writing 100 Notes. But I never think of the act of writing as a private or purely personal experience. I am always reading as I am writing – books are always open on the desk. I hear the voices of others in my head as I write. I don’t believe I am moving inward as I write – that’s not the metaphor that helps me. Instead, I think of myself as engaging with what is before me, with whatever I am capable of engaging with. My hope is that I will engage with more and more: more people, more texts, more history, more of the natural and more of the made world. That said, I do believe in such a thing as “the individual,” and I do believe that each individual’s perspective matters and is, in some sense, unique. So I don’t, and hope to never, think of myself as just a “sampler.”
I think your question is also about audience. My sense of readership must also vary from project to project. There are certain poems or sequences that are written with a small audience in mind (sometimes an audience of one). Others are written with a broader readership in mind. I don’t think we always have to be speaking to as many people as possible. That would severely limit our possibilities. At the same time, if we always speak to the same group of readers, we also limit our possibilities. I suppose what I want more than anything is to be open to many possibilities.
The family is my ground. I published my first book, Mead, when my son, Benjamin, was six and my daughter, Alice, was 2. The book dives right into domestic and familial experience as a place of great tension and intensity. As Robert Duncan said, the domestic is the true wild. I wanted to explore the sense that my borders were no longer clear: the “inside” and the “outside” were trading places all of the time. Now, that no longer seems surprising to me; it is just a fact of existence. Equivocal was written during the year after that, and is always in conversation with Alice’s language acquisition, and my mother’s loss of language through dementia. It is a book, then, that is curious about how language is and then also isn’t how we know a person, how we experience intimacy. So, you are right to notice that the family is the site at which the individual and the collective come together and come apart.
M&H: A related tension in 100 Notes on Violence exists when one's (either reader or citizen) vulnerability exposes through their interaction with the book, the material itself. For example, from note 30: "This is just a book. It does not weigh very much. It is easy to hold and to destroy. Scissors, a knife, a pen, water, your hands. Like a body." Here the speaking voice reduces the sizes of images until the books' theme of violence actually is the hands of human culpability. I read this as questioning what it means to write a book about violence: the book as a material and the poems themselves. Can a book--or any material--attend/effuse a vulnerability akin to the human figures inhabiting these poems, figures that are also acting out violently or are acted upon violently in the world?
JC: Can a book be a perpetrator? Can a book be a victim? Dickinson wrote, “There is a word / Which bears a sword / Can pierce an armed man—” Yes, of course language enacts violence, does so all the time. One of the questions I ask throughout the book is to what degree speech can be violent. In a long poem in which I question my own motives for writing this book, I describe being beat up as a child and then, as a young woman, being nearly raped. But then I say “but this was still nothing compared to my mother’s insults, though I do not remember them.” Here and elsewhere in the book I try to highlight the violence that language can do.
I began to see the book as vulnerable pretty early on. A book is such a quiet thing and so unobtrusive. It just sits there not demanding much. I began to refer to it as “my compass” for how it (the project) kept me on track, kept me focused, but also as a term of endearment. At one point I call it “sweet compass.” At the same time, when I think about the impact of books on my life – more like magnets than like compasses, they have shifted my direction entirely – refocused my orientation, changed my mind. One of the reasons to value poetry is for how quietly it enacts cataclysmic change: one reader at a time.
M&H: One interesting polarity in 100 Notes on Violence is the nursery rhyme/lullaby heritage that some of the sonic structures inhabit against the collection's title theme--stories and images of violence. Can you talk about negotiating these interactions?
JC: I think of these sections as lullabies. I started this book when my third child, Lucy, was an infant. I was often singing her to sleep and thinking about how lullabies are these prayers against fear: fear of sleep, fear of being alone, fear of the dark. But the songs I was singing, “Sweet Molly Malone,” “Rock-a-by-baby,” “Hush Little Baby,” these songs were really about death, disaster, the failure to comfort. So oddly, the lullaby sounds soothing, but it expresses how one can never really be soothed. They are like the Blues in that way. They comfort through acknowledging what is. I included these lullaby-like poems in order to calm down the narrative strains, to keep the book from getting hysterical (which it easily could have done), but also to indicate the fear at the heart of the lullaby.
M&H: What, if any, connections between the individual and a larger community are currently being disrupted in the world of poetry? Do these seem to be shadows of larger crisis' in the world or are they insular poetic disruptions? Or, are they crisis' of time, a constant struggle of a conscious being? How do you see language relating to crisis?
JC: I’m not sure what you mean by crisis here. What comes first to mind is that poetry’s relationship to a larger reading public is in crisis. But it has been that way for decades (though not centuries). This is, I think, sad, but not tragic. It’s sad for those people who say, “I don’t read poetry.” It’s sad for the kids who are not being taught how to read poetry in school. But it’s not necessarily a tragedy for poetry. I think poets have always written to each other, have always been involved in a communal activity. That has not changed, and perhaps because we are less concerned with the larger market, we are saved, in a way, for each other. The poetic communities that I am part of are thriving, filled with vibrant exciting people creating unexpected and striking things. But maybe you are referring to other kinds of crises—global, political, economic.
How does poetic language relate to these crises? Oscar Wilde said that life imitates art, not the other way around. He said there was no fog in London until the painters made it so. I think artists, and poets as just one breed of artists, have to keep that hope: that what they are creating will help to invent the world. If you think about how reading has changed you, you as just one individual, made you more at peace, or more curious, or more aware, or simply more alive, then you can readily agree that art has made you who you are. It follows then that art invents communities of people and thereby invents the world. How that happens is multitudinous. There is no one way. Perhaps it is true that new sentences, new grammars, new syntax, can expand our way of thinking, can act as a form of resistance. Or perhaps it is true that song, more than any other aspect of poetry, affects us because it reaches past cognition to the body. And perhaps it is also true that individual narratives need to be told, sometimes directly. All of these things seem possible to me and all have seemed true to me at different times in my reading experience. Perhaps poetry is a kind of listening, paying extreme attention in order to record, not the dominant narratives, the ones we already know, but the understories, the things we don’t usually want to, or know how to, hear. The one thing I don’t believe in is silence.