Thursday, January 05, 2012

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Emily Carr

Emily Carr has published two books of poetry: directions for flying (Furniture Press 2010) & 13 Ways of Happily: Books 1 & 2 (Parlor Press 2011), which was chosen by Cole Swensen as the winner of the 2009 New Measures Prize. She has been a finalist in five national book awards, most recently the National Poetry Series, & has received fellowships from the Jack Kerouac House, the Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, & Camac Centre D’Art. The Weights of Heaven, the penultimate volume of Emily's autobiography-in-progress, was published in the Summer 2011 Adaptations Issue of The Western Humanities Review. Excerpts from Emily’s tarot novel, Name Your Bird Without a Gun, have been published in Web Conjunctions, Alice Blue, Blackbox Manifold, Peacock, & Front Porch & are forthcoming in PRISM International, Hayden’s Ferry Review, & Gargoyle. For a video performance of excerpts from Name Your Bird Without a Gun, visit

2. How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

There was never a question. I write in lines not sentences. For me, unit of composition determines genre & not the other way round. So even when I am, say, writing a lyric essay or a short story, I am still (at least as I see it nowadays—I will contradict myself later when I talk about my earlier work!) writing poetry.

4. Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a “book” from the very beginning?

I’m always working on a book from the beginning. But not in any conscientious, straightforward, rational or coherent manner. Recently, a friend told me that Bob Dylan composed “Highway 61” by collecting a whole bunch of fragments, getting high on hash, sitting up all night & mixing them all together until he had a song. That’s pretty much how I write—except I don’t smoke hash & I can’t stay up all night. I don’t worry too much about where the work is headed—I just keep reading & thinking & jotting down bits & pieces. Always by hand, never organized chronologically—never, in fact, organized at all. I’m thinking about something, & that train of thought will surface regardless. I’m constantly carrying around all these notebooks because I’m totally neurotic about losing all this work that can’t (because it happens so haphazardly) be replicated & I need to have lots of raw material before I can get “started” in any conventional sense. Once I have four or five notebooks & everything’s a complete mess, then I start thinking about some sort of a narrative arc or generic approach. At that point, I transform from being a collector to a florist. In fact, I’d say most of what I do is like arranging flowers—or interior design. Going by my sense of smell rather intellect or aesthetic or theory. (Though, once again, I’m about to contradict myself!)

6. Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

My ecofeminist lyric praxis explores the psychological impact literacy has on our experience of the ecologies for which we have chosen (not perhaps willingly but merely by virtue of our belonging to them) to take responsibility. I call my work ecofeminist & lyric rather than “nature writing” because while I do write about nature, I am more interested in how writing about nature can be a way of studying human nature: the language & forms we use to discuss what can be turned into bodies, stories or selves; what turns are taken in bodies, stories or selves; what ends up in bodies, stories, or selves; & what bodies, stories, or selves end up as in the end. For example, my first two books of poetry, directions for flying & 13 Ways of Happily: books 1 & 2, experiment with the paradox that is marriage: that animal pact of shared isolation that is both an abandonment of self (as the woman assumes the man’s name) & an enlargement, enhancement, & breaking down of the barriers of self. The housewife is, as these books perform her, a way of addressing un(re)solved feminist questions: does the female subject continue to (as in the early days of feminism) be symbolically fraught. (& did feminism inadvertently cause this. & then fail to provide the answer.)

The manuscripts I’m working on now, Name Your Bird Without a Gun: a Tarot Novel & 2 Pieces of Yesterday: An American Elegy, turn to performative writing & adaptation to explore questions of how to reconcile erotic longing with monogamy & to publicly voice the most private experiences (after they’ve stopped being theoretically fashionable), as well as the links between questions of beauty and that of living well.

8. Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both?)

I’m very stubborn, & find working with an outside editor nearly impossible. I suppose that’s why I really write poetry—& not, say, fiction or non-fiction.

9. What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

In an online interview, Carole Maso says “I am much more interested in producing a flawed, mortal document than something that is just a nod to a certain set of conventions. I also tend to favor writing that is an event in some way, & not just the record of an event; it creates a more vulnerable, fluid space, where the unforeseen, or the errant, or something a little wild is allowed to enter. […] My work is dictated by passion & deep emotion—all that is necessary is to surrender to the text without a care for what it is.”

10. How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

My dissertation, to loot to hew & Eden, (which I wrote while a PhD student at the University of Calgary) is composed of a critical introduction followed by a creative work in three movements. The first movement, “the story will fix you it is there outside your &,” is a lyric essay. It is the only movement that might, in any conventional sense, be considered “true.” The second movement, “13 ways of happily,” is a serial lyric. (I mean “lyric” here in the conventional sense of short, intimate, lineated poems that, true to the form’s oral origins, invest equally in sonic and semantic sense) The third movement, “stories not about love,” is—at least by my definition—stories. Although lineated, they are (uncharacteristically for me) written not in lines but in sentences.

These generic classifications are inspired, largely, by Anne Carson, who refuses to “choose” and instead, as Susan Macklin writes, “allows herself the freedom to do, as much as possible, whatever she might please.” Indeed, as Macklin relates:
In a public interview at the PEN American Center, her [Carson’s] interviewer, Michael Silverblatt, a Los Angeles literary critic, asked Carson—first thing—how, exactly, she determines what form a piece of writing would take: “poem,” “essay,” “novel in verse” et cetera. Pausing only briefly, she answered, “By sense of smell.”
How do I know “the story will fix you” is an essay while “13 ways” is poetry & “stories not about love” is fiction? Because I believe form is a matter of temperment, of what Jorie Graham calls “rare and original idiosyncrasies.” As a mode of organization, an assertion about how experience is rearranged, & an address to an as yet hypothetical audience or “other,” form is a kind of kinaesthetic mind. It is a way of taking responsibility for one’s subject & of choosing how one moves in the world. Perhaps, Kathleen Fraser writes, “one’s ‘poetics’—or formal exploration—should be entirely tied to one’s urgencies, wherein a writing practice may align its chanciness with the life being lived.”

Which is a very long way of saying: I do not feel that one is negotiated by or negotiates genre. Genre happens. One cannot (like Jacob & the Angel) wrestle with it. Nor should one try to name it. Nor even take it—as Carson advocates—too seriously.

11. What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I’m narcoleptic, & I have this fantasy of writing late at night, when the world is sleeping & no one else’s brainwaves (however imaginary they might be) might interfere with my own. Of course, this is impossible—I’m lucky if I can stay awake throughout the afternoon, let alone past midnight! So, I like to go bed at 7 or 8 pm & get up at 2 or 3 am. That way I have a few solid hours to write before the world starts waking up. Of course, this takes lots of discipline & a flexible teaching schedule—both of which are luxuries I don’t have right now!

12. When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I don’t. I stop writing & do something else & trust that, when it’s ready, it’ll come. I learned this from my very fantastic dissertation supervisor Tom Wayman—sometimes you write, & sometimes you don’t. & the best thing you can do for your work is learn to appreciate the times in between & let the art go…

15. What other writers or writing are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

My work is indebted to & inspired by animal rights activist & feminist theologian Carol J. Adams’ “sexual politics of meat.” With its triple exploration of sex, politics, and meat, Adams’ theory encourages an attentiveness to the political & ethical dimensions of the discourses that displace women & animals from being fully physically present. She asks us to consider, for example, how—very much like the word “environment”—terms like “chick,” “hamburger,” “bitch,” & “veal” relegate the actual woman or animal to some periphery or backdrop role. Adams’ theory hopes to motivate us to ask deeper questions about our real wants & needs when it comes to the consumption of animal flesh & the language uses we are willing to accept when talking about feminine & non-human creatures. She reminds us of the self-deception that is regularly practiced not only when ordinary, moral, conscientious people eat meat but, more importantly, when these very same people—& I include myself in this category—consent to labelling women with terms that “derive from domesticated female animals: cow, pig, sow, chick, hen, old biddy.” Whether or not we agree with her theory & regardless of whether we, too, have given up the practice of meat-eating, Adams illustrates the real damage we do to ourselves & the larger world when we go along with the dictates of pre-existing linguistic constraints.

As I write in my introduction to the sexual politics of meat issue of dandelion magazine (which I edited in 2010), the taboos against speaking out against the culture of meat eating are subtle, strong, & complex. Often, being nice—even being intelligent—means going along with the communal deception.

Though, for example, I have now been a vegetarian for over half my life, I have never discussed the ethical system informing this choice with my grandparents, who farm beef cattle. Not once have we talked about the difference in our lifestyles. Part of our reluctance to speak is, of course, respect. But we do ourselves & the larger world real damage when we go along with the taboo of silence. It takes courage & confidence to enter into this dialogue with anything approaching common sense.

& yet—we all know that the consumption of factory-farmed animals & the continued discrimination against women in the workplace are danger signals that should rivet our attention & bond us to collective action. But it doesn’t. Why?

Everything I write echoes this question.

I am also inspired in my ecofeminist lyric praxis by science and technology scholars Donna Haraway (“artifactual body”) and Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (“matters of care”), sociologist Kathleen Stewart (“ordinary affects”), & recent revisionist work by American women poets, namely Jen Bervin and Mary Ruefle. These thinkers inspire me to make an experience rather than simply scoring a perception or a performance occurring somewhere else.

17. If you could pick another occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

A concert pianist or a clinical psychiatrist.

18. What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

When I was 21 I dropped out of medical school to be a poet. So: I can only assume delusions of grandeur or a temporary psychosis. (Though I am beginning to believe poetry importantly replaced my belief in the Christian God, which I was losing about the same time.)

19. What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I’ve been watching the 1990’s television series Firefly obsessively. It’s this cult classic cancelled-after-one-series cowboy science fiction show that is like Deadwood meets Battlestar Galactica plus a ninja ballerina. This is how Firefly summarizes itself:
Here’s how it is: the Earth got used up. So, we moved out & terra-formed a whole new galaxy of new Earths. Some, rich & flush with the new technologies, some—not so much. The central planets—thems forged The Alliance—waged war to bring everyone under their rule. A few idiots tried to fight it, among them myself. I’m Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity. She’s a transport ship, Firefly class. Got a good crew. Fighters, a pilot, a mechanic. We even picked up a preacher for some reason, & a bona fide companion. There’s a doctor, too, took his genius sister out of some Alliance camp, so they’re keeping a low profile. You understand. You got a job, we can do it. Don’t much care what it is.
Ok: you get a sense of diction but that doesn’t nearly do the show justice so hurry up quick! It’s streaming on Netflix…

20. What are you currently working on?

Right now, I’m working on my autobiography, which is a six-volume project.

During a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in December 2011, I composed footnote to forfeit, which is ransom notes on top of love poetry on top of rumors. The two particular adaptive techniques I used in composing footnote to forfeit are Wite Out & collage. I used Wite Out to obliterate the poems collected in the 1972 Peter Pauper version of Emily Dickinson’s love poetry. Then, (like the author of a ransom note), I collaged short lyrics over the Wite Out by cutting & pasting individual letters from a variety of printed media. (You can read more & watch a short slideshow on my website,

footnote to forfeit is the second in a series of six artist books that will compose my autobiography. Excerpts from the first, The Weights of Heaven, were published in the Summer 2011 Adaptations Issue of the Western Humanities Review & are available for purchase online at My goal in this first volume was reconstructing a memory without revision: to live the trauma, as Jacques Lacan explains, rather than simply articulate it, which is, of course, the essence of trauma itself. The palimpsesting of the 1968 Vintage edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Colossus was a way of literally enacting the emotional & aesthetic challenges of owning up to the consequences of one’s choices.

I found that I liked transforming the machine-made aspect of Plath’s poems (the reproduction) & turning them back into something handmade, the way our experiences themselves are handmade before they are “saved” & reproduced. Writing in this way, as I saw it, undermines commodifiable categories of “usefulness.”

In footnote to forfeit, I turn to erasure to transform memory, personhood, the female body, the text, from things (as commodity) to events (as “matters of care”). The layering (like sediment) of texts foregrounds the processes of intervention & interpretation involved in any reading—of self, of sex, of history, of memory. By combining Wite Out & collage, I attempt to account for life’s essential incoherence: the way our experiences misstep or mistake, mishear & get lost in “what might have happened” or “what never happened” or even “what should have happened.”

The next volume, Ms. Wakefield, will palimpsest the 1947 Armed Services version of John Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven so as to interrogate eco-theology, death, & the Midwest.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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